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This powerful memoir from a #1 New York Times bestselling author and Newbery Medalist features poetry, letters, recipes, and other personal artifacts that provide an intimate look into his life and the loved ones he shares it with.In an intimate and non-traditional (or "new-fashioned") memoir, Kwame Alexander shares snapshots of a man learning how to love. He takes us through stories of his parents: from being awkward newlyweds in the sticky Chicago summer of 1967, to the sometimes-confusing ways they showed their love to each other, and for him. He explores his own relationships—his difficulties as a newly wedded, 22-year-old father, and the precariousness of his early marriage working in a jazz club with his second wife. Alexander attempts to deal with the unravelling of his marriage and the grief of his mother's recent passing while sharing the solace he found in learning how to perfect her famous fried chicken dish. With an open heart, Alexander weaves together memories of his past to try and understand his greatest love: his daughters.
Full of heartfelt reminisces, family recipes, love poems, and personal letters, Why Fathers Cry at Night inspires bravery and vulnerability in every reader who has experienced the reckless passion, heartbreak, failure, and joy that define the whirlwind woes and wonders of love.
I was two. It was my birthday. She gave me wooden blocks in all shapes. For me to fit in a wooden box. A puzzle of sorts. She showed me how to do it once. Maybe twice, then said, with a smile, Now, you figure it out, son. I said, Okay, Mommy. It took a while. But I did. And, of course, I wanted to do it again and again. And she sat right there while I did. Hugging me, wiping chocolate ice cream from my lips. Telling me to be careful not to get any on my favorite black-and-white dashiki. At some point, she got up, ’cause she had to go to work, or cook, or have a life. And I was mad and sad, and unsure again. But her job was done. I’d figured that puzzle out enough times to do it by myself. And she knew that. Still, it wasn’t as much fun without her. And it wasn’t the same kind of happy. But I felt loved. Because she was there. And that gave me strength to carry on.
My mother died on September 1, 2017. Within a month, the cracks in my marriage emerged. They would eventually become impassable canyons. Within two years, our eldest would pack her belongings—clothes, books, heart—and leave home. And leave us. Overnight, I was barefoot on Everest. Marcus Garvey without a ship. This puzzle was now sky, the pieces of my love life scattered across it, and my mother, the one person who seemed to know how to live like a rainbow in the clouds, the woman with the answers I needed like winter needed snow, was resting in peace. And I drifted. In sadness. Seeking memory.
Barbara Elaine Johnson Alexander was my first teacher. She read to us fables and fiction after dinner. Taught us Swahili at breakfast. Jambo meant Hello. And Kupenda meant to love. I was her firstborn, full of independence and rebellion. When I didn’t get my way, she would often spoil my sulking with stories that either made me howl with laughter or hang on the cliff of her tongue. I fell in love with her because of this. Because of the tender power of her voice. She made words dance off the page and into my imagination. Her morning wake-up calls were soul songs—chorus and verse. She called us for dinner like we’d won something. A nighttime poem became a play became a production that me and my sisters embraced. Our bedrooms were Broadway. She taught me an appreciation of language by reciting Lucille Clifton and Nikki Giovanni aloud. She showed me rhythm and melody when she turned off the television, to our dismay, and sang African folktales, like “The Beautiful Girl Who Had No Teeth,” which Eartha Kitt made famous. And no matter how many times I wanted to hear Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, she let me hear it. When I could read on my own, she listened to me. Over and over. She helped me to love each day with words. And that gave me courage.
When I was three, I went to a school in Morningside Heights, at 490 Riverside Drive. It was housed in Riverside Church, a progressive, interdenominational, interracial, and international church near Columbia University—where my parents were enrolled in graduate school. One day, as a tribute to my mother, I built a magical castle out of wooden blocks. It housed the ideas galloping through my creative mind, and I couldn’t wait to show her. Until a contumelious classmate knocked my blocks down. It was the end of the day and his excuse was Playtime is over. Time to clean up. I protested. Defended myself with the only weapons I had, words: Those were my blocks that you knocked. Lest you want a quick payback, better fix my quick-block stack. Surprisingly, the boy started crying. Now, I don’t remember any of this, but my mother said that when she came to pick me up that day, the teacher told her, Your son intimidates the other children with his words. He is a little arrogant. At this point in my mother’s recounting, you could see the universe of pride and love entering her heart. “I smiled and told your teacher, Thank you. We teach him to use his words.
This is not a traditional memoir. Is not me climbing the stairs of yesterday and telling of each journey, step by step. Is not me gathering together all the things that have made a life out of me. Is not me opening a door to my mother’s death or my father’s life so that I can understand my fate as a man. As a father. As a son. These are just snapshots of a man learning to love. Again. This is a window into the darkness of doubt and the unbearable lightness of being in love. Remembrances of a poet grappling with loss and longing. Questions he’s been too afraid to answer. This is a putting back together. A carrying on. A boy sealing his familial cracks, repairing romance, building a monument of love with the only tools he has.
A LETTER TO MY DAUGHTERS
Ever since I was a child and discovered his framed “Marriage Counselor Accreditation Certificate” tucked inside a Sexual Intimacy in Marriage manual in our garage, I have wanted to speak to my father about marriage. Now, as an adult, I wonder did he and my mother ever hold hands. How did he court her? Did he dance with her and then help her with the dishes? Did he make love to her in the kitchen? Did she rub his scalp after? How did they love is the question I’ve contemplated asking during those times when my own love life was discomfiting or in peril. I’ve wanted to know more about the woman he had a child with, the woman who was not my mother, his wife. I’ve wanted to ask him did he love her, too. When my mother, fed up, finally moved out, was their marriage better? Did she date, did he? Why didn’t they ever divorce? As I stand on the ledge of the unraveling of my own coupling I have so many questions for the man who made me, but I’m too afraid to ask.
This book began as a collection of love poems. But somewhere along the way, I began pondering why I was writing about the thrill of a red-hot glance on a spring afternoon, or the parting of butterscotch lips, or the irrepressible hopelessness of losing a lover. Because I wanted to and I could were not good-enough answers. The art, you see, cannot be just for the sake of the art. There must be a greater good, something meaningful, something significant. And that led me here to both of you, the two greatest loves of my life. The daughters I’ve cherished… and let down… and hoped to one day find the courage to tell about what I know about how to love… and what I don’t—which is a lot. All the things I wished I could have learned from my mother and was too afraid to ask my father are between these covers. Think of this as less a rule book on romance, more a testimony of devotion and dolor… The way I love is not on trial here, but if it were, this would be my opening statement and closing argument. Which, of course, means you would be the judges. Caution: The poems and letters and thoughts here will not tell you that I have it all figured out (I sure as hell haven’t), but they will show you how much I’ve enjoyed the trying. And they will explore the moments of disappointment that have shaped me, and how each failure has nearly destroyed me. And they will reveal my discovering that I didn’t need to understand love, I just needed to believe in it. This is all to say that I just want you to know how I have loved so that you may know what it looks like, so that you can believe in it too.
HOW TO READ THIS BOOK
Start with a chamomile
or Darjeeling black
in a clawfoot bathtub (or a wicker chaise,
on a patio)
a plate of warm scones
fresh strawberries that taste
like an unexpected kiss.
Remember the ordinary things:
a hug before the first day of school
the holding of a hand at a pep rally
making a lover laugh
Sing along if you recognize
the sacred music
between each line.
Let your fingers turn
the pages of your precious life.
Like me, be afraid of what you find:
the discovery of audacious passion
its trembling fire that melts
the recklessness that burns
the fiery footprint it leaves.
Let these humble meditations and musings
carry you close, permanent, abreast—a wave.
Go, raise a toast.
all the words
that hold you
a sea of new ones.
Now, trust your heart
and the ocean of sweet possibility
LOOKING FOR ME
What you help a child to love can be
more important than what you help them to learn.
PORTRAIT OF NEWLYWEDS: 1967
West Side Chicago. Sitting
on Uncle Robert’s front porch.
Boxwoods and thick evergreen shrubs
on either side.
In the middle of the night
and the Six-Day War
he decided to drive through the night
in their brand-new green Ford Fairlane 500
with no air conditioning.
Only stopping once
at a truck stop for gas and cashews
and a quick nap
because it is a thirteen-hour drive
from W. 122nd and Amsterdam.
She is smiling. Politely.
He looks amused, his head tilted
like he’s just made a wisecrack.
Black tube socks pulled nearly to his knees,
his highwater khakis are wrinkled
like he pulled them out of a hamper.
Her hair is primped, nails polished
like she is headed to a ball.
They are not a year married
I am twelve months away
and I notice everything
especially the way they aren’t holding hands
and are sitting three feet apart
a world of trouble between them
as if earlier they’d had an argument
about an old girlfriend who’d called him
and he said she was talking stupid
so she refused to iron his pants
and stormed out of the guest room
then after breakfast, right before her husband left
to deliver the day’s mail
Aunt Ethel asked if she could take a picture
of the newlyweds.
So here they sit
on the top step
like two perfectly pruned plants
in early summer
posing in love.
THE HEAVY WEIGHT OF FATHERHOOD
My father sometimes loved us
like a boxer
would tag us with biting gibes
when he was too busy
to answer a question
throw numbing jabs
that stabbed our ears
and growing hearts
when he was upset
Round after round
my mother would referee
but he would back even her into the ropes.
The man would not stop
until he knocked us all down.
Then, when he was satisfied
that we were down for the count—
(My sisters emptied of joy.
Me, defeated and repressed)
—he’d retreat to the corner
and massage our wounds
with a softening tongue
an honest humor
a familial allegiance
that lifted us all up
that left us each smiling
and almost forgetting
of his love.
THE GOSPEL TRUTH
Kneeling in the musty attic
looking for our old record player
inside cobwebbed milk crates
filled with moldy textbooks, dissertations
and his old, fiery sermons on cassette
next to a green milk crate of expired passports and credit cards
I discover jazz
for the first time—Duke Ellington’s “Heaven”
nestled right between Nancy Wilson
and Miles Davis
the three of them side by side
trumpeting a kind of sentimental wonder.
It is up here in this sacred space
where I find the melody to build a dream on
where I rejoice
where I realize
he may not be All Blues
where I fall in love
with my father.
A LETTER TO MY FATHER
Jazz is the way brown sugar would sound if it was sprinkled in your ear.
When I write, I listen to jazz music. Mostly, Bebop and Hard Bop because of the soulful rhythm and tempo. It’s dance-like, but not dance. There are no words to distract me, and it’s just enough groove to keep my head nodding, my butt in the chair, and my pen moving to the blazing melody. While I was writing The Crossover, I happened upon an album by jazz pianist Horace Silver called Song for My Father. This was apropos because when I think about that novel, it was a song for you. A letter of hope for us. An inadvertent plea for you to be proud of me. Let me explain.
Memory can be harsh. Unforgiving. When I look back on my childhood and young adulthood, I do not remember hot dogs and soda pop summers. My tongue was never sweet on cotton candy because there were no moonlit carnivals. I remember craving your touch, some small ritual of precious contact, like a drop of water in noonday heat. Time was money, smiles were seldom, our home was serious business—book publishing—with little time for little things like card games or Ping-Pong or talking. Your conversations were instructions: Mow the lawn like this, rake the leaves like that, and when orders come in, make sure you take down the message verbatim. When you travelled to some church to preach about Black Liberation Theology, or some conference to speak about Teaching the Culturally-Particular African American Child, I’d simultaneously miss my father and feel rescued from the prison of words you kept me in.
You see, growing up, I don’t recall seeing you without a book in your hand—at the dinner table, watching PBS, on your way to the bathroom. I still have this image of you sitting in your favorite chair in the family room, the evening news on, and you writing a sermon or editing a column. Books were your best friends, and you tried to make them mine. Read the dictionary. Read the encyclopedia. Read the dissertations. There’s a friend of mine named Penny Kittle who runs an organization called BookLove and as much as I love and support the important work she is doing, the twelve-year-old in me cringes when I see those words together because it was not that.
You were driving us to our family’s annual African Heritage Book Fair in Harlem, to host workshops and panels, and to sell books—many of which I’d become familiar with because you’d made me read them—The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, the Heinemann African Writer Series, Crisis in Black Sexual Politics by Nathan and Julia Hare, Lucille Clifton’s latest poetry collection, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. It didn’t take fourteen-year-old me long to realize I could simply read the jacket, the introduction, and the last chapter of some of the less interesting books—The Egyptian Book of the Dead—and know enough to recommend it to a customer (or respond to your impromptu quizzes). The last thing I remember is being hungry and asking when were we going to eat, and being ignored, and you talking to Mommy about one of the speakers cancelling at the last minute and her assuaging your frustration with her plan to do a second African folktales reading. And, then I fell asleep. And you did too. At the wheel of the red Mercury Thunderbird. The car flipped over a dozen times, and we landed upside down. In the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike. You roll-called and checked to make sure everyone was okay. When you got to me, I was simply proclaiming what everyone was thinking, when I uttered Dayum. The next words out of your mouth pretty much summed up my childhood: KWAME, WATCH YOUR WORDS. Now crawl out and get all the books. We’d just been in a major accident and your concern was that I not curse, and that I somehow get out of the overturned car and gather the books from the trunk that were now strewn out all over the turnpike. But, here’s the thing, nothing about that exchange, or your instructions, seemed strange. This is how we were. Who we were.
We made it to the bookfair, and people came, and we sold books, and we laughed, and we ate (never behind the book table, because it wasn’t professional), and went on about our family business, never speaking a word about the accident on the Turnpike that left me bruised, outside. And a little on the inside.
You’ve heard me speak about the tyrannical state with which you led our household. You’ve read about my complaints growing up under the rule of such a stern, bookish father. And no doubt, the words in these pages will reveal how I saw you and Mommy love. Or what I didn’t see, and how that has impacted me. Memory can be hard. But, when you really peel away its tough skin, you begin to see the layers to love.
After college, when I wanted you to publish my first poetry book, you said No, that poetry would never sell. When I told you I had started my own publishing company, and that I needed seventeen hundred dollars to get my first book back from the printer, you lectured me on making bad decisions then wrote me a check for seventeen hundred dollars. As an adult, we talked maybe once every month or two. Our phone conversations consisted of you telling me everything I was doing wrong, me growing angrier and more eager to hang up. And then came The Crossover.
"Written with candor, warmth, and heart-wrenching grace, Why Fathers Cry at Night is nothing short of a marvel, animating humanity’s most important questions: What does it mean to grieve, to have the courage to surrender, to find a home in this tumultuous world, and to learn to love again? With radiance and poetic precision, Kwame Alexander’s words will remind you of art’s infinite sustenance. As soon as I turned the last page, I started again."—Adrienne Brodeur, author of the best-selling memoir Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me (2019)
- On Sale
- May 23, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown and Company