In those days, a Black single father was extremely rare — but my father didn’t flinch from the responsibility.
He has been on my mind constantly lately. Like so many Black people in my life, I’m exhausted by the overwhelming number of negative images I see of Black men. Constant and unyielding videos of Black men being shot, sitting on curbs in handcuffs, or their faces smashed into the asphalt.
We rarely see them as regular men. Cooking dinner. Going to work. Just being fathers and loving their children.
And so, I want to tell the story of my own Black dad, a dad who was both exceptional and also very, very regular. He made his mistakes, but he was always there for me when I needed him. He was a man who knew he was different in many ways but never made his daughter feel like anything was abnormal.
My dad, Lawrence Alfred, was born in 1928 in Morrow, a tiny segregated town in Louisiana. He was one of 10 children, all born at home.
For him to leave that little town and go on to gain a PhD in microbiology and work in some of the most prestigious laboratories in the world all while raising me was nothing short of remarkable.
At the same time, it was all so, well, normal. Saturdays were house cleaning and food shopping. Sundays he watched football, while I played with my toys on the floor in front of him. And Sunday nights were dinner, “60 Minutes” and an early bedtime.
To me, that is what a Black father is.
But at the same time, a Black father is a man who cares deeply for his children but lives with fear just a little deeper than most non-Black parents, because there’s more to be afraid of. He’s a dad who pushes his kids to be better, because he knows it will be that much more difficult for them.
And so, when George Floyd’s daughter heartbreakingly declared “My daddy changed the world!” it was a reminder to me of the many ways our Black fathers affect our lives, whether they intend to or not. That they can love strong and fall hard. That we should sing their praises because often no one else will.
My father traveled the world, first as a Merchant Marine and then as a scientist, and I often traveled with him. One year, when I was in kindergarten, we lived in Paris, and I learned to sing songs in French while he worked at the Pasteur Institute. His travel stories sparked my imagination, and I credit them with my desire to become a writer. He would elaborately describe the town where he grew up. He painted pictures in such detail that years later when he took me to the swamp behind the church where he was baptized, it was as if I’d already smelled the thick, musty air, stepped into the warm, murky waters or seen the moss dripping from the trees. His stories became my stories. And I used them to write, paint and even act for a brief time. He understood that I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps, but he never challenged me to do or be anything other than what inspired me and made me happy.
When I became a mother 26 years ago to my son, I read him endless books, told him family stories, re-created worlds with his toys and watched movies with him. I was mothering the way my dad fathered — full force with love and imagination. I believe the way I played with my son as he grew was at least part of the inspiration he drew on to become a visual storyteller using film and photography. Being raised without a mother left me bereft of the comfort that only a mother can give her child, but it also spurred me to embrace my own motherhood, and to heap that lost love onto my son in doses almost too much for him to handle at times.
My father’s imprint was indelible on both me and my son, who called his grandfather Boopah, based on his favorite book as a toddler, "Daddy and Me: A Photo Story of Arthur Ashe and his Daughter Camera,” by Ashe’s wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe. (In that book, Ashe’s daughter called her grandfather Boompah.)
In the same way that Boopah taught me, I taught my son how to love traveling and respect differences of opinions and cultures. I taught him, with the help of Boopah, how to be a proud Black man despite the hardships that come with it. It couldn’t have been easy to be told that a house you’d like to rent is available, until you show up, and they take one look at you and tell you the house has been rented. I watched my dad’s face crumble the day we went from house to house in Nashville, when we’d moved to the city so he could teach at Meharry Medical College.
Despite (or maybe because of) the setbacks and discrimination my father faced, he taught me to stand up to injustice and be proud of myself when I did the right thing, and to question myself when I slipped up and went low. I instilled that in my son.
But, like so many “regular fathers,” my father was not perfect. He had a daughter with his first wife before I was born and he was not present in her life. My sister and I became close after we became mothers, and her daughter and my son are like siblings now. If I look for a silver lining in my father’s faults, it would be he taught me to love, openly, fiercely. And that’s what I’m doing with my sister now.
A few weeks after he died, San Diego State University, where he worked in the College of Sciences as the assistant dean for underrepresented students, asked me if they could have a “Celebration of Life” for him. Of course, I agreed.
What my son and I learned that day from the 30 or so students who traveled to the ceremony was that he was as much a mentor to them as he’d been to us. They told stories about celebrating their wins with him and how he pushed them when they doubted the attainable was possible. One student even told a story about how my father had encouraged her to reach out to Congressman John Lewis to endorse her for a teaching position at a historically Black college in Atlanta.
“Why would John Lewis recommend me? He doesn’t know who I am,” she had said to my dad. My father told her, “Well, he should know who you are because you’re worth knowing.” Today, she’s a professor at Morehouse, and John Lewis wrote a letter to endorse her.
My son and I sat and listened to story after story from Black, Latino and Indigenous students. It struck us how my father had supported them in their studies and well after they’d launched their careers. And what struck us the most was we didn’t know how great his reach was in other people’s lives.
We heard a repeated refrain of how impressed they all were that he had raised a daughter alone and was still able to accomplish and give so much to others — despite and because he was a Black man in America. My father did many wonderful things in his life, but the most important thing he taught me was how to raise my Black son with dignity, vision, empathy and grace.
Whenever I look at my son, I see my father’s influence and love surrounding us both. Not just a Black father, but a father. And that’s what I want this world to recognize now and forever.
Rebekah Sager is a journalist, writer and mother. She’s currently working on a novel.