My Sorrows Can Not Be Skip’d

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 3:59 pm


My father and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates have nothing in common. Pops was not Harvard educated and the story of his ancestry has never been made into a PBS special.  You see, my father lived in the bowels of the old south; racism felt about as natural to him as raising the cotton he sharecropped in the hot southern Louisiana sun. 

He had been farming since he dropped out of school in the sixth grade, hoping to help my widowed grandmother somehow break even at the end of the seasons, remember…sharecropping was a “neo slavery” that often left African Americans owing White land owners more money than they earned during the sale of their crops at harvest.  He never abandoned farming, which I later realized was a blessing as I understand the process of growing my own food.  As a matter of fact, my father could build a house, farm, fish, and hunt; or basically live independently if our government one day decided to treat him like a refugee (queue Katrina). I used to somewhat be embarrassed by his “countryness”. He even grew a couple of bushes of cotton every season, which I now realize was his non-verbal communication of the Akan principle of Sankofa. You see, Africa lives within us, whether we acknowledge her or not.

Sidebar: My father lived to see me make my pilgrimage to the Continent (great…now I’m crying). I brought him back a royal sword because I realized when I became an adult that, in his modest way, he was a great warrior, and he deserved to know it.

I watched my father struggle to support his family with an inadequate education and a prayer that his children would be more than him. I surveyed his mechanical genius as he repaired TV’s, refrigerators, and air conditioners- with no formal training, and pondered who he might have been had he been afforded the basic human rights that we all should be guaranteed; mainly the right to thrive.  I witnessed his uneasiness when being pulled over by police, I suppose, as he wondered if he would be threatened, beat, or murdered in front of his children. I observed my father bury himself in alcohol as he suffered being a man in a world that demanded that he could not be one. The horrors of racism and racial profiling are not lost on me, a thirty-something, educated, and freedom bound Black woman.

So as I watch the novella that is the Gates-Crowley-Obama stream of events; I don’t stand unaffected. As they all “play” the race card, and joke, and sip beers, I realize that my father’s memory deserves a real discussion on racism and how it affects us individually and collectively. This mask of cohesion and diplomacy only leaves one set of losers; and it is not an officer bold enough to be offended as he was called out on his behavior, which surely pointed to a white superiority complex that remains the large elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see. (Ahem- that sentence was mad Baldwin-esque).

And speaking of Baldwin, I think this quote from him serves this post well:

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

Mr. President, I await the invitation to tell you my father’s story.  Please have plenty of Kleenex on hand, because it’s not a jolly tale. Oh, and my father drank Pearl beer, it’s a southern classic.  If you would forward that invitation in his name and in care of Jo the Nubian, I would greatly appreciate it.  By the way, his invite warrants only the finest calligraphy and stationary; you know the kind reserved for dignitaries and sorts.  I’ll check the mail daily.

  1. My first thought was how great it is that you grasp the importance of knowing family and our history. I’m moved by the understanding you have of what your father may have been experiencing because I’m certain he didn’t discuss what was truly going on with anyone. Who knows though, perhaps the two of you had those conversations.

    I love the fact that you traveled to Africa and returned with the sword for your father. What a blessing he was sent having you as his daughter & I hope you gave him a sense of pride because if it wasn’t for his struggle, your life wouldn’t be what it is.

    I have also loved Henry Gates because of his love and passion for our history & the desire to discover the truth. I don’t expect him to research every individual black person’s history, but I watch every PBS special and find encouragement to keep searching my own. Thank God no two people are the same.

    Lastly, I find it interesting that one day you can find people saying how little they can trust in the government to help & the next day find them acting as if the only help can come from the government and it’s officials.

    Your father did what he had to do to make things happen while so many of us seem to sit back waiting for someone else to magically make everything alright. The President is one person. The President is human. I would be foolish to believe that I’d agree with every word or action he makes & also foolish to believe that my progress was solely in his hands.

    We have to do more than sit & talk.

    Excellent post.

  2. My sister, thank you for sharing the tale of your father with us. He had to deal with more than we can possibly imagine. You are a reflection of his light and I’m sure the noble warrior is smiling on you now. I don’t know what it will take for a real/meaningful conversation about “race/racism” to leave our realm and enter the national stage. WE have been talking about it. When all Americans join OUR conversation, we can then move forward.

    Thanks again.

  3. Wow, Jo. I’m…speechless (but not tweetless). I already tweeted you my immediate response to this post.

    The thing about racism is that it differs across life experiences. I’m African-American and can remember my first (recognized) experience with racism at 4 years old…and of course it has happened many times since then, including questionable racist moments. There are some people, like your father, who get it much worse than others and have a greater (justifiable) fear of how racism will affect their lives. Meanwhile, others are cocooned away from racism by geography, culture or denial.

    Thank you so much for sharing your father’s story. He sounds like an amazing renaissance man. I wish there were more men like him in our generation. Do you have any brothers?

    Btw, this is Jazzzyone (Twitter).

    @SpeaksBeliefs I believe “real” conversations about race are happening all over this country, and many of them were initiated and spurred on by the campaign of Barack Obama. As I campaigned for him across the U.S., I discovered MANY non-blacks who spoke to me honestly about their feelings re: race. Also, many blacks began working alongside non-blacks in a truly interactive way (not just surface-deep) for the first time in their lives and walked away with a better understanding of how non-blacks think. If you don’t think these conversations are happening, I suggest you start them…People are listening.

  4. Beautiful, strong, poignant stuff. Thanks so much for sharing it. My great aunts and grandmother worked hard too. They cleaned “white folks” houses for a living and it’s on their “holding their tongues” that I gained at least some freedom to speak. I’m so happy you had your Dad in your life. We had no men in my family. Don’t know where they went. Your words made me cry because I thought of my own broken relationship with my father. His life was cut short because of his involvement with drugs. He was smart, handsome and well-spoken but never found a place in the white world. Didn’t want one. Instead, he lived on the fringes, never living to his potential as a man, as a provider as a father. We are a people whose strength is built on pain. What’s important is that we, me, you are still here. And, if Obama doesn’t tell your father’s story–you can.

  5. Jo
    That was terrific. I have wanted to write about Gates/Crowley/Obama but I can’t seem to stop shaking my head long enough to do it. I thought I was cynical but since every new turn of events (in his own house!/refusing to apologize/playing the race card/ Obama says “stupid”/ black cop sticks up for Crowley/Obama says “come and have a beer”/ turns out neighbor never mentioned race after all…) made my jaw drop. You couldn’t write this shit.

    Narratives like the one you’ve shared ground all the foolishness in every day reality, where they belong.

    Thank you.

  6. I’m confused about what people find troubling about President Obama’s post-“stupidly” remarks. These are the ones I heard him make at the White House Press Briefing the next morning:

    The fact that he went out of his way to address this subject at a White House Press Briefing speaks volumes. Instead of letting his Press Secretary speak on it, he clarified his own remarks. That’s quite unusual for any president to do.

  7. Ummmhhhpphh. A very revealing piece. Very moving. I can’t go that deep and generally try to stay detached. I envy you.

  8. Wonderfully well written. Phenomenal post, keep it up.

  9. thank you for sharing the story of your father. beautiful, passionate and vivid.

  10. Good afternoon Jo,

    Brother Rippa mentioned your blog, so I thought I would stop by for a visit.

    After reading several, I decided to post a comment here. Your relationship and description of your father brought back memories of my grandfather (with whom I lived).

    Though he lacked formal education, he easily understood the “how things work” in a way that made him my hero. There were those unguarded moments when he would open a door that allowed me to see what the pain of being a Black man in the rural South was like. It’s been years now since he passed but the mere thought now brings tears because I still miss him. I’m glad that he was a man’s man; I love him.


  11. That was awesome.

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