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I will teach you a different sort of dignity

My son sent me the words of a father to his son. Together that makes four of us in the urgent, crucial, and joyful struggle to transcend toxic gender constructs. Four plus you?


Father to Son by BAYO AKOMOLAFE OCTOBER 17, 2017

Tonight, I hold your little head against my flat chest. I am dancing with you as your dangling feet rub against my belly – the place where well-developed abdominal muscles should be, but isn’t.

Don’t worry about my being out of shape, or that I carry your weight for you in our waltzing. Let my feet do the work for now. I’ll dance for us both. One day your feet will be strong enough to dance for us too.

I love you Kyah Jayden Àbáyòmi, my son. I never thought you’d be possible.

Many months ago, your mum’s face became animated as she lay on our bed, her swollen tummy alive with the unspeakable. Suddenly, her jaw hung open with wild excitement; she pointed her slender sceptre of a finger at the tiny bump roaming across the pregnant surface of things. I tiptoed to her side, and watched your first leisurely stroll. Your mum, she wanted more; she grabbed my head and pulled it to her belly. I could hear you, the muffled watery of sounds of enfleshment, the inner sanctum of your playful becomings.

“She’s going to be beautiful,” I said to your mother.

No, that wasn’t an error. I really just wrote ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. You see, I have to confess, your mum and I hoped we’d have two girls. A boy? Nah. We’d heard stories of little boys and all the horrible things they were made of. We didn’t think we would want to parent a boy – especially since, as your mum reminds me over and over again when considering my bodily endowments, I look more like a tortoise with its neck in mid-hello than an Apollonian marble ideal of a man.

I had only sisters growing up, you see.

Didn’t play football.

Didn’t do all the boyish stuff like my friends did.

And my beard is still frozen in its teenage trauma, each pompous strand too heterogeneous and stubborn to be given a family name.

Needless to say, I haven’t been very successful in approximating the images of the masculine broadcasted to us every moment. But I have at least – in more ways than I want to remember – acted out the painful premise that it is a man’s world…an order of things that privileges human bodies like mine, while those that look like your mother’s are made inferior or, worse, invisible.

And, at some level, it must be that my desire to make amends, to rework my colonizing presence, turned me towards the oppressed, towards the so-called ‘weaker ones’.

Yes, your mum and I – irreverent feminists both – wanted just girls. Wanted to tell the people that live around us in this country that girls can be swashbuckling heroes too and don’t always need saving from their stoic counterparts.

And then the lab technician interrupted us as he moved his equipment over your bulbous playground. “Oh it’s not a girl, it’s a boy!” he said, looking at the monitor screen. Your mother and I asked him to be sure. He was quite sure. We weren’t sure what to do with it. Your sister giggled as we sat stone-faced in the car home. What will we do with the dresses we had bought you? The skirts and the girly stuff? What will we do with the name we had already named you? How do we clean your doi-doi (which is what your sister has christened your, erm, penis)? In the car on the way home and the many days that followed, we had so many questions. We were so sure we didn’t want a boy.

How wrong we were!

Ever since you came, the first moment our eyes rested on your immaculate features, we’ve been in love with you. Our most urgent question now is how to stop ourselves from kissing you over and over again.

But those old fears linger, stirred and aroused by the distressing news of women manhandled, abused and parenthesized as playthings. Around us, even among well-intentioned friends, there seems to be the idea that boys ought not to cry. That we ought to raise you strong – where strength, I must stress, isn’t resilience, but absence – a vacancy of feeling, a refusal to cry, a preference of the colour blue, and a certain aloofness that renders you eligible for the highest ordainments of manliness. You are to be a god. A phallic monument to rational disinterestedness. An embroidered mark on the fabric of cold logic. A priest in the temples built to stave off the insurgency of the pagan, the feeling and the uncertain. You are to be confident at all times. A mere giver of seed, unbothered by the messiness of its reception and generativity.

As your father, I have been enlisted for this cause. To stay true to the course. To deliver you at the altar of a narrow and broken masculinity for its blessings, and then to escort you to your new quarters – where you will live in the squalor of disembodiment for the remainder of your days. Where you will grow to become a ‘man’ in the tired sense of the word, lord and ruler. Where you will learn to dance alone, in the desperate silence of tunes repressed. Of colours denied. Of frailties shunned.

So, tonight we will dance, my son. Together. We will unravel the winds about us with our gentle swaying. We will undo the makings of this so-called nature.

Slowly, let’s dance. Let’s heal.

Tomorrow and the morrows after that – and this is the promise of my fatherhood – we will dance again.

I will sing hard to you till my hands tremble under the weight of your sacredness. Yes, your manhood will be made of songs, and you will remember the muscles of my throat and the fragility of my chest.

I will champion your tears and help you see that they are your treasures, libations upon the earth that in turn nurtures you in solemn silence.

I will teach you a different sort of dignity – the one that the seed has when it falls apart and gives its entrails to the soil.

Together, we will play in fields where what it means to a man and what it means to be a woman are so deeply entangled and co-constitutive that you will often stutter to find words to describe yourself. This stutter in the place of smoothness, this hesitation in the face of certainty, this limp that displaces strutting, is my gift to you. And yes, I hope that with you and your generation, the weaponized gender wars that often insist on the binary appellation of feminist justice will give way to a more stunning feminism – one that does not dismiss the bodily scars of ‘women’, nor leave ‘masculinity’ in still, muddy waters as irredeemable gunk.

If you like pink, I will let you like pink. Or yellow.

If you wear a dress, I will not scream at you.

I will teach you to give attention to the little things, to small fleeting things, and that to try to reach for the stars is to dishonour them – for your very body is riddled with pulsing light-bodies too ancient, too young, for understanding to claim.

I will listen to you and learn how to use my hands when you use them.

I will touch my own wounds and name my monsters when I observe you fall in love with something I had never even noticed before. And I will learn to give myself to your mother even more as I watch you vie for her attention.

You will not learn, like I did, that men ought to be in the sitting room while women slave away in the kitchen.

I will not give you the convenience of a ready-made god, whose ubiquity is supposedly registrable to all sentience. I will allow you stray, holding you in the knowing that all the world strays along with you.

Most of all, I will be here for you. Because you need me, just as much as I have always needed you.

So tonight let us both dance. Let us turn and swerve and spin like entangled particles. Father to son. Son to Father.

So that when your mother looks upon us both, a spectre of entangled destinies, of healing masculinities and the promise of the yet-to-come, she won’t be able to tell who is the father.

And who is the son.



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