My father died before Christmas in 1973 when I was young. Very young. Most of my memories of him are unreliable-some of them are things that people told me and they conflict with things that I recall directly. I was 9 or so when he died. As I said I was young.
The photo is from my maternal grandparents home (so I am told). It’s one of two photos I have of my father and me together. I think I am 2, but I am not certain. I treasure this image. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, what it has to tell me about my father. It is only a photograph, captured light on chemically treated paper. It’s not my father, but it’s as close as I can get.
This image was made with a camera, not a phone, a Polaroid. The photographer was probably by my maternal Grandfather, who took the majority of pictures in my family. Using a camera back then was a major activity. A lot of work to prepare to capture a split-second of light.
The gazes in the photo are clear. My father is looking at me and my attention is focused on the camera, with an awareness that seems preternatural but is probably just the result of my grandfather asking me to look in his direction so he could press the shutter release. My pose is languid and reminiscent of Monroe (someone of whom, at the moment depicted, I am utterly unaware). I am reclining, theatrically and posed, on my dad as if he is a piece of furniture. He looks at me intently with a smile teasing the edges of his mouth.
Every time I look at this picture, I am stunned by my father’s beauty.
A framed copy of this photo is on the wall of my house. (I scanned and enlarged it, and hand colored it-that’s what you are looking at above). I do not have a memory of this moment, I only have the photo. I cannot tell you who was there or what any of us were thinking. All I have as evidence that this moment of contact between my father and me ever happened is this photo. My grandparents and parents are all dead, so there is no one to ask about this photo. All I have is the photo and because of that, I have had to figure out all of this out for myself.
My life’s work as an artist has been analyzing the petit betrayals that come from the language of the body. When I look at this picture as an artist, I decipher that language. I see a man in work clothes looking at child, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. His shirt sleeves are rolled up. I can see his watch. I see a small child in Sunday clothes (white shirt and shoes, braces, bow tie) reclining with the languor of a silent film star-and doing so at an age where he would have no idea what a silent film star is. I see the gazes that go from the man’s face, to the child’s to the viewer. I see how massive the man’s hand is on the child’s belly; it almost dwarfs the child’s head. It reminds me of the power of parents and how artists like Mary Cassatt were able to talk about protection and strength in the hands of parents ministering to their children. (You can see this evidenced in The Child’s Bath. Look at the size of the mother’s hand.)
I do not dismiss the fact that the child in the photo is me, at around 2 years old, in my maternal grandparents home, in the lap of my autoworker father. I am lying on his lap like a movie star. And not just any movie star, I am like a femme fatale, an ingenue, with a camera that has created the fiction of a particular kind of internal awareness that is not present (if it were present, I would have a memory of it). How did i figure out how to pose like that? Was it just an accident of the moment?
I do not know. I cannot know. But I do tell myself things about this photo. Some of these things are based on the bodies and the language that they convey, and some of these things are hopes. Some of them may be lies. I do not know. The photo is what it is, but it is also an index what it represents. Because it is all I really have to go on about my relationship with my father, the photo does a lot of work.
In a real way, the photo has become my only witness to my father loving me.
Sometimes, I think that my father is looking at me with love. Part of this is because of the time I have spent looking at the paintings of Mary Cassatt, so that has framed the way I think about images of parents and children. I think my father is smiling at me because he is tickled my my pose. He is amused with me. His comfort with holding me appears evident-he is not annoyed that I am using him as a pillow. He is content for his little boy to recline on him. I think he sees me. I think he sees the theatrical in his child and it makes him smile.
And, sometimes, I think that the photo is evidence of my father’s terror. I am posed like a a pre-Code vixen on his lap. I am theatrical, passive, and languid. (My ankles are even crossed in the classic manner of female modesty in paintings.) My pose can be understood as feminine. Knowing who I am, I can see that this is a photo of a gay little boy and his father. I can see this now. I am guessing that my father saw it then. When I think about this, I think that my father is holding me the way he is in order to protect me. The smile actually feels like less like joy and more like tension. He is not seeing me with humor, he is seeing me as the little gay boy that I am. And he is afraid.
My father died long before I ever came out. I often wonder if he still would have loved me if he knew I was gay. On my best days, I think that this photo shows that he did know and that he loved me and wanted to protect me. I try to hold on to that.
In the short time I had with my father, I do remember him explaining things about being a man to me. I had him from July 1963 to December 1973. He was a man shaped by brutal racism and segregation. He was tough because there was not another way to be. I was told not to cry when something hurt. To stand up for myself. To be strong. To fight and to not be a “punk.” Being a punk was bad, it was one of the worst things someone could call you. “Punks” were weak.
I think about these lessons a lot in the current moment. You see, it is very different to be gay now. Now there is Pride and liberation and LGBTQA and the Human Rights Campaign Fund and Will and Grace and Ellen. There are gay people on television. All of that stuff is relatively new (and it must be said is framed for the most part around a white male subjectivity).
Now, a black man raising what he may have known was a gay child in 1964 did not have access to any of that stuff. My father was not telling me to be strong because he was homophobic-I do not even think that idea was present for him. He was telling me to be strong because he was trying to protect me because in his way, he knew what I was and he knew what the world would do to a black gay boy. I think he was trying to protect me from that, not because he hated gay people, but because he wanted to protect me from the world that devoured black boys and the only way he knew to do that was to try to make me tough. He did not want me to end up as a “punk.”
I am 55. There is no doubt in my mind that my father loved me. None. Mostly because I have told myself that he did and because I have this tiny image of the two of us. His joy and delight and fear for me is all evident in the structure of gazes and the comfort of poses. I know he sees who I am, he sees what I am, and he makes a gesture to protect me with his massive hand in the midst of my most theatrical and feminized self-presentation for my grandfather’s camera.