What Being a Father Really Means

T. Mychael Rambo is a father, but he doesn’t have kids. He’s helped raise his sister’s son, as well as nine kids in the community. Many men are in his position, he says: “surrogate fathers.” Coaches, teachers, choir directors, family friends: “Those are all positions in which men can be role models,” he tells me over cups of peppermint (me) and chai (him) tea at the downtown Minneapolis Barnes & Noble Starbucks. “Men need to realize that they can play a significant role in children’s lives simply by being a positive image.”

This is the core message of Tying the Knot: Songs for our Fathers, the daylong event Rambo put together to celebrate fathers and father-figures. The day begins with the Father’s Day Festival and Photography Exhibit at the Wilder Center in St. Paul. The afternoon includes food, a photo booth, a writing workshop with Louis Porter II, an arts-and-crafts workshop with Tacoumba Aiken, musical performances, a “tying the knot ceremony” with Elder Mahmoud El-Kati, a basketball clinic hosted by Twin Cities Basketball Academy, and informational booths representing the event’s sponsors (Obsidian Arts, Dads Make a Difference, Save Our Sons). It also features a photo exhibit, curated by Obsidian. (Photos below are a sampling of those included.)

The second part of the day takes place at the Fitzgerald Theater. Rambo (with the help of K. Anoa Monsho and Lisa Brimmer) rounded up some of the area’s most talented singers, writers, and performers; asked them to choose songs or write essays/poems/reflections on their father experience (either as a father or with their own biological/surrogate fathers); and pieced together a performance that salutes fatherhood in all its forms. In addition to emceeing the event, Rambo and his father—whom Rambo refers to as his rock and “a force to be reckoned with”—will be performing a duet.

The idea for all this came from three separate, transformative experiences, Rambo says. The first happened while he was leading a creative-writing exercise at a fifth-grade classroom at Rondo Learning Center in St. Paul. (In addition to acting, emceeing, and organizing events and productions, Rambo has been teaching for 25 years as a residency artist.) He asked the kids to brainstorm words and themes that they associate with dads. “I knew that talking about Dad can be an iffy subject for a lot of kids, particularly in urban environments, but I wanted to see what they thought,” he says. “We had a good list of words going and had really unpacked the topic when I asked them to pull out a piece of paper, take what we’d been discussing, and put it into their own words.”

That’s when it happened. Looking around the classroom, Rambo noticed many kids staring vacantly at their blank page. One boy crumpled the paper and threw it. “I don’t know whether he was frustrated with the writing itself or the topic, but seeing that really stuck with me.”

The second experience happened while Rambo was emceeing an event. He was down to his final door-prize giveaway, and needed a catch for how to decide the winner. Idea number one: the first dad to come up with a photo of his kids would get it. When four men reached the stage at the same time, Rambo tweaked the criteria: whichever man had a photo of him with his children would win. They all sat down.

T. Mychael Rambo and his dad. Photo by Danni Werner

“Now, that doesn’t make them bad dads,” Rambo says, “but they weren’t in the picture. And the symbolism of that hit me: you need to be there. You need to see yourself with your kids. You need to be in the picture.”

The third experience happened a couple years later, and propelled Rambo to piece together his observations in such a way that he could share them with and—hopefully—inspire others.

“I live across the street from a family who, over the years, has adopted me into their family,” Rambo says. “The dad passed away when his son, David, was only 14. On the day of the funeral, David’s mom sent him over to me so that I could tie his tie. While I was doing this, it hit me: David’s dad had passed on before he could gift his son with this rite of passage that’s very important in our culture.”

After finishing with David’s tie, Rambo turned around to find six other boys, ranging in age from 16 to their mid-20s, waiting to have their ties tied, too.

“Tying a tie might not seem like a big deal, but if you think about the events for which you need to wear a tie—graduations, weddings, job interviews—it takes on a whole other meaning. By not teaching these young men to be prepared for those things, we’re disabling them from striving and thriving: striving to get outside what they may have learned growing up, about themselves and their world; thriving in communities and environments that reflect possible personal and economic achievement.”

Whether people have had a positive experience with their fathers or a strained one, Rambo says he hopes that everyone who attends Tying the Knot will open themselves up to the possibility of re-envisioning and reimagining. “I hope this event offers clarity, possibility, and promise, so that people can see how they can be a contributing member of the community and give back to a child or be an agent of change,” he says. “All it requires is stepping up and offering an outstretched hand to kids. Just being a positive image can make a huge difference.”

Saturday, June 16

Father’s Day Festival and Photography Exhibit
Free; 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Wilder Center, 451 Lexington Ave., St. Paul

Tying the Knot: Songs for our Fathers
$32; 8–10:30 p.m.
Fitzgerald Theater, 10 Exchange St., St. Paul
651-290-1221, fitzgeraldtheater.publicradio.org