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You and Mississippi

20 March 2023:

Last week, during a layover in the Detroit Airport Terminal as I waited for my flight to return back to Seoul Korea, I had a flashback. I remembered a time where I flew out of the airport in Meridian Mississippi and said goodbye to my dad.

It was the summer of 2016 and I was stationed in San Antonio, TX at the time. My dad's eldest brother, Sylvester Jr., had recently passed away and I decided to fly into Meridian MS, to be there for my dad as he buried his eldest brother. My dad has been no stranger to funerals. In my lifetime, he buried his mother and father, within two years of each other. Due to my siblings and I being small at the time, our family living in CA and the expense of traveling to MS being more than my parents could afford, my dad attended these funerals without us (his kids and my mom), the family he and my mom created. Since I was now old enough and could afford my own ticket, I decided to fly to MS so that he could have a piece of his new home with him.

My dad was the 11th child of 12 children. His father, Sylvester Sr. was a veteran: a former Montford Point marine (the first African-Americans allowed to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps) who served overseas during WWII and spent the rest of his life working as a farmer. He sold fruits and vegetables to the local Meridian Community and was able to not only survive through the Great Depression through this business but also, provide for his family. My grandmother (my dad's mom), worked as a housewife and supported the farm. My dad shared with me how she was talented with a needle and thread. She would make clothing and quilts. She also made all of their food fresh from the farm. My mom to this day says the best dressing she's ever had in her life is from my dad's mom.

As a kid, my dad would tell me stories about his childhood and I LOVED it. It was like traveling into a whole new world for me and I could see each part of the story play out into my mind. My dad shared how as a kid he use to like to play with the farm animals. They had cows, pigs, chickens, mules among others. He hated how he would raise the pigs when they were babies, then have to slaughter them. The same with the chickens. When chicken was on the menu for dinner they would have to go out back, ring the chicken's neck, chop it off, it would walk around headless for a little bit, then be totally dead. They then would pluck the feathers, clean, it cook it and eat it. He shared how one day he was out plowing with the mule and he slapped it for it to move. Instead of moving the mule kicked him. Another story was of him being chased by a goose and being bit by one on his stomach. Some of my favorite stories were about the different games he played under the home they lived in. The house they grew up in was built by my grandfather. From what I remember while I was visiting, it had two bedrooms, one bathroom (that was installed much later in my dad's childhood as they formerly used the family outhouse), a kitchen and a living room. It was built high off the ground. High enough to where when I visited at eight years old, my sister, cousins and I would play and chase the cats underneath. When my dad was a kid, he would play under the house. He was the youngest boy and his brothers were a lot older than him so he would often play by himself. His parents couldn't afford to buy him traditional toys so he would make his own. He would take sticks, mounds of dirt, rocks, and dead beetle bugs to build his own imaginary communities and play with them. He would turn the beetles into soldiers and play all kinds of games. One day, one of his older sisters came and stepped on one of his toy bugs and destroyed his game then ran off laughing. He told me that he took a rock and threw it at the back of her head right in the middle where her hair was parted into four braided ponytails and she cried. He got in trouble but she never messed with his toys again. Lol.

My dad would share how each day before school at around three in the morning he would get up before school to milk the cows and work the fields. He then would go to school and come home to do it all over again. By the time my dad reached high school, he was interested in both JROTC and football but after participating in both his freshmen year, my grandfather told him he had to pick one. That the two were a large time commitment and that he needed to be available to help the family work the fields. The reality was, that the field work my dad, and his siblings did daily was critical to sustaining the family's livlihood. Between the two extracurricular options, my dad chose JROTC. My dad had dreams beyond farming and outside of MS which led him to leave home and join the Navy at 17, despite what both of his parents wanted for him. My grandmother wanted him to finish High School, as this was something both she and my grandfather had never done. My grandfather wanted him to stay and run the farm. My dad desired none of this. He wanted out.

Growing up, my connection to my dad's side of the family was extremely limited as the majority of them all lived in MS. I visited MS once as a baby but have no memory of it. My second time was at eight years old and I LOVED it. While the farm animals were all gone, there were still a lot of cats, farm land, and family around so it was the perfect playground for me. While my mom's family in Los Angeles would usually see us twice out of the year, my interaction with family was predominantly confined to my siblings, parents, and I within our immediate household. Being in an environment where family members were your next door neighbors (the case in MS) was new to me. Growing up in northern CA, I was disconnected from my extended family. I often felt very disconnected from other black people. In Meridian MS, I was surrounded by both.

When I returned back to MS, it was the first time I had been back since I was eight years old. The same presence of family was there. There were ALOT of us. There was such a pride in being a "Hood." One of my cousins who had a different last name due to marriage said to me, "I wish I was a Hood." I was caught off guard by this. I remember thinking, "Why does he want to be a Hood? What is so good about carrying the name of 'Hood' over his own name?" At the time, I was so focused on trying to make my own way and prove myself in my job that the idea of already coming from a family of 'good stock' as many of them expressed, was something that I had not considered. I remember walking down the street of the house my dad grew up in and seeing the street name, "Armetta Hood Road". It was named after my great grandmother. "It really does exist" I thought. I still felt very disconnected.

The day of my Uncle Jr's viewing I accompanied my dad to the ceremony. I remember walking down the aisle with my dad and as we approached the casket my dad whispered to me with tears in his eyes, "Here's the man that inspired you Kristin." I remember feeling confusion and anger when my dad said this. He was likely saying this because my Uncle Jr. served in the Air Force during the Vietnam war. Since I was the next person to join the Air Force in the family (that I know of) my dad, by default, attributed my decision to join to be from him (at least that's how I interpreted his comments). The truth was, I didn't even know that the AF was the service my Uncle served in until after I was on active duty. And while my Uncle was alive, I only saw him once and we never spoke to each other. The truth was, that I really didn't know him. And just because we were family by blood and served in the same military branch, I could not directly attribute any of my choices being from my Uncle, who I didn't know.

I didn't address my feelings from my dad's comment with him, because I knew he was grieving the loss of his eldest brother. I let him have his moment and stayed by his side to support him.

During the viewing people cried then sat in church pews after viewing my Uncle's body in the casket. After some time passed, my dad stepped up to the podium and was the first to give a speech about his brother. I thought to myself, my dad is considered to be "the baby brother" by his siblings, but he exuded so much leadership. I don't remember everything he said, but I remember feeling completely moved to tears. I saw my dad hurting but still showing strength at the same time. I heard my dad acknowledge the distance he had with the family and lifting up his brother Charlie (one of my other Uncle's) who served as my "Uncle Jr.'s Keeper" during the final years of his life and as his health declined. For me, the speech made me feel proud to have my dad as my father as I saw how his words brought the family together, at a time where each of them were grieving in their own way. After my dad spoke, people lined up to speak and share memories and words of respect for my uncle Jr.

After the ceremony, I remember meeting more family members. Many of whom I had never met before or had met once as a kid. I remember my dad taking me to one of the cemeteries that showed some of the impact that slavery had in our family. He showed me the "white side" where we had white cousins. Each with their own headstones. He showed me the "slave side" where our black family members were buried which was all brush. He shared stories with me of what it was like going to school during the 60's at the beginning of integration. My dad was required to travel by bus each day with other black kids to attend school with white people.

Growing up my dad never spoke much about race. He maintained the attitude that race is never a factor unless you make it a factor. He made it clear to me that I had the same opportunities as everyone else and that with hard work, anything can be possible for me; for anyone. In recent years, my dad has finally acknowledged that his experience in the "integrated schools" was not ideal. He said to me, "It may have been better if we hadn't integrated." When I asked him what that meant he said, "The teachers, in the white schools treated you differently.... but that's no excuse... I had the same opportunity as everyone else had in those classes. I just didn't make the most of it." As I listened to my dad and reflected on the racist experiences I had in the CA school district during the 00's then thought about everything I saw, read and watched about racism in the south, particularly MS, I began to wonder about my dads words. My dad attended school during the 60's and 70's. MS refused to even remove the confederate flag from its state flag until 2020 after George Floyd's murder and the ENTIRE world watched. What environment did he grow up in? Did my dad REALLY have the same opportunity as everyone else?

Last year, during the fall out with my family, I remember my dad saying to me, "I hate myself for what I did." I remember feeling so much hurt and anger after everything that happened that his words could not dissolve the fortress of distrust and pain that had risen within me. I grew up knowing my dad one way and it turned out I had no idea who he was. I loved and admired my dad with all my heart and with everything that happened, I felt like I didn't have a dad anymore. That maybe, I never had one and that the person I knew and all that he taught me, was an illusion. Why did he hate himself to, in his own words, "destroy" his own life?

This past year, specifically in recent months, really made me ask the question of what is it like to be a "Black" man? Growing up, I would read about leaders of the civil rights movement. Many of the visible ones like MLK and Malcom X, were Black men. I would watch the "Cosby show", "The Fresh Prince of Bell Air" and saw a family model that I, in ways, related to. I saw greatness repeatedly executed and praised in athletes and entertainers like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, and Denzel Washington. For me, the greatness didn't end there. I looked within my own family and saw my dad and Uncles who would visit (most of whom from southern CA) and I saw their own unique version of greatness residing in each of them. To be around them was to be inspired. Each of them had a power of lighting up a room, and the people within it.

But the power often faded when I went to school. I would look around at my peers and when I would see the boys who were black, many (not all, emphasis on not all) seemed to play a character that didn't make sense to me. Many of us in the School District I grew up in lived in "suburban style" neighborhoods. The worries that often came with growing up in the inner city was not something that I experienced or observed. I didn't understand how some of my black peers who were boys seemed to not take school as serious. Some resorted to being the class clown. Some checked out entirely. Some would do drugs. Some would sell drugs. I didn't understand how we seemingly had the same access to opportunities, yet in every Advanced Placement (AP) and honors class I'd sit in, white and asian people were the majority of people in there with me. Where are the black people? Where are the black boys?

My younger brother and I were not close growing up. I found him to be immature, unmotivated and apathetic and he found me to be intense, rude, judgmental and had no desire to get to know me. Today, we are the best of friends. In our recent conversations we talk a lot about our childhood together. What blew my mind is how despite us growing up with the same parents, attending the same schools, and living in the same home and neighborhood, our experiences were TOTALLY different.

One difference was with our parents. My mom put a lot of pressure on all three of us (my brother, sister, and I) to perform in school and to behave well. She was the model for "perfectionism." While she did not disclose her motivations to me until last year, her reason was she feared any one of us becoming a black stereotype in the presence of white people. While "race" was never something overtly expressed to me by my parents, it WAS for my brother. While I responded to my mom's pressure of performing with high performance, my brother responded with defeat. He then was met with pressure to not perform poorly because he "was black and things will already be harder for you". In the words of my mom. And so in turn, he felt defeated, and became the very thing my mom feared- a poor academic performer. The school district would not hold him back so my brother just kept being passed along from each grade level until he barely graduated High School with minimal to no confidence for college. It was an extremely exhausting thing to watch between him and my mom and shocking to see how low one's grades can be all year long and still pass on to the next grade.

Another difference was our experience in elementary school. Despite our six year age difference, my brother had many friends, girlfriends, and was adored by his teachers which was the exact opposite of my experience. I was praying to make a friend and have a teacher notice me. It was hard work! My brother and his friends started doing "kid things" that landed him in trouble. One time he stole $2 worth of otter pop money with his friend. Another time he smashed a muffin on someone's car. Each incident landed him in the principal's office and my mom was notified. The incident that got the police involved was when my brother was about 9-10 years old and was with one of his friends, a fellow class mate who was a white boy. My brother and his friend were riding their bikes and door bell ditching houses in his friend's neighborhood. For one of the houses, an older white man answered the door and ran after them. My brother's friend got away but because my brother chose to grab his bike first, the man caught him. He "forcefully" (in my brother's words), grabbed my brother's arm and said, "You think its funny? Well tell your friend its not funny!"

When my dad learned what happened, he reported the incident to the local police. My dad's view, was that the older man had no right to put his hands on my brother and how that was a form of assault. My brother did not hear the entire conversation but said my dad and the police talked for a long time. The police then approached my brother and explained how door bell ditching is against the law as it is a form of trespassing. They further explained how HE (and his friend) were at fault for the entire incident because they were trespassing. Since the police did not do anything, my dad and my brother's friend's dad went to the door of the man who forcefully grabbed my brother to speak with him, but the man never came to the door.

Growing up, my sister and I use to make jokes about the entire incident, particularly the man's words, "you think it's funny! You think its funny!" we would say. We turned the entire thing into something we could laugh about; Aerick doorbell ditching houses and getting grabbed. But looking at the incident now as an adult, I see it differently. My brother, a child, trespassed during a common doorbell ditch game, was met with a physical response. My dad, a black man, reported the incident in an attempt to protect his son and was further identified as the source and cause of the problem. The act of trespassing overruled the physical response of the older man, which could be considered an assault. What does that mean? What did my brother learn from that? How did that make my Dad feel? Did he feel powerless?

I started thinking about the very thin tight rope black people must walk in order to not only get opportunities for ourselves but to also stay alive. I think of all of the black men who are perceived as "threats" just for showing up as their authentic selves and how black parents, to include my own, train them to shrink in order to survive. There is a very very LONG line of continuous events in America, and around the world, that repeatedly show that breathing, while black, is a problem. Even when you are in the confinement of your own home. I look at how 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was simply walking home, UNARMED with a bag of skittles in one hand and Arizona iced tea in the other. Yet somehow after being stalked by a man almost twice his age, a man who was armed and told by police to "not engage," finds himself in a fight for his life against Zimmerman, an armed man. Trayvon Martin is murdered by Zimmerman, yet Zimmerman is acquitted because in the eyes of the jury Zimmerman felt his life was threatened and was "standing his ground." Did any jury member consider that just maybe, 17 year old Trayvon Martin felt HIS life was threatened after being followed by a grown man he didn't know? Did they ever consider that Trayvon Martin was fighting for HIS life and was standing HIS ground against a man who was carrying and ultimately killed him with an armed gun? Zimmerman created the entire situation yet walked free from the murder charges. What does one take from this?

My brother learned early that justice will NOT be on his side, and the repeated messages within the media, in the local community and within our own home told him that no matter what he does, he will be seen as a problem. I then realized that despite the similarities in our upbringing, my brother and I still had different experiences. We had similar but different trauma. And even with a similar trauma through different circumstances, we both responded to that trauma differently. I chose to achieve, attempt to overcome, and ultimately work myself to exhaustion. Until my brother started community college, he chose to accept his fate and underachieve. Keep himself distracted and never believe that he could be anything more than the negative perception that the environment had of him. I lived for the possibility of a future while my brother dreaded and feared it. Now, that we both have become more aware of ourselves and the environment we live in, we both are learning and supporting each other in our quest to heal and live lives that are true to who we really are.

Fast forward to my last day in Meridian MS, back in 2016. My dad drove me to the regional airport in the city. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. For starters, there was plenty of free parking in the airport parking lot, available. There was no line for ticketing and to go through security. There was only one gate which was visible from the entrance into the airport. There also was a station for free smoothies and free doughnuts. It was really friendly and small. It was, to this day, the smallest airport I have ever been in. As I put my bags through the security conveyor belt, a clear glass wall seperated those boarding the flight and the families who stayed behind. As I walked up the stairs to board the plane I looked back at my dad on the other side of the glass wall. He waived to me and blew me a kiss goodbye. I did the same and entered the plane. I cried most of the flight back to San Antonio. I imagined my dad at the age he left home and likely first flew out of that airport; at 17. I thought of what that had to of been like for him leaving the world he knew in Meridian MS which was so drastically different from the the experiences he would go on to have in the Navy and the life he now has in CA.

Last month, on Feb 1st, when I decided to share my mental health journey with my Squadron, one of the Airmen asked me, "How were you able to forgive your dad?" I paused before I answered her question. I explained to her that it wasn't easy. That many conversations, both over the phone and in person happened before I was able to do so. I had to fully become aware of and express how the situation made me feel. But I then explained that I got to a place where I realized two things. The first being that two things CAN exist at the same time. That someone can do both good and bad things. That they can possess love for you and hurt you. That human beings are COMPLEX and that unknowingly, I had placed my dad on a pedestal that no human being could ever live up to and the reality is that my dad is very human. The second thing, was realizing the truth that lived within me. The truth was that despite the hurt my dad caused our family, I have and always will, love my dad. I will always love both of my parents. Now this doesn't mean that I agree with or condone everything they do. That doesn't mean that I will not establish boundaries for my own health, or that our relationship will be the same. But it does mean that I will no longer choose to carry the pain that the hurt was causing me. It was destroying everything in my life that I cared for (to include my marriage) and it was ultimately destroying me. I was able to forgive my dad because I allowed myself to process my grief and chose to accept the truth.

One of my cousin's wrote a song years ago titled, "You and Mississippi." My dad used to play the song in his car while I was a little kid. While the song never reached viral status, I still catch myself singing the lyrics on rare occasions when I think of my dad. I am not a "black" man neither am I my dad. But I do know how much I have loved and still do admire him. Not the accolades, just him. I don't know what all led him to a place where he can "hate" himself or do things that lead him to say that he "destroyed" his life. But I know that he is not the only black man who has ever felt like this. He is not the only PERSON who has ever felt like this. And I do hope that one day, he, and all of those black men who can relate, are able to see the true power that lies within themselves, and truly love themselves. That they no longer need to destroy themselves and those standing right there with them who choose to love them. Because the TRUTH is, they always were and will always be, both WORTHY and DESERVING of love.

Maybe one day, the world will catch up and see it too; their worthiness. But they don't need to wait on the world. It's ok to do the work to heal and love yourself now and always.

Photos: My Dad and I (top) and my Uncle Jr. during his time in the Air Force during the Vietnam War (bottom)

Photos: The cemetery my Uncle Jr. was buried in (left). The flag given to my Uncle Charlie during my Uncle Jr.'s funeral service. My Uncle Charlie took care of my Uncle Jr. each day in his final years of life. He is who my dad referred to as being, "his brother's Keeper."

Photos: Myself and one of my Uncles and a few of my cousins

Photos: The white "Fisher" cemetery where we have white family members (left). The slave cemetery where some of my black slave descendants were buried (right). All remnants of markings of graves in the slave cemetery were stolen and/or destroyed.

Photos: Close up photos of some of the white Fisher family headstones


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