Some Reflections on Fatherhood
My Mother Queen Elizabeth, My Son, Me and My Daughter 1993
Song for My Father
Sorry I didn’t get a chance to know you
Alas, you danced and joined the ancestors too soon
But I know you musta been a real cool cat
Cause you ended up marrying the queen!
Sometimes I wish there really was a heaven out there
Where good folks go when they die
Cause I know I’d run into you somewhere
Talkin smack and decked out fly
I hear tell you had the gift of gab
And everybody know I talk mucho shit
So even tho I didn’t get to know you
Seems Heredity sure did its bit!
Folks say you was a zoot suit wearing ebony black hep cat
And moms a foxy pecan tan queen
I know yhall musta did it to death
Like Duke Ellington’s fantasy in black and tan
Yep I know for sho
Cause I done seen yhall strollin
In the cinema of my mind!
Of all my favorite things in this life, being a daddy is at the top of the list. My twins, Makeda and Samori, got lucky: they were raised by two parents who had each lost a parent to the grim reaper during early childhood. Their mother lost her mother and I lost my father. Both before we were five years old. Hence we were devoted to providing our children with the experience of a two parent family that was denied to us. Although our parents were heroic in their role, all children with a single parent looks at those with both parents and wonder what the experience is like. I know that those who have decided to be single parents as a lifestyle choice – an increasingly popular phenomenon now days – don’t like to hear this. But unless human nature has changed…it’s true.
Yesterday I heard Reverend Al Sharpton address the question of Fatherhood at his regular Saturday morning soul session in The House Of Justice; he told a deeply moving story about the day his father left their family. He recounted the years of agony and confusion he experienced trying to figure out why his dad had abandoned him. Then, like a good blues singer, he ended the tale of woe on a note of triumph. He spoke with transparent pride about receiving an honorary degree from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Florida, and inviting his 81 year old dad to accompany him to the ceremony.
His talk brought back a flood of memories for me. Bethune-Cookman was just up the highway from St. Augustine, and several women in my family were good friends with Mary McCloud Bethune, the Founder of the College. Listening to Reverend Al’s story I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own. I would give almost anything if my daddy could see me now. Although my mom assures me that he would be as proud of me as I am of my son Samori – and that’s really saying something!
Yet I am compelled to laugh about a story my mother tells about a prediction my father made about where my future was heading on the first day I began to walk. There was a beautiful potted plant on the windowsill that I had often pointed to inquisitively. My sister Melba, who is a little more than a year older, had been walking for a while but she would just walk up to the plant and stare. The first time I walked I went straight over to the plant and conducted an experiment with the laws of gravity: I pushed the plant out of the window and it smashed on the ground! Whereupon my father remarked: “That boy will never let things be as they are…he has come into this world to shake things up.” I guess he’d be feeling like a prophet if he was around just now.
However, there is a point at which Al Sharpton’s story radically diverged from mine. My daddy died, and from all I hear about the kind of husband and father he was I cannot imagine him ever leaving us short of an untimely death; he seems to have been born to the role. My mom and dad were high school sweethearts and when my mom boarded the train from St. Augustine Florida headed for Howard University, where she would have been a high brown fly girl and probably snagged a doctor or lawyer, she stayed on board until the East Coast Champion steamed into Penn Station in Philadelphia and eloped with George Benjamin Jr. Theirs was a Sunday Kind Of Love, not only would it last past Saturday night, but would endure unto death.
In all of my life I have never heard my mother say a bad word about him…and nobody else in the beautiful little Spanish Village of St. Augustine Florida where they grew up. And this was a close knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business. If you were “doing dirt it would come out in the wash” as the old folks used to say. People would put your business in the street: If you were living double you were in a world of trouble. Of course, my dad left St. Augustine after high school so they knew little of his short adult life; which was over at 25. What I know of my father as an adult I learned from my aunts, uncles, grandparents and their friends who had moved “up north” as a part of “The Great Migration” in the first half of the twentieth century.
At twenty five years old my father was a married man with two children and buying a home in a predominately Italian section of South Philadelphia. The home was sold to them by a young Afro-American real estate broker named Lenert Roberts, who later became Paul Robeson’s liaison to the world after he went into seclusion, and my mother says they never had a moment’s troubles with their Italian neighbors. In fact, she says each afternoon, at my father’s insistence she would dress up sharp and he would promenade about the neighborhood showing us off. He had a reputation as a very proud papa among his Italian neighbors. My mother says my sister Melba and I were his greatest treasures.
The there are the stories “Grand daddy George” my Dad’s father, and my uncles would tell about him. My granddad had an unorthodox approach to the English language, being born as he recalled “In the first year of freedom” and not having much formal education. When he talked about my daddy he would say “George was the most famous boy in St. Augustine!” Then he would tell me of my father’s exploits.
One story that comes to mind is how, when we were looking out on the San Sebastian River from the docks on Riberia Street, he would say “George was such a great swimmer he could jump of this dock with the Holy Bible in his hand and float across the river to the other bank and never get a single page wet.” He lived next door to a tennis court and was a feared tennis hustler that regularly relieved the game fellows of their coin.
Uncle Jimmy Strawder, himself an extraordinary guy that had a great influence on my life, told me about a different side of my father. He talks about my father’s gift of gab, love of reading, and how he had an opinion about everything. He also had an irreverent sense of humor. Once, Uncle Jimmy recalled, he and my father were contestants in a high school talent show. They were to perform a comedy routine but all Uncle Jimmy had been told was to just say “rubber” to every question my Daddy put to him.
So when dad asked “What stretches the farthest skin or rubber? Uncle Jimmy said “Rubber.” Dad said “No man skin.” “Rubber!” insisted Uncle Jimmy.” Whereupon Dad whipped out a Bible and said “You see Jim, the proof is right here in the Bible. It says ‘Jesus tied his ass to a tree and walked from Jerusalem to Galilee: can’t no rubber in the world stretch that far!” The student body cracked up, even the teachers couldn’t fully restrain their laughter. However the stern Principal was not amused and they were expelled from school for a few days.
There are endless stories about what a sharp dresser he was, my high school home room teacher Ms. Mills, who had also taught my father, used to say “your father was such a great dresser he looked as if he had just stepped out of a band box every morning.” It is obvious from some of the things that he did early on that he thought himself someone special.
The most impressive example of this is his decision to take a middle name the first time that he earned his own money, which was when he went off to the “CC” camp during the Great Depression. Upon his return he hired a lawyer to add a middle name of his invention. Hence he was thereafter legally known as George “Chermopolese” Benjamin. It was he that also invented my name. Whereas I would be delighted to be known “George Benjamin III,” my Father thought George was too common a name and decided to give me a name that “would be fitting for an unusual person” according to my mother. Hence Playthell George Benjamin came on the scene.
Seventy two years later I’m still on the scene; still movin and groovin. And I have sired the next generation, who are going strong! So the genes of George Chermopolese Benjamin are carrying on into the future. My mother is still alive and doing swell at 89. There is nothing that pleases me more than when she says I am as good a daddy as my daddy was. As far as I am concerned, tough talk and brandishing guns don’t make you a man. It ain’t hardly got nothing to do with it in my book, as Uncle Dude used to say. And spouting militant rhetoric don’t make you a revolutionary either. But one sure way to become a truly revolutionary black man is to marry a black woman and raise some children into good and productive citizens!
Anybody who believes that we can flourish as a community if the black family structure collapses is a dangerously deluded fool. I once heard Rev. T. D. Jakes deliver a powerful sermon on this issue. The statistics he recited were not pretty, especially the one about 68% of all black mothers are single at the birth of their child! You don’t have to be a sociologist, or even know what sociology is, in order to understand that this is a disaster! In fact, there is no society on record with such a high incidence of fatherless children! Hence if you have sired a child out of wedlock and you are not stepping up to the plate and playing a father’s role, then you are part of the problem that plagues the black community.
I know the problems the absence of meaningful involvement in your child’s development can cause firsthand. When I was twenty years old I sired a daughter out of wedlock. At the time I was just becoming a political radical and had declared the revolutionary cause the first priority in my life, and if I had to choose between the baby’s mother and the “revolution” I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the revolution. Anything less would be succumbing to “bourgeois sentimentalism.” The situation was this: my daughter’s mother wanted nothing to do with my evolving “revolutionary” politics. However all we asked her to do was to dress up fine and hand out leaflets to RAM – Revolutionary Action Movement – meetings along with Max Stanford’s beautiful girl friend. The guys flocked in expecting to find a posse of beautiful ladies, but were subjected to an afternoon of indoctrination in radical political theories
And when she became pregnant – which was not supposed to happen because she was supposed to be protected – she insisted that I cut out this “revolutionary” foolishness and seek a respectable middle class career. I refused and she split. I refused to follow her to Florida and she married another man. I had never even seen my daughter so I justified allowing her mother to make all the decisions about her life as the price demanded by the “revolution.” I would later learn that this was a bad decision. I felt that the fact I was willing to marry her mother was enough to satisfy my responsibility. I would later learn that I was wrong; it was a bad decision. Although we have a great relationship today and I will be giving her away in marriage down in a lovely little Georgia town just a few weeks from now.
A lot of people made some terrible decisions using that kind of flawed reasoning. For instance, Leroi Jones abandoned his white wife and “black” children when he decided to switch roles from Greenwich Village poet and publisher of the white “Beat Poets” and become Imamu Amiri Baraka, Black Nationalist Revolutionary and leading light of the “Black Arts Movement.” What I intend to say here, on this Father’s Day,” is that the crisis of the black family is such that the most manly and revolutionary thing you can do is marry a black woman and be a real father to your children!
A Great Father!
This is How You Do it!
A Joy Like None Other
It’s About Family
There Is No Greater Love
Parenting: I Love every Moment Of It!
This is why simple minded leftist ideologues, like Comrade Dix of the Revolutionary communist Party, who attack President Obama for speaking out to black American men about the responsibilities of fatherhood, are badly misguided. In his discussion of the subject last Saturday morning, Rev Sharpton said that “Father’s Day” was not established to honor guys who just make babies the wander on off. He recounted the history of this holiday and pointed out that this day was for the fathers who stayed with their children and successfully negotiated the trials and tribulations that come with raising black children in America. Finally, Rev Al said the other guys, the ones who make babies all over the place like wild dogs, should have a national sperm donor day, because that’s all they are!
My Children All Grown Up!
Makeda: Sports Scientist, Track Athlete, Professional Dancer
Samori: Sportswriter, Broadcaster/Producer/former two Sport Athlete
Interviewing Hall Of Fame Yankee Reggie Jackson
My Senior Daughter Sandra: Poet, Playwright, Director Costume Designer, Singer
Congratulating one of her young performers after a successful show