Books·Personal Essay

Lawrence Hill reflects on his relationship with his father and with his own children

In this essay, excerpted from the book Forty Fathers, Canadian writer Lawrence Hill reflects on parenthood.
Lawrence Hill is one of the contributors to Forty Fathers. (Tessa Lloyd, Douglas & McIntyre)

Forty Fathers is a collection of essays compiled by Tessa Lloyd, in which 40 Canadian men reflect on parenthood. Contributors include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, restaurateur Vikram Vij, musician Alan Doyle, artist Robert Bateman and philanthropist Rick Hansen and academic Niigaan Sinclair.

Below you can read the essay by Lawrence Hill, author of the novels The Book of Negroes and The Illegal, and father of five.

My parents came to Canada from the States in 1953. Dad came to do his PhD. He was an activist, a public figure revered by many Ontarians who cared about human rights, civil liberties and Black history, so I've often been stopped on the street by people who wanted to say how much they admired my father and to tell me about his charisma, humour and commitment to equality in Canada. Of course, they know the public side. But in addition to being a public servant, sociologist and writer about Black history, Daniel G. Hill III was also my father — in a very private way. 

Dad was an African-American who became a committed and engaged Canadian. Although he was an intellectual, he could act down home and folksy, deliberately underplaying his education — especially when he wanted to outmanoeuvre an antagonist. Just as he slid between academic language and street talk, he also switched between public and private behaviour. 

For men like my father, there were a lot of shoulds. A father, he felt, should lead the way. He should not show doubt. He should lead by dominating.

Part of his approach to parenting had to do with the time when he grew up. He was born in 1923 in Independence, Missouri, the son of a strong-minded theologian and minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who brooked no opposition from his children. By the time my father was raising my older brother, younger sister and me, we were living in Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s. Many middle-class men — my father included — expected that they would be the sole breadwinner in the family, the undisputed boss of the family, and that their wives would stay home. For men like my father, there were a lot of shoulds. A father, he felt, should lead the way. He should not show doubt. He should lead by dominating. 

I think Dad's sense of control and power was threatened because my mom wanted to work. While Dad was still pursuing his PhD at the University of Toronto, Mom had exciting employment with the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights, trying to persuade the provincial government to enact anti-discrimination legislation at a time when our political leaders were claiming, "We don't have discrimination in Ontario." 

Historian Daniel Hill explains how passage on the Underground Railroad brought thousands of blacks seeking freedom to Canada in the 19th century. 9:04

When my brother Dan was born in 1954, Mom gave up her work and stayed home full-time. Later she started teaching, but Dad made her stop work and return to the home. Dad loved his wife and children, and was committed to supporting us, but he loved us most happily when he ruled the roost and we did what he said. 

He was an entertaining man, dynamic, charismatic, and when in public, his charm was utterly seductive. If he was happy, it was fun at home. He'd tell us wild bedtime stories: he knew when to withhold details to increase the suspense, had perfect timing and could even imitate the sounds of animals and a range of American and Canadian accents. In the living room, he and my mother would dance to jazz and blues. His favourites were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams. 

It would all go well as long as no one crossed him and he remained the undisputed ruler of the roost. If you didn't follow the path he'd set out, things could turn violent—physically and emotionally. He could quickly turn into the guy who'd punish you harshly and smack you around. In the case of my brother and me, the smacking took place in the garage, out of sight and hearing range of my mother. Dan and I never told her what he did to us in the garage. Although we as children usually figured out how to keep the peace with Dad, it was a dangerous relationship. It was hard to manage, because we never quite knew when he would remain in good humour or when he would blow up. 

Hill and his wife, an interracial couple, settled in Toronto and raised three children: singer-songwriter Dan, writer and journalist Lawrence and poet Karen. (Archives of Ontario)

As a child, I was scholarly and athletic — in some ways following the mould he was proposing. At every opportunity I tried to make him proud of me, while knowing all along that he thought I couldn't do it. As a Black man, he believed that pursuing higher education and becoming a professional was the best way to transcend the challenges of racism and inequality. He believed his children had to succeed profoundly. He sang the praises of other people's kids who were achieving and put enormous pressure on us to excel, yet I don't think he ever believed in us. Underneath was the message that we probably weren't capable of success.

There was something oddly competitive about his relationship with his children. When I was 14, I decided to write the exams to apply to the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), considered to be one of the top high schools in Canada. I told him I was going to write the test, but I regretted it right away because he told me, "That school is for bright kids. If you want to get in you'll have to read every volume of every Encyclopædia Britannica, but you still won't get in." I didn't feel confident or cocky about my ability, but his words made me more determined to write the exam. 

I was a competitive runner, so one weekend in the spring I took part in a road race in High Park and then took the subway to the school to write the exam in my track clothes. I was a kid with darker skin, frizzy hair and track shoes, and I looked out of place among the white boys in jackets and ties who showed up to test their mettle that day. Of the 600 who applied in 1971, I was one of the 35 offered a place. I began to take either my bike or the bus and subway downtown each day, and embraced high school life on the campus of the University of Toronto. 

My father was proud to see me attend UTS, but his early, hurtful prediction that I would never qualify for the school made me shut him out. I stopped telling him what was going on in my life. I didn't share my victories or my losses. I hardly told him anything, though when he occasionally drove me downtown to school, I enjoyed listening to CBC News with him and talking about the state of the world. I do recall that once when I was younger, I had asked him when I would become responsible for the problems in the world. "Larry," he said, "as soon as you become aware of situations in the world, you become responsible for helping to solve them." 

As a Black man, he believed that pursuing higher education and becoming a professional was the best way to transcend the challenges of racism and inequality. He believed his children had to succeed profoundly.

At times, when Dad was dictatorial, I stood up to him. I'm not a loud person, I don't generally like confrontation. I don't seek it; in fact I avoid it. But somehow, as a child I knew I couldn't let him flatten me. My brother would be much more devious; he'd say, "Yes, yes, yes, Dad," and then do whatever he wanted. I challenged him, for example, in person and by letter when he was cruel to my cat. And, in a move that served only to infuriate him, I once told him to leave my mother alone and to let her have her way, when she bought a painting of a nude woman and he made her take it back. 

Mostly, though, if I wasn't standing up to Dad, I just withdrew. I ignored him or found ways around him. By the time I was 16, I was making my own money and my own decisions. I stopped giving him information. I didn't discuss where I was going to study or what I was going to study. I chose a Canadian university that was about as far from Toronto as possible. 

I studied hard. I was writing fiction actively. I didn't give him anything I wrote, but I did share it with my mother who read it and commented avidly. I didn't tell him what I was invested in, or about the people in my life. I didn't want to open the door to the possibility of humiliation. My leaving home seemed to represent a loosening of the chains. Perhaps he no longer felt he had to be "the Man." He evolved from his former rigid, autocratic and repressive self into a much more open, relaxed and loving man. Whatever it was, he began to ease up on the gas pedal incrementally once he saw that he could no longer bully or control me.

I think about who he was as a young Black man in America, being conscripted into the American army during the Second World War and living a segregated military experience. It rankled him to think that he was good enough to die for his country, but not to live as a free man in the United States. Shortly after the war ended, he decided that he would no longer live in his home country. He moved to study in Oslo, Norway for a year, and then he came to Canada where he obtained his MA and PhD in sociology at the University of Toronto and embarked on a lifelong career of human rights activism and the study and celebration of Black history in Canada.

Being Black in Canada - Lawrence Hill

7 years ago
1:54
Host Asha Tomlinson speaks with Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill about how the TV mini series is bringing Canadian Black history to a wider audience. 1:54

I think Dad had to prove himself over and over again, not just in his career but in his own home where he felt the necessity to be the alpha male. As we grew out of his sphere of influence, he relaxed. All that was repressive and ugly in his character moved to the back burner, and the good in him was able to flourish and to flower. 

As a younger parent, he told us again and again that he expected us to become professionals: doctors, lawyers or engineers. Anything less, he let us know, would constitute failure. However, as we entered adulthood he matured and was able to celebrate and be proud of us and of our choices to live as artists. He fully supported the lives we chose, encouraged us, and was full of conversation and curiosity about our work and travels. 

We had great times. I got to ask him things I'd never dared to ask as a child or young adult, like, "I've got these two possibilities up ahead, Dad. What do you think?" Finally I felt free, and I could take his advice or leave it. Dad became a good and thoughtful listener who learned to suspend his own ego. The relationship also began to reward me professionally; the books I was writing touched on areas that he'd spent his life working on, like black history and human rights. He knew these mountains more than I did, and while I was writing the novel Any Known Blood, I was able to ask him, "What was it like for a Black soldier to walk through the train station in Baltimore during the Second World War? What would he be feeling? Would he be allowed to take a taxi?" Dad had walked through Penn Station as a soldier, and he explained to me that a Black man would have to leave the station and walk a block or two if he wanted to hail a taxi during the Second World War in Baltimore. He answered countless other questions about things I was writing about and if he couldn't answer them himself, he could steer me to someone who could. He became a huge resource in my writing career, and a loving conversationalist.

As we all graduated from adolescence, he grew up with us and became a better father, the man we so wanted him to be. I feel so grateful for the miracle of it all.

In time, we were able to speak about the love we shared. Our relationship became beautiful. He asked about what I was involved in, and shared his thoughts and encouragement without attempting to dominate, judge or control. He became an entirely different father—loving and supportive. I had never in my life had the opportunity to see such a radical mid-life transition in another person. I heard many times from my brother Dan and late sister Karen that the same thing happened with them. As we all graduated from adolescence, he grew up with us and became a better father, the man we so wanted him to be. I feel so grateful for the miracle of it all. 

When Dad was dying in 2003, I felt very much at peace. In those last years of his life I didn't feel any abiding desire to throw how awful he had been back in his face. I had already told him all that when I was a child. So there was nothing to make right, no unfinished business. I have failings as a parent, but at least I didn't repeat my father's mistakes. I've never had an explosive personality. My fuse is long and slow. I don't erupt in my personal life or have fits of anger or violence, so as a father I haven't had to fight it. 

I feel that parenting has been the most successful part of my life, in which my humanity has been most able to flourish. I didn't think about the details of becoming a dad. It was natural and easy. Babies and I understand each other. I was lucky to be a stay-at-home parent and took my first-born, Geneviève Aminata Savoie Hill, everywhere in the Snugli on the front of me. She slept to the sound of me typing, thrashing away at the keyboard. 

I have failings as a parent, but at least I didn't repeat my father's mistakes.

Parenting requires an incredible amount of patience and the suspension of ego. You have to make parenting decisions based on who the children are, their thoughts and needs, not on who you are and who you want them to be — to understand them, not have them follow you. This was easy with my first two children, but put to the test by my third child, Andrew. When he was a toddler, if I asked him to turn left, he'd turn right; if I asked him to do A, he'd do B. I had to dig deep to understand his wiring and respond in a different way. I had to ask, How can I reach this kid? Being an effective dad required me to change strategies for Andrew. I had to let go of my need to have him conform. I learned to be more playful, and to engage him in silly games such as ball-throwing and wrestling. 

Children do things that drive you crazy, disappoint or embarrass you. I remember when my children made choices I struggled with, making my own decision not to chastise them. If I said what I thought, what would be the point of the conversation? To express disappointment? To seek a change of behaviour? To make my child feel bad? I had to ask myself, What am I trying to achieve? At these points, I have opted to let go of control and to keep the relationship strong.

I'm close to my children. We have a loving relationship, and I'm quite certain they would say the same thing. As each child reached the age of nine or 10, I took them on a special trip, just me and them. At that age, a child can walk for hours, read panels in museums and art galleries, absorb new languages and understand much about the world. Those trips shine for me as the most glorious moments, and once I had done it with all five children, I cycled through them all again. As they grew up and left home to study and work, I went to spend time with them in their new spaces. 

Lawrence with children (left to right) Beatrice, Evangeline, Andrew, Caroline and Geneviève, in 2018. (Miranda Hill)

There's something I learned from my father that I have been able to give my children. Many people in the world don't have work, volunteerism or other activities that they just love. My father was entirely in love with his work. He was deeply passionate about not just his work leading the Ontario Human Rights Commission, setting up Canada's first human rights consulting firm, and serving as Ontario ombudsman, but also writing books about black history, co-founding the Ontario Black History Society and engaging the public in his talks. 

I feel that living and parenting with passion is a gift to your children.

He conveyed to me from the earliest age what it was like to live with gusto and passion. I have been able to experience that in my work, and I feel that living and parenting with passion is a gift to your children. This was my father's gift to me, and it feels wonderful to have passed it on. My children are all out there in the world doing things they can be passionate about. Not everybody gets to do that. Some never have the opportunity and others have a choice but don't take it. 

The advice I'd give to new fathers is to learn to get out of the way. Don't project what you want. Let your child show you the way. Don't get stuck on "results." Kids are on loan to you. Your job is to show them how to be alone, show them the door and how to open it. Model love, kindness, passion and a willingness to listen. I learned much from both the frustrations and the joys of being my father's son, and becoming a father myself has been one of my greatest pleasures in life.

© 2019 Lawrence Hill. Excerpted from Forty Fathers: Men Talk about Parenting, as told to Tessa Lloyd, with a foreword by Peter Mansbridge. Published by Douglas & McIntyre and excerpted with permission of the author and the publisher. For more information, visit www.douglas-mcintyre.com.

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