I can never fully know what it felt like for my father to be a Black person raised in the South in a large family and to lose his father at fourteen years of age; however, there were always traces of the inner struggles and contrasts that defined his life. His father was a minister and although I never met him, the surviving members of the family always seemed to have an air of aloofness that seemed oddly placed among the people they interacted with on the street where they lived. To my mind, this may have been a remnant of the status they may have enjoyed as the family of a minister because the vocation had status in the Black community. Perhaps there was a literal appreciation for the name of the street which was “Wellborn Street.” On a recent trip back to Atlanta, Georgia, where both of my parents were from, I visited that very block and found it barely recognizable against my memories of a big house with ornate heavy iron doors, red painted rocking chairs with linen scarfs and a broad porch where women came to chat with my grandmother or pass the time while nursing their babies. My mother was born at home on the very same block and through a curious coincidence about eighteen years later she met my father through an introduction by a classmate while he was on leave from the Army. Although my father had aspirations to go to Morehouse, one of the historically Black men’s colleges, he said that he had to go to work to help the family instead, so he sold life insurance with his mother for a period of time before entering the military during World War II; and later made his way out of the South as a dining car waiter; a job that gave Black men status and somewhat of an upgrade from farming or menial service jobs. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and A. Philip Randolph were responsible for some of the beginning efforts in the civil rights movement. It was clear that my father and those he worked with had values of dignified labor and mutual support that were closely akin to their railroad colleagues. I can remember that those he worked with called him “Sarge” and they used words like “cats” to describe each other in the vernacular of the day; and I can still hear the timbre of their voices that sounded much like the raspy sound of Louis Armstrong, with the same rhythmic vocal cadences that connected them all as a generation. I would notice the pecking order whenever we traveled by train with him. The stewards and conductors were always White and the porters, waiters and cooks were always Black. To his credit, my father moved his family up the eastern seaboard from the military base in Aberdeen, Maryland where my older brothers were born, to New York and Patterson Houses in the Bronx where I was born; then to a home he purchased in St. Albans, Queens where my younger sister and brother were born, all with his earnings from his job as a waiter; a job that he would have for twenty-seven years before going the MTA from which he finally retired some years later.
A marvelous distinction about my father was his belief that “when people want to hide something from you they put it in writing.” His assumption was intended to encourage us to have a curious mind with the assurance that we would always find good information by reading. He read often and always used this practice to identify opportunities and benefits. A deeper interpretation is probably that during slavery Blacks were forbidden to be taught how to read, so it would be easy to keep things from them. My father’s personal insight was that reading unlocked a world of abundance. He was good with money and kept detailed journals documenting his transactions. He purchased treasury bills and had two homes built from the ground up in his lifetime. During tax time he would require me to stand and add up rows of figures from receipts. He wrote with a fountain pen that stayed in a gray metal box and when he enjoyed some downtime in the company of a neighbor and some drinks, my father could preach on par with the best ministers; one of the many contrasts that combined a worldly side with his faith-based upbringing. When he would come home after being out of town and my mother told him about my quarrels with my younger siblings, he would always stress the importance of taking care of each other and family first. This was not something that I felt was meaningful then, in fact, it felt like a horrible burden, but for all of the years since then, I can say that we have done our best and I understand why he made that so important. He was always a practical man not given to too much sentimentality, but when his mother passed away and he returned home from his trip to her funeral in Atlanta, I was about seven years old and I saw him crying in the dining room so I asked him: ”Why are you crying?” and he replied, “Because I don’t know if I was a good son.” Years later, when I was studying for my doctorate in education and he had returned from a visit with his twin sister in Atlanta, he sent me a card that simply read: “You done good.” This has always stood as my validation from my father and it means a great deal to me to recall it.
My father was a heroic figure in my early life; one who embodied the ideals of honor and respect. Perspectives soon changed with the impact of worldly influences. I reluctantly released the image that came as naturally as the air I breathed, and replaced it with the notions that artificially defined us as Black people. A waiter was no longer a dignified profession. It was looked at as a lower class service job. It was almost that I became embarrassed by what he did for a living. This was the baggage of shame that I was introduced to as I went through the world. I remember a classmate’s father was in the Peace Corps and that seemed to be the high end of professional pursuits. I later realized what had happened and quickly retrieved the understanding that I was born to have about my father. His examples of how to be honorable and have dignity and intergrity in a world that often took pleasure from stripping people of such remnants of humanity, produced the guiding principles for my life.
The following two poems are dedicated to my father, and come from a collection of poems that I wrote in 1988 entitled “Confessions of a Dining Car Waiter’s Daughter.” I respectfully share them in celebration of my father’s generous legacy.
Confessions of a Dining Car Waiter’s Daughter/Refrain
Daddy was a waiter.
Wore navy blue and white.
Silver buttons on his jacket;
A dashing handsome knight;
A comrade to his fellows,
Dignified, yet strong and kind.
All I wished for in a Papa;
Hero in a young child’s mind.
Then a good American education
Showed me what my Daddy lacked.
All the proper folks could tell,
It was a matter of fact.
And I fear that I believed them,
Almost up until the end.
Then I introduced myself
And met my Daddy once again.
No more times to be forgiven.
No regrets, apologies.
Standing with forgotten people;
Those America doesn’t see.
We’re all waiting at the station
For the freedom ride to start;
All the cooks, maids and waiters,
Nurses aides and guards on watch.
Wait a minute before we enter—
Just thought you’d like to know;
Wherever our journey leads us,
I want all of them to go.
For dining car waiter’s daughters,
August is vacation time.
Riding rails to southern comfort;
It’s the only way to fly.
Sailing down the rails,
Panoramas of the eastern seaboard
Filling the window screen.
Oh yes, August is the time of rainstorms,
As the summer cries
And red clay fills your eyes.
Sleepy eyes and numbing toes,
Frozen by an air conditioned coach.
Yes, August is the time to fly
As summer slowly prepares to die.