The first novel I ever read was Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970). I was 10 years old.
Looking back, Meriwether’s novel was a curious selection for a 4th grader but I imagine that I was attracted to the little black girl on the cover and was reminded of myself. Even more curious was the fact that my mother allowed me to read a book replete with scenes of violence, sexual abuse and assault at that age. Perhaps, she was impressed that her young daughter was inspired to read a full-length novel on her own volition. Perhaps, she thought that the young protagonist’s father might offer some insight on my own.
The novel’s heroine is 12-year old Francie who learns over the course of the book to expertly navigate her decayed Harlem community. The effects of the Great Depression loom large in the difficult day-to-day choices characters must make in order to survive, including enduring humiliating violations in exchange for life’s basic necessities. Unable to find work after losing his job as a house painter, Francie’s father becomes a number runner. For this sacrifice, Francie’s dad is depicted as heroic, especially by Francie. Describing her father as “beautiful,” Francie expresses a sense of pride that her dad is an “honest runner” who does not just hang “around the corners” like the other men in her neighborhood.
With the news that he had a daughter on the way, my own father attempted to abandon his membership as a Blackstone Ranger, a Chicago street gang known equally for its social activism and fierce brutality, and right himself by joining the Job Corps—initiated in 1964 as part of Lyndon P. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Yet, three months into his service he was arrested for marijuana possession. My father tried to explain to the judge that he was trying to play by society’s rules, even appearing in court in his Job Corps uniform. The judge was unsympathetic, “Once a Blackstone Ranger, always a Blackstone Ranger.” The judge’s proclamation, “always a Blackstone Ranger,” became a life sentence.
Upon his release from jail, my father gave up any attempt to follow the path of middle-class respectability. Instead he recommitted to the Blackstone Rangers and with that the Nation of Islam which, in the mid-1970s, was at the core of the organization’s doctrine. This choice seemed far less gallant than that of Francie’s dad.
With this decision came my father’s devolution from selling weed to injecting far more harmful substances. Not surprisingly, the man who married his high school sweetheart at the age of 20 and—according to my mother’s scrapbook—was elated at the birth of his first child, became cruel beyond recognition. Some of my earliest childhood memories were of eating meals at a wooden table covered with what I then thought were tightly packed packages of loose tea; arguments between my parents that became so severe, I would sneak to call my superhero aunts for help; heading out the door for a day of fun with my mom and being delayed because my father waited until our coats were on to say, “Don’t leave until you fix me something to eat.”
I last spoke with my father in August 1992. I was heading off to college and immensely proud that I had saved every paycheck from a summer job I despised to help allay the expense that my mother could barely afford. My father asked if he could stop by to wish me well, and I agreed. We were suffering through an awkward living room conversation when the real purpose of his visit was revealed: he wanted money. I had visited him the previous year in a rehab facility and thought, hoped, prayed that he would turn things around. I recall feeling like I wanted to love my father but I wasn’t even sure if he loved me—what kind of father would ask for his daughter’s college savings? Was this any father at all? I could only see him then as a defeated, joyless man whose primary purpose in life seemed to be to steal the joy of others.
I couldn’t find the forgiveness that my half-siblings had been able to offer my father in his final years. They made it look so easy—he asked for it, they gave it, and suddenly my Facebook and Instagram pages were flooded with photos of him smiling at his children’s and grandchildren’s birthday parties and BBQs. These images were evidence that maybe he had changed. Or maybe they were just happy to have him in their lives, any way that he came. To this day, I marvel at their generosity of spirit.
My father passed away from kidney failure in 2014. If I ever had any doubts that people were called to the pulpit, those suspicions were put to rest when my sister, Jalilia, performed the eulogy at his funeral. The man she described was one with whom I was vaguely familiar. She brought to light those parts of him that were obscured in my own memory—his love of music, his dance moves (this is what drew my mother to him at the age of 14), and his black nationalist pride.
The ideal of a glorious black nation has existed in the African-American consciousness long before the invention of Wakanda. Even Francie’s daddy tries to imbue his children with a sense of racial dignity by claiming that they are descendants of an African princess named Yoruba. Through his involvement with the Nation, my father attempted to manifest his own Afrocentric origin story. In 1978, he changed our surname from Patton to Abdul-Ahad (which I would later shorten to Ahad). He was also responsible for naming each of us. We are Badia (“original creation”), Muneerah (“luminous”), Haneefah (“true believer”), Muhammad (“praiseworthy”), Jalilia (“exalted”), Fatin (“intelligent”), Akbar (“powerful”), Sultan (“strength”) and Azim (“magnificent”). The light, the protection and the future he envisioned for us at birth proved unsustainable as we grew into young adulthood. He could offer us a certain dignity when we entered the world but it was one that proved fleeting in his day-to-day interactions with us and our mothers.
At his funeral, strangers approached me with tears welled in their eyes because of my resemblance to my parents. High school friends remembered them as emblematic of the era—young, gifted and black; my mother, the smart and sweet schoolteacher, and my father, the music aficionado and math whiz. I was the face of their nostalgia. I listened to stories about my father’s days in the Blackstone Rangers, the respect he garnered from the notorious Jeff Fort, his facility with mathematics, his easy laugh. The persistent narrative that day was that my father was an ambitious and charismatic man. At the heart of his ambition was to live black and free.
While racism is no excuse for poor parenting, my father’s Sisphyus-like struggle to realize an uncompromised blackness in Daley’s Chicago was thought to be his undoing. As a scholar whose fields of expertise are African-American and cultural studies, I understand well the varied ways my father was a product of his time and circumstance. Yet, my intellectual understanding of the conditions that shaped him offer little insight into my own personal feelings, which are anything but socially constructed.
Surprisingly, my relationship to his legacy is uncomplicated—there are few joys greater than being an aunt or having rediscovered brothers and sisters who now feel like long lost friends. Perhaps the possibility of forgiveness has come too late for me. The farthest I’ve come on this journey is the realization that, despite his flaws, my father loved me, loved us as much as he could and he was as good a man as he knew how to be.
Despite his best efforts, Francie’s father fades into in the chaotic web of crime and poverty of 1930s Harlem. By the novel’s end, we are uncertain about his fate. We only learn that “Daddy didn’t come home anymore.” The matter-of-factness with which this vanishing is conveyed signals that Francie’s trials have produced a resolve that she will need to survive, largely on her own. Even with the book’s bleak ending, there exists enough evidence to argue that our smart and sentient heroine will be fine despite all that she has lost. I think I will too.
Badia Ahad-Legardy is associate professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. She’s currently working on being a good parent, writing a short book about black leisure, and perfecting her golf game…for research purposes. She tweets @badiaahad.