With Fathers Day approaching, a time of reflection for many about the meaning of fatherhood in this post-modern age, we will receive numerous messages. Many will lament the absenteeism of Black fathers, while others will take this occasion to browbeat an entire group of people. Some may even use it to score political points with the broader population at the expense of many Black men, whether the “message” applies to them or not. However, I feel that it is important to note that very few people take time to talk about their fathers, or their influence in their life. This is where this post differs. I will leave the lambasting to the same individuals who will without fail, provide that message, never mind the fact that it’s a broad generalization. I would like to take this time to talk a little bit about my father and what he meant to me.
Arthur Winston Polite was born May 13th, 1939 to Henry C. Polite Sr. and Sadie Drayton in Harlem, New York. He was the youngest of five children, two boys, and three girls. His father, a longshoreman originally from Beaufort, South Carolina, Arthur grew up on 138th street an Lenox Avenue. He attended Abyssinia Baptist Church in his youth, which incidentally was just up the block. His parents would send him to stay with an aunt in Philadelphia every summer. Unfortunately, it would be a childhood marred by loss; Henry Polite passed away when Arthur was only 13 years old.
My mother met my father some time after migrating from a small town in Virginia to New York City in 1964. They were married on December 31, 1970. This union would result in two children, with me being the last child. I remember my father being very family focused, and willing to do what he had to do to make ensure that we had what we needed. While a bit stern at times, he meant well when I really look back on it.
Arthur was a working class Black man. He once worked for a company out in Long Island City, Queens by the name of Mastercraft Lithographers, Inc. He held a union job in a then thriving manufacturing industry, and was a member of District 65.
A lithograph is a machine that was used to print packaging, labels, and posters amongst other items. He held on to that job until the rash of layoffs, in the manufacturing sector in the late 80’s. Very few realized at the time that that was the result of the decimation of the manufacturing sector, and that those jobs lost would never return.
Looking back on it, I know that my father influenced me in lot of ways. While he never went to college, he was politically astute and great with historical facts. I remember him being extremely critical of Reaganomics and the “trickle down” theory. He was the one who told me about the book by Lerone Bennett “Before the Mayflower” In all honesty, he had a lot to do with me majoring in Political Science. While he only finished high school, he was adamant about me going to college. He stressed the importance of education, and would often admonish ignorant brothers by joking “What, you scared you might learn something?” When I was in high school, he encouraged me to go a level beyond the materials that I would encounter there. I remember him saying to me “Get in that Schomburg” when he talked about the need for me to not only accept the knowledge that was given to me through the curriculum. In addition to this, he spoke highly of Dr. Ben, Prof. Leonard Jeffries, and was a regular reader of the Amsterdam News(back when it used to be published on Saturday) and viewer of “Like it Is”. Those are habits that I have picked up, incidentally.
Its impossible for me to speak at length in this format on the life lessons my father imparted to me, so I will only speak on two. One, he would always caution me about the very real obstacles that I would face coming of age. Secondly, he would give me pointers on how to deal with people trying to bring the worst out of you. One day I came home from school furious at what one of my classmates said to me. It’s been so many years, I forgot exactly what was said, but as I retold the run-in to my dad after school with much anger in my voice, he calmly said to me: “Don’t you realize he is trying to provoke you?” I asked, quizzically “what does provoke mean?” He would then explain to me that its when someone verbally attacks you, for the sole purpose of getting you to react in a self-destructive way. Through that little talk, I would learn not to let everyone push my “panic button” as he used to say. He also put me on to Gil Scott Heron, and I heard that he was a bit of a pool shark back in the day. (That explains a lot about my own influences ay?)
I had my father’s guiding hand until 2001, when I was 21 years old. He lost his battle with late stage prostate cancer. 9 years later, I can talk about it now without being melancholy, a great deal of that because I now, have the pleasure of being a father myself.
How do you sum up 61 years of life? I would have to put out something much longer to do that. The purpose here is give much respect to my late father, and at the same time carry the memory of him and so that my daughter can know something about her grandfather. As the cycle of life continues, I take upon myself the responsibility of passing down the family history. At a time where Black men are under assault in myriad ways, and attacked as the reason that all is not well in the Black community, I choose to tell his story. In stead of always reacting to the never ending negative media blitz of Black men, I prefer to tell the story of my family. No, it wont be a counterbalance, but at least its not feeding into the narratives that are often told about Black families. Because of Arthur Winston Polite, the narrative of absent Black father is a story that I can never tell. I will never forget about you.
In loving remembrance
May 13th, 1939- April 20th, 2001
Edit : A short poem dedicated to my father.