Commentary: Father’s Day and the moments stolen from too many black families

Fatherhood, medicine, Mentorship, Race

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, June 18th (online) & June 19th (in print), 2020

I once attended a funeral where the pastor asked the audience, “How do you continue to believe in God when your father has been taken from you?” I did not have an answer as I tried to pat my eyes dry with the few crumpled tissues I had.

For me, this Father’s Day will be another annual occasion where I will pick up the phone and on the other end will be the voice of a kindhearted, compassionate and articulate man. I will wish him a happy Father’s Day, and when I ask him for details of his plans for the day he will note that a day of relaxation awaits him. Next, he will inquire how things are for me with an unparalleled yearning, and once he has been informed of any new happenings an exchange of “I love you” and “See you soon” will conclude our conversation.

Yet for some, Father’s Day has become unrecognizable from the celebratory day it once was.

Ask Michael Brown’s father, Mike Brown Sr.

In America, black men are rarely seen as innocent and are sometimes even invisible.

Wearing my cloak of visibility — a doctor’s white coat — I kneeled on the ground recently with my head bent over in prayer and protest for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The hardened and unforgiving cement left me wanting to change the position of my knee to lessen the discomfort, but I refused. Out of my periphery I saw other protesters switch their dependent leg. Some stood up, while some began to kneel on both knees to soften the unilateral pressure on just one.

But some pain cannot be lessened. The image of George Floyd with the knee of another man pressing into his neck — the man’s hands casually in his own pockets as he balanced himself on Floyd’s neck — is one. “Please, I cannot breathe,” he cried out prior to calling for his mother. Floyd’s words reverberate those of another black male, Eric Garner, who in 2014 was killed under police custody while uttering the very same last message. This is another example of a transformed Father’s Day that will never be what it once was.

Ask Ben Garner — Eric’s father.

Growing up, my family went to church almost every Sunday, but especially on Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I’d be the last one to get up but after a shower and dressing in my Sunday’s best I would rush into my parents’ room —tie in hand. I would pass the tie to my father, and he’d stand behind me slowly crossing one end over the other. Then he would come around in front of me prior to securing the tie and sending me to admire the wonderful job he had done.

When I played soccer, if I looked to the sidelines there he was sporting his vest and transitional lens eyeglasses — the one where the lens changes to dark when one steps outside into the sun. I am sure those eyeglasses earned him the nickname “Mr. Cool McCool” by my teammates.

And, as I walked across the stage to receive my medical degree, I distinctly remember hearing, “Go Dr. J” coming from his seat. The joy of watching his son become a physician, when his own father could neither read nor write, is a moment I am sure he will never forget.

These are key moments that fill picture books, but for some families, those books will be left empty: Rayshard Brooks will not be there when his daughter scrapes her knee while learning to ride a bike. Ahmaud Arbery’s father will not see his young man become a father himself one day; he will forever be frozen at the age of 25. George Floyd will not be there to screen his daughter’s potential boyfriends as a rite of passage that encompasses being a “girl dad.” Michael Brown — 18 years old — had an entire future lying ahead of him with countless Father’s Days, but his father will only have the memory to replay of that smile that used to walk in the door — Skittles in hand.

We cannot go on like this. It has taken a once-in-a-lifetime mix of events: a pandemic, economic fears, political polarization and an untimely murder to clear the opaque lens through which society views us to see that we are and deserve more. This is the time to see the exhaustion in the hearts of black families who have to watch as another Father’s Day is altered due to racism and police brutality. And, we are tired.

Ask George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Jason L. Campbell, M.D., M.S., recently known as The Tik Tok Doc, is a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.

Commentary: Off the court, LeBron James’ vital role as father

Athletics, Fatherhood, Mentorship, Race, Sports

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, Feb 17, 2020

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The remarkable line from author Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man” may seem hard to apply to LeBron James, a 6-foot-8 African American man known for his unparalleled athleticism on the basketball court. But, for a father with unmatched enthusiasm for the success of his sons, society has struggled to view James as the loving dad that he is.

Nevertheless, slowly he is silencing the belief present in society for many years that black men do not play a role in raising their children.

James’ enthusiasm at his son’s basketball games has been seen as juvenile, outrageous and childlike to some who refuse to see the love, compassion and fortitude in his movements. I remember as a young athlete looking into the stands and seeing my father — a validation of my dedication and being. In a similar manner, I suspect James is teaching his sons one of the most important lessons my father taught me: The world is full of opportunities for you to discover, and if you must, to create.

LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 1972 a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed to Philadelphia. For the first time in his 18 years of life, my father, Thomas Campbell, was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree — the only one of his siblings to do so. One of eight children, born into modest beginnings, my father persevered to college at a time when only 20% of black men had achieved more than a high school diploma. This was only the beginning, as he persevered to earn a law degree.

 

Forty-six years after my father embarked on his journey, I climbed six shallow steps to receive my medical degree. In that very moment, what I struggled to understand is what my father must have felt as I was declared “Dr. Campbell.” Growing up with a father who could neither read nor write, it must have been unimaginable for my father to believe he could cement a path for my sister and me to earn five degrees between the two of us.

 

But, in actuality all of my father’s actions have continuously encouraged my sister and me to pursue opportunities he never had. Thus, the magnificence of our achievement truly belongs to him. Similarly, James continues to inspire his sons to not only dream but to believe in the realism of their dreams.

LeBron James and my father serve as shining examples of the many black fathers who have created a future for their sons to change the world — a far cry from society’s vision for young black men. These fathers exemplify a view of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line, but is full of boundless direction and achievement — and is not tied to skin color.

Once criticized for their invisibility, our black fathers are now visible, illuminating their brilliance for the world in a way they always have — for us.

Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

Fatherhood, Race

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.