Black Fatherhood In The Age Of Obama

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Former rap producer and family policy advocate Bill Stephney asks President Obama to
consider a comprehensive analysis of fatherhood in America, not just the “Deadbeat Dads,” but also the “Denied Dads.”

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In his Father’s Day speech of 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama decried the state African-American fatherhood:

“Too many fathers… are missing,” Mr. Obama said, “missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Mr. Obama’s speech focused on those fathers not “stepping up.” This “deadbeat dad” characterization winds its way effortlessly through political discourse and news coverage. Yes, there are too many fathers who have been unsupportive of their families.  But what about those fathers who, while putting forth efforts to be responsible parents, are discouraged from doing so? What about the other side of the “deadbeat dad” phenomenon: the “denied dad”?  What about the fathers who’ve had to turn themselves into a multi-tasking blend of Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall, Mahatma Ghandhi and Suge Knight just to obtain a meaningful presence in their children’s lives?

Men like Chris Gardner, who transformed the challenges of being a homeless single father into tremendous success as a millionaire stockbroker and motivational speaker, inspiringly portrayed by Will Smith in the box office smash “The Pursuit Of Happyness.”

Or men like Wesley Autrey, the New York construction worker – dubbed the “Subway Hero” – who jumped onto tracks to save a man from an oncoming train because he didn’t want his two nearby daughters to witness a tragedy.

The president, despite growing up without his own father, the late Barack Obama, Sr., is no stranger to positive fatherhood.   One needn’t be too intrusive into the personal affairs of the First Family to observe from afar, the warm, mutual love between two precious daughters and a doting, devoted father.

In that Father’s Day speech last year, the president missed an opportunity to discuss those fathers who do make every attempt to fulfill their moral, spiritual, ethical and financial obligations as parents. These fathers have been rebuffed by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, harmful government family policies, a faulty family law process, too many mothers conditioned to be indifferent and sometimes hostile to father relevance, and a popular culture that often parodies fatherhood literally into cartoonishness.

My friend Donald is one of those “denied dads.”

One Father’s Story

Donald is currently married to a wonderfully supportive wife, and they have a precocious two-year-old boy.  But Donald is also divorced.  After a brief marriage, he separated from his ex-wife, with whom he had a daughter.  My friend Donald did not spend any time with his daughter this past Christmas.  In fact, since 2004, Donald has not spent a Christmas  – or any day, for that matter – with his daughter, despite paying child support, attending court-ordered parenting classes, retaining court-ordered therapists and law guardians, and obtaining contempt orders and awards of lawyer reimbursement fees against his ex-wife.  For all the lip service paid to encouraging responsible fatherhood, actually facilitating it has been another story.

Donald is a hard-working family man, an African-American father who has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees (mostly with lawyers indifferent to his family’s welfare or the law) attempting to remain a meaningful presence in his daughter’s life.

A judge last year opined over Donald’s fight to co-parent his daughter: “Affirmative action needs to be taken to ensure that she is permitted to love and have a relationship with her father as well as her mother.”
Donald’s struggle for his daughter was even featured in the July 2008 issue of Ebony Magazine. He was lucky. Most “denied dads” don’t get that kind of exposure.

Thabiti Boone, a Brooklyn-based community and family activist (chosen as a “CNN Hero” in 2007), who raised his now-adult daughter alone as a struggling single father, tells stories of being turned down for support by New York social service agencies because he wasn’t a mother.  Harlem educator Kevin Williams was denied court-enforced child support while he was a custodial parent. In the tragic case last year of Long Island mother Leatrice Brewer, who stabbed and drowned her three young children to death, the fathers of her children had petitioned local family courts to award custody to them, citing Ms. Brewer’s obvious mental illness and instability.  The courts rebuffed the fathers, cementing a horrific fate for their children.

The Problem of Missing Fathers

For many African-American families and communities, father disengagement and marginalization has become not a cultural shame, but a cultural norm.

According to a recent Child Trends DataBank report, 69.5% of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers, in comparison to 47.9% of Hispanic children, 25.4% of White children, and 16.2% of Asian/Pacific Islander children.  Most Black, two-parent families with children don’t break up – they never form to begin with.

So, when we examine the severe disparities in educational outcomes between, let’s say, African-American and Asian-American children, why are we so reluctant to consider the radical difference in how families are structured?

How Public Policy Made It Worse

These problems were brewing back in 1965, when a little-known Assistant Secretary of Labor (and later New York senator), Daniel Moynihan, issued a study titled “Crisis of the Negro Family:  The Case For National Action.”  In the report, Moynihan argued:

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It was by destroying the Negro family under slavery that white America broke the will of the Negro people. Although that will has reasserted itself in our time, it is a resurgence doomed to frustration unless the viability of the Negro family is restored.”

The condition of the Black family, and of absent Black fathers, was called within the report “a tangle of pathology.”  Moynihan’s clumsy use of the term “pathology” to describe family formation (or lack thereof) for 1960s African-Americans created a political firestorm, and undermined the harsh but incredibly accurate family observations in the report.

Responding to the Moynihan report, sociologist Herbert J. Gans declared: “The matriarchal family structure and the absence of a father have not yet been proven pathological, even for the boys who grow up in it.”

The theory that held sway from the 60s through the 80s – presumably from experienced sociologists, thinkers and analysts – was that Black families were more “resilient” than even their White, two-parent, middle class counterparts because of “larger-than-life” single mothers.  These views may have seemed complimentary to some African-Americans at the time, but it obscured the reality – a reality that saw families drawn into deeper forms of social disconnection, poverty and violence. What soon developed was a malady not in existence even during slavery and Jim Crow:  fatherless Black housing projects and neighborhoods.  As communities became fatherless, they also became man-less. The removal of Black adult males from these areas (due to homicide, incarceration, unemployment, military service, drug treatment, mental institutionalization and divorce) occurred at a rate usually reserved for high-casualty wars.

“Daddy-as-ATM”

In the 1992 best-selling book, “Two Nations: Black, Separate, Hostile and Unequal,” author Andrew Hacker quoted the now-infamous observation of Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, stating that the problem with so many black single mother families was “not the lack of a male presence, but the lack of a male income.”

In essence, in Cherlin’s view (and that of many others of that generation), fathers served no particular purpose to families other than to monetarily fund single mothers and their children.  It was the “Daddy-as-ATM” theory.  This “theory” served as the engine that still drives public policy to focus on aggressive child support collection from fathers, rather than encouraging strong, comprehensive relationship (moral, spiritual, ethical and financial) connections between fathers, mothers and children.

It has been nothing short of amazing how the 30-year campaign that essentially promoted single Black motherhood and “fathers-are-not-necessary” policy (see the Diahann Carroll/James Earl Jones classic 70s film, Claudine, for cinematic example), has almost been obliterated from our present-day discourse on family responsibility.  To paraphrase the adage: Failure doesn’t have a single-parent. It indeed is orphan.

For all the criticism flung directly at hip-hop (some of it valid), many rappers have revealed through song and statement, how far off the mark the social scientists of the 60s and 70s actually were. From Tupac and Biggie, to Jay Z and Juelz Santana, the “had to grow up my own ‘cause Pops bounced” rhyme composition has become an album staple in the genre.  Tupac told MTV News shortly before his death that “growing up without a father is what made me cold and bitter.”

What President Obama Can Do

Next year will be the 45th Anniversary of the Moynihan report.  President Obama should consider revisiting and updating it.  One highly effective move by the president would be to recruit the First Lady, Michele Obama, to lend her status legal experience and credibility to a re-examination of the report, along with a current assessment of the critical issues that have so divided many families, such as the high out-of-wedlock birthrate, and radically fatherless African-American and urban neighborhoods.

Mrs. Obama currently commands a respect that has been generally reserved for cherished figures such as Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz.  Not only did she evidence unflagging support for her husband, she was critical to his success during primaries. (Do we truly believe that Mr. Obama dominated Black women’s vote during the primary because of his smooth jumper from 15 feet out?)  Their daughters, Malia and Sasha conduct themselves with a grace that seems sampled from their parents.  Michelle and her brother Craig were raised to exemplary success on Chicago’s South Side by her mother and late, cherished father.  According to a 2008 New York Times piece, Mrs. Obama loved her father so much “that she would curl up in his lap even as an adult.”

By engaging her own personal story, her advocacy on family issues could be incredibly crucial in stressing the ways in which connected fathers can positively impact the lives of their daughters,  especially for communities where the majority of girls are raised fatherless – leaving them highly vulnerable in so many ways.  Let the campaign for healthy family development emerge with someone who knows well the value of responsible parenthood.

Donald and Me

Back to Donald.  He has more legal hearings coming up, with the hope that the courts in his area will one day commit to their statutory and compelling public interest responsibility to enforce his parenting rights, and his daughter the right to benefit from his involvement.

How do I know Donald?  Well, the ex-wife denying him access to his daughter is also my ex-girlfriend, with whom I have a wonderful son, born unfortunately without the benefit of his parents being married.  After several years of being denied court-ordered access to my son, I petitioned for custody in 1998. Donald and I encountered each other during those custody hearings, within which all of us were mired.  He had just married my ex. At the time, we only shared an occasional, stoic glance. Yet, we held the door open for each other in the courtroom a couple of times, in a quiet attempt to show that even under the most difficult of circumstances, sometimes brothers just have to put it all behind us and cooperate.  In 1999, I was awarded residential custody of our son by an African-American judge.  By 2000, the court declared me my son’s “permanent sole custodial parent.”  Donald and I would occasionally see one another when he would drop my son off after a visit.  In 2003, we met up and made a pact to continue to work together for the benefit of our children, who are brother and sister.  I hadn’t spoken to Donald for four years when we reconnected in 2007 – only to find out that we were kindred spirits in circumstance more than even I had imagined.

I had been our son’s custodial parent for nearly ten years when our mutual ex, after many legal attempts too numerous to quantify here, regained custody of him some six months ago.  Despite my having a court order to split summer vacation time and the holiday season with our son, our mutual ex, once again, has refused to allow him to visit me. My entire family, which also includes his ten year-old brother and six year-old sister (who only know life with him living with us) were crushed not have him around during the holiday season for the first time in their lives. Needless to say, Donald and his young daughter were not allowed to enjoy and part of the holiday together, either. Like Donald, I’m on my way back to court, too. There are moments where I get the feeling that some would rather see us do drive-bys on one another than cooperate for the best interests of our children.

The next time the holidays roll around, hopefully Donald and I will be able to celebrate with our children without difficulty. But another lovely gift I’d like to see under our tree from our new president would be an honest and fair reform of family policy in this nation, and a return to healthier, more cohesive families and communities.  Now that’s a Santa you can believe in.

Bill Stephney head of Joseph Media, has previously run music companies Def Jam Recordings, SOUL Records and Stepsun Music.  He has produced artists ranging from Public Enemy to Vanessa Williams and Paul Mooney.  He has supervised music for films such as “Boomerang,” “Be Be’s Kids,” “CB4,” “Clockers” and “Shaft.”  In 2006, he was elected to Minority Media & Telecommunications Hall of Fame.  Currently, he is a featured essayist in the book “Be A Father To Your Child:  Real Talk From Black Men On Family, Love and Fatherhood” (Soft Skull Press).  He lives in New Jersey with his wife Tanya, and their three children. Stephney also serves as a member in that state’s division of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

See video of Bill Stephney reading from “Be A Father To Your Child”

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