Dr. Roberta L. Coles is a white college professor and an unlikely advocate for black fathers.
For the better part of a decade she has worked tirelessly collating a large body of research on an often-overlooked group — responsible African American dads, including black single custodial fathers.
Her latest offering is a forthcoming book on social fathers: men who play an important or central role in raising a child.
Unlike traditional definitions that focus on adoptive or stepfathers, Dr. Coles’ book, will include mentors which in the black community often act as role models for kids growing up in female-headed households.
Her most noticeable works on African American fathers are The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers and The Myth of the Missing Black Father: The Persistence of Black Fatherhood in America.
While not attempting to romanticize fatherhood, both books set out to challenge negative stereotypes thrust on black males and fathers.
“It’s important to get it out there that that’s not the whole picture,” said Coles, a professor of sociology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “People need to know there are men out their trying to do their best.”
Indeed, images of “happily married” young men like Georgia-based drummer Jorel Flynn a.k.a. JFly are not strongly embedded in our collective psyche.
“It’s about being there, not just being present, but emotionally connected as well,” said Flynn, referring to his relationship with his 5-year-old daughter Ja’Rai. “It’s important for me that she has a positive male figure in the home to guide her to make educated decisions”, adds Flynn, who does not feature in Coles’ work.
In The Myth of the Missing Black Father, Coles and co-editor Charles Green acknowledge that black men are less likely to marry than their counterparts (backed up by statistics) but they assert many continue to co-parent through cohabitation or informal caretaking if they are outside the home.
Professor Green from Hunter College in New York said it is also essential to recognize that there is a host of external factors, such as economic inequality, that affect the ability to parent. “There are a variety of variables, structural factors and macro influences that make it more difficult for black men to navigate.”
Coles’ book The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers puts the spotlight on single custodial fathers who have became lone parents through divorce, widowhood, adoption or cohabiting relationships simply falling apart.
Over five years she interviewed twenty black fathers mainly from Wisconsin who were bringing up their kids alone. What she discovered is many of these men had the option of transferring legal custody to a relative or state custody but significantly they choose to raise their children.
“The most common motivating factor given was they wanted to be the kind of father they had not had,” said Coles. “Some had absent fathers, they saw themselves as not being that father, breaking the cycle.”
“Their stories were so unique, complicated and interesting I feel in love with the project.” Though small in number, their intimate and personal stories provide a necessary counterweight to the predominant image of the absent black father, adds Coles.
She said her journey to research single black fathers was by chance after she discovered one of her students was raising his 9-year-old son alone. She felt compelled to do more research but soon discovered there hadn’t been anything written on the subject.
Nahshon Wiley does not feature in Coles’ publications. Still, he is a perfect example of a responsible black father who has lived up to his responsibilities.
Soon after the birth of his youngest son Wiley’s relationship fell apart. Subsequently for extended periods his three young children moved in with him because he said his ex-girlfriend was struggling to keep it together.
Finally last year Wiley and his ex came to an informal arrangement. Their children, Onye, 12, Xavier, 8, and Micah, 7, would be better off living with him, at least in the immediate future, because he is more able to provide a stable home environment.
“I didn’t want them to grow up in state care,” said Georgia-based Wiley, who works in the airline industry. “I never grew up like that and that could never happen. Men need to stand up and take care of their responsibilities. They didn’t ask to be born.”
David Manuel is the kind of man that social scientists overlook. He is an articulate black college graduate who runs a successful Georgia-based arts center.
After 18 years of marriage, four years ago, Manuel and his wife amicably decided to go their separate ways. Since the split he has had primary custody of their two teenage sons, Blake, 16 and 19-year-old Branden. Though, he said his boys consult both parents when it comes to decision-making and they also spend quality time with their mom.
“I always try to find out what my purpose is,” said Manuel, who is also the author of I am a Father, Celebrating African-American Fathers. “Part of that process is finding a platform exploring what real men look like and how it affects the family.”
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