by Reagan Jackson, Derrick Wheeler-Smith, and Gregory Davis
In honor of Father’s Day, three community members share reflections on fatherhood.
A Father’s Day Reflection: Tribute to Gene Jackson
by Reagan Jackson
For most of my childhood, our official song was “Just the Two of Us” — the Bill Withers version, not to be confused with the Will Smith cover. I liked that my dad and I had a theme song. My parents divorced when I was two and so my life until the age of 18 was spent alternating homes between Denver, Colorado and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and later Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, between summers and school years, weekends, and holidays. Any time our song came on the radio when we weren’t together I would think of him with nostalgia for our shared summers of grill smoke, bike riding, and diving for pennies in his apartment complex pool.
One of our favorite things to do is to take a road trip. We would often leave in the middle of the night at a time my dad called 0 dark thirty. He never set an alarm, just woke up on his own. Bleary eyed, I would recline in the passenger seat, place a pillow beside the window and bury myself in a blanket, the soothing roll of the highway lulling me back to sleep. I would wake up in another state in time to nosh on Burger King French toast sticks and boxed orange juice. Dad kept a purple felt crown royal sack full of coins and I would be tasked with counting out forty cents for the tolls in Illinois and Indiana and finding decent music on the radio. Though we did a lot of singing. I learned an entire canon of Ray Charles songs interspersed with Oscar Brown Junior and the occasional Kahlil Gibran poem. And there were stories and jokes. On these trips, with a highway stretched out before us, were where we came to really know one another.
We have family in Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia. Elementary school road trips were one continuous game of slug bug. Sometimes we would stop in Indianapolis to visit my godfather Mr. McClure. James McClure was my father’s sixth grade teacher, a short, dark-skinned man with a close-cut silver fade and matching well-trimmed beard. He told stories about the unruly boy my dad had been. He was the one to introduce my father to the Episcopal church. Dad was never a good Baptist, said he didn’t have the clothes for it — they were too poor to dress well for church and Black people would talk about you. The Episcopal church was the first place he ever visited that was integrated.
“I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to be a part of it,” he always says when telling the story. Having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the segregated south, Black and white people sitting in the same pews and drinking from the same chalice was something he had internalized as illegal. No matter what city or state we were in, Sunday morning would find us in the pews of a St. Andrews, St. Johns, St. Michaels, or Grace Episcopal Church.
Whether in church or not, Dad and God have a lot of conversations. And he has never stopped being that rebel sixth grader who wanted to participate in a world where people with different skin colors could sit side by side in peace with neither being diminished or harmed. What began in church continued in the streets. My dad became an activist and was active in the Black Panthers as well as in the American Indian Movement. He also protested to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.
When I was in the second grade, he started a construction business. He even let me name it. I was very into Unicorns, so it was called Unicorn Designs. It didn’t go so well, but Dad is not a quitter, so the second version of the business was called Golden Unicorn (“because this time we’re going golden,” he would say).
Through his work he was offered the opportunity to co-create a program for the state of Iowa that would make a pathway for other small minority-owned and women-owned businesses. This is where he found his true passion. He saw the inequitable distribution of wealth and job opportunities in construction and created a sheltered market program to help BIPOC- and women-owned companies gain the skills they needed to bid projects and the opportunities to work on State and City projects usually monopolized by large, white-owned businesses. His own experience as a business owner helped him to understand the pressure and challenges that small business owners experience and gave him the ability to help them avoid critical and costly errors through mentorship and support.
When I graduated high school and moved to Seattle for college, my dad waited a year before uprooting his life and moving to Portland to be closer to me. Mom joked that if I moved to the moon he’d be there six months later. When I moved to Spain and later Japan, he didn’t relocate, but he certainly did come to visit.
Though I’m an only child, my dad has been a surrogate father for many who have lost their fathers or whose fathers didn’t have the capacity to be there for them. Before his work in construction and equity programs, he used his degree in criminology to work with youth in juvenile detention and group homes. Even after changing careers, he continued to be a mentor.
I’ve learned so much from him — not just from what he has told me but from how he lives his life. He is kind to everyone and always leaves a big tip for wait staff. He is one of the few male feminists I know and is a champion for equal rights. He doesn’t usually come out swinging, but he never backs down from a fight. If he makes a mistake he apologizes and does what he can to repair the damage. He works hard but also plays hard. We Jacksons laugh long and sing out loud and when things get hard we ask God for strength and take naps until we feel better enough to continue.
My dad is the strongest person I know. Not only can he do hella pull ups from being a lifelong gym rat and being obsessed with Dr. Oz, but he has a mental fortitude that moves mountains. Despite all the hardships he’s experienced, he has the audacity to be consistently marvelous, to smile, to laugh, and to somehow remain unbothered. Earlier this year he had some health issues that have resulted in him not being able to walk. One day he had a doctor’s appointment and the elevator in his apartment was broken. Rather than reschedule, he hopped out of his wheelchair and crawled down a flight of stairs to get to his car, then went on about his business. When I asked him about it, he just said “Hammer, I’ve been Black a long time,” which is shorthand for, shit is never easy, but I will figure it out. His strength gives me strength. His courage and integrity have been my north star. But what I love most is how beautifully human he is, imperfect, complex, but always there for me and always striving to be his best.
I remember taking an astronomy class in college and learning about twin stars; stars created from the same dust that spend their lives forever orbiting one another like soulmates. Maybe that is the best way to describe who he is to me and what our lives are like. He is my kindred, someone who understands me better than I understand myself and who has been a steadfast and consistent presence of love in my life since he cut my umbilical cord. I’ve always known that our relationship is special, but it took me a while to understand precisely how unique it is to be best friends with your dad.
Reagan Jackson is a multi-genre writer, activist, artist, podcaster, and international educator with an abiding love of justice, spirituality, and creating community. She is an award winning journalist and columnist for the Seattle Globalist. Her other published works include three collections of poetry: God, Hair, Love, and America, Love and Guatemala, and Summoning Unicorns and two children’s book Coco LaSwish A Fish From A Different Rainbow and Coco LaSwish: When Rainbows Go Blue, and Still Here A Southend Mixtape from an Unexpected Journalist. Find out more at http://www.reaganjackson.com. Instagram @rejjarts
A Father’s Day Reflection: What Matters Most
by Derrick Wheeler-Smith
Being a father to my three children is both a gift and an honor. Raising them is the most important thing I will ever do. Being present, showing each of them love without reservation, is not something I do absent-mindedly or half-heartedly. I am not perfect. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that my best will be sufficient.
Looking back, this burning passion and desire was birthed during my early years. I experienced the pain of rejection and abandonment from my father not being present in early childhood. I never wanted to be the reason a child ever feels the impact of that kind of loss. Because of that experience, being absent is not an option for me.
An important part of my journey as a son and father has been doing the work needed to heal from my trauma associated with rejection and abandonment. I’m consciously overcoming the unhealthy need to be in control and fearing that opening myself up will give others power to hurt me. Getting in touch with my emotions that were often masked in anger continues to be important. I’ve been learning that emotions aren’t some mysterious ghost but more of a physical phenomenon felt in my body. The emotions I hold are just my body taking in information and most often my wiring tells me to do what’s safe and comfortable. I’ve learned you can’t have love without disappointments, let-downs, and pain. So I’ve learned to do the uncomfortable thing and make myself vulnerable in a trusting relationship with my wife. It’s a work in progress but it’s definitely a journey full of mistakes, growth, and healing.
No parent creates a child with the intent to cause trauma or do harm. As parents, each of us does our best with the level of awareness we have. Healing wounds from my father was important to me because parents who inflict trauma were once traumatized themselves. As a result, we become mothers and fathers who repeat the unhealed and unhealthy cycles we learned as children. Being a father to my children means I can break the cycle. I have an opportunity to make sure it stops with me.
I took for granted being able to have a child. The love of my life and I tried for seven years before medical professionals told us we would never conceive or carry to term. The hurt, anguish, and shame stemming from that crushing news was extremely tough to grapple with. As longtime youth workers, it felt wrong that we had given of ourselves and poured into the lives of others’ children but would never be able to do the same for our own.
Today, we have three beautiful, inquisitive, loving, and joyful Black Children. We do not take these blessings for granted and we cherish them with everything we have.
While overcoming the trauma of your past as a parent is important, there is the unavoidable reality of what it means to be Black in America. I bring this up not because it is exhausting to be Black but because it is exhausting to be victims of and fight racism with little to no reprieve. Racism is something I cannot protect my children from.
As a father who’s wired with the innate skill and desire to protect, nurture, and provide, that reality is terrifying. I am afraid when I think about preparing my only son for a world in which daily survival depends more on his ability to interact with law enforcement than his level of literacy.
When, exactly, am I supposed to tell him that he will be viewed as a problem before he is treated as a person?
How do I tell my Black son that the cue they get from his hue will not be about pigment alone, but drawn from the poisonous well of mainstream media’s historically vicious assault on Black and Brown bodies?
The truth is, I just want to focus on the simple things a father should have to instill in his son, like always stand for yourself, kneel for God, and that the only thing he will be incapable of is getting rid of me.
I hope that as you grow and learn each day, you never lose your unbridled curiosity.
I pray that you and your sisters have courage and confront every challenge headfirst, with reckless abandon. When you believe in something, fight for it. The only way you fail is to not try.
Never stop dreaming with unlimited possibility, promise, and hope for the future. You have value, purpose, and worth. Stay true to yourself — never let anyone around you change who you were born to be.
Live fully each day. When you close your eyes at night, be at peace knowing that you did your best. In the moments and times when you get weary or feel defeated, it is okay to rest. Just make sure you always get back up!
Hold fast to love with a sincere, open, and understanding heart for those around you.
Show kindness, humility, and gratitude. We are all different. We make mistakes. Respect our differences, give grace, take time to see people, and do not be quick to pass judgment or cause harm.
And please know, the measure of your magnificence depends on your ability to deliver change the next generation can stand and build on.
Derrick Wheeler-Smith is a Seattle native who grew up in the Rainier Valley area. His inner-city upbringing as a young Black male in a time where we witnessed the rise of gang activity, the crack cocaine epidemic, and much more has helped shape and fuel his passion for serving in marginalized communities. Wheeler-Smith is an African American male who was raised by a Caucasian stepfather whom he credits with teaching him a great deal about the power of reconciliation. His gifts as a speaker, lecturer, practitioner, and teacher have taken him all over both domestically and abroad. He brings his wealth of knowledge in youth and community engagement and in-the-trenches leadership experiences with him to help serve the people, address their challenges, and bring real-life change. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson believes Wheeler-Smith is a “…wonderfully gifted soldier of the movement.”
A Father’s Day Reflection: Responsible Fatherhood
by Gregory Davis
The moment of fatherhood I remember making me most proud was merely walking down the street hand-in-hand with my daughter (Kaila Davis Nsimbi) when she was four years old. I was walking up Jefferson Street and 14th Avenue in the CD with her, to my new job as director of CAMP’s (now Byrd Barr Place) Rites of Passage Experience program (ROPE). The thought that I was merely with my daughter just hit me and my heart beamed, then a smile came to my face, then my eye twinkled. At the time (1990) only 50% of fathers were a formal part of their children’s lives. I was proud to be a part of her life — it meant so much to me. My son (Jerrell Davis) is a local music artist and transformation strategist. He has a lyric in one of his songs: “I got a pop, that’s a scholarship.”
I knew my presence as a father would create opportunity for my children, my grandchildren, and by extension, my cultural community. I knew what I accomplished in my life — a college degree, competence about my cultural history, employed serving the most vulnerable in my community, a solid marriage — would at the very least be what they would accomplish, and I was right. Fatherhood to me meant pride and still does to this day.
Legacy is also important to me and I knew being a father would bind me to my father’s (Jerry Lee Davis) legacy. This is important to me because my father, among other things, was a responsible father. Through learning from him, my definition of responsible fatherhood has come to mean at minimum being present, providing, modeling, and creating legacy — all attainable.
I was taught by my son and his peer group that being a responsible father has a multiplier effect — a “to the second power” impact. I learned, through my dialogue with him, that his peers look up to him because he has a father present in his life. Imagine that: his credibility, in their eyes, as a person, as a friend, as an educator, is elevated because he has a father in his life. This is what I mean in saying responsible fatherhood has a “to the second power impact.”
This level of impact is so important in this season. The recent racial reckoning has let loose resources long overdue. But the backlash awaits and “to the second power impacts’’ are needed to hold it at bay. Responsible fatherhood can contribute in a positive way to our success.
Join me, will you?
Gregory Davis is a founding member and managing strategist of Rainier Beach Action Coalition, Soufend, Seattle, WA.
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