Balance of hard and soft
Race identity, paternal struggles torment. Lessons in self-love revivify.
By Rhonda Morin
Ryan Cunningham was 8 years old when he learned who his biological father was. A boy of color, he self-identified as being of mixed race up to the day his mother took him aside and revealed her secret. Unexpectedly, he was made aware that he was the offspring of an African American mother and father. The news upended him.
“It was like the sky split in half,” he said. “My foundation fell out from below me.”
The turmoil that followed in subsequent years is traced back to that very moment, Cunningham recalls, when he lost his bearings and everything he thought was real, collapsed.
Cunningham has already lived a full life and then some at his current age of 32. Confusion about his fathers, race identity, gang life, drug dealing, multiple juvenile detention stays, adult prison, felony conviction, religious and spiritual enlightenment, a son, acute physical illness, recovery and college, have both hardened and softened the man.
The dust that settled from years of struggle reveals a compassionate and caring man who devotes himself to helping at-risk youth and those who work with them. Now a Clark graduate, Cunningham will pursue a career in social work with the intent of helping others.
I’m a black man
Cunningham, whose family routinely called him “little man,” was raised in predominately white Vancouver, Wash., in the 1980s, by his African American mother, Sandra Ritenburgh and white father, Scott Ritenburgh. A sister was born to the couple in 1983—a beautiful girl of fair complexion. The answer to Cunningham’s question about why he looked different from his sister was that Keina is light like daddy and you are dark like mommy. That satisfied Cunningham’s curiosity.
Sandra Ritenburgh was 18 years old and newly married when she got pregnant. Cunningham’s biological dad, Jay Cunningham, was 19 or 20 at the time. The teenaged couple separated while she was pregnant and then divorced in February 1982, a month after Cunningham was born. Sandra Ritenburgh returned to her high school sweetheart, Scott Ritenburgh, before she gave birth. They married and decided to disguise the truth of Ryan Cunningham’s lineage.
Scott Ritenburgh was the first to hold Cunningham when he was born. Later, he made Cunningham’s lunches, took him to school and taught him how to ride a bike. “He was my dad,” said Cunningham.
However, by the time Cunningham was five, the Ritenburghs’ relationship had soured. During the divorce proceedings Scott Ritenburgh pointedly told the judge that he intended to pay child support, despite the fact he had not adopted Cunningham. In the end, Ritenburgh opted to file the paperwork and adopt the child in the late 1980s, but in order to do so, Cunningham’s biological father was listed as a deserter by the court after attempts to locate him failed.
In the ensuing years, Sandra Ritenburgh heard through family that the elder Cunningham was angry that his son didn’t know the truth about his biological path and that he didn’t have access to his son.
One night, the second grader’s mom came out of the bedroom after receiving an emotionally charged phone call. She looked uneasy. “I want to talk to you,” she said to her 8-year-old son. “Scott’s not your biological father.”
Cunningham remembers the moment clearly. “She just said it, and everything turned red.”
Confusion, disbelief, loyalty, excitement and wonder; bountiful emotions flooded the child for years after the secret was revealed.
“I think I sensed something deep down,” said Cunningham. “The first thing I said was, ‘I have his hands.’ My real dad is black like me and my mom. What does that mean?”
There was a phone reunion. His biological father impressed upon his son that he was a Cunningham. Confusion followed. “But I didn’t know how they wanted me to be,” said Cunningham.
Up until this point Cunningham would tell people who asked that he was the son of a black woman and a white man. But that was no longer true. “This began the questions of what does it mean to be black?” he said.
He tried to be perfect.
Cunningham studied hard at school, followed the family’s Jehovah Witness religion, tried to fit in. But he was torn. “I felt so disloyal to my Scott dad who took me to school, cooked my eggs and spent money on me. He was consistent. He is a great guy.”
But the desire to know his “biological Jay dad” was too strong to fight. “I was afraid if I sought out my biological family, I’d be disowned,” said Cunningham.
A cousin’s graduation in Virginia brought the father and son together for the first time, as well as the introduction of a half-brother. It was an exciting, yet awkward meeting. The concerns and questions that swirled around in Cunningham’s adolescent brain remained unresolved.
Within a year’s time, the A-student began to lose his grip. Grades fell, conflicts boiled, puberty tore through his body and religious restrictions confined him.
He recalls a stinging remark his mother’s boyfriend said to him one day that left him even more confused: “You laugh like a white boy.”
Cunningham’s 15th and 16th years were spent in and out of juvenile detention. He’d fallen in with a gang—glued himself to the toughest older boys he could find. He sold marijuana, cocaine and later crack.
“I thought (being in a gang) was going to make me more black. I’m embarrassed now to admit some of the stereotypes I had. Searching for my blackness in the street was just me looking for my biological father,” said Cunningham.
More crime followed on the heels of dealing drugs. Burglary, gun possession, a few assaults and then a felony charge that sent him to prison for nearly four years.
Juvenile detention had offered some sense of safety and order for Cunningham, but prison shook him to the core. “I made a vow to myself that I would be a scholar and not an inmate. And I recommitted myself to God.”
He read the Bible twice. He preached to hardened criminals. He studied Spanish, real estate and read constantly while incarcerated.
When he got out of jail at age 21, he redoubled his efforts following his Jehovah Witness religion, working out at the gym with renewed vigor and reconnected with his Scott dad.
But soon he slipped back into old patterns and also began a romantic relationship with a woman not involved in his faith—a partnership shunned by his church. Ultimately, the Jehovah Witnesses banished him from the fellowship, forcing Cunningham to also cut ties with Scott Ritenburgh, a man he dearly loved.
Everything in his life, Cunningham realized, came back to being accepted by his two dads.
Hard and soft
The meltdown came in 2006, when Cunningham began to have strange physical ailments—fainting spells, partial limb paralysis, body cramps and fatigue.
Heart racing, a body that felt like it weighed 1,000 pounds and breathlessness sent him careening to the floor one day. Other than tests that found high levels of arsenic in his hair follicles, there was no diagnosis for his mysterious illness.
He struggled with poor health for six years, spending more than a year in a wheelchair while being treated with a cocktail of prescription drugs that seemed to just make him sicker. The 215 pound man dropped to 135 pounds. Sandra Ritenburgh felt certain she was losing her boy.
Eastern medicine—acupuncture and meditation—as well as chiropractic alignments and organic food, became his remedies for better health.
During this time of healing his body, spiritually, emotionally and physically, Cunningham gained clarity about what was true for him.
“Just because the wolf is raised with the bears and he has to run with the wolves again, doesn’t mean he doesn’t come back and lick the bears and love them for raising him,” he said.
Today, 90 percent recovered, Cunningham follows his truth. Some of his family and friends accept him for who he is, while some do not.
“My relationship with my family, my friends, my history, my culture, my spirituality and myself, have all shifted and totally changed,” he said.
He’s come to accept that he has one dad who nurtured him (Scott Ritenburgh) and one who created him (Jay Cunningham). Cunningham’s love for both is boundless.
“I have a father of nurture, as well as a father of nature. Both have played a crucial role in my becoming who I am today,” he said.
Cunningham graduated with an associate degree from Clark College in June and will transfer to Washington State University Vancouver to study human development. He volunteers in the community helping boys and adult males who struggle with anger issues. He has a young son, and as a single parent, is reminded daily how important it is to be healthy.
“I tell the men and boys I work with that real men are balanced, hard and soft,” he said.
As he charts his future, Cunningham foresees one filled with healing and expressive emotions that help others connect with him. He may pursue a master’s in social work. But ultimately his message of internal peace and self-love is his direction.
“The Boy Inside” is a song Cunningham wrote about his journey.
I used to hate myself for backing off, I thought God was probably backin off like I’m a weak sheep and I’m actin soft;
It was my job to save my family from doomsday, Jehovah Witnesses said it was comin on Tuesday;
That’s how I lived stayed afraid of the news, scared of disappointed dad stayed awake with the blues;
Cuz he adopted me subconsciously, I felt that he would probably abandon me substantially if I aint livin properly;
Or if I tried to find my father, then he would honestly, act like we had never had a father-son comradery;
And I was so afraid of not being perfect, and so enraged with not feeling worth it;
Later on I just rebelled to it all, like oh well if this is hell, then I’m a bail, til I fall,
And it was hard to feel love, every try so bleak, if I could just let the boy that’s inside me speak…I’ll be alright then…
(Chorus) Deep in this mirror I’ve stared. Theres a boy in this man who’s so scared.
But today I’m gonna feel him. I’m gonna heal him, in every way.
Yes he’s gonna have a choice here and have a voice here, and be okay.
I always blew up, feelings suppressed I never chew up, so they don’t digest and never grew up,
That’s why I screw up, drink til I threw up, my teen years a movie, cops pursue me, often in juvy within I drew up,
A picture of hatred that’s mentally painted, paintbrush without trust, plus spiritually tainted,
Dude I thought I was a man if I was hard as the pavement, quiet bout the shame and the blame – I don’t face it,
Instead I choked her and finally found control, afterward when I hold her I finally found my soul,
And every time she cry, its like my soul come alive, I can’t believe I mattered that much to somebody inside,
Don’t know how to let her love me, I can’t nurture myself, I’m tortured by the urge to wanna murder myself,
Looking back it must have been hard to find me sweet, if I coulda let the boy that’s inside me speak…I’d be alright then…
Why did I choose another chick like you? When I tell you I’m hurt, like big shirts you just slip right through!
“Na, I see the pain in your eyes now, I see yesterday’s strain got you drained frown in ya (your) eyebrow,”
I’m grown now think I’m green like vegetable? You hella obscene Billy Jean you nothing ethical!
Actin pristine like our dream keep up inseparable, telling me things you don’t mean! “Hey lets be technical,
you have a pattern of distrust since real young. And you expect it at any time you feel sprung,
so you create your own fate, cuz the lil son, that you were has a song he needs still sung.”
You mean really I’m afraid to be loved? And cuz of fear I make a sneer like I hate to be hugged?
“Precise, look in my eyes: Love, a prize so deep.” Thanks boo, I think I’ll let the boy inside me speak..I’ll be alright then…(Repeat chorus)
Subcon Savant: Peace Hop: The Movement
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