When I was growing up, I didn’t understand what my father did for a living. I knew what he did was serious and important, not easily described to kids like me. I never asked questions about it, though I did try to figure it out by listening to him around the house, eavesdrop. I was drawn to his mysterious work because I sensed it was not only something my father did as a job, it was who he was—how he saw the world, what he believed in. These things were one and the same. I knew this because he never came home and put down his briefcase and officially put his work away, relaxed into dinner and home life. His work was truly all encompassing, present in the most casual conversations or when he wasn’t talking at all. And whatever this work was, I assumed only he could do it. It seemed unique to him.
It turns out I was right, and wrong. Right about my father’s work as a human relations consultant and Black justice activist being part and parcel of who he was, a career path inspired by his own singular experiences growing up in segregated Los Angeles in the 1940s. Wrong in that this work was not his alone, of course; what he did was part of a long tradition of Black advocacy and activism that goes back generations, including generations in his own family, most of whom were from New Orleans. But the way my father did his work in L.A. was certainly unique. As a human relations consultant working in the years after the Watts Rebellion, his job was to build interethnic alliances, something he believed in. But his focus was the liberation of Black people. He believed they could profit from alliances only if they were clear about their own collective need for justice, and how to achieve it. Progress depended first and foremost on Black people being fundamentally unapologetic about their own self-interest—a stance that was easy to talk about but hard to commit to, even in the 60s. Over the decades it got even harder. By the time my father retired from the county in 1994, Black justice was seen in many circles as obstructionist, old-school, even “racist.”
My father was having none of it. He never succumbed to political or any other kind of pressure, not when it came to working for Black liberation. For him the goal was the same, the approach was the same. He cared nothing about being popular on trend, he cared about shaking up the status quo, which to him was inherently bad for Black people and therefore had to be challenged, always. It was as simple as that. I remember campaigning for him in the ‘80s when he was running for school board in Inglewood (his one successful foray into electoral politics), something that kind of terrified me. I believed in my father absolutely, but at the time I found talking to strangers intimidating and confrontational; the temptation to not pick up a phone or knock on a door on his behalf was great. Despite my belief in what he was doing, the temptation for me to not do was great.
But one thing I learned from my father is that we all have to do, to stand up and speak up, or justice doesn’t happen. We all have to work constantly to overcome our fears of commitment, our daily temptation to succumb to the status quo. My father understood how complicated this was. Although he could judge people harshly for their actions, or lack of action, especially public figures, he didn’t devalue them. He criticized errors but he embraced Black people as a whole; he understood that our struggle was not just political, it was personal, and intimate. It was spiritual. Despair was a natural response to so many distressing conditions, which my father understood. But he never gave in to despair, never lost faith. This attitude was at the core of his work. “I’m frequently disappointed, but never discouraged,” was one of his stock phrases. He meant it.
It was difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, seeing my father struggle physically the last two years. More than anything, his condition tested his faith, his incredible resilience and his refusal to feel despair. But through this last hard time he never lost himself—his wry, sometimes cryptic humor, his passion for justice, his love of family that started in the home and extended out into community. He still loved talking one-on-one, whether it was about big issues or some bit of New Orleans history. When he got tired of talking, or couldn’t, I talked to him, brought him up-to-date on everything I was doing, or what I thought of Trump’s latest outrage. He would listen intently, though not because he was so interested in the outrage (he’d seen Trump’s racist ilk before, though my father described the president, in the succinct jazz-speak of his generation, as being “way out”). He wanted to know I was okay. He wanted to hear that I was happy and confident and as free from fear as possible. In the end—in the beginning, really—that’s what he wanted for me, and for all Black people. That was the condition he strove to create.
I already miss him more than I can say, far more than I can write. In retrospect, I think I always knew what his work was, even if I didn’t know the job title. Because there was really no job title for what he did: bolstering all of us by being so upright, so dependably in the fight, so unflinching. He was hardly perfect, but he was always present. It’s hard to be present these days, and very easy to withdraw from the overwhelm that now includes a pandemic casting a shadow over progress of all kinds. My father never withdrew: he met overwhelm head on. It wasn’t necessarily about victory, but engagement. That’s the legacy I will always seek to live.