In Celebration of African-American Fathers

I was privileged recently to be part of a family retreat/play weekend that was almost entirely African American. The highlight of my weekend came right at the beginning, when I walked into the big play room on Friday night. There were mats on the floor and pillows scattered around, and the air was full of laughter and shouting. Men, old and young, large and small, were throwing pillows, giving horsey rides, being chased, and wrestling, with half a dozen children, ages four through ten. They were playing the way children love best--lots of physical contact, with the children always coming out on top--and everyone was obviously having a wonderful time.

There must have been mothers there too, but I couldn't get over the sight of the fathers. It was such a contrast to the way we tend to see fathers in our culture--remote, discipline-oriented, achievement-focused. Seeing this whole group of dads together in the flesh, having their love and commitment to their children so unavoidably obvious, it was like breathing an enormous sigh of relief and settling into a much better reality.

There are certainly a lot of obstacles for all fathers to that kind of playful closeness. Right from the beginning, not carrying and laboring to deliver a baby can take the immediacy from the experience of childbirth, and start a father off less involved. Their male training to tough it out and go it alone can get in the way of closeness. Their historical role of working all day to provide economic support for the family has separated them from the daily nurturing and emotional suppport that is the life-giving part of parenthood. Mothers often collude unawarely with this separation, claiming and defending our place as front-line parent even as we complain about the injustice of it.

In case all this isn't hard enough, men are also seen as the primary agents of child abuse. When we think of a man in close contact with young children, what is the first image that comes to mind--a loving father or a potential danger?

African American men face all these obstacles in fatherhood--and more. With a long history of poverty and unequal opportunity, with many facing greater economic hardship in the present, their lives can have even more stress and less relaxed emotional availability than those of other men. And if men in general are seen in a negative light, and as a threat, just think of what is done to black men! If we generalize from what we are served up on the big city news night after night, we could end up being surprised to come across any good black men.

What a terrible injustice! What must it be like for the African American father, loving his family, struggling to do well by them, to see that stereotype of his race and gender always in this face? And what must it do to the white people, particularly to those who have no first hand information, whose picture of the world comes from the TV screen? They are being cut off from a whole section of humanity. A vital piece of reality is not being shown, and that distortion of truth hurts every single one of us.

I wanted to frame what I saw that Friday night and show it to every single person in this country. "See! This is what African American men are really like." Hardship may suppress this reality. Other things may show. But this is what we can always assume is true about African American men and fathers. They are warm, loving, playful, respectful, committed, funny, available--completely good.