*I often hear men and women point to the absence of their fathers as the reason for many of the difficulties in their adult lives. For some, it is valid, but for many, it is simply an excuse.
I say that it is an excuse because in the hood, there have always been households without fathers and the children still found fathering in the village. I know this, because my biological father did not raise me.
No matter how my mother came to be a single mother–the most important story for me was that by the time I was two years old, my mother married a man who became a father to me.
Willie Edward Wise, or “Bill” as we called him, never formally adopted me, but as the most consistent man in my childhood, the papers and the name were unimportant.
He spent the kind of quality time necessary for me to understand what being a man means.
During the week, he was at home with my mother every night. On the weekend, I went to work with him as he dropped off laundry bags to Chinese laundry stores and picked up laundry bags from others. He would carry the huge heavy bags and whenever there was a smaller one, I would trail behind him, putting in the work necessary to earn the pocket change I would receive.
On most Sundays, we would go fishing, with his friends often joining us. I watched and listened as the men would interact, and if I had any questions, any of them would willingly answer honestly and completely.
My lessons in manhood didn’t come from any structured imparting of wisdom, but from the simple observances of male behavior I absorbed as a male child.
I also watched the ways in which Bill and my mother loved each other. They were committed to each other through arguments and in the midst of abject poverty.
They stood by each other in sickness and health, and since there never was a richer, they held on to each other for poorer, which was the most consistent guest in our home. They worked hard and loved hard, giving a great deal of love to each other and to the eight children she brought into the marriage, even though his was mostly rejected by her children.
I never rejected his love, because unlike my siblings, I hadn’t really known my biological father, and because I saw that my mother loved him.
And he loved her, too.
This was my first observation of a man loving a woman. I drew a great deal from the big dark-skinned truck driver who loved my mother, and I carry it with me still, trying to put the good, loving parts of him in front when dealing with females in relationships, while holding on to the harder, stronger parts of him when dealing with friends or business associates.
Bill had always been there for me and when a cancer ripped through his powerful frame, reducing him bit by bit into pieces of the man he once was, my life was also shattered into smaller pieces.
I was only fifteen when Bill died, struggling with the awkwardness and confusion of adolescence and the call of the streets. I was a good student, but without fatherly influence, I began to answer the siren of the cold hard streets of Chicago.
My life was diminishing and could have easily gone down the toilet of life, but I had other “fathers,” including my favorite uncle, James Irving, who had always been a part of my life, and who stepped up after the loss.
In school, two of the teachers were concerned members of the African American Village that we hear so much about.
Sgt. John J. Willis was the Senior Military Instructor for the R.O.T.C. program. He recognized my conversion from honor roll student to discipline problem and stepped in forcefully. He and Willie Horton, the school’s Vice Principal, both took time to deal with me and if there was a discipline problem, they would deal with me directly, sometimes sitting me down to talk, and sometimes putting a foot in my behind.
Sgt. Willis would frequently remove me from a class by force and literally place hands on me to get his point across.
The combination of physical presence in my daily school life and real “tough love,” made a difference. I turned my grades around and began to focus on college. A discipline problem who could have easily fallen through the cracks, I was given “The Most Improved Student” award the next year.
Sgt. Willis and Mr. Horton were substitute fathers to me, and I thank God that they were there when I needed them.
And I thank God for my biological brothers, my fraternity brothers and all of the older Black men who were part of my life during adolescence and emerging adulthood.
I also thank God for Bill, who married my mother and was a huge presence in my life.
I learned the lessons of life required to make it out of the hood. I understand the responsibility of a man to his family and to his community.
I am the man I am today because of decent, kind and concerned men who served as substitute fathers for me in the absence of my biological father.
There have been and will continue to be families without fathers.
There will continue to be more natives of the hood who find progress and prosperity as long as there are substitute fathers.
Darryl James is an award-winning author of the powerful retrospective on the LA Riots, “The Whirlwind or the Storm,” available on Amazon.com as an eBook for Kindle or PCs and as a paperback book. View previous installments of this column at www.bridgecolumn.proboards36.com. Reach James at [email protected].