I never thought about my life being an activity worthy of eyeballing. I’ve been wrong not to consider this. When race and masculinity come together, there are always rows of folks just waiting to see if it’ll be a collision or a seamless blend. Spectators seem to be particularly rabid for the intersection of blackness and fatherhood. Black and White folks both—not to mention every race, color and culture in between.
I am on this because of a heated conversation I had a few days ago. There were three of us. One brother, F., is in his late 50s and has three children (all grown). J., early 40s, has a daughter just 10 days older than mine. And then there was me: about to send my daughter to kindergarten and having no idea of the bomb I’d drop when I innocently asked: “Do y’all think that it’s better to emphasize being a father, or being a Black father?”
Passions ran high, and I found myself somewhere in the middle of J. and F.’s positions. Paraphrasing, F. made the point that since we’re already Black, all we have to do is try our best to be good fathers. The blackness takes care of itself, like it always does. J was completely against this. He stated it was vitally important that Black fathers emphasize that we are Black fathers. He broke it down like this:
“For younger brothers, engaged and competent Black fathers act as examples of what they can be come. Since we have vastly different problems, concerns and challenges than other men and fathers, it’s important that we situate our positive actions within our communities. The more of us who set good examples, especially in relation to fatherhood and being supportive partners, the more ammunition we generate to combat the perceived and actual rampant fatherlessness and dysfunctional relationships in our community.
“As far as White people and other folks who have something to say or think about us, they need to know that we’re no different than they are. We get up, go to work, love and raise our kids and keep it moving, despite disapproving stares. Nothing will piss off folks who hate us more than when we do well. Doing well is my revenge! For every turned up nose, sneer or insult, I turn up my blackness so they have to consider it! Yes, it is a Black man dressed in this suit and tie. Yes, it is a Black man buying his young daughter some clothes at the high-end store. Yes, it is a Black man who lives up in the hills, in the same home his father bought at a time when a Black man had to defend his property from his neighbors and the law.”
Then F. shifted a little J.’s way, conceding J.’s several valid points, but mentioning that Black presentation shouldn’t overshadow the work of parenting.
Once the red-hot embers of our convo started to cool, I found myself still stuck between J and F’s points of view. Both made entirely too much sense. But the dangers of either philosophy are that fatherhood could easily turn into a kind of performance. Fatherhood, ignoring race, doesn’t tell the full story. It seems disingenuous not to have blackness as a foundational part of my parenting. There are too many detrimental historical narratives of Black men not being fit for fatherhood, and I feel almost duty-bound to dispel this.
On the flip, a fatherhood that emphasizes race can turn into a succession of middle fingers to those that expect less from us, and this can poison the joy of being a father in the first place. I don’t want to parent for anyone else, but my little girl. Trying to disprove stereotypes is a fulltime job, and negative images of Black men are not my problem. It’s the problem of the folks who created and believe in those images.
This isn’t Pollyanna thinking. Why give those that hate me the time and attention? Let them howl and wail in the darkness about how Black men aren’t meant to do this or that. Their words and thoughts will never dictate my actions. To paraphrase both J. and F.: My blackness is why I am as good a father as I am.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.