Reflecting on Fatherhood and the Fathers of Nations

Seema Kumar

As we look forward to celebrating Juneteenth on Friday and Father’s Day on Sunday, I am reflecting about the important role fathers play in our lives — both our own fathers and fathers of nations, the freedom fighters who stood up and championed for liberty and justice for all. Men play an important role in the social ecosystem and their championship and support can make or break our status and growth as women and as equal members of society.

I give thanks to the positive influence of my father, my father-in-law, my husband, and many male mentors who have shaped my beliefs and growth. I also salute fathers of nations such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, whose teachings have moved the psyche of entire nations into standing up and fighting for change. We are living through one such moment now with the death of George Floyd. Will we live up to the hopes and dreams of our freedom fathers? 

The answer is: We must. We cannot squander away hard-fought freedom with inaction in the face of ugly racism. 

As Mahatma Gandhi, India’s freedom father, said in his Quit India Movement speech demanding the British to voluntarily leave India, inaction is not an option. “Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.” Gandhi went to prison for years as a result, but India won its independence.

As a young child I recall reading that speech, Gandhi’s first interaction with racism in South Africa, the Dandi March, and the many stories of struggle, all the time marveling at his unwavering vision, grit and bias for action, for change. I wrote essays about how he channeled his outrage into action, starting a civil disobedience movement that ultimately earned India its independence. Learning about that history made us realize that individuals who can paint a clear vision for a better future and empower others to be the change can transform the world. 

I similarly recall my father helping me memorize another famous speech as part of my school assignment: The “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.  I spent weeks learning it by heart and practiced delivering it with the right cadence, intonation, and passion. It left an indelible mark in my brain, so much so that I can still recite it today in my sleep! King, who was inspired by Gandhi, and King’s march and his leadership of the civil rights movement also brings home the lesson to not settle for anything less than the ultimate dream, even if it might seem to be an impossible dream. And, that when you dream of a better world, and be the change, that you can make that dream become a reality.

I also recall learning about Nelson Mandela, another leader inspired by Gandhi, and his defining speech after his years in prison. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela’s life reinforces the commitment and stamina required to stay on course for the long haul. To not compromise on basic moral and human rights. To make change, to be relentless, to strive for the ideal, even if it is difficult and to believe, to believe that it will happen.

Finally, a history lesson I will never forget is the story of Abraham Lincoln, one of our most respected presidents during a critical time in our history, was an abolitionist who fought against slavery. Years later, when I first visited Washington, D.C., as a young immigrant. I recall going to the Lincoln Memorial and seeing his writing etched on the walls, including his Gettysburg address: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” with goosebumps. and the famous emancipation proclamation in the third year of America’s civil war, declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s legacy is the dream of a united and emancipated United States of America, one that we much aspire to as we celebrate Juneteenth this Friday.

My father taught me to always dream big, the importance of aiming for the highest ideal, even if it seems impossible. He taught me that you have to marry that with action and to focus on what matters and discard small-mindedness. He taught me to challenge stereotypes, reject prejudice, be independent, and along with my mother, to love everyone--regardless of their caste, creed, or gender--and to treat everyone with respect, dignity, equality, and caring. Today I recognize that word as “inclusion.”  

We, in turn, must not settle for anything less than the “big dream.” In order for us to get there, we’ll have to have a big dream, persist, to continue to grow and learn. We can use Lincoln, Gandhi, King, and Mandela as our role models: They never gave up. They continued their work, even in the face of prison time and injustice. We can do it, too. We must keep all of this in mind as we prepare to change the world so that we can finally have liberty and justice for all.