Cleaving From Parents, Embracing Weakness, Heterosexism, Homophobia, Hotepism, Interdependence, Misogynoir, Misogyny, Needing Help, Parenting, Pitt, Respectability Politics, Teaching and Learning, UMUC, Willful Ignorance
There are so many ways to write about the idea that if one is to be a grown-ass adult in this world, it requires, actually requires leaving your mother and/or father and/or any other parents and legal guardians behind. At least, dropping their worldview, their ideologies and disciplines, their ideas about life and relationships, their marital and parenting advice, the loads of abuse, baggage, and bullshit that one learned from spending so much time with them.
Yes, we should all be grateful about whatever good our parents did on our behalf to get us to adulthood and beyond. But that gratefulness should not mean a lifetime’s supply of unquestioning everything that any of us learned from those who raised us. Otherwise, any of us are but carbon copies of imperfect beings at best, total fuckups at world. Yet, somehow, so many of us present our parents to the world as if they are marble statues set on top of alabaster pedestals.
For me, it’s taken 30 years to unlearn much of the lessons and baggage I took on under my parents and legal guardian’s tutelage. My Mom “didn’t take no handouts from no one” and saw labor unions as “them bloodsuckers.” My father Jimme asked about “gettin’ [my] dict wet” from the time I was 14 until I turned 18, and called me a “faggat” everything I told him I didn’t. My idiot late ex-stepfather Maurice/Judah ben Israel talked about “making…men” out of me and Darren. He implored us to “honor thy father and thy mother, that ye may take possession of the land that the Lord thy God hath giveth thee.” Otherwise, he was “gonna whup” our “ass, jus’ like a car burn gas!” So many lessons about manliness, Black hyper-masculinity, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and misogynoir, about religion and child abuse, about working and self-reliance. But so many more lessons around willful ignorance as well.
By the time I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, I figured the simplest thing I could do to break free from the thinking of Mary, Maurice, and Jimme was to “just do the opposite of whatever they would do.” That’s what I would say to myself or think about whenever I had a tough-ish decision to make.
But life was never that simple. Those five days of homelessness I had at the beginning of my second year at Pitt in 1988 proved that I needed to scramble and act, and not just think differently from my parents. The most immediate lesson I learned was about needing help and learning how to ask for it. The bigger and most important lesson that took decades for me to learn was how to embrace asking for help, to not be begrudging about the process, and to be gracious when folks who could and should be helpful are not. I am still learning how to be better at embracing help and being graciousness, because, well, people are involved.
Not so with begrudging, though. We are not all on our own deserted island, each expecting to have to do everything on our own. That’s what capitalists steeped in Western individualism and my Mom would expect me to believe. We all need help, for nearly everything we want to do in life. There’s no shame in it, and there’s nothing but success, humility, being grateful and feeling recognized and loved as a result of this help.
This week is underrated in its significance to my past three decades of living this truth. This is the week my Mom and Maurice broke up for good back in 1989. The date of this year’s Father’s Day (it was a Friday in 1989) will be 30 years since the idiot feverishly packed his bags, stole some towels and frozen meats, and moved out of 616. I saw him as he packed up the last of his gear in a suitcase and an army bag. He looked scared, and looked at me with fear and shame. It was probably the only time in the nearly eleven years we lived in the same space (not counting my two years at Pitt and his separations from my Mom) where he showed how lost a person he was. Between that, and my Mom’s post-marriage spin a few months later about how Maurice had “fooled us all,” and I knew. I absolutely knew, spirit, mind, and body, that I needed to craft my own worldview, my own ideas, my own way to deal with ideology, discipline, parenting, marriage, and so many things much more complicated than putting the right amount of seasoning on my fried chicken.
Over the years, this ultimate lesson of leaving behind most of my Mom’s, Jimme’s, and Maurice ways of thinking, doing, and being in the world has made its way into my teaching and writing. It’s why I uphold no sacred cows, and can literally interrogate and question even the most cherished ideas and people in my classrooms and in my pieces. (And yes, in prayer, in between my hallelujahs and my amens, I even question God.) Which may be also why more than a few of my students might cling harder to the lessons of their parents.
A few years ago, I had a young student in one of my UMUC classes who pushed back on a lecture I gave on de-centering Western Europe from the early modern period in world history while taking a closer look at India, China, and the Ottoman Empire.
“That’s not what my parents taught me,” she said.
“Well, maybe it’s time to realize that not everything your parents taught you is true. It’s been three decades, and I’m still learning to unlearn all the things my parents taught me,” I retorted. Most of my over-24-year-old students nodded in agreement, but the not-quite 20-year-old wasn’t receptive. It showed in her evaluation of me at the end of the course.
My soon-to-be 16-year-old son, thankfully, is learning this lesson now. Although that means he will make tons of mistakes and constantly frustrates my efforts at helping him, it also means he can reach out to me and my spouse when he needs help. Being independent requires acknowledging one’s limits and one’s need for help, community, and interdependence. Learning from whom, at what time, for how much, and how deep one can go in all this is a lifelong journey. But none of it can begin without questioning one’s parent or parents, without cutting bait from their baggage and bullshit. Even if it means that we sometimes screw up in the process.