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A memoir by Boston-based author Calvin Hennick uses a road trip with his young son to explore the struggles of parenthood in a changing America.
The book, titled "Once More To The Rodeo," tells the story of Hennick and his son Nile's trip from Rockport to the annual two-day rodeo in Hennick's hometown of Maxwell, Iowa.
Hennick joined WBUR's Morning Edition host Bob Oakes to talk about his journey, being a man and father in today's world and being a white man preparing his biracial son for the challenges he may one day face.
Here are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
On using the road trip as a background for the book:
So my son was 5 years old and he was about to enter kindergarten, which felt sort of bizarrely big and looming over my mind, like the protective bubble that I had placed him in was just starting to begin to pop. And it sort of hit me that, you know, I'm the person most responsible for helping him to become the man that he's going to be when he's an adult. And I sort of realized that I didn't have a lot in the way of answers in terms of what that meant, even for myself. So I thought that this would make a good kind of bucket to put these ideas inside of.
On the significance of returning to his hometown:
It was important to me because I think I had a lot of sort of unresolved family stuff with my own father that I needed to kind of think about and work through, and Iowa seemed like the right place to do that. But also, again, I thought there was this compelling contrast between my son's upbringing where he would never end up at a rodeo in the suburbs outside of Boston, and just sort of, in a way, it's a homecoming for me and a fish-out-of-water story for him.
On teaching his son about racism:
In a way, I feel sort of underqualified to be my son's father in that he's going to face situations, or challenges, that I never did as a kid. There's a story I relayed in the book about a 2017 incident at Fenway Park. ... It was my son's first Red Sox game. And the fan next to me, after a young black woman sang the national anthem, he used the N-word, he used a racial slur, to describe her singing. And, you know, I was horrified. At first, I was kind of like, "Well, doesn't he see my biracial son and my black father-in-law here sitting with me?" And then I kind of thought, well, maybe that's the point. Maybe it was a way for him to sort of use the N-word against this little boy and get away with it.
He processed it a bunch of different ways really quickly. Immediately, he sort of, very sweetly, was worried about the man who had said the slur and was worried about him not being able to come back to the baseball park. And worried about him being sad. But then he kind of got scared. He worried about the man showing up at our house. He worried about going out to other big public events. He'll still sometimes express worry about going to a large public event because what if somebody like that man is there?
The saddest point — I had talked to my son on the road trip about racism and segregation. So after the event at Fenway, my son said, "Daddy, I thought that was over — white people and black people not getting along," and it sort of caught my heart in my throat. And, you know, I had to explain to him that, no, that's not over.
On his 2014 article in Ebony magazine about his fears for his son:
You know, it's something that pops up especially when something hits the news where there's been certain sort of race-based injustice. I don't think, "oh, that could have been me," because in most cases it could not have been me. But I do sometimes think, "oh, that could one day be my son," because it could be.
That's not something I obsess about or belabor over. But it's something that I want to prepare him to know, at some point, how some people are going to perceive him. At the same time, I don't want to give him a complex. I don't want to put a chip on his shoulder. So I think it is this delicate balance. And my wife and I talk about it a lot.
On what he wants people to take away from the book:
The book doesn't lend itself up to easy answers. You know, it's not: Here's the secret of parenting or, you know, to be a good father, do X, Y, Z. But I kind of would like if people read in to just build in those moments where you do take a step back and, you know, parenthood can easily become about diapers and school drop-offs and soccer practice and homework and emails to school. But those are just the details. Those aren't really the meat of what we're trying to do here. So I'd love it if people read the book and sort of took a pause and found some time with their own kids to sort of ask the big questions about "Hey, what am I trying to do here?"
Calvin Hennick's book "Once More to the Rodeo" comes out Tuesday, Dec. 10. Hennick will celebrate its release at a launch party Tuesday night at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m.
This segment aired on December 10, 2019.
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