Nominated by Twiggy Billue
Q: Tell me about your daughter?
A: Her name is Maya Aneesa. She is 7 months old. She was born three days premature. Actually, she was born a few days before (my grad school) orientation. We moved houses a few days before. She is a fireball; she’s got a lot of personality and is very driven. I have a video I took of her from a month ago, and put a few of her toys in front of her to see what she would reach for first. You can see her trying to reach for her toy cellphone. Every time she missed it, she would reach again and again. She kept trying. It’s surreal that a young child could have so much determination.
Q: What did it feel like when you became a father?
A: This has been the most amazing experience of my life. You change as a person. You don’t become perfect, but you definitely begin to see what priorities take place. For instance, I’m a full-time graduate student taking a heavy course load, while also being director of the American Civil Liberties Union Central New York chapter. I have a consulting firm where I do some work around sustainability and real estate development. And at the same time, as if that’s not enough, I do a lot of community and civic engagement work. You find a new sense of purpose and direction (as a father). It’s been my biggest motivator that I can do it, and that the things I value become more important to me as a parent.
Q: What was your relationship like with your dad?
A: My father died when I was 5. This is why this period of my life is so important, because I spent most of my life having imaginary conversations with my father. He never got to go to any of my graduations. He’s never going to see Maya. Before my father died, he graduated law school and passed the bar exam. He had been dying for some time, but he was determined to earn his law degree at the age of 40. Even if he hadn’t had the easiest life and was formerly incarcerated, he was determined to graduate against all odds. It’s through that that I get who I am as a person from those imaginary conversations. I’m very fortunate that my older brother had a very large influence in my life. I lived with him for six years, and he’s 22 years older than me. When my father died, my brother made a promise to take care of us. And he fulfilled that promise. It’s the same sacrifices that I want to make for my children.
Q: Do you have other siblings?
A: I’m the youngest of eight. I’m the very youngest. The second youngest brother teaches at Whitman and runs the South Side Innovation Center. He’s 10 years older than me. That gap of 10 years should really show the type of family I had. My mother had seven boys and one daughter.
Q: Any advice your father shared that stuck with you?
A: It’s difficult to remember things my father said. It’s honestly also difficult to remember him. But I do have distinct memories of growing up with a Muslim family. During Ramadan, we would have food together at sunrise, then breaking fast at sunset. I remember things like that. Another one of the things my brother said that stood out to me was the value of credibility. How hard it is to build and how easy it is to destroy. That it is a lot to be a person of integrity. My integrity and credibility I try to build is something I maintain. Of the many lessons I’ve got with my oldest brother, this is the one that stuck with me through my adulthood.
Q: Is there anything you do as a father that surprises people?
A: Society has problematic views of manhood, masculinity and fatherhood. I’m a black man, and I’m very particular about making sure I’m present in my daughter’s life. Not because black men aren’t, but because of society’s notion that black men aren’t present in their children’s life. So I spend a lot of time with her. When she turned six months old, I made her food. I love to cook lots of extravagant and fancy things. I began to introduce her to different flavors, like avocados and mangoes. My wife has been breastfeeding, and as you get towards six months, the composition of the breast milk changes. So iron is one of the things you really need. I need to balance the type of foods that she needs, and I spend a lot of time on it.
Q: Anything else?
A: Another thing is I spend a lot of time with her to make sure my wife is not the only person who provides for Maya’s well being. My wife is a full-time professional woman, so I make sure I balance my academic, professional and extracurricular work to being present in her life. Reading my textbooks, playing with her, to make sure I have time with her. She also travels a lot. At seven months old, she’s been to six countries. Part of why is because my wife and I love traveling, but also I wanted to make sure she knew that the world was open to her.
Q: Why do you love being a dad?
A: Because it’s changed me profoundly. Again, I’m not perfect, but I try. We tried to make sure I built wealth for her, and we wanted to prepare her to inherit wealth and not have the same types of struggles we did. We moved everything in the house before my wife went into delivery. It was that type of determination to move heaven and earth to make this happen. I could talk about me taking intense courses throughout the year to make sure I graduated with two master’s degrees and two certificates, but I don’t know if I would be as determined as I am without my daughter. I don’t know if I would have enough energy to read or do an assignment. I remember that I am doing this for myself, but really it’s so Maya has the opportunities and advantages in her life. Most importantly, the ability for someone to love you in the way she does. I look to my left and she’s smiling at me. That feeling of unconditional love is irreplaceable.
Q: Any advice for first-time dads?
A: Each experience is going to be different. I recognize the privilege I have working for a prestigious institution that gives me paternity leave and time off. But if there are fathers who don’t have that ability or are questioning the decision to take time off, I would urge them to do it. In fact, one of my colleagues who didn’t want to take and who changed his mind, is going to take a month off with his wife and his son in Paris. I would urge people to take time to build that relationship. Because those moments, you won’t get that back. As long as you keep your child’s best interest in mind, then you will be in a position to be the best parent you can be.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: I have so much hope for Maya. My wife is Bangladeshi and I’m an African-American who grew up in a Puerto Rican family. My siblings are black and Puerto Rican. I grew up in a family that was multicultural, and I myself speak three languages. We’re determined to make sure all the languages we know, she knows. Children’s brains are like sponges. From time to time, I’ll speak to her in Spanish. It’s amazing to see how she comprehends. And to see how she lights up when she sees me or her mother, she yearns for us to hold her. When I come through the door and she reaches for me, because her ‘abu’ is here. Abu is what I called my father, and it’s what she will call me. To have that wrapped into this beautiful baby girl is something else. She makes me want to be a better person, and I’m constantly doing what I can to become that.
— Interview By Lianza Reyes, Staff Reporter