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An Ode to My Quaker Father: Growing Up Black and Quaker

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The author with her father. Photo courtesy of Melissa Valentine.

1.

I am sitting on a grass lawn at the University of California, Berkeley, holding a sign surrounded by Quakers from Berkeley Meeting. I am more aware of the treat Dad has promised me than of the meaning of the sign I’m holding at the peaceful vigil against nuclear weapon production. It’s just Dad and me today. The way he smiles at me makes me aware that he is proud of me, of what we’re doing. His pat on my back is searing in significance: sharing this with his five-year-old daughter is profound.

2.

Religion, like race, is demanded: “What are you?” I struggle to explain: “I am mixed; my dad is white and from Pennsylvania, my mom is black and from Alabama. That makes me black and white, but I consider myself black.” I struggle to explain: “I am Quaker—no, not like Quaker Oats, well, sort of. No, not Amish. Yes, there is such a thing as a black Quaker. We don’t go to church; we go to meeting. We don’t sing or preach; we are silent.”

3.

In Sunday school our teacher opens the door to the meeting room where the kids find the closed-eyed adults. I see my brother, Junior, and some other boys and girls coming from the adolescent and teen group to join us. We all enter the meeting room where benches are circled around the center of the room. Dad sees us. He smiles and moves over so we can sit next to him. The shuffling of seats and whispers of the children make some people wake up from their naps. Some people open their eyes to smile at us. From the wooden bench, my feet do not touch the ground. The carpeted floor is covered with feet in Birkenstocks, wool socks, clogs, and sneakers. I look up at Dad whose eyes are closed, a smile on his face.

4.

People stand up and talk about deaths, the war, and people with cancer. They talk, pause, talk, pause, cry, and sit back down. Someone farts. Someone snores. A man in a wheelchair smiles at me when he notices I am staring at him. His gray beard rises as he smiles. I look in another direction at the man who dresses like a lady in the back row. She sits in the same spot every week in a gray, two-piece suit; red lipstick; and an ash blonde wig. Her big hands sit cozily in her lap; her eyes are closed; and a smile creeps across her face, above a stubbly chin. Next to her is the only black man. There’s one black man and one black lady. When Mom comes, there are two black ladies.

5.

Junior is writhing next to me. He’s covering his mouth to hold in a laugh. When I look at him, he points to the man across from us who is asleep and whose head keeps falling and snapping back up, falling and snapping back up. I purse my lips and hold in my laughter, too. That’s when Dad suddenly looks like he might growl and his rough claws appear and he squeezes our small hands and we both squeal, “Ouch,” and everyone stares at us. It is hard work to sit in silence.

6.

I become a teenager and my brother, Junior, is killed. I question my faith on every level. I stop attending meeting. I am sick of everyone calling me my sister’s name. I don’t know where I fit in. Mom and Dad go every Sunday. I think Mom knows that I don’t quite know how to connect, so she tells me that during meeting she prays for all of her children, as though giving me instruction. Though this moves me, I think I don’t know how to pray. She is a southern Baptist turned Quaker. I am a Quaker turned—.

7.

When I am old enough to accept and experience my parents as adults, as people, as human, I see how Quaker values have deeply influenced me. My father is very flawed; he and I have a complicated relationship, but I come back to the moment we shared at the vigil when I was five and he taught me how to transmit love through action. I can feel the invisible pat on my back. Even though I am thirty, I feel five when I look at him; how good and kind he is, how accepting, how caring—the gifts he gave me.

8.

I sit in the back of the room at the People of Color meditation night in downtown Oakland, California. It’s my first time sitting quietly like this in a group since meeting for worship. Dad and Junior are not on either side of me; I am a grown up; I am alone; I have a greater capacity for quiet now. I have a greater capacity.

9.

Each time I travel to some new part of the world, I return and show Mom and Dad my photos. Some of the photos I’ve taken just for them, documenting every little detail because they’ve never left the country; they appreciate the mundane. Mom begs me, “Please come to meeting and share these; they would really enjoy seeing these …” I resist. I think no one will know my name.

10.

I am traveling in Croatia alone. I am thinking a lot, reflecting, feeling grateful; it is overwhelming. Dad and I write to each other lovingly, deeply, poetically. I read an email from Dad that makes me weep. He writes, “You make me feel like the moon, picking up the reflected light from a bright sun far away.” He reminds me of my Light.

Melissa Valentine is a writer and acquisitions editor living in Oakland, Calif. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Mills College. In 2013, Melissa was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters writing contest. Her work has appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine. She is currently at work completing her memoir, The Names of All the Flowers.


Posted in: Features, October 2014: Experience of Friends of Color

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7 Responses to An Ode to My Quaker Father: Growing Up Black and Quaker

  1. Sharon Smith October 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    “I am a Quaker turned -” I can relate.

    • Chuck Castro October 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

      City & State
      Silverton, Or
      you are a Quaker turned what? I’d describe myself as a Quaker with strong Unitarian,Buhdist and pantheistic leanings. Best to you. C

  2. tonya October 3, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Good reflection.

  3. Chris King October 5, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    City & State
    Sherborn MA
    I know that feeling of being far from meeting. Some there might not understand, but sometimes you need to be far from home. Doesn’t mean you don’t care or have lost your way. It means you need more right now, a certain lack of boundaries. This I also see when I look at my biracial son. There is a joy in the possibility of not being labeled or categorized and yet being all the spirits contained within you.

  4. Lydia Wexler October 5, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    City & State
    Burnsville, NC
    Thank You, Melissa! Nice piece. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  5. Aunt Tracy October 19, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    City & State
    ME
    Melissa Dear, you have captured a complex picture in a few words. Parenting, love, values, a child’s eye view of a mysterious rite of the Meeting for Worship in the Friends tradition, questions, events, transitions, family racial mix and growing up. That’s a lot in a10 paragraph piece. You are able to draw pictures of clarity and invitation.
    I welcome more of your richness.

  6. Roberta Llewellyn October 26, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    City & State
    Oakland, CA
    Hi Melissa, thank you for sharing your experience of being black and white and growing up in meeting…wherein many years ago I was a First Day School teacher to both your brother and your older sister. I miss seeing them, still. I hope I did not forget your name when I encountered you whether it be at meeting or in the neighborhood where your family and I lived? I miss seeing you, as well. I am so glad you became a writer…do you still dance?

    Best, Roberta

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