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Black father embraces tough conversations as Juneteenth, Father's Day overlap

“Juneteenth really hit me last year when my daughter was in kindergarten. She was at home, and I was working at home. And I would tell her to put her headset on, but she wouldn’t, so I could hear what they were teaching her,” Diomo Motuba said.

A man smiles down at two beaming daughters and a distracted son.
Diomo Motuba stands with his three kids, Tammy, Emmy and Clayton, on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at his home in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — Growing up in Cameroon, West Africa, Diomo Motuba didn’t celebrate Father’s Day.

His dad didn’t care for holidays. “He was all about grades. If I got good grades, he would be happy with me,” said Motuba, a father of three children and a professor of transportation and logistics at North Dakota State University.

Motuba also didn’t celebrate Juneteenth, a new American holiday, which this year lands on the same day as Father’s Day. He learned about Juneteenth from his daughter, Tammy, now 7, when she was in kindergarten and studying at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Juneteenth really hit me last year when my daughter was in kindergarten. She was at home, and I was working at home. And I would tell her to put her headset on, but she wouldn’t, so I could hear what they were teaching her,” he said.

The teacher was talking about Martin Luther King Jr.

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“My daughter found out they were slaves, and they weren’t supposed to go to school, and I could feel the teacher being uncomfortable teaching this, and it wasn’t the only lesson," Motuba said. "At that point, I was like, 'What is going on here?' And I knew that when she was done she would have a lot of questions."

The father and daughter discussed Juneteenth shortly after the lesson.

“'The day that slaves were finally free,'” he said with air quotes. “That’s when it hit me. My daughter came back and asked, 'What is Juneteenth? Why were brown people slaves? Why didn’t we go to the same school as pink skin?', I think she called it.

“It puts things into perspective. She knows what Juneteenth is right now. It helps me to have a conversation with the kids and teach them history and teach them that your skin color doesn’t matter, but what matters comes from inside,” Motuba said.

His three children, Tammy, Emmy and Clayton, will grow up knowing the history of how Black people have been treated in the United States, but he encourages them to look to the future.

“Brown-skinned people here in America, it is not as easy," he said. "Sometimes you worry how people look at you. Sometimes you could get to a place where nobody looks like you, and you could go into a little shell. It’s trying to navigate that and teaching the kids that, yes, there is this history, but it doesn’t matter to you right now. You can grow up to be a good person.”

Diomo Motuba at North Dakota State University on Thursday, June 16, 2022.jpg
Diomo Motuba at North Dakota State University on Thursday, June 16, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

When Motuba first arrived in Fargo about 21 years ago, people of color would wave to each other on the streets, even if they had never met. In those days, he remembered, differences were not as stark as today.

“I think in the last seven years or eight years, there is a divide happening, and the middle no longer exists,” Motuba said.

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He’s worried every time his children go out to play. Sometimes, they’re bullied because they look different or have different sounding names.

He works hard to ensure that his kids know they can tell him when something bad happens.

“When they go out, if someone is nasty to them, you can talk to them about it and have a conversation. In school, if something bad happens, kids joke around and say they don’t like you because you are brown-skinned. That has happened,” he said.

Every night, his daughter will search for him before she goes to bed.

“She will come to my room and say ‘Daddy, can you come to my room and read me a book?’” Motuba said.

“That’s when we have a good conversation, and she opens up and tells me about people not being nice, and I have to think. Do I say, 'Go fight back,' or what?” he said.

A man sits on the arm of a couch with his three young children.
Diomo Motuba poses in front of art created by his three kids, Tammy, Clayton and Emmy, on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at his home in Fargo .
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

Such conversations weren’t discussions Motuba could have with his father, who passed away shortly after he left for the United States.

“That is something I miss. I became a father, and he was not there. But emotionally, he would say, ‘You are a man, you should be strong. If someone pushes you, you push him back harder,’” Motuba said.

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“Now, as a father, what did I want that I didn’t get from my dad?," he said. "My dad didn’t tell me he loved me, either. He would have said, ‘What’s your point?’ if I asked him why he never said he loved me."

Motuba’s eldest daughter has been talking about Father’s Day all week.

“She wants to do something for me. She’ll definitely get me a card, and she is asking me what I want for Father’s Day. And can mommy just go out so you can be with us?” Motuba said

“I just tell her, when you grow older, you buy me that Tesla,” he joked.

Motuba loves his father and remembers him fondly. After all, he wouldn’t have been the person he is today without him. But he treats his children differently.

“Now, every day, I tell my kids that I love them," he said. "I can't say I know what I am doing. There are days that I don’t know the answers."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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