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June 21, 2015

Being Raised Without a Father Is Not a Death Sentence

“Being raised without a father is hard. One is more likely to drop out, be unemployed or end up in jail. But it’s not a death sentence.”

I wrote my latest book, “Dear Father, Dear Son: Two Lives, Eight Hours,” to personalize the biggest issue facing the country — the growing number of fatherless homes, particularly in the black community, where over 70 percent of children are born to unwed mothers.

Being raised without a father is hard. One is more likely to drop out, be unemployed or end up in jail. But it’s not a death sentence. The book is about what my father faced and overcame: Only child; irresponsible, illiterate mother; never met his biological father; born in Jim Crow South; kicked out of his house at age 13 — never to return — all as the Great Depression began.

It doesn’t get much worse than that.

He joined the Marines and became a Montford Point Marine — the first black Marines. A few years ago, Congress awarded the 20,000 Montford Point Marines a Congressional Medal. My dad had a private, posthumous ceremony at Camp Pendleton, California.

In the Marines, my dad was promoted four times, becoming a staff sergeant. He was in charge of the kitchen, but when he returned to the South after the war, he could not get a job as a cook. “We don’t hire n—gers,” he was told. “You have no references,” some told him — which was just a more polite way of saying the same thing.

So he relocated to Los Angeles, a city he once visited when, before the war, he worked on the trains as a Pullman porter. But again, no one would hire him because he lacked “references.” So Dad took two jobs as a janitor and cooked for a family on the weekends — while going to night school to get a GED.

But my dad was not bitter, never whined about what “the white man” did to him. He said the best weapon against racism was getting really good at what you do. He worked his butt off, and scraped up enough nickels and dimes to start a small restaurant in his late 40s, which he ran until his mid-80s.

He was a lifelong Republican. “Welfare was the worst thing that ever came down the pike,” he said. He hated the way Democrats “played the race card” and offered “free stuff.” Dad would say, “When you try to get something for nothing, you’ll end up getting nothing for something.”

As I wrote “Dear Father,” I constantly asked him why he never became bitter, became a criminal or just simply dropped out of life. He looked at me as if I were insane. “What choice did I have?” he said. Becoming a criminal was “not an option.”

He said when his mom kicked him out of the house, she stood on the porch and, as he walked down the road, yelled, “You’ll be back — or end up in the penitentiary!”

He turned to me, held up his hand and proudly said, “I’ve never spent one minute in jail.”

He repeatedly offered my two brothers and me his lessons-learned mantras: “Hard work wins.” “You get out of life want you put into it.” “You cannot control the outcome, but you 100 percent control the effort.” “When things go wrong — as they will — before blaming others go to the nearest mirror and ask yourself, ‘Did I do everything possible to change the outcome?’” And finally: “No matter how hard you work or how good you are, bad things will happen. How you respond to those bad things will tell your mother and me whether we raised a man.”

A few years before Dad died, he and I were in his garage getting rid of things he no longer wanted. I came across an envelope with a note in it. “What’s this?” I asked him. Turns out it was a letter he’d written to my then two-year-old older brother, Kirk. Dad, fearing if something happened to him, wanted to leave him a roadmap for life. Dad had forgotten about the letter:

“May 4, 1951

"Kirk, my Son, you are now starting out in life — a life that Mother and I cannot live for you.

"So as you journey through life, remember it’s yours, so make it a good one. Always try to cheer up the other fellow.

"Learn to think straight, analyze things, be sure you have all the facts before concluding and always spend less than you earn.

"Make friends, work hard and play hard. Most important of all remember this — the best of friends wear out if you use them.

"This may sound silly, Son, but no matter where you are on the 29th of September (Kirk’s birthday), see that Mother gets a little gift, if possible, along with a big kiss and a broad smile.

"When you are out on your own, listen and take advice but do your own thinking, and concluding, set up a reasonable goal, then be determined to reach it. You can and will, it’s up to you, Son.

"Your Father,

"Randolph Elder”

Originally posted Thursday, June 18.

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