This is an essay from the forthcoming book Bet On Black: African American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama, a collection of 20 powerful essays written by Black women on their relationships with their fathers, edited by Kenrya Rankin Naasel. The book goes on sale on October 8. Visit the project on Facebook to learn more.
I had the amazing good fortune of being in the presence of Barack Obama just days after he was elected to be the 44th president of the United States. I was serving as creative director of Ebony magazine at the time, and I was producing a cover shoot in honor of his victory. The President-elect and I had a chance to chat in the few preparatory moments before he stepped on set, and I couldn’t resist sharing a couple of stories with him.
I told Obama how my 79-year-old mother had been persistent about getting everybody engaged to vote from the moment he entered the race. When the primary season got tight, she became even more vocal, reminding me that my father, Harry Augustus Cole, had won his first political seat by a mere 37 votes. My dad became the first Black state senator of Maryland back in 1955 because Black folks got themselves to the polls. Obama, who had been casually looking toward the set where he was to be photographed, looked up when I told that story, acknowledging the importance of that moment some 54 years prior.
I knew that I was privileged to be able to engage the man who was soon to be the first Black president of our great nation in such an intimate way. Even more, I felt proud to know that my father was Obama’s predecessor in a way, at least in the land of firsts. Based on what I have learned about Obama, I believe that we grew up with at least one pervasive similarity: the mandate to strive for excellence at every turn.
It was a requirement in our Baltimore household that we live with integrity and always do our best, and our parents embodied that directive. My father was of the mind that success was the fruit of hard work, focus and tenacity. He was a man of service, a man of conviction. A devoted father. A committed husband. A true public servant. A perfectionist.
For me, the second of his three daughters and the one who was named for him (Harry Augustus Cole, Harriette Ann Cole, get it?), I believed I had the privilege and the burden of living up to his reputation. My daddy was, like many other children’s daddies, the best. He could do anything. Well, sort of: He couldn’t mow the lawn, or at least he didn’t. He couldn’t fix a toilet, and I’m glad he didn’t. And he couldn’t literally be MacGyver around the house, coming up with ingenious ways to keep things running, which was fine. But he could afford to pay for the services we needed whenever we needed them, which, in retrospect, I realize is still being MacGyver. He made it happen.
But best in Harry Cole’s eyes meant the most intelligent, the most astute, the most rigorously honest, the most focused on excellence—and growing up, I longed to be as good as he. And in many ways I was. I was tall and skinny like he had been for so many years. I wore glasses and furrowed my brow as I studied American history, just as he did. I nearly became valedictorian at Howard University; I missed that honor thanks to two Bs I received when I momentarily diverted my attention away from my studies. (Note to self: A boy is not good for you if he lures you away from your responsibilities.) My father earned that high honor, though he couldn’t give the speech at his Morgan State College (as it was called at the time) graduation in 1943—he had already enlisted in the Army and been shipped out to serve in World War II.
But in many ways, I never felt like I quite measured up, in part because as much as I wanted to be like him, I had to forge my own way. I wanted to be a writer, but as the first Black judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals, he pressed that the best kind of writing was that of the legal variety. I ducked taking the LSATs; law was not my calling, it was his. I never was quite able to conform to my father’s conservative style of presenting himself either. He believed that a proper gentleman or lady had neatly organized hair and modest if fashionable clothing. Having spent a few years modeling as a teenager and young adult, I have never been one for the traditional. Indeed, I have always chosen some kind of funky hairdo and an overall edgy style. My choices in life have not led to my having bigger digs than my parents either, as used to be the generational track. I do not have a fabulous corner house with a built-in pool and full-service party basement like my childhood home. I chose to move to New York City to pursue my dream, trading the potential for a two-acre lot bound by a white picket fence for a somewhat spacious apartment. Overall, I’m pleased with the choices I have made and proud of what I have accomplished thus far.
Until recently, however, I wasn’t so certain how my father viewed me. Growing up, I was never sure of how proud he was of my credentials—he wasn’t one to say. I was often devastated by my father’s critiques, even as they pushed me to excel. I remember once in junior high when I ran to him with a glorious test score of 98 percent. Instead of hugging and kissing me with congratulations, he looked in my eyes and asked, his voice firm, “Where are the other two points?” Crestfallen, my exuberant smile wilted, replaced immediately by a flood of tears.
One time when I was visiting home after I had lived in New York for a few years, I arrived with a new hairdo, an organic, Afrocentric natural (kind of like the singer Maxwell when he first came on the scene). When it was time for dinner, my father looked and me and said that I was not allowed to sit at his table “looking like that.” Then he offered to get me a brush.
Now that Daddy has been gone for more than 14 years, I have gained a new perspective on him. My father’s favorite poem, “Sermons We See,” by Edgar A. Guest, describes the way he lived. It says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Harry Cole’s style was not to applaud. I now believe that he was exceptionally critical of my sisters and me because he wanted to point out where we could improve. It was a waste of words, from his perspective, to commend what was already honed to a fine point.
But there were times when he broke character. When my mother’s dear friend, Aunt Margaret, visited Daddy during his brief stay in a nursing home, he perked up at one point during their conversation and told her that I had written 27 books! At the time I had probably written about four, none of which I thought he had even read. Over the years, I have heard similar laudatory reflections from people my father encountered when I wasn’t around. Turns out he did brag about my sisters and me often, just never to our faces.
More than what Daddy said, was what he did. Harry Cole designed a trailblazing career, but it was never at the expense of his family. He was a powerful presence at home. I ate dinner with my entire family every night at 6:00 p.m., no matter how busy Daddy was. With great animation, we talked about our day—all five of us—allowing no television to distract our conversation. When he wasn’t being serious, my father was lots of fun. He taught my sisters and me to dance—the waltz, the two-step, the cha cha. And nearly every New Year’s Eve, he and my mother hosted a fabulous party in our basement that served as a double celebration (Daddy was born on New Year’s Day). And his presence went beyond the physical. He brought his brain, his values, his ’50s-style support-from-a-distance love, his incisive bite as it related to accuracy and elocution, his resources and his devotion to our family every day until he died after 41 years of marriage to my mother, Doris.
Harry Augustus Cole wasn’t born a victor. He was the fifth child of a woman who left her husband soon after Harry’s birth to make a better way for her children. Awkward and gangly, he was the kid who had to wear his sisters’ shoes if he wanted to put anything on his feet at all. Ironically, he shined shoes for pennies to earn the balance of what it cost to become one of only two college-educated siblings in his family. He was a dark-skinned man growing up during the days of segregation in Baltimore, just north of the Mason-Dixon line—in the time when being Black (or Negro or Colored) meant you had to “get back.” A lieutenant in the Army, he was nearly court-martialed for entering the whites-only officers’ dining room to finish a bridge game with a white officer.
Despite injustices and a lack of resources, my daddy never gave up on his belief that he would be a great man. He was absolutely driven to be his best, and he instilled that same drive in me. He taught me not to base my thoughts about myself on what others had to say, but to instead believe in myself, independent of others’ influence. Between him and my mother, a retired kindergarten teacher, I was also taught what seemed like a thousand rules about how to live—from which utensils to use, to what to wear where, to how to speak to people with respect. Interestingly enough, the rules that I did not want to follow as a child are the very rules that I teach others today as the foundation of my business. What’s more, my husband and I are imparting those same guidelines for living an honorable life to our daughter.
As I reflect on my relationship with my father, I realize that I may actually have lived up to his legacy more than I once believed. He showed me by example how he followed his heart and blazed his own trail. I am doing the same.