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BLACK FATHERS, INVISIBLE MEN

By Dr. Vernon McClean

      Even during the many decades of slavery, black fathers performed. "feminine tasks."I n the opening paragraph of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," published in 1952, the male narrator says that he is invisible "simply because people refuse to see me." That is, "like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorted glass." And, "when they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything and anything except me." This particular brand of invisibility generally characterizes the existence of black fathers in contemporary America.

      The role of black fathers is one of the strongest and most important traditions in the black community. There is no question that in their earliest years in the New World enslaved African-Americans were concerned about their fathers. Moreover, their loyalty to their fathers (and mothers) defined the efforts of their white slaveholders to break the family bonds of their slaves.

      Belle Hooks, in her "Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism" (1988), reminds us that "scholars have emphasized the impact of slavery on the black male consciousness, arguing that black men, more so than black women, were the real' victims of slavery." She documents the reality that "sexist historians and sociologists have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most cruel and de-humanizing impact of slavery on the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity, which the psychologists and historians argue resulted in the dissolution and overall disruption of any black familial structure."

      My argument, however, is that rather than being stripped of our masculinity and experiencing "the dissolution and overall disruption of any black familial structure," black fathers have served the black community well, including in the present.

      Even during the many decades of slavery, black fathers performed what men have, often derisively, called "feminine tasks." Moreover, some psychologists and historians have mislabeled the carrying out of these tasks as constituting a form of "male castration." They have argued that performing these tasks (such as nurturing and caretaking) amounted to the "victimizations" of black fathers.

      My counter-argument is supported by a careful assessment of the functions of fathers, especially those held in slavery, and draws upon slave narratives which clearly demonstrated male participation in such "feminine" roles as those of full-time fathers, nurturers, caretakers and single parents roles which gave full scope to the sentimental abilities of African-American fathers.

      A close reading of slave narratives reveals the emotive and caring nature of African-American fathers. For example, Eugene Genovese, in his "Roll, Jordan, Roll" (1978), relates the story of one George Payne of Virginia, who wept when his child was sold away from him. Similarly, Professor Genovese relates the story of another Virginia slave who chopped off his left hand with a hatchet to prevent his being sold away from his child.

      These and many other instances point up the reality that, for African-American fathers, the traits of nurturance and devotion, or what sociologists have termed "positive behavioral characteristics," most definitely were present. If it appears to some that such traits were lacking, this is mainly because these traits have seldom been commented on in the media.

      Regarding family and personal relationships, today's African-American males are no less sensitive than their forefathers. According to one black physician, "black men come to the psychiatrist's office in large numbers, in pain and genuinely seeking help. They have little or nothing to say about the statistics, myths and other sociological pronouncements so often made about them. Rather, they come in talking about depression, anxiety, frustration, fear, guilt, esteem issues and anger that are most often related to the close, ongoing relationships in their lives." (Henry E. Edward, "Black Families in Crisis: the Middle Class," 1988).

      As a professor of African-American Studies, I emphasize solutions rather than problems when I teach. Thus, I cannot conclude this essay without advancing some suggestions for supporting black fathers:

  1. Reach out to black fathers. If you know of a "full-time dad," give him support, let him know you care and encourage him.
  2. Take your brother/father to a church, synagogue or mosque. Religion/spirituality is a source of strength for all of us. Too often, because of a false sense of masculinity and machismo, black fathers do not want to acknowledge the need for a Higher Power. Encourage your clergy person to support "full-time dads."
  3. If the black father has been abusive, use the occasion to help him discuss this situation. Again, acknowledging the role which sexism has played in our lives, it is difficult for black men to express their emotions. Encourage him to be gentle and loving. Let him know you love him, even if he is not muscular like Mike Tyson or graceful like Michael Jordan.
  4. Boycott radio stations, talk-show hosts, newspapers and businesses that defame black fathers.
  5. Oppose further cuts in jobs and social service programs. Defend those programs and policies that allow black fathers to earn the money necessary to provide for their families.
  6. Encourage "full-time dads" to join a black men's group, such as those organized in the inner cities. Black men need the support of other black men in order to be good fathers.
  7. Encourage teachers and professors to discuss the plight of the black father in their classes.

      While these suggestions focus on what others can do to help black fathers, there are measures which we as black fathers can do to help ourselves. Black fathers are not entirely blameless in their own oppression. Too often, we are abusive toward black women; a black woman is 16 times more likely to be raped than a white woman. Moreover, we are too often absent as fathers in our families and communities.

      Black fathers must therefore understand that black women are their equals. It is easy to blame the black woman for all pathologies in the black comm-unity, since too many of us leave the raising of our children to mothers. And when children commit crimes, we blame the victims: black women and black children.

      The positive examples cited in this essay debunk the opinion sometimes voiced by talk shows that black fathers do not care and have never cared about their children. Ironically, this view is sometimes echoed by some black women who assert that "there are no good black men left" and that "they (black men) take after their no-good black fathers."

      The majority of black fathers, however, are still waiting to exhale. That is, we are still waiting for the black media to acknowledge our presence and to write something good about us. Too long we have been invisible.

Dr. Vernon McClean is Professor of African-American Studies at William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey, and is a member of the leadership council of The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS).

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