Posted on May 12, 2008

O Father, Where Art Thou?

Joshua Alston, Newsweek, May 10, 2008


The engaged black father is an elusive character in popular culture. The percentage of black children living in fatherless homes—roughly 50 percent—has perpetuated an orthodoxy that black men are irresponsible and indifferent to fatherhood. Authors such as Coates are in a position to change that. In addition to “Struggle,” last year saw the release of two photo-essay books, Carol Ross’s “Pop” and Rachel Vassel’s “Daughters of Men,” which aimed to show black men celebrating their love for their children.

{snip} according to a Pew Research study conducted last year, more than two thirds of blacks say that today’s fathers are doing a worse job than fathers did 20 or 30 years ago. Of the whites polled for the study, only 44 percent said the same. It is this fear of the rapid extinction of black fathers that provides Bill Cosby, the vanilla comedian turned culture warrior, his raison d’être: correcting the ills of the black community with up-by-the-bootstraps straight talk. Cosby has spent years traveling the country, exhorting packed crowds of black men to be better fathers, fathers not unlike Cliff Huxtable, the upper-class patriarch he played on his ‘80s sitcom.

But images of the Huxtable archetype can be psychologically deleterious. As uplifting a story as is, say, “The Pursuit of Happyness”—the memoir of single father Chris Gardner (and, later, a Will Smith movie)—its primary focus is on Gardner’s struggle to provide his son financial security. This reinforces the notion that a man’s value as a father only goes as far as his ability to earn money. “What’s important to black men in a society that has a fair amount of racism is a notion of manhood,” says Mark Anthony Neal, an associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. “Manhood is all they have, and what that usually means in our culture is the ability to provide for your family financially.”

{snip} A 2007 study noted that a black father’s ability to financially contribute is one of the biggest determinants of whether he stays in the home. “There’s a host of evidence noting that men who cannot fulfill the breadwinner role often experience distress and interruptions in positive engagement in family life,” says Boston University professor Rebekah Levine Coley, who worked on the study. Low-income, low-skilled men are culturally expected not to care about being good fathers, and those who do care feel like failures when they cannot meet a definition of successful fatherhood in which being the breadwinner is the sole metric. This conundrum gives rise to the absentee father, the lion who would rather be proud than lead his pride.