My father would sit, rolling a Viceroy cigarette between his calloused fingertips, thinking deeply and listening to Al Green’s “I’m Still in Love With You” on eight-track tape in his ’76 Chevy pickup. The truck was white with a blue stripe down the middle. He’d still be wearing his work uniform most times, attempting to let the struggles of the day roll off of him like sweat.
Pops would exhale slowly, probably going over an argument he’d just had with my mother in his head, and I suppose he’d be letting the song cry. I have many memories of my father from kindergarten promotion to our first dance at my wedding, but those moments in particular are gently tattooed onto my heart. I didn’t learn easy love from my parents, but instead the love that survives the fire.
I grew up feeling safe. It never occurred to me that my father, or any other man, might leave. By his example, love (and commitment) was always stronger than pride, or fear, or anything. To me, manhood meant staying, deciding, and following through.
My brother learned those same lessons as a boy. He’s gently matter-of-fact like my dad; he loves to tinker with things as he did, and he’s married to a beautiful, willful woman much like my mother. He grew up watching my father be responsible, have regrets, and come home every night to the house where his heart and his children were. For this reason probably, my brother does the exact same thing. I often wonder what kind of man my brother would have become had he not witnessed my father’s example.
To be clear, this is not an essay intended to blame single Black mothers for doing all they can to raise fatherless Black boys with an enormous amount of grace under fire. Maybe my brother would have become a man like wildly successful MC and mogul Jay Z. Jay grew up fatherless, a fact that plays out through his albums like boom baps and clever punch lines. One of his new favorite things to rhyme about is his daughter, Blue Ivy.
I watched, literally with my hand over my mouth, as the ever-so-smooth-like-butter Jay stuttered a bit when discussing his paranoia of not being a good father. There was something eerily familiar about Jay Z’s stutter in that video. In him, in that moment, I saw so many of the men I’ve loved. There stood a man whom most of us believe is sitting on top of the world, obviously still aching (if only a part of him) like the little boy his father abandoned.
That stutter and ache, that paranoia and insecurity is also familiar to Pastor Michael Waters, who wrote recently in The Huffington Post:
“Jay Z’s paranoia is real and should not be dismissed. With lyrics from ‘Jay Z Blue,’ another of Magna Carta’s offerings, ‘Father never taught me how to be a father’ and ‘I don’t want to duplicate it/I seen my mom and pop drive each other…crazy/And I got that n**** blood in me/I got his ego and his temper/All is missing is the drugs in me’, it is clear that Jay Z remains haunted by his father’s failures and the dissolution of his parent’s troubled marriage. I, like many young fathers today, largely the products of absent fathers and failed marriages, can identify with Jay Z’s joy and pain. Upon holding each of my children for the first time, I vividly recall becoming the embodiment of complex dualities—strength and weakness, assurance and fear, confidence and self-doubt—each encompassing my being simultaneously.”
Pastor Preston’s reflections and Jay’s videoed testimony arrive alongside Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant’s life class on fatherless sons, which aired some Sundays ago on the OWN Network. I ached as I watched the show. Through it, I found compassion for men that I’ve loved, whom I now realize simply did not have the tools to love me the way my father had, or the way he’d loved my mother. It made me contemplate if I’d been a good partner to many of them, having not really understood their struggles.
And this is the question du jour: how can you love someone through the trauma of that type of loss? How can those men be decisive and confident, tender and patient, if those behaviors have never been demonstrated to them? And what can we do to stop the cycle of fatherlessness and brokenness?
We’ve watched the destructive father-son relationship between DMX and his son Xavier play out on Iyanla Vanzant’s Fix My Life and have witnessed 50 Cent disown his son Marquise via text message. I’ve watched my lovers mask their hurt and insecurities as ego and hardness. I’ve tried to fill those empty spaces, often with my own well running dry as a consequence. Many women are slowly watching their sons implode with longing—a longing that oftentimes is never satisfied.
There’s far too much to unpack in one post on the topic of fatherless sons, but certainly we must first figure out how to comfort those boys and men while asking that they do the work necessary to heal themselves. A balance must be maintained that offers support and certainly the security of staying, but also reminds those boys and men that we will not allow them to break us because they, themselves, are broken.
We also have to realize that we can have as many expectations as we want of fatherless sons, or any human beings, but we should be realistic about whether or not our expectations are truly attainable. Honesty is important, to others and to us. Finding a way to be patient and compassionate while establishing boundaries and asking for action is the key to providing love and support to your lover and yourself.
I contemplate the writer Jeff Brown’s conversation on walls when considering how women should approach relationships with some men who grew up fatherless:
“I used to try to punch my way through people’s walls. I didn’t understand that they were there for a reason and often essential to their survival. I did the same with my own walls. Neither got me anywhere. The walls just got tougher, denser, more resilient. Now I have a different approach. I pray to walls. I honor their wisdom. I stroke them with kindness. I melt them with gentleness. And, if they still insist on standing firm, I leave them be. Walls have a time frame all their own.”
Josie Pickens is a cultural critic, educator and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.