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    a basketball in a hoop

    The Love of Absent Fathers

    Do you really think we want to be away from our children? Who would choose such a thing?

    By Shaka Senghor

    March 28, 2022
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    In this excerpt from his book Letters to the Sons of Society, Shaka Senghor writes to his son Sekou about shooting hoops in driveway and prison yard and his love of basketball, “this game by which men have made something out of nothing.”

    There is a trope in our culture of the absent father and the sainted single mother, but the reality for so many of us is actually agony. Do you really think we want to be away from our children? Who would choose such a thing? Relationships end, and the culture is adamant that the mother shall take the lead in parenting and spending time with and nurturing. There are very few courts or judges who, all things equal, land upon the father as the most appropriate parent, and so we have learned to take the second road, to acquiesce to the image of us as less than, as inadequate to the task of love. We are not inadequate to it. We yearn for it, but so often we find ourselves out here in the garage of our lives, away from the main rooms, steeling ourselves for either loss or reentry.

    I tell you this, Sekou, with no bitterness. I just wish fathers could change that narrative a bit and be seen as equal to the love of mothers. But such thoughts are dispelled as you come running out of the house, leap across my chest into my arms, and say, “Daddy, we need to make a list!” Such enthusiasms – instant, passionate, real – are what children bring to our dark world. There are groceries to get, and when you ask me if it’s okay if you make the list, though I fear what it will contain – pizza, probably, and what else? – of course you can make it. This is your effort to regain your home, to fill it with nourishment, and because you are a darling boy, you make sure to remember the things I want to eat and drink. I tell you about a ginger ale from Detroit called Vernors, and how sometimes Ralph’s has it. (In Detroit, Vernors isn’t just a soda; it is believed to fix all and any ailments. Got a headache? Drink Vernors. Hell, it might even kill Covid.) The fact that Ralph’s may have a bottle of this drink/potion is enough to excite you beyond all reason, because what if Ralph’s does have Vernors and you can try it, and also can we get pizza? Of course we can, because pizza is the shortest way I know to making it clear that I love you.

    Here we are, enjoying a simple game of basketball in a yard in our house in Los Angeles, but quickly I find myself thinking about love and how the boys and men with whom I lived in prison displayed so little of it toward themselves.

    But before we shop, we decide to head out to shoot some hoops. I got pretty good in prison until I tore my ACL. (In prison, there’s no way you’re getting surgery for a torn ACL; the best you can hope for is some Motrin.) In the yard, I would drain and drain and drain without really trying, but you at just eight are showing signs of talent too. You bring your right hand up high, and, whoosh, you hurl that ball, and it clangs off the backboard and in. You remind me of a game we played a few weeks earlier and how here [points to a spot on the yard] was three point and here [different spot] was two and here [up close] was just one and how we scored hundreds of points, and your memory takes me back to a different yard, the bumping and hustling and aggression that filled our games – a loveless, desperate sport inside a loveless, desperate place – and how far I’ve come. Here we are, enjoying a simple game of basketball in a yard in our house in Los Angeles, but quickly I find myself thinking about love and how the boys and men with whom I lived in prison displayed so little of it toward themselves. How could they, given the degradation of their pasts, the degradation of their daily lives inside? As I learned their stories, I came to appreciate how a lack of self-love had often led to the bad decisions and pain that brought them to this place.

    I think about those guys every time we play. For you, it’s just a fun activity with your dad, but for me, and for many of those men, it’s a crucial salve against the brutality of our lives.

    a father playing with his son

    Photograph by Conner Baker

    I’ve always been a huge basketball fan. I grew up a Pistons nut, from the bad-boy era. I especially loved Isiah Thomas – not the biggest but the boldest. As he once said, he was never chasing Michael Jordan, it was the other way round. (Thomas already had two championships before Jordan got his first.) But as much as I love the sport and was good at it and would love to pass that on to you, we’re not boxed into that endeavor – in fact, I hope in some ways that you don’t need basketball to give you a sense of hope and wonder about the world. If we didn’t spend the time shooting hoops, we’d spend it together doing something else. The point is connection, is joy, and we don’t need basketball to help with that. So far, you don’t really give a shit about basketball beyond this driveway, and that’s fine by me. It’s the time together that matters.

    So on we go, shooting hoops, there in the LA yard, just a couple of miles from the home of the Lakers, who had just won the championship; LeBron’s fourth, three with different teams. He, too, had succeeded against the odds. He was from Akron, less than 200 miles from Detroit, born to Gloria, his mother, when she was sixteen. His father was absent, the family struggled to make ends meet, and Gloria knew it would be better for LeBron to live with a local youth football coach than with her. Imagine her having to make that decision; giving up her son to secure him a future. Now there he is just a few miles from us, winning it all for the fourth time.

    These are the things I think about as you throw the ball up into the air toward the hoop in this game by which men have made something out of nothing.


    Excerpted from Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father's Invitation to Love, Honesty, and Freedom © 2022 by Shaka Senghor. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

    Contributed By

    Shaka Senghor is Head of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion at TripActions. He is also the president of Shaka Senghor, Inc., and founder of Redeemed Sole. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, debuted on the New York Times and the Washington Post bestseller lists. Shaka’s book, Letters to the Sons of Society, released in January 2022.

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