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  • Karlton Laster

Silent Complexity

I’ve always been struck by the insidious impact of slavery on Black American family life — from separation to rape to breeding to being used as lactation for white children (and not their own) to power dynamics and hierarchical structure to disproportionate physical & emotional burden sharing (and the abuses that come from them). However, to this day, I’m struck by the unusual relationships between white fathers and their sons. White sons seemingly worship (or fear, or emulate, or some combination) their fathers. It seems to be ingrained within them at birth from generation to generation; and, because whiteness is the default in society, we are reared within this concept of family.

As you can guess, I did not grow up with that being the case; and, yet, I did not grow up within a stereotypically Black sense — single mother — which is what white society and media has conditioned us to believe is our station or universal starting block in life. I was raised by two parents and my maternal grandmother. They all loved me and supported me and sacrificed in order to see me thrive. They played specific roles in my life, sometimes by interest — my Grandma invested in my education and was in whom I confided. Sometimes by choice — my Mom is the disciplinarian because that wasn’t Dad’s natural fit, but she also shaped my attitudes and how I view life and myself. And, sometimes by necessity — my Dad was the ATM as he worked two jobs and my personality and moral character comes from him. Though, in this case, I want to delve into my Dad and our dynamic briefly.

My Dad’s name was Kenneth McCormick Laster. He was a husband, father, son, brother, friend, Army veteran, civil servant, and much more. He was raised by a single mother and had a complex relationship with his father. My Dad had undiagnosed depression and anxiety and had a short temper. My Dad worked two jobs my entire life as a corrections officer and often slept at home or was at work, even on holidays. My Dad struggled in school and dropped out of college, but was one of the smartest and diversely-influenced people that I knew. My Dad had few friends but possessed the personality and sense of humor to have people, even strangers, gravitate to him and respect him. My Dad sacrificed his time, his body, and his money to make a way for me to thrive and excel academically, socially, and personally. My Dad was tough and could be mean, but he was also a cryer and said I love you a lot. My Dad wasn’t a conversationalist, but he never shied away from voicing his strongly-held opinions. My Dad struggled with my independence and my life path being different from his or what he expected for me, but he loved me always and supported me in the way he could, even if it was imperfect. My Dad was all of these things and much more; and, as I get older, I am more and more like him. The best and the worst parts.

It is this silent complexity that is Black fatherhood that I was exposed to and that is the reality for many, despite what we’re conditioned to think. It may not always be a Dad. Rather it may be a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin, a mentor, a coach, a family friend, etc. But, that silent complexity of Black fatherhood is there and America is slowly being confronted with via Tee Morant and Lavar Ball in sports. But, in many other spaces and in many other ways, the silent complexity of Black fatherhood is challenging the norm and going beyond absenteeism-based tropes. Black fathers are stay-at-home, artists, intersectionality-supportive, activists, thought leaders, emotionally vulnerable, going to therapy, and more. Black fatherhood is in a renaissance with Black fathers being a vanguard for shifting how Blackness and Black men are viewed within our community and in the larger white society.

As I remember my Dad this Father’s Day, my third without my Dad, I am grateful to have had his trailblazing embodiment of silent complexity that is Black fatherhood. I’m sad that he isn’t here so that I can express my gratitude to him for all he did and continues to do to shape my life. I’m curious as to whether I’m making him proud and what our relationship would be like today and in the future. I’m confident knowing that my Blackness and manhood, though different from his, is still enough and carries the foundation which he instilled in me. And, most importantly, I’m full — filled with the imperfect yet complete — love that only he can give to me, his son, that sustains and perseveres; and, that my love for him is what will anchor me and see me through life’s valleys.

Today and everyday I celebrate my Dad and I am proud to call myself Kenny’s son.

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