On occasion, TV captures complexities of black men as fathers

Jun. 12, 2013 @ 05:45 PM

With Father’s Day this Sunday, I’ve been thinking about how fathers have been portrayed on television over the years.

As a child growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, the TV fathers who I best remember were Jim Anderson, Robert Young’s character on “Father Knows Best,” and Mike Brady, portrayed by Robert Reed in “The Brady Bunch.” Both men were typical of the kinds of men that many expected to be the “head of the family” in 20th-century American society.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Brady were also in stark contrast to my father and many of the working-class black men I knew in my neighborhood or saw on TV, characters like Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford and John Amos’s James Evans Sr., who was much closer in spirit to my own dad.

That all changed in the fall of 1984, when America was introduced to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, who quickly took on the unprecedented role for a black man as America’s “favorite dad.”

There was a need to celebrate a character who challenged historic stereotypes of black men as fathers -- often portrayed as absent, shiftless, unemployed and overly chauvinistic. But was an upper middle-class professional not dramatically different than his white male peers really what black audiences were looking for? Where were the black male characters who represented the complexities of what it means to be a black in contemporary America?  Would we even know them if we saw them?

In my recent work researching the intersection of African-American and pop cultures, I have been examining the ways that black men are legible to us in the popular imagination. In the ways that seeing a black man on television with a basketball or on a newscast about crime is terribly familiar to us, more complex images of black men as fathers seem few and far between. Indeed, the recent Samsung Galaxy II commercial -- featuring basketball star LeBron James engaging with his sons over breakfast -- seems almost revolutionary.

Yet there have been moments where mainstream television has given us glimpses of the complexity of being a black man and a father. In the mid-1990s, Eriq La Salle appeared on the series “ER” as Dr. Peter Benton. Though Benton’s presence on the show as a thoughtful and skilled surgeon was important, it was the introduction of his role as the father of a deaf son, born out of wedlock, that helped transform his character. Though there were questions about the child’s paternity, Dr. Benton never shirked from his responsibility as the boy’s father and even learned to sign in order to communicate with his young son.

Later the storyline went to a rarefied space when Dr. Benton and Roger McGrath (portrayed by veteran black actor Vondie Curtis-Hall) were in a battle for the custody of Benton’s son after the death of the child’s mother, who was married to McGrath. Given the almost unchallenged belief that black men run from the responsibilities of fatherhood, the image of two black men fighting over the custody of the child was pretty astounding.  Indeed, even more important was Dr. Benton’s decision to allow his son’s step-dad to remain a part of the child’s life after the court ruled in Dr. Benton’s favor.

Even further off the radar was the character of Wallace (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) from the HBO series “The Wire.” Though Wallace is a 16-year-old street soldier in a Baltimore drug crew, he also serves as the primary caretaker for his siblings, with whom he shares an abandoned flat. In some of the more memorable scenes involving Wallace, the teen can be seen preparing lunches for his brothers and sisters -- juice boxes, chips -- and even tutoring one of his sisters who was struggling with math.  

Though Wallace might seems like an outlier, there are likely more black males like him who are trying to parent with whatever resources they have access to, with little fanfare and recognition. Perhaps we should pay tribute to those fathers, who are so off of our radars on this Father’s Day.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University. His latest book is “Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities” (2013).