Of Compasses and Fathers
In all of our years, my father and I only ever had one argument about race – but it was a doozy. The argument started over dinner when I was in junior high school.
“Curtis is getting married,” he announced mid-meal. He waited a beat, and then added, frowning, “To Carol.” He looked knowingly at my mother, who just shook her head sadly.
Curtis was a young man who worked for my father. I knew him a little, because he’d been to the house for dinner a couple of times and once he’d come along to the trap range with us to placate my father’s shooting evangelism. I liked Curtis and I knew that my father did as well. He was African American and had been hired at the demand of my fathers’ headquarters in Dearborn for exactly that reason. Dad was never one for either quotas or diversity, and so was fully prepared to hate Curtis. Instead, he found the recent college grad to be smart, funny, quick, and the hardest worker he’d employed in years. (“So quotas can work, right?” my sister would rib for years to come. “Curtis is the exception that proves the rule,” would be Dad’s flat response.)
“What’s the problem with Curtis getting married?” I asked.
My father sighed, and said, “The thing is, Tod, Carol is… well, she’s white.”
“What’s the problem with Curtis marrying someone white?” I asked.
The very question was liberal tomfoolery to my father, and thus commenced our single race-based argument. It was long, loud, and heated, and it only ended when he finally realized I wasn’t going to budge an inch.
“Someday you’ll be a parent, and you’ll understand,” was his final comment as he got up from the table. It wasn’t the first (or last) time he used that line to me, but it was one of the few times where he was entirely wrong when saying it. Within half a decade it would be my father who would understand both differently and better, and it would be he who would puzzle over others who saw interracial marriages as any different from his own. In an adolescence filled with my knowing that I knew more than my parents did about everything, this argument stands out as perhaps the singular instance when I was actually correct.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this exchange over the past several months, as I wrestle with two teenage boys who know (with as much certainty now as I did then) that no one over the age of twenty three understands the way the modern world works. They’re wrong about this, of course, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t times when I doubt that I’m right and they’re wrong. My own father held a rigid and unbreakable certainty about everything that I lack (or perhaps that’s just the way it seemed to me). Because of this, I sometimes worry that I’m steering my boys wrong. It can’t be that difficult to do so. Navigating the Good Ship Teenager can be a treacherous journey. Make their boundaries be too soft and they might do themselves harm out of ignorance; make them too rigid and they can just as easily do themselves harm out of spite. Being a father can be such a scary thing at times, even after all these years of practice and even knowing that my boys are good and decent young men.
It’s ironic, then, that when I need reassurance that I’m not going to screw my sons up for life, I turn to that argument about Curtis and his white fiancé. Because here’s the thing:
In that argument, I was in the right – but the reason I was in the right was because my father had raised me to be in the right. “There’s no meaningful difference between a black man and a white man,” he taught me over the years. “You never judge a man by his color, or religion, or what kind of job he has, or what kind of house he owns, or how much money has. The only good judge of a man is by his character, and his deeds.” It was an important enough lesson, in his mind, that he repeated it over and over, thousands of times over the years. He began drilling into me when I was too young to understand that there was such a dividing line as race, or that people outside of my sight range had more or less affluence than we did.
My father was the man that taught me not to be afraid of interracial marriage, and he did so long before the rest of the country or even he himself had caught up to the wisdom he was imparting. I didn’t stand up to my father that night in spite of him; I did so because of him.
As a parent, the urge to draw your children detailed maps is strong. You’ve seen higher and farther than they, and you have an understanding of the terrain they don’t. The problem is, the map we follow in life is always changing. Trying to draw a legend that’s accurate for all time is a fool’s errand. So while my temptation is to draw a map for my boys, I know that what they need is a simple compass. My job is to show them mine, and let them see how I use it. They’ll have to build their own, of course, and every now and then at this age I’ll need to point out to them that their needle isn’t quite finding True North. Eventually, their compasses will be as different from mine as mine is from my father’s. With any luck, they’ll be able to use it to see farther than I; they’ll be able to help me see my own Curtis’s so that I can adjust from their example.
Showing the compass: That’s ninety percent of fathering, I’ve come to believe. My father showed me his often and always, and it made all the difference in the world:
I have chosen a different career path than my father – but remembering the pride he took in even the most menial task at his office inspired me to be a better employee and employer. I have chosen a different kind of marriage than my father – but remembering the way he treated and worshiped my mother inspires me to try and be a better husband to my wife. I have chosen to be a different kind of parent than my father – but the way he raised me (and the way he interacted with his grandchildren) inspire me to be a better dad.
I am a different man than my father, and I am so by choice. But the years of watching him use his compass to navigate waters calm and stormy inspire me to try and be a better man.
He’s gone now, of course. But I still have his compass, locked away in my heart. And now I am left to continue to tinker with my own compass and show my sons how it works, over and over, that they might pass this most magical secret along to their own children in time.