African-American fathers, teens and adults alike, particularly those unmarried and bereft of positive examples of fatherhood, have long borne the brunt of undue criticism for their inability and failure to adequately support, guide and serve as an integral force and vocal presence in the lives of their children.
But despite today’s prevailing winds ushering in a preponderance of negative assertions and assumptions about “absentee Black fathers,” a bastion of unheralded leaders from within the African-American community remain intent on securing greater resources, programs and more mentors for fathers who love their children but lack the skills needed to more adroitly navigate the unfamiliar terrain of fatherhood.
And to update the public on noteworthy initiatives that have yielded positive results for fledgling African-American fathers, Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Danny K. Davis (D-IL), co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys [CCBMB], recently hosted a hearing on fatherhood, “Understanding the Effect of Fathers Who Care,” on the Hill during which speakers emphasized the significant role of fathers and shared methods they’ve employed to better equip themselves or other Black dads.
“The impact of having a positive role model in a young man’s life cannot be underestimated,” said Norton who, along with Davis, launched the Caucus on Black Men and Boys in 2013 before replicating the program at the local level to benefit fathers from within the District of Columbia.
“Fatherhood and role modeling are a critical part of anchoring and teaching our young men how to live, work and thrive in society and who need guidance across the board – from education to relationships to staying away from and out of the criminal justice system. We can no longer ignore the fact that there’s something problematic facing Black teenaged boys as they attempt to crossover into manhood.”
Davis, a father, grandfather, mentor to scores of Black fathers in his hometown of Chicago and co–sponsor of the landmark Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2015, echoed Norton’s views.
“Father engagement does not depend on living in the same house as one’s child, with many non-residential fathers being actively-involved with their children and supportive of their children’s mothers,” Davis said. “However, low-income and teenage fathers experience multiple challenges to contributing financially and emotionally to their children due to limited education and job skills, unstable employment opportunities, child support enforcement policies, incarceration and strained relationships with their children’s mothers.”
“We’re eager to learn more about what work is being done with Black fathers in the community and that’s why we have invited four experts to testify today. We established the CCBMB to increase the focus on boys and young African-American men who too often are exposed to gun violence and gangs and who drop out of school more often than girls. Engaging in hearings and events like this assist us in addressing the concerns of Black men and boys and their development,” said Davis whose commitment to Black youth cannot be disputed given the tragedy he’s faced within his own family.
In November 2016, his grandson Javon Wilson, 15, was shot to death at his home during a dispute with two other teens in an argument over gym shoes and clothing. Davis not only delivered the eulogy at his grandson’s funeral but later reached out to the youth, also a teen, who killed Javon. And while Davis admits he initially had trouble finding the appropriate final words to deliver, he has remained steadfast in filling the gap for Black youth, encouraging those who have little hope or few expectations for a positive future.
Speakers for the hearing included Roland Martin, journalist and host/managing editor of #RolandMartinUnfiltered; Haki Nkrumah, founder, Young Fathers of Central Florida; David A. Harris, CEO, Urban Strategies Council; and Joseph T. Jones, founder/CEO, Center for Urban Families.
Martin, who does not have biological children of his own, has raised six nieces with his wife. He said he has always sought to exemplify the loving relationship that exists with his spouse so that his nieces can see an example of Black love at its best.
“We’re in a world today in which fathers are treated as an option,” Martin said. “But in truth, fathers matter. What we do matters. Just consider most news reports by mainstream media that show a Black ball player signing a major contract or winning a championship who hugs and thanks his mother but says nothing about his father, thus reinforcing the notion of the single Black mother and the absent Black father. I realized as my nieces came to live with us, that I had to watch the words I used and be aware of my actions around them. I had to be intentional.”
Nkrumah, who moved from New York City to Orlando in 2006, remembers encounters with other Black men who bet that he’d fail in his goal to establish a mentoring program for Black teens in Florida.
“I knew if I could grab brothers from Brooklyn and the Bronx, I could certainly get boys from Pine Hills and Paramore,” he said. “I focus on younger fathers because of the disproportionate number of infant mortality among Black babies, many of whom were the offspring of fathers 24 or younger.”
“Most male programs are unwilling to include younger boys, those 14, 15 or 16, because they can’t vote and don’t pay child support so, as some politicians conclude, ‘what’s the point?’ It’s not glamorous but it’s needed and it must be approached in a holistic manner so that the entire family benefits. Some young men don’t even know how to say ‘I love you’ to their children. We’ve got to show them how to express genuine love and that begins by being genuine in our relationships with them.”
Val Demings (D-FL), the first woman to serve as chief of police in Orlando (Nkrumah’s district), also attended the hearing and said she has long been committed to investing in the lives of young boys and girls.
“I was the youngest of seven children and my father was a janitor but he might as well have been the president of the United States,” she said. “My mother taught us the loving side, how to love Jesus and how to respect our elders. But when the boogie man came, only my daddy could make me feel safe.”
“Haki has done a stellar job in persuading an impressive contingency of men in the Orlando area to serve as mentors to young boys. And they, like other surrogate dads, provide that guidance that children sorely need. But as a mother with three sons, I realized long ago that while I could help them grasp some of life’s essential skills and lessons, only their father could teach them how to be men.”