In alignment with TMI Project's mission to empower people and bring about change through true storytelling, Black Stories Matter seeks to raise awareness around issues of inequality and injustice and inspire people to take action. Black Stories Matter elevates the underrepresented true stories of the Black experience in America—the full spectrum—the triumphs, humor, beauty, and resilience. Kesai Riddick participated in the inaugural Black Stories Matter performance in 2017. This is an edited version of the story he performed. To learn more or to sign up for the TMI Project podcast launching in 2020, visit Tmiproject.org.
Growing up not knowing my dad meant not knowing my masculine self, my blackness, who I am as a person.
The only memory I had of my dad was from when I was 18 months and learning to walk. I started late.
I grew up in the East Village. My mom took me to Tompkins Square Park and let me walk around the entrance of 8th St. and Avenue A. I remember her telling me, "Go, run to your daddy." I looked up and saw him there, my father, squatting down with his arms opened wide to catch me.
I don't remember seeing him again.
As a kid, my mom did her best to support me and my emotional needs. At seven years old, she enrolled me in therapy with a kind and gentle man named Roy. During my 45-minute sessions, I did whatever I wanted which meant I played video games. Roy asked me how I was feeling and how my day went. I never felt pressured to talk and I wasn't afraid of being judged or criticized.
For the last 15 minutes, Roy would ask me to put the game aside. Then, we'd sit down and have a conversation. He'd set out a cup of Skittles and we'd get into it. I'd tell him about everything that was happening at school and at home.
One day I told him how upset I was because my brothers knew who their fathers were but I didn't. It seemed totally unfair. The more I spoke about not knowing my dad the angrier I became. I was accessing untapped emotions. I began to cry and lash out. Before I knew it, I was throwing things around the room, exploding with rage. Roy allowed me to act out for a while before he told me to stop. After, I sat in my chair, crying, and asked, "Why has my dad left?"
Despite my emotional turmoil, I appreciated the relationships I had with other men growing up. I felt fortunate to have an uncle who was like my surrogate father and filled a masculine role in my life. It was through him I first learned about Buddhism. Right away, I was attracted to its teachings of self-reliance and awakening to my true self.
When I was 14, I suddenly transformed from a small brown child into a tall black man. My mom, who is white, wanted me to have a black upbringing and grow up "black." I never bought into that because it wasn't authentic. I have a white mother, a white uncle, and a white older brother. Even though I never viewed myself as being white, I never viewed myself as being black either. I saw myself as being me, Kesai.
I was reintroduced to Buddhism at 19 by a bartender at a concert hall where I worked. I told him I already knew a little about Buddhism from my uncle.
"Have you ever heard of Nam MyoHo Renge Kyo?" he asked. "By chanting Nam MyoHo Renge Kyo," he explained, "You can realize whatever dreams you have and actualize your absolute happiness." I never heard of Buddhism expressed that way. I decided to give chanting a try.
I chanted for a brief period of time and developed a dedicated practice a few years later. I never prayed to be reunited with my dad. Maybe once or twice it came up, but I never spend a significant amount of time chanting about it. Then something interesting happened in the spring of 2008.
I was scrolling through MySpace (as I said, it was 2008) when a message appeared from my estranged brother, Bajun. My mother told me I had another brother, but I never met him. Bajun asked me if I want to meet. I immediately messaged back, "Yes!"
Later that month, I met Bajun and our brother Copez. Copez was getting married, and he asked me if I wanted to attend his wedding. He said our father would be there too. In that moment, I understood what the bartender was trying to tell me when he said that Nam MyoHo Renge Kyo would help me realize my dreams. At 28, I was finally going to meet my dad!
I didn't know what to expect when meeting my father again. My mom never talked about him. I had no details about who he was as a person. Subconsciously, I had resolved I would never meet him and therefore didn't give him much thought. So, when the opportunity to meet him presented itself, I did my best to remain impartial.
My sister and I went to the church where my brother was getting married. I tried to keep my expectations in check, but I couldn't help it, this was it! I was excited.
I walked up a flight of stairs and there he was. My father. He sat at a table in a tuxedo, looking dapper and elegant. As soon as I saw him, I spun around and belted out in sheer joy, "My dad! Wow!" I was thrilled. We embraced, sat down and immediately started talking. I thought my dad would be this animated, kinetic individual. Instead, he was reserved and introspective. I have that attribute as well, but I never knew I got it from him. A lot was passed down genetically. We didn't have much time before the ceremony, but at that moment I felt like a huge, essential missing piece of my life had been filled.
Now, my dad and I meet about four times a year for coffee. He's hesitant and cautious when we're together as if he's apologetic and doesn't want me to have any hard feelings toward him. The first couple of meetings were awkward, but I conveyed my appreciation for just being there with him and let him know I didn't have expectations. Once he got more comfortable, he shared stories from his childhood and from when he was serving in Vietnam. Reuniting with him is an ongoing process.
I'm in therapy again and sometimes think about my sessions with Roy. I'm glad I was given the space as a kid to sort out all of my rage, sadness, and confusion. Roy created a safe place for me to talk about my father and my feelings surrounding the lack of connection.
Looking back, I think the outburst I had in Ray's office when I was eight years old was critical. I had an emotional breakdown that turned into an emotional breakthrough. Expressing those feelings finally helped me be at peace not knowing my dad. It left me with an awareness that continues to help me now, as I'm slowly getting to know him.
My happiness isn't dependent on knowing my father, it's dependent on knowing me.