By Ivory Toldson
But for God’s grace, a lame shot, and the dogged will of my maternal grandfather, I might not exist as I do today. The white fascist, who shot my grandfather after he became the first black man to vote in North Louisiana, tried to kill him, his legacy and his lineage. But the racists failed, he triumphed, and went on to raise my mother, who grew up to be a champion for black reparations. My mother passed the legacy on to me, so in a sense, black power is my birthright. Other ‘would be’ decedents of countless slain heroes are not fortunate enough to exist, and today, the Black community bewails their absence.
My maternal and paternal grandfathers were both activist ministers in North Louisiana. As children, my mother and father picked cotton on faltering plantations, at a time when southern whites were still riding the waves of The Birth of a Nation and exploiting the “but equal” clause in Plessy v. Ferguson. In the 1950’s, my parents lived in terror. My mother’s church was torched and her home threatened because my grandfather led a black voting rights campaign. My father’s brother was kidnapped and arrested by police when he cursed a white teen who cursed him first. Since North Louisiana police officers were notorious for lynching, my paternal grandfather and his brother-in-law armed themselves to defend my uncle’s life. They were prepared to kill or die before idly allowing murderous police to lynch my uncle.
In the 1960’s, my parents met at Southern University at the height of the civil rights movement, and married at the brink of the black power era. It was a time when Black Americans were trying to find meaning in a nation reeling from Hoover’s COINTELPRO, hero assassinations, and the Vietnam War. As conscious and curious African Americans, my parents sympathized with the Nation of Islam while holding steadfast to Christian roots; flirted with name change while honoring their family legacies; and entertained the white-devil notion, while accommodating hippies. Eventually, they had two daughters in 1968 and 1969, and their only mutual son in 1973. My mother and father gave us all ethnic middle names that started with ‘A’ – Adjoa, Azenna, and Achebe.
As a toddler, my father cut a line in the center of my afro, draped me in a little dashiki, and called me by my Nigerian tag, Achebe. My first book was Mari Evans’ (1975), I Look at Me. To this day, I have my original copy from when I was only four years old. On the last page, I colored the flag with red, black and green crayons, and wrote ‘Achebe’ on the page that stated, “It’s nation time!” The same year, my mother documented me telling a preschool-mate that I was from Africa. When the kid challenged me, I told him, “My great, great, great, great, great-grandfather was from Africa, and my great, great, great, great, great-grandmother lived with him.” Apparently, my mother and father’s teachings countered the social vestiges of white supremacy. I keenly remember being proud to be black.
By the time I started the 1st grade, society and my family changed. Divorce was at an all-time high for Black Americans and my parents fit well within the statistic. Also, at the brink of the Reagan 80’s, African tags became passé and the notion of Black Power got lost somewhere between a Jheri-curl and a cardigan sweater. The U.S. political prisoners and the exiles in Cuba got the message, “The revolution is dead,” black scholars took a little slice of Reaganomics, and the poor black community took crumbs, guns and crack.
In elementary school, I began to wonder if my family’s Afrocentric leanings were misinformed and eccentric. I wanted to ‘fit in’ with my peers and adapt to the changing society. My middle name embarrassed me, and the idea of wearing a dashiki to school was laughable. I no longer had the audacity to challenge my peers on our African origin. Instead, I blindly accepted school lessons that taught me to revere racist savages like Columbus and white supremacists like Woodrow Wilson. Also, subconsciously we learned to admire black people with light skin and ‘good hair.’ Although I was too young to articulate my doubts, I often questioned the relevance of having a ‘black identity.’ Ironically, at the time, my father was poised to be an authority on black identity when he wrote, Roots of Soul: The psychology of black expressiveness.
I was in the 4th grade when my father released Roots of Soul. I was proud to see my name in the acknowledgements. He gave me an autographed copy that read, “Son, someday I want you to take the ideas and principles in this book to a new level of scholarship.” At only 9 years old, I could not fully grasp the ‘ideas and principles,’ in the book or conceive of a “new level of scholarship.” However, with chapter titles like, Rock Steady Baby, and the assortment of “Ya Mamma” jokes, the book was a hit at my elementary school. I was proud to have a famous father, although I did not know exactly for what he stood. I loved and adored him as any son would his father, counting and cherishing every minute we spent together. As a child, I wanted to be like my father, although he was a bit of a mystery. Secretly, I feared that one day I would lose him to his ambition.
By the time I entered high school, crack was epidemic in the hood and black-on-black crime was soaring. I went to a predominately black high school with mostly white teachers and an aging principal who was losing control of the school. Many students openly smoked weed and sold drugs on school grounds. After a drug dealer was stabbed to death in front of me, my mother suggested that I use my father’s address to change schools.
My father lived only 15 minutes away from my mother, yet I felt they lived worlds apart. My mother raised me in a working class community, with a moderate level of street crime that rose steadily each year. My father lived in the suburbs among what I considered rich folks. I was comfortable in my father’s home, but I did not feel like a core family member. My father, stepmother, half-sister and half-brother seemed to enjoy a level of extravagance, to which I was not accustomed. They openly accepted me into their world of fine dining, name-brand clothing and family vacations; aspects of life that my mother considered superfluous. Although I enjoyed visiting their world, I usually felt like a misfit.
At the beginning of the 11th grade, I returned to the school that I temporarily abandoned. Trying to make sense of the violence and complacency in my community, I revisited my black power roots. The task was easy, because the modest library in my mother’s home included The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Message to the Black Man, The Isis Papers, and scores of other books to awaken the sleeping black warrior within me. In addition, my mother married Dr. Imari Obadele, the president of a provisional government for “New Africans,” called the Republic of New Africa. Brother Imari was a former political prisoner, who received a Ph.D. from Temple University. He introduced me to grassroots movements and Black Nationalism. His stories of directly confronting the government invigorated me. As a teen with a diminished fear factor and exposure to community violence, I did not want to boycott buses like King; I wanted to take an axe to the oppressor like Nat Turner.
The same year, I became a staff writer, and eventually the editor, of my high school newspaper. I wrote articles on black empowerment that drew controversy and acclaim. My editorial entitled Heed the Word hailed Garveyism, and my article entitled Let’s Get This Party Started advised the ‘thugs’ to stop killing each other and direct their aggression toward the “real enemy.”
At the time, the first Bush was president, conscious rappers started wearing African medallions, and I began listening to Public Enemy and X-clan. I protested our school-sponsored rally for the first gulf-war by wearing a pocket-size American flag upside down on the crotch area of my jeans. Later, my white American history teacher told my class that slavery would be wrong now, but was acceptable for that time. I argued, she scathingly condemned me, and I literally kicked her b**t as she passed my desk. She then sent me to the white assistant principal who gave me a slap on the wrist, told me I was a critical thinker, and advised me to save the debating for college.
Next year, as a senior, my white English teacher rejected my research topic on FBI covert activities against black organizations. I warned her that I had black political connections and would fight her decision. She reluctantly approved my topic and gave me an ‘A’ for my research with no comment. At my high school graduation she ardently gripped my shoulders and told me, “You could be something great, if you’d just get rid of your anger.” I wondered if she ever shared those words with any of my black male classmates who brought weapons to school and fought one another. Why was my anger more menacing than theirs?
To me, my anger was constructive and my mother and stepfather understood. But I never mentioned my anger toward my father – not even to myself. Near the end of my senior year, I only used my last name when I absolutely had to. A part of me wanted to abandon the proverbial ‘slave-name,’ but another part of me wanted to abandon my father. I began to deny my father’s contributions to my development and criticize him for being a ‘buppie.’ I accused him of having a vague, ‘jellyfish’ approach to black empowerment, and believed him to be disengaged from the black community. Notably, I had not yet read Roots of Soul, and discounted his very humble beginnings.
In college, I continued fighting at Louisiana State University. By my sophomore year, I became the Black Culture Committee chair and sparked controversy when I invited a Nation of Islam minister to a meeting. One white student blasted me in an editorial and I blasted back with a ‘mightier’ pen. Later, I received threatening phone calls that were more humorous than scary. My mother became the national co-chair of N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America). When I visited home with a college frat brother, my mother played an anonymous voicemail message that said, “So you n*****s want reparations? How ‘bout I give you some chicken and a piece of cornbread.” My frazzled frat brother clamored, “It feels like we’ve time warped to the 70’s.”
My fraternity brother was implying that the revolution died in the 1970’s, however the revolution pressed on in my home. However, I believed that the revolution had died in my father’s heart, and never really existed in his home. I harbored stereotypes of him from high school, even after he became a more active part of my life in college.
At the time, I was getting to know my father better, but I did not necessarily want to be like him; or whatever I thought he was. But unlike high school, I was not a tough kid roughing a fierce milieu without my father’s guidance. Like it or not, in college, I was riding my father’s coattail, driving his sports car, working in his office and wearing his name. The prevailing image across campus of me being a “daddy’s boy” was unsettling – especially when I posed as a neo-revolutionary. I did not like people believing that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, yet I often entertained ‘campus cuties,’ bidding for a ride in my daddy’s car.
In a sense, I had a split conscious and two dads influencing two different sides of my personality. My revolutionary stepfather guided the part of me that sparked controversy, while my ‘bourgeois’ biological father guided the part of me that cruised campus in a ‘fly whip, picking up chicks.’ In that view, I was trivializing the personas of two very remarkable men who were more similar than different. In time, I realized that I did not know either one of my fathers as well as I thought.
I was a junior in college when I matured into the advanced stages of black identity. I read Roots of Soul, and for the first time I understood it beyond the humorous hooks. It helped me to see the struggle beyond race wars, and delve into my African conscious. Also, I began to see past the fruit of my father’s labor and understand his mission. At the time he was providing psychological services to the poor and underserved. Eventually, he became a father who spurred my African intellect. Undoubtedly, his greatest gift to me was not the sports car.
Notwithstanding many gaps in our relationships, my father attended most of my milestone events. My first time seeing my father and stepfather together at a festive occasion was at my college graduation celebration at the LSU African American Cultural Center. I sat in awe as I watched them casually chat. Only 5 years earlier, I felt void of a real father, but as a college graduate I had two.
Dr. Ivory A. Toldson is an associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and editor-in-chief of “The Journal of Negro Education.”
You can follow him on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ivory.toldson or twitter @Toldson.