My father and I are close…today. Considering that I spent a grand total of one year under his roof, at 15 years old at that, we could just as easily be estranged. In our case, however, genetics seem to have trumped distance and the inevitable friction that develops between fathers and their offspring. We think and behave so similarly, he comes off more like my older brother than anything else. For the gift of this bond, we are grateful and well aware of our good fortune. From both our experiences as black Americans having grown up poor or darned close to it, we know what we have is rare, especially once I came to understand the intricacies of raising kids.
Over the years, unconsciously and before I even cared to entertain the idea of fatherhood, I got the impression that black American fathers are seldom held in high regard outside of our communities. Having spent much of my life trying to burst free of institutional and occupational pigeon holes of all manner and design, it made sense: It is the uncommon non-black American who expects much of us outside the realms of sports and music.
It took a while, but I got the message that nobody wants to work with Angry Urban Black Guy, so of occupational necessity, I stopped taking offense to the preconceived notions of others, real or imagined. The bad thing is I acquired some preconceived notions of my own, a set of ideas I took for granted that most non-blacks would have about me. Interesting dichotomy, but the philosophy that it’s pointless to worry about things I can’t control has served me well. But nearly ten years into fatherhood, to my surprise — and horror — I find that now, I do worry about the negative perception of black American fathers, not only from outside our communities, but from within! For your consideration:
- While I was growing up, just about all my friends, black AND Hispanic, lived with single moms, some of whom, subsequent to giving birth, married or cohabitated with men other than their children’s fathers;
- The high incidence of estrangement I see between my peers and their children;
- The difficulties of inter-generational communication between men in many black families due to the absence of dominant males in the households of the younger men;
- For my generation (I’m 48), the disturbing lack of positive role models I had on which to base my behavior as a father; and
- The sheer number of black women and Latinas I know, family, friends, acquaintances and coworkers, who acted as mother AND father for kids all but abandoned by fathers who started new families, wound up incarcerated or dead or just didn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood.
Outside the black community, the media paints an even worse portrait of black fathers based on the behavior of scores of clueless celebrity dads, to name a few:
- Terrell Owens
- Travis Henry
- Antonio Cromartie
- Latrell Sprewell
- Old Dirty Bastard (AKA Russell Jones)
- Eazy-E (AKA Eric Wright)
- DMX (AKA Xavier Simmons)!
Granted, I know precious few men who knew from their teens they wanted to be fathers. In many cases, mine included, guys have to grow into the role. But whether a man knows by the age of ten that fatherhood is his future or gets surprise news from his girlfriend at the age of 36, the growth into the role must happen. Generations of black American kids have grown up in crisis. No politician, social worker, teacher or cop can do the job we must do ourselves. And if we don’t know how to do that job because we’ve so seldom seen it done well, it’s up to us to put our heads together and figure it out!
Granted, perception does not always reflect reality, but without an orchestrated effort by those judged on the basis of long-held and false notions to inform the ignorant, perception can eventually become entrenched misconception.
I don’t like what I wrote today. I don’t like the implications it holds for my daughter or son and the families they might raise. But I embrace my power to belie the myth that black men are not cut out to be good fathers. I encourage the black men I know to be handling their business to do the same.