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By Rosa Cabrera
When the door opened, my grandmother’s arms wound lightly around my torso as she kissed the air beside my cheek, missing the flesh as my mouth landed on droopy, toasted cinnamon skin. Her eyes quickly scanned the distance between us, aiming right before my body. I waited for disapproval. No comments made. My lover followed behind me. I was relieved to see her offer my lover a hug; not pretend I had walked in alone. I walked towards the thinning body of my approaching father. After releasing the embrace between my father and I, he shook my lover’s hand. I watched their grips, wondering whose was tighter. The bones on my father’s hand almost stretched out the skin, color of wet sand, like a tent. My lover’s hand, a soft obsidian, filled with young muscle and flesh, seemed larger.
I was stumbling in love, on that night of my grandmother’s birthday. Although I met him during our undergraduate years, enrolled in Black studies courses, we didn’t actually begin doting on each other until years later. But our exchanges about the intersections of gender and race, and explorations of violence from Franz Fanon’s psychological perspectives, became the soundtrack that slow danced us to falling into some kind of complicated love about 3 years later. In my grandmother’s studio apartment, through my family members, my lover would be introduced to the parts of my life that predated my identity as a Black Feminist. I expected the worse.
My father moved to a chair to make space made on the weathering corduroy couch for us to share with my younger sister. The exchanges were small, each one surprising me. When neither my grandmother or my father could figure out what was wrong with the camera, they asked him for help. When my grandmother had poured wine into glasses, she offered him one. The birthday song was sung together, candles were blown, cake was cut and eaten. There were no deep philosophical or politically charged exchanges between us. I only had to explain to my partner one or two inside jokes between my sister and I about the way my grandmother would silently twitch her nose when she gave up a debate with my father, or the way my father would drop and pick up his cadence in the loud sing-songy way that the men from the right side of our island would do to end an argument with a word or phrase. It almost seemed like we had reached a moment in our familial evolution where it was okay to bring not just a Black man, but a Haitian man into our Dominican family. I felt sort of cheated that my lover hadn’t witnessed enough awkward moments this evening to get a sense of the messy family I fought to realize myself in as a child.
Two days later, my father calls me.
“Hello Giselle. How are you,” he tosses at me through the receiver.
“Listen, I wanna talk to you… My mother don’t want you bringing any Haitian or Jamaican mens to her house again, and neither do I. You understand?”
My ear becomes hot against the phone. I take a small bloody bite against the inside of my cheek. Jamaican mens? My father had been assaulted by the velvety locks I pull to bring the edges of my lover’s lips gently against mine.
“Those people have tried to take my country away from us. You don’t get it. They are a threat to us and my people. You will learn one day.”
I let a long breath force a cooling of the simmering flesh inside me.
Second breath. I’m still on fire.
Even so, I let out,
“Well… I’m sorry you feel that way. You have no idea who he is. You barely even talked to him, and if you did, you coulda seen that he is not your enemy, or mine.”
I wanted to tell him that men that cheat on, stalk, or threaten to kill forgiving wives that dedicate the fertile years of their lives to their husbands have zero authority in judging who is worthy of being an enemy, but a resurfacing pity for his shallow rage made the sentence stop there.
“Ok. Well. I just saying… I don’t. Want. To see him. In my mother house. Again. Ok, bye.”
When I told my partner about the phone call, he lifted his eyes up from the slow, detailed ink marks on the outlines of characters on his sketchbook and responded,
“It’s not the first time,” then continued sketching.
Something in me felt defeated, guilty. My lack of response held a fear of bearing some parts of my father. Parts that I may not be able to ever understand.
I could only guess where those steadfast parts of him come from, what pleasure they ever truly offer him. He is steadfast in his household totalitarianism. Steadfast in the way his voice must keep its place above others in a crowding conversation. Steadfast in his threats to cause my skin to sting and welt if I challenged his words. Steadfast with his body, working it no less than 6 days a week, mostly graveyard, longer than I’ve been alive. Steadfast in his will to survive as a motherless, fatherless, shoeless boy, pressing callouses along the steaming Santo Domingo concrete to shine shoes he couldn’t afford to own. He had fought so steadfast in his life, I think it must suffocate him. I figure there is something more steadfast than he is, that won’t let him walk away from this inescapable fight.
I count up the strikes I have against me. Female. Daughter of immigrant parents. Survivor of domestic violence, sexual manipulation. Queer. I think about the way all of these markers inform each other, intersect. I am told by some self-proclaiming feminists and critical race theoreticians that in more ways than others, I’m nearing the top rung in some form of oppression olympics. But instead, it feels somehow, like I’m losing.
When I gave birth to our son, two years after that phone call, my father didn’t call or visit. He saw the child bearing belly once, at 7 months in. He knew I was close. I didn’t call him when I started feeling my womb rhythmically squeezing in on the life inside me. I didn’t send for him the day my lover and I invited the brand new boy into our apartment in Dyckman. Pity and fury had locked my father to a corner of my mind that didn’t allow me to feel hurt at the fact that he also had not bothered to find or call us.
Five months after his birth, without telling my partner, something causes me to navigate the crowded subway with our son and visit my father at the job he has held for more than 20 years. At the entrance of the apartment building on the border of Harlem and the Upper West Side, he is the lone person wearing a black doorman’s jacket, standing behind two glass doors, waiting. He doesn’t know I’m coming. When he realizes its me, pushing a sleeping baby boy inside a stroller, the translucent reflections of us on the glass doors move open to reveal a strong smile on my father’s face. The smile holds until our arms squeeze around each others’ shoulders. I pull the plastic weather cover over the stroller to expose the sleeping boy. He looks for a few seconds, then walks behind the doorman’s podium. Leaning an elbow beside his paper bagged lunch on the podium, he recounts the years he lived a life with versions of his children as babies.
“No sleep for you, eh?”
“He wake you up a lot, eh?”
“Yea, hungry mostly.”
“He’ll be walking soon.”
“Drive you nuts.”
“Wait till he starts to talk… Alotta questions… you’ll see.”
Something, at some point in our trajectory towards adulthood, causes us to stop asking. I didn’t bring up the phone call, our absence in each other’s lives during my son’s birth, or why I even came. If there was a question I could have asked to make us grapple with the vast space between us without aiming at each other’s hearts, instead of mending them, I don’t know if I could have imagined it. Perhaps he couldn’t either. I can’t tell if he’s tried, is trying. Perhaps we are too stubbornly situated in our notions of freedom, refraining from letting the other’s notion erase our own.
In my imagination, my father’s notion of freedom is a hijacked version. Dominican Republic is a hijacked country. Platanos were hijacked from West Africa. Merengue is a hijacked version of African influenced Palo music. The national narrative of freedom was hijacked from an island of Black soldiers that freed themselves, and is said to belong to the phenotypically Spanish, wealthy cattle ranchers and friends, who later handed the hijacked country back to Spain (the original hijackers), fearing another oncoming wave of Black freedom.
In my imagination, my father’s great grandparents rooted for themselves, the Black soldiers, but those characters never got back to us. The stories are too ambiguous and morphed each time the questions are asked. In my father’s imagination, there are Blacks, and there are Dominicans, and Haitians are Black. In the U.S. imagination, my father is part of the echo of Dominicans that followed those recruited from the island as factory hands during World War II, to work alongside the incoming wave of Black Southerners and Puerto Ricans. In reality, my father is a man with a character that the US, the Dominican Republic, and I continually try to flatten to verify our imaginations.
I can’t rely on the loosely threaded shreds of our imaginations to help me understand how to love you. There’s something about the unresolved pain strung behind your smile that has something to do with who I’ve become, and how I will guide my son’s gaze at the world, at himself. Too many things are at stake. No construction of a nation, version of history, or political resolution will tighten the seams between us. The things that frighten you, those parts of you that you can’t seem to fill, the memories that cause you to tear and wail when nobody is there to measure your manhood, when you’ve forgotten the rules – I need to know them. I can’t accept the slightly polished, unbreakable version of you the world requires you to masquerade. I’m hoping there’s a different kind of freedom that isn’t defined by competing or comparing oppressions, because I can’t seem to really survive you, without seeing you break from the unchecked indignation that steals you away from me, from yourself.
The night that James Baldwin flings a half-full mug of water at a white waitress who refuses to serve him at a restaurant because he is Black, he is rioting against a villain that has no body and is housed in a nation full of bodies. Baldwin, in “Notes of a Native Son,” has to recount this moment, and what witnessing the gestating tension in Harlem does to him, to effectively reflect on the story that is his father’s life. The thing that begins festering in him, steers him toward a recognition of his father that fills him with panic. “He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness now was mine.” His own hand at surviving the life he has been dealt is the window through which he could see more parts of his father than I could recognize in my own.
Baldwin’s descriptions of his father, a preacher, “chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life,” stretch into a depth that reflects a longing for more dimensions of his father than his father was ready to offer. “There was something else in him, buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think– he was very black – with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” There’s something medicinal and sad in these lines. The possibility that an innate beauty, overshadowed by a lifelong battle against a scattered, poisonous fog, could go unnoticed without a witness, self or other, is cause for panic. That James Baldwin is able to find something still and whole beneath the shaking fragments of his father, is cause for hope. I wonder if part of that hidden beauty might be a byproduct of the battle for and against life, or if all of his beauty cannot escape being shaped by the battle. I try to place that kind of beauty in my father’s body, his persona, regretting my inability to dig it out of him instead. I realize that I adhere to a violent rage with so much of myself, that I become blind to even the most illusive beauty entombed within my father.
The challenge James Baldwin faces in seeing his father for the last time, alive, is to take on an act of love that requires an opening wound, an undoing of the attempt to deflate, collapse another’s human layers, an undoing of hate. “I did not want to look on him as a ruin: it was not a ruin I had hated. I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” Only a man with dimension and value, a man with at least latent aspiration, can be looked on as a ruin. I wonder what running from pain, until it was too late to share it with his father, had done to him, and to his father, at the oncoming end of his long hard life. I wonder if my father and I would have to endure some father-daughter version of this. To what extent could we?
I can’t really know what its like to be conditioned to suffer privately. The world seems pretty comfortable with the image of the damsel in distress, although to most people I’m close to, its an insult. So, to be forced to suffer privately I think has something to do with the way Black men respond to guns aimed at them by manic police or their own brothers, being publicly shamed for writing about what they see, the word nigger being delivered with inflicting threat, being pushed out of school, and being told by their mamas that they need to be better at being white than white people themselves, for their own safety. I think Black Southern writer, Kiese Laymon’s decaying emotional checkpoint, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” echoing within him as he strikes back with fists, suicidal dares, or becomes trapped in a blazing instability in the face of these life-threatening moments as described in “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” and Baldwin’s freezing blood before he flings that water filled mug, has something to do with needing to shout back at a world that is threatened by any display of Black boys and Black men bearing pain. When I read the line, “I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America,” I feel like Kiese Laymon takes the gun he has turned on himself, the gun the world has turned on Black boys and men, and instead aims it at that bodiless, aggregating villain that’s been keeping an apartheid wall between the hearts of men I attempt to love, beginning with my father, and my own heart.
James Baldwin and Kiese Laymon offer other Black men and Black boys something that I and nations of people who continue to hold flattened perceptions of them, are failing to do. In a letter to his uncle, “Dear Uncle Jimmy, We Will Never Ever Know I Love You,” Kiese Laymon confesses, “You inspired thousands of paragraphs, hundreds of scenes, but I never even showed you one sentence… I didn’t want you to see that I saw in the real you someone I never wanted to be, a shiftless paroled ‘Nigger’ worthy of only hollow awe or rabid disgust, a smiling ‘Nigger’ who fought a few good rounds before getting his ass whupped fight after fight. I believed that you forfeited your right to be a beautiful black human being, Uncle Jimmy. And predictably I knew that I would become you. I hated you and me for that.” In this bruising examination of his own act in reducing Uncle Jimmy to the parts of him that the US limits itself to seeing, of the realization that his gaze at Uncle Jimmy informs, or perhaps defines, the spaces in which Kiese himself will move about in the world, Kiese scathes at the glitches of terror and remorselessness I see in my father. Baldwin’s reaching descriptions of his father, as well as Kiese’s repentance at perceiving Uncle Jimmy as a Black man that “coped with the weight of a paroled life as a black man in Mississippi by laughing, acting a fool, relying on crack cocaine, alcohol and the manipulation of/by women who were just as hopeless as [Uncle Jimmy],” I think solicits, in an insubordinate way, a collective action among Black men to recognize the dimensions of each other, the depths of themselves, and work toward a transformative love. This kind of writing saves lives.
The Black feminist narrative that keeps me tethered towards an evolving, but really many generations old notion of freedom, tells me that my father is winning. With an ample dose of fair on my skin and the ability to conjure up the force of the anti-racist, Black feminist, and even conventional white feminist traditions that have brutally torn themselves into the averse national narrative of freedom of the country my family migrated to, when I flick my middle finger up at the world in times of distress, I’m losing. I’m near the bottom of the barrel in this competition to prove whose life aches the most and whose heart is severed into the most pieces, trying to pull down my father, and all the men in my life I’ve attempted to love, including the father of my son who I’ve used in this essay only as a passing point of rising action in a plot, because his foot is too quick for my hand. I’ve never been taught, directly or indirectly, that the tears my body produce without effort are a negation of me. I’ve also never been taught how to hold the men I attempt to love accountable for the violent actions they’re both encouraged to enact and scolded for enacting, without being blinded by contempt. The damsel in distress is not insulting because it engages an image of the female as someone needing a man to locate her grounding. What’s insulting is that she is forced to reckon with the fact that the men in her life are punished by the world for revealing their own embodied distress to her, to the world, while expected to save her, at the same time being threatened by their own untended wounds. In my imagination, at its moments of courage, James Baldwin, Kiese Layman, and other Black male artists, writers, and educators whose work speak directly to the hearts of Black boys and men, are guiding me towards a Black Feminism that engages hard questions between the Black female diaspora and our brothers, fathers, sons, and lovers, to help us lose at competing against each other, and win at love.
 The slave-owning Spanish colony of Santo Domingo was toppled by Haitian soldiers in 1821, abolishing slavery on the island of Hispaniola (now shared by Haiti on the West, and Dominican Republic on the East). In 1844, Juan Pablo Duarte, as part of the secret society, La Trinitaria, was backed by Pedro Santana, a wealthy cattle rancher, through the use of his small private army, to take control of the Eastern half of the island. Multiple battles ensued between Santana (who maintained military power), returning Haitian forces attempting to reclaim the land, and other Dominican leaders attempting political rule. Santana seized political control of Dominican Republic, only to offer it back to Spain in 1861 in fear of Haiti’s attempt to seize control of the economically strangled country. This history is more complex than a single footnote can capture.
Rosa Cabrera is an MFA candidate in Mills College’s Creative Writing program, and is a former New York City high school English teacher. She is the founder and facilitator of InkRise, a writing workshop designed for survivors of violence. She blogs at SongInsideTheStone.Blogspot.com.