A Father’s Day Salute

On February 13, 1996 a very special man passed away in his sleep. He was 80 years old and had lived a very productive and eventful life. Most important, he had been a dedicated husband to his wife of 58 years and was always there for his four children. Some would consider him unique because he was a Black man and many in society will argue that those kind of men don’t exist within the Black culture. We have been conditioned through literature, music and movies to view the Black man as an irresponsible, unfit husband and father. Too often when we think of the Black man, we have visions of Danny Glover’s character, Mister, in The Color Purple or the ingrate men in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. Since McMillan’s publication and movie, there has been a flood of novels about the “Dawg” brothers. Even the Black man playing the role of a policeman was cast as a villain in Training Day. One would be led to believe that good Black men do not exist as husbands, fathers or men.

billwilliamsAs we approach another Father’s Day celebration I want to take issue with the perceptions that have plagued Black men over the years. I want to take issue because the man I described in my opening was my father, Bill Williams.

50thAnniverdary_parentsHe married my mother when he was 22 and she only 17 and they spent their entire life together, and one can surmise at the time of his death they shared a love just as special and beautiful as could be expected.  After my father had passed on, I once asked my mother who she would like to have meet her on the other side. Without hesitation she gave me this look as if to say, “who do you think” and then said, “My husband.” Now that is a love that will transcend time and they will always be united as one. He made my mother feel very special and she did the same for him. He was an excellent husband.

Bill Williams took a very special interest in his children. His advice, at least to me, was always precise and correct. When considering the wisdom that my father shared with me while growing up, I often think of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” My father was not a rich man but he was a wise man. When I reached the age when girls became very important in my life, he told me that, “your lover should also be your best friend.” After many disappointing relationships I finally got it right when I incorporated his advice and now have married for nearly 25 years. He also told me, “Always pay the IRS a little money and never get a large refund.” I learned that lesson the hard way, and now make sure I don’t get a large refund.

He provided his two boys and two girls with a foundation that led to our successes in life. We all learned the importance of a strong work ethic through his example. He would get up early in the morning and often walk to his job at the United States Post Office in Saginaw, Michigan so that my mother would have the car at her convenience during the day. After peddling mail in freezing weather (and anyone who has visited Saginaw in the winter knows just how cold it can get) all day, he came home, took a nap and then went to his second job as a waiter at the Saginaw Country Club. And he never complained in front of his children, because to complain would leave the impression that something might be wrong with work. He was an excellent father.

Bill Williams loved his family, was loyal to his friends and never complained about his life. He was a Black man who grew up when it was very difficult to be black in this country. But he never succumbed to the temptation to use discrimination and bigotry as an excuse for him not to achieve. He was the first Black man to work in the United States Post Office in Saginaw, Michigan. He became a union leader for the letter carriers when he transferred to Pasadena, California in 1957. He never told his children that they had to be twice as good in order to succeed. He simply told us to be the very best I could, and that worked well for me because to believe you have to be twice as good was to give credence to bigotry and prejudice. As his child, I never thought I had to be twice as good because it would admit that we begin from a position of inferiority.  That word did not exist in our household. No one can define your worth as a human being was his message to us. It is the same message that Black fathers over the century have shared with their children and continue to do so today.

Contrary to what many commentators proclaim, the Black father is not a replica of the past. He still exists and for that reason I extend a very heartfelt Happy Father’s Day greeting to all my fellow dad’s, who have been and are still the pillars that hold up our culture. And to my wonderful and fantastic Dad I say on behalf of my siblings and me.


A Black Writer’s Reflection on the Greatest of All Times

The entire world woke up on Saturday morning, June 4 to the troubling news that the King was dead. The People’s Champion, Muhammad Ali, finally succumbed to the crippling Parkinson Disease that had ravished his body for the past thirty years. Instantly and all day long tributes and accolades poured in and were shared over radio and television. There was one particular theme that dominated the responses and that was Ali had become a man of the world; and he belonged to all the people. That is no doubt true, but before he became a hero to all races, he first was a hero to one particular race, Black Americans, especially Black men. Throughout his entire career, his most loyal fan base was the millions of Black men all over this country.

As a peer to the champ, having been born in the same decade, I feel qualified to share with the world what he meant to Black men throughout this country, long before he meant anything to the rest of the world. I don’t mean to slight any other group but he was one of us, and even at the height of his unbelievable career he constantly referred to his closeness with all Black men, not only in the United States but in Africa also. From that very night he defeated Sonny Liston and became the undisputed champion, we claimed him as the greatest long before the rest of the world did the same.

Muhammad Ali after first round knockout of Sonny Liston during World Heavyweight Title fight at St. Dominic's Arena in Lewiston, Maine on 5/25/1965.  (Item # 1001)

When he threw his Olympic Gold Medal in the river because he was refused service in a Louisville restaurant, this country criticized him while we Black men applauded his resolve to not put his own gain above that of the race. When he told the world that he was somebody, he was telling his fellow brothers of color that they also were somebody. When he claimed to be the greatest, his message to us was that we were the greatest, the very best that this country had to offer. We need only believe in ourselves. When he uttered, “If my mind can conceive it. And my heart can believe it. Then I can achieve it,” he was talking to every Black man in this country.

ali_rotatorWhen he decided to join the Nation of Islam and change his name, the rest of the country found that appalling. We Black men didn’t care what religion he claimed as his own or what name he chose to be called. We just knew that he empowered all of us to stand up and fight back, against all the inequities of a system that had robbed us of our own rights, in a country that is much ours as anyone else. He made that point quite clear when he said, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—Black, Confident, Cocky—Get used to me.

While this country was condemning him for his failure to support the Vietnam War, we were praising his courage to stand up to this system, and point out the hypocrisy of expecting Black men to go fight in a war against people “ain’t never called me a n****r.” His stand against that corrupt war cost him the crown of Heavyweight Champion. Bob Arum, a promoter of Ali’s fights during his early career, told a radio station that over 90% of the country opposed Ali because of his refusal to enter the draft. I would venture to write that over 90% of the Black men in this country supported him. To the Black man, he remained the champion because he earned it in the ring, and no one could strip him of that honor. Ultimately the United States Supreme Court vindicated him. But in our hearts and minds vindication was not necessary.  Our position as Black men on the issue was already where others had to catch up.

russell-ali-brown-alcindorA fellow great athlete, Kareem Abdul Jabbar summed up what the champ meant to this country when he responded to his death. He wrote, “Today we bow our heads at the loss of a man who did so much for America. Tomorrow, we will raise our heads again remembering that his bravery, his outspokenness, and his sacrifice for the sake of community and country lives on in the best part of each of us.”

We as Black men bow our head now in reverence to a man we loved and respected from the first time he stepped into the ring to the very last moments of his life. He will always be our champion and an intricate part of our heritage and history far into the future.