The myth of the absent Black father

June 23, 2021 5:49 am

Father and daughter walking up steps to house (Getty Images).

I am Black. I am a father. I love my children like nobody’s business. 

I will not be invisible.

I make this simple declaration because, even though involved Black fathers are the norm in the lives of Black children, we are dogged by a defamatory narrative about our supposed absenteeism.

Are there Black fathers not taking their responsibilities seriously? Of course. 

Does that mean that Black fathers overall should be stereotyped as irresponsible? Only if you’re detached from the realities and nuances of Black life.

The “Black fatherlessness” anthem is sung mostly by conservatives eager to summarily dismiss empirically true claims of structural racism. Deadbeat dad noir is their reliable weapon of choice to extinguish claims that the white power structure harms Blacks. 

Need an example? Look at right-wing social media influencer Candace Owens’ testimony before Congress that there is no such thing as white supremacy, and that Blacks need to focus on our real problems.

“The biggest issue facing Black America is father absence,” she said in the presence of Black fathers who are elected officials, journalists, authors and tourists. 

Right wing politicians and media often point to 72% of Black babies born to unmarried mothers — the highest rate of any American subgroup — as definitive proof that if anything is holding Blacks back it is dereliction more than anything. If only we didn’t have daddy issues we wouldn’t experience gaps in income, wealth, education and justice outcomes.

The media is also complicit in erasing the contributions of Black fathers. For instance, a 2017 University of Illinois study on Black families commissioned by Color of Change and Family Story found that “media outlets promoted racially biased portraits and myths that pathologize Black families and idealize white families with respect to poverty and crime. At worst, media outlets amplified those inaccurate depictions for political and financial gain.”

If your goal is to understand Black people rather than to simply marginalize them for claiming our country has yet to live its values of equal opportunity, then you’ll have to start seeing Black fathers who are hiding in plain sight.

First, honest debate about us should start by admitting that the majority of Black dads — about 2.5 million of around 4.2 million — live with their children. And, of fathers who live with their children, Black fathers are the most involved.

I am a father of four children; three boys and a girl. I have been intentional about not only raising them, but protecting their freedom and joy. I want them to grow up in a world where they see possibilities, not limitations. My presence in their life doesn’t make me an exception. Many of the Black men I know are active, engaged and connected to their children. 

That’s our norm. See us.

Second, fathers who do not live with their children are not necessarily disengaged from their lives. There are many factors to take into account before filing a missing person report.

Many other Black fathers are noncustodial co-parents, stepfathers and adoptive fathers.

For that first group, noncustodial fathers, we know that they often fight for their right to time in their children’s lives but face barriers in court. According to a 2014 study “…noncustodial black fathers are more likely to visit and spend time with their children than unmarried, noncustodial fathers of other races, [but they] must contend with the stereotype that they are absent Black fathers when they enter the courtroom.”

Courts have had a long-time bias against Black men, forcing them into the sole role of financial contributor rather than active father.

Further, noncustodial fathers in poverty have additional factors working against them.

According to a Fordham Law Review study, 75% of them work less than full-time, 29% are incarcerated, 43% aren’t high school graduates, 39% have health problems, and 32% have been unemployed for more than three years.

If we really care about “fatherlessness” we will start seeing noncustodial fathers and supporting them to be their best.

As for another group, step-fathers, 24% of Black men are stepparents. That makes them the most likely to be stepfathers across all racial groups.

Mother-only households have been in decline.

Blaming us is an old tactic

I would love to say that blaming Black people for the results of racist and rigged economic, social and political systems is new. It’s not. This type of gaslighting goes back to at least 1842, when Rev. Charles Colcock Jones wrote “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes” to provide a compensatory logic for white slave owners. In that work, he characterized Blacks as “proverbially idle,” “improvident,” drunkards, thieves and worse.

“It is a remarkable fact that a large proportion of those of marriageable age, remain single, especially in the free States, where the support of a family is difficult. This fact has a considerable bearing on their state of morals.”

He wrote that during a time when all of the structures of America were geared to dehumanize Blacks and remove all of their right to self-determination. Then, like now, he didn’t blame the structures he benefitted from as a white man, but on some cosmic supernatural Black deficiency for which Blacks were to blame.

He wrote: “In multitudes of families, both by precept and example, the children are trained up in iniquity; taught by their parents to steal, to lie, to deceive; nor can the rod of correction induce a confession or revelation of their clearly ascertained transgressions. Virtue is not cherished nor protected in them. Parents put their children to use as early as it is possible, and their discipline mainly respects omissions of duty in the household; moral delinquencies are passed by; and that discipline owes its chief efficiency to excited passion, and consequently exists in the extreme of laxity or severity. They ofttimes when under no restraint, beat their children unmercifully.”

All of that could easily be the subject of what conservatives — and some liberals — say about Blacks today. And the motive remains the same: To pretend unequal systems of education, economics, law, sport and media aren’t the main drivers of the conditions that reduce opportunity for non-white people in America.

Ending our invisibility

Nothing I write here is going to settle the debates about the existence of structural racism, white privilege or white supremacist systems. Frankly, I’m tired of the conversation because it’s full of noise and fog. Sadly, the mutual verbal headlock that anti-racism activists and system defenders are in probably won’t be solved in my lifetime. 

My purpose here is smaller in scope, which is simply to rescue the good Black father that I’ve seen in my family, my community, and my professional networks from our accusers who benefit from rendering us, invisible men.

I am Black. I am a father. I love my children like nobody’s business.

You will acknowledge my existence.

Christopher Stewart is co-host of the 8 Black Hands podcast, CEO of brightbeam, founder of the Wayfinder Foundation, and a loving father.

This essay originally appeared in the  Minnesota Reformer , which is a part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. It is a sister organization of the Daily Montanan.

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