Lessons from Thurmond’s Daughter

I published this essay more than a decade ago in the Albany Times Union, but it still feels poignant today, especially on Father’s Day.

Listening to Essie Mae Washington-Williams share her dramatic story about her relationship with her father, Strom Thurmond, I envied her. It reminded me that I had never really had one with my father.
As a young boy, I remember crying and imploring my mother to change my surname, Obel-Omia, which was my father’s first and last name. When he came to America to study at the University at Albany, he had combined his given name, Obel, and his surname, Omia, to create a new name for the new world.
At least those were the comforting words my mother spoke to me when I cried because of the taunts my odd name prompted. I heard this story from my mother because my father wasn’t there to tell it: He returned to Uganda in 1970, when I was 4 years old, and I never saw him again. In 2000, I learned from a half-brother in Uganda that our father had died in 1996.
With great bravery, Washington-Williams told us, “I don’t need anything from (Strom Thurmond) now in his death. I am only finishing the story that will be told when this chapter in history is written.”
She had a “good relationship” with him, even if it was secretive and distant. She never sought to embarrass him or hurt his political career, because he was her father, and she could not imagine doing that.
I understand her decision, even if the “circumstances of (her) birth were not traditional,” because she at least had a “lifetime of warm and friendly encounters” with her father. Her clandestine relationship was personal, never political, and I respect her for doing whatever she could to keep that relationship special, even if she felt imprisoned by it.
Her struggle to have a relationship differs from my struggle to build a life without a relationship, but her words nevertheless forced my father back into my thoughts. She admired her father; I resented mine.
Many in the African-American community, angry with the segregationist stand that her father rode to fame despite his hypocritically intimate relationship with a black woman, wish that Essie Mae Washington-Williams had come forward while he was alive. Her doing so might have exposed Thurmond’s hypocrisy, forcing him to reposition himself on civil rights long before he did.
Her doing so also might have made many African-Americans in the same position — sons and daughters of miscegenation, which, of course, was illegal in the South — feel less ashamed of their dirty secret. Christine Milton, a woman who lives in Los Angeles, said, “For that woman to be so closed mouth, she should be ashamed of herself, especially for trying to protect him” (“Thurmond story stirs emotions,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15).
The anger stems from Washington-Williams’ protecting a man who abandoned her, defamed her black heritage with ugly words and powerful legislation, and died without acknowledging her existence in his very public and influential life. Those angry with her should remember that she was a powerless black woman.
Growing up in South Carolina in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, she probably was aware of many blacks who were harassed, tortured and killed for far less than what she was expected to do: Stand up to one of the most influential senators of the late 20th century.
Besides, it was Thurmond’s responsibility to acknowledge her and accept her; he was the adult, the parent in the relationship. Don’t ask her or expect her to do something that should have been done by the one with power in the relationship.
I understand the anger of some, but I choose to admire her, because she nurtured a relationship. Even if it was distant, it existed. Even as she heard him speak scornful words about our people and watched him pass ruinous legislation designed to retard our development and deny us our rights, and felt him deny her publicly, she still nurtured a personal relationship with him.
I never saw my father after he returned to Uganda, and I rarely heard from him. His occasional letters only incited my anger, so I did nothing to make the relationship work, even as I grew into adulthood.
My mother-in-law and the headmaster of the school where I teach both encouraged me to rekindle the relationship. My headmaster even offered to pay for my traveling to Africa to meet my father. But I refused to do so, partly out of my own obstinacy and ignorance, and partly out of respect for my mother: He abandoned her, too, when he left. With more maturity and perspective than I had, Washington-Williams had something that I will never have, and I envy her.
My oldest son is 4 years old — the same age I was when my father left. Seeing him and how vulnerable he is, how much he needs me, only makes me yearn for my father more. I cannot make up for what he did, but I can stay involved in my son’s life and make sure he never needs to write an essay like this one; he will never question how I feel about him, publicly or privately, because I will always be there for him.
Washington-Williams, in acknowledging her relationship to Thurmond, noted, according to The Associated Press, “I feel as though a great weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free.”
She proudly states who she is, and she has reclaimed her history, in part, by forgiving the man who trespassed against her. In this holiday season, as we try to figure out what we should give our loved ones, I hope that all fathers refuse to weigh down their children and to shackle them with doubt and instead validate their children, share their history with them and give them the gift of time.
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