What makes someone a hero? My Dad showed me.
As a young man growing up in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan, I always searched for heroes to look up to in my life. Sometimes those heroes were contained in comic books. DC or Marvel was always the choice, but those choices always had something in common. There were very few comic book superheroes who looked liked me as a kid. I didn’t want to be Superman, Batman, Robin, Spider-Man or even the Hulk, Although the Hulk was green, he too started out as a white scientist before turning green. The exception was Powerman. He was a Black comic book hero, but he only had cameos and served mostly as an understudy to the white comic book superheroes. Powerman much later in life got his own comic book. My Dad helped me find them and proudly add them to my collection. As a kid, comic book heroes who looked like me were hard to find.
I searched for heroes in history books as well. Some of these heroes were named Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Columbus, Jefferson, Edison, Patton and others. Most of the heroes described in these books did not look like me and some, if not all, never seemed to do much for people like me. Some of these so called heroes named Wallace, Lee, Thurmond, Helms, Connor, Hoover, Coolidge not only did nothing in support of people who looked like me, they intentionally enforced racist and discriminatory policies that led to lynchings and even death for people who looked like me. History book heroes sometimes aren’t heroes at all. Sometimes they are villains that have been masked by others and portrayed as heroes by misinformation. History books that are left unchanged perpetuate heroes that are detrimental to kids that look like me. These books and false heroes perpetuate the misconception that people like my Dad can’t be heroes. Nothing is further from the truth.
I also searched for heroes in the world of sports and entertainment. I found a lot of heroes who looked like me in these fields. As a kid, these heroes were baseball, football and basketball players and also many singers and dancers. One of my favorites was a Black dancer named Mr. Bojangles. He danced with a little girl named Shirley Temple on my television every Sunday before church. Shirley was about ten years old and Mr. Bojangles was in his 60’s or 70’s. They danced well together and always in sync. I tried to forget that he served the family and wore a butler’s suit most of the time and they probably could never use the same lunch counters or water fountains together. I also saw other entertainers as well, including the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Temptations and many more. It was fun watching them because they also grew up with my parents in Detroit and would hang out with them as well during my childhood. While my parents hung out with them, it did not take away the fact that my parents and the entertainers would also encounter white owned shops where they were not welcomed and encountered police brutality daily. There was no IG and TMZ back then so being a Black celebrity was not as glamorous as it is today. In fact, if you travelled down South, to perform during that time, it remained dangerous because the klan, segregation and lynchings. Black sports and entertainment heroes were treated very differently back then and it was hard for them to be heroes.
So I am sure you are asking yourself what makes my Dad a hero. I will tell you.
I was born in 1967 in Detroit, Michigan. This was the year of the Detroit Riots. The riots were caused by the brutal attack of police on Black men and women at an after hours party place and the continued police violence against the Black community. My Dad was leading the household with a very pregnant wife and already raising a little girl named Kim. Dad kept all things together and the family safe from July, 1967 through the riots and until my birth in October, 1967. He continued to protect us throughout it all.
My Dad’s heroism was not as obvious to me as a kid growing up. You see, my Dad was not an entertainer or an athlete, although he did play baseball in the Army and is a Korean War veteran. My Dad was not a superhero in my comic books either. He did not own or wear a cape although he dressed very well being from Birmingham, Alabama and Detroit and all. 🙂 My Dad and his friends are not in a history book. They are not portrayed as heroes although we know they are.
My Dad did not write any history books. He was born in 1924 in Birmingham, Alabama and in fact lived a history of segregation, lynchings, injustices and inequality. My Dad had to endure being called the N word everyday all day by white people. My Dad was forced to use separate water fountains, toilets and entrances to so called public accommodations. My Dad was forced to watch kids like him be lynched for so called looking at or whistling at a white woman. My Dad did all of this with 4 other siblings and a family that consistently had to endure the craziness and heinous behavior of the Klu Klux Klan. The state of Alabama in fact had a Governor that said “segregation then, segregation now, and segregation forever.” Governor George Wallace even ran for President of the United States, the land of the free and home of the brave.
The history of my Dad’s growing up helped him understand the need to make sure that although grade school taught me that there were no Black heroes in my history books, there were plenty of Black heroes in my city. Dad made sure that I met the owners of businesses, the presidents of companies and the leaders in the community that looked like me. He also always taught me the value of looking beneath the surface and making sure that you don’t accept anyone else’s version of history about you or your community. He said to me always make history so you can make history and tell your own stories.
My Dad died in the Summer of 1989. He died at the age of 64. He succumbed to diabetes and its grave effects on his mind, body and spirit. He died in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time of his death, My sister and I were driving from Atlanta to DC. I graduated from Morehouse College and we were headed to my new school, Georgetown University Law Center. My Dad did not see me graduate from high school. My Dad did not see me graduate from college and he did not see me graduate from law school. My Dad will not meet his granddaughter Teresa and he will not see all the firsts in her life. My Dad missed all the accolades bestowed upon me in 2021 and the ones given to me before this year. My Dad is my hero because none of these things about who I am would never have been possible without him and his investment in me. My Dad is and will always be my hero.
Love You Dad!