Why did you decide to write the book?
When I talked about my father’s life on my radio show, people would call and tell me how inspirational they found his life, and that I should share his story with others. Dad was a janitor who worked two full time jobs as a janitor, cooked for a family on the weekends, and went to school a couple of nights a weeks to get his GED.
How was your relationship with your father growing up?
Awful. My brothers and I thought he was an ogre — hard, ill-tempered, and we thought the spankings were harder than necessary. But dad was from what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation.” Dad was a Montford Point Marine, the first black Marines. The man was anything but touchy and feely. The fact that he got so little sleep — and that constant lack of sleep makes anyone one cranky — was lost on my brothers and me as kids.
What spurred the 8-hour conversation that the book centers around?
When I finished law school, I took a job in Cleveland, where I became friends with my uncle (one of my mother’s brothers). Turns out, he knew my dad before my dad met my mom. And my uncle actually roomed with my dad for nearly a year. I never met any friend, relative or person who knew my father. He is an only child, and no relative of his ever visited us or even called him on the phone. It was fascinating to hear stories about my dad’s life.
When I told my uncle the bad feelings I had toward my dad, my uncle was shocked. “That’s not the man I knew,” he insisted. “The man I know,” my uncle says, “was fun, hard working, honest and respected. Either he has changed,” my uncle said, “or, more likely, you have misread him.” This got me thinking that at least I should tell my dad how I felt about him — not that we could ever have a real relationship, but at least he’d know why I couldn’t stand him. Maybe, I thought, there is some value in that. So I decided to at least tell the s.o.b. how I felt about him.
How did it change your relationship with your father?
Well, my dad and I had a “fight” when I was fifteen — and we did not speak to each other for ten years. I say “fight” because I did not have the guts to sit down with him mano a mano and tell him how I felt.
Dad, at 47, finally realized a life long ambition. He started a little cafe with pennies he managed to save while working as a janitor. So now, I’m working for him. If you can imagine how difficult it was to co-exist with him at home, imagine working for this hot-tempered man in a place as stressful as a busy little restaurant. He would bark at me, yell if things went wrong. So I told myself if he spoke to me that way again, I was walking out. One day, I did, leaving him to fend for himself in a busy place full of customers. He was furious! Dad and I did not speak to each other for ten years.
When we finally spoke, ten years later, he told me for the first time about his life. Who knew that the name Elder was not the name of his biological father — a man he never met? Who knew that my dad’s mom threw him out of the house at age 13 — and that my dad never returned home? And we’re talking about a black man, Jim Crow south, during the Great Depression when fifty percent of black adults were out of work.