MTC Alumni, Ray Harts

Alumni Spotlight: Ray Harts on Fatherhood

By Ray Harts | June 16, 2020

During the summer of 2020, we’re celebrating the fathers, grandfathers, and other parental figures in our community. We are proud to share their reflections on what it means to be a parent and how their lives have been enriched by the experience.

I became a father at the young age of nineteen. I remember my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, sharing the news with me while I was standing on a street corner where I sold crack cocaine. Prior to learning that I would soon be a dad, I never gave much thought about what fatherhood would be like, or what it meant to be a father. But once hearing the news, I remember feeling joyful. The crazy thing is, looking back, most of that joy came from me feeling a sense of machismo. I had graduated high school, worked part-time at a local retailer, sold drugs, carried a gun, and had a girlfriend who was having my child. At nineteen, what it really meant to be a father…the responsibility of being a father…was far from mind. Sadly, at that time becoming a dad was more of a pride thing.

Yet, after learning that I would be having a son, my thinking began to shift. I began thinking about my relationship with my own father and about how he was never really there for me. I began to think that I would never be like my Dad. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account the systemic oppression he faced as an African American man growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. I didn’t have any notion of what it may have been like to be a part of the baby boomer generation, to live through the Civil Rights Movement era, to see African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, and Medgar Evers murdered, to witness the Vietnam War and its protest. It never crossed my mind that my Dad, with all of the inequities he faced, coupled with the injection of heroin into black communities after the war, just maybe was a product of his environment. Without a doubt, I always knew that my Dad loved me, but that didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the fact that he spent many years addicted to heroin and was pretty much absent throughout my adolescent and teenage years. At nineteen, I mostly equated being a Dad with not being like my Dad; not really knowing what it meant to be a father.

After having my son, my life didn’t change all that much. I continued to find jobs and also continued to sell drugs. Still not realizing my full responsibility of being a father, fatherhood became more about being a provider and trying to keep a smile on my son’s face. At twenty-four I had my second child, a daughter. My thinking still had not shifted, all I had to do was provide for them and get them into a good school.

Then, one day, my life changed. All the days of carrying a firearm had finally caught up to me. When faced with a confrontation, I used my firearm. This decision landed me in prison for eight and a half years. This is when I began to think about what it meant to be a father. I began to reexamine my childhood and think about the factors that played a role in my decision making. I thought about what my life may have been like had my father been present and nurtured me with encouragement, compassion, and a sense of well being. I figured my life may have been a lot different. Perhaps I would have gone to a four year college, maybe grad school, established a career, traveled, and gotten married prior to having children. Perhaps having waited until I matured a bit and learned the meaning of fatherhood before having children, I wouldn’t have put myself at risk of becoming an absent father, similar to what my Dad had been to me. Nonetheless, being physically distant from my children taught me that presence wasn’t all there was to being a Dad. Because I couldn’t be at home with them, I learned that nurturing my children and helping them to build their self-confidence was also very important in their development. Thanks to my amazing wife, for doing an excellent job with allowing me to co- parent our children even from behind the prison walls, I think we did a pretty good job with our children. I’m proud to say that our twenty-six-year-old son recently received his Masters degree from Duke University, our twenty-two year-old daughter received her Bachelors from Clark Atlanta University, and our seven-year-old-son is excelling in grade school.

I’ve learned that fatherhood is a full time commitment. I now view fatherhood as taking into account how my decisions might shape my child’s life experiences. I want my children to live exceedingly joyful, healthy, and long lasting lives. It’s up to me to do my best at being a father to make this happen.