I was 34 years old when I could no longer escape the man I never wanted to see again.
For the past 30 years, the day designated to celebrate men’s investment in their children has not brought me a great deal of joy. In 1988, just two weeks after Father’s Day, my dad was convicted of stealing money from his place of employment. He was sentenced to 24 years in jail. I was 7 years old. For the next five years, Father’s Days were spent at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center.
Almost every year, my mother and I would leave the house before the sun came up and make the hourlong drive from Oklahoma City to Lexington, Okla., the site of the facility. Upon entering the center, men and women who smelled of cigarettes and old coffee rifled though our things.
I acutely remember the sense of dread that came over me when I learned that my Transformer toys were made of metal, and, therefore, not allowed into the penitentiary. I tried to explain my need to show them to my dad, but after listening to my tearful plea, they explained that metal was not allowed and threw Optimus Prime and Megatron into a plastic bin.
They promised my belongings would be by the entrance when I returned, but I did not pick up the toys when we left. I’d brought them to show my dad. I had no use for them anymore.
Dad met us in the family room of the facility. Clothed in a gray prison uniform with white shoes, he’d smile widely when he saw us, shamelessly showing the perfectly aligned gaps between his middle teeth on the top and bottom rows. For some ungodly reason, he’d trained his hair to be brushed backward, but that aesthetic choice did not matter to me. Spending time with him was like spending time with the divine, and the fact that I saw him infrequently only added to the mystique. I hung on his every word and cried every time I had to leave—but my admiration did not last. Unfortunately for him, I grew up.
My father was paroled just before I entered the sixth grade, and we spent the summer before I attended Webster Middle School eating Big Macs and taking monthly trips to the comic-book store to buy Spider-Man and X-Men comics. I was so overjoyed that he was back home that I did not think too much about how he left home every night around 8 p.m. to go to “work.”
Sometimes he did not come home, but when he did, I’d jump out of bed and run into his arms. Each time he’d kiss me on my forehead and call me his “big-headed boy.” I remember those nights fondly. It was the last time I loved him with no reservations.
Not long after I started middle school, he was sent back to prison. Parole violation. I remained his son, but because of my anger and resentment, I never had a dad again.
He was finished serving his time in prison when I was a sophomore in high school, but it was too late. He tried to treat me like he’d done before he’d gone back to prison, but things had changed. I had changed.
I was not interested in a relationship with him. I did not want to spend time in his presence. “Dad” was a word he’d forfeited. It was “sir” or “man.” For me, inclusion into the circle of family was something to be earned not given. It was not dependent on blood but, instead, on commitment.
When he failed in his commitment to being present in my life, when he forced my mother to be a single mother of a son in a world hostile to my presence, he’d lost his right to call me “son.”
That’s why I was caught off guard when I began to see him every time I looked in the mirror. I don’t have his brushed-back hair, and I don’t have perfect, symmetrical gaps between my teeth in the front of my mouth, but I cannot deny that I am my father’s son. I see him in my high cheekbones; my deep and intense eyes; my full lips; and, to my chagrin, in the words that I say.
I am now a father, and when I see him in the mirror, I am terrified that I will repeat his mistakes; that I will give my sons a reason to hate me; that I will fail as a man. These are the unacknowledged ramifications of institutional racism.
Amid talk of systemic racism and policies meant to be tough on crime, there is rarely an acknowledgment that children with incarcerated parents grow to be adults. I am a psychological prisoner of the war on crime; an unseen victim of the new Jim Crow.
Intellectually, I know that my father stole money because of the pressure he felt to put food on the table. My head knows that if he’d had a better lawyer, he might have received a lesser sentence. As a scholar of race, I teach my students about the way in which black men and women are imprisoned at disproportionate rates in America and how important it is that we see the humanity in those who have been incarcerated.
I wish my heart would listen to what my head has to say.
My story is not unique. It is representative of the reality faced by millions of other black boys and girls. I’m just tired of seeing the man who failed me as a father every time I look in a mirror—and I wish that each time I saw him in my reflection, I was not reminded how much I loved him.