Father's Day: Dad Was Great

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[Notes From The Frontline]

It's a  glorious, mild Friday, bathed with brilliant sunshine.

There are scores of folks, out and about, along Harlem’s historic byways. Where is everyone off to? Probably not to Sex In The City, like me. It’s showing at the Magic Johnson Theatre. Despite the hype, there’s more city than steamy sex in this picture and no pyrotechnics or inadvertent violence. Happily, with most people still at school or work, deliciously cool, the mini-auditorium is a quarter empty.

What a delightful escape it is, to go from the light, to the dark; entering a magical realm, where life’s greatest motivation is the pursuit of love.

Re-emerging on the animated street, I pass the beleaguered Record Shack, a small Black-owned business on 125th street facing eviction. Exuberantly, a youthful Dianna Ross is telling the world, how she’s “coming out!”

Her anthem moves me. For a few blissful moments, I’m listening to the soundtrack, living the movie that’s my life, in Harlem! It’s all about wonderful people, wistfully striving to be free and in love, dreaming of success and salvation.

There’s only one hitch. Just who’s directing and producing this flick? What do we do, about those who rule the earth, who make so much that most affects us, beyond our control?

Kids get shot and right off, despite the rotten schools, the wrecked economy, an unjust war, a lack of affordable housing or jobs, the real and unrelenting threat of displacement, it’s time, once again, to blame the victim! This is true, even for many Black leaders.

Sunday brought another taste of splendid weather for the magnificent, annual Hamilton Heights house tour in West Harlem. What an eye-opener it is to be able to admire the tremendous effort that some have dedicated to restoring and renovating their houses and apartments. For many participants, never before had they realized, that even in Harlem, such fabulous riches abound.

Just a few freezing weeks ago, asked by three inquisitive, skateboarding kids, “Why are yawl demonstrating?,” protester, Monique Indigo Washington stops chanting and puts down her drum.

Tall, dark, reed-slim and graceful, she hardly seems more than six years or so older than the lanky adolescents addressing her. Certainly, it’s hard to believe it possible, that she has three children, that the oldest is 22. But this is why she’s so patient answering.

One can tell her explanation makes them strain to think. Relating why a combination of rising rents and new government policy are making it harder and harder for Black Harlemites, those who aren’t rich, to stay here, she’s very gentle: “While, for whites," she continues, “they disproportionately have more money than we do. This makes it easier and easier for them to move here, to take our place. Understand?”

When Ms. Washington stops, the trio is quiet, even contemplative. So, she's a little stunned and laughs when one responds to his friends, who evidently have been discussing the implications of a frenzy of condo construction and street rehabbing on their nearby block: “See, I told you that they weren't planting those trees for us!”

How sadly like the “doll test” this simple statement, asserting that government has nothing good, not even trees, to offer Black citizens.

Four and five year-old African Americans, still today, routinely attribute positive traits to white dolls.

Bad behavior, stupidity and ugliness, they insist, characterize a doll, they reluctantly admit; most look like them, the Black doll. Why does being different still cause such shame? What in the world can that vaunted slogan, “Family Values,” mean?

For many, fundamentals, though well within our capabilities, remain incomprehensible. But it’s clearly the security of a good job, a nice place to live, the means of an affordable education and health care for yourself and for your family, that best support, “family values.” These fundamentals are all basic human rights, “liberty and justice for all,” that will ensure that our greatest triumphs are yet to come.

Diversion such as a constitutional amendment, banning gay marriage, won’t educate, feed, shelter or heal a single child.

However unusual, whomever it might consist of, nearly all of us have some sort of family. The giddy quartet who helped to expand our understanding through popular culture, via Sex in the City, appreciate just how expansive the definition of who constitutes our family can be.

Two parents and four sisters, my middle-class, mid-Western family was, definitely conventional enough. Yet, this hardly made it idyllic. I’ve still turned out to be, as flawed a human being, as ever lived. Try as I might, frequently it’s hard to recall my blessings. More readily remembered is what was missing, an early and abiding, yearning for acceptance.

My father, his father and my grandfather’s father, we have all perpetuated a cycle of embattled wills, of mutual disappointment. It’s been difficult to bring this history of hurt to a well deserved end. Helping to speed the process along its way, is a growing appreciation of what an exceptional person my dad, Alexander L. Adams, Jr. is.

Tall, tan and terrifically handsome, friends, first meeting him invariably exclaim, the incredulous rebuke, “that’s your father?" A superlative, born athlete, understandably enough, dad had dreamed that his only son would excel at sports too. If, being privy to the well-known secret, that a couple of his coaches were homosexuals, indicated that being gay, didn’t necessarily preclude being athletic, all the same, my utter disdain of sports must have been a tremendous blow.

Still, one indication of dad’s great qualities, occurred when I was 25. That’s when I finally found the nerve to tell my parents I was gay. They immediately replied, how they’d always known. Then dad added “I hope you realize, knowing this, we don‘t love you any less than we always have.”

A more recent mark of his stature, is a tribute, “To Mr. Adams, With Respect”, by a former student, who now writes for the Herald News of West Patterson New Jersey.

In 1964, when I was eight, dad was hired as the track and cross-country coach at Firestone High School, the richest most elite and best equipped in Akron, Ohio. In 1966, he dropped track, to become head basketball coach.

He’d been a four-letterman at his high school, where he was the first Black to play basketball. Leading his team to successive undefeated seasons, he also became the first Black basketball player at the University of Akron. Yet so meager were the sports scholarships of that era that ultimately it became necessary for dad to enlist in the Air Force so that he could complete college using the GI-Bill.

If his status as a star athlete then, hadn’t quite ordained him an honorary white man, it did open to my father several outstanding opportunities. One was, in addition to being asked to coach at Firestone High, dad was also engaged as the school’s first Black instructor, teaching American history.

Fresh from Utah, Tim Norris was white like 99-percent of his classmates. Besides my dad, he admits to most of them not knowing any other Blacks whatever, back in 1966. The idea of a Black authority figure was especially alien then. How many were even seen on television? Once, as a reference to Mod Squad, a smart-mouthed student called dad “Link”. But what I recall most vividly was an incident from around 1968 or 1969.

My introduction to racial and class integration happened in Junior High School. I’d already met some Whites, but none who were Jewish or rich. Plenty of Black girls were eager to do well in grade school, but I’d never known boys, who were despondent if they got a B, or an A-, instead of an A+

Some of these new schoolmates had older siblings at Firestone. That was how I discovered, during the height of the popularity of the Batman series, that someone had scrawled across the chalk-board in my father’s room. "Mr. Adams Is A 'False Face.'"

What made this charge so electric for me then, was that everyone I knew was enthralled by Batman and its colorful cast of villains. My dad was no villain. Today, the charge seems unfair to the point of being ludicrous. To be a Black athlete, this fit expectations; it was acceptable. Whereas, a Black historian, subdued, educated, articulate and fastidious; that was a different and a disturbing thing altogether.

When the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws, a colleague had challenged dad declaring, “I do not want my daughters to marry a Black man!” His reaction was to state just as adamantly, “I don’t want my son to marry your daughters either. But, who our children choose to love, should be entirely up to them. ”

Considering how I and my second-youngest sister are both gay, he was more correct about that, than he even dared to realize. This though, was hardly the most valiant defense of his children waged by our dad.

Very often it’s our similarities which we find most intolerable in someone else. Many commonalities, shared with my father however, are highly cherished. Avidly, we each love history, beauty, food, literature and language.

We also share a passion for what’s right. Easily as outspoken, as crusading and combative as I am, dad’s greatest gift to his family, was to dutifully, repeatedly internalize his outrage. In order to best accommodate the insecurities and fragile egos of his White superiors, all too often, he bit his tongue.

It’s something I know that’s held me back, something that I and others find it difficult to successfully carry off. But, my proud father and countless other Black fathers, in the past and even now, are employing tactical restraint for the benefit of their families, out of wisdom and love. As much as I might like them, it’s probably fortunate that I don’t have children, motivating such sacrifice.

“Your father changed my life!," Tim Norris stressed chatting on the telephone recently. In his February homage, he discounts the value of dad’s assignments to read selections from James Baldwin or Langston Hughes or his lectures on the Slave Trade and reconstruction. However important these things were, Norris avows that it was exposure to the man, a great man who was also Black, that proved invaluable.

“His greatest lesson, I think was, that real history was not a set of concepts and labels, anymore than a human being is. History, is human experience, individual lives. Lives that were lived--that are being lived. In showing us himself, Mr. Adams invited us in,” Norris noted.

Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and their daughters, Malia and Sasha; now there’s an image of an “All American” family.

“Yhea, and it just might get them killed too! They’re perfect, except for the color of their skin. In this crazy country, that’s what will probably get all of them, blown to bits!," laments feisty, 75-year-old Claudette Law. Crispin Blake McRae also a Bronx resident,disagrees. He maintains, “anyone who runs; anyone who's elected president becomes a target. Look at Reagan and the first President Bush, there were attempts on both of their lives too.”

If both observers have a valid point, it’s common thread is this: given the harshest realities of American history, we’re awfully fortunate to have such a brave and accomplished candidate, a proud Black father, like mine, who knows all about the great strength required for one, to best exercise, when required, judicious restraint.


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