Friday, January 17, 2014

Dismantling the Myth of the Black Father in America

Tara Culp-Ressler posted a really well-written and insightful article on the Website yesterday, "The Myth of the Absent Black Father" that cites some interesting results from a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that examines the role of fathers in family health and child development.

There's no question that in parts of urban communities in America with high rates of poverty and unemployment like Trenton, NJ there's a real need for the presence of more positive black male role models in the lives of children of color; in the home, in the school and in between.

But years of data presented in "Fathers' Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006 - 2010" a study published by National Health Statistics Reports this past December offers proof that only one part of the narrative of black fatherhood in America is being told.

Growing up there was not a single moment when my father was not an integral part of my life.

He did his share of diapers when I was a baby and held me when I cried; he was up until the early hours on many a past Christmas Eve pouring over instructions to assemble gifts for my siblings and I.

On the warm overcast fall afternoon when I learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels in the street in front of our home, he was right behind me running along; shouting words of encouragement with those strong hands of his extended protectively in case my mastery of balance was not fully developed.

He was also there with that stern look and words of reproach whenever my report card wasn't up to par, and later offered wise counsel during times of uncertainty when I was learning to become a man.

So you'll appreciate it if the oft-perpetuated myths and stereotypes of the absentee black American father, which so often circulated through the mainstream media when I was growing up, confused me.

Both of my grandfathers were strong, devoted, church-going working men who were totally dedicated to their families. Just like my uncles and the fathers of all the African-American friends I was close to growing up through elementary, high school and later college.

Those fathers were there at school plays, music recitals, career days, parent-teacher conferences, church services, summertime picnics and football games.

I'm not a sociologist but somewhere along the line in this country politicians, pundits and even members of academia began to paint the broader perception of the black father in America with the brush strokes used to define those separated from the traditional family structure because of poverty resulting from limited job opportunities or career training, substandard educational opportunities, incarceration, substance abuse, infidelity or worse.   

Civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore
How this unfair perception of the black father emerged is a complex question with no simple answer.

Did it start in the 1950's and 60's when public assistance became more widespread among poor urban populations concentrated in areas with shrinking job opportunities as manufacturing jobs began to disappear?

In the 1960's Cecil B. Moore, the former Marine who served in WWII and went on to become a lawyer who fought on behalf of poor residents of north Philadelphia and later became head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP (and a hard-charging civil rights activist) argued that the welfare system stripped away the core motivation for self sufficiency.

And eroded the work ethic of many African-Americans.

Maybe it started earlier in the 1930's and 40's during the second great migration of huge numbers of African-Americans fleeing the stifling institutionalized racism and lack of educational and work opportunities in southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama.

Large populations of blacks who were the product of substandard educational systems in the south found themselves in traditionally African-American neighborhoods alongside better-educated people of color with deeper community ties, jobs and a different work ethic who'd lived in the north for years.

Is it really surprising that someone with a 2nd or 3rd grade education who'd been a sharecropper in the south (and threatened with violence if he/she tried to vote) found themselves unable to find a job after moving to the north and ended up on welfare?  

The reasons are myriad but as the CDC study shows there were black fathers who were and are strong, positive and nurturing father figures. Maybe those guys didn't make for interesting press coverage.

Image from the notorious Willie Horton ad used
by the Bush campaign to slander Dukakis 
Perhaps it just didn't serve conservative politicians or "limousine policy liberals" to trumpet the hard-working African-American men who were responsible fathers and dedicated family men.

In the 1980's as the GOP began taking a hard turn to the right Ronald Reagan vilified black single mothers as "Welfare Queens" - as if they were responsible for the recessions in the 80's - and in turn it became almost fashionable to lambaste "absentee fathers" who'd impregnated and abandoned them.

To defeat Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential elections, the GOP (with the consent of George Bush senior), ran the notorious Willie Horton ads repeatedly on national television in a subconscious effort to indoctrinate (and frighten) white voters with the image of the African-American male as some kind of violence-prone homicidal maniac - who would be "unleashed" on the country if Dukakis was elected; and boy did he lose.

I never saw a Republican TV ad with someone like my father, a college-educated corporate career professional who mentored young men and women of all races. 

There are many reasons that the strong positive black father figure in America has been distorted within the mainstream media for years, but with the conclusions from the CDC study based on years of research and data; we know that black fathers from the same circumstances as whites or Hispanics, are just as loving, committed, nurturing, dedicated and present in the lives of their children as fathers of other demographic groups - even more so in some cases as the study notes.

As Tara Culp-Ressler noted about the study in her article, "...the Los Angeles Times noted that the results “defy stereotypes about black fatherhood” because the CDC found that black dads are more involved with their kids on a daily basis than dads from other racial groups."

Don't hold your breath waiting for that to be reported on Fox News - they'll be too busy looking for "absentee fathers" to vilify to fit in with their distorted views of a demographic they've become addicted to using to manipulate their electorate.

At least we now have proof of what many people of all races, religions and nationalities have known all along - that the perception of black fathers in the eye of the American media is anything but "fair and balanced."

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