They say it never rains in Southern California, but on a recent day rain clouds hovered over the hotel lobby where I sat in a corner booth sipping hot chocolate and eating breakfast sandwiches with Peter Harris and Adenike Harris, the father-daughter team behind Pops’nAde, a project they started in 2016 to help others heal through creativity and call-and-response dialogue. The name is a fun combination of their nicknames for each other.
I was excited to catch up with Peter, an acclaimed educator, American Book Award winner, cultural worker, poet and the mentor who gave me my first job after college. He is also founder of the Black Man of Happiness Project, a multimedia exploration inspired by the provocative question, “What is a happy black man?”
Adenike, a sexual abuse survivor, helps abuse survivors forge empowering relationships with non-abusive loved ones so that painful experiences can become personal catalysts to healing.
Together they’ve just culminated a full year of collaborations centered around their own personal journey of transcending the challenging family dynamics of divorce and sexual trauma. From ages 14-18, Adenike was sexually abused by her ex-stepfather, a trauma she didn’t tell her biological parents about until she was 23.
The father-daughter duo’s platforms have included a TEDxPasadena talk, a feature in the anthology “Love WITH Accountability: Digging up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse” by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, the national PSA campaign “Won’t Stay Quiet” by RAINN, a podcast and a forthcoming web series that marries road trips with conversations about joy.
What advice do you have for maintaining healthy parent-child relationships?
Peter: When it comes to communication, in real life you don’t walk out the room like you do in the movies or in a scene of a play. In real life, if you really want to make change, you have to stay in the room and get things out even if it’s uncomfortable.
Adenike: The best way I know how to maintain a healthy relationship with my father is to also maintain the respect that I have for him as my father. Even amidst disagreement, I try to remember he is my model for communication in relationships. Together we strive to do creative healing work, and the fact that he respects me as an individual makes it easier for me to always have respect for him.
When circumstances shake us to the core, such as the one Adenike experienced, how do you strive for healing?
Adenike: As the survivor, I didn’t really have a desire to retaliate against my abuser. I didn’t want to visit my own father or mother in jail because they set out to avenge what happened to me. I wanted us together. It wouldn’t be an easy road, but at least we would have each other.
Peter: Unlike Adenike, I felt an immediate need to retaliate, and I had to follow her lead to move from that space into healing. I feel fortunate that I had really good men friends who allowed me to be open with them. These men, including my brothers, looked out for me and listened. They reiterated, “If your kid is saying that this is what she wants, then you do what that requires.”
I still think of the summer she visited around age 17. We took a long walk on the beach, and I asked her repeatedly about her wellbeing. She still chose not to share. I know had she told me what was happening to her, I would have never sent her back home.
Adenike, why didn’t you tell, and Peter what advice would you offer parents in this situation?
Adenike: I didn’t want to break up a family. Even if it was dysfunctional and abusive, I didn’t want to lose the family dynamic. In a sense, it was safe in the way my childhood brain could process safety, especially with my actual father miles away. We were a middle-class family with a house we built from scratch on the top of a cul-de-sac. I had a 4.0 GPA and was winning national titles in track.
Peter: You have to keep asking the questions. No matter what, keep asking them. Nobody is shutting me up ever again. If you are going to rumble for something, rumble for a clean communication space with your kids. You have the right to say put the phone down and insist on elbowing out ethical space for explaining things about life. It’s important for fathers and mothers and aunties and extended notions of people who guard children to remember there is good hierarchy, too. You can be the man of the house, but you really need to do it in the emotional arena. The territory for revolution is the emotional territory, and you must have the courage to tell your own child what they need to hear from you. This is the real work of parenting. It’s ongoing and it doesn’t stop at 18.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Adenike: I truly believe everyone is doing their best with what they know. I have observed my father’s ability to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and push beyond them. A lot of the reason I wanted to work with my father was to bring the black male voice in this “me too” movement conversation. I want to highlight my father’s voice in my healing as an ally breaking toxic masculinity.
Peter: You have to be courageous to be a parent, and you have to understand the power of confrontational participation. If you participate fully in parenting, when confrontations come you are standing on integrity and then you can participate in the healing, too.
To learn more, visit: restorativenotions.com/popsnade.