by Faith Briggs
photos by Amiri Rose
“I love the quiet moments,” Amiri says, “When they are both in one bed, sleeping beside each other, or coloring in their bunks. There is this one picture of Huey brushing his teeth but all you see are his tiptoes and his underwear.”
I have no idea how I came across Amiri Rose, but the primary thing I’ve known about him since seeing his instagram is that he takes absolutely stunning photos of his two beautiful boys. Soft lit mornings, breakfast cereal, pajamas, swim trunks, silhouettes of childhood. The framing reminds me of being a little kid, snuggling against my dad, dancing with my sister, riding bikes with my brother, doing homework while mom studied. He captures the beauty of every day, the moments that fade all too quickly.
Amiri’s boys are Cullen, age 8, named after Countee Cullen and Hugh, age 5, named for Langston Hughes.
On Cullen’s birth in Brooklyn, he says: “I remember when they presented him to me I just saw this little chocolate thing with a beauty mark on his cheek, like perfectly placed there, landed right here.” He points to his face as if still in awe.
“And we just LOVED him,” he grins. “This fat chubby little thing, with cheeks and smiles and everything you imagine a baby to be. Just happy.”
My take away about fatherhood after talking to Amiri is that it must truly be the best thing in the world. The conversation is had in large part beyond words. Instead, it is comprised of toothy smiles, fist pumps, enthusiastic sounds, intakes of breath, elated expressions, all frequently punctuated by, “I LOVE THEM SO MUCH!”
“Being a dad is pretty awesome.” Amiri begins, “I will be honest, I was much more ready to be a dad than I was a husband. I didn’t have one, so I saw everything of what not to do but I was also in this twisted rush to create what I didn’t have. I was married at 26, Tia was 23, and we were like this is happening! We’re just totally going to get married, create this family, black love, all that.”
We go into the full back-story: getting married young, having Cullen and three years later Hugh, in Brooklyn and Washington D.C. respectively, then the move to Portland. The trying to make it work. The not working. What comes when a marriage breaks apart. The learning how to regroup.
I saw recently that Amiri had used the hashtag, #coparenting, and thought it was very brave. There is so much wrapped up in trying to make this perfect life. When that doesn’t happen as expected, what do we do?
“There’s a difference in being a father when it's like I want to prove to people that I can be what I didn’t have. Or if you’ve had a failed marriage, you want to be good parents because you want to show that you’re still good. I’ve gotten to the point where now I want to be a good dad because I just love my kids.”
“I’ve become a different father because now it comes from the place it should come from. It’s not about all these external factors that were affecting me but shouldn’t be where I draw from. That energy wears out and you get tired, but if it comes from love you get tired but you do it. You keep doing it.”
I’m in awe of Amiri’s openness to having these conversations and I find it so helpful, I wish we had more of them in our culture, honest conversations about joy and ego, maturation and the hard steps along the way to growth.
Amiri recently had his first show, participating in The Culture Series show called Primary in which artists had to somehow work in red, yellow or blue. He submitted a portrait series called Black and Blue, including portraits of Cullen and Hugh.
What about the role that photography plays in your life, in your relationship to your boys, how did that happen?
“Ironically, my mother bought me a camera for Father’s Day a few years ago. I was the kind of kid who would be in the car with my mom and see what was outside and hear the music inside and it would fit to me. So I was like that but I didn’t trust it. That just kind of stayed with me. When I started taking photos I still had to get past so much.”
Amiri talks about the ongoing journey of growing confidence in his own ability, finding his voice as a photographer and then, finally, coming to own his point of view.
“I focused on black boys and men. [In this world] You have to be even. Not too high, not too low. Everyone has to be a line. Lebron is doing it really well right now. I took these photos of these five brothers and we just talked while shooting. It wasn’t about posing, I was like let’s talk and I’ll just grab your humanity.”
We talk about being Black in America.
“I’m not looking forward to when I have to have those conversations.”
I know what he means. One of the stunning parts about the images of Amiri’s boys for me is that we so often don’t get to see those moments, moments of young black boys being innocent. Playing, just being little boys.
“I think about Cullen’s hair and what people think when they look at his hair. I think about the transition from being cute to being seen as a threat. It could come tomorrow. Kids can say anything.”
We talk about the big conversations, driving while black, recent violent arrests in Mesa, Arizona, how you have to be blameless, beyond right, beyond compliant if you’re black.
How did you feel about the show?
“The cool thing was putting something physical out in the world, something tangible that lasts. And seeing people’s reactions as they walked by. People said it brought them to tears. I was shocked by that. Even Greg Nolley tells me that people still talk about those."
"That feeling of being able to affect people and kind of change their thought process matters. The work is meant to demystify thoughts like, ‘why is he so loud?’ Each one had a title and I paired their words from our conversations with their expression. Greg is stoic but it doesn’t mean he is anti-something or doesn’t want to talk to you, it's just who he is. And so he has to go through life decoding. If you’re white you just get to walk around, you don’t have to walk into a boardroom and decode a room before you sit down.”
Switching tones a bit, back to fatherhood. Tell me about your boys, what are they like, what are they into?
As you might have guessed by now, Amiri’s face lights up.
“I’m a Gemini and Huey is a Gemini and I see both of them. I see when he wants to be really physical and also when he’s like, ‘Daddy, I love you. He’s a teddy bear and he wants to cuddle all the time. Huey doesn’t care what you’re doing. You could be cooking and he’s holding onto your leg, you could be asleep and he’s going to jump on you.”
“Cullen much more so regards his space. He is observant and intentional about his energy and how he sees the world, he’s very literal. One time we were in Home Depot and he’s like, ‘Dad we are in Home Depot, right? They sell home things, right? Why do they have soda?’ I was so happy that he was critically thinking and I gave him some answer and I could tell he was like, ‘Yea, okay dad.’”
“Meanwhile, Tia texted the other morning like, “Huey is having the worst morning ever, his life sucks right now.”
Amiri laughs and explains how Huey can be very ‘woe is me’ and that they tracked down some basketball stickers to give him a boost. “He has a sense of fairness about what is deserved. He’ll be like, ‘Dad that doesn’t make sense.’ Meanwhile, Cullen gets frustrated when he’s not heard, if he doesn’t have the ability to explain himself.”
“I try as much as possible to remind them they are little kings and to encourage that.”
Amiri gives a brief pause when he mentions the boy’s grandfather. The pause does not steel me for what is to come. Moments later my hands are covering my face and my jaw is wide open and he says, “You right now, that was me for five years.”
At age 30, when editing a magazine he created with a friend, Amiri received an email that said, “I’m going to give you the best interview you’ve ever had.” That email was from his biological dad, not the person he thought was his biological dad who he had grown up resenting for his absence his entire life, someone entirely new. When his grandmother’s response to the name was a phone dropped to the ground, he was reeling, a new truth revealed at age 30, just becoming a father himself.
And now, he’s learned his biological father is great at basketball, as are his uncles, just like his boys are. And his biological grandfather? He was a photographer.
“It took five years to get past the thought and then more to deal with it. I’m still dealing with it but differently. That interview, I guess you could say it’s still going on.”
Back to the Cullen and Hugh.
“I have a lot to look forward to but there’s a lot I thought would come later that has come earlier. They’re so aware and they have access to so many more things because of technology, the school they go to, what they teach them, what we teach them. We want them to be kids but at their age, you also want to guide their awareness.
We were in Target and there was a transgender person grocery shopping and an older couple behind them gawking. Cullen is very aware. He waited until we got to the car and asked about the couple. He was so clear on it, Amiri beams. “‘But Daddy, a man can be a woman and woman can be a man.’ Cullen said. He can read people, he knows if dad’s not comfortable, so I have to set the tone and stay even too. It’s like if dad is freaked, I’m freaked. I’m figuring that out as a father, the balance.”
"I LOVE THEM TO DEATH. They drive me crazy and there are days when it’s trying. But they make it easy,” he laughs. “They are just joy and when they are laughing and smiling, their laughs are contagious, and it’s hard to be strict. I’m always holding the laughter in myself. They make it pretty easy.”
Big thank you to Amiri Rose, Phil Padilla and Fasil Debeb for being awesome dads and letting us delve into their lives for Father’s Day 2018.