The maligning of African-American men in the media as poor, unwilling, or deficient fathers continues to go mostly unabated, despite sound evidence to the contrary.
In fact, research studies conducted in the past five years by both the Pew Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), document participation in childrearing among Black men that surpasses all other groups.
For instance, the CDC’s report on the role of American fathers in family life found that Black men performed critical roles in the health and development of their children, whether sharing a residence with the children or in another home. This, according to the study’s authors defied stereotypes about Black fatherhood by documenting both their traditional and non-traditional involvement in daily child rearing.
“There is an astounding amount of mythology loaded into this stereotype, one that echoes a history of efforts to rob Black masculinity of honor and fidelity,” New York Times commentator Charles M. Blow said in a 2015 piece. “Now to the mythology of the Black male dereliction as dads: While it is true that Black parents are less likely to marry before a child is born, it is not true that Black fathers suffer a pathology of neglect.”
Further, although Black fathers are more likely to live separately from their children, they remain actively involved in their children’s lives. The Pew Institute estimates roughly 67 percent of African-American fathers who don’t live with their kids see them at least once a month, compared to 59 percent of White dads and just 32 percent of Hispanic dads.
“My job is to ensure that my children grow into healthy, productive, God-centered men and women. That cannot happen with me acting like a man-child, hanging with friends instead of with my kids,” Vaughn Willis, a 27-year-old mechanic, told The Informer.
Willis said that while he may have been short on financial support for his two children on occasion, he provided them with the tangible things they needed.
“My sons didn’t want to hear that business was slow and I couldn’t pay for new clothes or shoes, they just wanted their dad to be there to read to them or to walk them to school,” he said. “They need to know that they matter to the man who gave them life.”
Past and Prologue
Willis, like countless Black men who find themselves separated from their children through incarceration, had to reconnect not only with a society that demonized his adolescent conviction but also with his former girlfriend and their sons — living across state lines. Sentenced 12 years to a federal facility for a nonviolent drug charge, Willis said phone calls, letters, and visits to Pennsylvania were impossible for his family to manage.
“Once I got out my girl and the kids had moved. All I could think about was how to get to my sons because I could see in lock-up how easy it was for young, knuckleheads with no fatherly guidance to get pinched by the system,” Willis said. “That was not going to be my sons.”
Unbeknownst to Willis, his two-year search to find his sons mimicked the historical search many African-American men undertook to find their wives and children following Emancipation. In Willis’ case, his family had moved to North Carolina to be with extended family, of which he knew little. But for men in similar situations following enslavement, few resources proved available.
Beginning in 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau created and maintained registries containing the names and locations of all African Americans on various farms and plantations to afford soldiers looking for family members a reference point from which to start searching. However, Black newspapers figured most prominently in the search by Black men for their families and the reuniting process from the end of the Civil War through Reconstruction.
According to historian Heather Andrea Williams, author of “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery,” many Black men placed ads, looking for their children up until about 1903.
“I have many, many accounts of separation in the book,” Williams told NPR. “And I start the book by looking at people’s experiences as children, being separated from their parents.”
She said in one instance, an account of Nettie Henry transcribed by the Works Progress Administration described how her father who was sold to a family in Alabama — states away from their Mississippi home — traveled to see his wife and family on occasion. On the eve of the Civil War, Henry’s father was sold again to a planter in Texas.
Williams recounts Henry’s excitement about her father finding and reuniting with his family.
“His family did not see him for several years,” she said. “But after the war, he come back to us, walked most all the way from Texas [to Mississippi].”
Statistics vs. Stereotypes
Nearly half of Black fathers, in the CDC report, living apart from their young children said they played with them at least several times a week, 42 percent said they fed or ate with them that frequently, and 41 percent said they bathed, diapered or helped dress them as often — rates on par with or higher than those of other men living apart from their kids.
Across most characteristics, higher percentages of men ages 15-44 were living with their children than were living apart from their children, but the magnitude of the difference varied by characteristic. For example, about twice as many men 15-24 had lived with their children (6.9 percent) as opposed to 3.3 percent who did not. By ages 35-44, three times as many men lived with their kids (64 percent) versus 19 percent who did not.
Similarly, two-thirds of fathers between ages 15 and 44 who lived with their school-age children (65 percent) talked with one or more of these children about things that had happened during the child’s day every day, as did 16 percent of fathers who lived apart from their children.
So why is it so difficult to get beyond the stereotype?
University of Texas-Austin professors Louis Harrison and Anthony L. Brown found that when faced with statistical proof or data, many Americans simply reject the information.
“If the stereotypes cannot be explained away, people often create subcategories of Black fathers they claim are different,” the professors said. “Most people of color can attest that when they exhibit behavior outside of the expected stereotyped actions, they hear the phrase but you’re different. Black men with children are often labeled as different because they don’t fit expected stereotypical behaviors of Black fathers.”
Unfortunately, positive depictions of Black fatherhood are often ignored or dismissed as atypical by many.
Despite the plethora of data, scientific evidence and real-time examples that run contrary to the racially-tainted myth that Black fathers remain ill-equipped, the falsehood persists. On the grounds, however, thousands of men across the country have weighed in and armored-up for battle to regain control of the narrative on Black fathers. Primary to regaining control: shifting the belief that being a good father is innate, rather than learned. Fatherhood does not come with a manual, though best practices, growth and healing (where needed) can be taught.
Franklyn Malone, CEO of 100 Fathers, Inc, sits most effectively among those armored-up change-agents. Ten years ago, while working for the city of Alexandria at a family resource learning center, Malone said he witnessed the impact of fatherlessness on the young people he encountered.
“There were a lot of young men and women who didn’t have their fathers around and there were many issues in the area involving drug dealers, shootings and violence,” said Malone, who organized with a couple of other gentlemen who were fathers to man the center and mentor the young people. “The young people we worked with went on to get the highest grades on the standard of learning tests, while we were there. They were missing being fathered and they wanted so much to please us.”
Malone said that he has found through extensive first-hand experience and qualifying research that when fathers are involved in the school life and involved with kids at home and in their communities, grades go up, along with self-esteem. Malone’s 100 Fathers, trains young men to be involved, engaged and accountable fathers — to their own children, and subsequent conduits and role models for others.
“We are living out the dream of educating fathers about the importance of being in the household. Our platform is training, advocacy, and legislation,” he said. “We discuss things like the impact of the trans-Atlantic Holocaust and the Devil’s Punchbowl in the separation of Black families, but also about our successes as fathers.”
Since 2003, 100 Fathers has provided instruction and certification to more than 500 fatherhood trainers. Citing the data from the CDC, Pew and the American Psychological Association, Malone said the research backs the organization’s curriculum.
“Our training is evidence-based and transformational, as we train men and hold them accountable,” Malone said. “Our matrix is love, connection, engagement, enlightenment, and spiritual regeneration, which brings about empowerment. When there is a lack of manhood in the family, the need for respect and power coupled with that lack of fatherhood, is convoluted with incarceration. We want to interrupt that process. We are training that next generation who can hold other men accountable and lead by example. That is our mission, our goal, and our victory.”