Committed Fathers of Color: Everywhere and Nowhere
Dori J. Maynard
June 22, 2009
SOME YEARS my father's birthday fell on Father's Day. In many ways, that was appropriate. For all of his professional success, I think what gave my father the most profound sense of joy was being a dad.
Once, in a column about raising three children who spanned three decades, my father described a morning when I called him from college for help with my senior thesis. At the time, he was helping my then 10-year-old brother write a school report, all while using breakfast as an opportunity to teach my baby brother how to talk.
"There was something in that moment that filled me with a sense of pleasure I cannot adequately describe," he wrote.
Last Father's Day, while I was remembering how my dad reveled in his role as a father, soon-to-be President Barack Obama stood in the pulpit of Apostolic Church of God and delivered a searing condemnation of absentee African-American fathers.
"Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes," The New York Times quoted him as saying.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. Here was a black man, an active black father, clearly devoted to his two children. Who better to stand up for black fathers everywhere?
It was, I initially thought, his Sister Souljah moment, the term that has come to describe a politician's expedient repudiation of a person or group in order to curry wider political favor.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps it was the only speech Obama could give. He did not grow up with a father in his home, someone he could call for advice on his senior thesis, or anything else. And no matter how much he loved his grandfather, the older man could not make up for the father he barely knew.
According to the Times, on Father's Day 2008, Obama told the congregation on the South Side of Chicago that his was not a unique experience, that more than half of all black children are growing up in single-parent households.
That's more than a horrific figure or a dry statistic. It is countless children at risk of being set adrift without the financial support and firm foundation of two loving parents. It's a gaping hole in the lives of every one of those children.
All of us should work for a world in which this never happens.
And to do that, just as we criticize what is wrong, we need to spend time celebrating what is right.
You need look no further than the men we celebrate every Black History Month. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were all heads of intact black families. Even while we recognize their contributions to history, we should remember that they were also fathers.
Those famous heads of intact black families should be viewed as proxies for all the unsung fathers of color who share the chores and joys of being an active and present father.
These are not the men of my wishful imagination. They are my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, the editor of this newspaper, and soon my oldest brother will join their ranks. They are the men who stepped in and stood by my 13-year-old brother when our father died. Thank you Jimmy Wood and Hal Logan for helping to guide him safely into manhood.
Committed fathers of color are everywhere throughout my life and they are virtually nowhere in the media.
Their invisibility does us all a disservice.
By failing to recognize them we paint a distorted picture of African-American life. Equally importantly, we rob ourselves of important role models. If we want to change behavior it might be helpful to point out some positive examples.
As the legendary journalist Earl Caldwell tells his students at Hampton University, "You shouldn't only dig for the ugly; you also need to hold up the beautiful. That is one of the best ways to point out all of life's possibilities."
He is right. It is so much easier to aspire to that which we know is possible.
This Father's Day, as fate would have it, my brothers and I will be sorting through the remnants of our father's life. Each book we shelve, each award we pack away and each family picture we catalog will be a reminder of the values he worked to pass on to us - scholarship, professional accomplishment and a great deal of family love.
Our father was unique to us but he was hardly the lone example of a good father of color.
On Father's Day 2008 we heard about what was wrong with black fathers. I hope Father's Day 2009 marks the date we begin to celebrate African-American fathers.
I know I will be celebrating my father and all the other fathers of color in my life.
Originally published in the Oakland Tribune.
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