What It’s Like When Your Dad Is a Civil Rights Legend

How did your dad respond to hearing that from you?

I think it was something that he knew. Dad has always been sort of upfront. When he read the letters, and we talked and cried about it, that was extremely difficult for him. We had an unspoken understanding, but we didn’t have that understanding that comes from when you tell somebody how you really feel… He read them. He told me “This is fair. This is your honesty. I honor what you say.” We talked about it and we were able to find some peace. This brought us to a place in our relationship that I didn’t think existed.

What did this process give you all that you didn’t have before?

It gave us the freedom that there is nothing more that we need to say to each other. Prior to that, the things in the letters were things that I’d never said to him. A lot of people have that relationship. Dad is dad. He’s old. We’re gonna be fine and ride this out for as long as he’s alive. This gave us that conversation that I think both of us were maybe scared to have about our relationship.

I think a lot about black men and our fathers, especially as we hit a certain age, settle down and start families of our own and hit the ages that our parents were when they had us. And how many of us desire a more full, honest conversation with the men who raised us. And so it is really striking to me that you and your father had the ability in this moment to really clear the air.

I don’t think we would have gotten there without the book. I came into this book process not thinking I would learn that much new about dad, or I didn’t think our relationship would change that much. Maybe I was just naive…A lot of black men don’t get to that place, and so that place hadn’t really been modeled for us anywhere. The place a lot of folks think you end up is this equilibrium, where we’re kind of done hurting each other but we’re not really talking about it.

But you all got to a place where you were able to articulate the ways you felt like you had been hurt, he was able to validate what you had gone through, and you’re able to see him in a generous light. It feels like a very human equilibrium.

I didn’t want to do this thing that said “the movement and the PTSD made my dad a bad dad.” That didn’t feel like it did enough work. ‘Cause my dad was never ever mean to me. He was never cruel to me, never mean, never did anything that I felt was intentionally harmful. He was just trying his best. The stuff that made it difficult for him goes back to the movement, but it also goes back before that. The way that his grandfather was treated on the plantation. The stuff with my dad’s own father and his stepfather and the complicated men in his life. [In the book, Dennis Sr. recounts his father leaving when he was a young child, a whipping at the hands of his grandfather, and about witnessing his stepfather hit his mother.] This stuff that tears away from these black families is deeper… There is a lot of stuff that makes it almost impossible for my dad to be a good dad, and it makes it really hard for me to be a good dad too. And this book is, in a lot of ways, showing people what obstacles are in the way for all of us to try to be the best folks we can be to the folks we love and who love us unconditionally, and the possibility that we can come out on the other side of it better than what is expected of us.

Generational traumas. In order to understand your relationship with your father, you had to understand his relationship with his father figures.

I’m a big generational curse type of person…There is stuff in the book about physical reprimanding of kids. My dad had that, and my dad did that….and thinking those are some of the things that we don’t want to keep passing on. But it’s hard because we don’t know — we don’t know what came before so many of us. Even the stuff that I do know about my great grandparents and things like that is sparse. The first thing to do is to try to know, and to understand that the men in my family have been so bruised and assaulted by this country for generations and they did their best to fight back. But it was often the case that their emotional availability to their children was left wanting. And for me it’s just thinking about how to do better than that. How to try my best to be different.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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