Kevin Powell on Being a "Father"

Kevin Powell

I am a father. I did not know that I was one, but I am. Not even sure when it happened, but, alas, it is a reality for me now. I did not ask for it, nor was it planned. And, to be brutally honest, I scratch my head and wonder how this came to me. I mean, for sure, I have a vague idea, but I am struggling to recollect what led to this.

This is especially profound for me because I don’t know my own father. Yes, I knew him in passing, as a child. He was about a dozen years older than my early 20something mother when they met. They both hail from South Carolina, but met in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. My father swept my mother off her feet, made her fall in love with him while he was simply in lust with her, and there I was nine months later. To say my biological father did not bother would be a grand understatement. My single mother, armed with nothing more than an eighth-grade education, sheer will, and countless prayers to God, was forced to raise me in dire poverty, with the aid of welfare, food stamps, and government cheese. And with the kind of relentless hardships I would not wish on anyone. I still am amazed, all these years later, with all the miracles my mother made happen.

My father did make a few select guest appearances the first eight years of my life: to purchase my first bike, my first watch, to ride me, once, in the truck he drove long distance for work. Yes, he had money, a home he owned in Jersey City, and could have co-parented and co-supported me, his child. But for reasons only he knew, he chose not to do so.

The one thing that he did do over those first eight years of my life was play with my mother’s mind, leading her, time and again, to believe he would eventually marry her. I remember how my mother’s eyes would light up when she talked in the kitchen with my Aunt Cathy about marriage. But because my father was, among other things, an incredible liar, it never happened. What did happen was a day I shall never forget for the rest of my life: Because my mother and I were so poor we did not have a home telephone at least until I was about 10 or 11-years-old (and we would not get a color television until I was off to college years later, thanks to a full financial aid package). So “home phone” was the phone booth of the local pharmacy around the corner from our apartment building.

These were particularly desperate times for us, so my mother swallowed her pride and dignity and called my father for help. I could not hear his side of the conversation but I could sense something was terribly wrong, as my mother’s body seemed to shrink in that phone booth and she was visibly upset. Then my father hung up the phone on my mother. She told me, immediately, that my father charged her with lying to him, that I was not his son, that they were never going to marry, that he would never again give her “a near nickel” to help us, me, his son. And he never did. And over three decades later I have not seen nor heard from my father—

I felt abandoned, hurt, embarrassed. At school I had long taken to the practice of making up a different name for my father each year because I was too ashamed to say, “I don’t have one.” As I got to my teenage years the father absence and hurt only intensified. No dad there to show me how to tie a tie as I prepared to graduate from grammar to high school, so my mother had to ask a male neighbor to show me. No dad to play catch with in spite of my great love of baseball. No dad to ask questions of as I passed through puberty, and those weird sensations and intense attractions to girls really kicked in. I was completely clueless about what it was to be a man, and there was no guidance whatsoever, not even from my sports coaches.

That meant constant battles with my mother, behavioral problems in school despite my excellent grades, and even run-ins with the police as a teen. In one breath my mother would say to me “Do not be like your father.” And in the next breath “You are just like your father.” Yes, I was confused, terribly confused, and literally stumbled into my adult years, as a college student at Rutgers University, as a budding writer in New York City. There was confusion on how