At 39 years old, I am still a daddy’s girl. I still rely on his words of encouragement and I still aim to make him (and my mother) proud. From the lens of a child and as an adult, I have observed my father in his many polarized forms, a man of many suits, literally and figuratively. In addition to being my constant cheerleader, he was a journeyman painter, a maintenance man, a pimp in the 70s, a comedian in the 80s, a recovering addict in the 90s, and a minister in the new millennium. His latest given suit was given in prison, where he’s serving time and ministers to other men on the yard. In nearly four decades, I may have seen him not wearing a suit, 10 times. Maybe. Nevertheless, and including his currently pressed and hemmed sunflower yellow jumpsuit, my daddy has always been “clean.” In the fashion sense, that is.
Before discovering my passion for dance and performance, I’d spent much of my teenage years pursuing unfulfilling goals and battling challenges in one unhealthy relationship after another. This was around the time that I’d learned that my father was addicted to drugs. I was around 13 years old and received yet another call that he was in the hospital for what turned out to be an overdose. I can’t recall the reason my elders had given me for his being hospitalized this time, but I clearly recall thinking, that’s not true. I know the truth.
And I don’t know if my own heavy use of alcohol and marijuana were the direct result of this knowing or if it simply intensified. Either way, for about eight years, I did my best to go numb. In college I majored in a subject to satisfy my parents rather than myself, I held onto one unhealthy relationship after another, and I partied until I blacked out. I put myself in dangerous situations again and again, and hindsight tells me that my self-destructive behaviors masked a broken heart, an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, and a deep desire for more.
My growing lack of purpose and direction changed course one Monday in 1998, suddenly and without warning. I was walking down the halls of San Francisco State University with a friend and was literally called by the sound of drums. I’d recently started taking Afro-Haitian dance classes at SFSU, but these drums resonated differently. They were more commanding to me. They spoke to my spirit on a level I hadn’t quite yet accessed or become familiar with.
I followed the sound into Gym 106, where a Congolese dance class being taught by the late, great Malonga Casquelourd. I watched, mesmerized, until the class ended and approached the instructor with wide eyes knowing, I need to be here. “Can I take your class next Monday?”
“No,” he said. “You can’t take my class next Monday,” I was stunned. He continued, “You can take my class every Monday, but you can’t just drop in.” What a relief! And just like that, with the innocent goal to “stay busy” – to stay out of trouble and out of unhealthy relationships – my spirit found a platform on which to soar, and my body, a vessel with which to speak. Malonga introduced me to the Alice Arts Center (now the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts), a building which has a long history of housing traditional and diasporic dance classes, and it became the reason I moved from San Francisco to Oakland, CA.
As my father began to make sustained strides in his recovery process, Malonga came to have a tremendous influence on the change of direction of my life. African dance and drum traditions (and its community) became an impetus to healing, self-reflection and growth in ways that were until then, unimaginable. My father had even joined me at Congo Camp on Maui, where he met Malonga and family, and bared witness to the sense of passion and purpose that this dance practice had given me. My father also grieved with me on Father’s Day, 2003, when the same friend who was with me in the halls of SFSU, called to tell me that Malonga had passed away. This tragedy impacted me heavily and wounded us all quite deeply.
It is with enormous thanks to Malonga that I can testify to the power of dance to transform lives. Because of his invitation to “dance every Monday,” one dance class per week eventually became four, hobby quickly became healthy obsession, old destructive habits were replaced with reinvigorating ones, and African-based dance practice bridged me with people, places and stages locally, nationally and abroad. Soon, my dance practice unlocked all of my artistic tools of expression, creativity and spiritual satiety. I tapped into my deep passion for literary and performing arts, which has shaped my current role as writer, arts producer, director, and performer.
Almost twenty years after that initial “call” of the drums, two decades into living a healthier more vibrant life, I continue to acknowledge the intersection where art impacts my life, and life impacts my art. As I ponder my latest dance-theater work, An Open Love Letter to Black Fathers, here I sit, still making peace with the one tiny fact that informed its creation:
Once again, I have a hole in my heart, the size of my father.
In late 2012, just over a decade since my father’s recovery, he told me of the criminal charges he was facing: assault. He was charged with violently assaulting a woman he had just met. And although I didn’t show it, the unfolding of the story knocked the wind right out of me. I believed his story. I didn’t believe his story. I was filled with grief. I was furious. I imagined the best and worst possible scenarios that might have happened between him and Jane Doe. I imagined the best and worst scenarios of the charges, if the case went to trial.
Eventually, the worst happened. He was found guilty of the charge and at 60 years old, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Prison. To spend his sixth decade of life, there. After months of darkness – because that’s the only way to describe the mental, emotional and spiritual place in which I resided – something struck me as rather magnificent: I loved my father, unconditionally. Nothing had yet reduced how he showed up as father, teacher, cheerleader, soundboard and friend throughout my life. Nothing that happens today or tomorrow erases his early, thorough and consistent impact on my sense of worth and self-esteem. Nothing.
This realization led me to wonder about other daughters of African American men in particular, who might share this rather complicated sense of loyalty and love… or not. I interviewed eight women about their daddy-daughter experience to satisfy this curiosity about the “love stories” that were either obvious and quite marvelous, or mangled within the trauma, disappointment and grief. I looked for hope. I looked for despair. I looked for tenderness. Vulnerability. Anger. Loyalty. Resolve. Un-resolve. I opened myself up to a collective story that unfolded beneath the words, beyond the facts, and embedded as truth.
That collective story, that truth, currently breathes as An Open Love Letter to Black Fathers: A Choreopoem, which blends my own story and those of my courageous interviewees. For it, I sourced my African-based dance vocabulary to create movement phrases that initiated from the places in my body wherein I felt grief. I wrote songs in minor keys to reflect the flattened vibrations on which I then existed. I wrote and wrote and wrote with an intentional — and yet curiously intense — need to prove that my love for my father could not be diminished. That no matter what he may or may not be guilty of, he was worthy of my unconditional love.
At this intersection, I acknowledge that dance and writing have provided me the necessary space for creative and constructive self-expression, healing, and redirection. Utilizing these tools, I am enabled to tackle and resolve issues that might initially feel too delicate, unsafe or taboo. These tools have become a vital energy source to both consume and exert, and my ethereal feast to early cravings for more.
On Father’s Day Weekend, 2016 – thirteen years to the date of Malonga’s passing and three years into my father’s sentence – I invite the public once again, into my delicate yet deliberate intersection of life and art. In this space, I’ve learned to carry grace with grief, humility with heartbreak, and a deep gratitude for this practice of unconditional love.