The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell, 1949
I got quite a few of comments on my post last week focusing on reframing of African-American History Month. Thank you all for your positive feedback and encouragement.
Several readers inquired about my journey to find my father and his family. Many of you wanted to know more about this experience. To answer this question I have updated a relevant portion of a chapter I developed several years ago for a book entitled Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America.
Who’s your Daddy?
The quest to know where I came from and the people I was connected to began one summer afternoon when I got a call from a great uncle on my mother’s side of the family who is in his late 80s. Uncle Otis indicated he wanted to stop by my house and that he had something to give to me. I was totally surprised because it was highly unusual for Uncle Otis to ask out of the blue to stop by. I didn’t really know what to expect.
When he arrived at my house a short time later (yes, he was still driving at age 89), he carried a long scroll of paper and what looked like some really old photographs. We hugged and without sitting down, my uncle Otis started talking about our family history. It felt like a prepared speech, each word of the narrative rehearsed and memorized in the tradition of an oral history. He then presented me with the scroll he held as if he were performing a ceremony of grave seriousness and importance. My Uncle Otis was letting me know in no uncertain terms that he was passing down these sacred family heirlooms to my trust and care for the next generation.
He told me that the photographs were of my great-grandmother and grandfather (on my mother's side of the family). He then provided me with a list of all of my relatives from around the country with their addresses and phone numbers. I listened as I unrolled the scroll onto my dining room table. There lay before me a very finely crafted, hand drawn family tree which depicted my great-grandparents, grandparents, and their siblings, all the way to me and my own siblings. It was like the torch had been passed of some unidentified responsibility onto me.
Several days later as I looked at my family tree it dawned on me that there was nothing connecting me with my father’s side of my family; that place on the family tree where my father was supposed to be was empty like a void, something unknown, even scary. It was on that day that I began my quest to find my father.
As I stated in last week’s post, I never knew my father, or anything about him. As both a child and an adult, whenever I would ask my mother about him, she would close up and refuse to talk. My grandmother would tell stories about my father when I was young. I could tell by her stories that she liked my father; I learned his first name, where he worked in Minneapolis, and some of his accomplishments from my grandmother. These clues buried in my memory proved helpful in my journey to find my father. Through them I learned that my father lived in Minneapolis until 1972 and that he had another family. I later learned through a friend of a friend of my father’s that he had moved to Jackson, Mississippi three decades ago. I thought that he was probably dead. He was born in 1922, and few African American men live to be 80.
After following many false trails and dead ends, I found what I thought were his current his phone number and address. I wrote him a letter and introduced myself, I told him what I knew about him, and asked if he was indeed my father.
A week later he called me. “Yes,” he said, “I believe I’m your dad. I had an affair with your mother for about a year back in the 1950s. But when we broke up I didn’t know she was pregnant. We never ran into each other after we split, and she never told me a kid was involved.”
I said to this man, whose first name was Robert, “I’d like to come and see you.” At first he hesitated, because he had a wife and ten other kids, all of whom he’d surely have to tell about me. But after we talked for an hour or so, he agreed to meet.
Two months later I drove to Jackson, Mississippi, and he and his wife Lillian came to my hotel. At first Robert and I sat there for a long time, looking at each other. Both of us thought we didn’t look much alike. “Your nose seems big. What size shoe do you wear?” Still, it didn’t take long before the three of us were exchanging stories, filling one another in, and laughing together. We soon found ourselves revisiting our separate pasts through one another. We talked for seven hours, finally calling it a night at 3 a.m.
Before I left Jackson, Robert and I took a DNA test, to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that I was in fact his son. The results took several days to arrive and I had already returned to Minneapolis when Robert called and said, “Looks like you’re in the family.”
Meeting my Dad and Lillian provided some wonderful closure for me. I now knew, quite literally, who I was. Yet I felt another door opening at the same time. It was a quest fulfilled—my own personal version of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, the hero’s journey of separation, initiation and return that culminates in personal transformation and ends back home with family.
A few days after I learned the test results, I got a call from my new sister Della. “I’m so happy to have a new brother,” she said. She was coming up to Minneapolis for a wedding and wanted to meet me. We agreed to have lunch at the Mall of America.
When I arrived at the restaurant, it was nothing less than a grand homecoming. Unbeknownst to me, my new sister had invited several other local relatives—even my new niece and nephew. Our lunch became a celebration, welcoming me to the family.
I also discovered that the neighborhood man I saw walking my dog every morning was also my brother. For the past few years he had lived only four blocks away.
I’ve now met or talked with most of my new siblings, and every one of them has been wonderful: enthusiastic, delighted to meet me, and as welcoming as a sister or brother can be. And every one of them has told me, “Gary, we’re so glad to get to know you. We want you to be part of us.”
At age 47, I was restored to my family.
Many of us look outside ourselves to acknowledge and celebrate our history. What we fail to recognize is that our history is within us. We each are carrying on a legacy of what came before us. How our authentic story is told is up to us. We are all on a hero’s journey no matter our race or nationalities.
I invite you to share your own stories in the comments.
More from Gary Cunningham
In effect, real educational reform to address the achievement gap, particularly in Minnesota, continues to be held hostage to vested interest, local nimbyism, and outmoded social ideologies, regardless of the political party in power. Everyone, regardless of his or her political persuasion, agrees that something fundamental needs to change if we are to change the trajectory of our current dilemma. However, not many are willing to step out of line with the party orthodoxy or their comfort zones to do what is necessary to make this so. In the meantime, another generation of our children are undereducated, underemployed and in poverty.
A tribute to Marv Davidov, a man who committed his life to social justice and peace.
I was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of people, thousands of my fellow citizens, lost their lives on 9/11. Many families lost their loved ones. I will be forever indebted to the people Gander, Newfoundland, and I will forever be in sorrow for what we all lost on 9/11.
Josie Johnson’s life experience, dedication to human, and civil rights helped change the social, economic, and political landscape for all of us. We all owe Josie a great debt of gratitude for all she has done to make our community a better place of justice, equality, and opportunity for all.
What many of us fail to realize is that we are all interconnected and interrelated. What happens in Minneapolis impacts what happens in Shakopee. We are part of an interconnected and interrelated system that includes roads, transit, housing, economic infrastructure, commerce, the environment and governance. If we choose to allocate public resources to fighting crime, then we can’t support economic development or early childhood development. Unless we understand this interdependence and the need to invest in the whole community, we will continue to make inefficient and ineffective use of our limited resources. In other words, we all do better, when we all do better.