Dr. Daniel Black, DON'T CRY FOR ME

Dr. Daniel Black, DON'T CRY FOR ME

“To become a participant in a democracy, to become a participant in a country so that your citizenship is guaranteed, it’s so absolutely, positively critical. Otherwise, you always see yourself as an outsider.” Professor Dr. Daniel Black joins Zibby to talk about his latest novel, Don’t Cry For Me, which he finished the very same day his father died. Daniel and Zibby discuss why Daniel wanted this novel to feature some under-discussed and challenging conversations about parenthood, and particularly how it pertains to Black men. Daniel also shares how his family’s story inspired him to pursue his PhD, why it’s important to let children grow up to be who they are, and what the sequel to this novel will look like.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Daniel. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Don’t Cry for Me: A Novel.

Daniel Black: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Zibby: As I was just saying, I read this all through my spring break with my kids. I will forever associate it now with this trip. I will never forget it. I was posting about it. People loved it. They’re like, oh, my gosh, this was the most beautiful book. I’m like, I know, I’m reading it. Thank you for bringing depth to the trip I took, depth and emotion and feeling and heart and soul and loss and all the good things that your book did. It was beautiful.

Daniel: I’m glad. Thank you so much. I’m just glad that this book is being read and being felt by so many, many, many people. It’s this universal story of this dying man and his longing to be reconnected to his son. It just shows that all over the world in every place, in every home, in every community, we struggle with what it means to parent. We struggle with what it means to be a child. We struggle with what it means when our children are not what we prefer or not what we want. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much we love them.

Zibby: It’s true. I loved in the novel, the reflections on the limitations on the ability to feel that love and that feeling love and having the time for love and attention to the people who you care about is a luxury in and of itself.

Daniel: That’s right. It’s a luxury in and of itself. Well-said. Absolutely, it is. Everyone doesn’t get that luxury. Specifically, Black men in this country and Black men of a certain age were limited in so many, many, many ways. They weren’t even given what most folks were given. That is just the right of an education. People can really underestimate how much knowledge and education means when one begins to parent because it has everything to do with the depth of your imagination and the strength of your own self-worth so that you don’t try to extract meaning from your children’s lives for yourself.

Zibby: Very true. When you think about the effect — there were so many effects. Just the education alone, as you point out, what does that do to a whole group of people who then don’t have the benefit of knowing so many of these stories that are so important, things not to recreate? The whole thing is obviously just unthinkable and horrific. Where it trickles down to parenting and love and being able to express that love and prioritizing that when survival becomes the main priority — it was so powerful in the book, this notion of forgiveness or seeking forgiveness or understanding that sometimes the limitations of your parents are through no fault of their own. They’re circumstantial. They did the best they could with what — then when you understand where they come from, it’s a completely different relationship.

Daniel: That’s right. It’s a completely different relationship. It’s absolutely right. Most kids never really truly investigate to the depth we ought to, what our parents were like as kids and what happened to them as children that shaped who they are. We just want these perfect beings to love us and take care of us and to honor us. The truth is that most of our parents have done an extraordinary job in parenting. We just don’t know how far they had to come to do it.

Zibby: That’s right. Especially with some of the traumas and the losses — the main character’s loss of Esau, his brother, was so — I felt that. I felt that so deeply and profoundly, what that would do, how someone’s older brother, the source of comfort and how they would snuggle and just having that guardian and from such a young age — losing him, it’s so sad. It was just so sad.

Daniel: It was. It really was. It absolutely really was. That sense of loss so shaped Jacob. The irony about that — can I call you Zibby?

Zibby: Of course, yes.

Daniel: The irony about that, Zibby, is that that loss of his brother and the love of his brother is really the only thing Jacob has as a gauge of what it means for a man to love a man. He needs that so desperately because this gay son of his has been the bane of his existence in so many ways. The irony is that he loved a man once too. He says it wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t sexual, but he loved him so intensely that, at times, it reads and feels as homosocial, at least homosocial. It certainly reads as intimate.

Zibby: They were in bed stroking his face. It transcends parenting when it’s siblings. It’s not inappropriate, but it’s just very intense.

Daniel: That’s right. That’s absolutely right.

Zibby: How did you come up with the whole story? I know that your own life, in part, informed this and the narrative. Talk to me about all of that, where it came from and your own family and all of that.

Daniel: The irony is I never intended for this to be, at all, any of my own story. It just evolved that way after a while. What I was really thinking of, mostly, was the fracture between too many Black men and their children. It’s true. I’m sure it’s true for white men. I’m sure it’s true for Latinx men, etc. It’s particularly true for Black men, and not at all Black men. I don’t want to represent that at all. There are just too many Black men who are estranged from their children, who are distant from their children. I wanted to write a book about a Black man realizing at the end of his life that, really, nothing was more important. So many times, Black men and men in general will fall out with wives or girlfriends, and the fallout becomes the center of their lives instead of, what do the children need? We end up in court. We end up with these ugly divorce proceeding. Sometimes all of this happens. The children kind of just lost in the fray. I wanted to really write a book helping Black men to know if you have to sleep on the sidewalk in front of your children’s house, do that. Whatever you have to do, do it to make sure your children are always clear that you are there for them. The day will come, too, where that’ll be your only comfort. Do you have kids, Zibby?

Zibby: I have four kids.

Daniel: Four kids. How old are your kids?

Zibby: I have twins who will be fifteen in June. Then I have an eight, almost-nine-year-old and a seven-year-old.

Daniel: Great. I’m sure, of course, in your life now, the notion that you would have no contact with your kids at all is unthinkable. It should be unthinkable. It should be unthinkable for fathers too. Part of what we’ve done in this culture is we made women central to children’s lives and made fathers tangential. If the dad is around, fantastic. That is such a good thing, but the mother must be. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s problematic. I think it puts undue pressure on women. I think it makes us ask things from women that are unfair, that are just absolutely unfair. It gives men free passes in certain ways that I think is absolutely unfair, too, in terms of the responsibility of childrearing. I think we need lots of revision around this. I wanted to write this book to help a man see that his role as a father was really the most important thing that ever happened to him. In this case, Jacob, he wanted a child. He wanted a son particularly. He got one. He just didn’t get the kind he wanted.

Zibby: You don’t get to pick.

Daniel: You don’t get to pick. What’s also true — of course, I won’t put you on the spot. What’s also true is children can disappoint you. That is true. In fact, I don’t know any parents who were never disappointed in children in some way about something. That’s part of the parenting process too. I think that it’s different for a child’s behavior to disappoint us versus their being disappoints us.

Zibby: In part, the ownness is on the parents. You have to put aside any expectation of what — as I’ve had more and more kids, my involvement in them, I feel like, is tangential — not tangential. We’re deeply enmeshed in the everyday. All I do is think about them and all of that. They are who they are. They were that way from day one, before day one. It is our job to unpack that gift and see what they become and then try to bolster any of the strengths or unique qualities that they have. The idea that as parents we could decide, who would ever think that we had that kind of power? These are just creatures who we get to usher in the world. It’s a privilege to do so. That’s how I feel, at least.

Daniel: Absolutely. It’s absolutely a privilege. It is absolutely, positively a privilege to do so, for sure. As I was writing this book, my father was ill. My father was ill and struggling with Alzheimer’s as I was writing this book. He died the day I finished it. It’s the craziest thing. He did. He died the day I finished it. In so many ways, I realized then that I had been writing about him without really knowing it and without really intending to. It was a very emotional, very powerful kind of moment. My father was a great man. He and I had all kinds of tensions at times, but my father was an awesome person. It took him dying and me really thinking through to realize just how far he had come. My father was not a reader. My father could not read very well. I have a PhD.

I realized, I said, you know, for that to be true, there must have been something he did well. Many, many things, he did well, of course. The truth of the matter is, I don’t know that I had ever really sat down and evaluated the cost of his life, being born in the 1940s in the rural South and all the unbelievable racial tensions he had to contend with, not being allowed to go to school because he worked on a farm. He missed far, far, far more days than he went. Black children’s education was not compulsory yet, and so it was not illegal for him to miss school. Sometimes in a year, he’d go ten or twenty days total. To then turn around and own a house as a grown man, to turn around and rear children and send children to school and have a son to go and get a PhD is a gargantuan leap historically. That’s really what I wanted to show in this book. Very often, progress is made and people achieve and transformations occur in people sometimes without us ever knowing.

Zibby: How did you end up getting your PhD? What was your trajectory like?

Daniel: As a child, I was a reader. As a kid, I was a reader. My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1890s, lived next door to us in rural Arkansas. She too loved reading. She and I were very, very close. She and I were very close. I would read to her out loud. Her sight became bad, and I’d read to her out loud. I became an avid reader. We didn’t have books. We had the Bible. She got Reader’s Digest. That was pretty much our library. I was reader. I liked to read. I’ve always been academic. It’s very much like you said, ironically. That is, I just was who I was even though my parents were not readers at all. I did not come from a reading household in terms of my nuclear family, but I was. That got me started in terms of reading and loving knowledge. I did very well in school academically. When I finished high school, I was poor, broke Black boy in the country, but I got a scholarship to go on to college, a full scholarship. Thank God because I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I went to college. I did very well there. Then I went Oxford, England, and did a degree. Then from there, I went to Temple University. Thank the true and living God for scholarships because I would not have been able to go otherwise. I just would not. In fact, when I left home to go to college, my dad gave me fifty dollars. He was like, “I hope that helps you.” I was like, “Yes, sir. Thank you.” Of course, that was a lot of money to him. I get that.

I went straight through. I went straight through nonstop. At twenty-five, I had a PhD. I was done. It’s been a glorious ride. I’ve been teaching now at Clark Atlanta University since I got that PhD. It’s been absolutely fantastic. I went there for my undergrad degree. It was wonderful. I’ve seen what an academic life looks like. What I’ve also seen, because I come from non-academic folks, is how a non-academic life is. I’ve also seen what happens to Black people in this country who are outside of academic spaces and what kind of life is afforded a person who is not educated. I see now why my enslaved ancestors absolutely begged and insisted for the right to read. I get it. I get it in so many ways, Zibby. I understand it on so many levels now. What they knew, or at least what they imagined — it was true. The ability to read is the ability to think. The ability to read is the ability to analyze. The ability to analyze is the ability to understand your life, the world around you, how it works, how it functions. To participate, to become a participant in a democracy, to become a participant in a country so that your citizenship is guaranteed, it’s so absolutely, positively critical. Otherwise, you always see yourself as an outsider. You always understand yourself as being marginal to the center of the place where you exist. You always have the attitude of gratitude for simply being allowed to exist.

This reading in this novel, which I think is so important — in fact, when Jacob — of course, in his later years, he becomes a reader. It changes his whole understanding of human beingness. It changes his whole understanding of who he is, of what life is, of how life moves. It changes his understanding of how people are conceived. It changes his entire notion of what it means to be alive. Thus, he now realizes, oh, my god, what have I done to my son? What have I done? Dear God, what have I done? At this point, though, his health won’t allow him to physically move, so he cannot go find him. One of the things that I hope works, that I think works, is he does a very dangerous though a very remarkable thing. That is, he puts his heart on the page. What he has discovered by reading is that you can translate your heart to the page, and another person can get it whether you’re physically there or not. Words have this magical, magical power to carry meaning and to construct healing even in invisible places. He hopes and he believes that writing these letters — of course, the entire novel is these series of letters — is enough, will be enough, is going to be enough to transform his son’s life. That’s what he’s really, really praying, that it will be enough to transform his son’s life. We’ll know in the sequel.

Zibby: Oh, the sequel’s coming?

Daniel: In fact, I’m probably seventy-five percent through it.

Zibby: Wow, that is exciting.

Daniel: The sequel, it’s Isaac answering the letters.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. I’m so excited. Do you have a title for that?

Daniel: I do for now. Isaac’s Song. I don’t know that I’ll stick with that. I might. We’ll see.

Zibby: I interviewed Anna Quindlen recently. She has a new book out or coming out. I don’t know when this will air. It’s called Write for Your Life. It’s all about the lost art of letters and the importance of writing, and handwriting especially, but telling stories and letting people you love know. I feel like these two books would be a great gift together. Look at the power. She’s advocating the power of letters. It’s a case and point, even in fiction. I want to take your class. I just want to listen to you and learn from you. You’re so inspiring.

Daniel: Thank you. I will admit humbly that my classes are always full.

Zibby: I bet.

Daniel: I have so much fun with students. I do. It’s just the best. It’s the greatest. I just have such a great time with students. This semester, I’m teaching a seminar on the works of August Wilson. Unbelievable class. Just fantastic class. It’s the funnest class I’ve probably taught in twenty-five years. It’s just amazing. I teach classes like that. I teach classes like seminar on the works of Toni Morrison, seminar on the works of Ernest Gaines, or introduction to African American studies, proseminar on African American studies. Anything concerning African American studies, African American literature, Black writing, Black writers, that’s the kind of stuff I teach.

Zibby: It’s amazing. You should do a MasterClass, or beyond your university. I feel like you’d have such a huge audience for that.

Daniel: I appreciate that. In fact, I’m going to do a writing workshop at some point, probably August, I’m thinking. I’m planning it out now. So many people have asked me for that.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really exciting. If you find any great books, by the way, I started a publishing company called Zibby Books. We do fiction and memoir. Always looking for powerful, amazing stories.

Daniel: Absolutely. I may make some suggestions to you.

Zibby: Keep me in mind. Pitch some talented students and everything.

Daniel: I will. I absolutely will.

Zibby: As a beloved professor, what advice do you give to aspiring authors?

Daniel: I always tell authors two things. Don’t sacrifice a good story with bad grammar. I always tell students that. So many students want to write. So many adults want to write. Many of them have great stories, but many of them are not quite as committed to the meticulous nature of the craft as they are to the idea of being a writer. I always tell them, do not sacrifice the grammar. Learn the grammar. If you have to take a class, if you have to take a seminar or workshop, whatever you do, learn grammar because it matters in terms of the quality of the story you tell. It matters in terms of your ability to write the story. I always, always, always tell them that. The second advice I always give to a burgeoning writer is to read more than you write. The more you read, the more styles get exposed to you. The more you read, the more you see in terms of form and possibility of ways of writing, ways of phrasing things, etc. Reading, it’s the method, if you will. I always tell folks, read, read, read as you write. Those are the main two things I say.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much. This has been so wonderful. I’ve totally enjoyed speaking with you. I cannot wait for the next installment. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say. Oh, my gosh, exciting. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on and sharing Don’t Cry for Me with the world.

Daniel: Thank you tremendously. I’ve had a ball.

Zibby: Oh, good. Take care. Buh-bye.

Dr. Daniel Black, DON'T CRY FOR ME

DON’T CRY FOR ME by Dr. Daniel Black

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