Arisa White’s new book, Who’s Your Daddy, takes the reader on a deeply moving journey into the author’s past. This hybrid memoir is a coming-of-age story about growing up a Black girl in Brooklyn without a father and the impact that this missing-in-action hero has on a child. White uses sparse but plush language to reflect on her experience as a queer, Black child who grew up bearing the scars left by her father Gerald’s abandonment. The narrative flows like an old school hip-hop mixtape. White has laid her story down on the classic track of her ancestors’ voices; the result is a creative tour-de-force that spins verse and lyrical notes in the way that only an American child of the African diaspora could do.
White was one of nine children Gerald sired and the only child her mother had with him. Although he lived in the same borough of New York City for a time, she never saw him as he moved on to other women and fathered more children. An ex of mine was one of thirteen children his father had with multiple women, and I could see the sadness in his shoulders when he spoke of his father. I felt a similar sadness throughout Who’s Your Daddy as the text grapples with the questions of who these men who sire and abandon are, and what happens in the lives of the people they leave behind.
While short, White’s memoir brims with feeling. There are depths of story between, beneath, and all around each sentence committed to the page. The prologue sets the tone and rhythm of what’s to come: “This is a grandfather feeling: Hear these walls convert into a perpetual bloom of cherry blossoms. Petals as understudies for tears in constant descent when repressed grief climbs up my mother’s chest. The grief of her father’s shape… his bags brimmed with hurt shirts and broken trousers.”
As I traveled through each vignette I saw versions of my own childhood, in particular the days before smart phones and social media when children played mostly outside. White writes, “We’re posing on somebody’s stoop. It’s summer… the boys in runner’s shorts with white piping, tube socks pulled up to kneecaps, three colored stripes on top… Ice cream truck singing its jingle in the background of this photo, laughter and shit talking no doubt.”
This idyllic portrait, which could describe any group of American children, from any socioeconomic class, race, or religious background, is juxtaposed with the other side of grandma’s quilt; the underbelly of those carefree days of block parties, when:
A SWAT team raids our Florida apartment and the fact that I remember startles my mother to this day. I am three. We just moved in and there is no furniture. All bare and white walls. Officers kick in doors, slam open, knock down, tear shit off. An automatic gun points at me… I approach a crater when the bathroom knob hit against the wall, the doors ajar. An officer’s footprint stamps in the fear of them coming back—his voice still booming, “Next time we’ll take your children away”—and I go never mind.
This vignette lays bare the organized, perpetual violence Black communities have had to live with since our arrival on the land that would become the United States and the establishment of slave patrols. No child should ever be forced to stare down the barrel of a gun. White captures this truth effortlessly in prose free of fluff. Her fright at three years old marked her young body and forced her to recognize dangers that other three-year-old children are not faced with because they are still considered babies. Black children are not offered this respect by the state, and at times, the adults in their lives. They must face the rough side of human existence—the side that reminds you of your Blackness. Your otherness. The side that you never let touch your skin for fear it will peel the soft protective film off and leave you exposed and disposed so that your blood flows until you collapse upon the ground and are no longer even piecemeal, but ground meal with no shape or form. White writes,
The mechanic has no sense for fixing things, except for cars and me interfering on him beating my mother. For which he rips the poorly assembled headboard from its screw holes and threatens to ‘Fix me proper.’ My mother stands there exhausted, and my vulnerability is confirmed.
I pay a fee to the male
For my passage through this doorway—
enter as girl, leave as other.
Throughout the narrative, White unpacks myriad themes, from the shame of growing up poor to the lack of refuge she felt in school with teachers who weren’t willing to see her to the comedic irony of the time she shackled her own ankles with NYPD-issued handcuffs and her mother had to bring her to the precinct to get them off her.
In one vignette, White offers the most beautifully written rendition of a car accident that I’ve ever read. Short, declarative sentences invoke urgency. However, the author tempers the typical edge of your seat pacing with surrealist imagery that shifts the scene’s mood and slows time. The moment draws the reader in to look closer at the complexity surrounding her.
I think back to that overcast June morning when the car hits me… My brother says, my oranges goes up and falls down in slow motion. Briefly, a crystalline thread connects my left eye with the right eye of the driver. We give permission to fear…Neighbors seeing me…All of them in states of O. The chill cubic containment of the ambulance. My mother’s face blanched with worry, all her color recedes so she can be stoic. Bing, deep umber with tears. Dreadlocks stuffed in a knitted cap, he looks Seussian. His one-winged questions “Is she OK? Is she OK? She OK?
She OK?” fall like manly snowflakes to muffle beeps, sirens, tires on speed, and all our panic making angels in the snow.
As White moves into her adult years, she grapples with her relationship to others and to herself. We feel the discomfort she feels as she faces the past and realizes that she needs to mature emotionally by confronting her own shadow if she is ever to feel free.
White finally reunites with her father in adulthood, in Guyana, only to have him list off the things he needs her to do for him: “He’s talking to affirm that he is somebody, that he does exist, and that his existence needs my care. Sponsorship back to the States; shoes size thirteen; pants; thirty-three waist and thirty-six inseam; ten-speed bicycle; twenty dollars a month for rent.” Gerald’s audacity hangs heavy upon the heart for the child who was never offered even half of what her father is now asking of her. This list of things big and small, from shoes to sponsorship, captures the daughter’s ache and fatigue.
Each of the book’s four section opens with a Guyanese proverb, the first of which is “Blood follows the veins.” By the fourth section, the blood that flows across the page encapsulates both anger and the deepest sorrow. White’s ability to conjure the intensity of these emotions creatively astounds, such as, “DIFGHDIFG Do I For Give Him Do I For Give.” This moment invokes Calvino but screams of Dante. It’s neither question, nor statement. Instead, the sentiment sits in an emotional purgatory:
What if The Father isn’t The Answer and I’ve been seeing it all wrong. There is an unequivocal honesty to Gerald’s absence—it is reliable and transparent and hasn’t done or said otherwise.
White is not without empathy and a deeper understanding of the trauma in which this father shares. The inherited wounds cut so deep one wonders if they can ever be fully healed. Generation after generation, one long and uninterrupted scar. While examining this collective gash that cuts down to the bone, White prevails and redeems us as she holds her own scarred body with healing love and frees herself from the bonds of those shackles, NYPD and otherwise, round her ankles:
With his tears, I wash Gerald’s hands and feet, which are my own hands and feet. I collect the pile of bones, leaving two bones behind… I feed the Atlantic twelve bones, and each time a bone strikes the surface and descends, my uterus feels the discomfort of discharging.
In Who’s Your Daddy, White renders the experience of Black womanhood onto the page in beautiful, musical prose poems that build an emotionally gripping arc to create this singular, innovative memoir. In telling her story, she has created a lyric map for others who have lived with the abandonment of a parent and who are seeking redemption from the burden of deep ancestral wounds so that they can turn their faces towards the sun and finally realize that “the air is so fresh it’s like drinking water.”