I graduated from Howard University in journalism and I still love the rigor of factual reporting. But I often prefer to channel my non-fictional observations about society into personal essays. My book of essays, “The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable’ Right,” won the 2015 American Book Award.
From The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable’ Right
1994 kicked off kicking my ass.
On January 26, my father died.
Pleasant Samuel Harris, Jr., 69, met his maker the day after my mother, June Puckett Harris, would have turned 64. Like Ma, who died in 1984, Daddy died of heart failure.
He was in a hospital room in D.C. I was in my apartment in L.A.
I’m writing about happiness, yall. Believe it or not.
Oh no, I aint happy to be an official orphan.
But I am happy knowing that despite his flaws, despite having diabetes, high blood pressure, and blocked arteries, my father had found out how to celebrate the simple things — playing cards with his second wife Pearl, tending to his yard, maintaining his pick-up truck, presiding over a family barbecue in his backyard. He had found a way of making these common affairs into memorable rituals that satisfied the family in all of us.
When I spoke at Daddy’s funeral, unlike when I testified at Ma’s in 1984, I was part of the official program, yet I could only speak in my most unofficial voice. Standing in the pulpit of the Ebenezer AME Church, facing a hushed crowd of over 200 mourners, I searched for my tongue. I found it only when I forgot the body laying in the casket below me in the sharp gray suit, and remembered the man (and the best of what he stood for) that everybody had come to praise.
“I feel Southeast up in here,” I began, referring to the section of Washington, D.C., me and my brothers and sisters will always consider home, despite now living in Maryland, Florida, and California. Many of the mourners were neighbors from the days we spent in the Parklands apartments during the 60s. I could feel folks letting a smile peek through their tears. “I feel family up in here yall! I see the faces of people who what it mean to say, ‘I’m from D.C. I’m from Southeast.'”
I said it meant, at rock bottom, looking out for each other, covering each other’s backs. I said it meant old friendships through which I still filter new personal hook-ups. I said it meant a neighborhood loveliness that shines despite Southeast being, statistically speaking, the area of D.C. most afflicted over the years with more crime, poor housing, more death, and all that. A neighborhood loveliness that recalls and era of freeze-frame moments for me and those who came to send off my father: Sledding down Radar Hill over on Stanton Road. Doowopping at the mailbox on the corner of Stanton Road and Trenton Street. Playing one-on-one games of off-the-wall baseball against the brick buildings of Parklands, where we drew a box for the strike zone. Summer days playing the fields and in the woods across Mississippi Avenue. Winter nights playing snow-cushioned tackle football behind the buildings on 18th Street. Potato salad by Miss Joyce Fox so good it should have been freeze-dried for space shuttle astronauts. Dinner tables always big enough for the child of a neighbor who had to work late or who just didn’t have it all together. Enough nosiness to stay in the know, but respect, or savvy, enough to channel gossip into a daily willingness to live and let live.
Daddy was the lightning rod for my neighbor’s communion. I hated that he was dead, but I loved that I could speak about him to his friends, drinking buddies, co-workers and loved ones.
“Yall know Daddy as a friend and neighbor,” I continued. “But yall may not know too much about koshies!” That was Daddy’s word for kisses when we were kids. He’d call you over to him in his best baby talk: Give me some koshies, he’d say. Then he’d smack big, sloppy kisses upside your cheeks. Joyous moments of tenderness from a father who often worked two jobs or more — in addition to his day gig as lead gardener with the Potomac Electric Power Co. — and sometimes didn’t have time to be Daddy.
By now, I had the mourners laughing outright.
My family, all sitting on the front four or five pews to my right, smiled in recognition. I could Glenn, my oldest brother, laugh loudest and shout, “That’s right!” Koshies — which I acted like I hated as a kid, which I’ll never feel again — soothed me as I spoke at Daddy’s funeral. Allowed me to zero in on the only antidote for the pain I was feeling.
The antidote is joy. Honest focus on the plain, powerful acts of love between me and Daddy, between Daddy and his family, between our family and our neighbors, and between all of us who remember Parklands and those new lovers and mates, children and neighbors, compadres and co-workers in our lives. The antidote is trust in the purity of those acts as building blocks for living in a way that creates life-giving, life-sustaining memories we can draw on when death comes creeping, when we’re under personal and social siege, when we need a cushion, just because.
These are the kinds of memories that form the elemental layers of mythology. And frankly, the more I think about it, they are real insulation for my daily and symbolic life as a brother dedicated to living humanely. In a world where I can become the boogey man in a minute — fingered out the mouths of murderers from suburban Boston to rural South Carolina — elevating my personal memories into instructive mythology might just keep me sane or calm enough to speak the magic words of self preservation when I find myself in the center of of the light from a police flashlight, or dying while the opening credits roll in “Jurassic Park,” or even facing down another young brother whose brain is on cultural vapor lock.
As I add layers to my mythology — improvising on the keys to better living, gleaning the secrets I’ve learned from the let’s get it on of my life — my confidence grows. I join with other men seeking to keep on keeping on. We swap our tales of families that coped, of love that lasted, of urban lives built on rural gumption, until a common body of inspiration lives and breathes, ready for freddy with a language as natural as Smokey’s “Tracks of My Tears,” a wisdom familiar as Richard Pryor’s Mudbone stories, and a mutual ownership as gracious as the standing dinner invitation of a favorite aunt and uncle.
This is the mythology we save because of self-love. It aint no joke, and, quiet as it’s kept, it aint no myth.
During my last visit with Pops, in the 93 Christmas/Kwanzaa season, he glowed cause I was home, along with my teenaged son and daughter. And when it came time for that December 25th meal, he was overjoyed to be in the number that also included my two big brothers and their current wives (even their ex-wives were up in the spot). My two younger sisters, one with her husband and the other with her fiancé were also home. And all the grandchildren were home stuffing their happy faces. Home with him and Pearl, his beloved second wife, who had cooked everything but the turkey and the ham. Pops himself, you see, specialized in barbecuing the turkey and the ham on the grill in the back yard — snow and The December Hawk be damned!
The Harrises filled the brick house in Temple Hills, Maryland. The food made the dining room table sag. As folk laughingly fixed plates from the buffet, Daddy sat beside me on the sofa. I could smell that he’d been tasting the corn liquor his older brother had supplied from our family’s rural Stomping Grounds in Powhatan, Virginia. I resisted my gut reaction to dis him for drinking and affectionately palmed the back of his head, put my arm around his shoulders, and waited for turn at the table.
“Peter,” he said, his voice slurred more with emotion than the liquor. “I’m so happy that everybody could be here.”
I nodded in agreement and squeezed his shoulders. He looked with pride over to men and women, boys and girls, piling homemade food onto their plates. Then he said to me under his breath, his voice this time slurred more with the liquor than emotion:
“Look at that ham! Just look at it! Hacked to pieces! Goddamn it! Can’t nobody never carve it right.”
I had forgotten this pet peeve of his; after all, I been a vegetarian since 79. But as long as I’d known him, he really did get pissed if you cut chunks, rather than slices, off a ham or turkey. Especially if he’d been tasting.
But this wasn’t the time nor the place for his Gemini-ass to trip off into his growling, evil twin.
“It aint nothing but dead meat, no way,” I cracked, playfully punching his shoulder. “Go head over there and cut it up right, if it’s messing with you so much.”
“Naw, naw, it’s too late now. It’s already been fucked up. I’m leaving it alone,” he said.
He gazed once more at the sacrificial ham. Checked out his loved ones enjoying themselves and settled back into the sofa with an expression of simmering contentment.
In the end, the pull of our ritual was too hip to resist. He was satisfied with having spoken his peace — which was only right, according to the psychic Man of the House Manual he lived by. But finally he was, I believe, glad to just groove on the sounds of enjoyment after a life of work and raising a family. Sitting pretty for a country boy with no formal education and nothing saditty about him. He had reached 69 the hard way — one anonymous day at a time.
He was happy.
That’s what fuels the happiness at the core of my sadness over his death. The advice I gave my father over the ham was the kind of thing he would say to me when I was tripping.
You got to have a understanding, he liked to say, something simple, full of proverb, but always focused on the bottom line, the basic concern. Sometimes, you got to do what you gotta do.
Now I gotta do this:
Live everyday with heroic sincerity, revolutionary courtesy, and militant self- and cultural-affirmation as the poly-rhythms fomenting the personal timbre that alerts everybody I meet to the priorities and principles my life embodies. Sho you right! On the interpersonal tip, these rhythms have certainly been the pulsating mortar holding me together during an adulthood of divorce, physical and emotional distance from my children and family, bankruptcy, blended families, and under- and unemployment. The strength of these rhythms goes beyond the personal, though. On the social level, I believe when I amplify the percussion of these qualities with a democratic willingness to meet folk eye-to-eye, work with folk shoulder-to-shoulder, we become the downbeat for movements that challenge us all to change the world for the better.
I am accepting the challenge of being a man of the 21st century. Modern, confident in the usefulness of my personal journey …. Traditional, grounded in the validity of of the wisdom of my forerunners …. Dedicated, energized by the unsung genius I find in the unexpected meetings with Black men of change …. Humble, educated by the inevitable blues that come with love, fatherhood, individuality, and the turning of seasons.
I face the millennium happy. Not happy-go-lucky, face frozen with an all-purpose grin of protocol. Happy. Embracing a full palette of my emotions. Current in my substantial emotional conversations with family, lovers, colleagues. A striking individual devoted to expressing myself with candor and as much eloquence as I can muster in whatever situations I find myself. Prioritizing communication over the comfort of my listeners. I face the millennium happy. Not happy-go-lucky, and with this understanding:
I am the world. I got the whole world in my hands. I got my life in my hands. I got the lives of everybody I meet in my hands. I meet a lot of Black men. I am a Black man. We are the world. We got our lives in our hands. I am the Black man of happiness. I risk saying that we don’t need to fret over dead meat no more. I refuse to be dead meat no more. I risk joy and I act on my faith.
I risked my faith at Daddy’s funeral and I was rewarded with amens and hugs and confirmation of my deepest, most powerful memories. I am convinced that happiness is not only an essential ingredient in the antidote against pain. It is the enzyme we need to be the catalyst for galvanizing the relationships between Black men and Black men, which will enrich the relationships between Black men and their loved ones. A contagious, generous happiness — politically charged to throw-down against white supremacist notions of Black male inclinations — can indeed be our new currency of exchange, electrifying our communications and interactions, as we build on the common historical memories and mythology we share of struggle, accomplishment, and high style. Replacing imposed celebrations of the so-called standards of male behavior with standards we cultivate ourselves. Allowing our own definitions of happiness to marinate us, keep us thinking with the cultural flexibility that defines the best of what it has meant to be a Black man.
My father, my most intimate symbol of what it has meant to be a Black man, tried to be happy all his life. I know this because he hold me himself. He drank Smirnoff vodka to be happy. He bought a Cadillac to be happy. He ate candy and ham and fried chicken to be happy. He struggled 40 years to love his first wife and 10 years to love his second wife to be happy. He grew vegetables and roses to be happy. He even accepted personal weight for his wrongs and apologized to be happy. And when he died, hundreds of people were moved by this complicated, cranky man full of generous happiness and braved one of those cold January days in D.C. to come honor him.
Now I am living simply, Daddy’s number three son, yes. But jacked up a notch by relentless testimony, because the lessons from his proud, anonymous life should not remain anonymous. They are necessary to my living a satisfied life as an African American man. I publicly insist that those lessons (along with others I learned from Ma and my other teachers) be part of our mythology and any of our discussions about freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
I am a caretaker of the lessons of my father’s life. I am the Black man of happiness. I got a big mouth. I plan on walking the walk that back up the talk, too. You better bet it!