Honoring My Two Black Fathers

First and foremost, I did not write about Black fatherhood believing that fatherhood is a magical salve that makes life perfect for Black children and families, and conversely, completely tragic if a father is absent. I also know as a Black person—who was raised by Black women, Black gender-fluid people, and Black men—that what has shaped me is a powerful mixture of life experiences, lessons, protections, and nurturing that cannot be reduced to some pithy or alliterative set of statements that “solve” the problems of Black life. The idea that one, or two, or even 100 writers could accurately capture the ways that billions of people father others is preposterous. So, the best and most authentic way for me to honor this idea of Black fatherhood is to recognize those who have both fathered me and helped me father others.

Ironically, before being asked to write this piece, my two fathers had been weighing heavily on my mind for the past few months. Euris Johnson is my biological father and Baba Hannibal Afrik is my elder and teacher who named me “Bomani.” Their gifts to me include my name—E. Bomani Johnson—and so many life lessons that became the cornerstones of the person I am today.

Both of these great men were awesome fathers. My Daddy was a biological father to three, my two sisters and I. Baba Hannibal was a biological father to four. But they both “fathered” many others, as well. My Mom and Daddy were also the “parents” to just about everyone (young folk and elders) on our block in Chicago. Baba Hannibal was a high school educator for more than 30 years; co-founded an independent Black institution, Shule Ya Watoto (School for Children), in the early ‘70s; and dedicated his entire self to the struggle for Black liberation. Both of their journeys through life include intricate and interwoven stories of successes, failures, achievements, and numerous misadventures. And both of them are ancestors now—Daddy passed in August of 2014, while Baba passed in June of 2011.

My name being a blend of my birth name and a name I earned as an organizer is reflective of the ways that my two fathers came into my life. Daddy was always there from the day I was conceived until the day he died when I was 43. I met Baba in my early 20s when I was beginning my journey into Black consciousness and developing the social and political views that are central to my life. He created the rites of passage program I worked with in the early ‘90s and mentored me for years afterward. An African proverb states, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Despite my lack of self-awareness, the universe and Baba knew I was ready to take my place in social justice work. He was with me until he passed. I was 39 at the time.

For four of the five decades of my life, these two great people shaped and molded me. And I consciously honor their legacy by living up to my name each and every day. The E, or Euris, is Greek for “steadfast” as my Daddy taught me. Bomani means “warrior” in Swahili. My Baba taught me that a true warrior is a problem solver for his people. I live each day to be a steadfast problem solver with and for Black and Brown people.

Dozens upon dozens of lessons were shared by these two, but a couple have been reverberating in my head lately. My Daddy always said wearing a smile, and saying please and thank you, don’t cost me anything but could pay for everything. He also made sure that I knew the difference between performing respect and being respectful, especially toward women and girls. I have long believed that these were shared with me so that I can be successful professionally. But these words of wisdom have also been invaluable lessons (and at times, incredible challenges) as I father my two beautiful Black children.

Baba taught me what being accountable to others meant. As the leader and elder for just about all of the meetings, conferences, road trips, Black cultural celebrations—and even in his own home—Baba always did what he said he was going to do and took people at their word. He would often say, “Our word has to be our bond. Without it, we have nothing else.” Again, this example of accountability is both a guide and challenge lately—in my personal, but especially in my professional life. As the new Executive Director of a new pro-Black fiscal sponsor organization, I must make sure that Nafasi Fund delivers on its promise to Black-led organizations by ensuring that they have the opportunity, capacity, and space they need to effectively direct social change in their communities.

I used to yell in disbelief (and reluctantly feel “old”) when I would say or do something like Daddy or Baba. Nowadays, I am learning to lean into the warmth, familiarity, and sense of pride that being a son of my two fathers brings in those moments.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy and Baba!

I love you both, and I will continue to proudly live up to my name.

E. Bomani Johnson is executive director of Nafasi Fund, a Black-led fiscal that champions the skills, strengths and insights of Black-led organizations audaciously spearheading social change in their communities.