Back in the mid-nineties, I read novelist John Edgar Wideman’s book “Fatheralong,” a collection of essays which were brilliant meditations on black fathers and sons, race and society. The title came from a gospel song called “Farther Along,” which sounded like “father along” to Wideman when he was a boy. Now, more than a generation since his book first appeared, it’s ironic how, in many ways, black fathers are “farther along” than we get credit for.
Wideman’s take on black fatherhood, for the most part, dealt with how the estrangement of African American men from their families has affected generations of sons. To me, the essays were a sad elegy about the kind of black father I did not wish to become. Beat down by societal ills and the history-bending double-arc of slavery and racism they were a new kind of walking wounded.
Today, the effects of “fathering-while-wounded” or not fathering at all remain bleak.
Check the stats. Children raised without their dads are more likely to be jailed, lack self-esteem, and have inferior education. And it’s worse for black children, who according to recent figures, are being raised in fatherless homes more than any other group.
In my mind, Wideman’s book was yet another reminder of the work I had to do if I was to break the cycle of physical and emotional disconnectedness between black fathers and their families. Growing up in a single-parent household, I certainly felt it. But my father’s mistakes, like the missteps of the fathers of many of my friends, did have a redeeming virtue. They taught me, taught us, what not to do as a father. Later when my father found the courage to change, he came back to us, remarried my mother and reclaimed his role as an active father, teaching me what a loving father could do as well.
Flash-forward a generation since the Huxtable Nineties and it’s clear there is a growing, yet often unacknowledged, segment of black fathers who are committed to being there for their children, in whatever way and by any means necessary. That old-school attitude that parenting – from 3am feedings, changing diapers, picking play dates or going to PTA meeting – are the single domain of mothers, is about as passé as sending snail mail. Fathers of all ethnic groups are more engaged and involved with their children than ever before. And black fathers, despite the stereotypes, are stepping up.
A Boston University 2007 study by Rebekah Levine Coley noted that black fathers who don’t reside in the home are more likely to sustain regular contact with their children than fathers of any other racial group. According to the US Census Bureau, single black fathers raising children on their own comprise some 353,000, or nearly 16 percent, of single-father households.
But beyond the research, even empirical evidence suggest that a new generation of black fathers are pushing more baby strollers, dropping more daughters off to school, and showing up at more soccer games. We still have a lot of work to do, many children to claim and train. But we’re not invisible. We’re everywhere you’re not looking.