A Matter of Color
Dear Son: A Letter from an Incarcerated Father
Statistical studies tell us that roughly 90 percent of incarcerated parents are fathers. Their offspring, approximately 2 million strong, represent the textbook definition of "at risk" children. According to the Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, the absence of a father—particularly due to incarceration—correlates with a plethora of family dysfunctions, including elevated rates of juvenile crime and incarceration.
During thirteen years as a prison chaplain, I listened to the cries of countless inmates lamenting the impact of their crimes on the children they left behind. The following is an actual letter from one such inmate to his son. It's been lightly edited for errors and formatting, and actual names have been deleted for discretionary purposes.
From the time I found out you were conceived, until today, this letter has been ten years in the making. I often wondered when the time would be right for this conversation. Should I have waited until you have a beard or mustache? No! Even though you're still small in stature and young in age, lately all of our conversations have shown me that you comprehend and adhere to the father-son relationship, more than I did at the same age.
But you are still a boy. My boy. And it's up to me to pass on to you something that I, when I was a child, wasn't privy to. My father was never there for me. I never knew him. I had no concept of whom to emulate, no role model to look to. Everything I learned about being a man wasn't passed on to me by any man. Instead, it was thrust upon me by my environment, my situations—and, oh yeah, my mother and grandmother.
But I don't want that, my son, for you. I don't want for you to be in an environment or situation you aren't familiar with. Whether it's your own experience, or information passed down to you. I want you to be equipped with the knowledge and wherewithal to make the right decisions.
This isn't easy. Even though I'm excited to be writing this letter, still there is a part of me that feels like I've betrayed you. Can you please forgive me? My hope was to do this face to face, but given my current situation that's not possible. And now my prayer is that this information will help guide you on your way to becoming a man.
My legacy, the inheritance I'm passing on to you, I expect you will pass down to your son and he to his son, and so on. Now remember, son, this information is priceless. It's a bond that should never be severed or broken. It must last for an eternity. And since we are the founding father and son, this is our pack. A tradition like no other. So a high standard must be established for our future generations to attain, uphold, and protect forever.
Let me continue by acknowledging a pillar of stability in your life, your mother. I know she's been a true constant in your life. She's been there for your first step, your first word, even your first tooth. She's been there for all your good and bad times. All your birthdays, she was there. She was there to pick you up when you fell, and, just like my mother, she will always be there. In fact she is a super Mom. Still, she isn't me, your father. Nor does she want to be the man in your life, the man you love, the one you call Dad.
Every time I think of you, I hate my situation more. I hate the fact that your memories are developing without me. I don't know what kind of memories of me you have, but they shouldn't be of a father who hasn't been there for any of your birthdays.
The world we live in isn't perfect, and neither are the choices I've made. When I was younger, I thought I was so smart. Not wanting to listen to anyone, I made my decisions based not on what is right, but on my own self-gratification. And as I've got older I've realized that the things for which I risked life and limb weren't the things I needed in the first place.
Son, despite what you believe, I'm not perfect. I've made a lot of mistakes. I can never change that. I must go on living, because the God I serve is an all-knowing God, and He knows my heart. He knows I love you dearly. He knows you are a good son. And no matter how much your mother or I prepare you, you are going to make your own mistakes. So when you find yourself in a situation where all you have to go on is your experience, your faith, and your instincts, choose well, knowing that the decisions you make are going to have a long-term impact and will change the lives of those you love and cherish.
For now, I'll leave you with this. The Bible says, in Exodus 20:12, "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lords your God is giving you." It also says in Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." These two scriptures, son, will be the foundation of our lives. They are to comfort us when we mourn. Fill us when we hunger and thirst, and guide us when we are lost. I love you, my son. Now go, let your light shine bright.
Rev. Samuel K. Atchison has served as a welfare policy analyst, social services administrator, social policy consultant, and prison chaplain. He is the president of the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry (TEAM), which serves as a coordinating agency for the community outreach efforts of churches in Mercer County, New Jersey. He is also a community partnership manager with the Amachi Mentoring Coalition Project (AMCP), a program of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation that provides mentoring to children impacted by incarceration.