A Black gay man imagines family histories and confessions from his dying father in an epistolary novel that excavates the generational meanings of Blackness, masculinity, fatherhood, and more. Insightful and emotionally moving, Don’t Cry for Me is a story that is immensely accessible and powerfully healing for scores of readers who have struggled with the pain of parental rejection.
In his final days of dying from cancer, Jacob, a sixty-something man bequeaths to his son Isaac a series of letters to express the many things he never had the courage or the ability to say face-to-face. Born in the 1940s in rural Arkansas, Jacob recounts his memories coming into the world in a family that was only a few generations removed from slavery and shaped by scarcity, segregation, and the psychic damage of human subjugation. Due to tragic circumstances that are gradually revealed, Jacob was raised by his grandfather, who worked a farm year-round, seven days a week.
Boys like Jacob attended school when they were not needed to help with farming, thus education was a luxury. Most of what Jacob learned about living in the world came from his grandparents, neighbors, and other boys his age. The prerogative was survival. There was no time for notions that children needed emotional nurturance or that anyone had a right to personal fulfillment. Such conditions produced hardened people. Jacob’s grandfather only took a half day off from work for his wife’s funeral, for example. Now an older man, Jacob is circumspect about the environment in which he was raised, but he was inevitably a product of the times for Black people, and fathers of that era generally.
Jacob’s “voice” makes his storytelling unexpectedly compelling and sympathetic. Even when he confesses participating in a horrific act of violence against an effeminate boy at his school, one cannot help seeing events from his perspective and feeling his shame and horror. Black men of his generation were taught to be strong, decisive, and unemotional, and however harshly they treated “weaker” men, it was meant to correct a deficit and bring them back to their essential nature. His story illuminates that deeply imbedded role in Black communities where gender transgressions hit men personally, threatening their place in a world that has stripped away their power. As Jacob writes to his son, he couldn’t understand why a man would want to give up his manhood when so much has already been taken away from them.
Later, when Jacob married Isaac’s mother and Isaac came along, Jacob wanted more than anything to be a good father. He used what tools he knew, setting paychecks aside to give his son more than he’d been given, encouraging his education and taking him to baseball games. But he was unequipped to provide gentleness and love, particularly as Isaac’s gayness became evident.
Through his letters, Jacob ponders many issues, from race relations, feminism, the Black Power movement, and the disintegration of Black communities through flight to urban areas. It’s a coherent narrative however, as all these things figure in to his central aim: to explain to his now estranged adult son that he loves him and he deeply regrets that he couldn’t be the father Isaac needed. Isaac appears in the story through Jacob’s eyes, and through that, he’s well-developed. From a young age, he was a sensitive boy, clinging to his mother and with interests in music and arts. As he grew, he became moody and brooding, and he rejected his father’s attempts to spend time with him.
Jacob lays bare the injuries he inflicted on his son, destroying his action figures when Isaac used them to act out love stories, walking out of Isaac’s school theater performances, and striking his son when Isaac turned to his parents for understanding of his gayness. It’s a familiar story for gay men of Isaac’s generation, and like many, he left his hometown at the earliest opportunity to distance himself from the traumas of his childhood. His relationship with his father was permanently broken.
Yet, Jacob’s struggle to understand his son is a heartbreaking story of its own, and in that, Don’t Cry for Me offers a powerful lesson in redemption and reconciliation. The mistakes he made are his to bear, now dying alone after a life spent trying to be the man he thought he was supposed to be. While necessarily tragic, Black has written a novel that will resonate for countless readers and activate our better instincts to forgive.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters