Role Models, Mentors, and the Ghost
From the book: Pops: Learning to Be a Son and a Father
This may strike many people as a terrible thing to say, but as I got older, I started feeling very consciously that I did not want to be like my father, not in any way. For instance, the constant stench of cigarettes in his car, on him, in the house—you were surrounded by it. I was so put off by the smell that aside from one puff during a fra- ternity initiation, I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. Granted, the same didn’t happen with alcohol. I enjoy a drink, especially a good bourbon, but I’ve never had much of a taste for beer. Children can be just as motivated by negative examples, and that was certainly the case for me. There came a period when I couldn’t see past my dad’s flaws, when his strengths were invisible to me.
At the same time, maybe subconsciously, I craved having father figures in my life, and I was lucky in that a number of generous and patient men took an interest in me—relatives, teachers, coaches,friends’ dads. Men who showed me how I might carry myself in the world. Maybe my need was obvious? At some point, I felt I wasn’t going to get it from Pops.
The first of these and one of the most important was my uncle James, Pops’s older brother by four years. For most of his career, Uncle James worked as a civil servant in the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. He would come back to South Carolina for the big holidays, and in our family’s eyes, he was the Man. For one thing, he always drove a Cadillac. If you were a black kid growing up in the eighties in South Carolina, there were certain things that were commonly associated with making it in life, and one of those was owning a Cadillac. I thought, Wow, Uncle James must be raking in a lot of money, always driving a Cadillac. Of course there are limits on what you can earn in civil service, but he did very well.
Uncle James had a daughter of his own, my cousin Blossom, but he stepped up to fill what he saw as a paternal void in my life, encouraging me academically and socially. When I was in elementary school, he made a contract with me whereby for every A I earned, I would get five or ten bucks; for every B, I got a little less. I would mail a copy of my report card to Uncle James and he would mail me back my earnings. I don’t think Pops knew about our deal, and I doubt he would have liked it if he had. I think he saw his older brother living a life that to some extent he wished he could have had. Over the years there were a couple of times when Uncle James tried to talk to Pops about his drinking, to no avail—aside from probably further fueling his resentment.
As I got older, Uncle James supported me in all kinds of ways. When I was fourteen, I sang lead in some songs in a church choir concert and he showed up for it, even though he went to a differ- ent church. I could see him in the pew, singing and clapping along, which meant a lot to me. He’s a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the quintessential African American fraternities, and through him, when I was in high school, I got involved, too. I participated in the Kappa Beautillion, which is like a debutante cotillion for young men, and ended up winning a scholarship for college. During winter break one year I lived with him in D.C. while I interned on Capitol Hill for Senator Fritz Hollings. Uncle James taught me a bit about wine that winter and we had some free-flowing conversations about politics and life. He was treating me somewhat like a peer; it was one of those moments where an adult relative welcomes you to the grown-up table. Uncle James helped open up the world to me in ways my parents couldn’t.
From the book Pops: Learning to Be a Son and a Father by Craig Melvin. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.