I was introduced to Ricky Walker, Jr., via the Racetraitor Oral History project. He had written a lengthy, detailed piece that caught my attention. Ricky is an excellent writer and a deep thinker. In this piece, he openly shares his experiences as a single father of a son with a rare genetic condition. I hope you can take away as much from his interview as I have.
Name: Ricky T. Walker, Jr.
Age: 35 years old
Number and ages of children: 1 child, Ricky T. Walker III, age 5
Location: Sylvania, OH (near Toledo)
Profession: Fire Communications Specialist (a dispatcher)
Areas of Study: Political Science and Philosophy; I hope to pursue a Political Theory PHD in the near future.
What are your personal drug and alcohol-free recreational outlets? What are your favorite things to do with your child?
Music is my primary recreational outlet, whether going to the occasional hardcore show, checking out a newer band’s demo, listening to records, or dabbling in beatmaking. Listening to music is also one of my favorite things to do with Ricky T. It’s something that is particularly important for me to do with him because he has pretty extensive special needs. Listening to music is something that we can do and enjoy together passively… or, depending on your perspective, actively.
When his mom and I split up, I initiated shared parenting. It was a ritual of sorts, on the days that I had him, that we’d go home, lay on the sleeper sofa or the floor and listen to records. It’s a big source of excitement for me to play him something and see how he reacts. It was amazing, for instance, to play him Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” and watch his eyes kinda follow sounds in the stereo field.
After a lengthy hospitalization in 2014, I let him live exclusively at the apartment his mom shares with her mom. It wasn’t really feasible to lug records back and forth, so I got him a boombox and a bluetooth speaker. I’d play him either CDs I bought for him or music off of Spotify, or YouTube, Bandcamp, etc.
He lives at a really nice residential medical facility now, and listening to music with him is still one of the things I do and look forward to regularly.
What pieces of art, music, literature, etc., inspire you at this stage in your life?
Artistically and musically, I think the things that inspire me the most at this stage of my life are frequently those things that seem the most visceral or unpolished. Not always, but often. So, I guess a lot of the things that resonate the most with me musically are things I was discovering or immersing myself in when I first became what I’d call a “music enthusiast” as opposed to a casual listener. Rap music from the year 1995 and shortly before or thereafter and 80s hardcore punk are two types of music that resonated then and resonate heavily now. Having said that, I’m not particularly apt to reach for mid-90s metallic hardcore, despite the fact that it was definitely something that figured pretty heavily into what I was listening to in my early and mid adolescence. Additionally, I listen to and am constantly inspired by older jazz, funk, soul, psych, acid rock, rock with breaks, film scores, incidental music, and music that might fall into the nebulous category “rare groove.” Again, the obsession with all of these has a lot to do with sample based, mid 90s hip hop. I also enjoy a good deal of newer DIY hardcore punk bands and metal on the “rawer” end of the spectrum, though am less than thrilled with wading through the microtrends of the former and navigating the often abysmal politics of the latter.
As far as literature goes, I wish that I was more well read than I am. My concentration for much of my life has been less than stellar and I’ve long envied people who could just sit down and plow through books in a matter of a few hours, one sitting. I’ve never been able to, and, so, my interests have always far outpaced my ability to sit and read everything that I’m interested in reading. About halfway through my undergrad, I realized I was actually more interested and invested in philosophy- especially epistemology- than political science. A lot of my reading has been political books and philosophy books, which I still enjoy. I’ve read significantly less fiction than I’d like, but the stories that are most exciting to me- at least in theory- are the ones that manage to be smartly allegorical or that explore moral issues or common features of the human condition… which, I’m guessing, is probably the goal of 80+% of fiction. Haha. A book that I’m ashamed to say I’ve had for a couple years now, but haven’t completed is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I don’t know yet if it’s good, but I need to make reading it a priority. I also recently pulled Forget Foucault out of a box of books that I had packed away, and I plan on reading that. I guess I also consume a decent amount of mid-length news articles.
I’m also inspired by those public intellectuals who have managed to marry interesting art, music, literature, etc. to unapologetic and consistent Left social critique.
What does being a good father mean to you?
Love and devotion are, in my estimation, the two most important components of being a good father/parent. My parents have/had the sorts of work ethics that I don’t know that I’ll ever attain. I know that, in terms of their material circumstances, they had struggles I’ll never face, and they were phenomenal providers for me and my sister. And they did all that they did while being compassionate and never espousing a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality and never being callous. To be certain, they still emphasized personal accountability to me and my sister, but with the underlying motivation being to promote honesty, compassion, and integrity and certainly with a good deal of the pragmatism of black parents trying to prepare their kids for what they would likely face.
In comparison, I’m not in and have not been in a position to provide for my son to the extent that my parents were able to provide for me and my sister. There are certainly differences in the sets of circumstances, but this is something I still think about a lot.
What I can and always will provide for my son is love. I’m definitely a mushy parent and I suspect that I’d be so even if circumstances were dramatically different. I feel like loving one’s children more than one loves oneself is a prerequisite of being a good parent… At least until those children grow into adulthood.
How does your partner feel about your drug-free choices? If single, how do your closest friends and family members feel about your drug-free choices?
I’m single. I think that people I’ve dated in the past have generally been relieved that I don’t drink or use drugs recreationally. There have been a couple instances in which I think people I was involved with felt some anxiety or feared some sort of judgment, but I don’t really go out of my way to announce that I’m drug free or don’t drink. Additionally, I’ve never really had a problem with a partner drinking on occasion or smoking weed. I think (hope) that the people I’m involved with recognize fairly quickly that this isn’t something I’m super passionate about or something that I have any interest in proselytizing about.
I’m pretty sure my family, particularly my mom, has always felt pretty good about the fact that I don’t drink or use drugs recreationally. My mom, I believe, has been especially relieved that I’m a bit less likely to fall into addiction or dependence. When I was growing up, she emphasized that I have a family history of alcoholism. A lot of the admonition and warning that my parents issued regarding drugs when I was younger stemmed from fears about my health/neurology (I suffered from seizures when I was young) and an awareness that if I were to be caught with drugs or develop a drug problem, I’d be far more likely to be subject to legal intervention and punishment than the white kids I grew up with.
In the case of my closest friends, it’s interesting because at pretty much all points of my life from my adolescence on, the majority of my friends or acquaintances drank or did drugs socially, even at the height of the “straight edge enthusiasm” period of when my primary social circle was the hardcore scene.
My best friends include both people who have always been infrequent drinkers and those who have had alcohol abuse problems. My being drug free and a non drinker has never really presented itself as a problem in our friendships. Also, I let most of my friends and acquaintances know that I’m willing to be a designated driver pretty much whenever. So that’s another positive. Haha.
Why did you decide to be drug and alcohol-free as a father (or beforehand)? Are there other major life choices that complement your decision?
I became straight edge when I was 15, but I looked at it pretty much as a description of what or how I’d been my whole life. That said, I did so accepting those “90s straight edge” rules of engagement that are pretty unforgiving and, some might say, puritanical. Even at my most enthusiastically straight edge, though, I was never really militant about it and generally found people who were- particularly if it was the only thing they were militant about- insufferable.
Realistically, I was also a pretty obedient kid and willing to defer to the wisdom and warnings of my parents. The irony here, is that my parents were always really progressive and socially critical, and instilled those values in me. Perhaps that’s one reason why I was so willing to defer to their judgements- that is, because they struck me as well-reasoned. Of course, I also wanted to avoid getting in trouble.
That said, I’ve been for the decriminalization of drugs longer than I’ve been straight edge, which owes in part, no doubt, to my parents making me aware of things like mandatory minimum laws at an early age, and their generally compassionate and progressive values.
Not beginning to drink or do drugs at this point has to do with not wanting to add another variable or complication to my life, particularly one that could leave me indisposed or, say, unable to head to the hospital at the drop of a dime if I hear that my son is there or- a consideration in the very recent past- unable to confidently administer a medication or provide attentive care.
In addition to personal risk avoidance, there’s also a boycott politic behind not buying certain illegal drugs which I subscribe(d) to, particularly when the human costs associated with their distribution and trafficking are so great. Along those lines, I also look at being vegan as a boycott politic, one aimed at reducing cruelty, and I continue to be vegan for that reason. In that way, I suppose, both decisions can be looked at as complements. I recognize that neither of these things are panacea or “silver bullet” solutions to the world’s problems.
How do your experiences as a son influence your choices as a father when it comes to drugs and alcohol?
Again, both of my parents were excellent providers and, honestly, in many ways the models of responsibility.
My dad was that guy who, if he ever missed a day of work, you knew that there was something wrong. In that way, again, he was the picture of functionality. I know, however, that he tended to self-medicate by drinking. He lived through hard times and experienced hurt that he wasn’t vocal about.
He was also a 40+ year smoker and died of COPD a month and a half before Ricky T was born. One of my big considerations in becoming a father when I did was that I wanted my dad to have a relationship with his grandchild, who I knew he’d adore. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my life- I’m still not- but I had a discussion with my dad where he said to me, in essence, “if you wait for the perfect time, the time may pass.” I knew that ultimately I wanted to be a dad, and that was the closest I think my dad would ever come to saying “I’d like a grandchild.” He would’ve absolutely adored Ricky T.
My dad worked for a local university for several years as the administrator of Institutional Diversity. When that university underwent a merger with another local university, the latter retained its staff in situations where positions were redundant. My dad was laid off a few years outside of retirement. Work and Fair Housing meetings were the main things that got my dad out of his house. Once he was laid off, he became even more of a shut in, which I think very likely hastened his declining health.
I’d already been disinclined to drink and especially disinclined to smoke, and the situation certainly didn’t make me more inclined to do either.
As a son, what is something you would you like your dad (or mom) to know?
I’d like them to know how much I love and appreciate them and to know that having a child has only served to reinforce that appreciation and admiration. In my mom’s case, she is an active grandparent despite having her own set of medical limitations and she and her wife (my mom and dad separated in my adult life, and my mom remarried) have been and continue to be incredibly generous with their resources and love.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what my dad’s impression of certain situations might be or what he might do.
I’d like both of my parents to know that their advice rarely if ever fell on deaf ears and, to the extent that choices I’ve made have yielded disappointing results, I don’t know that I would have faired well or that I was particularly well-equipped to have made the choices they might have preferred at those times.
How do/will you talk to your child(ren) about drugs and alcohol? How have/will you address drug and alcohol use among the friends of your child(ren)?
My son’s illness, a genetic condition called CDKL5, is one that causes an assortment of developmental and neuromuscular disorders. He’s not mobile and is vocal but not verbal (although less so in the past few years, as he had a tracheostomy installed in that period). The way he communicates involves a lot of subtleties that require a lot of attention and being intimately involved and observant. Throughout his life, I’ve made a point of talking to him about my thoughts and opinions, but those discussions may look a lot different than the sorts of discussions other parents might have with kids who are more typical in their needs, health, and development. I do talk to Ricky T as though he can contextualize and will occasionally tell him my thoughts on heavy topics, but illicit drug use hasn’t really come up.
He’s almost completely reliant upon caregivers and that includes in administering his needed medications. Those medications have been many over the course of his life and have included narcotics and opioids at different times. Much of his and our medical journey has entailed balancing the costs and benefits of administering various medications and trying to assess which of the many medical variables are having which effects. I definitely think it makes sense to talk to him about the assessments we’re making, but recreational drug use isn’t a discussion we’ve had.
If I ever have another child, and that child is more “typical,” I think that I’ll approach topics of recreational drug use with warnings similar to those my parents gave me- particularly about inequality in legal responses- but I think I’ll also explain in greater detail the medical risks of certain drugs in relation to others. I think that maybe I’m a little more permissive than my parents were, but the safety of my children throughout their lives (and the safety of those they might interact with while intoxicated) is still a huge concern.
How do religion, political ideology, or other philosophies play a part in your choices as a father?
I’m not a spiritual person. I consider myself introspective and willing to entertain spiritual questions but I think that, for me personally, religious or superstitious thought has been a greater source of anxiety and difficulty in my life than comfort. I’m less militantly anti-religious than I was in my very late teens and early 20s, but wanting my child to be unburdened by the guilt, superstition, and some of the anti-intellectual leanings I associate with salvationist religion was a big concern of mine even before I became a father.
I identify as agnostic and atheist, but non-proselytizing, and wouldn’t shun or scold my child(ren) should they determine that they are spiritual.
As far as political ideology, I think of myself as far left, non-culturally relativist, concerned with human rights, concerned with care for and the rights of sentient beings capable of feeling pain, and opposed to cruelty. All of those things have dramatically impacted the majority of choices-big and small- that I’ve made and make in my life and, therefore, dramatically impact the choices I make as a father.
If you drank/used drugs, how will you address your past with your child(ren)?
I’ve drunk an incredibly small amount of alcohol in my life and have never really used drugs recreationally, but neither of those things in and of themselves are things that I think are problematic.
I guess the discussions will largely be about safety, looking out for and respecting others, avoiding and/or receiving help for addiction, and the politics behind how drugs, alcohol, or any product gets in our hands.
What pitfalls exist for drug-free fathers? How successful have you felt at overcoming them?
I think that the pitfalls I’ve encountered thus far have had minimally to do with being drug free. I think most people need or crave an escape or a pressure valve, and I certainly have felt that way quite a few times over the last several years, but for me drugs or drinking- particularly drinking, because I think that beginning now would be disastrous- haven’t really held much appeal.
What are your greatest hopes for your child(ren)?
My greatest hope for Ricky T is that he enjoys every day of his life and feels a constant sense of happiness, love, and comfort. I hope for something similar for any other child I might have in the future.
x xdfdx x