Black fatherhood has been a topic of fascination and consternation in American culture for quite some time. Just as social scientists and statisticians consistently mull over Black women’s marriage rates, and self-appointed relationship experts offer Black women advice on how to find and keep a "good Black man," a rotating cast of players has made it their business to weigh in on the State of Black Fatherhood. (With Father’s Day just two months away, brace yourself for more.)
Whether it’s President Obama preaching about the problem of Black absentee dads, Bill Cosby admonishing the Black community to fight teen fatherhood rates, or sociologists like Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green challenging the Black deadbeat dad caricature with their book The Myth of the Missing Black Father, the conversation is usually the same. Depending on which side of the divide you’re on, AWOL and inadequate Black fathers are—or aren’t—the reason Black people are poor, incarcerated, obese, etcetera, at higher rates than most other racial and ethnic groups in the country.
The season two premiere of “Iyanla: Fix My Life” introduced a new strand to the ongoing conversation. Featuring the forceful life coach trying to heal the relationship between rapper Earl “DMX” Simmons and his eldest son Xavier, it was apparent the ‘90s hip-hop star and his son were battling more than the specific issues that had led them to seek Vanzant’s on-camera therapy. They were also contending with the unique conundrum of the rapper-son/daughter relationship.
From Jay-Z to Lil Wayne to 50 Cent, many of the most successful rappers grew up fatherless, in poverty, selling/doing drugs, etcetera—yet the money and fame they earned by skillfully recounting tales of their hard-knock youth have afforded their children a gilded life of nannies, private schools, music lessons, trips abroad, disposable income and more. As DMX beat his chest, tearfully reminding his son he “didn’t know not one nigga with a father” in his youth, Xavier sat stoic and hurting, unable to relate.
Psychologist Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin says the disconnect between a parent who came out of a tough background and their child can trigger a unique set of problems. “In the worst case scenarios, extreme poverty can create issues of emotional deprivation, neglect, abuse due to lack of resources and the stress that poverty creates.” Orbe-Austin continues, “Parents who experienced trauma, depression, addiction, or abusive behavior during childhood, may have struggled with their own mental health concerns that were difficult to address due to lack of resources. Thus, once they become parents they may bring some unhealthy coping strategies into their relationships with their own children.”
Add celebrity to the mix and it gets even more complicated.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Philip B. Spivey says, the familiar desire for a child to desire his/her parents’ attention is brought into sharp relief when fame is a factor. “The young child will have to compete with ‘showbiz’ for his parent's attention.” Spivey adds, “Later, competition for the parent's attention grows into competition with the parent,” which includes, “living up to the parents’ fame and accomplishments.”
Envy can confuse the dynamic too, Dr. Orbe-Austin points out. “When children have had every need and even whim attended to, there can be jealousy, anger, frustration and the magical belief that money will erase the past and make it less likely for patterns of behavior to appear, including abuse, addiction, teenage pregnancy, mental health issues.”
Orbe-Austin says the class gap can also frustrate the relationship. “Their children… may be better educated, which raises issues regarding the ability to engage with the parents at a level they may be unprepared for.”
Seated facing each other in a heated therapy session, DMX and his son were a refracted reflection of each other. Rocking an oversized plaid shirt with khakis and lug sole boots, a thick chain dangling from his neck and blinging rocks glinting from his ears, X represented the sartorial badges of the hardscrabble hip-hop and grunge era he came out of, while his son’s graphic tee, friendship bracelets, and tanned round-toe boots reflected his middle-class sensibility.
After embracing each other, the young man who is a songwriter, performed an original song for his father on acoustic guitar. The folksy rock tune called “Exhaustion,” albeit far less gritty, mirrored the raw, confessional style that helped his father sell 30 million albums worldwide, debuting 5 consecutive albums at #1.
Just as DMX's ex-wife Tashera Simmons told Iyanla in her own tearful sit-down, “Xavier is his father, without the drugs.”
Of course, one cannot expect years of issues to be resolved by the end of a one-and-a-half-hour season premiere. DMX and Xavier’s beef was certainly not fully squashed. Even after profusely and clearly expressing their love for each other, DMX still refused his son’s request to become “completely clean” of drugs. “How are we going to have a nice, healthy relationship, if you’re toxic?” Xavier asked, intimating his father’s history of drug abuse. DMX responded, “If there’s going to be a condition… I’m not going to allow that.”
Aside from the specifics of the discussion, the conversation sounded much like any father negotiating with his newly-grown son. “I think everyone, including the population you identify here, needs forces that stabilize their lives,” Dr. Spivey prescribes, listing, “a confidant, spiritual advisor; psychotherapist; or Dutch Uncle who has no ax to grind; no particular investment in the celeb's career, but a greater investment in your personal, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.”
Dr. Orbe-Austin adds, “The first step is acknowledging that there is a disconnect between their lived experiences and begin to explore the expectations each has of the other. For the parent, it is also important to discuss the feelings of guilt or the reasons for emotional and/or physical absence. The child must also have an opportunity to voice his or her feelings about not having his or her parent present.”
Dr. Orbe-Austin points out, “Parenting is difficult no matter the situation, but can be even more challenging under the public spotlight. Therefore, seeking support is important and constantly communicating are key strategies to creating a happy, healthy relationship for everyone. The parents and the children may have different childhood experiences around money, but often have similar experience in terms of interpersonal and developmental challenges because the parent is likely to replicate those unless they are understood and resolved.”
As the children of Lil’ Wayne, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z grow up, it will be interesting to see how they reconcile the worlds their parents' came from and the worlds they inhabit. DMX’s articulate son, and James Todd “LL Cool J” Smith’s children offer a glimpse of what could be.
In a recent interview with the rapper and actor who recounted physical abuse in his childhood and his father’s shooting of his mother and uncle who both survived, Oprah Winfrey asked LL’s children what they are most proud of about their dad. Italia, 22, answered, “I’m most proud of just seeing his growth as a person, and just as a father and a friend.” Italia explained, “he had us when [he was our age] so me and [my brother] Najee kind of went through it all.”
Smith’s younger children are more removed from their father’s youthful indiscretions, and benefit from his distance from his difficult early childhood. Daughter Samaria, 17, says her father’s current focus is on telling her “You can do anything you put your mind to. You’re beautiful. You’re talented. You’re smart. Like, all the time.”
“Like, every five minutes,” youngest daughter Nina, 12, chimed in. All the children laughed.