Ashley C. Ford’s debut memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter,” illuminates what it was like to grow up in Indiana as a Black girl with a father in prison and a struggling mother. Ford has spent years writing about her life in snapshot essays, penning magazine cover stories about beloved public figures like Missy Elliot and Serena Williams, hosting several podcasts and more. But in “Somebody’s Daughter,” Ford takes readers on a journey through a life that can be common among young Black people, but in no way normal.
“Somebody’s Daughter” tells of Ford’s efforts to navigate a childhood with her father in prison, assault, grief and the burden of a family’s secrets. NBC News spoke with Ford, 34, about her memoir and the freedom that comes from telling hard truths.
NBC News: The book centers on your father’s incarceration, but it’s ultimately a story about your girlhood, teen years, college and even a little today. Would you say your father's incarceration was always an underlying element that defined or shaped your life in an integral way?
Ashley C. Ford: My dad’s incarceration was terrible for everyone. My mom was 22 years old, married with one kid. Then in a matter of months, her husband was in prison … she was pregnant again and didn’t realize it until after he was gone. She very quickly went from living what was her dream and then to being a single mom of two with a husband who is in prison and trying to make it, trying to figure it out on her own, never getting enough money, the shame that came with circumstances that she didn’t create.
When my brother hugged my dad when he got out of prison, that was the first time my brother had seen my dad since he was 12 years old. My brother never got to have my dad hold him as a baby as a free man. I did; I don’t remember it. But I did. His incarceration, the way incarceration works in this country, was standard. The only thing that wasn’t standard about his incarceration was the fact that he wrote to us so often. He stayed connected with us, even when we weren’t writing him back. That was his choice. The prison system only makes that choice harder and harder. It’s a dehumanizing system.
My dad being incarcerated, and the fact of that, was one of the first times I remember somebody telling me, “You don’t tell people about that because they will treat you differently.” I remember saying, “Well I didn’t do it. I’m not in jail.” And they said, “It doesn’t matter.”
It’s like Mariame Kaba says, when a person is incarcerated, the entire family is incarcerated with them in various ways. What would you say is one thing people don’t understand about having a family member who is incarcerated?
Ford: I think most people don’t understand how hard it is to communicate with a person who’s incarcerated. I think they don’t understand how arbitrarily things change when you’re incarcerated. You might wake up one day and find out you’re being transferred to a different block, a different prison. Nothing you own is really yours. Technically it’s yours. But if somebody takes it, if a guard takes it, who do you tell? Who would possibly be on your side?
I think people don’t understand that phone calls cost a lot of money when you’re in prison and they’re only making it harder to communicate with people who are in prison. I don’t think people realize a lot of stuff about what it’s like to have to watch somebody you love be dehumanized — also, in some cases, have other people not understand how it’s possible to love somebody in that situation. It’s tough.
You highlighted in the book that your father encouraged you to tell your story — no matter how it made him look. How did it feel to receive his blessing in that way?
Ford: I mean, I would have written it anyway. No one can tell me what to do. I think what it helped with, having him offer me that, was that it was this moment where I realized that my dad was proud of me and he trusted me. Up until that moment, I didn’t know what it was like to be trusted by a parent. With my mom, because of her own feelings about her story, it was more of an acquiesce. Like, “I know I can’t stop you.” Whereas my dad was like, “I trust you to tell your own story.” That was an amazing feeling. I haven’t ever felt anything like that.
The book is coming out, and your father is home. Has your dad read the book?
Ford: No, I’m going to take it to him. That is my goal. My vaccine is fully marinated, and his is fully marinated. I’m hoping sometime in the next couple weeks to go and hand him the book myself. That’s the way he wants to receive it and that’s the way I want to give it to him.
You’re an accomplished writer and such a prominent voice, but you’ve said in the past that a majority of you is still being built. How has finally writing this book, telling this story, played a part in that building?
Ford: Being able to write this book, being able to finish this book, required me to invest in my mental and emotional health in a way that, if I could have gotten away with not doing it, I never would have. There are certain kinds of help I don’t think I would have sought if I did not have this goal of finishing this book and doing it in a way that made me feel good and proud. That required a lot of energy and going away for a program to address my trauma, all in order to sit down and write the truth. Now that I have, there are things I never thought I would be able to let go of. Now I kind of feel like, "Well, they’re in the book."
They’re not inside of you anymore.
Ford: Right, which means I can make room for more of what I actually want instead of just what I was given. Everything you’re given is not yours. Being able to take some of those things and say, "Yeah, I’m gonna give that back." It’s like getting rid of all the furniture in your living room. Now you have room for new furniture!
You’ve said that you didn’t want to portray anyone as a hero or villain in this story, but you wanted to be fair and highlight the complexities of being human. Do you feel you did a good job of that? Is there a part of you that wishes you would have dragged some people?
Ford: I think I did my best to hold that line of “nobody’s purely a hero or a villain.” There are points in the book where the only person who could have been dragged a little bit more would be some of my educators. One of the ways that I think kids are routinely oppressed is at school, especially when I was in school. Being a good person was equated with being well behaved. It wasn’t about being smart. It wasn’t about having a good imagination.
Some teachers had the right ethos and I gravitated to those teachers hard. A lot of them I’m still in contact with, who were good to me back then. But a majority treated us like they were preparing us to go into prison. And our guidance counselors were horrible. They said horrible things to me and my friends.
There was the story where a teacher told your mother you did something you didn’t do and you ended up getting spanked! I was furious reading that!
Ford: That happened to me when I was 6 and it was so vivid. It was the first time I was ever like, “It doesn’t really matter what I do.” It was this huge realization that I was not in control even a little bit. It was the first time I think I really realized how easy it was to not be believed. It was also when I realized that my mother was not a reasonable person.
I don’t know that I could have described it back then. But that moment was very significant in my feeling of not being safe, even with my mother. It was significant because it made me think to myself, "My mother can hurt me, really hurt me and find out she was wrong to do that and she will stand by it. It doesn’t matter that she was wrong." What it makes you think is, "Oh, I’m a little less human than my mother. I matter less than her."
What part of your story was the most difficult to write?
Ford: The part I avoided the longest writing was the part where I’m in the hospital with my grandmother. That was the part that took me the longest to write. Of all the things in that book that I’ve spent a lot of time working through and working on, my grandmother’s death is probably the thing I’ve touched the least in therapy.
One of the hardest parts of putting this book out is that she won’t see it or read it. That’s also one of the best parts because she wouldn’t have liked it and she would’ve told me why she didn’t like it every chance she got. She would have loved me through it, but she wouldn’t have pretended. But it would have been nice just for her to know that I’d written it.
Writing the part of the book where I’m saying goodbye to her, that was the last part of the book I actually wrote. I miss her all the time. There was nobody else like her. Losing her felt like I was losing one of the things that made me special. Being her granddaughter, I felt like, made me special.
You’ve talked in interviews about the inner tension that comes with being a Black woman writing about her Black family. How did you get over the fear of telling these “secrets” and making your story so public?
Ford: I became convinced that secrets weren’t helping anybody; they were only hurting. I believe in privacy. I think privacy is about keeping sacred things sacred. I think that’s a positive thing, a beautiful thing, to have private, sacred things for yourself or between you and a partner and a family. I think that’s beautiful. Secrets are about shame. Secrets are, “We don’t talk about this because people will talk. People will think.”
I’m not interested in telling anybody else’s secrets and I don’t believe that I do in my book. My experience can’t be somebody else’s secret. It’s not my job to hold your secrets as I bear the damage of our interaction. That’s not my job. That’s not gonna help me; it’s not gonna help you. So why is it so important that we hide? Why is it so important that I hide? I’ve watched a lot of people in my family suffer under their own secrets and the secrets of other people. I could join them in solidarity, I guess. But is that what I want my life to be like? I’ve seen how corrosive those secrets and the shame within those secrets can be in a family, can be to a parent-child relationship. I don’t want any part of that. So I show up differently.