What my “burn baby burn” generation did not understand was that “fatherhood” is expensive, but real fatherhood costs absolutely everything.
And Daddy paid the price.
The personal cost that my father paid for consistently giving his life to the civil rights movement is equal to the price Madiba, Nelson Mandela paid. While I was grateful for the grand memorial presented at my father’s death, I sat realizing that the host of dignitaries could not know the tremendous personal price my father paid in order to achieve all that he had. The days of his glory, and the insurmountable achievements that he was able to accomplish, despite the Jim Crow and racism were indeed worthy to memorialize and I am grateful that he was recognized and loved.
However, as I think of my first Father’s Day without him, as well as without Mandela, I think of their mechanisms of resilience.
Even while he was imprisoned in Robins Island, Nelson Mandela developed a seemingly mundane schedule. He would arise, complete a set of push-ups, pray, study and write. He did this day after day, then, year after year, then 10 years past … then 20, but he held fast to this schedule.
I realize that my father and Madiba’s greatness came from the daily, methodical life that is hard to reckon in these days of cyberspace and cell phones. Doing the same thing again and again, day after day, setting their faces like flint and refusing … refusing to surrender to the hate or become bitter … refusing to give up, no matter how fiercely the fire lapped at their heels.
As the fires lapped madly at the psyche of young Black girls like myself, our new “fathers” forgot to emphasize the methodical daily sometimes hum-drum and seemingly boring hard work lifestyle that produces the transformation of solid character.
I am 61 years old now. Most of the “burn baby burn” fathers died long before many of our real fathers did, and I am grateful to them; for they too imparted many important gifts to me. However, in retrospect I understand that many of them lacked what I was so blessed with … a father like Matthew Little.
I have never been as broken as I was at my father’s memorial, and if I hadn’t escaped to the ladies room to speak to my spiritual father, Pastor James Broughton, I would not have been able to stand.
My father was my hero, my friend, my personal cheerleader and confidant. He was able to live long enough to see me transition gracefully into my destiny, as a minister and writer, the highlight of which, he was able to hear me at least try to deliver a sermon at his family church in Washington, N.C. The sermon was entitled “The Prodigal Daughter,” which captured my relationship with Daddy. My rebellion took me to places still whispered about – nearly costing me my life on several occasions.
Just as the biblical prodigal returned from rolling around in pig sties and his father embraced him when he came home, took off his ring and threw a banquet, my daddy always celebrated when “I got up,” even though I would fall down again, and again, and again. Yet, each time I got up he embraced me … and called me angel. It was Daddy’s unconditional love for me that demonstrated the grace of God. For he actualized what the role of the father is intended to do, which is to demonstrate the very nature and character of God to his first responsibility – his family.
Before there was religion, God created the father to be a shadow of the heavenly Father and for thousands of years, humanity knew him only as the provider, the judge … even the healer.
By modeling the unconditional love of the spiritual Father, just as my father’s calling me “angel” served as medicine, not only brought me from death to life, his love for me brought me to complete surrender and to the throne of God himself. No father is perfect, but the office of father is divine. I believe that fathers need to be reminded that their roles are far from whimsical.
It is critical to revisit what father means just as I have done. In ministry, I have wept with women with absent fathers, both spiritually and emotionally … addicted women, married women, single mothers … women of all colors, class and status who suffer emotional and spiritual scars from fathers who were absent, or did not represent themselves in their lives “in the office of father.”
From ministering to them I have learned that there is no greater barrier to wholeness than the absence, or a disconnect, from the true love of a father. I am convinced that the fires that burned in the 1960s that elevated the woman from housewife to career woman also blurred the role of the father. When the fires of the 1960s were quenched the culture made the decision to alter the role of father.
“A woman can be both mother and father” to her children I have often heard.
When the women’s liberation movement began to ignite, when the flames died down it was common for women about to have a baby to say they did not want a husband for their child.
“I want to have this child on my own. I do not need a husband,” I heard said more than once – not giving consideration that this decision was denying the child access to his or her father. There was an invisible castration of the Black man and the effects are seen in the behaviors of children of all colors.
Just as the father’s sperm has the authority to impregnate the egg, public opinion lacks the ability to change the fact that this designation goes to the father and him alone.
It’s not an accident that it was my father’s love that began the process of bringing me from death to life.
I believe that God rewarded my father’s faithfulness. Toward the end of his life he remarried Lucille Bryant (Little) who shared his love of tennis and travel. Together they traveled to more than 20 countries, and competed in the Senior Olympics. He was redeemed in his family and community as eventually the fires were quenched and many of the “burn baby burn” brothers disappeared.
I was so blessed to have Matthew Little as my Daddy, but I also have an array of “fathers” who speak into my life, encourage and counsel me. Fathers like my former employer, Al McFarlane, Congressman Keith Ellison – my former attorney, Pastor Arthur Rouner, and my pastor, James Broughton. I think of fathers such as Gov. Mark Dayton who helped finance my first trip to South Africa or Peter Hayden, my uncles Bud and George Booker, Sam Grant, Sr., who all nurtured the seed that my Daddy had planted but laid dormant needing only watering not for me alone, but for those who perhaps never had the love of a father. For in my wholeness I can be used in their lives and can now empty out myself by calling the unlovable “angel” just as Daddy did.
Azaniah Little lives in Seattle. She works as a freelance writer, minister and consultant, and is currently seeking publication for her first book, “Purpose for Your Pain…”
She is the proud mother of Namibia Little who lives in Minneapolis.