RaceSex & Gender

Losing my father to toxic masculinity and trying to recover my broken spirit

October 3, 2017
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By Arkee E., AFROPUNK Contributor

Photography is powerful. With a single click and flash of a camera, a memory is imprisoned in a rectangular image. These images are not just illustrations of our fleeting moments; they’re digital or tangible symbolic representations of who we once were, how we once viewed the world, and how we once felt about something or someone.

Images are often imbued with a great piece of our soul. That’s why they can make a person smile, cry, or leave them feeling intoxicated with regret.

Thus far, only one image has had that overwhelming effect on me. It was an image of myself and my father. Each time I see it, all those emotions rush in simultaneously, leaving me completely muddled by its impact.

This image makes me feel numb because it is not a simple memory of a fleeting moment; it’s a reminder that I never mourned the greatest loss of my life. That great loss was the little boy with his thumb in his mouth. That great loss was a little boy incapable of hating anyone because he had such a pure heart. That great loss was me. This image is a reminder that this little boy is forever lost to me, and I never mourned for him.

This image is a rectangular keepsake of my obsolete blind naiveté. I have no recollection of the moment this photograph recorded. I can’t remember the date this photo was taken or who took the photo. I do, however, remember how I felt about my father when we took this photo. I loved him, and I imagined that the love was a mutual feeling, even though he was in jail for most of my childhood.

Sending letters to one another was the only way we could talk. I made the best of my father’s long absence. It was like having a loyal pen pal. My stomach always fluttered when I saw an envelope with his handwriting on it. I automatically knew that is was a letter from my father. It always was. At that time, I barely knew how to read and my father could barely spell, but that did not stop me from feeling like the luckiest little boy in the world as I held his letter in my hands like a trophy.

But, as I got older, I started to understand that I lived in a broken home.

I realized that my family was nothing like those on my favorite television shows. A positive male figure was largely absent from my life. Because of that, I wanted my father desperately. His letters were not enough anymore. I desired the traditional family.

When I was 14-years-old, my father came home from serving his 13-year-long prison sentence.

I thought my father’s presence would mend our broken home. I thought he was the missing puzzle piece. I was more than ready to express my love for my father with hugs instead of poorly written letters, but he rejected me the moment he stepped through my apartment door.

I remember rushing to him for a hug, but the way he extended his hand for a handshake—as though I was one of his homies—stopped me in my tracks. I was completely thrown off, but I went along with it. “Hey dad!” I said anxiously. My voice was higher than usual this time.

My father stared at me with a disgusted expression and said, “Put some bass in your voice when you talk to me, son.” The way he looked at me as he said this ripped the joy directly out of my chest. All I could do is stand there with a bemused expression as he rushed to embrace my little sister with open arms.

Questions swirled around my head like a twister. I asked myself what I did wrong. I wondered if my high-pitched voice was triggering for him. I blamed myself for his reaction. I waited my entire childhood for this moment, and I ruined it with my high-pitched voice. That was the first time I truly regretted something and wished that I had a time machine to redo and rectify that moment.

I was willing to do anything for my father’s approval, even if that meant deepening my voice and trotting about like the hyper masculine son he wanted. At the time, it seemed like a simple sacrifice.

That did not help. It made matters worse. The second day he flat out asked me if I was gay. I said “no” trying to keep my voice as deep as possible. I could tell by his reaction that he did not accept my answer as the truth. He was determined for me to admit that I like men, but I saw how uncomfortable he was when I tried to hug him. Why would I make things more uncomfortable?

We spent an entire hour talking about my sexuality, and at this point I began to feel weird. I wanted him to ask me questions about my grades, my life goals, or anything else that wouldn’t make me feel like a mutant. But he was relentless. It was to the point where he implied that he wants to watch me have sex with a prostitute.

Time went on and his questions about my sexuality turned into micro-aggressive comments. That micro-aggression evolved into flat out homophobia within two days of his freedom. He called me a f*ggot, a sissy, a bitch, and anything else that attacked my character.

This was the first time I ever dealt with this kind of abuse.

Nearly 10-years-later, all I have is memories of my innocence imprisoned in a rectangular image. But these images do not include my father’s terror. I don’t think about how much of a monster my father was to me. I don’t think about crying in the shower because I was too afraid to look weak. I don’t think about the many times I prayed for my father’s death.

Rather, I think about the version of me before I let hatred enter my heart. Rest in peace to the boy in this photo, but he was going to die eventually.