By Watani Stiner
I was somewhat surprised that my children born in South America don’t seem to share my passion for fighting for racial justice in the United States, that they don’t even see its injustice the way I do. Because of this, it throws into question my assumptions about how they thought about me when we were apart. I wonder what my children were thinking about me when they were in foster care…so young and knowing so little of my story and what had happened to me. Why was I in prison? What was their narrative about me?
After all, they didn’t grow up in this country; that wasn’t the context they were immersed in. They had no conception of the rising intensity of racial antagonism within this country that continues today. Nor had they ever heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. All that my children knew was that they had a loving daddy and then he left, and when he left, things turned into a nightmare.
As a young activist fighting for social justice during the tumultuous 1960s, I was focused on wanting to make a difference for the very reason of wanting children – my children, everyone’s children – to be able to grow up in a just and safe world. I had a big picture view, a revolutionary vision that was a kind of love for them.
Would I do it all again the same way, knowing the huge emotional toll it has taken on my children? I was not there when they needed me most. But my choice was not just about making a difficult decision to join the struggle for social change. It was also about a racist system and the actions of COINTELPRO that limited my choices. I can’t honestly say that there are no regrets. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. However, this time I would be mindful of the collateral damage done to my children. I would never forsake or take for granted the small picture for the big picture.
In a strange way, the ironic outcome of me not being there for them is that my children don’t see or understand the issues like they might have if I had been teaching and dialoguing with them all those years. Sadly but truthfully, being in prison for so many years, separating them from their children, is the plight of so many Black fathers. Because my life was sacrificed for the struggle, the big picture, I didn’t get to raise my own children to see critical social issues as I would want them to. And in fact, a few of my children have some beliefs that are really shocking to me. That is a hard outcome to have, given my life for the struggle.
A thing that feels so poignant to me is that my pregnant daughter Latanya, with her unborn son, proclaims passionately how she will never abandon her child. She will care for him above and beyond any and everything else. She will always be there for him, to comfort, protect and support him in all his dreams and aspirations. For Latanya, there is no issue more compelling and important to her than raising her child. She says, “I can name a million and one incidents where I would rather have had you there than you being where you were because of what you were doing for ‘your people’! So like I said, Dad, the price you paid was not worth it! It’s not that I don’t care. I just care more about my child!”
I realize that Latanya is just as passionate about her unborn child as I was in my passion for revolutionary social change in this country. But I also understand that if the society in which she lives is not just, and sees her son as less-than, then all the love she pours into him and all the protection she offers will not be enough. She will long for changes in society so that he can thrive and grow in the ways every mother wants to see.
It feels tenderly naive to me that she thinks that she on her own can make his world. She can do a lot, but he will have to live in this society. She can “choose him above everything else,” but he and all of us still need activists fighting for justice. My grandson also needs the social justice work I care about. If I have come to any conclusion at all about family and social struggle, it is this: It is not a question of either/or but must be a balance of both/and. My hope for my unborn grandson is that he cries out into a world where justice prevails and Black lives truly matter.