What a troubled father taught me about life, fatherhood

Published on: June 16, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: June 16, 2022 2:45 PM EDT

Illustration of Wallace Lane, Creative in Residence for The Baltimore Banner.

The beauty of a Black funeral is found in the solace it brings to the sadness. There is a hearse and family limousines. A Baptist church, a preacher to eulogize to teary-eyed mourners. There are crescendos of amens and hallelujahs and church fans waving in disbelief. There is a casket gowned in flowers, a sad organ playing and the immediate family in the front pew.

But perhaps one of the saddest days of my life, and I have had many sad days in Baltimore, was attending the funeral of my coworker-turned-friend, Big Phil. A man who found so much redemption pouring his energy into his community — but none of his children were there to mourn him.

Big Phil was my friend who I worked with for two years in one of the toughest juvenile detention centers in Baltimore. He became a father figure to me.

Immediately following undergraduate school, unsure of my next move or what the weight a criminal justice degree held (a degree that, if I’m honest, I completely settled on and will write about later), I decided to enter the world of juvenile justice as a caseworker. I found myself in a field that is broken and ineffective in transforming youth of color, but filled with caring caseworkers and facility counselors on the frontlines.

Big Phil was one of those change-makers. Gentleman in stature, laid-back in composure — young enough to still wear Nike but mature enough to throw on a suit and Kangol hat. Youthful, still face not fully wrinkled and hair not all gray.

Physical demeanor aside, Big Phil’s’ number one attribute had to be his way with words — which he had gained from his days in the street. “See, we was flashy in the ‘80s, touchin’ so much money, we did everything you young’uns did but better,” he would say.

Most days at work, I and other case workers would soak up his stories alongside the juveniles we served. Free game, we would call it. Therapeutic group sessions swapped out for gun-toting, crack-era stories mixed with come-to-Jesus lessons. And whenever administrative clinicians and therapists would oversee, we code-switched right back to our agenda. It was his encouraging words that made “unfit delinquents” actually consider changing. His ways with words were so powerful that not only did the youth we worked with benefit from them, but so did I.

When the burden of working in our detention center left me unfilled and uncertain, it was Big Phil who would encourage me to keep pushing. “Keep your head up, Lane, you are better than this place, you won’t be here always, homie.” And even though Big Phil never stepped foot on a college campus, he had a PhD in critical thinking. “The goal is to do what you really love,” he’d say. “If you want to get your MVA, then go do it! You write way better than Tyler Perry anyway, l’il homie.” “MFA,” I would correct him. But talks at work and outside of work with the O.G. were like that. Which is possibly why our work friendship transitioned to me viewing him as a father figure.

When I found out I was becoming a father by a woman I was not with at the time, and anxiety and shame ripped me of every atom of confidence, Big Phil was the only person I could think to turn to for solid advice. At the time, I felt useless. How could I have a baby and have nothing besides a piece of paper (college degree) to my life?

Thoughts of defeat paraded through my mind and caused me to slip into a deep depression. To make matters worse, the unresolved issues in my relationship with my then-father, who was recently divorced from my mother, also overcame me. Not only would I be another failing Black father, but I thought I was destined to repeat the pattern of another failed Black relationship.

“Check this out, l’il homie, babies are a blessing and lesson and clearly God sees you deserve both,” Big Phil told me. “You going to do exactly what you’ve been doing, boss-up and teach your son to do the same!”

Another day he said: “Always fight for your children and for your children to have access to you, no matter what you are up against. You one of the smartest and toughest in here, you will be fine.”

His confident words helped me approach my fatherhood and prompted me to mend resentment I had towards my father. “Fact is, the battles your pops faced as a Black man are not your battles, they are his. Just like the battles you face as a Black man are not your sons’ battles, they are yours to defeat and conquer.” That message stuck with me and lit a fire in my ambition as a Black father — even still today.

But Big Phil had an Achilles’ heel. How can a man so influential and inspiring to so many people be so despised by his children?

Years before passing, Big Phil, as many had learned, had an estranged relationship with his kids. I don’t know the exact details of their relationship, but he was a flawed man, especially during the formative years of his children’s lives. Most of his children’s resentment was because he battled with selling and using drugs most of their upbringing. In and out of jail and rehab, he missed football games, dance recitals, proms and graduations. What child wouldn’t be angry? By the time he got himself together, his sons had grown indifferent and his daughters cold.

This inspired him to right his wrongs and advocate for Baltimore youth. But he’d say over and over how he loved doing the work he did, but he’d give it all up to have a relationship with his children. He’d call his sons over and over again, only for them not answer. He even wrote letters and still — no reply. Once I mustered up the courage to ask him why he tried. “The worst thing you can do is to give up on your kids as a father, even if you are a troubled father,“ he said.

There is nothing more painful to watch than a man not make peace with his children. Nothing. But it’s also painful to see the immense healing around Black fathers seeking redemption. This is perhaps what made Big Phil’s funeral the saddest day for me.

Where there is confusion, we must empathize and educate instead of demonizing. For far too long, we have written off or even undermined Black fatherhood because of the wound that surrounds the Black patriarchal order. I was scrolling through TikTok (one of my favorite pastimes) the other day when I arrived at a video of a guy breaking down the timeline of the triumph of Black dads, referencing dates as far back as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the war on drugs of the early 2000s.

What made me even consider watching this video for more than six seconds, because that’s how long my attention span is, was that most of what he was saying was, in fact, true. And there are facts to back it up. I don’t subscribe to woke social media or misinformation trends, but in America, as the TikToker said, Black men have had to, and continue to have to, dismantle so many obstacles to obtain the smallest sense of normalcy as an American dad. It’s almost hard to believe that type of regularity is obtainable. Black fathers are more than just protectors and providers, but also confidence-givers, and today Black fathers are in dire need of confidence.

As I approach Father’s Day this year, I’m particularly mindful of the need for encouragement for Black fathers labeled “troubled.” The ones who are battling barriers, including help with unemployment, finances, financial literacy, child support, joint custody, reentering society after prison time or stints with addiction.

I forgive myself over and over again for my own ignorance and criticism of that type of Black fatherhood. Black fatherhood is deeper than surface-level material gain. It’s an intense internal battle and uphill journey, especially in the neighborhoods where I’m from — communities plagued with racial and societal gaps. My father deserves happiness and peace of mind, and so do other Black fathers working to mend generational gaps regardless of the challenges they have had to face.

Hear more from Wallace Lane about his views on fatherhood on this recent talk on YouTube.

Wallace Lane is a teacher, poet, writer and author from Baltimore and a Creative in Residence at the Baltimore Banner.

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