Elder discusses the impact his dad had on his life, as detailed in the memoir, Dear Father, Dear Son.
Radio talk show host Larry Elder
Tavis Smiley: Larry Elder is the host of “The Larry Elder Show,” which airs here in L.A. from 3:00 to 6:00 on KABC and streams on the Web at LarryElder.com. He’s also an author, a best-selling author, in fact, whose latest is a very personal look at the impact his father had on his life. The book is called “Dear Father, Dear Son.” Larry, good to have you on the program.
Larry Elder: Thanks for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: I want to get into what is a fascinating story of the relationship between you and your father and how it took years to heal the relationship, but I want to start by reading just one paragraph at the very beginning of the book, and I quote: “I hated my father – really, really hated him.”
Tavis: “I hated working for him, I hated being around him. I hated it when he walked through the front door at home, and we feared him from the moment he pulled up in front of the house in his car.” When you hate your father to that degree – what sets the stage for the reunion?
Elder: Well, Tavis, my dad was what I call a junkyard dog dad. You’ve heard the expression “tiger mom?”
Elder: He’s a junkyard dog dad. My dad was a Marine. He was one of the Montford Point Marines. Those are the equivalent of the Tuskegee Airmen for Marines. He’s a tough, tough guy. When I was 15 we had a fight, and I didn’t speak to him for 10 years.
So now I’m 25 years old and I’m beginning to have difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating, I’m feeling restless, and one of my friends suggested that maybe it was because I had unresolved issues with my father.
So I decided to sit down and talk with him. I figured, Tavis, the conversation would last maybe 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes, if that, because I was going to call him an SOB. I figured he was going to say something equally bad to me, and that would be that.
Instead, we sat on two stools from 2:30 until 10:30, for eight hours, and during that eight-hour period of time the man morphed from being an SOB, cold, ill-tempered, thin-skinned, to this kind, caring, inspiration that I completely misread.
Tavis: Does that mean that you – well, you just said “misread.” Did you misread, did you miscalculate, or had he changed in the 10 years that you hadn’t spoken to him?
Elder: I think a little bit of both, but mostly just being a kid. You’re a kid, you expect your dad to be like a Ward Cleaver. My dad was not like that at all. We’d come home, and my dad worked so long, he worked two full-time jobs as a janitor, he cooked for a family on the weekend, he went to night school at night three nights a week to get his GED.
Nobody ever worked as hard as my father. My father averaged maybe four hours of sleep at night, and when you’re a kid, you don’t realize that. The man was tired. He was tired. Then when I was 15 and we had this long conversation, Tavis, I found out that my dad did not know who his father was.
The man named Elder, it was not his biological father; it was a man who was in his mother’s life the longest. He was an alcoholic who beat both his mother and my dad, and his mother had a series of boyfriends like that. The last boyfriend she had, my dad was 13 years old, he comes home from school, she starts quarreling with the boyfriend.
The mom sides with the boyfriend and kids my dad out of the house at 13 years old, never to return. We’re talking about a Black man, Jim Crow South, Athens, Georgia, during the middle of the Great Depression.
Tavis: Ten years you go around hating your father.
You hate him longer than that, but 10 years of hating him and not speaking to him.
Tavis: After those eight hours on those stools in his snack bar, how’d you feel? Did you feel – I don’t even want to put a word in your mouth, (laughter) because you hated your dad all this time, after eight hours of talking to him, and you realize how wrong you were about your father, how did you feel?
Elder: I felt relieved, I felt grateful -
Tavis: Oh, come on. You’ve got to give me stronger than that.
Elder: I felt foolish.
Tavis: Thank you.
Elder: I felt all -
Tavis: You going to call your dad an SOB, you’re going to tell me you feel more than relieved.
Elder: I felt all of the above, but mostly I felt sad because I’d wasted all that time.
Elder: What I was able to do, Tavis, is I called my older brother and I told him about this conversation, and I said, “You’ve misread him.” He said, “No I haven’t. He’s an SOB,” and said all the same things that I said about him. I encouraged my brother to sit down with my dad, and he did. It made their relationship better.
My mom and my dad were married 56 years, and the fact that I reconciled with my dad I think made their marriage a little bit better as well. So I guess the takeaway, Tavis, is this – 70 percent of Black kids are born outside of wedlock, 50 percent of Hispanic kids are, 25 percent of white kids are.
If anybody had a reason to become a delinquent, to become a criminal, to be angry at the man, to be angry at the white man, to be angry at America, it’s my dad, but he did not feel that way at all. He felt that no matter how you’re raised you should know the value of hard work, and no matter how you’re raised, you should know the difference between right and wrong.
Hard work wins – you get out of life what you put into it – and no matter how hard you work, sooner or later bad things are going to happen and how you react to those bad things will tell my mother and me whether or not we’ve raised a man. I would always say, “Dad, not too much pressure.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) And yet when your father did that, when he did – my phrase here, not yours – when he did what he thought was right, you still rebelled. He was still misread. He still lost his son for 10 years.
Elder: Right, right.
Tavis: You still have to write a book now which is an apology to your father. He’s gone now.
Tavis: You have to write an apology to your father. After doing all the right things, you still treat him wrongly.
Elder: You’re absolutely right, Tavis, and that’s what I am hoping that people will realize. If you’re lucky enough to have a father in the house, a responsible father like my dad, worked that hard, came home promptly, didn’t cheat on his wife, wasn’t an alcoholic, wasn’t physically abusive, even though he’s a little grumpy, even though he’s a little crusty, recognize he’s doing the best he can.
Raising a child is an on-the-job kind of thing. There aren’t a whole lot of manuals for that. My dad was part of what Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation. That’s that World War II generation. They did not carry their emotions on their sleeves.
These were people that felt I put a roof over your head, I put food on the table, I put clothes on your back. What’s the problem? You’re light years ahead of the way I was when I was raised.
Tavis: During this eight-hour conversation on the two stools in the snack shop, did your father accept any responsibility for being grumpy, for being crusty, for not taking the time? Obviously he’s working hard, but nobody, you didn’t ask to come into the world, your brothers didn’t ask to come in.
Your father did have a responsibility to show that he loved you and it wasn’t just through going out paying bills. Did he take any responsibility at the conversation?
Elder: It’s interesting you ask that, because I asked my dad that very same question, and he said, “I did the best I could. I recognize right now that the way I raised you, the way I whipped you, was probably, people would call that abusive right now.
“But when you look at the way I was raised and what our standards were, it was just standard operating procedure. I don’t feel that I have anything to apologize for,” and he’s right. He doesn’t have anything to apologize for. He did his job.
A lot of Black men don’t do their jobs. A lot of Black men abandon their families. My dad never did that. In fact, my dad said that when he had difficulties with my mom, and you have a 56-year marriage, you’re going to have some difficulties, he said, “I never want you to have the same situation that I had, where I never knew where I was coming from, never knew where the next meal was going to come from.”
In fact, my dad thought until he was five years old that the woman who raised him was his mother. He found out from the kids in the neighborhood, Tavis, that the lady was his grandmother.
He had a fight with some kid who said that, he goes home to this woman and says, “Are you my mommy,” and she sits down and tells him that, “No, I’m not, your mommy is that woman over there who kind of comes into your life and out of your life every now and then.”
So he had a really traumatic experience because he did not have a consistent male role model in his life, and he never wanted that on his sons.
Tavis: So what happened inside of you after all that hatred to accept your father telling you that I’m not going to apologize because I ain’t got nothing to apologize for; I did the best I could? You didn’t have to accept that, so what happened inside of you that made you even open to receiving that?
Elder: Got wiser, got older. You know that old line, the older I get, the smarter my dad gets. That’s what happened. I just got wiser, realized how difficult life is, and to take the responsibility of having a stay-at-home wife and raising three boys and doing your thing and making sure that they have good guidance and good values, that’s a difficult task to take.
That’s probably the most serious undertaking you can have, other than going through combat, to become a father. Anybody that does that should be honored, if he abides by his responsibilities.
Tavis: So if there are two parents in the house, both doing the best they can, and they still end up raising boys who have issues with them, what chance does a single parent have when we know they’re working long hours, when we know they can’t be at everything going on at school, when we know they’re going to be absent for X, Y, or Z.
What chance do they have if your parents couldn’t do it and you couldn’t behave with both of them in the house?
Elder: Well, that’s one of the reasons I think the book is important. Again, Tavis, my dad did not have any of that. My dad did not know who his father was. Yet he still did not go bad, because he felt that hard work wins.
In those days there was no welfare, there wasn’t any option. My dad, when I asked him these kinds of questions, what made you do the right thing, my dad would look at me – how can you ask me a question like that? What were my options?
So what are the options you have if you don’t have a dad? You can become a criminal, you can drop out of school, or you can recognize that the way to the middle class is to at least get a high school education.
James Q. Wilson is the professor of public policy at UCLA. He says if you want to avoid poverty you have to do three things, Tavis. First you have to graduate from high school, secondly, don’t have a kid until you’re 20 years old, and thirdly, don’t have a kid until you get married. If you follow that formula, you will not be poor.
Tavis: I love your father’s discipline and dedication and hard work and I’m not offering this as an excuse, but you will admit to me that the distractions for these kids nowadays, and I’m not excusing them, but the distractions are so much greater.
Your father didn’t have the options, nor was he being pulled by society, nor did he have in front of him society telling him that this is what makes you significant, things, holdings, belongings make you significant. So the options weren’t the same. He wasn’t being pulled in the same way as kids are today.
Elder: I think there’s something to that. On the other hand, the kids today do not face that crippling racism that people faced back then. You’re talking about my dad growing up in the Great Depression. Fifty percent of Black adults were unemployed, 25 percent unemployment.
Right now we’re talking about 14.3 percent unemployment for Blacks, so the unemployment situation is far better than it was back then, and of course the racism situation is far better than it was back then.
You have K through 12 for free, paid for through taxpayer education, taxpayer funding, and if you graduate in California in the top 12.5 percent of your class you’re automatically admitted into one of the UC systems.
So there’s plenty of money available. You have to want it. You have to have it. You have to want it. You have to raise our game.
Tavis: You went on to become a lawyer out of the University of Michigan, a great law school, very successful talk show host. What did you take from your father starting out as a janitor and ending up as an entrepreneur, owning this snack bar?
Elder: Don’t whine. Don’t whine. If anybody had a reason to whine, it’s my father. There’s a term I use; it’s called victocrat. These are people that are professional whiners who blame other people for other things.
My dad was not a victocrat and would not tolerate people who were victocrats. My dad felt that the sky is the limit right now. Things were bad when I was a young boy, but even then you could still work hard and improve your lives. You have no excuses right now.
Tavis: Things now for Black people are better than they have ever been in some ways, and there’s a Black man in the White House, but the unemployment numbers that you spoke of, I don’t believe they’re 14.3, you don’t believe that, because those numbers are never completely accurate because there’s so many people who have stopped looking for work, obviously.
Tavis: Because they can’t find anything for years. So Trayvon Martin shows that racism is still real, the unemployment figure is (unintelligible) -
Elder: I don’t agree with your assessment of Trayvon Martin at all.
Tavis: – the education system – okay, but my point is, though, that these issues still matter. Neither one of us believes that these issues have completely gone away. These issues still do matter. What empathy do you have for the conditions, although better, that young Black boys still have to navigate their way through in these kill zones every day?
Elder: Well, I interviewed Kweisi Mfume, the then-head of the NAACP, on my show, and I said, “As between the presence of white racism or the absence of Black fathers, which poses a bigger threat to the Black community?”
Without missing a beat, Tavis, he said the absence of Black fathers. So what I would say to people is recognize right from wrong, recognize hard work wins, recognize you’re not going to get anywhere in this digital society unless you at least graduate from high school, ideally graduate from college, don’t make bad moral mistakes.
To bring a child into the world that you cannot feed, clothe, house, and educate is the moral equivalent, in my opinion, Tavis, of a drive-by shooting.
Tavis: The book is called “Dear Father, Dear Son: Two Lives, Eight Hours.” If you know anything about Larry Elder’s work, you know he doesn’t hold his tongue, (laughter) and if you didn’t know that, after this interview you know it now. So if you want a straightforward read, I highly recommend it. Larry, good to have you on the program.
Elder: Let’s talk about Trayvon sometime too, Tavis.
Tavis: Let’s not and say we did. (Laughter)
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.