To my father and all the other good Black men out there

Daddy would have been 90 years old today. He died in 2001. Twenty years ago, when he turned 70, I wrote this column to honor who he was to me. I had the newspaper story framed and FedEx‘d to him just in time for his birthday. In my heart, I know it was the best present I ever gave him. The original framed article hung on the wall in his study until he died.

Daddy, age 75, at 50th wedding vow renewal ceremony

Every Christmas, every time his birthday rolls around, every Father’s Day, I go through the same ritual – trying to figure out that ONE present my father needs and wants.

Helpful friends ask: “Does he hunt, fish, golf or bowl?” No.

“Is he a music or movie buff, gadget freak, book lover or sports fanatic?” No.

“Does he play chess, collect stamps or what-have-you or even knit in his spare time?” No.

“Well,” my puzzled friends ask, “what did he do all his life?” Almost sheepishly, I would answer – “he worked.”

Oh, how he worked. For 30 years, my father worked two, often three jobs, at the same time.

He didn’t do it just to make ends meet, but to provide opportunities and amenities for his family beyond what his education and skills dictated.

There’s plenty of historical rhetoric about Black men being lazy, irresponsible and unwilling to take care of their families. And there’s plenty of non-productive rumblings about the lack of “good Black men” now. But no one talks about Black men like my father, who without fanfare or credit, got the job done. These are the men who raised my generation, and men who are working at raising the next.

Their wedding day, June 9, 1946

 Armed with determination

In the early 1940s, Daddy left the tobacco fields my grandfather owned and moved north to New York. He was armed not only with a third-grade education and few skills, but with energy, strength and determination. My mother moved to New York too, in a different year.

Things were never easy for them. When my parents married in 1946, Daddy was making $16 a week. In the boom years of World War II, an unskilled Black man could make a living, but mostly at jobs that no one else wanted.

 A middle-class life

So, in the early years of their marriage, he worked hard, especially because my mother stayed home to raise three children. He moonlighted as a painter and general handyman.

I remember the countless afternoons when he would jump off the bus after his commute from Manhattan, don his painter’s pants and be off to another job.

During the 1960s, he was hired as an assembler for the Ford Motor Co. Things should have been easier by then – my mother was working – but weren’t because now there was a mortgage, Catholic school tuition, summer camp, braces for my sister, cars for my brother, college bills and vacations. He continued to moonlight to protect our middle-class life.

For 15 years, the routine was the same. Part-time job in the morning; then, second shift at the Ford plant.

Daddy wasn’t all provider and no father. When he was home, it was fun. He was sweet, gentle and a big teaser. No disciplinarian, my mother made sure we didn’t wrap him around our collective fingers.

Saturday, he played catch with house repairs. He found time to do laundry if it needed to be done, ironed what happened to be wrinkled, knew his way around a sewing machine and had a few specialties he could whip up in the kitchen, too.

On Sunday, he tried to rest.

 Daddy’s girls

My father and I weren’t close. I idolized him but didn’t see him enough. It didn’t help (from my view) that he was quiet, reserved, even shy. For some reason, his quietness threw me off balance.

It irked me that cousins and friends related to him in ways I did not. But when I started to see him as they did – as a friend – I had a newfound appreciation of him and forged a new relationship.

His living legacy is the value system he instilled in the men in my family: my brother, James; the now-grown grandson he raised and by extension, his nephews who see “Uncle Tucker” as the rock that he is. He taught responsibility, dependability and commitment to family. He taught that each person defines his own role.

Sometimes my sister, Michele, and I are accused of being Daddy’s girls. But that’s OK with us. In his way, Daddy taught us, too. We learned that the best men are rooted, practical, supportive, even nurturing.

This week, Daddy turns 70.

Last year, he and my mother retired to their home state of North Carolina.

Since then, I have detected subtle changes in his personality and habits, now that the awesome responsibilities and worries have been lifted.

He laughs more. He’s becoming a sports nut. He has time to tinker in the garden and for simple pastimes as window shopping – unheard of during my childhood. He cherishes afternoon naps, a simple luxury he couldn’t afford for 30 years.

I thank God he now can enjoy the fruits of his labor.

And one thing’s for sure: It’s getting much easier to find him presents.

Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday, December 8, 1991.