Here’s an excellent piece on being a father and particularly a black father (Daddy-Dialectic, 5/14/11). The writer is Shawn Taylor whose parents are Jamaican and Puerto Rican and who is, as he says, “visually black.” Moreover, his 22-month-old daughter is clearly of mixed race; this creates interesting and sometimes perilous situations for Taylor when he’s out in public with her.
The piece is so well done, I’ll let him tell it:
1. I”m unsure why, but I get asked–quite often–about the hardest part of being a father. The people who ask me this are almost all younger cats who are about to become fathers or are there already. That question is a Pandora”s Box. Being a father is hard in a million different ways: Balancing fatherhood with partnership; being able to do the things that I love to do on a consistent basis (for example, writing–I”m writing this at 3am, while everyone is asleep and I have a moment to myself); the loss of money; having to send your child to childcare because both parents have to work to afford all the additional costs. Working all day, coming home at night and only seeing your child for forty-five minutes before their bedtime–in these ways and more, daddyhood is hard as hell. But none of this (yes, even the money problems) even comes close to the raging difficulty of being a father of color.
2. Being tattooed, visually Black (I”m half Jamaican and half Puerto Rican), over six feet tall and muscular, holding a little ethnically-ambiguous toddler makes many people double, triple, quadruple take–and also, for some odd reason, loosens tongues, mostly of white folks, and creates an environment of familiarity. And yet they still manage to see me wrong: In my daughter”s twenty-two months of living, I have been labeled ‘uncle,” ‘babysitter,” ‘guardian,” ‘cousin,” but never father. I can”t tell you just how crushing a blow this is. I LOVE being a father and I think that I am becoming a better one by the day, but to have one of my greatest joys discounted is painful.
That’s one he shares with countless fathers across the country and across the globe. Having one’s fatherhood discounted is one of the most common experiences a dad can have. Human life may or may not begin at conception, but the marginalization of fathers sure does. In that, Shawn Taylor joins the crowd.
But he’s a black father and, as we know, whatever prejudices there are against fathers are multiplied several fold when it comes to black fathers. After all, just look at the out-of-wedlock childbearing rates among African-American women. That number – 70% – says much of what we need to know about the status of fathers among African-Americans.
If we need to know more, we can just turn to the Fragile Families and Child Well-being studies at Princeton or Kathryn Edin’s work at Harvard. They tell us about the concept of “parenting as a package deal” that exists everywhere, but has unique consequences for black dads.
Both men and women tend to view mother and child as a “package,” meaning that wherever she goes the child goes. The dad may or may not come with them, but what doesn’t happen is that the child comes with him and not her. I’d say that maternal gatekeeping is a close cousin of the “package deal.”
What Edin and her colleagues show is that, although even the youngest and poorest of black fathers passionately desire a close relationship with their children, the combination of no marriage and the “package deal” means that they soon lose most contact with their kids. That’s because, as Mom moves on to other male partners, the child stays with her and the dad becomes ever more marginalized.
So when Taylor asks the pithy question, “Do we really live in a society that is still stuck in the lie that Black men cannot be fathers?” the answer is a resounding “yes.” Indeed, that’s a great deal of the concept behind what Kathryn Edin describes.
Our culture being what it is, the absence of black fathers from their children’s lives is blamed not on the known facts, but on – as you might have guessed – the fathers themselves. What more widely accepted myth is there than that of the irresponsible black father without a thought in the world for his children? It’s so pervasive and so accepted that Taylor himself believed it.
When my partner told me she was pregnant, I had fears that, at the moment of birth, a Greyhound ticket would appear in my hands and I”d leave my partner and new child to fend for themselves. I thought I”d become an absent father sleeper agent–the baby”s first cry would activate me and my mission would be to get as far away from mother and baby as possible. Because, throughout my whole childhood, I never once had a friend or met anyone (of color) whose father lived with them, or in some cases, even knew who their fathers were. There is a generation of brothers and sisters born after Viet Nam and before the release of Ghostbusters that are a tribe of fatherless children. My own father, I saw the bastard five times in my life.
Note who’s the “bastard” in Taylor’s telling of it and of course his father may have been a person who wanted nothing to do with his son. Sociology now tells us that’s the exception not the rule, but everyone from the President of the United States on down prefers the myth of the deadbeat black dad to the more complex and less judgmental reality of fathers marginalized by mothers.
All of which makes Taylor’s narrative uniquely compelling. As a black dad, he’s paddling upstream and it’s a roaring torrent.
The rest of his story involves an encounter in a public park that almost turns violent as he’s accused of hurting a little girl who’d fallen. It’s about the interplay of race and fatherhood – those twin burdens Shawn Taylor carries around with him all day, every day.
Many thanks to Betsy for the heads-up.