Race

The Dreams of “My” Father

Image by Pete Souza, The White House

Last week, I watched Lester Holt interview the forty-fourth president of the United States, President Barack Obama. During the interview, the two men covered much of Mr. Obama’s two terms. Midway through the broadcast, it occurred to me that Mr. Obama’s presidency is the fulfillment of so much of what my father aspired to throughout his life.

My father would have liked Mr. Obama a great deal, not solely because he accomplished something no other black man had ever done, but because they shared many of the same struggles, but were not broken by them. No, they transcended them.

My father was born in Lake City, Florida, in 1925. He attended the historic black college, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida, at the time a place steeped in residual Confederate tradition. He met my mother in the 1950s, a couple of years before Rosa Parks made her stand for Civil Rights and eight years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left his indelible mark on history with his speech from the steps of the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.

For the majority of Blacks in southern states, college was not an automatic choice after high school. In those days, with segregation and Jim Crow laws in effect, completing high school was a major accomplishment. Few black families had the means to afford tuition. For many, a college education was seen as the key to a better life, but few black families had the means to afford tuition. Many who attended college alternated terms in school with terms where they worked and saved money. Or their families sacrificed to send their children to college. And that’s how my parents got to college, by the sweat of not only their brows, but that of their parents as well.

My father dreamed of becoming a doctor, but due to a lack of funds, he only got as far as a degree in Pharmacy. He became Florida A&M’s Dean of Men and broke racial barriers by taking jobs that were previously unavailable to Blacks. This is what’s forgotten today, Black Americans haven’t always had the freedoms we have today. Yes, we have Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Venus and Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Misty Copeland, Ta Nehisi Coates, Oprah, and countless others, but not so long ago Black Americans were denied something as basic as table service in restaurants.

Professional and personal opportunities that exist today were few and far between not so long ago. For Black Americans, it wasn’t a matter of simply being whatever we wanted to be; well, you could within the confines of the occasional opportunity that might be doled out. Having the same qualifications wasn’t enough for Black Americans to get jobs, we had to be twice as good as a white applicant to even be considered for positions.

My father was an exceptional man—smart, charismatic, determined, and good-hearted, and handsome. He was also the first black area sales manager in the southeast United States for Anheuser-Busch. His job was to ensure that his predominantly white clients in metropolitan and rural areas all over the state of Florida were satisfied with their delivery of Anheuser-Busch products from local distributors.

A typical week for my father involved leaving home before sun-up on Mondays and returning around sundown on Fridays. All of his travel done by car. Did I mention the expense account? My father was given an expense account. Think about that for a minute: a black man as a representative for of one America’s largest breweries with that type of responsibility and authority in the South between the 1960s and into late 1980s was simply unheard of.

You can believe he was met with plenty of resistance from many a good ol’ boy, white supremist, if not the Ku Klux Klan. Volumes could be written about the indignities my father endured on his sales calls, but he never talked about that aspect of his job. My father was good at his job and took great pride in it. Anheuser-Busch must have thought similarly of him because August Busch, III, officially recognized my father’s accomplishments at numerous national sales conventions.

My father stressed a good education and helped countless students get into college who otherwise might not have the opportunity. He was civically minded and active within the black community.

For the past eight years, I’ve seen the realization of decades of my father’s blood, sweat, and tears in President Obama. I can not and do not presume to know the untold stories of Mr. Obama’s presidency, but I can recount a number of public incidents. For example, in the face of abject partisan efforts to stop Mr. Obama from succeeding, he held his head high, not in arrogance, but in healthy self-esteem and determination. During the onslaught of racist gibes, he never stooped to the level of his detractors. He rose above it instead. Despite the poo-poo-ing of America’s first First Lady to graduate from an Ivy League college; President Obama and the First Lady maintained their dignity and went about the business of raising two daughters and maintaining an administration free of scandal.

I could go on and on, but we’ve seen the ignominious acts of disrespect perpetrated against the First Family and their humanity, the likes of which no other First Family has even been subjected. Through it all, President Obama, much like my father, carried himself with grace, style, and aplomb  … the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again for a long time.

Know that I have no delusions that no American president can “do it” alone. President Obama embraced diversity on all fronts. And as someone who falls within several minority groups, to see inclusion practiced and not just talked about or swept under the rug continues to be important to me.

The challenges President Obama has faced parallels my father’s experiences and demonstrates for all the world to see what a black man is capable of. The temptation for me is to feel dismayed that his term has ended and lose sight of how far he has brought the nation. Fortunately, I’ve decided against that line of thinking because if nothing else the eight years of the Obama presidency have taught me three things, 1) to embrace all that I am and strive to become all that God has created me to be; 2) that true joy comes from serving others; and 3) hope is a commodity too valuable to lose that costs nothing to share.

Love one another.


My father would be ninety-two this February. He died of cancer in 1994.

2 thoughts on “The Dreams of “My” Father”

  1. Colette Clarke Torres says:

    What a moving and hopeful story, Clay. Our dads were born in the same year.
    I know that their life experiences were very different but like your dad and my President, my father lived his faith and taught me that I can overcome anything by loving and serving as Jesus did. And he taught me that in all things there is hope. Hope is in my DNA. I have survived a rape at 17 in which I was almost killed and 10 years more of PTSD and I still survive a life limiting Lupus.

    I was thinking just last night how grateful I am to my dad that, because of his example, I tend to move through and learn from suffering. I transcend.
    I was thinking how he’d handle an incoming administration tainted by Putin, an authoritarian oligarch when my dad fought against Hitler, a man who is proudly amoral, immoral and a bully, things he taught us were wrong. I knew he’d find hope in service, in love and in resistance, a Bonhoeffer not a collaborator.

    I intuited that my dad had a tough life of poverty with much to overcome. I saw some of it at his parents’ home. My grandfather had been ruined, his job taken, by an authoritarian populist, Huey Long. But it wasn’t until later that I learned, although never from him, that things had been much worse.

    Daddy tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps at 17 after high school in a tiny, tiny town in SW Louisiana. His mom’s family founded the city of Make Charles and first settled that strip of swamp between then American Louisiana and Mexican Texas. Everyone in that little town knew that my dad wasn’t old enough to enlist. So he used the money he had saved and completed his 1st semester of college, the 1st one in his family or origin, although not the last, to even attend college. He turned 18 that February so enlisted. He was a ball turret gunner in the 8th Air Force, 303rd. He wasn’t, obviously, a large man to fit in that horridly tiny ball that hung in the air from the belly of a B-17. My younger sister at 5’8″ was taller than my dad, yet everyone who knew him described him and thought of him as a large man: he had a large presence. He never abused it.

    He finished college using the GI Bill. He eventually started his own company and was quite successful but he always rated his success on who he loved, served and taught hope.

    When he finally retired, he began volunteering and saw a whole new world in which people with Lupus like me couldn’t get healthcare and ended up broke.
    They’d come to get help with bills, to get clothes and food. It broke his heart and increased his gratitude. He learned to speak Spanish beginning at 72 in order to provide more assistance. He learned from every experience and stayed curious forever.

    At his funeral, we met people we never knew who mentioned kind things he had done for them or someone they loved. At his Baptist service were Buddhists, Jewish, atheists, Hindi and Muslims friends: everyone was his neighbor. This short man who grew up very poor with, unbeknownst to him, a father in the KKK, also had true friends of all skin colors and ethnicities. Differences intrigued him. He wanted details and was always delighted with others’ stories. He loved to travel the world and experience life and new places. Tolerance was expected of us all.

    I remember fondly one day when I was a high school Junior in 1972, two male friends came by the house one Saturday. One was a guy I had gone to school with from kindergarten on, long before segregation was enforced in the South. The other was a friend we had made our sophomore year. His dad was an orthopedic surgeon of some renown. He was Black. He wouldn’t come inside, although I and our friend both assured him that it was OK my friend said, “It’s Mr. Clarke! He welcomes everyone! But George demurred and said, “I need to meet him and ask and this isn’t the time.”

    My dad happened to look outside and ask why David had left someone in the car. It was a typical Houston winter day: pouring rain, windy and about 33°. Daddy was horrified that someone sat outside in the cold. I explained that it was my friend George the football player. My dad was an unofficial recruiter for LSU, his beloved alma mater’s football team. He was also the LSU Houston Alumni Club’s, then it’s largest alumni club, official treasurer. He knew all the best football players at my high school and, in fact got 2 of my classmates full rides to LSU, one of whom went on to play for the New York Giants.

    My dad discerned immediately why George was in the car. He irritatedly asked if we had told him he was always welcome…irritated with David and me as if we hadn’t made him feel welcome. I snapped that of course we had.
    It came as no surprise to me that my dad grabbed 2 umbrellas and walked out in the pelting, cold rain, tapped on George’s window and that they talked then that together they came inside. After that, all of my friends felt welcome.

    When my father was dying I began to understand just how much he had truly overcome to be who he was, who God made him to be. And how he had always been kind, loving and hopeful, even in dark times. I was taken aback to learn how little his own family expected of him, that he had been physically and emotionally abused and I learned how little encouragement he received to be who he was. He really fought against the toughest of things: no expectations.

    He was my encourager! Long before there was a Take Your Daughters to Work Day, as in when I was 3 in 1958, my dad took me to his office often. He always told me that I could do it be whatever I wanted. I believed him!
    What a gift! When I faced sexual harassment at work, it never dawned on me to take it. I was the only Supervising Manager at a bank who reported directly to one of the two SVPs because when my VP demanded that I sleep with him or lose my job while on a business trip to D.C., I called hotel security to have him removed from my presence and when we returned, I informed the SVP that I either would report directly to him or quit and I told him why. That kind of confidence, especially after being raped 10 years before, is because of my dad’s encouragement and confidence, because of his love and support and especially because of his example. He was such a good man.

    Sure, I worried I’d lose my job and my house as a result but I didn’t deserve to be treated like that! Who did? And didn’t everyone understand that? Maybe my SVP was afraid that I’d sue. I like to think I earned his confidence: like my dad I worked, and work, harder than most, smarter than most.

    Goodness, what a lovely gift you gave me. Writing about my dad is always a gift. He died of cancer in 2005. Still, our relationship grows and I learned more than ever how to live a full life from his example.

    From the very 1st time I read a story of yours on Medium, a story of faith, hope and love, I felt drawn to you. You were one of the 1st 10 writers I followed, I suspect. Today, my poor chemo brain finally understands: you write as my father lived. I am sure that you live as he lived, too, as outwardly different as you may seem. You, too, are a very large and encouraging presence. I admire and respect your words and your life. Like my dad’s words, yours bring out the best in me: the hope, the love, the joy.

    Bless you, Clay. I know your dad’s soul, whatever presence lies beyond this life, beams as a star with pride in you. Thanks for always bringing light to shadowy places. I am proud, and perhaps a bit presumptuous, to call you my friend.

    1. Clay Rivers says:

      approve

      Clay Rivers, Author and Art Director Blog | Twitter | Facebook

      Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse message brevity and any typos.

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