By Ashley C. Ford
Ashley C. Ford shares an anecdote rich with symbolism early in her memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter.” One day when she’s a child, her grandmother digs a hole in their backyard in Missouri, revealing several garden snakes slithering around, intertwined. When Ford asks her grandmother what they’re doing, she replies, “They’re loving each other, baby.” Her grandmother then pours lighter fluid into the hole, lights a match and tosses it in; little Ashley watches in fascination as the snakes squeeze closer together while burning to death. “These things catch fire without letting each other go,” her grandmother explains. “We don’t give up on our people. We don’t stop loving them. … Not even when we’re burning alive.”
Ford burned alive emotionally for much of her coming-of-age, trapped in a household where she bore the brunt of her mother’s fury, even as she pined for a father who had been in prison ever since she could remember. She carried those embers inside, this child who ached deeply for relief, who harbored such outsize hope that at age 4 she secretly stayed up all night to witness the sunrise. “Somebody’s Daughter” is the heart-wrenching yet equally witty and wondrous story of how Ford came through the fire and emerged triumphant, as her own unapologetic, Black-girl self.
The memoir opens with a recent phone call, in which Ford learns that her father is coming home after almost 30 years in prison, for rape; and it ends with his release. What we learn in the two weeks between those two seismic events is that her father’s unconditional but simplistic love has hovered over Ford’s life; he calls her his “favorite girl … the best daughter anyone could ever hope for.” Ford sees her father only a few times during his decades in prison; she writes to him once. While for much of her life she holds onto a child’s fantasy of the family they were Before, and the family they’ll be After, the memoir charts Ford’s journey toward figuring out who she is amid the phantom presence of an absent father.
Yet at its heart this is the story of Ford as her mother’s daughter, for better and often for worse. Ford’s brilliance as a writer, her superpower, is a portrayal of her mother — who remains unnamed — that is both damning and sympathetic, one that renders this complicated older Black woman’s full humanity. When Ford’s mother, in this opening phone call, lets her adult daughter know that she can “always come home” (from Brooklyn, where she is living with her boyfriend), Ford wants to say, “Mama, I love you, but I’ll work myself past the white meat, down to the bone, and fistfight every stranger I run across on the street before we live under the same roof again.”