The Big Disconnect

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I knew I had said something wrong because my moms, who was never without words, was silent. She was washing dishes with her back to me. Then she turned around and, after drying off her hands, answered my question. I don't remember what her face looked like as she spoke. I don't remember her exact words either. I just knew that the information she shared that day completely flipped my world.

She told me that the reason I didn't look like Stan or my brothers was because Stan was not my father. Stan was my stepfather. She went on to explain that my real father was a man named Bill Mitchell who lived in Sacramento and was a professor at the university there. I don't remember much else, because my eleven-year-old world just stopped. Suddenly so many things were clear to me. I understood why I could not relate at all to Stan at times. I understood why I was so different. This information was as freeing as it was devastating.

Later, all of the questions would come: "What's he like? Where's he from? Why did he leave? When did he leave? Why hasn't he contacted me? What does he look like? When can I meet him?"

Many of my questions would be answered, although I never have found out why my dad never tried to see me growing up.

Eventually I did meet my biological pops. We teetered on and off in our attempt at a relationship, and we have only recently begun to have a consistent relationship. By now I have forgiven him for his absence in my life, which I've come to learn wasn't entirely his fault. I have outlived my adolescent anger and my young-adult fury. I just don't expect anything from him as a father. I only know that I want my children to know him, because he's a cool and interesting person, not to mention their granddaddy. It is also important to me that they have the piece of the puzzle that I had missed. In not growing up with my father, I never met his parents or his grandparents. I decided that would end with me. So my pops and I reconnected and began again.

When I was a kid, growing up without a dad was the norm. Yeah I had a stepdad, but he left my mom while my brothers were still young. Since I had my differences with him, it really didn't bother me too much. But his leaving really devastated my brothers. If nothing else, my stepdad's leaving only made me and my brothers more like all the other kids around the way. Almost nobody we grew up with lived with their fathers. A lot of kids had never even met theirs. It was just like that. For a long time I thought it was unique to Oakland. I would find out later just how wrong I was.

At college, I discovered that many of my black peers had the same experience. Years later, in a Generation X Bible study, my wife and I connected with several black young adults who, like us, grew up without fathers in the home. We were a group of fifty or sixty black twenty-to-twenty-eight-year-olds, and most of us either didn't know our dads or didn't have relationships with them. We all wanted to know what had happened. How was it possible that an entire generation of black men just checked out? Some dads left for other women. Some left in a fury. Some just walked out the door and never came back.

As I got older and worked with more and more black men my age, I found that most of us had the same story. It was rare to find a brother in my generation whose pops had stayed. Of the few I have met whose dads were home, only two can say that their dads were really present. That is, they did all the Brady Bunch stuff dads are supposed to do with their sons, like camping, hiking, attending their Little League practices, going to their football games, listening to music with them, teaching them the facts of life. The rest of us were left on our own, or, to borrow a phrase I've heard Bishop Eddie Long from Newbirth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta use, we were "scratch babies." We had to learn everything from scratch. We didn't have the benefit of positive male role models who would pour into us their wisdom about finances, women, politics, the arts. We pretty much had to come up with those things on our own.

One of the things that was uniquely our own was hip-hop. My generation was in grammar school and junior high when we first heard those mesmerizing beats and fluid lyrics. We embraced the sound, invented the culture, and developed it into what it is now. Of course, it is ever evolving, but its roots live in us. Like many young men my age without fathers, I lost myself in hip-hop. I found myself in hip-hop. I ate, slept, and breathed it. And the fact that men my father's age hated it made it that much sweeter to me. At last I had something that was all my own, created by men I could relate to. And in those lyrics I learned pretty much all that I wanted to know about gettin' paid, gettin' laid, and becoming a man (such as it was). I found my own gospel. I found my own code that came complete with its own community of fellow believers.

Like I said in an earlier chapter, my parents' generation hated all things hip-hop. They criticized our clothes, our hair, our morals, and our music. I can't even tell you how many times I have heard rap referred to as "nigga mess." Truthfully, the fact that "grownups" disliked it didn't bother me as much as the fact that they refused to respect it. And of course, being black, they were and continue to be very vocal about it.

Hip-hop—and rap music in particular—has many worthwhile qualities. Those of us who love it recognize it for the art form that it is. Oral tradition has always been prevalent in African culture and in the slave culture that eventually gave birth to African-Americans. That a younger generation would pick up on this historic thread and thrive from it shouldn't surprise anyone. I've heard ignorant people say that anyone can rap. BS. It takes a lot of skill and polish to become a good rap artist. And more important, you've got to have a story to tell. Sure, lots of cats rap about shallow things, like having sex all the time, making a lot of money, and doin' a lot of shootin', but even to do that requires skill. And that's one thing that the hip-hop community never lets slide. If you get dap from the rap community, you must be a'ight. Hip-hop heads can spot a fake a mile away. And once outed, the perp gets no love. Folks who appreciate the genre recognize the prowess required to excel. That's why, when critics slam it as degenerate noise, they get no ear from us. And that's not to say that hip-hop deserves no criticism— it does have its flaws. But heads won't listen to critics of it once they find out that they have no respect for the art form or its origins.

That attitude toward hip-hop's critics transfers readily to baby boomers and to their predecessors as well. Gen X's attitude toward the Old Guard is basically "F-you, then! If you can't respect us, then bump you. We got this!" Hip-hop is so ingrained in us that it's difficult to separate us from it. So to dismiss it is to ignore us. This attitude, coupled with the sad fact that so many of hip-hop's first children—Gen Xers—grew up without fathers and have little experience relating positively to older black men, lays the groundwork for what I refer to as "the big disconnect." I lived most of my life without any real input from any older man whom I respected. Honestly, that would have never really been a problem until I got saved and started going to church. In my usual day-to-day, I didn't deal with any older cats, except maybe in traffic or at the grocery store. On my job there were a few, but they were very far removed and left the office upkeep to me and my peers. I didn't have any friends who had fathers that I could kick it with. I didn't go to any clubs where older men hung out. I didn't play any sports, like golf, where I'd run into any of them. So my life was pretty much free of the older black man. And you know what? That was cool with me. I had met only one whom I actually liked and enjoyed spending time with. He is my wife's uncle on her mother's side. He's all the things that an older man should be. Uncle Arthur is solid, easygoing, an intellectual, a gentleman, a professional, an engaging conversationalist, and a really good listener. In short, he's mad cool. After meeting him for the first time, I thought to myself, I'm sitting at dinner with Cliff Huxtable! He wasn't the last really cool older black man I would ever meet, but he was one of the first. And the sad part is, I didn't meet him until I was already twenty-six.

So anyway, I didn't have no love for the older black man. But like I said, that didn't matter. Even at church for the first seven or eight years I was there, I didn't really have to get to know any of them. My new-members class was taught by a young cat. My ministry of choice was Generation X. And once I began to serve, both my wife and I became active in ... you guessed it, youth ministry. Teenage boys and young-adult males are still my favorite group to kick it with. They are hardheaded, but blunt and transparent. I appreciate that. So everything was going fine until the associate pastor at my church asked/demanded that I become a deacon. It sounded kind of stuffy to me. But I respected him, and, truth be told, I was honored. So I began the yearlong process of qualification. I didn't even know how much doo-doo I was in for. Truthfully, the process wasn't that grueling. It was kind of like pledging a frat. But the focus was more on becoming and living out servitude as Jesus did. It was humbling, but I didn't really have a problem with that either. My problems began once I passed the yearlong qualification process and became a deacon. Most of the men who went through the process—there were about twenty of us—were in our twenties and thirties. The majority of the deacons, however, were well into, if not past, their fifties. In a way I felt like I had been duped. I went through the process with men my age, but then had to integrate myself with a group of men who were old enough to be my father or grandfather. Not good.

If my group was less than excited, the older deacons weren't feeling us either. I quickly learned that there was no love lost between them and us. And that a group of them wasn't really feelin' the associate pastor who was the one who made the appointments for the group. They referred to him as a "young cat." (Mind you, he was in his late thirties and conservative by most standards.) Here we were in our cornrows, baggy jeans, Phat Farm gear, brandishing chains, pierced ears, and tatted arms and backs. Some hated us, and they showed it. With the exception of a few, none of them ever called me by my name. A lot of them behaved as though we younger dudes were there to serve them, instead of us all working together to serve the church. They resented any improvements to the ministry we suggested, balked at any ideas we submitted, and talked around us at meetings. Not one to stay where I wasn't wanted, I came very close to quitting. But for the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the support of my wife and encouragement from the associate pastor, I would have. I came to realize that, as a group, I hated older black men. I hated the way they looked at men my age with distaste and suspicion. I hated the way they referenced us—usually as thugs and punks (unless we came suited and booted). I hated the way they refused to acknowledge us as men. I hated the fact that they treated us the same way whites treated them back in the days of segregation. I thought they, of all people, should know better.

My wife witnessed my ordeal serving as a deacon and began to pray fervently for me. One night she sat me down and shared with me some insights she had. I wasn't in the mood to listen to what a jerk I was being. I didn't want to hear about what a big baby I was, but her persistance got my focus off myself. She believed that she had some understanding of why our generation experienced so much static with our parents and their kind. She reminded me of a report we had both watched on the Discovery Channel. Apparently, somewhere on a plain in Africa, there was a herd of wild adolescent bull elephants who had been put down because they were killing rhinos. The report said that the behavior was highly uncharacteristic of bull elephants, which were usually more peaceful and definitely not killers. The researchers on the project came to the conclusion that the problem with this particular herd was that all of the older males had been prematurely killed by poachers. Therefore the young male elephants had no one to teach them how to act like elephants. In lieu of role models, they had simply gone wild. My wife drew the conclusion that lots of men in my generation (at least those in our church) had grown up without the influence of a father, so like me, they had pieced together role models from different examples, real or imagined (like superheroes) and arrived at their own brand of manhood. It wasn't necessarily wrong, but it was nothing like the men our fathers predicated themselves upon, so they simply couldn't relate to us, and we couldn't relate to them.

Then she made it personal. She concluded that because of my own anger toward my absent father and my intense dislike for my stepfather, I was working at a dual disadvantage. Those older deacons at church embodied everything that I was sure represented my father and my stepfather. She concluded that I wasn't open to trusting or liking any of them in the first place, so when they began to behave their age, I could offer no grace. She ended with her usual, "That's all I have to say."

In retrospect, I understand that she was telling me in a really nice way that I was handicapped when it came to relating to older black men. I wasn't sure I fully agreed with her then; nor am I sure now. But I have gotten to a place where I've been able to forgive both my father and my stepfather. And I do have a couple of older black men in my life whom I consider friends. I've come a long way, but I do admit I'm a work in progress. My relationships with older black men don't come easily. I wonder how many other dudes out there are like me: can't relate, don't want to and don't care. Truthfully, I can't say that I don't care. I understand that I am deeply indebted to every generation that came before me. At the time of this writing, the Civil Rights Act is barely approaching sixty years old. I remember that every time I vote. My children attend a predominantly white Christian school. I think about my mother and my mother-in-law, who never attended anything but all-black institutions—and not by choice. I sometimes think about what life must have been like for those first Africans who were taken from their homeland and forced into the most brutal form of slavery the world has ever known. I think about it so often that I actually wrote a screenplay about it with my wife. Am I, as Maya Angelou boasts, their hope and their dream? Would they be proud of me? Would they be proud of men like me? Would they understand and approve of the former crack dealers-turned-rap stars-turned-business moguls, like the late Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, or 50 Cent? Or would they view them as thugs and punks, like so many older African-Americans do today? Honestly, I don't know.

What I would most like from older black Americans, especially those who lived through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, is for them to remember that my generation and all the ones that follow are simply exercising the freedoms for which they fought so hard. They fought against racism in America so that Sean "P. Diddy" Combs could own and operate his own record label, signing and developing the acts he likes best. They suffered beatings at the hands of white mobs so that Russell Simmons could own his own credit card company. They labored against oppression so that Jay-Z could buy the New Jersey Nets. I wish they could see that my generation embodies the freedom—economic and social freedom—that they strove so hard to secure.

We're not supposed to do our thing their way. We're supposed to do it like we do it. Our way isn't necessarily bad. In most cases it's just different. Besides, our stories are what they are because of what the generation before us either did or didn't do. Without a drug-addicted, absent father, Sean Carter would not be the man he is today. Without the mother who was shot to death in the street and who dealt drugs before him, 50 Cent's story would be very different. Our way of doing what we do, the stories that we tell, aren't necessarily new, but our response to them is uniquely our own. We embody the legacy left to us by the generations before us. So though our choices may not meet with the approval of the old guard, we didn't create ourselves in a vacuum. We draw from our experiences with or without fathers; we draw from the places in which we grew up (affluent or otherwise); we use the education we acquired (whether from the street or from university) to become the generation of forward-thinking men and women we are. In many ways we are but an extension of those who have come before us. It would be nice if older, more conservative folks would just recognize. We can't make older generations respect us, but it sure would be nice if they did.

At the same time, what I wish my generation and all those after it would acknowledge is that by virtue of the fact that they are still here, our elders deserve our respect. That doesn't mean that we have to agree with everything they say or do or how they do or say it. In the same way that we want them to respect how we do it, we gotta make the effort to understand the "why" behind their "how." We should learn from our elders, both from their failures and from their triumphs. Maybe they weren't around to set an example, but their absence can serve as a lesson to us who are now fathers ourselves: We know what not to do. Some of the best dads in my age group are the ones who were raised by their single moms. My wife maintains that most of the men she knows who were brought up as I was have no difficulty respecting women's abilities at home or in the workplace. She maintains that when you grow up watching your mother work (sometimes multiple jobs), pay bills, nurse cuts, attend football games, and drive you to school dances, all by herself, it's hard to think of women as inferior to men.

But those who have come before us can offer us sage advice, and we can draw knowledge from the situations our fathers left us in. Those still living have wisdom unequaled by any of our peers. Sure, there are some fools among them, but if you watch long enough, you can even learn from a fool. People my age and younger need to humble ourselves, sit at the feet of our elders, and give them the courtesy of our ears. They have so much to say. And so much of it is good. Doing so will not only help us better understand them, but ourselves as well.

As difficult as the road has been, my attitude toward older black men has changed a lot. I can say without hesitation that every positive change has come as a result of embracing Christ. Naturally the church should be the one place where old and young come together in harmony to embrace Christ. That should be the case, but the biggest problem with the church is that it's full of people! And people are stubborn. The best any of us can do is to let God's Word truly penetrate our hearts until it affects the way we think and then the way we act. That takes time. Still, I am hopeful because I am not the same man I was ten or even five years ago. And I know that as long as I stay in God's Word, I'll only continue to improve.

Much of my deliverance came when I realized that as jacked-up as my dad's absence was and as mean as I found my stepfather to be, none of it could have happened without God's permission. I learned that not one thing happens in this entire universe and beyond that God does not control. Although He does not enjoy letting "bad" things happen to us, He allows them. And here's the hard part: They are always ultimately good (Romans 8:28). I know that sounds like BS, but it's true. Anything bad that has ever happened to you or me is for our good. How we respond to it is the key. God wants us to come to Him in all situations. Nothing is too small. Nothing is too big. He cares deeply about everything. That doesn't mean that when disaster strikes He expects us to jump for joy and remain unaffected. But He does want to get us to a point where we know enough about Him to trust that whatever He's letting happen is a good thing, even if we can't possibly see how that's true.

The best example I have from my own life was the time I had to take my then-three-year-old son for his immunization shots. When he was an infant it was no big deal, because before he understood what was happening, the doctor had stuck him and we were out. But by three he had developed a healthy fear of needles and people in white coats. This time, when he realized what was happening, he ran into my arms. I embraced him. Then I held him fast while the nurse stuck him. The look of confusion and pain in his eyes nearly made me cry. He was sure I had betrayed him. He had run to me for protection, and I had not just allowed the nurse to hurt him, but I held him down while she did it. I knew he was mad at me, because it took him a while after we got home before he would hug me. He let my wife hug him and pick him up, but not me. The worst part was that I had no way to explain to him that I did what I did because I love him. I knew that the pinprick of an inoculation was nothing compared to contracting smallpox (or whatever he got vaccinated against that day). I couldn't make him understand. So I just had to let him be mad at me in his three-year-old way until it passed. We're the same way with God. Like children, when bad things happen we whine, "Why me?" "What did I do to deserve this?" or in my case, "Why did he have to be my jackleg daddy?" "It's not fair!" we cry. "I deserve better than this!" we complain. Like a loving parent, when we're hurt, confused, angry, disappointed, weary, exasperated, God wants nothing more than for us to come to Him with our problems. He invites us time and time again in Scripture to pour out our hearts to Him. If we take every injury to Him, not only does He promise to do something about it, He promises to do what's best for us. He delivers rest, comfort, peace, and joy . . . sometimes in the least expected ways. Unlike me in my situation with my son, God has no trouble showing us the purpose behind His actions (or seeming nonactions). He will help us to understand inasmuch as it's possible for us to do so, if we go to Him. If we ask, He even promises to tell us how to proceed (James 1:5)!

I know a Bible-study leader who maintains that all the answers to every question we have can be found in God's character. In the same way I know my wife well enough to know if what someone says about her is true or not, I know enough about God to know that whatever the circumstances look like, He's going to be true to His nature. If a man came to me and said, "Your wife was trying to holla at me," I'd know from jump that was a lie or ol' boy was drunk, because my wife (don't take this wrong, honey) is not a "friendly" person—especially where men are concerned. She refers to her disposition as politely distant. I would say that where men are concerned, she borders on unapproachable. That's just how she is. That's how she's been since the day we started dating exclusively. And she has only grown less approachable in the years since we've been married.

In the same way, when disaster strikes and I'm tempted to think that God must not love me, or that He is just incapable of changing my situation, I purposely recall His past behavior in seemingly dim situations. I remember how He has never failed me, even when I had given up on Him. I read His word and reiterate His promises until I am convinced that He's working out His good plans for me. I talk with other believers who have weathered storms, some of them with me. And in recalling what He has done for me in the past, the promises He has made in His Word, and the revelation of His character both in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ, I basically stop trippin'.

But don't think I came out of the box like that. It took some time and really crazy situations to get my attention. But once I understood that God caused all things to work together for my good, it wasn't long before I had to address the issue of my pops. Why would God give me a dad who bailed? Why would He give me a stepfather I couldn't understand? Why would I live in such a grimy town, under such poor circumstances that hustling would prove to be the best available option? I went to God with my questions, and I stayed in my Word and in His face until I was satisfied. Let me say on the front end, I didn't get no big voice like Moses did. I got no literal flashing signs coming down from heaven with explanations. No angelic hosts delivered me any messages etched in stone. I didn't get any of that. What I did get was the counsel of wise older men who showed me based on Scripture what grand, amazing plans God had for me (Jeremiah 28:11). Those who came before me may not have known or cared what God had to say, but that was on them. What would become of me was entirely dependent upon my response to the Lord. I won't bore you with the details, the revelations, the insights the Holy Spirit hipped me to. But suffice to say that by the end, I understood that I needed just as much mercy as anybody for the crap I had done and would do in the future.

In recognizing my own need for mercy and forgiveness and the fact that God freely gave it, I realized I wasn't in a position to withhold it from anyone else, no matter what the transgression. That was the first part. The second part came a li'l bit later and is still coming. On this side of thirty-five, I now understand how God has used every single adversity I have ever experienced to shape me into the man I am today. Many of them I wouldn't have chosen for myself. But on this side, I'm glad I went through them. And the best part is, I was never alone. Looking back at some really dangerous, potentially life-threatening situations, I see how He protected me from stuff I didn't even know I needed protecting from at the time. I know now He spared me for a reason and has used every disadvantage to my advantage. He's so bomb, He even used the stupid stuff I inflicted upon myself to make me a better man. Part of the reason I appreciate my wife so much is because of all the to'-up females I used in my past. I wouldn't recommend that method in order to find your wife, but that's where I was, so that's what He used. My penchant for hustling in illegal realms has translated into an incredible head for business and a sound business ethic in legitimate circles. Those are just two examples. Trust me; my life is full of them. But all that to say, God knew. Just as the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 139, before one day of my life was lived, it was already written down in God's book. That's true of the good times as well as of the bad. He's got me and He's got you, too.

So how does this relate to the big disconnect? Well, my generation and the ones before may never see eye-to-eye. What's done is done. My dad will never be able to go back to my childhood years and be a parent to me. I'm not thrilled about it, but I can live with it. What I can do is to make sure that the curse of absent fathers ends with me. God willing, none of my children will never ever know what life is like without their "papi" actively involved in their lives on the most personal and intimate level. On a larger scale, I refuse to dismiss manhood because it doesn't come in the form I've become accustomed to. I am determined never to put down the products of a generation or culture purely on the basis of personal taste. I reserve the right to fail to agree, to object on biblical merit, and to simply dislike, but I will always seek to understand and to connect first. Unlike many of the men of the generations before me, before making "withdrawals" of criticism and scorn, I will invest time, patience, and energy—so that never will there be another herd of wild bull elephants destroying the countryside. Not on my watch, anyway.

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