My Junior Moment
I'm Number Two -- and No Longer Trying Harder
By William R. Mattox Jr.
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page B04
Thanks to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Father's Day card my dad is receiving from me this year bears a rather peculiar John Hancock. It's my signature, mind you. But for the first time in my life, I've signed my formal name -- complete with the Jr. -- on the card I'm giving him today.
If you think this seems rather stiff and impersonal, I used to think so, too -- until I learned about a recent public observation of Norton's. It's an observation that has given me a deeper understanding of the true meaning of fatherhood.
At a recent conference on marriage, Norton recounted a speech she had given at an African American church about the importance of enduring family ties. After being introduced by the minister -- a man named something like Rev. John Jones Jr., as she recalled -- she opened with a provocative line. "I want an America where there are more juniors," she said, referring to the minister's name. "Our community has descended from where we were full of juniors to where black children don't know who their father is, much less get named for their father."
This comment really got my attention. Even though I'm not African American. Or unsure about my father's identity. It got my attention because I've always had a rather sophomoric attitude about being a Junior. I'm not entirely sure why I've felt this way. I mean, if someone were to write a silly song listing all the famous Juniors, it could easily rival Adam Sandler's classic celebration of Jewish Hollywood stars, "The Hanukah Song." Just think who'd be on the Juniors list: great athletes (Cal Ripken Jr., Ken Griffey Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.), great entertainers (Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Hank Williams Jr.), great writers (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William F. Buckley Jr.), the first American in space (Alan Shepard Jr.) and the greatest social reformer of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.).
In case you were wondering, my long-standing squeamishness about being a Junior has nothing to do with a lack of respect for my father -- even though in my youth I had an outlook similar to Mark Twain's. "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around," Twain once said, sounding just like me. "But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
To be honest, my unease about being a Junior probably mirrors that of Al Gore, who confessed in his autobiography that he consciously avoided running for office as "Al Gore Jr." -- his formal name -- because he wanted people to perceive him as his own man.
I don't know what former Gore adviser Naomi Wolf thought of this attitude, but I've come to regard such thinking as more reflective of a "beta male" (a son) than an "alpha male" (a father). When a man names a son after himself, he doesn't know whether that son will grow up to make him proud or bring him shame. He doesn't know whether that boy will grow up to be a Cuba Gooding Jr. (the Oscar-winning actor) or a Dick Smothers Jr. (the porn star who trades on his father's variety-show celebrity).
When a man names a son after himself, he announces to the world that this boy is his own. That he is pleased to claim him. To take responsibility for him. And to have this boy's identity forever linked to his own.
Now, I realize that there are other ways to convey these same messages. And I recognize that naming a boy "Jr." can sometimes seem like an act of paternal vanity -- especially when a father goes overboard in the way that George Foreman has. (The boxer's boys are named George Foreman Jr., George Foreman III, George Foreman IV, George Foreman V and George Foreman VI.)
Still, I think Eleanor Holmes Norton is onto something. I think the nation that author David Blankenhorn calls "Fatherless America" would be a better place if we had more Juniors. Clearly, our society desperately needs more proud papas who enthusiastically take on the responsibilities of fatherhood -- even if they take the rather peculiar approach that one self-described "computer geek" in Michigan took earlier this year when he named his son Jon Blake Cusack 2.0.
So this Father's Day, I've signed my card with my full, formal name, to pay tribute to a man who embraced fatherhood from the get-go. For my father claimed me as his own -- loved me unconditionally -- long before I could ever do anything to make him proud.
But you probably already suspected that. Just by looking at my name.
William R. Mattox Jr. is a Virginia writer and a member of USA Today's board of contributors.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company