The Last Dad on the Block


When I was young, my father was heroic to me, was all I knew of religion. His word was the difference between pancakes and oatmeal, between Speed Racer and yard work. Every trip to the Food Barn was epic. We'd hop out of the car, and I'd try to shut the door in rhythm with him, like on detective shows when they meant business. He was heroic because I was a child, because my worldview didn't extend past Lode Runner, Train 9, or Warren Moon's rookie card.

The first time Dad beat me, I was six and the subject of my first-grade teacher's phone calls home. In those days, all the kids anyone cared about got beatings. But that black leather belt, folded on my parents' bed, was still terrible, and this was my clearest illustration that fatherhood was dictatorship, that its subjects were at the mercy of a tyrannical God.

By the time I hit Lemmel Middle School, my appraisal of Dad depended on the year, how I woke up, the number of hours I'd worked in the basement. There were days I would have wished him into nothing, so that I could be free to relish in dumb shit with all the other laughing, orphaned boys. There were others, when I looked around and saw that, though the birthright of every child was a manned fortress, we lived in unnatural times. All the guardians had fled their posts, and here was mine, his hand on his sword, his armor glimmering in the light of moons. Now he sat in his car, across from me, unveiling his true face, unveiling a tangled humanity that made all my foibles look elementary.

In his mind, he was still righteous, and still wedded to the old Panther idea of free, unbound love. He did not speak to me in shame so much as he struggled to display himself to a child. But Dad was obsessed with the world as he thought it should be, and his ideals were a bright light, blinding him even to his beloved. So the losses my family took were not spoken, and, as we rejected Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth, we were swaddled in a great cloak of alone. Even the most mundane act--refusing the Pledge of Allegiance, sitting mute for the flag--pushed us farther down the path of resistance and alienation from the rest of the world.

He didn't acknowledge this truth because the superseding truth was that he was right about it. He wouldn't bend to the will of a backward world and wouldn't allow us to bend either. I was sure that everyone else my age was frolicking in pagan October masks, eating hamburgers and pie a la mode, backstroking through a lake of Christmas presents, while I meditated among stacks of tofu and books. Even after I got Conscious, I felt I'd been robbed of time, that I had been isolated in a series of great childhood events. In my father's house, values ripped us from the crowd. Dad called it enlightenment. But to me it just felt lonely. 

(An excerpt from the memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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