New York, NY —When Barack Obama discussed fatherhood and, specifically, black fatherhood on Father’s Day, he was, of course, opening a can of worms. As he rattled off the grim statistics about how many African-American children are being raised without their fathers and the effect that absence is having on their lives, I could almost feel large sections of the black community tightening up.
For some of us, it really does come back to that “dirty laundry” thing; many people don’t like revealing our shortcomings to the rest of the world. Personally, I just find it frustrating that this is something that has to be addressed at all. It’s disgraceful that the Democratic nominee for the office of President of the United States, much less, the first African-American one has to even deal with something that’s obvious. In other words, what we need to be addressing is, why is someone who has achieved something so extraordinary having to deal with something that is, ultimately, very ordinary.
Forgive me if you find me glib but I think an unintended side effect of focusing on those of us who aren’t being good fathers is a culture of lowered expectation in relation to those of us who are just, really, doing what we’re supposed to do. Again, the numbers don’t lie; there is absolutely a crisis in the black community when it comes to fatherhood. Half of African-American children are being raised without their fathers and, as a community and as a country, we need to address this. But what has happened is that, in focusing on getting fathers to be, well, fathers we’ve created this bizarre situation that puts basic values into question and rewards simple baseline behavior.
I joke with my close friends — all black men — about this all the time. All of us got married and had children at about the same time so we’ve been on the Positive Black Man road together for years now, so we share war stories. We take our children out into the world and you can feel people staring at us. It’s like they’ve seen Bigfoot or something equally exciting. “Look... it’s the North American Black Father. Amazing... It appears that he’s feeding his young. I believe... Yes, yes! It’s apple sauce! Lauren, are you taping this?” And while this is certainly an ego boost to have people damn near give you a parade just because you’re taking your daughter to the movies to see "Kung Fu Panda," it does lower the bar for what is expected from fathers.
Ultimately, manhood is about expectation. I don’t believe most men necessarily want acclaim. As men, we judge ourselves by how we measure up to the community’s definition of manhood. We construct our identities as friends, mates, sons, protectors, lovers and thinkers. And, obviously, a large part of this self critique and self construction is, also, how we conduct ourselves as fathers.
When what should be seen as ordinary behavior is elevated to the extraordinary, it undermines overall value judgment and failure is just seen as normal. Yes, it was relevant for Barack Obama to address the issue of black fatherhood, but it's a shame he had to.
— Vincent Williams
Vincent Williams writes the Social Studies column for Baltimore City Paper. He's also a doctoral candidate and instructor at Temple University.