John Fountain: Reflections upon seeing the movie ‘Fences’

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Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson star in the movie version of August Wilson’s “Fences.” Photographed in Chicago, December 12, 2016. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Follow @csteditorialsThese are my reflections to my 14-year-old son after seeing the movie, “Fences” with him.

Dear Son, no man is infallible. Not my father, not yours. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be a better man than me.


Imperfect as I am, I am still your father. I love you no less than the day I first laid eyes on you wet from your mother’s womb. You are a gift.

I am proud of who you are in heart. I am forever linked to your soul.

My hope and legacy are embodied in you. You are my seed, torchbearer of our future-father of generations to come.

The blood of slaves and also kings runs through your veins. I have bestowed to you glory by your name. Malik Jamal:

King. Beautiful. Owner. Possessor.

Provider, protector, producer, you are.

When my voice is raised, my tone stern, know that there is no anger toward you. I am simmering with anxiety over what I have learned as a man awaits you in the world beyond our fences. It is the weightiness of my charge to equip you to stand as a man.

A man who can safely navigate cascades of hate; who remembers that it is not what they call you but what you answer to that stills the soul of a man — that helps guide you toward your fate like a lighthouse does a ship tossed in a storm-filled sea.

A man who sees in his own hands the ability to work, and in his heart and soul the faith to believe — even when the journey is arduous and the mountain seems insurmountable, dreams beyond reach.

A man who comes to see his tears and his ability to cry as strength — not weakness, and who understands that to bottle your emotion is to slowly implode, or else to allow those incalculable and formidable pressures that gnaw at the “black soul” eventually to cause you to explode. And this has become the fate of many men.

No, son, I am not angry. I am sometimes fearful, sometimes overzealous in my desperation, in the time that remains for you beneath my roof, to fireproof you for your journey ahead. So painfully aware that beyond the fences your mother and I have built for you lay foes you inevitably must face. Aware that fences are not foolproof.

Neither are fathers.

But a good son is a reflection of everything a father could ever hope to be, sometimes the reflection of a father before life happened — before heartache and heartbreak. Before assorted misfortunes, mistakes and miscues encroached upon our boyhood soul and we came to accept as men that we could maybe do “life” better — if only we could just go back and do some things over again. Except time has worn thin.

A good son is a father’s chance to get it right. An opportunity to leave behind a beautiful shining light that says, “I was here. I was the flawed and imperfect one. … But look at my son.”

Remember my words, son. None more important than these: That perhaps the greatest challenge we face as men is to not become what we despise.

But this was my greatest epiphany, at least my salvation: To someday look closely in the mirror at the man staring back and to realize that I am my father and he is me, and that by forgiving him, I can also forgive myself.

And I can vow to be a better man, a better father. I can give the gift of a good father’s love to a beautiful son who is perfect to me. And this is our eternal fence.


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