The Death and Life of My Father, Donald S. Kelley

The Death and Life of My Father, Donald S. Kelley

The Death and Life of My Father, Donald S. Kelley

Reckoning with a legacy of violence, fear, and love.


I had only one job to do—write the obituary. His wife, Freddia, arranged the church service in Boston, and my sister, Makani, took care of everything else. She flew from Jackson, Miss., to Albuquerque to identify the body, arrange his cremation, pay bills, close accounts, pack up his things, clean out his apartment, and inform friends and family that our father had transitioned. None of our father’s other three children went to New Mexico to help out, myself included. Writing his obituary was to be my contribution.

Donald Sheralton Kelley officially died on February 29, 2020, although two or three days passed before someone found his body. He was 82 years old and alone. We had been estranged for over two decades. He called me occasionally, usually on my birthday, but I rarely answered the phone. The two or three times I did pick up, I blamed my busy schedule, deadlines, the time difference, travel, among other things, and then I listened in silence for the next hour to an earful of misogynistic and xenophobic rants, conspiracy theories, random biblical passages, a critique of how I’m ruining my children and why they need to be saved. There was a lot of crazy talk about his “number one son” (that would be me) and “your father” (that would be him). I never disclosed what I really thought about anything because I was afraid of him.

When I learned that he had passed, I shed no tears and felt nothing except, perhaps, a sigh of relief followed by a slight pang of guilt for feeling this way. My therapist released me from the guilt but gently reminded me that I still needed to grieve, and that writing his obituary might be a way to begin the grieving process. The service was scheduled for mid-March, so I had very little time to write an uplifting, respectful narrative about a father I didn’t like and didn’t exactly know, yet knew all too well. I reluctantly made plans to fly from Los Angeles to Boston, thinking that mourning with family and friends might help me grieve. As I wrestled with my dad’s obituary and waited for word about the funeral arrangements, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and the federal government declared a state of emergency. Most flights were canceled and his funeral service postponed indefinitely.

Family on my father’s side were disappointed; I was relieved—at first. Two weeks had passed, and all I had to show was a sorry, equivocal opening paragraph. I knew how to write an obituary. I’d published many such tributes on accomplished figures and had delivered my fair share of eulogies. But an obituary requires a certain kind of artifice, a narrative cleansing not unlike the undertaker’s work of preparing and dressing a corpse for public viewing. Many of the most basic facts about my father’s life concealed traumas—mine, my siblings’, and his own. I longed to tell the truth just to release years of pent-up anger, but worried that it would only open old wounds and make new ones. So I set it aside for the time being.

Meanwhile, spring 2020 became the season of death. We sheltered in place as hospitals overflowed and the nightly news led off with mounting numbers of infections and deaths. The pandemic became a pretext for the Trump administration’s death-dealing policies, allowing the government to accelerate border closings, impose more barriers to asylum seekers, expand immigrant detention, ignore or abrogate laws protecting vulnerable workers. Indian country and prisons predictably became epicenters of Covid-19, and cases of domestic violence spiked, as many survivors were forced to choose between homelessness and “sheltering in place” with abusive partners. And while all of this was happening, the world witnessed what could only be called a public lynching in Minneapolis.

Thanks to Darnella Frazier, the courageous 17-year-old who captured Officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into the neck of the handcuffed George Floyd Jr. for nearly nine minutes, the world watched a 46-year-old Black man beg for his life. Twenty-six million people took to the streets across the country and around the world, risking their health and safety to face down riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and the Covid-19 pandemic to demand justice for Floyd and an end to state-sanctioned racial violence.

“Black Spring” had arrived, and I did what I always do: I protested, spoke to the press, and wrote. I wrote emotionally about the killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta. I mourned the deaths of Dijon Kizzee and Daniel Prude and so many others killed by police. I found it easier to write about the state killing Black people and the dream of abolition than to come to terms with my father’s death—or more precisely, his life. As 2020 drew to a close, my inability to perform the one task my sister asked of me remained a cloud hanging over my head. And then a week before Christmas 2020, I contracted Covid.

I dodged the dreaded ventilator, but the time I spent in the hospital hooked up to half a dozen machines and an intravenous drip, or at home coughing uncontrollably and gasping for breath, left me wondering if my time had come. All I could think about was having to confront my father—a completely incongruous image for a person who doesn’t believe in the afterlife. My therapist explained that my father was haunting me now, in this life, and that the only way to free myself was to face him.

My father was born on August 9, 1937, in Winston-Salem, N.C. He wasn’t a Kelley—not initially. When I looked him up in the 1940 census, he was listed as Donald Bost, sharing the last name of his mother, Lottie. I had never heard this name before. Lottie was listed as a domestic worker and married, but her “husband” was nowhere to be found. Lottie and my dad lived with three of her sisters—14-year-old Florence Hodges, 17-year-old Emma Hodges, and 27-year-old Allien (pronounced Ay-LEEN) Kelley. (Another sister, Lena Mae, was living on her own.) Allien was married to the Rev. Rafe David Kelley. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco plant, the city’s largest employer, had both Allien and Rafe on the payroll for over 10 years—she worked as a stemmer; he swept floors.

There are a few things to untangle here. We grew up calling Allien and the Rev. Rafe Kelley “Grandma” and “Granddaddy.” We called Lottie “Nana” and visited her occasionally in Brooklyn. She married another Carolina native, Johnny McCall, and had two other children. I was in my 20s when I found out the “real” story, though the version passed down to me then was not entirely true, either. This is how it went: My great-grandparents Joseph and Lottie Mae Hodges and their nine children were from Darlington, S.C. Around 1929, they moved to Winston-Salem, and soon thereafter Lottie Mae died. Allien, their eldest daughter, who was married, took responsibility for her younger siblings. When Lottie turned 13, she became pregnant with Donald, my father. Lottie was considered too young to raise a child, so Allien and Rafe formally adopted Donald. In this telling, Allien and Rafe are heroic for sparing my father the indignity of being raised by an unwed teenage mother.

I never questioned this narrative before I had to reconstruct my father’s life. Turns out Lottie was 17, not 13, when she gave birth. The birth certificate, filed five months after Donald’s birth, listed Allien and Rafe as parents, contradicting what I found in the 1940 census. For many Black families facing economic hardship, intrafamily adoptions were not unusual—a legacy of Reconstruction, when formerly enslaved people tried to reconstitute families after generations of forced separation.

This was not the case with my dad. In 1943, Reverend Kelley and Allien moved to Cambridge, Mass., to pastor a church and took Donald with them. Lottie was 24 but had no legal standing. My father was suddenly separated from his mother, making him feel either chosen or abandoned. I suspect he swung back and forth between the two, but he came away from that experience contemptuous of all women—his mother in particular.

To those on the outside looking in, having Reverend Kelley as your father was a big deal. He had the golden tongue, platinum voice, high-yellow complexion, unequivocal authority, and stage presence that made him a legendary “singing” preacher. Raised Baptist, he converted to Methodism, and in 1938 he was called to pastor a Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) church in Kernersville. Five years later, he was sent to pastor a CME church in Cambridge, Mass. He served for one year before setting out on his own and founding St. John’s Congregational Church in the Black community of Roxbury. In 1947, he returned to his Baptist roots and renamed his church St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.

Being the son of a preacher man did not mean my dad was privileged. For several years Reverend Kelley shined shoes to make ends meet, and Allien worked too. Roxbury was overrun with storefront churches, and urban renewal and the city’s strategic use of eminent domain made it difficult to hold on to a space of worship for very long. But in 1952, Reverend Kelley and his flock purchased a beautiful church at 135 Vernon Street in Roxbury that had once been a synagogue and then an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. We spent many summers there cleaning pews, landscaping, attending Sunday school, hearing my grandfather preach, and watching older Black women get the Holy Ghost. My father attended public schools in Roxbury and graduated from Boston Technical High School in 1955. He was admitted to Boston University, but according to my mother he never graduated. In 1958 and ’59, I know that he and my mother, Audin Reid, worked at the same factory, where she soldered wires together and he worked in the office. My mother was part of a wave of some 50,000 Caribbean migrants who came to the United States during and immediately after World War II.

Reverend Kelley married my parents in December of 1959, and they practically fled to New York City to get out from under Rafe and Allien’s judgmental eye. Makani was born in September of 1960, and I followed 18 months later. We lived in Brooklyn briefly, until my father earned enough money to buy a small house in Hollis, Queens. I was about 2 when we moved in and 5 when we left. I remember having my own room, a dog, a backyard, and my mother sometimes cooking, sometimes making art. A self-taught sculptor, she created beautiful clay busts of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I remember seeing my father dance in the living room once, but much of what I recall of those days is not fit for an obituary—like seeing my father slapping my mother hard enough to knock her to the floor or smashing her precious sculptures and hollering and spanking us when we disobeyed. I remember his long absence when he took a job in Seattle and how it felt to breathe, laugh, and skip without fear. I used to pretend to be a grown man, so my mother bought me a bottle of Old Spice after she caught me smearing toothpaste on my cheeks pretending to shave. And I try to forget the night he came in through my mother’s bedroom window as I slept next to her. He came home early to surprise us, found aftershave in the bathroom cabinet, and set out to kill my mother and the man to whom the cheap cologne belonged. That was my first encounter with a real gun.

My father was filled with rage. When he met with defiance, dissent, disorder, or anything beyond his ken, he responded with violence. He beat his children, I assume, because his parents beat him. Reverend Kelley and Allien lived by Proverbs 13:24: “He that spares the rod hates his son, but he that loves carefully chastens him.” Their love was prodigious, judging by how often my father got his ass whipped. I know this, having felt my grandparents’ careful chastening firsthand. During our many summers in Boston, when we weren’t in church, they took us fishing and hunting and gave us plenty of chores to keep us busy. If we stepped out of line, however, a switch came out of nowhere, striking our naked behinds. How many lashes depended on the number of syllables it took to explain your crime and the consequences of recidivism.

On my father’s side of the family, beating kids made you a good parent, and being a parent made you worthy. A true man was a patriarch, and a true woman was a mother. My father learned early on that motherhood determined a woman’s value, and he resented Lottie because she’d failed him as a mother. Allien, on the other hand, couldn’t bear children. Her sisters attributed her infertility to Joseph Hodges’s brutal beatings. Adopting my father allowed Allien to fulfill her maternal duties and attain the value her own father had taken from her.

This logic carried consequences. Allien’s younger sister Florence lived in New York, worked full-time as a nurse, was happily married, and wanted her own children. In the early months of 1966, she announced to the family that she was pregnant. She gained weight. She displayed her protruding tummy with great pride. She bought baby clothes and made plans for a nursery. As the delivery date approached, she became reclusive. On July 5, 1966, just two days before her 37th birthday, Aunt Florence took her life. Turns out she was never pregnant.

Not long after my Aunt Florence died, my father was recruited into a program designed to increase “minority” representation in the aerospace industry. He accepted a job at Boeing in Seattle, where he worked as an engineer on the team that built the 747 aircraft. My mother didn’t want to move, and he didn’t encourage her. He had already begun an affair with Revele Bishop, a single mother with a young son. He divorced my mother and hastily remarried. Soon the new Mrs. Kelley was carrying his baby, my half-brother. With no money and two young kids to care for, my mother moved in with her cousin in Harlem. My mother’s mother lived on the same block (157th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway) and helped us out until we found a place of our own in a neighboring apartment building.

Despite the roaches, rats, rusty tap water, shared rooms, cracked linoleum, and underfunded, overcrowded schools, life in Harlem was infinitely better than living in Queens under a dictatorial king. And my mother gave birth to a baby boy in 1968 named Sean Christopher, whom we called “Chris,” turning our little trio into a quartet. Meanwhile, my father had other plans. He wanted custody. The issue wasn’t money, since he never honored his legal obligation to pay child support. His new kingdom was incomplete without his firstborn and first son, and he was urged on by his parents and his wife, who believed that our presence could help shore up their fragile marriage. When the custody battle failed, they kidnapped us.

Revele, who worked for Northwest Airlines, offered to fly us to Jamaica to visit family during the summer of 1971 so long as we spent a couple of weeks in Seattle before returning home. My mother used our summer away to relocate to Los Angeles, fulfilling a dream we’d been talking about ever since I could remember. It was supposed to be a big surprise. Instead, my father dropped a bigger surprise when he wouldn’t let us go. He was merely fulfilling his duty as patriarch, adhering to the same logic that made him a Kelley, caused him to hate his mother, and ultimately killed his aunt.

As with most kidnapping operations, there were glitches. Chris, who was not my father’s child, got caught in the ambush. When my mother traveled to Seattle by bus to reclaim her children, my father handed Chris over and drew his gun to let her know that the rest of us were here to stay. I weakly suggested that my mother should get one of us but was popped in the mouth before finishing the sentence.

Astandard obituary would tell us that Donald Kelley reunited with his children, briefly worked at Aerojet General in Redmond, Wash., where they made weapons for US military operations in Vietnam, and formed his own company, Effective Service Planners, which specialized in technical writing and consulting. It could not include his long, humiliating bout with unemployment, a litany of business failures, and the many tales of brutality. I refuse to relive the horrors of being beaten with belts, sticks, Hot Wheels tracks, open hands, and closed fists. I will say this: I was a good son. I did everything he and his wife asked of me. I studied hard. I played sports, though not very well. I helped him fix his car. At age 11, I did the grocery shopping and became my stepmother’s private errand boy. I even worked at my father’s office two weekends, doing something with blueprints. In middle school, I got straight A’s on all of my report cards—a big deal for a Black kid bused to a lily-white suburban school. But fall semester in eighth grade, my usual perfect report card had no teachers’ comments. My father looked at it, turned it over, and slapped me hard in the face. He interpreted the absence of comments as evidence that I was slipping. He demanded a meeting with my teachers and the principal, who incredulously tried to explain that my grades spoke for themselves.

I used to think my intense work ethic and blind obedience were driven entirely by fear. Now I see there was more to it. I wanted my father to be proud of me. I wanted his love. My sister did, too, but in 1975, at age 15, she escaped the kingdom and made it to our mom’s house in California. Her flight proved to be the final blow to my father’s failing marriage. Revele split with her two children, leaving me alone with my father.

I was 13 years old. I probably should have tried to leave, but I could not break with my role as the good kid, the loyalist, the master’s errand boy. This invisible bond was shattered, but not entirely severed, on Christmas Day. That morning we drove to Revele’s parents’ house to pick up my half-brother. As I sat in the car waiting, I heard shouting and scuffling. My father emerged, his face bloodied, ran to the car to retrieve his gun, and disappeared into the house. I heard several gunshots. I was afraid to stay, afraid to run, and unable to move. He came back out, jumped behind the wheel, and took off. We drove a few blocks to the home of Norman and Lea Proctor, family friends whom we referred to as our aunt and uncle. They had three daughters and a son I considered cousins. After a few hours, it became clear that we were not going back to my father’s house and that my father had no intention of sticking around. I learned later that no one was hurt in the fracas. But assault with a deadly weapon is a serious charge. Uncle Normie and my father decided that night to take a trip.

Here is the part of the obituary that would praise Donald Kelley’s love of travel and adventure: One of a handful of Black licensed pilots, my father and Norman flew a single-engine Cessna to the African continent (making frequent stops, of course). Their flight was historic and heroic—so long as we leave out why they left in the first place. My father was running from the law, running for his life.

I moved in with Aunt Lea that night. It was like a year-long exhalation, a space to grow and come into my own. My father and Uncle Normie returned a year later after a truly spectacular adventure that ended with their plane catching fire in the Canary Islands and my father being hospitalized for trichinosis. Fortunately for him, he was never charged in the Christmas Day shooting. Unfortunately for me, he returned even crazier than before. Three weeks later, I, too, fled to California.

Reunited with my mother and siblings, I thought my ordeal was over. But I remained tethered to him. When he married a Jewish woman 12 years his junior in 1979, he asked my sister and me to attend and appointed me best man. The marriage didn’t last long, but he did father another son, who became the object of yet another nasty custody battle. He got married again in 1987, to another white woman, this one seven years his junior. He had renounced Judaism and reconnected with his Baptist upbringing, driven, I believe, by a desire to connect with his father—to please his father, to be his father.

He was called to the ministry, grooming himself as the next Reverend Kelley. When my grandfather died on Easter Sunday, 1996, my father moved back to Boston to care for his mother (she died in 2002), take over the house, and take what he believed was his rightful place as pastor of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. Neither the current pastor, the deacons, nor the congregation were interested, so his bid ended in a humiliating defeat.

The idea of becoming the pastor of his father’s church was all my father had left. Two of his children literally ran away from home, and the other two had little or nothing to do with him. He finally won custody of his youngest son and tried to erase his mother’s Jewish heritage by enrolling him in Christian schools. That son, my half-brother, eventually joined the military and broke all ties with our father. With no children to lord over, how could Donald Kelley attain his rightful place as the patriarch, a role for which he had been groomed his entire life?

In 2004, he wed wife number five, a member of the church who was the spitting image of Allien Kelley. Makani and I were his only kids who attended the wedding, and, once again, he asked me to be the best man. I obliged and even delivered a toast that acknowledged his mistakes without sounding critical or judgmental. That was the last time I ever saw him.

My father left Boston, and his wife, in 2016 and moved to Albuquerque. He lost money from his parents’ estate, part of his foot to diabetes, and three sons who simply stopped speaking to him. Makani assumed responsibility for his care, kept him connected to his grandchildren, and gave him what he was unable to give us—unconditional love. Her actions, as well as my futile attempts at writing his obituary, taught me that Donald Sheralton Kelley was nothing but a man—a terrified little man whose bombast and violence masked deep insecurities; a man trapped in the prison house of patriarchy who spent his life chasing after his father’s love.

I stopped chasing long ago. I think I’m finally ready to grieve.

Adapted from After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America, edited by Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams (Haymarket Books).

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