Father Songs: Testimonies by African-American Sons and Daughters
© 1997, Edited by Gloria Wade-Gayles, Boston: Beacon Press
"A Line of Storytellers," by Devorah Major
I could fall asleep anywhere when I was a child. If I was tired I could curl up in the corner of a stranger’s sofa, doze off leaning against an overstuffed armchair, catnap in the back seat of a car, or snooze, chin couched in hand, at my school desk. Sleeping, then or now, was rarely a problem for me. That is, I could fall asleep anywhere if I was tired. If I wasn’t sleepy, my eyes stayed open, and my mind concocted all kinds of tales. I saw mythological beings in the cracks on my walls, and landscapes in the shadows on the ceiling. Most of the time I could amuse myself with the scenery of darkness until, minutes or hours later, I dozed off to sleep. But for some reason, on this particular night, I would not fall asleep.
My father ran our house. What he said, went. My mother was ever present and certainly had some skill as a negotiator, but my father’s temperament, or more accurately temper, my father’s height and the lightening way his growl could catch you at your throat and squeeze tight your windpipe before that sass you were planning to say got all the way out of your brain and onto your tongue, as well as my father’s undeniable intelligence, which over the years has mellowed into a wide swath of salt and pepper wisdom, made him the absolute ruler of our domain. When my brother and I suggested that the democratic principles which he espoused should be part of our household, my father explained the idea of a dictatorship. Then he put the notion of benevolent in front of the idea of dictatorship. Then he put his name in back of that to complete the thought. The world needed democracy, but our home was a dictatorship and he was the dictator. There were no votes. There was only the possibility of getting a hearing. I believe this is where the idea of benevolent came in.
Which is to say that bedtime was bedtime. You didn’t pout. You didn’t whine. If you had anything negative to say about it, you could scream your head off, as long as it was inside your imagination. If you wanted to stay up more than five minutes longer, you could forget about it. Bedtime was bedtime.
This night it was past bedtime. It was way past bedtime. I went to bed as told, without voiced complaint. I had been in bed for hours. I had gone over my day and planned the upcoming weekend with several variations in the way it could go. I had spent time reconsidering the possibilities of finding a real pathway to Oz, the imaginary land I went to live in whenever San Francisco realities left me feeing lonely and abandoned. I had gone over some of the characters I would meet were I to find the particular sewer cover, windstorm, or hot air balloon that would carry me to that wonderland. I decided that even though Tic Toc had a nice sense of humor, he still didn’t seem to be all that warm a friend. I definitely felt like Ozma had a lot more going for her than the very rotund and obviously recycled tin man. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to transform a particular paint crack in the wall from a foreboding witch into any number of more peaceable ideas, an upside-down flower, a tree by a river, a horse. The crack obstinately insisted on remaining a scary witch. I turned my back on her and looked at the slats under my brother’s bunk. I counted them frontwards and then backwards again. I counted up the number of friends I had, less than five, and then the number of almost friends. I counted the people I wanted to be friends with until I realize that I was still wide awake. My older brother was fast asleep, but my parents were not. They were playing jazz albums in the living room. Someone was visiting and all the adults were laughing and having a good time, a much better time than me, laying in bed, eyes opened, toes wiggling, and heart racing. I had dilemma. I was bored, a painful hazard of childhood. I was bored and ready for action. It was time to get up! But then, bedtime was bedtime. Bedtime was absolute. Bedtime was inviolate.
What could I do? I got up. I mean I had done everything I could do to make myself fall asleep, and everything had failed. I got up and went into the living room. I was depending on my little girl cuteness, and the presence of company, to save me from too harsh a rebuke. I was a sickly child and my getting up because of problems breathing or a low-grade fever was not unusual. As soon as I reached the living room door my mother began to make a fuss over me. Was I sick? Did I feel alright? What was the matter? The matter was that I could not sleep. Being awake seemed more fun. Being up very late, which was then and remains today one of my favorite pastimes, seemed full of enticing possibilities. “I can’t sleep,” I muttered hoping that my soft voice and doe eyes would charm my father once again. “I’m not tired. I tried to fall asleep.” I kept the stream of words trickling out of my mouth as I crawled into my father’s lap. It worked. He did not rage. Instead he held me gently expecting, I am sure, that a few minutes resting against his rumbling chest would cause me to doze off and get my “sweet little girl” reward of being carried back to my bed.
But I stayed awake, wide awake. Time passed and I was still wide awake. This would not do. Bedtime was bedtime. It was way past my bedtime. My father carried my very awake, and quietly protesting self back to bed. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and began to tell me a story. It was a story about a little girl who wouldn’t go to sleep. I began to join in the story telling. It wasn’t just one night that she wouldn’t go to sleep. No it was a lot more, it was days and days. She wouldn’t go to sleep for weeks. My father added details. I added color. He created plot turns and turned her mischief into drama. Finally, I believe, the little girl fell into a dead sleep right in the middle of the sidewalk on her way to or from school. I don’t remember how she escaped her predicament, but I remember being relieved that my father and I had gotten her home safely. She found her bed and from that day on she went to sleep when she was supposed to go to sleep. In fact, she looked forward to bedtime and sometimes went without being told. When we finished telling each other the story my father leaned down and gave me a kiss and told me it was time for me to go to sleep. Our smiles were moonlight on the shadows in the room. The witch on the wall turned into a starburst as I snuggled under the covers and he stood up.
“But what about our story?” I remember asking.
“I’ll type it up,” he answered hovering in the doorway, well aware that I was trying to stall his exit.
“Goodnight,” he laughed and closed the door behind him. I must have fallen asleep a few minutes after that.
Now the promise to type our story was a serious promise. After all, my father was a writer, a real writer. He had a room with a desk, a big black Royal typewriter, and shelves of books. Sometimes people paid him for his words, which proved to outsiders that he was a real writer. He shared his workroom with my mother who had an easel, never quite dry oil paints, and finished and unfinished canvases all over the walls. My mother was a real painter. I was an ordinary child. I drew for fun. I wrote in school and it was fun. I wasn’t a painter and I certainly wasn’t a writer. A few days later, as promised, my father showed me our story. He had typed it up and added even more details. It was wonderful, and it was written by him and me.
After that we didn’t write together. He went about in his very adult world which included working, battling with the world and his family, and writing until close to dawn more days than not. I was in my child’s world which was often lonely and full of the quiet pains that many children, especially colored children, carry and do not share with their parents. I mean why, what can adults do about it anyway? I grew into dance and drama. I was going to be one of the great Negro actresses of the stage. I was going to be one of San Francisco’s first Negro prima ballerinas.
My father continued to write, publishing a story here and an article there. My head became incredibly hard at the same time as my body as my body became quite shapely. In that period I also mastered the act of not hearing what I did not want to hear. I became a teenager, and an inevitable gulf came between my father and me. He bridged the gulf with letters. When I protested his decisions over my life, my father wrote to me. He wrote his reasoning, he wrote his concern, and he wrote his love. I can’t truly say I appreciated all of his logic at that time. But I appreciated the work, the effort of page after page after page of thoughts pointed at me, crafted for me.
In time I began to write too. I left home and wrote long letters back. I had lovers and wrote letters full of gush and passion and poems full of sugar and thorns. I got into arguments, and when I couldn’t get through to someone else I wrote. I remembered the power of words. I remembered the magic of language. I remembered my father’s letters. And when I had a little girl, I remembered the story that he and I wrote together.
I never planned to be a writer. I planned to be a dancer and actress. My mother was the painter. My brother the photographer, and briefly, filmmaker. My father was the writer. Years later writing swallowed me up like the ocean taking a cast-off soda bottle, breaking it into pieces, and smoothing out the edges until it became jewels to return to the sand. Years later I learned to swim in words, learned to breathe under the water of their weight. Years later I became a writer too. And now, I am my father’s daughter, a storyteller come down from a line of storytellers.
Daddy’s Little Girl
There is an African proverb which says, “Father’s advice is like salt in your food.” This is a suitable epigram for this heuristic, for this is my first formal reflection on my relationship with my father. Indeed, reflecting has caused me considerable stress because, though he has been dead for six years, I have not been able to come to terms with the nature of our relationship during the last ten years of his life. This, then, is an odyssey into consciousness to retrieve memories and meaning.
My father was a skilled furniture upholsterer and weaver of cane, rush, and rattan for chair seats. People came from miles around to his shop, for he was the only such craftsman in that part of the country. Business acumen he did not possess, nor the vision to attract his sons to share in the business with him. Instead, he was his father’s son, for he taught those sons who would learn but his paternalism drove them from employment with him, and there could be no talk of partnerships. Belonging to an era in which a female would not be taught the family business, except in a hands-on way, he never offered his daughters the training. However, he did not deny us either, at least not me. As much as I hovered around him, I could certainly have learned the trade; after all, I watched and listened to all. I was the little assistant who passed tools, witnessed work orders, listened to the explanations of why work was not ready, and heard the laments about those who did not pay when it was.
As the youngest child and the youngest female, I undoubtedly was Daddy’s “little girl.” The runt of his litter as he had been among his own siblings, I was the companion on trips to rich folks’ houses to deliver chairs from his shop or to deliver telegrams which had come through the Western Union substation at our home. Some of my earliest memories are of road trips – to “homecomings” at rural churches where he spoke to some conference and where the ladies’ sweet potato pies ended a dinner under trees in the churchyard, to the home of cousins I did not know and do not recall, to towns some miles away to visit aunt or brother, or to “turnings out” of lodges which had mysterious rituals that I ignored then. Daddy was known wide and far as an orator and was highly sought after to participate in debates at church. He always elected to take the underdog position in debating on such topics as “Who was the greatest biblical prophet” (and he always won). Rather than beaming with pride at his victories, I was in those days rather embarrassed by the high-pitched, somewhat sing-song intonation of his delivery. And even though this delivery earned his children teasing from neighborhood boys, Daddy was the one usually invited to conduct the laying of cornerstones at some church or community building in Black neighborhoods in surrounding areas.
Such oratory proved an indelible print on me because after he rose through the Masonic ranks to the thirty-third degree and became Worshipful Grand Master, I was often witness to his chantlike recitations of the graveside ritual for a deceased Mason. I can see him under the huge trees in the cemetery (there were no grave canopies except their leaves). I can hear his cadence. I can sense the gravity of the role he held. And I later felt a small part of the ritual, for he would get me to call the local Black radio station to have an announcement made of the call for an assembly of the brotherhood. And it was I who would locate his white apron, white gloves, and (wow!) sword.
The curse of such popularity and recognition was that I could never escape the watchful eye of adults who always said, “I know your father.” Little did they know it was my mother who would mete out punishment for breaches of good conduct or smears on the family name. Daddy was not the one waiting to deliver the wrath if word reached home of some infraction. I recall only one punishment from him, and I do not recall the reason. I can still see myself sprawled on the hall floor after a good thrashing (an illegal one by today’s “standards” for parental discipline). He whipped me until I lost my shoe. I was more shocked at his action than hurt by the whipping.
My brothers and I learned early on that Daddy would respond to some misconduct with only a threat about what he would not “put up with.” He simply wanted no part of trouble. Understandably, then, he was not the person I went to when one of my brothers frightened or bullied me. Nor was he my male hero. My oldest brother had that role for a while because he returned wounded from military service in World War II, and he was interested in pugilism. I hung around him and his friends to watch them pound punching bags and to hear them tell stories about Joe Louis.
What Daddy did exhibit for me was a persistent pride. I thought his pride in family an obsession until I came much later in life to understand it was what distinguished him from his siblings and that it may have been the impetus for his paradoxical “make-do” attitude so disdained by his brothers. No matter that his father, who had built what seemed an empire, was possessive, petty, and paternalistic and used material goods as whipping sticks for his sons. Onlyl Daddy seemed to capitulate to the power. Other sons turned to their own lives, leaving the nest and signaling their belief in the adage, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” My daddy’s inheritance of the “home place” carried a high price. He attempted to keep family records intact, but one failing my brothers and I saw was his attempt to overuse family as the salt in our food. We resisted. He persisted. We resisted. There was no truce.
By the time I was a teenager, I had fallen from grace. I was no longer my father’s constant companion ( a nephew was now in my shoes), and there was little reason for my brothers to tell me, as they often did, “Daddy will listen to you.” I was as frustrated as they with Daddy’s eccentric behavior, his intractability, and his resolve not to be child to his children – which meant not taking our advice – and I, too, had experienced the sting of his rebuff: “Miss” he had called me when I tried to get him to “listen.” That was the last time I offered a daughter’s advice to an old man who made decisions which he would not reconsider. For the remaining seven years of his life, I “put him in God’s hands,” my way of reneging on some filial duty that called me to reestablish the bond, to recall the days when ad Daddy’s “little girl” I listened rather than advised as we traversed the town and outlying areas on his missions.
When he died in 1988 at the age of eighty-seven, my daddy was an enigma to me. As I read the obituary which I helped compose, I was acutely aware that it presented facts about his life without capturing his identity. What do I know of this man, my daddy? That we did not understand him, nor did he understand us. That his relationship with his father, whom he apparently both feared and revered and who was his opposite – tall, authoritative, cold, and aloof – stamped him with a desire to please. That he was not an independent soul but a man anxious for parental approval, seeking it by being caretaker, provider, and loving son.
The pain of the last years of his life has not been stanched by time, but I have, finally, opened the book of my father and as Daddy’s “little girl,” I am now prepared to read it, to reflect on it, and to write about it.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
About the Editor
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Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles earned a B.A. in English from LeMoyne College, an M.A. in American Literature from Boston University (as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow), and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Meadville-Lombard Theological School of the University of Chicago and named the CASE Professor of Teaching Excellence for the State of Georgia.
A recipient of the Emory Medal for outstanding scholarship and service of an alumna of Emory University, she has been a DuBois Fellow at Harvard University and Eminent Scholar’s Chair at Dillard University. Other awards include the Spelman College President’s Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the LeMoyne-Owen DuBois Scholar’s Award, and the Malcolm X Award for Community Service in the City of Atlanta for work as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement continued work for justice.
Her publications include numerous articles in national journals and six books, among them Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home; No Crystal Stair: Race and Sex in Black Women’s Novels, and “My Soul Is a Witness”: African American Women’s Spirituality . Her most recent publications are In Praise of Teachers (Beacon Press, May 2003), and Conversations With Gwendolyn Brooks University Press of Mississippi, December 2003).
Currently, she is conducting research on a critical study of the community as savior in selected African American novels. In August 2000, she was named Eminent Scholar’s Chair in Independent Scholarship and Service Learning at Spelman College. In addition to being the faculty mentor for Spelman's Independent Scholars program, she is founding director of the SIS Oral History Project and RESONANCE, a choral performance group at Spelman College.