This essay is excerpted from the new anthology Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood:
1. I’m unsure why, but I get asked—quite often—about the hardest part of being a father. The people who ask me this are almost all younger cats who are about to become fathers or are there already. That question is a Pandora’s Box. Being a father is hard in a million different ways: Balancing fatherhood with partnership; being able to do the things that I love to do on a consistent basis (for example, writing—I’m writing this at 3am, while everyone is asleep and I have a moment to myself); the loss of money; having to send your child to childcare because both parents have to work to afford all the additional costs. Working all day, coming home at night and only seeing your child for forty-five minutes before their bedtime—in these ways and more, daddyhood is hard as hell. But none of this (yes, even the money problems) even comes close to the raging difficulty of being a father of color.
2. Being tattooed, visually Black (I’m half Jamaican and half Puerto Rican), over six feet tall and muscular, holding a little ethnically-ambiguous toddler makes many people double, triple, quadruple take—and also, for some odd reason, loosens tongues, mostly of white folks, and creates an environment of familiarity. And yet they still manage to see me wrong: In my daughter’s twenty-two months of living, I have been labeled ‘uncle,’ ‘babysitter,’ ‘guardian,’ ‘cousin,’ but never father. I can’t tell you just how crushing a blow this is. I LOVE being a father and I think that I am becoming a better one by the day, but to have one of my greatest joys discounted is painful.
3. Do we really live in a society that is still stuck in the lie that Black men cannot be fathers? Well…I must admit that I was on that same shit for a while. When my partner told me she was pregnant, I had fears that, at the moment of birth, a Greyhound ticket would appear in my hands and I’d leave my partner and new child to fend for themselves. I thought I’d become an absent father sleeper agent—the baby’s first cry would activate me and my mission would be to get as far away from mother and baby as possible. Because, throughout my whole childhood, I never once had a friend or met anyone (of color) whose father lived with them, or in some cases, even knew who their fathers were. There is a generation of brothers and sisters born after Viet Nam and before the release of Ghostbusters that are a tribe of fatherless children. My own father, I saw the bastard five times in my life.
4. People mistaking me for everything but being a father almost invariably happens at the playground. While the mothers (rarely do I see fathers at the playgrounds—but it could be where I choose to let my daughter play) are sitting in groups, either texter-bating or focusing intently on some new piece of thousand dollar baby gadget—I’m in the sand, on the structure, kicking the ball. I’m playing with my kid. Over at this park in El Cerrito, California, I was teaching my daughter how to hang from one of the monkey bars. She is a ridiculously daring kid and will try anything, as long as it is dangerous. This kindly older woman (dressed up like a fashion model to go the park) smiled at me and said, “My uncle used to do the same thing for me. He always let me do the things that my father would never let me do.” She drew out the “never” as if I was tossing my daughter over an open lion’s mouth. I told this woman that I was an only child, that my kid didn’t have any uncles, and that I was her father. She glanced between my daughter and me several times, and finally said, “Noooooo.” Wow.
5.When I think about it more, not being recognized or acknowledged as my daughter’s father, while painful, isn’t nearly as crazy as being a man-of-color at a park. When race, size, gender, and how we dress intersect, it disrupts social fabrics. Like I stated earlier, I play with my kid while at the playground. And if my daughter decides to play with other kids, I play with them too. I don’t touch them, because you just don’t do that—you don’t touch other people’s kids without permission. One day I was kicking a soccer ball with my daughter and some other little kids she was playing with. One of the kids, a blonde, vacant-eyed little girl, tripped, fell down, and scraped her cheek on the wood that bordered the play area. I helped her to her feet and asked her if she was okay. She looked over at her mother, who was starting intently at her cellular phone, and got nothing. She then looked at me, I looked at her, and she wailed as though the end of the world was nigh. The cellular mom looked up, fixed me with the most baleful stare, and ran over to us, dialing her phone. Instead of asking her daughter if she was okay, she snatched her up by the arm and thrust her behind her back. I then hear her telling her husband “this big nigger just pushed Miriam to the ground.” Unbelievable.
6. I gathered our things, and made to leave. This lady then blocked our way. “You can attack a kid, but now that my husband is coming you’re trying to leave? You’re not going anywhere.” She then put her hand on my arm and tried to stop us. All the while my daughter is getting freaked out because she is very rarely exposed to yelling or overt signs of anger. Being who I am, I figured, “Let’s see how this plays out.”
7. Three minutes later, an SUV pulls up and this really fit dude pops out of the truck and comes barreling towards us. I see that he has his fist cocked a little. I put my daughter down and send her to go and play, which she was grateful for. I could feel just how tense and anxious she became. This guy comes up and started screaming at me. Before fatherhood, I would have gone at him, but I have been trying to change that part of myself; violence is a social ingredient that I am weaning myself from. When he finally paused, I asked him did he think that yelling and threatening me was going to do any good? I then asked him why neither he nor his wife had asked Miriam what had happened. I then asked them, “If I were a white dude, would you still think that I pushed your daughter?” That stopped them. All this time that the silly adults are going at it, little Miriam is clinging to her mother’s legs, terrified. “Your daughter fell, and I helped her up.” I focused on the mother: “And if you weren’t so busy looking at your phone, if you were actually parenting, you would have seen what happened. Better yet, it might not have even happened if you were playing with us.” Then I looked at the dad: “I can appreciate your concern, but if this is how you react to situations you know nothing about, you might get hurt. If this was two years ago, I would have beat the shit out of you for yelling in my face and pretending like you were going to do something.” I then bent down and asked Miriam if she was okay. She looked at her parents, and then at me, and nodded. I took out a wipe and wiped her scraped cheek. “Does it feel better now?” She nodded. I gave her dad the dirty wipe, and went to go and play with my daughter.
8. That encounter still nags at me on a number of different levels. Miriam’s parents never answered my question: If I were white, would they still have accused me of hurting their daughter? My honor as a father and as a human being was totally disregarded. Two children had to experience the stupidity of their elders: Miriam’s parents for false accusations and racist words, and me for delivering veiled threats. I lost that day. I lost the core of the person who I am trying to become. I lost hope that my daughter would be able to live in a world where skin color wasn’t a factor. I lost faith that the rift between white and black folks could ever be repaired.
9. As we were driving home, I started to cry. It came up and spilled out so powerfully that I had to pull the car over, turn it off, and just let everything come: Not having a father of my own to ask if he had to deal with anything similar; almost dipping into self-hatred because of my skin color; cursing so many men that came before me for fucking it up for my generation; every nigger I have been and would be called; how my daughter’s hair is different than her parent’s and how people point out this difference as if my kid had won the lotto. All this was trapped in my crying. I saw my daughter through the rearview mirror and she looked so sad and scared that I had to hold her. I pulled over, got her out of her car seat, and we sat on the hood of the car, holding each other. I cried into her hair and she, feeling daddy’s energy, cried into my chest. We were there for a little while when this old woman hobbled by and smiled at us. “You have such a beautiful daughter,” this woman said. “She has your eyes.”
Editor's note: Welcome to Shawn Taylor, the newest addition to the Daddy Dialectic line-up. This essay is included in Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, which collects some of the best pieces from this blog and the allied print zine Rad Dad. Order an advance copy now!