Darryin Cunningham primarily writes scripts, fiction stories, and poetry, but recently branched out to nonfiction and found it incredibly fulfilling. He loves lyricism, words, and painting with them. He wants to create art that people can feel and converse about, art that reflects reality in the deepest and unimaginable ways.
Father, I Stretched My Hands
My parents didn’t love each other. I highly doubt they even liked each for more than a day. Nonetheless, I came about somehow. It was probably like …
“That’s not my child! No way in Hell that’s my child.”
Or maybe it was more like,
“Darren, don’t be stupid! You saw the test. 99.9% your child!”
The one that somehow you seemed to have forgotten about, even though you were there for your other kids. I guess the first one was the guinea pig. You had to test out what it was like to be a father … or not. Decide whether or not you were gonna continue attempting to be one. I get it. I don’t agree with it, but I get it. I needed guidance. I needed wisdom, I needed somebody to teach me how to navigate this world as a man with brown skin. I needed a dad. Not a “biological father.”
Father. The word itself is hard for me to say. Why are so many beautiful memories tied to my mother and not you? How am I supposed to believe I can be a great father, if you aren’t? How many sentences did I start with “Well, my biological father … ”? So many. I got exhausted just thinking about saying it. When my stepdad showed up for things I had to explain who he was. My dad. But not my father. Father became a formal term to refer to you. It became the only way I referred to you. I would tell people our relationship was complicated or a work in progress, but in reality our relationship didn’t exist. And after a while…
You didn’t exist.
We stopped talking as I got older. You stopped reaching out completely. You gave up on your first-born son. And I still don’t get why. Why the hell would you do that? Father, I tried to love you. Father, I tried to hug you. Father, I tried to understand you. I tried to call. Father, I stretch my hands to find you, to reach you, but you aren’t there. So I had to place my faith in a different father. A more heavenly father, who taught me patience and mindfulness. But where were you when I called your name? I was taught to reach out to you, but nobody taught me how. Every time I stretched my hands, I found nothing. You were a ghost. Not the holy ghost. A myth that I grew to believe would never be proven true. I drowned in the waves of life, each obstacle like a current. I tried to find my stride, but instead I found the bottom. The ocean floor. From down there your light looked different. Maybe even brighter. Why couldn’t I feel you? Or hear you? What frequency did you live on? And how was I to get to that channel? I couldn’t find you.
But then again, that was never the point, was it? I was looking for an instant reaction and/or fix. I was praying for the wrong reasons, or even if the reason was right, I knew my heart wasn’t. What was I really stretching my hands to? What was I stretching my hands for? Did I really believe? I feel like I did. I did. I still do. But my soul was out of tune. The melody was hidden, locked. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find the right key. You fine-tuned my soul, so it could sing. Then, you showed me the melody of life that I had buried inside of me. I showed you my heart and you showed me the sun. You told me, go for it. I’ve leaned on you ever since then. When I’m jaded or feeling out of control or uneasy, I stretch my hands to you. But sometimes I needed a physical figure to be there. The father who wasn’t my father. When you came into my life, I didn’t see it as a blessing. I saw it as a curse, a punishment. In my mind, I didn’t want a father figure who wasn’t my father. But you taught me something very important. You taught me what a Dad was and is. I can only imagine how tough it must’ve been, walking into a house full of wide-eyed, young brown boys and telling yourself, this is the family you want to be a part of. We were all strangers. Yet you accepted us. Loved us. Even when we pushed back. At times I’m sure you felt the dissonance between the sweet harmony of family. I know we didn’t make it easy. You became a dad to me. I didn’t have to think about it or make it make sense in my mind. Father, I stretch my hands to you. Father, in every sense of the word, you were that. You are that. It may not be biological, but it runs as deep as the blood that binds me to my ancestors. A present, a gift from God.
I was lounging around on your dark-skinned leather couch in the living room. It was one of the first and only times I ever visited you. I was watching music videos and eating popcorn. You came flying down the stairs and slid through the kitchen and eventually made it to me. You stood in front of the TV and said…
“C’mon, son! I wanna show you something cool!”
“Okay!” I said cheerfully.
I followed you into the secret door that didn’t look like it was anything more than a closet. But inside was a staircase that led to the garage, which was huge. I did my best to keep up, but your excitement willed you through the empty garage quickly. You didn’t have any cars inside the three-car garage. The empty, abandoned look scared me. My eyes finally made sense of my surroundings when I spotted a drum set. You sat down, snatched the sticks, and stared at me.
“You play?” I asked as timidly.
“I don’t got these drums down here for nothing aha. Watch this!”
You started playing the drums, and at first, I wasn’t impressed. I could tell you were just having fun with it, goofing around and showing off. But then, I saw that shift in you. You had a fire ignite in your eyes and immediately there was no goofing off. You were shredding those drums and putting together rhythms I had never heard before. I was shocked. You stunned me. I was lost for words. But more importantly,
I was proud.
“Yeah, you’re mom and I used to play in the same band. We did a lot of church services and things. She had a great ear.”
I bet her ear was better than yours, I thought to myself. I stayed silent. I was still lost for words.
A few months later, my mom busted into my room with a phone in her hand. She handed it to me and said, “Answer it. It’s your dad.” She always forced me to talk to you because she knew if she didn’t, I would never call and she would have to hear your mouth.
“Hey son. How ya doing?”
“Good. I’m doing good. Just busy with school and stuff.”
“That’s good. Your mother told me how great of a job you did this football season. I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Dad. It was a lot of fun.”
“You gonna play basketball?”
“Ummm … if I have time, yes.”
“What do you mean if? Is this about that music stuff your mom told me about? What is that all about?”
“Oh. Yeah. I’m playing violin now. It’s actually pretty–”
“What? Son, that’s gotta stop. I thought you wanted to play football?”
“I thought you wanted to play basketball?”
“I do, but Dad, I–”
“Then you gotta drop this music nonsense. That stuff is a little soft, son. You don’t want people to think you are gay do you?”
“No, but I’m not–”
“Okay then. I need you focused. [Sighs.] Give the phone back to your mom.”
After weeks of your words ringing around in my head and my older brothers teasing me, I quit violin and all things music or performance related. I thought you would understand. I mean, you played drums. I wish I could say that it was that day I stopped looking at you as my dad. But it would take years, and I had to learn a lot more about the wrong you have done before making that decision. I lived so much of my life trying to escape your shadow. I wanted to be whatever I felt you weren’t.
Mama didn’t have to travel far to connect with nature. She raised wolves and did it without a man. Of course, she had help along the way, but she did all the heavy lifting. A bunch of damp-nosed, furry-backed, big-pawed creatures. She was like a healthy, deeply rooted tree, and we were like the branches, or perhaps we are all leaves on the tree of ancestry. Regardless of how this tree grew, and where its branches lie, we all came from it. We all relate to it. If there is any father that I’ve stretched my hands to the most, it’s her. She was, in many ways, my mother and my father. Even after Big Sean, my stepdad, came into our lives, he was deploying constantly. Or at least it always felt that way.
When I wanted to cry or felt sad, I stretched my hands to her. When the bigger wolves hurt me or picked on me, I stretched my hands to her. When I had questions about life, I stretched my hands to her. The wildest part of it all is that despite the separation between me and you, my “biological father,” she always encouraged me to see you. She encouraged all of us.
“How come you don’t wanna call your dad?” my mom asked.
“Because, I don’t have much to say to him. I don’t really desire to talk to him. I said sternly.
“Okay … it’s your choice. You’re old enough now. But I don’t wanna be the reason you don’t form a relationship with him. What happened between me and him shouldn’t affect you two.”
“I disagree, Ma. It does affect me. And it does affect my relationship with him. It feels like I’m always being asked to be the adult in the situation, and I’m not the one who chose to make the adult decision of having a kid. I just feel like he blames me for us not having a relations—”
“No, he blames me,” my mom says, interjecting.
“I just can’t pretend that he wanted me. I can’t pretend that doesn’t affect me every day. If he wanted to have a relationship with me, he would’ve put in the work to do that. He didn’t even show up to my high school graduation.”
You didn’t even show up to my high school graduation. You haven’t really ever shown up. The few times that I met you was because I came to you. Back then, I was a kid. You questioned my sexuality before I even knew what that was. You planted seeds, watered them with negativity and falsity, and expected a beautiful, positive tree of humility and honesty to grow. Instead, you ended up with a fiery source of power, a man who now does with his life the very thing you called “gay.” How could you not understand my defiance? We may look alike, have some similar mannerisms. But that’s genetics. I don’t beat myself up over that anymore. Darren, I am 99.9% your child. Your blood courses through my veins. It always will. But we don’t see the world the same way and we don’t question life the same way. And we damn sure don’t show “love” the same way. I was tired of reaching into a void of nothingness. I was tired of disappointing myself, for believing something you said or something you said you were gonna do. I was tired of filling the holes in my life with temporary illusions that eventually wore off. I’m ready to face reality. I was tired of being scared to be the man I’m meant to be. So I decided to embrace him. You may be my biological parent, but I won’t view you as my father. How could I? Now, I don’t ever stretch my hands to you. I can’t. I have to stretch them to things I believe in.
The italicized sections are primary sources from each historical figure. This piece uses my words and theirs, in order to explore black ancestry and culture.
No authentic record to record my date of birth. No real knowledge of my actual age. But, what was real, was the reality I was birthed into. On the east side of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
The opinion was … whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing … My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant … It [was] a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. … I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I woke she was gone.
No true recollection of my mother or father, I still knew I was destined to conquer my situation. Quietly and secretly, I taught myself how to read and write like them white folks in my neighborhood.
Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Pamphlets, books, and newspapers contributed to my understanding of words and the instituion that is slavery. I condemned it early on. My mind would not be played with or tainted by the idea. I tried to escape the inevitable. It took a few tries, but with the help of a strong, smart, free woman whom I had fallen in love with. Who knows where I would’ve ended up.
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said, ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
No rail, river water, or piece of paper was going to keep me from my destiny. From my freedom. I ran, jumped, and loved. I had the power of knowledge and God himself giving me strength. And I know you do too. You have that same power. Let the spirit and the hearts of your ancestors guide you. I know you feel them. We are always there. Even when you open your eyes.
I prayed all night long for my master until the first of March. Prayed for him to change his mind. Change his ways. When it became clear he wouldn’t, I changed my prayer. First of March, I prayed and said instead,
Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.
A week later my slave master, Edward Brodess, died. I won’t lie. I felt regret. Enough to make me frown upon the words I spoke that day. Enough to make me feel a little sad. But I had the right to liberty or death. If I didn’t have one, I would have the other. Either one would be better than living my life on my knees. I escaped slavery many times. I sang coded songs and gave my farewells to those I left behind. I left information behind in hopes that they would learn my plans. But I was bound for the promised land. I would not be bound to my rusty chains, and I would not stay quiet about my suffering. The world needed saving, and in that saving came sacrifice and bloodshed. But also, tremendous courage.
When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
I was in a strange land, littered with unfamiliarity. No friends, no family, but a light, gleaming through the darkness at the end of the tunnel. A stranger in a foreign land who, although was lost was free. Thanks to the North Star and the support of loved ones, I was free. As all people should be. Never be small, or boxed in. Become what you were meant to.
Run as fast as you can,
jump as high as you can,
And love as hard as you can.
Let the spirit and the heart of your ancestors guide you. I know you feel them. We are always there. Even when you open your eyes.
Poet, novelist, activist, and playwright. A leader of the new literary art form of jazz poetry. A true innovator. I helped lead the Harlem Renaissance. Both my great grandmothers were enslaved African Americans, and both my great grandfathers were white slave owners. I seldom saw my father when I was a child. We had a poor relationship. I know you relate to that.
I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.
I wanted to be a writer, but my father wasn’t willing to fund that. He wanted me to study engineering. I wanted to go to Columbia University, and my dad wouldn’t help with that either. So we reached a compromise of me attending Columbia as long as I studied engineering. Grades and classes were good, but I couldn’t get around the racial prejudice. I wanted to be where my people were. I wanted to be in Harlem writing poetry. I wanted to be where the heart of the city was a vibrant culture. I traveled, met a wonderful lady in Paris, even saw West Africa, but I always returned to New York. You can feel when your soul isn’t aligned with your passion. It creates a disconnect. But when that fiery passion is blended with the soul, you make magic happen. Don’t ever forget the soul grows. I had to work to the bone and fight, just to express myself and represent my people. But because of it, my soul has grown deep like the rivers. Don’t miss out on your opportunity. It’s never been easier to allow your soul to grow. Let the spirit and the heart of your ancestors guide you. I know you feel them. We are always there. Even when you open your eyes.
Write your way out and through the pain. Write to understand or tell a story that needs to be told. Give a voice to the people who don’t seem to have one. That’s what I always tried to do. Who knows what would’ve happened if I had chosen the life my mom wanted. I knew I didn’t wanna be no lawyer. Write every day, everywhere. Write in bars, on yellow note pads, and cafe napkins. Free yourself up, absorb the characters around you. Never be afraid to take that leap of faith, that shot in the dark. I remember one time,
Someone had looked around and said, ‘Who’s going to be the director?’ I said, ‘I will.’ I said that because I knew my way around the library. So, I went to look for a book on how to direct a play. I found one called The Fundamentals of Play Directing and checked it out.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I figured it out. I know you can feel them. I know you can hear them too. I still have the chants of Nation of Islam and Black Power ringing in my ears. You know, it’s funny, because when I got divorced I came to Seattle. The Seattle Rep Theatre was the first and only to perform my full Ten- Play ycle. Not only are we connected through ancestry and culture, but I was once breathing the same air you’re breathing now. Oh, and I heard your prayer. Would ya look at God? You did Fences justice. Don’t ever worry about your creative spirit. It won’t fail you as long as you learn to listen. Let the spirit and the heart of your ancestors guide you. I know you feel them. We are always there. Even when you open your eyes.
“1985, I arrived
34 years, damn, I’m grateful I survived
We wasn’t s’posed to get past 25
Jokes on you motherfucker, we alive”
Raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Pops was black, moms was white. Like your father, mine didn’t say around long. I was too young to remember when he left. People often ask if I identify as mixed race, and I tell them,
I can identify with white people, because I know my mother, her side of the family, who I love. But at the end of the day, I’ve never felt white. I can identify with white people but never have I felt like I’m one of them. I identify more with what I look like, because that’s how I got treated, but not necessarily in a negative way.
Be careful. Tread lightly, but walk confidently. Work hard, but don’t overwork yourself. Free your mind, but also free your soul. Seek happiness from within before you even consider sharing that gift with anyone else. We are the bottom. We are the oppressed. The design was meant to be the least visible on the totem pole of America, and yet they can’t keep us quiet. We have pain, we have sorrow and stress. We have frustration. But what do we make out of it?
Something fun, new, and creative that took natural talent and strength to make beauty from the dirt. Shit, you could even say it’s rebellious.
For some of us, it’s about relieving the mind. For others, it may be the only way your voice gets heard. Or maybe it’s the only time you remember you have a voice. Or it could be that music and the belief in a higher power is what got us through all those years of slavey. But be careful. Some of us are still in chains today. Whether they are chains we cuffed onto ourselves, or chains that were forced onto us. Either way, you can feel how heavy they are. How tightly they grip your wrists and ankles, reducing your blood flow and causing dizziness even. You can feel how you sluggishly plod through life like you’re walking through a pit of mud permanently. That shit is whack. Be careful. Them chains don’t make you and them chains won’t break you.
When you’re feeling lost or weak…or alone, sing a song. Don’t worry about the melody or the notes or the rhythms. You have that all inside of you. Jazz, Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B, Hip Hop, Spirituals, all inside you. Don’t worry about the sound of the song. This song sounds however you hear it, however you feel it. Let the spirit and the heart of your ancestors guide you. I know you feel them. They are always there. Even when you open your eyes.
The Black Experience
I feel you. I hear you. I see you.
Even through shattered glasses, I see you.
Even through solid brick walls, with no doors, cracks, or windows, I hear you.
Even through undiscovered dimensions of time and alternate timelines, I feel you. I feel you like that hot stove I learned not to touch when I was younger.
Younger like how I used to be before I learned to be in touch with my spirit.
My spirit, your spirit, our spirit.
You manifest inside of me and give me strength. Strength like power.
Power of speech due to the sharpness of tongue. But let that sharpness be
utilized for good. Good like the opposite of evil.
Evil like that of which I have been exposed to at a very young age. Evil like what was done to my loved ones. Evil like what has been done to you. My ancestors.
The blood from your backs waters the soil. The soil that is America.
The America that you helped build.
And from what you built I shall learn and use. Use like energy.
Energy that I’ve harnessed from the unexplainable web that connects us all.
Connects our minds and bodies and voices.
I see you.
I hear you.
I feel you.
Just a young black kid with a dream and a right to chase it. Birthed by music, the artistry of my ancestors flowed within me. From a young age, I wanted to paint with words. Whether that was verbally or physically writing symbols on a page.
Pops wasn’t around long. Momz raised wolves. I was lucky to have the family I did. I was taught at a young age to understand the world would see me differently, and thus my experience in the world would be different than a non-black person. I was taught to understand, but I didn’t. Not for a while. As I reached adulthood I became more aware of you. I started to feel you.
Like that time I prayed alone in my dorm room for 25 minutes without being aware of time or space. When I opened my eyes, my cheeks were damp.
Or like that time I blacked out during my first performance of “Fences.” I started the show, and the next moment I remember after reciting my first line, was me looking in the mirror of the dressing room.
I felt you then. And I still feel you now. Life without you was hard. The sever that left my ancestry to burn into oblivion, also set my soul on fire.
But you haven’t left me since. None of you have. I face obstacles that are still invisible to the other. But no matter the pressure or weight, no rail, river water, or piece of paper was going to keep me from my destiny. From my freedom.
I run as fast as I can,
I jump as high as I can,
And I still love, as hard as I can.
But because of it, my soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I don’t worry about my creative spirit.
It won’t fail me, as long as I learn to listen.
I don’t worry about the melody or the notes or rhythms.
I have that all inside of me.
The energy that I’ve harnessed from the unexplainable web that connects us all.
Connects our minds, bodies, and voices.
I let the spirit and the heart of my ancestors guide me.
I feel them.
They are always there.
Even when I open my eyes.