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EXPLORATIONS | These Three Words

Unraveling the Code of Silence

by Malcolm Venable

In this essay, writer Malcolm Venable explores the code of silence often held in Black families. Starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood, what are the words that we forget to express, and what are the feelings that we can’t seem to shake within?


Art credit: “Tongues Untied” by Faith Ringgold and Marlon Riggs, story quilt, 1994. Courtesy of the artist and ACA Galleries.

I never said those three words to my dad, but I never had to. He knew. My mama knew, my aunties and grandmas knew; the neighborhood knew, and everybody at school too. Beyond dancing and roller skating, I wasn’t very interested in girls. Christmas 1985, I begged for a Cabbage Patch doll and stomped off in a dramatic huff when my sweet mom, unable to afford the real thing, handed me one she’d made. My dad lived with me, my brother seven years my junior, and mom until they divorced when I was 13, and by the time he forbade me from watching any more of The Golden Girls at age 12, the jig was most certainly up. It gets cold in winter, money doesn’t grow on trees, and I wasn’t like the other boys. Everyone could see that, but growing up in Virginia, I was indoctrinated into a Southern Black Baptist culture that encouraged polite people to not comment on anyone’s peg legs, flaming faggotry, or other disabilities. That would be unseemly. 

This code of silence continued into adulthood: we never talked about it when I was in grad school, when he helped me do repairs in my first condo, or after I’d moved to California. I was chickenshit, I’ll admit, due to my Christian conditioning, as well as lingering fears. Les had always moved through the world with an air of abrasive, cocky machismo, and when I was a boy, he would sometimes fly into fits of rage that terrified me. But it wasn’t just fear that prevented me from talking about my sexual orientation; by my late 30s, I’d become laissez-faire about formally declaring it, and that laziness calcified into defiance. I’d long ago reasoned that if “coming out” was a ritual about reclaiming power and demanding respect, it paradoxically reaffirmed the recipient’s ability to give you those things in the first place. I didn’t need validation from him or anyone else, and I didn’t need to say who I was. You could see it. Besides, Les had seen how diligently I rehearsed the choreography for Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” video as a tween, and by 40, I was an unmarried, childless, physically fit bachelor with an affinity for designer clothes. Did I need to draw a picture?  


Still, a part of me longed for more holistically intimate communication between us, especially after seeing friends’ parents die. As he approached 70, slower, wider, and on umpteen medications, I realized how much I didn’t want anything unresolved or unasked lingering after he was gone. If I’d written this in my 30s, I’d likely have attributed our communication gaps to the psychological burdens unique to Black men. For sure, I’m certain the trauma he inherited from Les Sr., a cold disciplinarian who built his home with his hands after being denied a loan when he got back from WWII, haunted our relationship. But as I got older, I came to see that many men — most men — have complicated relationships with their dads; Kafka had to write a whole book to get his shit with his dad out. Given the choice to talk about their relationship or set themselves on fire, most father-son duos would be off to Home Depot looking for BBQ briquettes, talking about sports to fill the silence in the car ride over. It’s not like I didn’t want to have open, free-flowing conversations with the guy like I have with my friends or my mom, I just didn’t know how to start them. I hate fishing, and I can’t talk about football; he hates city life, and can’t relate to my coastal liberal elite nonsense. Scars from the past — residue from violent leather belt spankings, the worthlessness I felt when he yelled at me, his overall aloofness I read as disinterest — lingered too. Old wounds could become fresh in unexpected ways. When I was about to turn 40, I texted him to ask what was on his mind when he hit the big 4-0. How did he feel? What did he wish he knew? He said he’d think about it and get back to me. He never did. Trusting him was dangerous. 


But the Universe was not content with our complacency, and months after my 40th, a bizarre sequence of events led us to not only open up to each other but begin to see each other as people, as men. We still have work to do; we probably will never be as comfortably tender as the men on This Is Us.


I know this though: just by making an effort to listen to each other, we began undoing generations of entrenched homophobia and harsh judgements of each other, and of Black fathers and sons everywhere.


By being vulnerable and opening up, we began interrupting a cycle of pain and dysfunction within our own family and beyond — a cycle intentionally inflicted on men like us long before us. I wish I could tell you I initiated a conversation after some soul-searching, or an electrifying therapy session. Nope. It all started after I got groped while drunk in a department store. 


It was three years ago, in November. After a boozy brunch with a friend, we wobbled over to The Grove, cross-eyed from pitchers of raspberry mimosas, so I could find a suit for a holiday party. Inside Banana Republic, I saw a camel-colored, cotton-cashmere number I liked. Still tipsy, I came out of the dressing room with the jacket on, but without a shirt. A Shemar Moore look-alike in his early 20s (the exact type of curly-haired, light-skinned boy you’d picture working at a Banana Republic in LA) came to assist me. I stood in front of a mirror, and that’s when Shemar-lite ran his hand down my admittedly irresistible chest and then grabbed my crotch. “I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it,” he said, grinning as I stood there stunned and paralyzed. How the rest of that played out is a story for another time, but in the subsequent days, I felt a gamut of emotions from sadness to powerlessness to fury — I’d never been sexually assaulted before — and it was on one of my fury days that my father sent a text to see if I received a package he’d mailed me. He couldn’t have known a corny dude with a moist S-curl humiliated me at a pedestrian-ass store in a cheesy mall. He couldn’t have known that just days prior, my favorite auntie let it slip that, decades ago, my father routinely told my brother he hated faggots and didn’t want one for a son. He kept texting. I ignored him. I barely wanted to go to work, let alone confront him. Then he called. I sent it to voicemail, but I was so furious I sat down and wrote an email that laid everything, and then some, on the table. It read, in part:


I am waking up to the fact now that, for years, you bad mouthed me to my own brother – or even harbored such contempt for me all this time – while playing a different card to my face. It’s despicable and hypocritical, and I feel betrayed and angry but hardly surprised. My mind is truly blown knowing that all these years my own father talked shit about me behind my back. I have to say it’s a testament to the people in my family who kept this from me for so long, so that I would not suffer a lack of self-esteem. But it’s going to be a minute before I feel comfortable talking with you. I hope we can have some healing and peace; I don’t know how that’ll take place.

Not even minutes passed before he called again. I started to ignore him, but realized that sending him that strong an email and not answering the phone would be cowardly. So I took a deep breath and answered. I braced myself for the vicious, dehumanizing yelling. I prepared myself for denial, blame, gaslighting, hostility — everything I remembered from when I was a boy. “Hello,” I said. His breath sounded shallow and quick, like he was about to fight. More than 2,600 miles separated us, but I steeled myself as if he was at the door about to barge in and dare me to swing on him. 


“Malcolm, I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I probably did. I shouldn’t have said those things. I was not a great father to you, and I apologize. But I’d like to do better.” 


I noticed that I couldn’t cry. This, I reasoned, seemed like a reasonable time to cry, out of relief or joy or pent-up emotion, but tears wouldn’t come. I suppose that after a life spent compartmentalizing, my emotions were blunted. But I did have a sense of fairness, compassion, and curiosity, so I let him keep talking. Shit, he owed me this. 


“Do you know why I sent you that package, with all the issues from your college paper in it?,” he asked. “I kept everything you ever wrote.” While I suspected a desire to clean out the garage might’ve had something to do with this sentimental gesture, I couldn’t deny that he’d kept the papers. These mementos clearly meant something, and I was touched. He went on to say he’d always been proud of me but never knew how to tell me as much. And then he got into the meat of it. 


“You’re right, I was homophobic. That’s how I was raised. But it’s different when it’s your kid. One time, when you were a baby, about two, I was kissing you and do you know what my father said to me? He said, ‘Stop being affectionate with that boy — you’ll turn him into a faggot. So I stopped.” All this threw me off guard. Now, I had some work to do, too. I had to accept that my father encountered something he wasn’t equipped to handle, and failed at it, like I had in many other areas of my own life. I had wanted to punish him for the ways he hurt me, never considering that he had hurts too. It dawned on me that he never had a chance to make amends, because I’d never given him space to by being honest. I wondered how much closer we might be if I’d gone ahead and blurted it out 10, 15 or 20 years ago.


Some time later, on a visit home, we went to dinner together. He told me his father never hugged him, or said I love you, ever, even as he was dying in a nursing home. He told me that when he started to rebel as a teenager, just as Black boys were being shipped off to Vietnam, his father said, “Let’s go for a ride,” and dropped him off at Morgan State and never came back. His marriage to my mom just sort of happened. He wanted to be a good father more than anything, but their fighting and his own inadequacies left him driftless and numb. “You know why I never replied to your text about turning 40?” We sat across from each other in a booth in an Olive Garden, and I could feel how thrilled he was for me to just sit with him and listen. “Because when I was turning 40, I was a mess. I didn’t have a career like you. I was married to someone I shouldn’t have been married to. I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t give you advice because I didn’t have any to give you.” 


I saw my assumptions and resentments falling away like plaster on a building’s facade. I imagined what it must’ve been like to be so confused, empty, and scared at 24 when he had me; I thought about all the Black boys who are never given an opportunity to live up to their potential because nobody shows them how to become an advertising executive, a gymnast, a pilot, or a father. This is not to let him off the hook entirely: he could’ve worked harder at it. He could’ve stepped up. He did the best that he could — or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he decided a C effort was enough. Either way, I turned out fine and now we were both here, trying. 


Black father-son relationships are often painted as binary: we see them as phantom baby-daddy types, or, like that now-canceled sitcom dad, so warm and comforting they’re practically sentient sweaters. But there’s a whole spectrum of fatherhood in between. Physically present but mentally detached. Willing but deeply flawed. Ambitious but unable to heal themselves enough to love someone else. My dad not only didn’t know what he was doing, he had to unlearn things he was taught — a process that’s still unfolding, not really about me, and has to happen without me. We’ve never revisited topics from that day again. I don’t know that we have to. Not long ago, an earthquake hit LA, and he texted me a couple hours later. 


“Are you ok?” he wrote.

‘Yeah, I’m fine!’ 

“Just checking on you. Stay safe.” 

He didn’t have to say the three words. I knew. 

Malcolm Venable is a journalist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in publications including GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Interview,The Washington Post Magazine and more. Now Sr. Editor at TV Guide in Los Angeles, Malcolm is at work on a memoir.
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