Forgiving My Father: Reflections on Girlhood, Being Free and My Trips to Africa

Forgiving My Father: Reflections on Girlhood, Being Free and My Trips to Africa

In this country and throughout the slave colonies of the Caribbean, South, Central America and parts of Africa, on large plantations, the person who directed the daily work of the slaves was the overseer, usually a white man but occasionally, he was an enslaved Black man—a “driver”—promoted to the position by his master [1]. Affirmed by the whip in his hand, this particular Black overseer or slave-driver’s purpose was to ensure the continued enslavement of others like him.

Over the past six months I took two trips to Africa, the first to South Africa and then Gorée Island, West Africa to the Door of No Return where thousands of enslaved people were trafficked, bought and sold as chattel. Both trips were powerful beyond words, but one left me forever transformed in this movement to end sexual violence. In February 2016 I traveled to Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of cohort 3 of Move to End Violence. I traveled with fierce women, men and gender-fluid people who whether they knew it or not, kept me accountable to myself and to being present in every moment. These are activists I’ve come to know as comrades and with whom I learned what it means to be in communion [2] despite our diverse backgrounds and ideologies. We shared sacred space, and it was in those spaces, touching ancestral ground, root, air and water that I once again began visioning the how—in order to enter a new period of reclaiming myself and my story, while honoring the ancestors, including my father who died eighteen years ago in April.

This process of reclamation of self was intensified the day I met Mmatshilo Tumelo Motsei, a spiritual healer, brave truth-teller, activist author of The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on the Rape Trial of Jacob Zuma. It began when she honored the cohort with her own story and we wrapped our arms around each other. She spoke of family, community and violence. She spoke of ancestral bones, ritual and sacred journeys to forgiveness. When I could get moments alone, I cried with abandon. I reminded myself to breathe, deep, painful, victorious breaths. I reminded myself that I/we are still alive and I reminded myself that in so many spaces where conversations on forgiveness of persons for vile acts would be taboo, where forgiving would be mistaken for weakness, and such a choice chastised for many valid reasons by community, by social justice advocates and peace activists, it was ok there in that specific moment and in that day, in South Africa. It was okay to come to terms with having forgiven my father.

Forgiving My Father

You see, when I was five years old my father left me. I say left me, because in my child-eyes it was just me he was leaving, not Haiti, not my mother, my little sister or baby brother, but only me. I can still recall the scent of the new garment bag swung over his right shoulder. I can still feel the warm tropical air on my face salted with tears and my fingers locked together at the end of my long arms around his bearded neck, my feet off the ground, not wanting to let him to go to this far away land called New York City. I was devastated. My screams echoed throughout the tiny airport as he put me back down on the floor where right then I allowed myself to collapse in a tantrum, refusing to stand on my feet. My little body trembled with grief as my mother and grandmother held me back and I watched my father with tears in his own eyes, disappear behind the airport glass doors. I would not see my father again for another five years.

Farah, Father and Little Sister Cathy
Farah, Father and Little Sister Cathy

The average onlooker witnessing the events of that day, might suppose that my father like some other fathers was a nice man, a wonderful father experienced by his kin, his wife and his children as a peaceful man. One could assume based on that scene that he was friendly, gentle and loving. They could assume he was kind. However, that was far from the case. My tears of love and need for my father as he vanished before my eyes had prior to that day, and more often than not, been tears of dread. My father had in fact been a terribly violent man who often flew into fits of rage and anger. He raped, beat and humiliated my mother with frequent regularity. He was cunning, vicious, unforgiving and at other times completely emotionally cut-off or contorted out of shape.

That day at the airport was the first time I saw my father with tears in his eyes. He was feeling something and to me, even at five I knew that meant he was like me, human. On a daily basis, my father was a man who mastered the skill of making those around him feel rejection, enslavement, estrangement and isolation even as he stood three-feet away under the same roof. Yet at the tender age of five, I committed myself to getting to know him. So as a little girl I threw myself into researching who my father was by writing him letters full of questions which he answered, drawing him pictures, recording my voice on cassette tapes and telling him stories of my long days, weeks and months in the tropical sun which he would receive by mail in New York City. For years, I went on a peaceful interrogation and relentless campaign. I questioned my mother, my paternal grandmother, my great grandmother about my father, and even investigated strange bearded men who reminded me of him. I was on a quest to begin to truly see my father, and see my father I did, eventually.

You see, my father was a first born son rejected by two parents who consistently unloved him. They broke his little body with all sorts of violence against a boy who simply wanted to belong to a tribe, a family, and wanted to claim for himself what his heart knew was his inheritance by virtue of the fact he was human—love, shelter, food, safety and bodily integrity, education, respect and recognition. They broke his little soul much in the way masters broke the souls of slaves who belonged to everyone, but never to their own selves or their own kin. Contorted out of shape by the time he was a teenager, for the rest of his life my father exacted violence, fed on fear, abused his power and embodied control. He maintained a rigid patriarchal status-quo and much like the “slave-drivers” of old, he became the “driver” he was trained to be. He did this by ensuring all those around him remained subordinate, slaves like himself who had difficulty seeing in one another, any pain, sadness, need, love or humanity.  

By truly seeing my father and only by truly seeing him—how he had become the meaning of violence to me, who he had been, who he was when he left Haiti, when we reunited shortly before my tenth birthday and after his passing in the spring after my twenty-fifth birthday, could I begin to forgive him. Only after confronting him and holding him accountable while he was alive, and through my not owning his violence as if it were mine but ensuring he knew it was his choice, and it was his decision, and only through ritual after he died, was I able to finally and completely forgive him.

Acknowledging the Past to Create New Futures

For my father who had missed his inheritance of joy and real human connection because he was so broken out of shape, there was no time to speak with him of alternative ways of being a man, or about healthy masculinity, humility, humanity, non-violence and love without prerequisites. But there is time for our future generation of men and boys.

For my father, any expression of the remote possibility for liberation, to free himself from lethal patriarchal ideology which kept him wound up so tight, so full of false-pride and a sad definition of manhood which eventually killed him, there was no opportunity to engage with him about the rapes he had committed or the beatings. There was no time to speak with him about a gender-justice which also centered him and his freedom from self-imposed chains of violence. But there is time for our future generation of men and boys.

For my father who had embraced a white supremacist legacy of enslavement and very particular forms of violence, I still wonder if he were alive today, whether my voice or the voice of a loving community holding him accountable for the harm he caused, while holding him accountable for claiming the humanity and freedom he consistently rejected would make a difference. The total rule of the father—the meaning of patriarchy, along with the misogyny and violation he had learned was all he knew how to be. He became violence and withholding. My father became all he had been given. He became beatings, bone crushing power and control. But for all those years he lived as a slave and kept his family around him enslaved, I forgive him. For all those years he thought he benefitted from being a maker of slaves, I forgive him.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Similarly, forgiveness is not exoneration. Forgiveness is likewise, not justifying, or excusing one’s behavior. It’s not saying “what you did is okay”, it is not saying ‘your act isn’t important” or “you didn’t really hurt me” or “I’ll let you off the hook this time”. It is not even maintaining a relationship with the harm-doer. However, inherent to the process of forgiveness is naming and holding the harm-doer accountable for wrongdoing. Whether it’s what Everett L. Worthington Jr. in his book “A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing Without Excusing Injustice calls decisional forgiveness, in which we control our behavioral intentions toward the harm-doer, or emotional forgiveness, in which we experience emotional replacement of negative, unforgiving emotions with positive, other-oriented emotions, forgiveness activates mercy and makes a demand of the harm-doer to authentically act to right the wrong.

Present Day Men and Boys and the Legacy of the Black Overseer

As I said, in this country and throughout the slave colonies of the Caribbean, South, Central America and parts of Africa, on large plantations, the person who directed the daily work of the slaves was occasionally an enslaved Black man himself—a “driver”—promoted to the position by his master. Affirmed by the whip in his hand, the driver’s purpose was to ensure the continued enslavement of others around him.

Yet when the ring shouts of freedom had sounded in these lands and reached the slave quarters, whether by emancipation proclamation or whether that freedom had been taken through Black revolution, by enslaved people themselves and by their own hand, the time always came for a choice to be made among the freed Africans, and that choice involved what to do with the driver, with the Black overseer. I imagine these people of African descent asked themselves: is a driver a slave or is he a master? Is the Black overseer still our kin or is he to be exiled from community? Is he entitled as are the rest of us to freedom or do we deny him what is really ultimately his inheritance—freedom, with all that freedom means? Political and yet very personal and often spiritual decisions had to be made in those fateful days as it has to be made today—to leave no one behind enemy lines. Though they were drivers and overseers they had to be forgiven. They had to come along, and they had to do so under no threat of death, harm or retaliation. For that to be possible, there had to be an understanding, a community accounting, a reckoning, and ultimately they had to be forgiven.

In the absence of many options to imprison our own Black overseers back then, I imagine Black worlds brimming with healers, necessary and essential for the journey to freedom. I also envision futures where one hundred years from now, if prisons still exist, instead of guards they will be filled with healers. They will be filled with healers thereby transforming the very meaning and purpose of prisons, rendering them “obsolete.”

I constantly dedicate my work in the transnational feminist movement to my father, to my mother and three nephews, to my experiences alone and in collective community and I ground this work in a “just forgiveness”, intentionally in the practice of forgiveness as resistance, as determination, as survival.

For Black people and for Black women in particular, for all people of color for all women and survivors, I believe this practice of forgiveness must be their choice. It is not to be exploited by church, mosque, for media entertainment or other entity. For many of us, this practice of forgiveness is to engage in extraordinary acts of freeing oneself. It is to take extraordinary leaps towards healing, extraordinary steps towards revolution and liberation where a decision is made that when the ring shouts of freedom go out, even those who’ve caused harm must come along in a mass exodus from present-day plantations and ideologies that breed dehumanization. We all deserve to be unbent and our inner and outer worlds reshaped in a practice of what an African elder referred to as “seeking to understand the why so that we can come up with a better how” to stop violence before it occurs, beginning with whole generations.  

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[1] http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/enslavement/text4/text4read.htm National Humanities Center, Toolbox Library: Primary Resources In U.S. History and Literature.

[2] To me being in communion simply means moving beyond mere allyship, collaboration or solidarity. To be in communion with one or a collective demands movement beyond commitment, and beyond sharing or affirming one-another’s experiences to a deeper level of being and knowing each other. Communion requires a level of mutuality expressed through the embodiment of an interconnectedness which transcends socio-political boundaries or shared struggles, but acknowledges others in our spaces and our movements as our actual kin.

Farah Tanis
Farah Tanis
Executive Director
Black Women's Blueprint

Farah Tanis, Co-Founder/Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint, organizes the U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault, is a 2012 U.S. Human Rights Institute Fellow, and lead curator at the Museum of Women's Resistance. Learn More

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