By MURPHY BROWNE
In my Daddy’s arms I am tall and close to the sun
and warm in my Daddy’s arms
In my Daddy’s arms I am strong and dark like him and laughing
Happier than the circus clowns with red painted grins
When Daddy spins me round and round
and the whole world is crazy upside down
I am big and strong and proud like him
In Daddy’s arms my Daddy
By Folami Abiade, from In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, published 1997.
Sunday, June 20 is Father’s Day. In North America a special day to honour fathers was first suggested in 1909 and first observed on June 19, 1910. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honouring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.
Six years later, in 1972 the day was made a national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law. On June 20, some fathers and grandfathers will receive cards, ties, shirts, jewelry, artwork from class projects etc., as their children and grandchildren honour them.
The beautifully illustrated book In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, is a special tribute to a distinct group of men, “African-American fathers”. This term encompasses more than African men born in the USA. It includes those in the Diaspora who live outside of the African continent and were disconnected from their roots through slavery and colonization.
During the Maafa, the upheaval and enslavement of African people, the family structure was fractured; mothers and fathers were robbed of the ability to parent their children. During those dreadful times African men were sometimes not even allowed to see their children. Mothers would at least have their children with them for a few months or even a few years before they were sold but many fathers never even knew that a child existed which carried their genes and DNA.
In spite of these circumstances our history tells us that African men persisted against all odds in their fathering roles; if not to their biological children then to children in their community.
These men were loving, nurturing and protective fathers. There are several written resources by enslaved African men and women as well as a collection of voice recorded interviews with formerly enslaved Africans documenting the positive parenting roles of African fathers during slavery.
In her book, Black Fatherhood: Reconnecting With Our Legacy, published in 2005, Dana Ross writes: “Black men during this era were dehumanized, humiliated and oppressed; however it did not deter them from being nurturing, loving fathers, caretakers and entrepreneurs. They were able to rise above the social system set against them by pulling on their inner strength and love for their families. Even though some inevitably fell prey to the institution of slavery, there are more than enough documented stories and recorded family histories which evidence the significant and prominent role of Black fathers. These men were able to overcome the adversities of the institution of slavery on the strength of their family, leaving us a legacy to reconnect with.”
Many enslaved African men took great pride in their ability to care for their families and sacrificed their lives for their children. Some of these men refused to run to freedom when the opportunity presented itself because it would have meant leaving their children in slavery. There were enslaved men who bought their freedom as well as the freedom of their wives and children. The story of the Estes and Stark families who left Missouri and moved to British Columbia via California in 1860 is a case in point.
Howard Estes was an enslaved African from Missouri who was “owned” by Tom Estes while his wife and children were owned by Charles Leopold. Howard made an arrangement with his “owner” to buy his freedom but after the owner received the money he reneged on the promised freedom.
Howard Estes who at that time was mining gold in California refused to return to slavery and instead continued to work and sent money to the “owner” of his wife and children to buy their freedom. Tom Estes took Charles Leopold to court claiming that any money Leopold received from Howard Estes as payment for his family’s freedom rightfully belonged to him (Tom Estes) since he “owned” Howard Estes.
Leopold kept the money and unlike Tom Estes gave Hannah Estes and her children to Howard Estes since he had bought their freedom. The Estes family moved to California but because of vicious racial persecution eventually moved to BC. The African-American community of California had received a letter of invitation from then governor of Vancouver Island James Douglas (born in British Guiana to an enslaved African mother and Scottish father).
Several African-American families moved from California to BC, including Sylvia Estes Stark (Howard Estes’ daughter) and her husband Louis Stark, who are considered pioneers and significant historical figures in BC.
As we honour fathers and father figures on Sunday, June 20 we need to remember the legacy of those who went before us and set the example as excellent role models. The Ashanti proverb: “When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him” is an apt reminder. Today we read about African men who, in spite of the odds — having to deal with racial profiling, the racialization of poverty, lack of job opportunities etc., continue to make sacrifices as they lovingly guide and nurture their children’s physical, spiritual and emotional growth as they also contribute to their community.
The lives of these men are documented in books like Be a Father to Your Child, edited by April R. Silver and published in 2008 which begins with the African proverb: “We come here so we may learn to be better ancestors”.
The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers, by Roberta L. Coles, published in 2009, documents the struggles and triumphs of single African-American men raising their children. Pop: A Celebration of Black Fatherhood by Carol Ross, published in 2007 offers a fascinating look portrayed through photographs at a group of loving and nurturing African fathers interacting with their children (http://www.popbycarolross.com/).
Not all the wonderful dedicated African fathers are featured in books, some of them live here in Toronto and we see them regularly with their children and grandchildren. Some readily come to my mind as I read Sonia Sanchez’s poem, I have looked into my father’s eyes and seen an African sunset.
You may know some of these fathers: Sam Burke, Bonny Caesar, Glendale Caesar, Owen Sankara Leach, Ajamu Nangwaya, Norman (Otis) Richmond, Charles Roach and Owusu Young.