In my final "Three Men of Color, Reinventing Fatherhood" series, I interviewed Ken Harge, who grew up with a father who was a bully. He says writing saved his life.
Ken (or KLH to his friends) was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, “a big city with a knucklehead mindset,” as he puts it. Although his childhood lacked love and nurturing, he has transformed himself into becoming a highly creative, grounded, and self-aware person who believes his difficult childhood had a reason. Ken knows he is here for something great.
With a book, one-person play, blog, and other creative projects in his back pocket, he is creating a symphony during COVID called “The Healing.” He describes himself as a guy with a lot of opinions about what’s going on in the world today and he’s not afraid to share them.
As a Black man, he has found it heartbreaking to see Black people dying at the hands of police. He is offended when people say or imply that there is no systemic racism.
“All lives matter is almost profane because with very little exception, that tells people to shut up, forget what you’re seeing, and move on.”
He views “all lives matter” as a cowardly way to say that what Black people feel doesn’t matter.
When I interviewed him, Ken was working on an article called “The Notion of Superiority” (now available here) based on the work of Walter Rodney, a prominent historian with a Ph.D. in African history. Rodney wrote, “The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for four centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority...” Ken elaborates on this concept, making some profound points:
“Some white people complain about protesters rioting and looting, but don’t recognize the reasons why they protest. They say it’s inappropriate and violent. But when Colin Kaepernick peacefully protested police brutality against Black folk, many white people complained about that too. They presumed to be in a position to tell Black folk how they can and cannot express their grievances. Why? There is a ‘notion of superiority.’ ...
Just like a stench that has floated in the air long enough to get used to it, the ‘notion of superiority’ continues to waft in American air...There have been riots, laws passed and enacted, and there has been some positive change. But we still haven’t addressed the stink drifting in the air all around us and so we collectively breathe in the ‘notion of superiority’ of white folk over Black folk...
I am under no delusion that all white folk are racists. I know that is not true. But still, all around us there is something in the air that makes a certain police officer feel comfortable to suffocate an unarmed and non-resistant Black man with a hand in his pocket while he is being video recorded. There is something in the air that makes two white men feel that they have the right to chase a Black man jogging, close in on him, and shoot him dead in the middle of a street in broad daylight. I would suggest that it’s that ‘notion of superiority’ that Rodney Wade spoke of...
If you were going to buy a house and found out that it had hazardous mold throughout, the first thing you’d have to do is recognize that there is indeed mold. Then you would take steps to mitigate that mold, and most likely remove things like sheetrock that were infested by the mold. What you wouldn’t do is pretend that it didn’t exist. Even if you painted over it, the ‘notion’ of the mold would persist, then make you and your family sick.
In America we have painted over the racism. We passed some laws and pretended that the problem ceased to exist. The murder of George Floyd has reminded us that we still got mold in the house! So, we have to mitigate the mold, because it’s making us all sick.”
Ken grew up in a neighborhood with two or three other Black families. “I always had what white kids had,” Ken said, “so unlike kids who grew up in the projects with all Black families, we were different.”
That has informed how he leads his life. He doesn’t find it intimidating to be the only Black person in a group...he’s used to that.
Ken is used to going to someone’s house to install tile and face racism. He knows he’s rare as a Black tile installer. But because his customers can’t say “Crap! You’re a Black guy; can you do tile?”...instead, they say “So, are you here by yourself?” That’s the kind of subtle racism he deals with every day, but what keeps him going is his positive mindset.
Growing up with old-fashioned parents, Ken had a father who was a bully and who would smack him if he didn’t like the look on his face.
“I remember looking into my father’s eyes and feeling like I wasn’t worth shit,” says Ken. “I couldn’t speak my mind much at home, and that kind of prompted me to speak my mind everywhere else. Somehow it didn’t suppress me. It made me this guy who couldn’t be suppressed.”
To make it worse, he always felt like he wasn’t worth it for his mother to protect him. “I went out into the world with no emotional foundation under me. I’m an emotional orphan,” he says. “I raised myself emotionally, and did the best I could.”
He’s evolved a lot over the years, overcoming that loss of self-esteem, but he knows that his troubles are because of that lack of emotional foundation. He’s fought with it in a number of ways and has used it to his advantage.
“They say teach what you need to learn,” says Ken. He is the kind of guy who jumps in and figures things out. Music and writing are cathartic for him: “That’s how I get all my stuff out of me, otherwise I pop.”
He’s used the difficult experiences in his life (including the difficult relationship with his father) to write a one-man play, “You Are Here for Something Great,” and then he wrote a full-length novel based on the play. Right now he’s creating a course to help men develop their self-esteem.
“I think men having self-esteem can literally change the face of the planet,” says Ken. “If men have self-esteem, they don’t smack their wives. They don’t abuse their children. They don’t go out into the street and do violence. I think they don’t even do terrorism. I think it’s only broken men who do those things...It’s never been safe in this world for men to have feelings. We’re taught to suppress them.”
He firmly believes that everything happens for a reason. “If I’d had a lovely supportive mother and father, I would not have turned out to be the creative person I am...I can speak to hurt people, and they know I understand,” he says. “I can speak to lonely people, and they know I know what it is. So it’s all been for a reason.”
Although Ken always wanted to have children, it wasn’t in the cards. So about 10 years ago, he felt called to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. He mentored a young man named Prince, who was 13 at the time, always in trouble and getting kicked out of school nearly every week. Even though Ken had doubts about whether he was helping him, he stayed with him anyway. Many years later, Prince turned his life around, is gainfully employed, and recently paid Ken a visit in his new car. Helping this young man create a better life for himself is Ken’s proudest moment.
I asked Ken what his superpower was and without skipping a beat, he said his superpower is his sensitivity. He likened it to superheroes who find an ability they have when they are young but don’t know how to harness and focus it.
“I’m an unusually sensitive kind of man,” says Ken. “Eventually it dawned on me that sensitivity is not a weakness. It’s a strength. It is the thing that informs every creative thing I do. It even informs my work as a tile installer.”
He explains that he didn’t want anyone to criticize him, so he got better and better at everything he did so he could receive positive feedback. He’s learned to get better in every area of his life (writing, music, installing tile) because he is sensitive about what people think.
I asked Ken what parents can do to cultivate sensitivity in boys. He responded:
“Allow boys to be human and not have to be tough all the time. To tell boys not to cry is almost emotional abusive, or it sets up boys to be emotionally abusive. Encourage boys to have a full range of feelings. They should be fully feeling human beings and embrace those qualities that have been strictly reserved for girls and women.”
Since Ken believes self-esteem problems are the root cause of many of society’s ills, I brought up the police force. He also had some profound statements about that:
“When you put a badge on a person’s chest and a gun on their waist and the right to use it, it changes people and it makes them think that they’re the boss, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. We need to recondition the police force across the nation to reconnect with the mandate to protect and serve. You are not the boss. You are there to be of service, and their interaction with every single person they meet has to be ‘how can I be of service to you?’ and if that is what drives them, it will change everything.”
Ken believes we’re not stuck hopelessly in battling racism. He operates from a position of optimism, even though some of his Black friends think he’s naïve. He thinks he can make a difference in changing the world and he’s doing everything he can to make the world a better place. Everything for a reason, as he says.
I asked Ken how he maintains his resilience. He does that by remembering why he is here: “Everyone is here for something great, and it is well worth finding what that is.”
He believes there’s something for everyone, and if you seek it out and find it, it can keep you going. He talked about his own struggles with depression, and sometimes it gets scary. For him, writing has literally saved his life. He finds that giving voice to his feelings can be extremely healing.
He also shared an experience and tactic that brought tears to my eyes. One day, when coming home from work, he talked to himself as if he were his father. He said all the things he wished his father had said to him, and he cried through his words.
“It was so important to hear that out loud,” Ken says. “If you have something that ails you, talk about it out loud. It can give you a great deal of satisfaction and validation. We all want to be seen and heard, and sometimes you have to be the person who sees and hears you yourself.”
If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to check out the first two in the series: Ruben Garcia and Charles Jackson II, both of whom also had difficult relationships with their fathers and reinvented fatherhood in their own families.
Next week I’m starting a new series of Four Badass Black Women. My first guest is Libra Forde, chief operations officer for Self-Enhancement, Inc., which provides culturally specific services for underrepresented youth and families in the Portland metro area. Libra stands 6’5” tall and is a former pro athlete and business owner. She has an MBA, is a certified life coach, and serves on the North Clackamas School Board. She is a powerful presence, and you won’t want to miss it!
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