The truth about black fathers

To paraphrase Caesar, as he stood over the gallant Marc Antony, I come not to bury our Fathers, but to praise them, on this “Father’s Day.” Now, more than ever before, it is time to tell the truth about African American fathers.

I think of my own my father, who in my worst moments always made me feel as if I were the best thing that ever happened to him. He said it. I felt it.

I arrived in my parents’ lives when they were college coeds and, although little more than children themselves, they made the very adult sacrifice and decision to marry and have me as well as my two brothers who arrived less than two years later. Still a student our father waited tables, stood in the food line at our church—-in short, he did all that he could to provide for his growing family. And he and Mother took us everywhere.

I can recall one morning, before my father stepped into the pulpit to preach, being beckoned from my seat to sit with him and, as he scribbled the final touches on his sermon, he leaned over and said, “I love you, Sandy Boogie.” I smiled as he kissed me and waited for…well, something else. I could not wait to get back to my seat as I was mortified to be before the entire congregation. I looked at him and said, rather quizzically, “Daddy, is that all you wanted to tell me?” His reply, as he smiled was, “Baby, saying ‘I love you’ says an awful lot.” I nearly cried, having felt ashamed of my own insensitivity, and he simply smiled, kissed me again and had the usher lead me back to my seat.

His expression, even in that most public of venues was no surprise—-it was a given in my life. My experience, though, is not unique. It has been replicated countless times in the African American community. Yet, every day we are fed a laundry list of the shortcomings of African American men; rarely, however, do we tell the society, or each other, of their triumphs.

We are told from the loftiest perches and the lowliest assignations that they must “Step up!” and “take up their responsibilities as men.” All the while these critics ignore the myriad ways in which they must and do swim upstream against the strongest of currents. Currents which threaten and, too often, do sweep them into the undertow of our society. By ignoring their reality we turn our backs on a history, which has treated them with contempt. They are incarcerated more frequently, fight longer odds and live shorter lives; and yet and still, they remain strong, willing to love, survive and thrive. And so, on this “Father’s Day”, I’d like to expound upon their triumphs and contextualize their struggles. Any discussion which does neither, fails us all.

Let us start with the beginnings of “Father’s Day,” the day set aside to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of our progenitors. The day’s origins, much like our own lives, are deep and complex. But, if we peer closely we would see that it resonates profoundly with our American experience. The first “Father’s Day” was instituted to recognize poor and working class West Virginia coal miners—-361 of them—-who had died in a mining explosion. In that same time period, Mrs. Sonora Smart Dodd felt compelled to honor her own father, a single parent who reared his six children. Mothers without husbands, children without fathers and fathers without wives—-all were families that sought healing. It was these imperfect experiences and constructs that forged this commemorative moment.

You see, this holiday has never been about the “Hallmark” picture; it has always been about the starker, oftentimes darker realities in which we all dwell. And so when I hear Black men paternalistically reprimanded as if they were children, I am pierced in the heart. To see our men pathologized—our fathers, our brothers, our nephews, our godchildren, our loved ones— quite frankly, makes me feel assaulted; I am insulted. In my eyes, Black men are not “problems;” they have them. “Step up?” Look at the obstacles they face:

o2004 Princeton Study conducted by Dr. Devah Pager speaks broadly to African Americans’ employment issues, demonstrating that shows that White job applicants were two times more likely to receive job callbacks than equally qualified Black applicants; and, even more disturbingly, White felons were as likely, if not more likely, to get a job offer than Blacks with a clean record. But, she uncovered some interesting facts about African American men:

– The unemployment rate for young African American men is over twice the rate for young white, Hispanic and Asian men.

– Less than 8% of young African American men have graduated from college, while 17% of Whites and 35% of Asian have attained a bachelor’s degree. People with more education tend to have higher incomes, but in 2002 at every educational level, African Americans with the same education made less than whites.

– More African American men die by way of homicide than any other means.

– Additionally, African American male youth die at a rate 1.5 times greater than White and Hispanic men, and almost three times the rate of young Asian men; and, for African Americans men this rate is on the rise.

– While African American men represent 14% of the population of young men in the U.S., they represent over 40% of the prison population. This figure does not include the number of young men on parole.

The aforementioned smattering of statistics tells but a portion of the story of the African American man in his current context. But we have an entire history which explains his – and our – reasons for being here:

Our forced bondage and survival of slavery; Jim Crow; lynching; the legal challenges to create and maintain our families, to assume our American citizenship, and even to be classified as human beings. The broader society might call these “excuses.” No, I would argue, these are reasons and this story is our entitlement. And we must fight for our ancestors’ honor and tell them. But, we must go further. It is our obligation to help the rest of the American family to grow and understand that our story is their story, too: indeed, this is our collective history.

I would not be the first to argue that these reasons cannot be excuses to remain where we are; in fact, I am in the flow of our history when I repeat what my father, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, has told me and countless others: “You may not be responsible for being in the ditch; but, you must be responsible for getting out of the ditch. When you are behind you must run faster, get up earlier, and be more determined.” We must push upward and forward.

Finally, I heard the managing editor of this site, David Wilson, say on television this past week that African American men’s great need is for the building of their self esteem. I would agree. Indeed, on last Father’s Day, I took my father and family out to dinner. As the check arrived, I reached for it, in order that I pay the bill, as my father has done throughout my life. Just this once, I wanted to treat him. He said, “Sandi, baby, I’ve got it.” I reached for the bill again. He said, “Baby, I’ve got it.” As I started to raise another protest, he stopped me and said: “Baby, the fact that you wanted to take me to dinner is thanks enough. Daddy’s got this. Don’t take my ‘Daddy-ness’ from me. I’ve got it.” That was and is just like him, just like the father that I have always known; fiercely guarding his child and his “Daddy-ness”.

Is that not the ambition of our fathers, to be able to gain and maintain their “Daddy-ness”? When they are denied their ability to provide for their families—-by the varying means repeatedly used throughout our history—-what does that do to them and to us? What happens when they are denied access to their children? We are all diminished and we must remove the emotional and institutional barriers to one another. We are human beings, not amoeba; our mothers did not split and have us. We did not get here by ourselves. A merger had to occur. A little bit of Mom and a little bit of Dad made each of us. And, in a culture in which a father’s importance is de-emphasized, we would do well to remember this: Fathers and children need one another. Period.

So, on this Father’s Day, I pray for restoration, most especially for our fathers. Restoration: a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition, a putting back into a former position, a putting back of dignity. Our fathers need their “Daddy-ness” to be restored. It returns the gift of childhood to their progeny and it grants their manhood to them. We all deserve no less.

Santita Jackson is the midday host of the top-rated Santita Jackson Show on Chicago’s WVON-AM, the nation’s leading urban talk radio station. She is the eldest of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s five children and has traveled nationally and internationally as a performer.