“We each need to go on an exploration of exactly who our fathers were before we were born. In many cases, we almost act like their lives started when ours did, but the truth is that there are many things that may have transpired in their lives that would provide context to how they functioned as fathers. This is not to say that so called "bad parenting" or any poor choices made by our fathers are justified, but every person's behavior has some background.”
These words are from David Malebranche, author of the new memoir Standing on His Shoulders: What I Learned About Race, Life and High Expectations From My Haitian American Father."
Standing On His Shoulders is a heart warming and illuminating tale of a young black boy’s love, admiration, and at times disappointment with his father that explores issues of race, sexuality and what success can cost you as a Black man in America.
Malebranche's work as a medical doctor and advocate has made him one of the most visible and outspoken voices on the HIV/AIDS crisis over the past 10 years. He has appeared in documentaries on CNN, ABC News Primetime, TV One and BET for his expertise on how the disease impacts the Black community. Dr. Malebranche also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2006 – 2008.
Yet despite this, his first memoir is not on HIV or even on the hope for an AIDS vaccine; but instead on something inextricably linked to the shame and silence that in many communities fuels the HIV/AIDS pandemic: our relationship with our fathers.
In Standing on His Shoulders, Malebranche meticulously traces his father's roots, strengths and shortcomings and then connects them to his own; reframing the pain he experienced from his father into the power he needed to excel in his career and life. This reframing leads the reader to wonder, “Who was my father before I was born? What made him how he is or was? And how did that lead me to this place I am today?” The book then becomes both an exploration of race and masculinity in America and a tool with which to engage one’s own emotional work.
When asked what inspired him to write the book, Malebranche shares: "I started writing stories as chapters back in 2006-2007 as part-therapy, part historian to document important life events/lessons that have involved him over the years. The other reason was that as I was getting older, I began to really appreciate and understand why he raised me the way he did. The stories about Black fathers and sons in the media are usually slanted towards the "absentee father" narrative, and I didn't see many descriptions of positive depictions of our relationships. So I decided to write about mine. My goal was not to describe it as perfect, but as affirming in the big picture. "
Undoubtedly, Malebranche succeeds in this. The portrait of his father he paints is multifaceted; we get to see both the stern and hardworking father and the man grappling with his son’s sexuality. Right alongside the man who kisses his son goodbye every day and encourages him to live at home in his adult years, just to keep him close. While Malebranche's reason for telling this story is connected to his own wellness, he is also intentional in conveying that the message for us as Black men is to do similar work with our own fathers/parents:
"I would argue that it's much more important for US to come to closure or resolution in whatever way it happens, because if we are holding on to that pain (with our fathers), it's going to manifest in every relationship we attempt to have – with other men romantically, professionally, or in friendship.
Regardless of where you are with your relationship with your father, you owe it to yourself to not just let any pain or insults sit and fester in your spirit. Do something positive with it, and hopefully inviting your father to join (if you can) in that process will lead him to accept and to affirming results. But even if it doesn't, and nothing happens of your efforts with the relationship itself, at least you can move forward knowing you tried, and with a better understanding as to how this relationship has impacted you as a person. There are no easy answers and no "right" approaches to how to go about it – but just do what's in your heart, what your instinct tells you is right. You can never fault yourself for following that."
If you would like to begin this work with your own father or parents, or simply enjoy a brilliant book about the love and challenges of a father and son in America, go out and buy Standing On His Shoulders now. You won't be disappointed.
Yolo Akili Is a Writer and Emotional Health Advocate who’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Huffington Post, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Everyday Feminisms. He can be reached on twitter @yoloakili
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