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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Book review: ‘My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole’ by Will Jawando

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They say it takes a village.

This Abuelita has wisdom to offer. That Grandfather shares good secrets. An Auntie can teach, a Tio can show, and neighbors and ninongs can contribute more to a baby’s life. It takes a village, no one should have to raise a child alone — and as in the new book “My Seven Black Fathers” by Will Jawando, no child should have to grow up that way, either.

As the biracial child of a white mother and a Nigerian father, Will Jawando says he struggled to fit in until a boy at the basketball courts befriended him. As with many childhood friendships, the two drifted apart and one day, Jawando learned that his buddy had been killed. The incident still reminds him that compassion and grief are forever interlinked.

It also, he says, “made room in my heart for the mentorship of my seven Black fathers.”

Studies show that “a father in the home matters to his Black son,” no matter their income or what their neighborhood looks like. Even a father figure works: Jawando says that he is the man he is today because of “the Black men that I gained access to because of my mother’s job and where I went to school.”

His step-father, Joseph Jacob, gave Jawando his “Black American identity.” His fourth grade teacher, Mr. Williams — the first Black male teacher he’d ever seen — tutored him on respect and respectability. His mother’s co-worker, Jay Fletcher, a gay man, taught Jawando that showing vulnerability was necessary to be “whole.” Coach Wayne Holmes showed him how to succeed. Deen Sanwoola, a friend and mentor, gave Jawando “perspective” on his “Nigerian identity.” Barack Obama, with whom Jawando worked, showed Jawando his “birthmark” in his outside-of-mainstream name. And from his own birth father, once they connected again and traveled to Nigeria together, he found forgiveness and understanding.

“Now the healing could begin,” Jawando said. “All it took was a four-thousand-mile journey together.”

Sit up and pay attention.

That’s what “My Seven Black Fathers” asks you to do. It oozes with gratitude and grace, it flashes with remembered anger and calm, and, while author Will Jawando tells his story, it asks you to pay attention.

That’s not hard to do. Jawando’s childhood, which he relates in great detail, was like that of many Black boys, but with a difference: Seven Black men gave of their time to help form him, which he indicates doesn’t happen for a lot of children. And yet, despite its benefits, getting the mentorship was a struggle sometimes — a surprising point that surfaces but isn’t belabored, nor is Jawando’s reasoning for why this matters. Like any good storyteller, he tells, then lets his tale linger, leaving an impression you’ll come back to, time and again.

It shouldn’t be a surprise if “My Seven Black Fathers” might also spur you to mentor a kid, or to somehow get involved in a child’s life now or soon. In the meantime, this memoir on being a Black man has a lot to offer.

c.2022, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$28.00

232 pages

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