A Road Trip With Your Father In Honor of His 74th Birthday, In Playlist Form

1. When Doves Cry — Prince

Dig if you will the picture. A choreographer who is one of your father’s oldest friends is driving like Paris-Hilton-in-Rome through the parking lot of a fancy hotel. You are repressing a smile in the backseat because black people who drive recklessly make you feel like THE REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN. The choreographer says into his phone, “Did you pick up Sade?” And all sound stops. Walking toward the hotel in a torn Anne Taylor Loft sweater that you have worn for every professional or semi-formal encounter you’ve had over the course of the last five years along with what your girlfriend calls “your Whole Foods pants,” you turn to your father and mouth the word: “Sade?” He stage-whispers back, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

For the next ten minutes you are not sure whether or not you will be dining with a woman who, at 51, told Beyonce ALL ABOUT “Formation” while throwing a lasso around in circles above her silver-suited body on the white stallion version of Mars.

This is what it’s like to travel with your father.

2. When Doves Cry — Prince

Your father is the kind of person who announces, loudly, “My daughter is gay,” when he hears people talking shit about gay stuff, even if this is not the language you would use to describe your sexual identity. Your father is also the single person in the world who knows best how to frustrate you enough that you could dislodge a telephone pole and throw it across the street. This may be why the last time you went on a road trip he called you a witch, at a point in time when the term was not widely synonymous with words like “intuitive” and “grounded.”

There will be a moment in Battleboro when your father is standing in the middle of the street whispering angrily about your temper on the phone to your mom while you scream “GET OUT OF THE STREET” but we have gotten ahead of ourselves.

3. When Doves Cry — Prince

How does one find oneself on a road trip with one’s father smack dab in the middle of their 34th year of life and on the very first day of his 74th? Especially given their tricky track record with father-daughter road trips? Well what would you do if somebody invited you to be part of a literary festival in a town with lots of gorges? Catch up on season five of Girls in the light-drenched room of your fancy B and B while sipping coffee or wine in your pjs?

No. This is no time for greeting cards. When you are invited to a literary festival, there is no one in the world who can help you appreciate the honor like the father whose literary ambitions you have sauntered off with like an over-eager relay racer. You invite your father to fly into Ithaca so that he can join you for each and every event associated with the festival. “My dad can come to another comped dinner? No—really, you don’t have to—are you sure? OK.”

And good that he did. Who else would ask the South African short story writer about the Rhineland Bastards over Thai Food? And over coffee the next day? And after the Q and A the next next day?

It is much more fun to watch Girls with the volume almost all the way down while your father sleeps in the actual bed and you sleep on the can-you-believe-it-they-just-so-happened-to-have-a-day-bed-don’t-let-him-sleep-in-a-motel with your ear facing the television. All you have to do is fast forward through the sex scenes, lest he wake up and ask why you are so fascinated by these constantly naked white people with tattoos.

4. When Doves Cry — Prince

You find out that Prince has died from your girlfriend on the phone after something actually true happened — which is that Pam Grier liked her tweets. Pam Grier liked your girlfriend’s tweets about Prince.

There is a poet at the conference who was born in Somalia and grew up in Ohio and who looks like THE SUN EXPLODED AND A WOMAN WALKED OUT. She spent the evening before Prince died whispering some kind of Lorraine Hansberry meets Nina Simone pure gold wisdom art-love into your ear and your heart was healed and your dad was there and it was his birthday and everybody sang even though they just met him. All of this to say that when the poet sings “When Doves Cry” at the beginning of her reading, all of Ithaca falls silent.

While the poet sings Prince your father places his audio recorder underneath the video camera set up by the conference organizers, just barely managing to not knock it down. There are moments during the festival when you and your father and the poet are the only black people in the room. Even when he is not there, when you are the only black person in the room, he is also there.

5. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Festivals have to end. A lot of Thai food happens. A lot of grace and a lot of Thai food and your father seems to have enjoyed it. It’s necessary to drive many miles away in order to arrange for a car rental and a very short man who waxes poetic about how much he loves his grandson is involved. Also, a microwave and some leftovers that your father seems to think you have made into too much of a thing just throw that away. The taxi driver who is playing with everybody’s heartstrings requires a lot of eye contact in the rearview mirror, so you are relieved when your father jumps into the conversation with questions about things like Bismarck. This is a purple taxi. PURPLE.

There is an adage about men not wanting to ask for directions. But when you and your father have driven back from Cowshead to Ithaca and exhausted yourselves at the bookstore’s big annual sale, you let him talk about Lena Horne’s daughter for a good half hour while pretending to know how to get to Rochester. You discover that there are such things as white “mystery” Airheads while buying a map at a gas station fifteen miles out of the way. Your father, unsure where you have gone, makes conversation with people who look, when you return, utterly bewildered by the both of you.

Because you drove without knowing where you were going for so long, he gives you the silent treatment for awhile before returning to the monologue he started about Gail Lumet, Lena Horne’s daughter. There are things to know, apparently, about Gail’s husband, about some books that some people associated with both of them have written about Vietnam, and about a book that was never written about Vietnam. You love that your father is interested in this information without quite knowing what to do with it.

The audiobook that your father has chosen for your journey to Vermont involves a question that, though explored in a manner that does not make you feel fully awake, elicits an exchange of raised eyebrows between the two of you: “Why aren’t Africans, Aborigines and Eurasians the ones who decimated, subjugated and exterminated other nations?”

Why indeed.

At different phases of the drive you are working together, like when you turn by the vineyard. At other phases of the drive you are not working together, like when he realizes you are going to be late for dinner with Garth, and you, your father, the phone and the freeway enter into some kind of military industrial complex. “BE NICER” you say when he answers the phone with subpar enthusiasm and the violence of your tone makes the car shake.

6. When Doves Cry — Prince

The Sade who joins you at the hotel restaurant is not the Sade who gave you all the love she got and gave you more than she could give and gave you love. But she is a Sade who, you realize after a bit of googling, can flex muscles in her leg that most people will never know about and who may be one of the best dancers in the world even though she went to school to be a doctor. She will talk to you about making paintings in Romania while you eat food that tastes like dreams of food.

A waiter whose persona seems to have been inspired by Steve Martin’s “hamburger” scene in the remake of The Pink Panther keeps pouring wine. You win an argument about the name of a jazz biopic even though your sparring partner has spent some SERIOUS time with Wynton Marsalis. By the end of the day you will hear stories about artists whose names you have searched for in the stacks of many libraries, stories that begin with, “Romie called me one morning” and end with a dick joke wherein the butt of the joke is, somehow, the New York Times. You fall asleep in a blue room on a mattress that wants your lower back to just go ahead and peace out. But you feel like the number one luckiest girl in the world.

Downstairs in the dark, Aunt Jemima smiles from the confines of a framed poster, giving everybody the middle finger.

7. Rumble in the Jungle (feat. Busta Rhymes, ATCQ) — The Fugees

When your father is one of very few black photojournalists for Newsweek magazine in the sixties, seventies and eighties, you get to have childhood memories like this one, wherein a house, dimmed, smells like food. A slow-moving legend moves in and out of rooms. Someone is getting something for somebody else. This is the moment when you will learn that Muslims don’t eat pork, which is something you learn because Muhammed Ali explains it to you. He pulls you onto his lap and proceeds, with painstaking precision, to write his name onto 20 squares of paper for every person in your elementary school class.

“Who is the greatest?” He asks. The little girl version of you points to the man who every person on the planet has agreed is the greatest. “No,” he says, pointing to your father.

I believe it was Hillary Clinton who said that it takes a boxer who went to a village in Africa to fight George Foreman to raise a child without letting her internalize everything America has told her about blackness and her father.

Ok, Kinshasa is not a village.

8. When Doves Cry — Prince

During a stop at one of many identical rest stops, the two of you stand gaping at a flag wondering what on earth it might be at half mast for. The tragedies have become too profuse to count. “Is it Prince?” You wonder aloud, and you both take a moment to investigate whether or not you believe that that kind of a reality is the same reality that you are currently living in.

A very thin highway brings out a brief speech about a black woman your father once met in the South who had some advice about AAA triptychs that he does not feel as though you are receiving with sufficient gratitude. But maybe this woman sounds like something your father has made up because the description of her lacks the kind of precision he brings to other stories, stories about for example, Gail Lumet. Stories that aren’t a veiled attempt to criticize your route-planning sensibilities.

That night, you are welcomed by old friends who don’t care that they could hear you fighting loudly on the phone. You meet a new friend who spent the day exploring an abandoned mental institution with her camera so who even cares if you got into a fight with your dad — when’s the last time the two of you went on a photography adventure. Anyway, thanks new friend. “Mom says we’re too much alike,” dad says by way of a truce. You drink wine and eat late. Your father tells that one story about performing in Aida for a dollar. The son of this household thinks your father is one of the most interesting humans alive. You practically knock that guy over reclaiming your dad as your own.

9. When Doves Cry — Prince

In Battleboro, you sit in the window of a café together, your father in his fedora, you in your Whole Foods pants, and a man walks by, walks back, walks by, then walks back and enters into the café. “I thought you were a display!” He says, so full of good intentions that the only option is to rejoice in this proclamation along with him.

A little later, your father says, “the black guy we saw earlier didn’t speak,” which begins your favorite conversation, the one about being exaggeratingly cordial with the sparse men and women of color in a small white town. And you say, “the one at the coop?” And he says “there was another one?” And you imitate the way this man nearly fell out of his seat while he watched the two of you. “So there were two,” your father determines.

There is a bookstore with such a good display of African American contemporary poetry that you don’t feel self conscious that the shopkeeper is watching to see if you are stealing. This means a lot, you realize, about poetry.

It is time to go when, at seven o’clock the next morning, your father has unsuccessfully recapitulated Jared Diamond’s explanation for the white supremacist delusion of intellectual superiority in response to a conversation you are having with a tired widow who was hoping you’d end this visit on a slightly more upbeat note.

10. Ol’ Man River — Paul Robeson

Your father will be dropping you off for a teaching gig in a small New Hampshire town. Trump signs dot the horizon with a frequency that has both of you whining softly. When you say something about “the sign,” your father says, “sign of what, the clan?” He’s just getting started. When you say, “That’s where I go when I need to get away” and point to the McDonalds, he says, “So that’s your Black Donalds?” He’s not normally one for puns.

At the restaurant where you have lunch, he chooses a booth far away from the bar full of white men who are watching sports over a mid-afternoon beer. When you grimace at the insulin shot he is about to pierce through his abdomen, he pretends to wave to get the attention of the men at the bar while he pantomimes tying up his arm up like he’s about to shoot heroin and flicks a vein. Who is this guy.

Before seeing him off, you show him to the bathroom of the inn where you will be staying for the night, at the location where you will be parting ways, which was just inundated with many inches of sudden snow. Your father is talking about how Bobby McFerrin’s father would sing arias while he mowed the lawn. A man is trying to get into the bathroom behind your father while he tells the story, for the benefit of a mostly empty lobby, of Paul Robeson in Silverlake and how his neighbors met his daily vocal exercises with thunderous applause.

It is only you and the man who has to pee, and neither of you are clapping, but you feel your awe at the fact of your father filling up every last inch of the room.

11. Pray You Catch Me, Hold Up, Don’t Hurt Yourself, Sorry, 6 inch, Daddy Lessons, Love Drought, Sandcastles, Forward, Freedom, All Night, Formation — Beyonce

Your father blows you a kiss and you watch him drive away in the snow. You get to the hotel room and finally realize what your girlfriend meant in her texts when she kept saying the word Lemonade. You put the laptop on the toilet and watch the film from the hotel bathtub, sobbing.

Even though the entirety of New Hampshire is glowing white, a white guy with white hair at the coffee shop the next morning will ask you apropos of nothing how you think Jay-Z reacted to “Lemonade” and you will say, “Well he’s IN IT,” and life in the big bad world rolls on.

Aisha writes essays about art, race and film from Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared or can soon be found in Ecotone, The Offing, Sierra Nevada Review, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Essay Daily and Guernica, where she serves as a contributing editor. Her book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published by University of Iowa Press in 2013.

Aisha has written 16 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. That was a wonderful read!

    My dad passed away in 2006, but I do remember spending time with him on his 54th birthday. We didn’t have nearly that amount of excitement and travel though. =)

  2. Aisha – I love your writing so much. It reminds me of a mix of essay and poetry. It’s just so damn good. I love your phrasing, style, and the way you put your pieces together. It’s so unique. I am always looking for your pieces anytime I open Autostraddle, so I was thrilled to see this today. It was fantastic as always. Thank you!

  3. Hello everyone! Aisha is currently in the woods with little access to technology, but we used a system of strings and cans to get the message of these very kind comments to her and she has managed to convey to us through a system of cans and string that she is so grateful. Thanks for reading!

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