A conversation with Delroy Lindo: Lessons from a black father, on- and off-screen
One could argue that our parents — while denied many of the opportunities and luxuries we’ve been afforded — compartmentalized this fear well enough to breathe life and love into our very existence. But it’d be naive to think that this fear didn’t consume them anytime we left the confines of the meticulously-crafted environment they provided for us. It’s the unconditional love, learned trust and inevitable fear that makes parenting a non-stop rollercoaster ride of emotions.
But what do I know? I’m a single, 24 year old woman with no kids. So, I thought I’d ask a subject matter expert. Known for playing some of the most iconic black father figures in Hollywood, Delroy Lindo is also the loving and devoted father to a 14-year old son. Fourteen: the same age as Emmett Till when he was brutally murdered, three years shy of Travyon Martin when he was tragically shot and killed, and the start of the most informative and impressionable years in a young person's life. I sat down with Lindo to discuss the rollercoaster ride that is raising a young black man in today’s America — the excitement, the fear and everything in between.
| Children are the clothes of men. - Yoruba proverb |'
Kayla Conti: You’re known for portraying some of the most iconic black father figures in Hollywood. Films like Crooklyn, Romeo Must Die and most recently This Christmas come to mind. Did your on-screen roles influence your outlook on parenthood?
Delroy Lindo: When I did Crooklyn and Romeo Must Die, I was not a parent. We found out we were having our son when I was filming Heist in 2001, so I didn’t have any context when doing those earlier films. However, since becoming a parent, I have indirectly applied the fact that I’m a father to my work. One immediately looks at the world in much broader terms — it is no longer about me, but rather how what I’m doing will affect my child. Becoming a parent has influenced the type of work I take.
KC: Would you say you’ve seen your approach to acting change since becoming a parent?
DL: Oh, absolutely! For instance, I was recently on location in Park City, Utah for about six months and I made it a priority to come home as much and as often as possible; almost every weekend. I needed to come home for my son’s school events and basketball games — it was a priority. Had I not been a parent, I’m not sure I would have come home as often. Being present is the issue, because when I come home, I have to be dad and disciplinarian. There’s the physical, the psychological and emotional aspect of being present and it’s the small things like taking him to school in the morning that really mean a lot. Projects that allow for that type of flexibility are important to me.
KC: When you and your wife decided to start a family, did you have any preconceived notions about the differences between raising a son vs. raising a daughter?
DL: I didn’t think about it beforehand, but when your child is born and in my case, when I had a son, I became increasingly aware of the differences. Going back to the fictitious father I played in Crooklyn, I remember telling Spike [Lee] years later that those kids scared me. I really wanted them to like me in such a way that we could work well together and create a believable onscreen family. But I did indeed, throughout our rehearsal process and particularly at the beginning of filming, have a certain kind of fear that the kids playing my onscreen children wouldn’t like me. And honestly, I’ve always felt that fear caused me not to be as free and relaxed in the work as I would have liked. When one becomes a parent, certainly there’s still fear, but it’s a different kind of fear. There’s no playbook [for parenting], so on some level you have to respond as fully and as competently in the moment as you can and hope to God that you’re making the right decision. I’ve been very aware of when I’ve made a mistakes and I quickly try to correct them — I know I’m not perfect.
KC: So when you found out you were having a son, what were you most excited about?
DL: When we found out we were having a boy, my wife said “he will be born in order to teach you something as a man.” I remember her saying that and accepting it, not knowing the nature of the challenges and tests that were ahead. Her statement has proven true. This has been an ever-evolving process of trial and error for me.
KC: Flash forward to the present. What keeps you up at night when you think about raising your son?
DL: I’m concerned about the world he’s growing up in. It’s open season on young black men and that terrifies me. If ever young black men have had to comport themselves in a way that allows them to represent themselves well, I feel that even more acutely for my sons’ generation than that of my own, and no matter how well he does this, he’ll always be judged. But that has nothing to do with him or who he is and everything to do with how outside forces respond to who he is as a young black man. But at the same time, I’m also very excited and appreciative of the man he’s growing up to be.
KC: Do you think he understands the weight of that concern?
DL: No, and why should he? He’s only fourteen. It’s unfair to expect a young person to understand these things. I think more and more he’s learning to understand it, but when I think back to when I was his age, I, too, had trouble processing and understanding the things I was experiencing.
|Give advice; if people don’t listen, let adversity teach them. - Ethiopian proverb |'
KC: Given the unique role of black fathers in America, did any of the male figures in your family pass down lessons or words of wisdom as you got older?
DL: My father didn’t raise me. When I look back on the few times he did come into my life, the experiences generally were not positive. However, those encounters showed me and taught me very clearly what not to do with my own son. For that I am very very deeply grateful. And when I look at the differences in how I’m raising my son, the hole inside me that represents my father’s absence makes me doubly appreciative of the fact that my son will never have to experience that. It enhances my awareness as a parent and reinforces the positive things I bring to my son. Sometimes it’s the missing pieces that are the most instructive.
KC: What have been some of the most powerful lessons you’ve learned from your son?
DL: I’m trying to be about the business of reconstructing how I respond in given instances because I know he’s watching me. If I respond badly in a given situation, I try as frequently as I can, though admittedly not 100% of the time, to stop and say “what daddy just did was wrong and here’s why.” I’m not perfect, but that’s an example of how his presence has impacted me. I’m aware of certain aspects of my personality that I have to reign in and modify. I no longer have the luxury of responding to things a certain way because I’m now directly responsible for another life.
KC: Thinking about the role that technology — access to information and social media — plays in your son’s life, especially as a young millennial. How are you navigating this evolving frontier?
DL: It’s scary! I’m very much in the process of negotiating it as we speak. I understand clearly that his generation has more access to information and different kinds of information that I ever did. I have to try as much as possible to work in tandem with him, regarding his interaction with social media; because obviously, it won’t work for me to somehow try and withhold that access from him. In a perfect world, I hope to instill in my son a certain set values so that he will conduct himself as responsibly as he’s able, vis-à-vis the type of technology he will be exposed to and overwhelmed with. I hope these values will stand him in good stead as he develops in relation to this new technology. The values I instill in him are a large part of what I have to offer him as his dad. My wife and I tell [him] and his friends constantly that once you put it on the internet, it’s out there forever. Your technological footprint and how you interact with this technology will have major impacts on your future, personally and in your careers. That’s what we tell them. More and more, employers are checking into the technological footprints of prospective employees. Black kids are already going to have obstacles placed in front of them just based on who they are and how they’re perceived or misperceived. So it’s ever more critically important that they’re aware of the impacts of this footprint.
| We have to give our children, especially black boys, something to lose. Children make foolish choices when they have nothing to lose. - Jawanza Kunjufu |'
KC: I want to switch gears and specifically address race, since that’s been the underlying facet of this conversation. What was the first conversation you had with your son about race?
DL: My son was called the n-word in elementary school by a fellow student — he was 6. That’s the first conversation I recall having with him. I was out of town when it happened and my wife called me, so I was hearing the circumstance of the story over the phone. I felt helpless. Initially there's the rage and anger, but it’s so much more than that. When I came home, that was when I had the conversation with him and it was heartbreaking. When these sorts of things happen, it’s often the parents that hold on to the anger more so than the child. He sensed that it was wrong, but even at that age his character allowed him to let it go and move forward. I’d like to believe that my son is aware that he’s eminently worthy — he’s educated, well-traveled — and while it may not be conscious at this point in his life, he has a broad understanding of the world. In part because of how my wife and I are raising him, but also the experiences we’ve afford him. I hope he understands that he’s worthy as a young black man and that he doesn’t succumb to any insecurities around that.
KC: How do you think today’s generation has to think about race differently from those of generations past?
DL: Some things have stayed the same and some things have regressed. There are some aspects of race and racial dynamics that are as entrenched as ever, and while they may manifest themselves differently, they still show up. We may no longer be hung from trees, but the murders and violence that we see today, against young black men in particular, are an outgrowth of this open season mentality I spoke about earlier. There’s a racial pathology behind why these things are still continuing to happen in the 21st century and while I recognize the progress we’ve made, I’m also very aware of the entrenchment of certain racial dynamics. Young people need to understand this cycle and remain extremely vigilant.
KC: When you think about your son ten or twenty years from now, what do you want him to remember and pass down to his children?
DL: To never ever ever forget the tenet that says, 'you have to work harder and remember to comport yourself in a way that allows you to be represented in an exemplary manner.' [This] will never not be the case for young black men and women and they will never not be critically important to your value and self worth.
|Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. - James Baldwin |'