The Death of Oscar Proud as the Black Patriarch
Silence: my dad, wearing his black leather jacket and faded Steelers cap, nudging a peach-skinned 2-year-old girl into my aunt’s doorway. It’s November and my 12th birthday is approaching. Swarming memories of maroons and bright yellows are morphing with images of 5-cheese baked mac and cheese and pineapple ham, an indecipherable abstract painting titled, Autumn in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“This is your sister.”
Do you remember Oscar Proud? He was the father of protagonist Penny Proud in the early 2000s animated series, The Proud Family, a show depicting the comedic and heartwarming tales of a Black, middle-class family. Oscar wore what appeared to be a french-cuffed, white shirt, with black suspenders, blue trousers, and a red tie. His head was thin and long, like an upside-down soda bottle, often holding a corrective scowl directed towards a range of characters he disagreed with, usually Penny. Other times, Oscar’s full-toothed smile beamed when he achieved small victories.
I would lay on my family’s sunroom floor wrapped in blankets, imagining that the low-rise carpet was more comfortable than it was, and gaze into the TV amazed at the show’s antics. The Proud Family was unique in its array of characters, including a Magic Johnson figure named Wizard Kelly, who was so tall he could never fit into the entire screen, Papi Boulevardez, who hid his witticisms about Penny’s grandmother by both pretending he loved her, and that he didn’t know English, and Penny’s Uncle Bobby who was stuck in the disco era and only knew how to sing instead of speak. Among these figures was Oscar, the lanky, unlucky patriarch who fit comfortably into the obscurity.
As the sometimes-overprotective male guardian of Penny, prideful in his parenting knowledge, Oscar was mistake-prone and thus the brunt of many jokes. I remember the family’s twins constantly pranking him, and I recall his parental guidance backfiring when Penny demonstrated more cunning than he did. Although Oscar seemed knowledgeable about navigating the world, like when he recommended that Penny not spend her entire paycheck on music records, I didn’t take Oscar seriously because Penny found ways to get what she wanted without addressing his concerns. Oscar always seemed clueless to me. He didn’t get things right.
My two older brothers, Joshua, then 16, and David, then 14, sat perpendicular to me on my aunt’s suede couches, mouths agape and eyebrows risen. As a family ruptured by the complications of our parents’ divorce, my brothers and I were growing accustomed to unexpected behavior and outcomes. We had known my father smoked cigarettes in his sapphire Ford Trailblazer during winter, we had known his affection for video games and football would seduce him into the solitude of his claimed theater room, and we had known that we did not know what he did when we were asleep.
“Her name is Rebecca,” my dad continued.
“Now, I want you to know that this wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t intend to have her. But I love her. And I don’t love her any more or any less than I love y’all.”
I didn’t have any words to say to my dad, and my stalled thinking negated any recognizable emotions. My life had suddenly revealed itself as volatile and cool, like the wind from snowstorms during my walks to school, and rather than grumble about the news, something noisy and clicking inside me shattered without a sound. When I went to pick up the pieces, I realized nothing was left.
This was the first time where three was an odd, inaccurate number in my life. The second time was when Elijah was born. I discovered my little brother’s birth through a text message my dad sent during my high school Spanish class. After experiencing a familiar pause in sound and feeling, a chilling stillness that delayed my reaction, I chuckled at the text.
“This nigga is something else,” I thought. I was 16 years old with a makeshift new-dread haircut tapered at my temples, the slim and stylish sophomore class president with perhaps too many jokes to have faith in. By the next school year, my hair would become a number one buzzcut with facial hair of the same length, and my joking nature an earnest disposition. That was the year my sister Marcia was born. What once was three became four with Rebecca, five with Elijah, and six with Marcia. Three did not exist anymore. Three was gone.
Rebecca’s birth confirmed my biases toward my dad. I recalled moments he broke household rules with ripe clarity, like when he made my brothers and I drink water with our cookies to save on milk, but poured a heaping glass of milk with his cookies just minutes later.
Or when my dad came home drunk, at midnight, expounding reasons for why our mom didn’t understand him and what we needed to do as young men. He ended his somber proclamation whisper-shouting, “I’m a man! I’m a man!”
Oscar Proud isn’t unique in his role as the paternal comedy prop. Timmy Turner’s dad in The Fairly Odd Parents was similarly a character with few complex desires, desires he rarely achieved due to his incompetence. The only moments I recall of Timmy’s dad showing any signs of complexity were either when doing so created a problem for Timmy or when it was part of a joke. Fathers in my favorite cartoons were often easy to follow; they were clueless and simple.
The Proud Family was one of the few cartoons that my dad enjoyed looking at when my brothers and I watched TV, and Oscar’s role as the comedic prop often made him laugh. He found goofy shows like SpongeBob SquarePants mind-numbing. Senseless comedy. But he seemed to get The Proud Family.
“Yo, that dude funny!” He would say in a burst of whooping laughter that turned into a squeal. Then, he would proceed to reenact the punchline that caused his laughing fit, with full motion and mimicked intonation. I was usually confused about how to react to this. Oftentimes, I feared my dad because he was the authority in my family. Phrases like “simple behind” and “narrow behind” flew through the house when my brothers and I didn’t adhere to his standards. He was prepared to whip us with his double-folded leather belt when we were disrespectful or destructive. But he didn’t whip my brothers and me as much as other fathers did. Our friends’ families often saw our situation as tame and secure.
When my parents divorced, and my dad moved out, the behavioral rules I set for interacting with him grew more enigmatic. My dad would take my brothers and me out for food and hang with us over the weekend, cutting our hair or playing video games with us. This was the same dad that whipped me when I broke his LED flicker calendar. What role did he assume now?
Similarly, Oscar Proud seemed to run a tame household. Penny had her own room, a computer, and despite disagreements, she was never abused by her parents. Things seemed to be under control for Oscar.
Rebecca guided me up the carpeted staircase, holding only three fingers of my hand, and we walked into her room in the attic. She’d decked out her room with Doc McStuffins’ blankets and countless pink toys and purple accessories. I smelled the attic wood and stood in the silence of my chest. I had slept there a year before I experienced a psychotic break in 2017, and the room should have triggered tears, but I felt so blank that I could not recognize what I was supposed to feel.
My dad often tells me that he and I went through the same struggle, the same type of depression, and for a couple of years, I was prone to accept this. When I was hospitalized for depression in 2018, phone calls with my dad were like water breaks during a high-intensity workout. Immediately following our calls on the office-style phones, I had a glimpse of what my future could look like. Despite the newfound hopefulness, I was desperate for more insights from my dad.
During one phone call, I abandoned any belief in my recovery. My depression was worsening. I felt as though two magnets stood wedged between my chest plate and upper abdomen, pulling inward and weighing relentlessly on my body. I half-listened to him asking God to give me enough hope for a Job-like recovery, mostly reflecting on my lack of progress in the hospital instead. My only desire was for the magnets to stop pulling.
Oscar is often skeptical and sarcastic; he ridicules situations that he doesn’t agree with. In season two’s first episode, “A Star is Scorned,” Penny and her friends sing in a talent show with his brother Bobby (voiced by comedian Cedric the Entertainer) and garner cheers from the audience. After their winning performance, a conversation between Penny’s friends, Oscar, his wife Trudy, and Uncle Bobby follows:
“Yay, girls!” Trudy cheers. “You guys were wonderful! Weren’t they, Oscar?”
“For a couple of tweens and a has-been, they’re okay,” Oscar snarks after cheering and smiling throughout their performance.
“What do you say, bro?” Bobby sings. “You wanna invest in our demo? Cause in a couple of weeks, we gonna be riding in limos!”
“Bobby,” Oscar begins. “Anybody who would be interested in your demO must be simpLE!”
Oscar’s humor often displaces the seriousness of his disagreements. Although as an elementary school kid, I understood Oscar’s basic motivations as a father—protecting and supporting his family—I never knew what to make of his dismissiveness; if it was what made him who he was, or if it was an essential part of being a father. I never knew why he was sarcastic and unlucky. I just knew that he was.
“Men mourn differently, Joe,” my father said when his father died in 2020. His grieving manifested in confusion and anxiety, with my words scarce and his full of questions during our conversations. My mourning manifested in quietness and misplaced laughter. My dad now had two dead parents, one of which was a father whose behavior had always been illegible and whose emotions had always been sealed. I feared that silence was the Joe Hughes Legacy.
My grandfather died because he smoked, which led to lung disease. He often smoked tobacco in the basement of his house, watching college or Sunday night football, reruns of The Matrix on channels like FX and TNT, or Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi Channel. My family often understood his seclusion as a man’s love for alone time.
He survived on an oxygen tank before his death in August, right when I began my second year of undergrad at Virginia Tech. Nearing 70, his lungs were tar-colored, like spoiled red meat with flies atop. He could not walk to the bathroom without fainting because he had holes in his lungs from cigarettes. His condition required daily visits from my dad. My dad would trim the hedges, mow his small front lawn, and deliver him meals. My grandfather directed him with wordless pointing and narrowed brows, emphatic about the state of his house. I talked to my dad through video call about this, and he told me he had to stop visiting his father. My Aunt Cynthia did not offer to help despite living closer to him. I never expected her to.
I spent my grandfather’s funeral alone, attending online classes in the solitude of my room. Under the ceiling’s double troffer lights, sitting in a carpeted office, chair shorter than a seat made for a third-grader, I pressed my fingers into a lit keyboard and watched text characters turn into words and sentences turn into an essay about a Black theoretical condition I was hoping to coin, “Black Superstition.” Many of the supporting examples used to assert that Black fears were rational without empirical data, came from first-hand experiences. If anyone was to ask why I was using such personal information, the answer involved the words “self-interrogation,” “narrative,” and “historical.” I affirmed that I wrote to help other Black people understand their experiences. I was proud of my ability to be vulnerable for the sake of other people.
Though my grandfather’s death was not unexpected, his absence triggered emptiness. I typed to one of his favorite songs by Ace Spectrum, the coke-snorting, falsetto singers with afros, and could not forget the moment he introduced me to it: sitting in my dad’s kitchen, enjoying sweet tea on the Fourth of July. When my upper abdomen started to hurt, I winced and continued to write.
In The Proud Family’s first season, Oscar takes center stage during three main occasions: when he’s criticizing, when he’s ridiculing, or when he’s scheming. Through these three situations, I implicitly learned as a kid that Oscar was both static and peripheral to the show’s main plot; he wasn’t important and didn’t have to be. In season one’s first episode, “Bring it On,” Oscar lies to his wife about going on a camping trip to cover his plans to watch TV with his neighbor Felix. But this is only a brief departure. The episode is about Penny wanting to make her school’s cheer team.
I never felt bad for Oscar. Most of the problems that he encountered were self-generated and given less attention than Penny’s problems. Although he was a humorous character and I loved watching him stumble through different antics with a bold grin on his face, he seemed mainly motivated by the next opportunity to make his life easier. I didn’t recognize until after years of laughing at him as a boy that his funniness was inextricably linked with his cynicism.
As a father, Oscar seemed to rarely demonstrate compassion for his daughter’s desires, despite being quick to scheme for his own. Fathers should help their children understand what they don’t know by being gentle with them. How is selfishness helpful?
My dad and my conversations often occur through video calls, where glitches, poor signal, and the unpredictability of busy routines stifle our communication. The result is an untouchable film that layers between what I want to say and what I feel is most appropriate to say. My dad talks a lot. I find myself listening to him more than I speak.
When my dad’s sister Cynthia inexplicably died of a heart attack in May 2021, and my dad expressed a need for something other than talking to carry him through his sorrow, I could only encourage him to write.
My aunt’s passing was difficult to believe. When my brother Joshua first told me about her death, I had just woken up for the day, and my family hadn’t known it was due to a heart attack. She was a healthy dance instructor, only recently achieving fifty years of life, and my older brothers had just seen her at our grandfather’s funeral last August.
I wanted to dodge the moment. I lay in my twin bed wondering what people would say about me once they saw me at the funeral. I had gained more weight and was experiencing a residual low mood at the tail-end of a depressive episode. In place of the necessary processing, I depended on apathy. Even when I talked to my dad, apathy kept me safe.
A few days after my Aunt Cynthia’s repass, in my dad and stepmom’s house, I decided to apologize to him for not being vocal enough. I had procrastinated doing so for about fifteen minutes, reclining on one of the theater-style brown chairs in his living room. When I churned the words up from the bottom of my gut, he sat leaning back into his matching couch, and smiled slightly without a wince of dismay.
“Oh, that’s okay, Joe,” he chirped.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, I know how it is, navigating ‘talking with dad.’ It’s a new thing and it can be challenging, sometimes. You talk when you’re ready. I’ll still be here.”
The words “Family Matters” stand above the curved, white entrance to my dad and stepmom’s kitchen, expressed in a bold and black script font. To the side are pictures of the Hughes family, including one taken with all my siblings and my grandfather. By the time those words rested as the creed of his household, my dad had reestablished his faith by becoming a member of a local Baptist church. I witnessed this in person, watching his lowered face scrunch with a slight bounce in the cheeks. When the pastor officially announced his reacceptance into the church, I smiled.
During the week of my aunt’s funeral, I stayed with my dad and stepmom and spent time with all of my siblings at once, amazed by the different evolutions my younger siblings had undertaken. Rebecca had grown twice her height since I last saw her; she was confident and competitive. Elijah’s quiescence as a toddler developed into vocal curiosity, and Marcia was a relentless comedian. We danced together, played video games, and tried to figure out Marcia’s plans for her newly claimed cardboard box. Joshua and I agreed that this time at our dad’s was one of the most enjoyable experiences we’d had in a while.
That is how I feel about being a Joe Hughes. The first name means “growth” or “expansion,” and sometimes its meaning eludes my self-image. Growth often involves some form of pain, and I had always imagined myself, imagined Joe, as invincible. I held my dad to the same standard. He should have been someone I could always depend on as a kid. He should have been funny and made life weightless. He should have been simple to understand. He should have been like Oscar Proud. He should have adhered to my definitions of manhood.
The less I knew about my dad, the less I understood him. The time he came home drunk was a moment of desperation, a sign of vulnerability, and a plea for comfort, but when I couldn’t imagine this within a gentler context, I froze. I only knew how to interact with a made-up dad, but my father’s life wasn’t entangled in the same semantics as Oscar Proud. Oscar was static. Oscar was secondary. Oscar was fictional.
“Man, Joe, keep working on your gift. Remember, your gift makes room for you. It’s a principle,” is what my dad reminded me when we got off the phone, just weeks after our visit with each other. The magnets I had felt in the mental hospital had long since dissipated, and my conversations with my dad matured. I now seek him out for a variety of needs, but mainly, I reach out to him for his friendship. Now, my dad and I gleam and laugh when we talk about our ever-present futures. Our conversations are sometimes uncomfortable. But we practice at it. We practice vulnerability as a form of love, we practice embodying our name, accepting our gift of growth, as a principle of life. We practice listening when listening is painful.