Moodswing - A white father

Wearing down Dad’s bigotry

My father was the worst kind of bigot. Not that he hung people, not that I know of anyway. In fact, there is not much I know of my father’s past, except that he grew up fatherless in Alabama and his mother died unexpectedly one night while he was still in college. My father was always supposed to have been very charming and well-liked by all except surly service personnel — such as the local grocery clerk who refused to cash any more of his rubber checks. As a preteen, though, I wondered what people saw in him.

For example, his favorite daily ensemble consisted of a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of cut-off shorts made of printed material featuring big cartoon pretzels, and he wore a hat fashioned from flattened Budweiser cans stitched together with blue yarn. This is evidenced in an old picture of him taken in front of a monument in Washington, D.C., during one of our road treks across country. His head crowned in beer cans, his shirt loud and busy enough to be seen by the naked eye from other planets, my father is grinning like he has no idea his daughter is dying of embarrassment.

The next frame is a picture of my sisters and I, the two of them smiling sweetly while my face is caught in the perpetual eye roll that became my signature expression that summer. I am swathed in what amounts to be a basket of rags, with the ass of my denim shorts an explosion of fabric patches. A few days before, my father had kicked that same ass all over the city because a black man in Arlington Cemetery had asked me for a piece of candy and I gave it to him. That’s what I mean when I say my father was the worst kind of bigot, because, and maybe this is selfish, I would have preferred that he kick asses other than mine.

And to make it worse, my father never told us flat out we were not allowed to be nice to black people, though you’d think the beatings would have been an effective Pavlovian method of altering our behavior, but my sisters and I were obtuse in that regard. In our defense, it didn’t help that he always waited for a socially appropriate excuse to occur before commencing the butt kicking. In Washington, D.C., it came for me again after the Arlington Cemetery incident when an activist handed me a Roe v. Wade pamphlet. Upon that exchange, my father saw his opening and began whacking me upside the head.

The tirade lasted into the evening, when finally I was given a reprieve when my sister befriended the motel receptionist’s young son, who spent every afternoon waiting in the game room for his mother to finish work and walk him home. My sister brought the boy to our room, where my mother was cooking hamburgers on a hot plate in the bathroom, and asked if he could stay for dinner. With that, I felt my father’s fury lift off me like an escaping gas, and there it lingered, waiting to redirect.

After that trip, we returned to California, where my mother had nailed a job designing defense missiles with a computer company that had recently won a large government contract. We settled on a house on a hill in the Hollywood Riviera overlooking the ocean. Across the street lived a gaggle of rambunctious foster children cared for by a religious couple, among them a black girl named Sonya who was my age and the first friend I made there. My father’s resulting ass kickings had lessened in intensity over the ensuing months, as he resolved himself to the permanency of my friendship with this girl. Often he even drove us both home from school. He’d heard Sonya had a white father; I knew this was not true but I didn’t correct him.

Sonya, it turned out, liked to spout lies like a carnival barker, but I usually enjoyed her stories. One day I discovered she had told our entire middle school that we were half-sisters, sharing the same father. To my surprise, even the teachers believed her. This rumor thrived like an underlying seabed, so that much later, when my father arrived to sign a permission slip for an extended field trip, his identity was actually challenged by the school secretary.

“I happen to know she has a black father,” she said, pointing to me as I stood beside Sonya, “same as Sonya’s father.”

I cringed, feeling my father’s fury begin to grow like foam in a bottle of shaken champagne. I think Sonya felt it, too, as she took my hand right then. I waited for the ass kicking to commence, but instead my father simply glared at the secretary. “She has a white father,” he hissed, pointing to me, “same as Sonya’s father.”

With that, the secretary’s eyes brightened with realization. Apologizing for the gaffe, she handed my father Sonya’s permission slip to sign as well. Taken aback, his anger abruptly extinguished in mid-blossom and he signed the slip of paper. The secretary seemed charmed by my father after that, and as a preteen I wondered what she saw in him. “Let’s go, girls,” my father said, and with that, the secretary saw two girls follow their father out the door.

Hollis Gillespie’s commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”