Sunday, June 15, 2008

In praise of black fathers

Black fathers are distant.

Black fathers are not nurturing.

Black fathers are unsupportive.

Black fathers are lazy.

Black fathers can't be counted on.

Black fathers don't marry the mothers of their children.

Black fathers are invisible in their children's lives.


Yes, I know that they exist, and in numbers that are far too great, but they have become the face of every black man and that is neither fair nor accurate.

That is not my husband, who as I type, is spending the day fishing with his son (who is named after my husband's father). Tonight, he'll sit in the grandstand and watch his son pitch in the local baseball championships. He is not distant.

That is not my brother, who recently took his son and my nephew to Jamaica, because he thinks it is important that they experience travel, particularly out of the country. He is nurturing.

That is not my maternal grandfather, who worked multiple jobs, including decades at a steel mill, to provide for his family and send his kids to college, though he never finished high school. That is not my paternal grandfather, who worked hundreds of acres of land (passed down from his father) that today serves as a legacy to his family. They were not lazy.

That is not my (great) Uncle "Chief" who, though he and his wife did not have biological children, mentored dozens of young black men, as well as his nieces and nephews and their children. He sent me money every month that I was in college, to make sure I had everything I needed. He could be counted on.

That certainly is not my father. I interviewed Daddy for a writing class last year, this was the result:

My father was born in Kilmichael, Mississippi, on February 24, 1935, delivered by midwife in a tin-roofed house with two wide porches, a wood-burning stove, no electricity and an outhouse. At age 3, he began doing menial tasks on the family’s farm. By 14, he was picking 300 pounds of cotton a day. “All 10 of us were excellent pickers. Our daddy taught that whatever you do, you need to do it better than everyone else. We were taught hard work and to outdo other people.”

He would teach that same lesson to his own children—my younger brother and sister and me—and the thousands of other children he counseled through 35 years as a teacher and principal.

“My greatest achievement is choosing to become an educator,” my father says. “I was at the Beach CafĂ© last Friday and I saw three guys who used to be my students…One of them said, ‘Thank you for being on my case when I didn’t know any better.’ I get that a lot, especially from young men. You want things and its good to have things, but your blessings really come when you help someone else. I think that’s what the Lord really wants us to do.”

My father’s commitment to helping people and upholding human rights was forged by his experience growing up in the separate but unequal South. “Jim Crow was the law of land…In order to survive you just learned what to do and how to work within the system. We were taught when we went to a white person’s house, to go to the side door. We were taught when you got on a bus, to go to the back…You had sense enough to know that a lot of things were not right. You could live in those conditions forever or prepare yourself to change the conditions and make them right.”

Beginning in college, where he participated in a sit-in to integrate a local cafeteria, my father has worked steadily to protect civil rights. He has been active in the Northwest Indiana chapter of the NAACP since the 60s, when the region was roiling with racial tension. For 12 years, he served as a judge for the Gary Human Relations Commission, hearing discrimination cases. 14 years after retiring from the local school system, my father continues to be active as a community policing volunteer, and a member of a local citizens advocacy group and a literacy campaign. He brushes off the idea of slowing down in his retirement.

“My work is pleasurable. I help people. I am proud that I have been able to live in a manner that is consistent with what I believe. I feel rich and I’m thankful for what I have. I have reasonable health for my age. I don’t have problems getting along with people. I have my right mind. In spite of all that I have been through, I’m here and doing better than most people and I recognize that. There are so many people suffering around the world. I can’t complain.”

My father does a lot of things for a lot of people, but he has always put his family--his wife, his children--first. The older I get, the more I recognize all the ways that my father has shaped who I am. Daddy is an example of the best a black father can be.

Today, I honor my father and all of the other good, black fathers that I know...and there are many. They don't get the press that the ne'er-do-wells do, but these good men are not invisible to me.

Other writers praise their fathers:

Angry Black Bitch remembers the lessons she learned from her father.

Samson Kambalu shares "How My Father Taught Me To Talk Jive" at The Root.

Rikyrah celebrates black fatherhood at Jack and Jill Politics.


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