We’ve all heard the phrase “got it from my Mama”. Well, what I got from my mother belongs to the realm of the untouchable. What I got from my father, though, is front and center. It’s on my face, in the dark brownness of my skin and in my “you can’t tell me anything, I’m stubborn as hell” personality.
As I acknowledge what I got from my Daddy, I find myself laughing because, with the exception of skin color, the characteristics represent the essence of irony. My Daddy, being a West African man of his times, believed that the way I acted was contrary to African ladyhood. In fact several conversations between us ended with him telling me that I was “the most like [him] of all [his] children”, ”you act like a market woman”, and the ultimate: “you should’ve been born a boy”.
The youngest of my father’s three children, I grew up “without” him. For the majority of my childhood and adolescence, he was in Sierra Leone and I was in the U.S. We used to correspond by letters until I received one asking me if I wanted to move there and go to school. I now know that all the trials and tribulations I had experienced (and, to be perfectly honest, that I also represented) had led my at-her-wits-end mother to reach out to him. How was he, who had moved back to Sierra Leone before I was even born, to know I was too much like to ever accept such an offer? I sent him back a letter cursing him out and that was that, until almost a decade later when I learned he was living in California with a new wife.
I’ve never really admitted it but it was my desire to know the other half of my heritage that moved me to relocate to California. I didn’t know what I was setting myself up for! One time, we went to the store to get cigarettes (I’ve since quit). He refused to get out of his car because I had locs and he “didn’t want to be seen with someone who looked like a drug addict”. He also bought me a very nice winter coat, which I ruined while working at a Uhuru House fundraiser. He was willing to set me up in an apartment but only if I dropped my boyfriend at the time. I’m my father’s daughter. I refused.
After that, we stopped talking consistently. Years later, when I was living in Illinois and about to have a baby, I reached out to him again. Only to encounter his own “stubborn as hell” self. He was highly upset that the father of the baby had been in prison and that I had been married to him. We went back and forth until I ended our relationship by saying something along the lines of “if you keep to your position, you will die alone”.
A few years later, I called him. His current wife answered and informed me that my Daddy was very ill. He barely recognized my voice and the conversation was the definition of incoherence. I couldn’t apologize, couldn’t introduce him to his grandson, couldn’t tell him I loved him. Instead I put it all in a poem.
Daddy was a hijacked diamond
taken from his parents
without their knowledge or permission
and placed in a missionary school.
His family counted him as one of many children
who disappeared and were never seen again
until the damage was irreparable
but one day while running an errand for the nuns
my daddy saw his brother passing by on a train.
His brother called to him and told him to come
but already terrorized by fear
my daddy refused
and stayed at the school
until he was ready for university.
I found all this out later
after decades of strife
starting when I was a preteen
and cursed him out
for expressing the thought
that I would want to come and live with him
after he abandoned me
and my mother.
I sat by his side
matching him beer for nasty beer
determined to find out
why he was the way he was
and after I found out
my growing political consciousness
in a way it never had before
because I ended up
having to love my daddy
from a distance
that didn’t include
conversing with him
in any way, shape or form
because daddy was a hijacked diamond
cracked and flawed
sitting on the shelf
of a colonial bureaucrat
like a masculine version
of Sarah Baatman.
A few years ago, my Daddy died. His current wife called me to come attend his Forty Day ceremony. I didn’t. I couldn’t. A week and a half earlier my mother’s partner, my stepfather, had died. There was no way I would, or could, leave my mother alone during that tough time. Until this day, I still have not paid my respect to my Father. My son knows nothing of him because all I can tell him is “Mummy and her Dad were too alike to get along”. I don’t even have any pictures of him to pass on.
But I do have a mirror. I look in it and see him. I look at my son who looks just like ‘me’ and see him. He lives on. He is not despised. He is loved.