Adam Clayton Powell IV has taken some of his pain and turned it into something good.
Powell, a Manhattan business consultant, is the son of the late Harlem congressman and pastor whose name he shares. Now 49, Powell still remembers the longing he felt as a child when his parents separated and his father became scarce. That’s why, he said, he made it a point to cultivate a strong relationship with his own son, 22-year-old Adam Clayton Powell V.
“I wanted to make sure that even though my son’s mom and I had split” that there would be a strong bond, explained Powell, a former New York City councilman and former New York State assemblyman.
“I would spend weekends with him and take him everywhere I had to go,” Powell said of his son. “Even if I had a black tie dinner, I would take my little boy with me. You have to do that and appreciate the importance of that.”
As Father’s Day approaches this Sunday, Powell is one of many men around the country who grew up without a father who likely will ponder the meaning and importance of good parenting. Like Powell, many fathers have vowed not to be absentee parents to help end what some view as a nationwide epidemic.
According to a Pew Research Center report released Wednesday, 11 percent of U.S. children lived apart from their fathers in 1960 compared with 27 percent in 2010. The study also shows that 44 percent of African-American fathers today live apart from their children, compared with 21 percent of white fathers and 35 percent of Latino fathers.
WATCH theGRIO’s TODD JOHNSON REPORT ON FATHERS RECONNECTING WITH THEIR KIDS:
Like Powell, Tavon White is determined not to feed into the statistics. The 27-year-old husband and father from San Diego felt confusion and loss after his own father stopped coming around when he was 7 years old. Years later, when he was 16, his father sought him out and explained that he had to step away for a bit because of the poor state of his relationship with White’s mother. Though White and his father share a good relationship now, the whole experience helped him decide he wanted a solid family of his own.
White married a little over a year ago and has a 2-year-old son and month-and-a-half old daughter with his wife, Ashley. He also parents a 7-year-old boy his wife had with another man, who is in and out of jail. White said he enjoys taking his children to the park, and helping the oldest boy in baseball and football.
“I like it — actually, I love it,” White said of parenting. “That’s like the greatest thing to wake up and see my kids. After a long day of work and see that innocence of the children, it works for me.”
Greg Gray, author of Dad From A Distance, a manual for non-custodial fathers, said that he has noticed that many fathers like Powell and White, who grew up without their own fathers, at some point seem to make a solid, concrete decision that they are going to be good parents.
“Some of the guys, that makes them uber-driven to be present dads,” said Gray, 50, of Stone Mountain, Ga. “A lot of them have said, ‘I know what it was like not to have my father there and that’s not how my children are going to feel.’ ”
The examples of fathers trying to break the cycle go straight up to the White House.
In a Father’s Day essay for People, President Obama wrote that his father’s departure when he was 2-years-old, and what he learned from working hard and spending time away from his own daughters, Sasha and Malia, early on in his career affected how he parents today.
“They (children) need our time, measured not only in the number of hours we spend with them each day, but what we do with those hours,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that children don’t just need us physically present, but emotionally available — willing to listen and pay attention and participate in their daily lives. Children need structure, which includes learning the values of self-discipline and responsibility.”Statistics seem to bear out the president’s words. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in fatherless homes are more likely to be poor. Growing up with an absentee father also increases a youngster’s likelihood to be incarcerated, have asthma, get pregnant, drink, smoke, or suffer child abuse, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Germantown, Md., organization devoted to growing the number of children raised by involved fathers.
Beyond the numbers, absence can have a heartfelt, crushing impact, according to activist and writer Kevin Powell of Brooklyn, N.Y.
For a long time, Powell said, he despised his own father, who was scarce during his childhood and, when he was 8, insisted he wasn’t Powell’s father. He has been able to come to terms with his anger and sense of loss after 23 years of therapy, he explained.
“At a certain point, you begin to realize you can either hold onto that stuff for the rest of your life and just be stuck there or just be what you want to see,” said Powell, 45, no relation to the late congressman. “I understand the context of the behavior of men like my father,” he added, explaining that the legacy of slavery has contributed.
Powell said his own experience, like White’s, has solidified his determination to cultivate a healthy family life. Powell said he sees himself being married in the next year.
“Part of the reason I’ve never gotten anyone pregnant in my life is I’m very clear I’m going to be married when I have children,” he said.
Adam Clayton Powell IV also associates pain with his father’s absence.
He said that his earliest memories of the late congressman, when he was growing up in Puerto Rico, are happy ones. He remembered playing with his father’s pipe and being picked up. But when his parents separated when he was 4, his father’s life as a member of the House kept him away, Powell said.
“After that, there would be letters he wrote to my mom,” Powell remembered. “He would say, ‘I’m going to come back and we’ll be a family again.’ ”
But that never materialized. “Around Christmastime I would always ask Santa Claus to bring my dad back,” Powell said.
The elder Powell died unexpectedly in 1972 after a bout with acute prostatitis. Years later, Adam Clayton Powell IV, though he divorced from his wife, vowed to have a good relationship with his son, Adam Clayton Powell V, a recent Columbia University graduate and U.S. Olympic Swimming Team hopeful.
“He was living at Columbia at the dorms, but we would spend two to three days a week going to movies, going to dinner together.”
Being there is the key, said author Gray, who has made that recommendation the thread through his book. Among some of his pieces of advice for non-custodial fathers:
Be present, and that includes all birthdays, graduations and extracurricular activities
Be connected, via telephone, the Internet, Skype, birthday cards, and in every way possible.
Be consistent and reliable.
Gray’s observations come from his own experience as the biological father to a 22-year-old daughter whose mom he divorced 17 years ago, and from conversations he has had with fathers nationwide.
When his daughter, Danielle was growing up, Gray spent lots of time on the road for work, but made sure he stayed in touch. “That’s when I learned you can still do homework with your child, even if you’re in California. I’ve helped with plenty of history homework from the hotels where I was.”
Gray’s advice jibes with the president’s thinking.
In his essay, President Obama wrote that the recession has affected men in many ways, including their ability to pay their bills, and that he understands how this can affect a man’s ability to be a father. But, he wrote, men can still be present in their children’s lives, even as they wage financial and other life battles.
“Every father can encourage his child to turn off the video games and pick up a book; to study hard and stay in school,” Obama wrote. “Every father can pack a healthy lunch for his son, or go outside and play ball with his daughter.”
According to Kevin Powell, it’s not just about being present, but also confronting past demons and moving forward.
“My challenge to black people in America and all over the world is let’s stop being stuck,” Kevin Powell said. “It’s like [former Essence editor-in-chief] Susan Taylor says — healing is the new activism.”