This year, Juneteenth and Father’s Day coincide on Sunday and standing at that intersection are African-American fathers.
“We need to hear their diverse voices,” said singer and author Nita Whitaker. “We need to see it on television. There’s no ‘Leave it to Beaver’ for Black folk.”
Whitaker believes that there aren’t enough stories about African-American fathers, so she took it upon herself to write one; “When Your Hand is in the Lion’s Mouth.” In it she shares conversations she has had with her father, 96-year-old Green Whitaker, who lives in Shreveport, La.
“My dad has lived most of his life with his hand in the lion’s mouth,” said Whitaker, who was born in Shreveport, but currently resides in Los Angeles. “Being born a Black man in the rural south, there was always the desire for a better life and big dreams against the lion’s trampling oppression of the Jim Crow era.”
Whitaker’s grandfather once bought 80 acres in Holly, La., and did well in the little farming town. He owned two cars during the 1930s, a rarity for Blacks in those days. Then some oil was discovered on the family land and when he refused to sell the rights, a company drilled horizontally from another plot and dried up the Whitaker well.
“They went from being landowners to sharecroppers,” the author explained. “When you hoe two rows, one would be for the landowner, and one for you.”
Whitaker said her father learned great work ethics, qualities that she believes are built into many Black families.
“He had a great example, and he became a great dad,” she said.
Young Green Whitaker had to quit school after the 8th grade, when his father died. From then on, he and his 13 siblings had to work odd jobs to help their mother make ends meet.
“But I don’t know anyone smarter than my dad,” Whitaker said.
Green is the last surviving member of his large family, so his daughter decided to ask questions.
“You have to ask these questions,” Whitaker said, suggesting four basic questions for readers. “Because once they (fathers) are gone, their stories go with them.”
1. Ask your father to tell the story of the best and worst thing that happened to them as a child.
2. What did it feel like for them when you were born? Were they afraid, excited, overwhelmed, overjoyed?
3. What has being a father meant and would they change anything if they could?
4. What is something they want to be remembered for? What is their legacy?
“I think those questions are something we don’t think about asking our parents until later in life,” Whitaker said. “When you are young, you see them as your parental unit, but they were a son, a nephew, an uncle.”
Whitaker credits her father for teaching her and her siblings how to love and respect themselves in the pursuit of carving out a life. She explained that his “school of hard knocks” taught him that when one’s hand is in the lion’s mouth, one has to make difficult choices in stressful situations. It is better to calm down and pat the lion’s head so one can slowly get out of danger, rather than panic and suffer collateral damage.
Whitaker has used this tactic — along with many phone calls asking her father’s advice — throughout her career singing demos and vocals with a variety of musicians.
“My dad always knew the right thing to say, to calm me down and talk me off the ledge,” Whitaker said. “He lived through and witnessed times I’ve barely read about in our history books. Watching his parents and other siblings navigate a way forward to become independent of the systems that held them in a place of inferiority somehow didn’t leave him bitter—it made him better.”
Whitaker said that her father was a classic southern gentleman who always showed up for his children. He made PTA meetings and attended every recital. Even if she only had two lines in a school play, her dad was in the audience.
“We just don’t hear enough about that,” she said. “We need to celebrate the resilience of the Black family—how we came through and are still coming through with our dignity.”
Green still believes in quietly winning at being human. He has an active lifestyle. Until about two years ago, he was the top seller at an insurance company. He just stopped driving last year because of poor vision. And before the pandemic, he went to the gym twice a week.
“He joined foster grandparents at 85—he never really retired,” Whitaker added. “‘You gotta keep moving, gotta keep getting up’ he says.”