Daughters are God’s irony on men. Not His vengeance or His revenge on us, but surely His irony.
Daughters, when they come, are never expected and seldom asked for, especially if she is a first child. Always a surprise, usually more for the father than the mother, who, if she suspects at all, keeps it to herself and devises consolation strategies. Like take me for example. In my innocent mind I had already seen myself on weekends in the park with my son, for, as a matter of fact, the birth of a son is the perfect excuse for going crazy and buying that leather catcher’s glove, (the good one which you could never afford to get when you were small). I had already been to the sports store and priced it, together with the leather world cup soccer ball (what the hell, nothing’s too good for my boy). So imagine my surprise that day on the Lower East Side when I entered the hospital room at Mt. Sinai and found there this tiny sleep-ridden face with eyes closed and wrapped in pink. Her mother looking up at me from the bed guiltily: “Well, it’s a girl. You’re not sorry are you? I know you wanted a boy.”
I tried to make the appropriate noises: “Oh no, that’s cool, just so she’s healthy.” But my heart wasn’t in it. My mind started drifting around the room. Bye bye baseball glove. Soccer? Well girls do play soccer but usually it’s with their mothers. “Well, you want to hold her?” Now what is the appropriate response to that one? What are you going to say? “No thanks” or “I’d rather not”?
So you fall into automatic mode and the hands go out and hold something so tiny and frighteningly fragile. Suddenly eyes open, fingers quiver, and you find something looking up at you; she is tired from all that swimming and crossing over. She was already two days late in arriving as most daughters are. They don’t rush like sons out of the womb. Daughters take their time as though they are having second thoughts as to whether they really want to come or not. And from the opening of her Pisces eyes so filled with tears and seawater, she had me. For she was an immigrant like me — she too had come to this city by water as I had. It makes a difference how you enter America. It determines forever how you will think of her.
And so for the next two weeks we circled each other, my daughter and I. She not altogether sure of me and I frightened of something in the night taking her after all the struggle to lug the crib and the bassinette up five flights of stairs for her. She decided that she would never spend one night in the crib. Not one. She slept with us every night in the bed. Half the night facing her mother half the night facing me.
During the day she didn’t mind the crib but definitely not at night. She breathed on me and with me. Her breath smelled of milk and she kept my terror away.
In afternoons I walk to the park with her. She fit just right atop my head or around my neck and learned early how to cling and not fall. And it was usually between two and three o’clock that we might feel adventurous and so walk all the way to Central Park from East 10th Street. And since three o’clock is the hour of the Haitian nannies, we might watch them as they walk their white charges; usually they would be asked to walk the dog at the same time, so we would watch them as they skillfully navigated their way along, pram in one hand and dog leash in the other, and I could feel my daughter’s head spinning from side to side as she tried to follow all the action.
Usually on the way up to the park I would pause and make a pit stop at my drug dealer’s apartment. He was from Belize, which the British called British Honduras but the Hondurans called Belize. And his name was Enrique and he loved Garifuna music as much as me. He also sold good drugs and knew quality. I called him El Maestro and I wanted to make him my daughter’s godfather since I spent so much time there and she seemed to like him. But he looked at me with those tragic Spanish eyes which he had and said real quietly:
“You know maybe it’s not such a good idea to make your dealer the godfather to your daughter. I’m no priest you know. And maybe you should think twice about even bringing her here too because . . . hey you never know.”
And so we never spoke about it again. And it was funny because a little after that somebody showed up at his house with a sawed-off shot gun — there’s not too much conversation you have with a sawed-off shot gun pointed in your face, it’s not an ideal occasion for much chit of chat — and so they took everything they wanted but left him with his life that time. And the word GRACE comes to mind. It was by grace that I wasn’t there with my daughter. And when I think of grace I think of St. Augustine. He used it a lot.
My favorite philosopher is St. Augustine. I always loved him even before I knew he was a Black man from North Africa. He was from Carthage (present day Libya although some say Tunisia), the place the Romans tried to wipe out of existence by spreading salt. He liked his cock-fighting and his women and he also liked God and so spent a goodly part of his life figuring out in which order he should love these (in De Ordine, Of Order). But what I liked most about him was that he was always asking the question: how do we know what is real and what is illusion? How can we be sure even of our own existence? He finally came to the realization that even our doubt is proof of our existence, for if we did not exist we could not doubt, which made sense to me at the time. He had a mother (Monica was her name), St. Augustine; I had one too and she was asking me questions much as Augustine’s, namely:
“So what do you plan on doing with your life now that you have a child?’
It was by grace in the first place that the child was born a girl. Everyone had expected an exact replica of myself, complete with dreadlock hair and dark shades and clenched fist salute. Instead they got this calm angel child with dimples and eyes you swam in. They couldn’t burn me in the pit as they had longed to do, quite yet anyway. I’m speaking of the grandparents who noticed the fact that I had not married their daughter but seemed quite happy to impregnate her while living with another woman.
Time helps with seeing and so now I can better understand how they must have felt to see their one daughter in whom they had invested so much hope and struggle, the daughter who had defined them as good parents because they had managed to send her to Yale, which was no little thing for a Black man who worked as a chauffeur in racist Columbus, Ohio where eight out of ten people they knew had children either in or on their way to not college but prison, and now just as they were about to retire and enjoy the sleep of the good . . . here comes Satan in the form of myself, some dreadlocked West Indian boy from some Caribbean island that they had never heard of (Montserrat) to ruin everything.
But daughters, as I say, are God’s irony. They were willing to cut their loss and retrieve her and take her back with them before I gave her yet more babies, for a daughter with one child born out of wedlock was still a saleable item especially with a degree from Yale. Two or more, however, now that would have been disaster.
“Girl, come home to your parents. There’s no future with him. The boy’s a dreamer and we’ve heard things about those West Indians, they make a lot a babies all over the place.”
Nor were they too thrilled with the strange African name I had given her: Onika.
“What the hell is that? Why couldn’t he give her a good Christian name like Mary or Martha?”
But they soon fixed that — after a week Onika became Nikki and then Nicole, something they could live with. This done, they returned to Ohio to pray and await the inevitable.
The inevitable didn’t take long in arriving, for a year later just as she began walking and climbing steps and opening doors and drawers and touching anything and everything that you said not to, I found that I was about to be a daddy once again, only this time it was not with her mother but with another girl.
Saint Paul speaks of the thorn in the flesh; perhaps what he really meant was the thorn of the flesh.
So, finding myself in a dilemma as to how best to deal with the situation (for situation it was), I decided that if all else failed it was best to tell the truth, especially if you have no choice, having just got the news late and very late in the pregnancy.
Enter One Son
What sealed it was the birth of my son. I had to try to get all parties together and have a calming and healing session like extended families do in Africa. The only problem was that this wasn’t Africa — it was, and is, New York. And here when young unwed mothers hear about other children being fathered by their man they aren’t pleased. And no, there would be no sitting under any Baobab tree together in unity. All I remember was a wild piercing scream followed by the question: “How could you, how could you do that to me and to your daughter?” The unpardonable sin of having a son with another girl, not even a full year later. Why didn’t I at least use a condom? Because I’m from the Caribbean and don’t want anything to get in the way of my feeling and because of the thing we have called Macho. And since I was Macho then my son must be Machito, or little Macho. And I don’t remember what exactly more she said although I remember the word “Bitch!” being frequently used in connection with my son’s mother and what she was going to do to that . . . and then the tirade turned to me and hands and nails reaching for my face and what hands couldn’t reach feet could. And suddenly there was no Yale, no anything but street, and she was doing what any of her friends would have done if they felt themselves played and disrespected. She was going to make me have to hit her. Begged me to, while she scratched and clawed and ripped my clothes and reached for anything that her hands could capture. Africa did come into it after all because she leapt like a Wolof princess right into my face and told me to kill her. Then I realized that she was serious — that was what she wanted me to have to do. And my hands were around her neck and I was seconds away from canceling two lives when somewhere in the horizontal blur of the floor I saw this figure moving and realized that those Piscean eyes staring at me were witnessing everything. She was watching me kill her mother before her eyes and she wasn’t even crying. Pisces don’t cry out loud, they use the silent scream.
Grace is Augustine’s favorite word. After that day it became mine too. And it wasn’t two lives that were saved that day — it was three. After that I never let myself be alone with her mother again because I never had known anyone who could get me that out of control. This was some serious danger if and when she felt betrayed. I realized now that this was someone’s daughter and the mother of a daughter, my daughter. So it was time now for me to seek some succor and advice from someone, and my mother was the closest thing I had to that, so I went to inform her about the birth of her grandson. She was less than enthusiastic and I had a difficult time getting her to turn away from the television, which she watched religiously, from Perry Mason to Colombo. It was her one treat since she could no longer go on long bus rides to Niagara Falls with her old friends from the Montserrat Progressive Society. Diabetes had been plaguing her for some time now. So she waited until the commercial to question me:
“And so, now what you plan on doing? You now have a daughter and a son. I can’t understand, why you so foolish and stubborn. I think I must have drop you on you head when you small. Didn’t I tell you a million times, Noelle is the one you should marry. Leave the rest of these girls alone. They can’t do a thing for you. Noelle, she is class. Don’t you see that these others just get themselves pregnant to try and take you from her?”
My mother was no Monica like St. Augustine’s, but she had her moments. And it did give me pause to think. Now I must admit that I have always had trouble seeing the obvious. Whether it was from a fall I had from a rooftop when I was a child in Montserrat or not, but it really never occurred to my ten-watt brain before my mother mentioned it to me that the other girls would really conspire (breathe together) and plot to get themselves pregnant by me in order to get me away from Noelle. But given who Noelle was, it did all begin to make sense. The whole chess game which was being played out while I was busy dealing with St. Augustine and his Confessions.
The Cape Verde Islands are located in the mid-Atlantic Ocean some 300 miles off the West coast of Africa. The Portuguese brought their slaves there to breed them, much the way the British brought theirs to Barbados for the same purpose. Breed them like cattle or sheep. The Portuguese were very good colonizers and kept it going well into the twentieth century. Now how the slaves and ex-slaves of Cape Verde ended up in Massachusetts is a mystery which only the sea can explain. Just know this: wherever there is sea there is slavery. Because wherever there is sea there is piracy and the daughter of piracy is slavery.
All of this history is unimportant — all you need know is that Cape Verde Islanders have some of the most beautiful women in the world. One of them was Noelle. Cape Verde by way of Boston and Roxbury slums and present-day slavery and plantations. And then God saw to it that she came to New York and to me. Noelle had a body which made men tremble and women pout. So unique was she that she made even my mother stand when she entered the room. It was as though Queen Elizabeth had entered Albert Hall. I couldn’t believe it. My entire family, blind uncles, paralyzed aunts, all of them, they only had one question for me when they saw me: “Where is Noelle?”
It was as if I, who had never done anything right in my entire life, was suddenly given the gift of Grace. And what was it they saw? She was the perfect trophy wife. She was the gift, the award of excellence in the Black community. The one you married when you became pastor of a major mega-church (think Coretta Scott King, or Lena Horne, or Dorothy Dandridge). My mother explained it all to me in a simple sentence: “You marry her and you children will have the blessing.” Meaning they would be light skinned with good hair and less African features. For everything since the days of slavery has been about getting closer and closer to the big plantation house. The closer to the house you get, the lighter the children and therefore the easier their lives. Of course the ultimate dream is to enter the Plantation House itself. Even if it calls itself the White House. And the same rule applies in the Caribbean: the closer you are to the center of power, i.e. the town, the better the houses the roads and the gentry. The more remote, the darker the people; the less educated, the darker (“country people,” “people from bush” — in Jamaica they call them: “The Dungle and Back-a-Yard People”)
So this then was the Noelle which had caused such a sea change in my life. For as my mother in her wisdom had said, it was because of Noelle that everyone else was getting pregnant so suddenly and I became like Krishna among the Gopi girls.
So the question now was what to do; I couldn’t marry both of them for whichever one I married would resent the other. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to stand still. So I stood still but you can get yourself into a world of trouble just doing that, especially if you stand beneath the wrong tree. In my case it was the Tree of Life. I had to decide what to do with the trophy wife I was living with. Should I marry her in truth and make everyone in my family (i.e. my mother, my aunts and cousins, the living and the dead, everybody — except my daughter and my son who, although not yet old enough to talk, already knew her to be the enemy) happy? Among the unhappy would have to be listed Noelle’s family themselves who wasted no time making clear to me that they were Cape Verdeans and therefore not the descendants of slaves (like say me for example). When asked how the hell they got to Massachusetts in the first place, they would quickly wheel out the old set piece about working as sailors on a ship. Working is different from laboring, you see. Slaves labored but free men worked. So needless to say they did not consider themselves Black. Or ever dealt with the fact that they were specifically bred by the Portuguese to be house slaves and whores. A profession to which they come to with great skill and fervor. As I say the Portuguese were excellent colonizers.
But what do you do with a trophy wife except display her and then torture her in private. Or else she tortures you by making you feel that you don’t really deserve her.
And it is only later that you come to find that God doesn’t make mistakes, she is exactly what you deserve, like daughters are exactly what we deserve. It was easy for my mother to be philosophical and detached. She could already see the wedding album on her coffee table.
She had an active fantasy life. She would collect dolls and place them on her sofa. When I told her that now she would not need the dolls because I was giving her grandchildren to put on her couch, she took a loving glance at her couch and said she preferred to keep the dolls. Of course if it was Noelle’s dynasty that would be different. The dolls would be replaced by long-haired Cape Verdeans and these could sit any damn where they wanted. Not that my mother didn’t love her grandchildren, both girl and boy, but she was a product of Caribbean hypnosis.
She was raised to be someone’s daughter eternally. She came from a society which was not as rigidly insanely highly stratified, Jack-and-Jill Clubbed, Alpha and Delta sorority-obsessed as say Washingtonian Blacks, who were born in the shadow of the White House (like Duke Ellington for example), but Montserrat had the madness of England to try and mimic with their Knighthoods and their OBEs (Orders of the British Empire) and dreams of scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge.
She never raised me. I was raised by aunts and friends of aunts and was moved early to a South Bronx reality much different from the Montserrat of my birth. So my mother didn’t see the things I saw. And so she barely knew me. What she could make out was that I was a lot like my father. But because I never lived anywhere for more than a year until I was eighteen, I tend to see most things as illusion like fractured glass.
And when I think fractured glass, I think of the streets of the South Bronx by night and the way the neon lights and the streetlights hit the shards of glass from broken liquor bottles along Boston Road and one of the old people I was sent to boarder with when I was ten years old who would tie his wife to a chair whenever he went out. He would tie her to a chair in her room and lock the door and then ask me to mind her. And no matter how much she screamed I was not to unlock her door. Then he would go out and leave me to get my first training as a West Indian guard, an occupation that Caribbean and Africans come to with a vengeance. But I wasn’t made for being a guard and the screams would get to me so much that I would unlock her door and remove the rope from her wrist and try and guess how much time we had before the Cyclops would return. He was actually a chef and worked at Horn and Hardart’s (or as the West Indians who worked there called it Horn and Hardass because of how they worked you).
But one night I fell asleep and forgot to tie her back up first, so I was awakened by a slap and he screaming at me: “Didn’t I tell you that you must watch her. Come, she get way and is your fault so you help find her.”
She had wandered out with nothing but her yellow night gown on and so we had to spend the rest of the night walking the streets along Boston Road until about 4 o’clock I saw this luminous figure walking in the middle of the street. The sound of car horns as they tried to avoid hitting her. Her yellow night gown blowing in the wind and her still soft good hair and her hands which could still play the piano by themselves if they found their way to the white ivory keys because she once played for the choir before everything left her head but her dreams. And the yellow of her nightgown echoed the broken glass of the streets like diamonds.
But my mother never knew about this. There were too many stories to tell her and so all she knew was that she had a very strange son who wrote things down on paper and made babies and never seemed to stay anywhere very long. But she was never raised to be a mother, only someone’s daughter, like many Caribbean women.
Fortunately one of the things which my mother’s son wrote down on paper found its way to England and got me an invitation to follow it and so I did, and this too is what Augustine meant by Grace and Gift.
I went to England for a week and ten years later I found myself still there. That had something to do with the fact that every time I phoned America they kept telling me about another friend who had died either of gunshot wounds or in detention for political offences and even a greater number from something they called AIDS which no one could explain to me what exactly it was except that its presence resulted in death for you. And first they said just drug addicts got it from dirty needles, and then it was just gays who had it and I was all right so far, but then they said it had to do with having unprotected sex. Then I started to have less and less desire to return any time soon. This coupled with the fact that I was completely addicted to the BBC and to news. Real news not entertainments. About America and the CIA involvement everywhere in the world and how the World Bank and the IMF were working diligently to make certain that the so-called third world would forever be in debt. And that the most brutal dictators remain in power until their last geriatric days. Yes, England is a good place to get information about anything except itself (for example that it is the second largest arms dealer in the world). To learn about England you have to return to America which as I said I was in no rush to do.
What England will give you in abundance is history, especially British history as they like to see it.
And fair enough no one is ever eager to get too much truth about himself, it’s never quite the right time, and for a writer who is only interested in that, it’s like trying to sell a book to a blind man and the book isn’t Braille. But England is a good place to either read a book or write one because its main attribute is boredom. The only problem is that you have to bring your inspiration with you because that they don’t have. Bring your own inspiration and your own weather and you’ll do all right. I missed my daughter, but did I miss her enough to want to die for her, no. We lie and say that we do but we don’t.
Not enough to sacrifice the rest of our lives for. I told myself that when she was old enough I would send for her. But her grandparents would never let her just go unescorted to live with some crazy West Indian father in darkest London. England is a good place to heal. It’s a post-war country by which I mean it’s a good country to come to after a war and recover. Its two primary colors are green and grey. Green in its spring from constant rain and grey from its continuing dampness. Eventually it becomes calming to the eye. All in all there is the atmosphere of an asylum. An asylum in which the patients, having become totally familiar with its wards and corridors, are content to walk and read. Actually reading while walking is a common activity. This way no one has to actually look at each other and this ability to navigate around each other without seeing is itself a very British thing. This and obsession with detail. They say the smaller the island the madder the mind. England is a very small island. That is why they needed to rule the world.
So here I was nicely settled into my English asylum thanking God for His grace in letting me get away from America for an entire decade and thus save my life, for there’s no doubt in my mind that, had I been in America in the 80s living the way I was living with my condom-less self, I would surely have contracted something interesting. Interesting enough to move me off this planet. As it was my activities in England were very quiet. Quiet for me anyway. And unlike the Plague, AIDS actually did avoid England. As I say by Grace.
Just then I got a certain letter which focused my mind: “You better come and see about your son. He’s at that age.” And what age is that? That age where he is a large enough target for both police and street gangs to see and shoot. And my mother summed everything up for me when she said:
“It’s been ten years. Whatever book you were reading you should’ve read it by now. Come home see to your children.”
She didn’t mention that she too needed some seeing. And so I left England and came home to America, the land of the disposable diaper.
Of the Remnant
When Augustine was asked who it was that he was writing for, he said, “For God and the remnant.” But then he had a rich mother; I didn’t. I had a poor one who once had had privilege but who now looked from her South Bronx window and more and more considered jumping and, if it weren’t for the fact of the scandal she knew it would cause back home in Montserrat, would have. And so I came home to Carthage, a city gone strange with homelessness and the new poor. Whole families camping out in the shadow of City Hall. People calmly foraging in garbage cans and not an eyebrow raised in amazement. This was not the city I left ten years before. People were totally selfish without apology. I remember at Penn Station at 34th Street, seeing a mother asleep on the subway floor with her child in her arms and a blanket and people walked around and over her and continued conversations without missing a beat. In other words they saw nothing. Felt nothing. You couldn’t tell the people from the garbage. And in front of an office marked Human Resources, the junkies bent like trees and waited.
Meanwhile I went in search of my son and his mother who were living on Riverside Drive among the new Dominicans. He was growing fast and had already cut his dreadlocks because he was tired of people mistaking him for a girl. And it was a time for street gangs and video games. The two developed together because to the street gangs violence and war were just video games. The taking and giving of a life nothing more than the turning of a knob or the flex of hand on the throttle of a play station. No more real than that. I saw with my own eyes a Dominican youth calmly step out of a car (a car that had been slowly driving on the sidewalk). He goes up behind a man he was following and shoots him three times at pointblank range in the back of the head. Everybody looks away and tries to go for cover. The youth just as calm goes down into the subway. Next stop, Dominican Republic, to the house and land which that hit earned him. I realized it was time now to get my son.
It’s not easy meeting your son after years away. Because you don’t know who he is or who he might be.
The best thing to do is find some neutral ground. Some street you can walk to together and talk and not talk. First thing you notice is that he looks like his mother. Which is good when sons favor their mothers. But daughters, they favor their fathers. Again, that’s God’s irony. So you walk with this boy and the second thing you notice after the fact that he looks like his mother is that he has big feet, like you. And the weary way he bends his back in concentration, that’s you, too. And you start to think,
“Damn, genes are strong. You can run but you can’t hide.”
And so you walk along talking and not talking. You ask about sports, and no he’s not big into sports. Little basketball, that’s it. He wonders if I’ll hold that against him and you swear that you won’t. This is a different generation. They spend as little time as possible outside. Why because they’re lazy? No, Pop, because outside its where you can get shot easily.
And you tell him about growing up in the South Bronx and he says he knows about it and that’s where both his grandmothers live. And it shocks you to know that your mother is this boy’s grandmother. And that he’s been visiting her regularly, taking your place. Women are wise. His mother made sure that, while you were away in someplace called England, contact was being made here at home. My mother never saw me much as a child. She was only allowed to glance at me from behind a fence in Central Park.
Those were the rules they made for her as a daughter with an illegitimate child. She could watch me play from behind a fence. My son, she could at least touch.
So I’m learning him, this young man who is my shadow extended before me. And I want to look good for him. You want to look good for your son. He meets a friend and doesn’t introduce me as his father. The word feels strange in his mouth so he doesn’t use it. And so we walk some more and then we enter the building at 800 Riverside and we walk up the steps to the apartment and you trip on the step and fall. You trip because half of your mind is back there in Central Park and that woman, your mother watching behind that fence. And the other half is thinking about the day he got born and that house. So you trip on a stair, you watching him come to help and that look of worry and love, and yes you’re fine, fine but what’s in your eyes now is tears and you and you can’t think why.
It was that 7th step which you tripped on. Now some twenty years later they still haven’t fixed it. It’s like the step in some ancient cathedral which peasants come to on their knees. And maybe that step has been eaten away by the kisses of peasants. Or maybe they’re just too cheap to fix that seventh step at 800 Riverside.
It was an interesting season to return to America. Unapologetic America where the gospel of prosperity was being preached loudly from pulpits of both Black and white pastors. It had to be shouted from pulpits and the White House in order to drown out the noise of starvation. All those homeless sleeping in subways and lining up for soup kitchens. The pastors had to convince those who had homes and money that they were God’s elect. “God wants you rich, that’s why you are. And don’t forget that this America is God’s country, that is why He has so richly blessed us.” This being said they pulled away in their limousines to their suburban homes. It was amazing to me, when I returned to America, to find two things: firstly that not a single Black minister with churches in Harlem actually lived in Harlem. They all lived in the suburbs (as soon as possible) and merely came to work in Harlem. Secondly, that all the construction work in Harlem was being done by either Eastern Europeans (mostly Polish or Serbian), beneath them doing the actual grunt work were Chicano. No Blacks could get in the unions. Not even in Harlem, never mind the rest of the city. Those working on the Highways were invariably either Italian or Irish. Those who worked as firemen even in Harlem were almost to a man Irish. The only work available was the police department or security, and sanitation was beginning to open up as more and more whites abandoned these professions together with transit. Question: did I want to go under the earth for the next twenty years? The answer was no. So I stayed home and helped raise my son. What I didn’t realize was that most of his friends hadn’t seen much of their fathers either. And they weren’t away in darkest England. They were in places like Rikers Island and Sing Sing and Green Haven and other exciting prison facilities. There was also a whole generation who only went outside to go back and forth to school. Other than that they hardly ever dared to venture out. The police meanwhile were busy with sweeps, in which they would descend on a given area where they suspected drug trafficking and just arrest vanloads of people. It all seemed to be going well. The police had a means now of fulfilling their quota of requisite arrests. It worked in Harlem among the Blacks. It worked in the South Bronx among the Blacks and the Puerto Ricans. But when they got to Washington Heights, the Dominicans didn’t want to dance. They decided that not just police have guns. And when the police started using helicopters on rooftops, I didn’t need CNN to tell me I was living in a battle zone. It started to look like Lebanon or Bosnia. So went my first year back in America, the land of the disposable diaper.
Soon the apartment at 800 Riverside started looking like a cadet barracks. We were doing workout sessions and home work and it was just a safe hang spot and soon word spread (since nobody wanted to venture to the park and get shot) and I was teaching reading and literacy (once you teach one the others get jealous so you have to teach everybody). And soon I got a new definition of a father. A father is anyone who sticks around. God is a father because he does that. Sons are good things to have. Good things to come to. But daughters are more complex because they look more like you but they don’t speak. They don’t say what they fear. And so the only way you know them is by whom they stray to.
While I was away “reading my book” as my mother said, my daughter was being raised by her grandparents and her uncle. Her grandparents thanked God, not me, for making her possible, for she turned out to be the one bright light in their last years. Me, they never had too much use for. One day when Nicole was in elementary school they read one of my books over the school intercom, and when she told them that it was her daddy’s book they were reading, none of them believed her. Said she was a liar. Her mother had to come to school and prove it . Nobody knew what a writer was. They knew what a cop was. They knew what a prisoner was. They knew what a soldier was. But not a writer. When they asked St. Augustine whom he wrote for, he said God and the remnant. When they ask me, I say I write for a living and for my children, who will never read it unless they stumble across it on their way somewhere else. As I say daughters are strange things. They come as a surprise and part of God’s irony and then they hold time against you. If you have a son they hold him against you, too. If they ever forgive you at all, it’s if the two meet and see themselves in each other’s eyes. Away from mothers, away from fathers. Away from you.
I wrote once that if a man was to come upon his daughter along the side of a dark road he would no more know her than he would the night around her. Not necessarily so, he might know her by the shadow she makes on the ground before her. There are things that you can say to a son that you can never say to a daughter. You can ask him: when he makes love to his girlfriend does she laugh or cry when she comes? He will look at you with the disgust with which all youth looks at age. Any age greater than their own. He will never answer you because that remains in the realm of intimacy which cannot be shared. But the very question does get him thinking:
“Why would you ask that, Pop?”
“Because some women laugh and some cry. Some women do neither one. There’s no correct way, it’s just that if you can get a woman to laugh with you then you can usually get her to love you. You are more than half way there. And some are so grateful for laughter that they find their release right there. Their orgasm.”
But the truth is that he probably can’t tell if her eyes are open or not because he isn’t looking at her. It takes years to look at a woman and really see her. For the most part all we see is ourselves. And with our eyes closed we see the woman we really want, not the one that we’re with.
I married once. It wasn’t the one my mother wanted but it was one whose I eyes I liked to look into when she came. She was someone who had come from the same Caribbean island as myself and so I thought I wouldn’t have to explain myself as much (as if I could in any case). We had the same humor and if you could make a woman laugh you could make love to her. I had told my son this and believed it to be true. She had the strong arrogant body of a Senegalese and the dark skin to match. And what was good was that loving her was like loving myself. She had audacity to announce to me that she would take me away from all the women that I’d ever known. And when I asked her why she thought so, was her loving so strong, she answered simply: “Because I have more imagination than they do.” And she was right — she did. To meet a woman who tells you in advance exactly what her desire is and what she will do to you without guile or coyness is very amazing. It can be frightening if you feel in anyway timid. It is sort of like stepping in the ring with a young Muhammad Ali who loved to tell you exactly where he would hit you next and what round he intended to knock you out and you were utterly helpless to prevent it.
It was a refreshingly new stratagem and it got me. You see, it is the arrogance of men which is woman’s greatest weapon. We always feel we are in control. She was a PhD. In just how much women keep hidden from men simply because they know just how threatened men are by the potential loss of power. For example how many private secretaries actually run businesses for their bosses but never take the credit (and of course are never paid equal to their worth)? So then the question becomes, is the whole gender issue in society really about economics when all is said and done? And of course this just leads to the next big gorilla in the room that is never mentioned: race.
White women are masters of stroking and lying to their men because they more than any other know just how fragile and explosive that whole issue is. The role of the white woman to her mate is therefore that of cheerleader and silent accomplice. Women have traditionally been one step away from slavery. In early America, for example, women were regarded as chattel (a moveable possession, and a woman was certainly moveable). Upon marriage the wealth of the woman was assumed by the man. So you have George Washington becoming instantly wealthy upon marriage to Martha, taking over everything including her slaves. He then uses the excuse that he would free the slaves were they his but, alas, they are really his wife’s property (which of course he owns and exploits to the maximum). Then we have Jefferson who does a similar thing with his dead wife’s slave and does one better because he impregnates her and makes several generations of half-caste slaves with Sally Hemings, whom he never acknowledges as his concubine. And what is most interesting of all is that his daughter — his white daughter witnesses everything and yet says nothing. And what is that peculiar relationship of daughter-father as she watches him nightly slip through the secret passageway (not for nothing was Jefferson an architect) which connected his room with that of his Negress. Daughters always know. They know first as daughters and then as wives. They know to see and not see. They know the cost of things.
Now with my own daughter there came a point where the wife I married would call her up and complain about me. “You know your father cursed at me in the street.” At which point I would be called to the phone. “Here, your daughter wants to speak with you.” This was the ultimate humiliation to be called to account by your own daughter. She who once was sitting astride your neck with wet diapers is now changing your diapers and having to chastise you. “Dad, try and act like an adult, and please stop having your wives call me up to complain.”
And when I would try to answer feebly that I only have one wife, she would counter with the knockout blow. “Great, but she’s not my mother. I should be the one coming to you, remember?”
Yes, we don’t want to stumble and fall before our daughters, whereas we can be vulnerable before our sons who we feel should somehow be better able to understand because sons have the same third leg as their fathers and are therefore expected to understand that a father can trip over it. Daughters can never understand because they have no such appendage. A man’s greatest fear is to become infirm or senile and have to be changed by his daughter. I know that I pray nightly that this never befalls me. America is the land of the disposable diaper and the disposable parent as well. There are more nursing homes in America than anywhere on earth. Parents live longer now than in any time in history. Certainly in previous centuries there was always either a predator or an illness or an affliction which solved the problem of old age. Certainly among slaves there was no such problem; especially in the Caribbean where I came from, the average working life was seven years. Seven years of maximum labor as a cane cutter was usually enough to solve any problem about growing old. But the present day plantation is more modified and so one can and very often does grow old and so can labor for longer periods of time even with diabetes and prostrate cancer and the myriad of other goodies which are common afflictions of Black males, either in or out of prison.
One day I decided to deal with one of my fears — you know one of those things we keep meaning to do and keep putting off (although perhaps I am the only person in the world who procrastinates in doing the things that I fear). I got my son and my daughter to meet. I introduced them and sat back with a teddy bear which I had purchased. When my daughter tried to take it from me because she thought it was a gift for her, I explained to her that, no, this was in fact for me and it was the only protection I had and therefore I couldn’t part with it because he (Augustine) was at least on my side. My daughter looked at my son (Machito or little Macho, since I was big Macho) for confirmation of what she had long ago suspected, that her father was totally insane.
They got on very well and found they had a lot in common besides a father. It was good to see them. Good to see myself in them. The best and the worst of myself. Daughters really are God’s irony because we bring them into the world just to give them away. We give them away so that they bring back something to us, grandchildren. To humanize us. Supposedly by the time of grandchildren we have learned to be parents. No other animal has offspring which return after leaving the nest. Only man returns on holidays with offspring. The Caribbean is littered with broken and extended families. Alliances more complex than any UN gathering. You will find every shade and every accent all within one family which might extend to twelve or more islands. It is always the daughter who makes the connections and threads the tapestry which was her father’s life. Not the son because he is too busy trying to comprehend his own spider’s web to make any sense of the larger mosaic.
This is true regardless of what economic system we live under and serve.
In plantation life it’s usually the sons who are driven off first, like young lions. They either escape or are sold first. The daughters tend to stay with the mothers for a longer time in any case. And when it comes to present-day immigration it is the sons who leave first to find their fortune in the new world. The daughters after.
Now daughters and their fathers are strange things. There are two things that you can never ever hope to do. The first is to try and rival a dead father. That can never be done. You can never better a memory, for memory adds perfection to every portrait. That lesson cost me a wife, for I could never equal a man who had become a legend in his daughter’s mind. The second impossibility with daughters and their fathers is to try to achieve forgiveness for a man whom you’ve never met and yet held responsible for. For with daughters all wounds are fresh and the blood still flows although unseen. And the bed you sleep in with her is always a very crowded bed. Filled with all these unseen ghosts (fathers, uncles, and even grandfathers). Do you understand now why there’s little room left under the blanket for you?
I remember how jealous my daughter’s uncle was of me, so he over-protected her from me, making certain that she couldn’t come and visit her strange West Indian father, because he didn’t trust people who came from any island where they had to flee from because of nature (be it volcano or hunger or devastation). And all that he could picture in his mind was a wild man wheeling a machete and lighting voodoo candles. Well, I was fresh out of candles but he managed to keep my daughter away from me for a good bit of her childhood. Of course the rest was my doing. Yes, daughters and their fathers are funny things and the surrogates who take the place of fathers and become lovers.
And yet in our lives sometime stunted with fog and fear, daughters have always been our greatest grace and our greatest chance for salvation. St. Augustine asked the question: how do we know that we really exist? The answer is that we exist through our children. It is finally only because they exist that we know that we truly do.
Edgar Nkosi White is a writer and playwright. He lives between New York, London, and his birthplace Montserrat. His play The Birds of Baghdad will be performed at the Henry Street Playhouse in April.