Friday, February 22, 2008

Black Dads White Dads

Barack Obama didn't have a dad, at least not the way I think of it. He says as much in his autobiographical writings, about how an absent father left a hole in his life that he tried to fill in various ways, more or less successfully, until the sense of always being somewhere in between led him to Chicago. It was here that political work in a black community solidified his personal and political identity.

I think about all that as I walk around my neighborhood. It's a relatively well-integrated island on the black side of one of America's most segregated cities. Obama's newfound celebrity has lent a mythical aura to the humble local landmarks that make up his Bildungsroman, many of them just down the street, like the barbershop on 53rd (since relocated), a unique institution in African-American political culture, or the public school gymnasium across the way where he voted for himself in the Illinois primary.

Most folks aren't as open as Barak Obama, and even in this neighborhood it's still challenging to talk about race. But it's something that everyone is aware of, and everyone registers in the back of their mind. In my daily interactions as a dad in the neighborhood, in my own barbershop, on the street, across the fence, I sometimes get the impression that lugging my son around and taking care of him in public is a symbolic act of tremendous emotional power in ways of which I am unaware.

Seventy-nine percent of African-American children are born to single mothers. To see a dad around, of either race, a young dad, during the day, is a dramatic contrast to that brute fact. I get a lot of looks on the street, and sometimes it makes me self-conscious.

It's clear that there are a lot of emotional holes out there. A few black men have told me as much. "My father wasn't around much," Denzeel told me one afternoon at my salon, before bending over to make funny faces at Spot, and sending him off with a Matchbox car. The crisis of black fatherhood is a well-known statistical fact. It's been at the center of social scientific attention since the birth of American sociology in the studies of the American ghetto. But the sociology seems irrelevant when everything around you is telling you the same thing.

There's a gulf there, no doubt about it, and I haven't begun to explore all the possible meanings of that gulf across the racial experience of fatherhood, let alone fully cross it in an interpersonal way. Perhaps the strongest responses I've received have come not from black men, but from black women, who have been the most warmly sympathetic and supportive of my role as primary caregiver. We usually have a lot to talk about.

Barak Obama the man gives people a sense of hope in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. There are a lot of reasons for this phenomenon, and not everybody buys into it. But, as a father, I think I know at least one of them. It comes from things like taking a seat in my pediatrician's waiting room the other day and seeing six black dads with infants in their laps, with no moms in sight. It comes from riding a crowded, lurching bus home one night, and sitting behind a young black man, in every appearance the image of a gang-banger, quietly holding a 3-year old girl as if she were a priceless piece of family china.

Obama's candidacy, no matter where it winds up, seems to give a focus to people who see these things and others like them, and wonder if they really can be the shape of the future.


Drew said...

Your post was eloquent and inspiring. I hope that great things are just around the corner. Thank you for expanding the scope of the dialog.

Anonymous said...

My comment is this: Please-This is NOT a "lack Dad White Dad" issue. Men of all colors have traditionally been and continue to be absentee parents.

White men were "paycheck parents" -leaving for work every morning and returning home in the evening yet doing very little in terms of actual participation in their children's lives. Why did Reba McIntyre wite the song "The Greatest Man I Never Knew"? ( women today complain of doing "double duty" or "the second shift" where-despite the fact that they work outside the home, they do most of the work after they get back home in the evening.

The difference with minority men in the US is that historically they have had very limitted financial resources and therefore many couldn't even provide the service of being a "paycheck parent."

It may also interst you to know that Blacks have the most egalitarian relationships. This originally evolved out of necessity. In the past when Black men could not obtain gainful employment-the women would usually be able to get paid for domestic work outside the home. It made traditional / male-female division of domestic labor unworkable and absurd.

Either way-it's about time that MEN-White, Black, and Other-do their fair share of the child rearing as well as other domestic responsibilities. Maintaining the home and parenting is not just wimmin's work.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Geez, Anonymous, I think you're overstating things a bit, and also promoting an image of fatherhood that is increasingly obsolete.

It's not accurate to imply that all men of all colors have been absentee parents--there's a big difference between being absentee and going to work every day to support your family. Sure, many white men were paycheck parents--but a paycheck is not nothing. It's critical, and if you don't believe me, ask any family that's gone without one. And if men worked long hours, it wasn't usually because they wanted to. It was because of intense pressure to perform, or else. This goes for both working-class and more affluent parents. If a dad comes home wiped out every night, that's not his fault. It's capitalism's fault.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as male supremacy. That same economy was rigged to keep women dependent on men. But as more and more women have gone to work, this image of the father as an absentee parent is increasingly obsolete. Men of many cultures and classes are increasingly involved in family life, driven in part because so many women have gone to work. In many urban areas (especially those where women on average are now earning more than men) couples have achieved rough parity in child care, housework, and income. And, of course, the number of stay-at-home dads has increased dramatically over the past ten years. This has downsides: since the rules of work have not fundamentally changed, both parents now suffer the burdens of breadwinning while also needing to run homes. This makes their homes more stressful places.

This isn't to say that there aren't still deadbeat dads. There sure are. And I think you might be missing the degree to which the black community itself defines this as a problem.

Incidentally, I agree that black couples have historically had more egalitarian relationships than white ones.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, what exactly did I "overstate"?

Point it out clearly.

All that you did was elaborate on the "why" of the phenomenon of the White Male Paycheck Parent. (Yet you somehow neglected to elaborate on the "why" of the minority male's situation. Apparently- when White men make mistakes on the homoefront, their reasons for doing so are far more logical and valid.)

Nothing you presented refutes a single drop of what I stated.

My main point is this: "Black Dads White Dads" was a post gone wrong from the giddyup. The author was doing the ever so predictable White-Man-Patting-the-Negro's-Head-For-Doing-the-Right-Thing dance when the truth is this:


And-Black men were THE FIRST to step up and carry some of the weight in this regard so I find it insulting that a White man would try The Head Pat on this particular topic.

And please-Don't try to school me on "The Black Community" and how "The Black Community" defines things. I am quite Black and I can tell you there is no "Black Community". Blacks are not monolithic.

BTW-I decided to UNanonymous myself this time.


Unknown said...

By the way-absentee parenting is NOT being present in your child's life.

Money does not = parenting.

It's technically not even part of it.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Uhura, this is a blog by and about stay-at-home dads. As parents, we get that money does not equal parenting. In fact, the whole point of the blog and its associated projects is to push men into more caregiving roles and more participation at home and school. But that doesn't stop me from appreciating the role of the breadwinner, male or female, or the burdens they carry.

I'm actually not defending the post itself; you're entitled to your criticism and I won't tell you you're wrong. There is an element of presumptuousness in it; also appreciation (for black fatherhood) and yearning (for social connection).

But I am taking issue with your out-of-date and unhelpful generalizations about fathers. In your comment, you didn't say "some men" or "some fathers"--you accuse fathers, period, of being crappy, absentee parents. There was no qualifier, no subtly. You ask me to not treat the black community as monolithic--which I don't, BTW, and I stand by my assertion--but you don't seem able to do the appreciate the diversity of fathers today, and what that means for children and families. If you can't do that, don't expect to change this father's mind about anything.

Anonymous said...

Check out this reaction to this post, written by a black dad. Interesting.

chicago pop said...

Perhaps the title of this post was too dichotomous. Of course there's no simple white-dad black dad opposition, that was just my laziness in picking a title. And Uhura may be surprised to hear it, but I don't disagree with her that, generally speaking, women have had to carry a disproportionately large percentage of child-raising duties -- historically, across cultures, skin colors, classes, etc. No denying that, and I think I and co-bloggers probably agree that we need to do what we can to change that.

It's hard to talk about race, and I'm not surprised if this touched a nerve. But I'm not patting anyone's head, and certainly nothing other than a poorly chosen title suggests that "white dads" have it all figured out. Far from it. But that wasn't the point of this post. I hear from blacks and read things written by blacks and talk to blacks all the time about black fatherhood as a problem -- not because the problem isn't more general, but because in American society with the history we have, that issue has been siloed racially, and it's discussed as such -- whether one thinks this is a good thing or not; and does indeed have some historically specific manifestations among African Americans.

No claims were made beyond that, and none should be inferred.

The things I described I found inspiring, especially in light of how urban deindustrialization has affected African-Americans in particular. I have the same reaction to watching the film The Bicycle Thief about an Italian worker after WWII who tries to survive when his bicycle is stolen and he can't get to work. Or when Palestinians try to hold their families together in Gaza when the parents can't work and the sons can't marry.

I don't see the difference, or the presumption, between offering commentary on the topic of black fatherhood in the inner-city, or any of these other topics, based on the local context.

No group has the moral advantage on this issue; but different groups do experience these issues differently, and it serves no purpose to ignore that fact.

chicago pop said...

To anonymous/Uhura: don't vote for Obama if he gets the nomination. Because here's how he sees things, based on up-close exposure to the violence of life on the South Side of Chicago:

As he has in other speeches, Obama called on parents, especially black fathers, to play a greater role in raising their children.

"There's a reason they go out and shoot each other," he said. "It's because they don't love themselves. And the reason they don't love themselves is that we are not loving them enough."

These words could have been spoken by any of my black neighbors, who are themselves parents, and grandparents.

You're right that the "black community" is not monolithic. There are a lot of blacks who are doing just fine, with dads being dads, who want to fix the problems of the inner cities, where it's harder to do this. There's a very clear class issue here, there's no point in denying it, and glossing over that in favor of a critique of men in general misses the heart of the problem.

I'm not writing from suburban Atlanta, or suburban Charlotte,or other places where the black middle class has securely and prominently established itself. I'm writing a few blocks away from what was one of the largest public housing projects in the United States, and from some of the poorest and most racially segregated census tracts in the country.

The projects are gone now, but the poverty is still there, as is a lot of violence, and we all see it. It's a tragedy, but the dysfunction is there, it's visible, and all sorts of numbers back it up.

I want to believe that it's possible to change all that, even if one step at a time. I don't see the problem with that at all.

Unknown said...

In response to my comment that historically, males of all hues have acted as absentee parents...a subcategory of which is the paycheck parent Jeremy said:

Sure, many white men were paycheck parents--but a paycheck is not nothing.

But then Jeremy said:

As parents, we get that money does not equal parenting.

Contradiction much?

With the second statement you made - you are simply repeating and confirming the correctness of my position:

Money does not equal parenting.

I will add that an absentee parent is just it physically, emotionally, or in some cases - both.

And, in either case-the White man who worked all day and was otherwise uninvolved in his children's lives OR the Black / Minority man who did not earn money and was uninvolved in their children's lives-neither case equaled "parenting".

Here's the other thing Jeremy... you are not reading what I actually write. You're reading what you THINK I am saying:

Por exemplo, you commented

It's not accurate to imply that all men of all colors have been absentee parents...

But here's what I actually wrote


First, there is no way that anyone can imply something with any degree of accuracy. Implications, by their very nature, are imprecise precisely because they are based upon nuance and innuendo...but I digress.

Second, if you re-read what I actually wrote and compare it with what you accuse me of implying-you'll probably laugh at yourself (if you didn't misread my words deliberately).

I wrote


yet, for some strange reason, you saw and commented on


Of course it isn't valid to make a statement about ALL men of all hues-LOL!

This is a strawman and a poor one because it's so darned obvious. You interpreted my position in a ridiculous manner and then proceeded to argue against the interpretation rather than my actual position.

The next part of your accusation is comical as well:

In your comment, you didn't say "some men" or "some fathers"--you accuse fathers, period, of being crappy, absentee parents.

Yet I did use the word SOME!

I clearly stated that some men are snapping out of this tendency to view domestics & childcare as wimmin's work.

Another Jeremy-ism:

I am taking issue with your out-of-date and unhelpful generalizations about fathers.

Jeremy, the bottom line is that by and large & historically speaking men have indeed been absentee parents. (And no, Chicago Pop, I am NOT surprised that someone would agree with a true and documented observation.) It is patently absurd to say that my comments about historical occurrences are "out of date". History-by definition-occurred in the past.

I would like to continue communicating with you, so please do not engage me again with glaring misrepresentations of what I actually write sautéed with obvious fallacies of logic.


Unknown said...

Let's get REALLY real here, Jeremy:

You are attempting to portray White Male absentee parenting as being morally superior to Black / Minority Male absentee parenting on the basis of how much money was provided.

Here's the big confirmation of your agenda in this discussion:

This isn't to say that there aren't still deadbeat dads. There sure are. And I think you might be missing the degree to which the black community itself defines this as a problem

Again with the Black Community commentary. Can you even define "The Black Community"? Wait-let me guess-it's the inner city Blacks right?

The Black men I know and associate with are actual participants in their children's lives. Perhaps because we are middle class-we are not included in the official definition of "The Black Community" that liberal Whites formulated.

Here's a thought: I suspect that if we compare deadbeat dad rates in POOR communities of any race, we'll find similar dynamics and virtually identical issues.

The problem with SOME so-called well meaning White people is that their definition and understanding of Black people is limited to poor, inner city Blacks.

But we're now on a tangent aren't we? I mean-this discussion is about fathers participating in their children's lives and not about Black deadbeat dads right?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"You are attempting to portray White Male absentee parenting as being morally superior to Black / Minority Male absentee parenting on the basis of how much money was provided"

No, I am not, and neither is Chicago Pop, and I don't think a reasonable person will read our comments that way. You've made your points. Time to move on.

Unknown said...

Chicago Pop,

Did I miss something?

Am I supposed to vote for the next President based on what he or she will do for inner city Blacks or based on what he or she will do for me and my family?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Here's an interesting piece in the Boston Globe that touches on many of these issues with the Obama campaign, but from a completely different angle:

One might expect giddy anticipation rippling through the black community.

Instead, there is an almost palpable anxiety. Conversations about how Obama is tantalizingly close to the presidency are muted, not celebratory, tamped down by a mixture of cynicism and fear.

Clinton, a formidable politician, might rebound. Obama could stumble. Conspiracy theories bubble: Political maneuvering or party bosses will torpedo him. Or, the unthinkable - an assassin - might strike at an open-air rally, personally preventing the first black presidency.

As Obama's campaign sweeps across America with the promise of reconciliation and a strikingly different face in the White House, it has revealed something else in black American culture: a deep-seated fear of hope.

Behind that fear lies an ordinary human trait, the instinct to protect against disappointment. But in black America, as the presidential race is revealing, long historical cycles of hope and disappointment have woven that impulse into the culture itself...

"It even happened to me, and I'm an educated PhD," said Stephen B. Thomas, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health. After realizing Obama was a legitimate contender with an excellent shot at the White House, "I said to my wife - I looked her in the eye - and I said, 'Is it OK for me to hope?' "...

So black Americans are watching the Obama campaign with their breath held, afraid to believe too much, Thomas said. "There's a certain cynicism that any person who's been oppressed would feel, because we've been disappointed."

That defense has become what he considers "a [mental] health issue" among blacks. The emotional shield, he said, has been handed "from one generation to the next, by word of mouth: 'Don't get your hopes up..."'

Thomas said there are signs that shift may already be starting. With Obama's mounting success, he says, he has noticed a slight change in African-Americans' collective decision to buttress hope with cynicism.

The codes typically spoken between blacks in "mixed company," he said, are yielding to more open conversation - blacks talking with whites about an Obama presidency. Carter noted her own young children seem to sense "electricity" and a "profound" sense of change in the air.

And for black people who know the sting of hope yielding to disappointment, Thomas said, that change is "a little scary": "Is it possible," he asked, "we're in a new place and a new time?"

Unknown said...

Here's "another" perspective on the way Blacks are viewing Barack Obama's chances @ winning. It appears to be in line with my opinion on the topic, as well as the opinions of several Black people I know.

It's amazing what you can find out by speaking with actual Black people!

I call bull$hit on the Boston Globe.


Why Obama Will Win
Matthew Birkhold

Today, Barack Obama will win the democratic primary in either Texas or Ohio, if not both. I am so confident about this that I am also willing to go all out and say that Barack Obama will be elected president of the United States in November. The reason for this, quite simply, is that people like Obama. Because people are fed up with politics as usual, they love the fact that he is able to call usual politics “political silliness,” and give his opponents credit when they take positions similar to his. Because people like Obama, they don’t care about his policies or his politics. Instead, they side with him because they feel like they know him. For John McCain and Hillary Clinton, this means that the more they attack Obama, the more they will bolster Obama’s appeal.

Writing about the Algerian war for independence, the revolutionary philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued that terrorism was a useful revolutionary tactic because it brought repression by the French military on the Algerian people. Once the Algerian people experienced heightened repression resulting from terrorism, those Algerians who were not involved in revolutionary politics would begin to understand just how unjust the colonial system was and become radicalized. Obama is certainly no revolutionary and his supporters are not experiencing any repression. Yet, due to what are perceived as unfair attacks against him by Hillary Clinton and John McCain, a similar dynamic is at work.

According to MSNBC exit polls, after the Wisconsin primary, 55 percent of democratic voters thought that Hillary Clinton unfairly attacked Barack Obama during the campaign. Since then, Clinton has taken a decisively more negative line towards Obama and has fallen behind him in the Texas primary polls. The same night Clinton lost in Wisconsin, John McCain began to attack Obama suggesting his calls for change were eloquent but ultimately empty. Since then, McCain has lost appeal amongst voters. Before the Wisconsin primary, according to the Pew Center, 42 percent of registered democrats saw McCain as favorable. After he began attacking Obama however, that number fell to 29 percent. Since attacking Obama, McCain has also lost appeal amongst independent voters. On top of these shifts, Pew Center research indicates that, regardless of party affiliation, 50 percent of voters think Obama is “very likable” and another 35 percent think he’s “somewhat likable.”

In a nation that doesn’t really care about where candidates stand on the issues, these numbers pretty much seal the deal for a Barack Obama presidency. However, more important than an Obama victory is the potential this situation provides for changing American political culture. Because Obama’s opponents cannot win by attacking him, they will have to resort to other strategies and tactics. What these will look like is anyone’s guess. However, because McCain and Clinton cannot win by attacking someone that everybody likes, Obama—and his opponents—will be forced move politics in a direction than requires more than just reacting because the people are demanding it.

Matt Birkhold is a Brooklyn based independent scholar, educator, and writer. His work appears regularly in Wiretap and has also appeared in The Nation and Mother Jones as well as other places. He is founder of Political Education Outreach Collective and can be reached at birkhold (at) gmail (dot) com.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"Today, Barack Obama will win the democratic primary in either Texas or Ohio, if not both..."

I hope so, and I also feel very strongly that Obama will defeat Clinton and crush McCain. It's interesting to me how I've become increasingly pro-Obama, despite the fact that I prefer many of Clinton's public policy proposals. I don't own a TV and I've never seen Obama speak, so I'm not swayed by his much vaunted charisma. But I have looked at his website, read some of his writings, and followed his quotes and positioning in the print media. There's much to criticize from a progressive perspective, but also much to praise. Clinton's criminally stupid Iraq vote is important to me--but I also tend to think that in general, Obama is much more sane when it comes to foreign policy and use of the military.

But my personal support goes beyond that. The truth is that I think his rhetoric and identity does matter. A president doesn't just craft policy; s/he also leads the country and sets the tone of political culture. And I can't help but feel that Obama might really be able to help heal a country that seemed to go insane after 9/11. There is a cult of personality around him, but it's not a totalitarian personality like, say, Stalin, that demands imitation and subservience. It's more of a gentle suggestion about the way to live and comport yourself and communicate with other people. I like that.

Ed Bacchus said...

Bet the author didn't expect this type of response to this post. I admit that I developed several mixed feelings while reading. Discussions of race can be extremely polarizing and many comments can be delivered with one intent, but understood completely different.

chicago pop said...

ed bacchus writes: Bet the author didn't expect this type of response to this post. I admit that I developed several mixed feelings while reading.

Thanks for your thought. This post was a risky one for the reason you mention. You never know how a conversation will go, and I'm not sure I would write this up the same way were I to do it again. But, however superficially I may have glossed some of these issues, they are out there and worth talking about, mixed feelings and all.