It’s been three months since Fathers Day 2013—the one day out of the year that many of us actually think about fatherhood on any level. While the celebrations are far in the rearview mirror, the continuing challenges of fatherhood in the Black community remain straight ahead.
About half of us grow up at some point without our fathers. And many of those who had present dads had or have challenging relationships with them.
We are about 50 years removed from the first utterances of “Black power” as both a challenge to and an affirmation of the Civil Rights movement. While we could spend days arguing the current state of Black power, we can argue that at least elected Black Power has been realized. There were less than 100 Blacks in elected office in 1965. There were over 10,000 in 2011—including the president of the United States. However, even President Barack Obama grapples with the impact of fatherlessness on his own upbringing.
Clearly another form of Black power remains crucially unrealized and underutilized: fatherhood.
Now, we know that Black fathers are impacted by historic and macroeconomic factors that have challenged the traditional role of a father as an economic provider—factors that cannot be marginalized. However, as the traditional role has expanded, there remains the reality that power in the role of being a father comes from being present.
The words of a dear friend reflect this reality: “I feel the most powerful when I quiet the cries of my children. When they hurt, I am the one who gives comfort. When they are scared, I am the one who gives solace. That they run to me when they are hurting and I can soothe them makes me feel powerful.”
This message of Black Power must be conveyed. Presence is more important than presents. Presence is not merely child support (though it should go without saying that a man must work to support his children financially and consistently). The emotional interaction that derives from consistent interaction cements relational bonds between fathers and children that provide the resilience in children allowing them to effectively face challenges outside the family. Put another way—being there for your kids gives them stability to deal with life. Put yet another way—my power is exercised and felt in raising and loving them.
I know of no other feeling that compares to being greeted by a chorus of “Papi! Papi’s home!” after hours spent away. That feeling is stronger than and soothes more than any drug on this planet. My sons’ hugs are my elixir. One morning my 4-year-old jumped in the bed and huddled next to me. I remarked that he had a whole bunch more space in the middle of the bed and he quickly replied, “I wanna’ be all the way next to you because I love you.” Black power.
This feeling of waking up next to my children whether they crawled into my bed during the night or made the rare stay in their own beds cannot be compared to anything I have experienced. My security and well-being are tied to their security and well-being.
It is a complex cauldron of connection that I have with my sons where I simultaneously recognize my responsibility, but I also recognize my vulnerability and selfish need to have them affirm me as I affirm them. I need them as much as they need me. I love them both in feeling and action.
My selfishness is placed on hold. I turned my back on my motorcycle and sold it because I did not want a day to come when it would have to be explained that daddy died having fun on his bike. Yes, I know that death can come anytime, but I did not want death to come that way. I love them enough to live for them.
I love them enough to keep them safe from harm, but also give them enough freedom to make mistakes so that experience crystallizes the lessons I share. I love them enough not to say ‘yes’ to everything they ask—although I like the short term feeling associated with making them happy, I am more interested in the long term outcomes of character that are produced from not getting everything they want and refuse to cheat them out of the self-esteem that is gained from achieving something through struggle.
I love them enough to spend time with them and to sacrifice career advancement if that means I cannot be there for quality time. I love them enough to change diapers and give “security wipes” after toilet trips. I love them enough to kiss boo boos, read bedtime stories, and stay in their room because “[we]want you in here.”
It is imperative to understand that being present as a father is an act of revolution. It is a challenge to the status quo. It is a statement about self and reflection of culture. Producing stable, grounded, and affirmed children is promoting Black power.
Nearly a year ago I sent the following email to a new father:
From one father to another, the easiest thing to do as a father is let the mother take responsibility for all the unglamorous activities on a regular basis – bathing, diapering, clothing, feeding, and soothing. However, I argue that it happens to be those activities that create most of the bond that will tie you to your child throughout the lifespan. It also creates a sense of enduring partnership with your wife. So, dig in despite your busy work schedule and demands from others.