Reframing the Conversation About Black Fathers

Black Children Social, and Educational

This is one of my favorite books on black children. I also like the cover because it features a photo of a black father and mother with their daughter.

It never fails. Every year on Father’s Day I go to church and someone stands in the pulpit or in the front of the church and asks all the fathers to stand so “we can acknowledge you on your special day.” Unfortunately, this comment is usually followed by “and now let’s have the women stand up too, the ones who are single parents and have had to play the role of mother AND father.” Comments like this are particularly hurtful to the loving fathers in congregation, especially since they come on a day when we should be supporting them instead of shaming them.

Society has been throwing shade on black fathers for decades starting with the 1965 Moynihan report, which essentially said the problems facing African Americans can largely be attributed to the fact that black men don’t stick around to help raise their children. In response to the report sociologist, Robert Bernard Hill wrote a book highlighting the strengths of black families.   However, the lore of absent black fathers still gained traction and still exists today. Below I have outlined two of the more pervasive myths about black fathers.

Myth Number One: The Majority of Black Men Sire Children and Then Leave

While I will admit some black men don’t play an active role in their children’s lives, I wholeheartedly reject the premise that the majority of black men leave after a child is born. They may not marry the woman (that’s a different conversation), however, there is plenty of evidence that black men at least try to see their children on a regular basis.

I have worked at an urban high school for over 20 years and during that time I have seen countless black fathers interacting with their children. I witnessed them walking their kids to school in the bitter cold and in the blistering heat, and spoke to them in person or on the phone when an issue needed to be addressed. In some cases the men were poor, unemployed, and facing a host of economic and social challenges, yet, they remained undaunted and committed to their kids. Unfortunately, their efforts are often minimized and overlooked.

The “black men leave” myth is also problematic because it suggests that only black men take off after a child is born when in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. Sometimes it’s black women who will move on and when they do more often than not they will take their children with them. In such cases the women may make it particularly difficult for a man to see his children; they will attempt to bar him from seeing his kids, threaten to take him back to court or move to another state. It’s not unusual for black fathers to fight to see their children – it happens all the time.

Research clearly indicates that black men can also be single parents. For example, Ruggles (1994) investigated the African-American family structure over a period of 100 years. After investigating a new data source called the Integrated Public Use Micro Data Series (IPUMS) he found that in the year 1880 there roughly 1276 black children lived with their fathers. Ruggles findings are significant because they suggest that black male single parents have existed for some time.

More recently, Kreider and Ellis (2011) found that in 2009, there were 48,469 black male single parents in the US. Some might contend that this number is relatively small when compared to the number of single parent black females. Still the data suggests that men, particularly black men, can and are willing to take care of their children.

Coles (2009) interviewed 20 black male single parents to learn more about their experiences and the obstacles they faced. Like single parents females the men endured a great deal of stress. Yet more importantly, her research allows us to “hear” from black men who are raising their children and proves that males can be supportive and loving parents.

Myth Number Two: Black Men Are Negligent Fathers

We have all heard or read the statistic, which claims that 72% of black children are born to single parent females. On the surface this data would seem to suggest that the men stay around just long enough to get a woman pregnant before vacating the premises. This number, however, is misleading because in some cases the biological parents may be living together despite the fact they are not married. The census bureau calls this “cohabitating” but in the black community we call it “shacking”. Regardless of the terminology, the fact remains that a black female may be categorized as “single parent” even when she has been living with someone for years and has received a steady dose of love, support or assistance from her children’s father.

It is important to point out that just because a man does not live with his children does not mean he can’t be there for them. Across the nation there are black men who see their children regularly – they abide by the court appointed visitation hours, pay their child support and even stop by to pick the children up and baby sit from time to time.

Often missing from the discourse is the role that step fathers can play in children’s lives. Some might argue that few men are truly willing to assume the responsibility of someone else’s kid’s.  I would contend that nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, most men fully understand that a woman and her children come as a “package deal”; it is unrealistic to think that one comes without the other. For many men marrying a woman with children is a bumpy ride. If he seeks to establish discipline and order in the house his wife may accuse him of being too harsh and remind him that the youngsters are “not your children”. On the other hand, the youngsters may reject his presence and make it known that they do not have to abide by any new rules because after all “you ain’t my daddy.” Despite this obstacles, black men can and will embrace a woman and her children. For instance, in 2005 the New York Times ran a series of articles highlighting how a person’s social class can affect his or her life chances. One piece was particularly interesting as it chronicled how a woman named Angela Whitiker  was able to go back to school to become a nurse. Her boyfriend, who later became her husband, provided emotional and financial support and helped out with the children. Unfortunately, such stories often fall off the radar as society seems to be more interested in portraying black men as violent criminals.

We need to reframe the conversation about black men and black fathers. Contrary to popular belief not all of them are absent, negligent or irresponsible parents.

References

Coles, R. L. (2009). Just doing what they gotta do: Single black custodial fathers coping with the stresses and reaping the rewards of parenting. Journal of Family Issues, 30(10), 1311-1338

Kreider, Rose, M. & Renee, Ellis. (2011). Living arrangements of children: 2009. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P70-126.

Ruggles, S. (1994). The origins of African-American family structure. American Sociological Review, 59(1), 136-151.

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