It was the middle of December 2010, but sweaty hot in Lagos, Ghana. My friend and university colleague, Loretta Bass, and I were trying to navigate dust and sidewalk in a compact industrial and residential area looking for one man.
He was the sole contact for a Ghana-based site connected to the Opportunities Industrialization Center,or O.I.C. This innovative job training program has a long and illustrious story, but I only wanted to know about one topic at that moment—my Dad, John J. Carstarphen Sr.
I left that short visit to go on to finish the university business that had sent me to Africa without finding anything that I thought I needed to know about Dad. So, I was stunned to open my email a short time later to find that this tenuous meet-and-greet with a man I didn’t know produced something precious to me about a man I did know. There was attached a picture of a group of people, including my Dad, who went to Africa four decades ago to help expand the O.I.C. success to Africa.
If you look at this picture on the back row, on the right, you will see a man in a white shirt mostly hidden and almost absorbed into the background. That was Dad. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare about him and he wasn’t famous. He worked hard and tried to make a difference for people in his sphere of influence.
As kids growing up, my brothers and I knew, vaguely, that Dad traveled sometimes for work and would be gone for a long time. This picture put an important layer of reality to his job, and life for me.
Today we honor fathers and the meaning of “fathering,” and indeed we should. Yet, I bet for many of us, we honor mysteries and hidden lives. We grow up seeing the outer shape of a man doing what we expect dads to do, but often we have no real idea of what they experience as men, trying to find their places in this world.
Two literary geniuses of our modern times tried to reveal this world to us. One was the playwright Arthur Miller. He wrote Death of A Salesman and is frequently remembered as one of actor Marilyn Monroe’s husbands. But in this play, Miller wrote one of the most piercing insights into the life of an ordinary working man and a father to be written. On June 10, this drama one a 2012 Tony Award for the “Best Revival” with performances that apparently impressed judges and critics, as have previous versions starring actors Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman. As we see the main character, Willie Loman, pummeled by life and in conflict with his sons, we hear him cling to the vision of himself where he is someone special. I am not a dime a dozen, he says. I am Willie Loman.
Another dramatic masterpiece of equal power is August Wilson’s Fences. Recognized as one of our country’s greatest playwrights, August Wilson wrote from the context of the African American experience. In Fences, the main protagonist is Troy Maxson, who gives insight into his complex worldview after a contentious exchange with his son. Explaining why he doesn’t have to “like” his son to provide for him, Troy finishes a punishing exchange by giving his son a life lesson: Don’t worry if someone likes you; just make sure they do right by you.
These plays feature two ordinary mean, with two different worldviews but a shared emotional core. Both believe that they are more valuable than what the world has known of them. One strives vainly for this recognition, while another burns slowly under the weight of knowing that he will never achieve it. Yet, as Miller wrote in his play, “attention must be paid” to men like Willie, to men like Troy, and all of the vast numbers of men who are not named. Have you wondered—is your dad a Willie or a Troy?
Today, and throughout the year, let’s pay attention. We should attend to the men who are fathers not just because they have biological bragging rights, but because they go to work every day and come home. They may be the step-parents, grand-parents, god-parents or “spiritual” dads to children of all ages. They may be the husbands of some father’s daughter. Whoever they are, they are the foundations of what we know and what we think we know, because they showed up, and kept showing up when they didn’t have to.
My dad was a mystery in many ways to us kids. He went to Africa and other places for work, but he always came back. Now, my brother is working on an ambitious film project that will help shed light on what he was coming back to, and what so many other men of his generation had to face. This documentary is called The Wall, and it is stunning so far. John is still a way from completing it as he works on acquiring more investments [hint, hint] for this amazing project.
Let me know what you think.