A man places his phone on selfie mode and begins to record. The lens is angled from the floor up, so that we are able to see his feet advancing towards a child cowering in the corner. Both come into view. The man is hunched over, his face contorted in fury. Without warning, he picks up a gaming device and smashes it to the floor repeatedly, the shattering metal and plastic punctuating a string of slurs and verbal abuses hurled at the middle school aged boy.
“Is this how you gonna do me nigga? I buy all this shit for you. ALL THIS! ANYTHING YOU WANT, NIGGA, I BUY!”
The boy’s infraction? Getting into an altercation on the school bus and being sent home early, disturbing his father’s nap. We do not see the aftermath of this encounter on camera, but it would be reasonable to assume that a beating followed soon after.
The scene is tropical, palm trees swaying in the background. A man of stout build spies a girl on the veranda of a drinking spot. Without warning, the man lunges towards her and strikes her in the face with a belt strap with unbridled force. She stumbles backwards, dazed in the wake of this expected attack. Another man steps in, tepidly, but his intervention is brief as he deftly dodges a renewed hail of punches and blows which land on the girl’s face and body with practiced precision.
The teen-aged child’s crime is that she has been working at a bar to earn money.
The video conversation has been long, its content repetitive. It’s nothing that the girl on the other end hasn’t heard before. Her father is peppering his speech with expletives and laments about not being “present in her life.” She allows herself a moment to vent her frustration, repeating similar words he’s often said to her:
“Things don’t always go the way we want to. Shit happens!”
There is dark, menacing silence on the other end before the man makes this announcement: “Bring a mouth guard the next time you come see me, because I’m going to punch you in your fucking face.”
The man is 53 years old and the girl is seventeen.
She is my daughter.
I noticed there was a problem in late January. Nadjah was losing hair, her skin had taken on an ashen pallor and her normally tired-looking eyes looked further sunken. January in South Africa marks the beginning of a new school term so I assumed all kinds of things: That she wasn’t sleeping well in anticipation of the stress of her final year of high school; that her principal (a white supremacist who battles daily to suppress his nature) had irked her in some way; even that the summer heat was too much for her to bear and thus affecting her sleep. Of the many times that she came knocking timidly at my door in the four months to follow, seeking hugs from me, or Marshall, or both, it never occurred to me that those cuddles were meant to serve as a panacea for consistent verbal abuse and repeated threats of violence she had been subjected to.
The scenarios I described at the beginning of this post are scenes I witnessed on social media (and ultimately in my own home) in the days and weeks leading up to Father’s Day – an event whose coming evokes strong feelings in people from all walks of life. While the men in these videos happen to be Black, they represent a broader crisis of fatherhood regardless of race – one that stems from an ongoing crisis of manhood – globally. The rules and roles for men in our societies have been shifting, steadily, and men are struggling to keep up. The reductive definition of manhood that was once limited to the functions of “protect and provide” is no longer sufficient to ensure success in our modern societies. Gone are the days when women had to rely on men for survival (though there is now an alarming sub-cultural scheme to steer us back in that direction ), when such dependence ensured fealty and allowed men to rule their homes with fear or aloof benevolence as they saw fit. Regardless, complete obedience to the ‘head of the household’ was expected. Now that those archaic rules and systems are eroding, many men who have failed to adapt to the changing sands find themselves leaning into toxic traits to assert and solidify their relevance…even if it means harming those they are meant to protect. All of this may offer interesting insights into why the three men referenced and others like them have damaged their children, but it offers little comfort to the kids who have to live with those impacts.
Over the years, I have used M.O.M. as a space for personal healing as I interrogated my thoughts, experiences and observations. I have opened the windows to those thoughts and allowed you a peek in. Let me tell you something only a few of my closest friends know: Having a child with my daughter’s father has been one of the top two traumatic experiences of my life at the hands of a man. (The other was when I was raped in college.) When I first began to write about the damage I witnessed Nadjah’s father inflict on her, even as an infant, I was discouraged by a select group of people from doing so, mercilessly chastised in some cases. “What if she comes across these articles one day?” one woman asked. “You shouldn’t talk about her father that way.” This woman tried to shame me into taking down said articles, which of course I was NOT going to do. Another person criticized me relentlessly and countered every explanation posited with a condescending smile, repeating in an almost sing-song voice, “But he’s still her father.” All of their actions were neither for the benefit of myself or my child, but rather some early 2000’s Black woman’s unexplainable need to lionize the image of the Black male, regardless of his failings. Especially if he was failing. It was part of the zeitgeist. And of course, neither of these women is here today to comfort my daughter who sobs when she queries why her father doesn’t love her, why he makes promises he has no intention of keeping, why he makes fun of her weight and hair, why he’s not interested in her art or interests, or why his first response to her displays of wit (and yes, sarcasm) are to “punch me in my fucking mouth”, “or beat the shit out of me the next time he sees me.”
All of the other things I could explain away as the traits of someone who lacks empathy or maturity. He talks to all women that way. The court order I signed said that he had a right to communicate with her and she would have to suffer through his insipidness until she turned 18. However, on that April morning when she sank onto my bed with a tear-soaked shirt with her best friend and sister stomping furiously behind her, it was the first time I had ever heard that this man had made physical threats against my child. Through hiccups and stammers she described the fear she was experiencing and had been experiencing for months.
I was enraged. To threaten any child with disfigurement, but especially a skinny Black girl in a world that already devalues and condones her abuse because she is skinny and Black, can only induce white hot rage.
“I told her to block him,” said Aya. She is my second born and deeply protective of her sister. “I’ve been telling her for months to just block him. She wouldn’t listen!”
I understood why that would’ve been difficult for Nadjah. She is in love with the idea of her father, even though the man fell short of the mark. Similarly, I fell into the same trap. Like her, I saw his “potential” and refused to believe that anyone could be this stupid, harmful or dismissive… deliberately. He often talked about how the world saw him as a big, dark skinned Black man and tore him down. I wanted to be the woman who built him up. A whole Build-a-Brutha DIY project. Again, this was part of the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s and thankfully, young women today know to leave a struggling man exactly where he stands: struggling. Leave him to figure it out or he’ll resent you forever. Likewise, my daughter explained that if she was silent enough or compliant enough, he could turn into the dad of her imagination. She still believes in him, which is why the next step she took was both brave and devastating. She cut him off completely.
The trip to Vodacom to purchase a new phone and SIM card and then to Mugg & Bean for lunch afterwards should’ve been a joyous one. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Instead, Nadjah was crabby, aggressive and cruel to all of us at the table. Finally, I had to stop her at the beginning of another mini-tirade aimed at her sister who has only shown her love and support.
“My sweet girl, I understand you’re hurting right now and you’re feeling very anxious, but that doesn’t give you the right to be a dick to any of us sitting here, especially to me,” I said, wiping All Gold from the corners of my lips. (I just dropped $700 on this new phone, so I definitely wasn’t going to be snapped at.)
She agreed and pulled herself together. The mood at the table remained somber. We wanted her to be jubilant. But how could she be? She had just accepted that the man she called “dad” was just a mutation of the word and that she would have to find a new way of living both with the self-loathing and self-doubt he inspired and without the years of pain he’d caused. When these form a major part of your identity, it’s easy to get lost.
What do you do when you have to protect yourself from the person who is supposed to protect you? Who has drilled into you the idea that this is their sole responsibility and reason for being is to watch over you and make you safe? How do you reconcile the reality that your “protector” is your biggest threat? How do you navigate the world feeling this vulnerable?
I don’t have any answers for these questions. All I know is that when I had to make a similar decision, it brought me unyielding peace. In my late 20s, I had to cut off one of my parents for the sake of my sanity and the protection of my children and while it made me sad to do it, I never regretted it. I mourned the grandparent-grandchild relationship that never came to fruition, but I have had to remember the seed never existed in the first place.
While this Father’s Day was particularly hard for her, I hope that my daughter and anyone else who has had to find refuge from their presumed protector finds similar peace.