Opinion: Black fathers and the shame of absenteeism

Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

“Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?”

That question, posed by a Texas police officer to a black mother, speaks volumes about perceptions of black humanity.

What happened was this: A white man in Fort Worth grabbed a black boy, a neighbor, and began choking him, accusing the child of littering. The child’s alarmed mother called the police.

When the officer arrived, rather than arrest the assaulter, he peppered the mother with questions. Then he wrestled the mother to the ground, handcuffed her and pushed her into the backseat of the squad car.

Black parents have long understood that behavior that might be viewed as normal, even if somewhat problematic, among white children, is less tolerated when it comes from black children; littering is deemed a gateway act towards a life of criminality.

As a father, I’ve seen this time and again, even as I try to make sure that my daughters have the freedom to make mistakes, and to know the difference between thoughtless infractions and actual criminal intent.

The so-called criminality of black children collapses well-worn debates about nature vs. nurture. It is thought to be both the product of their environments and the failure of black parents — especially black mothers — to parent. Thus the black mother, whose legitimate instinct in the midst of a violent upheaval in Baltimore in 2015 was to publicly chastise a teenage son, is celebrated as a national hero, while another mother is lectured about trash on the lawn.

Black fathers, meanwhile, are often thought of as absent. Fifty years of popular narratives — movies like “Baby Boy,” books like Jawanza Kunjufu’s underground classic “The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys” and television series like “Good Times” – have devoted much energy to the question of absent black fathers.

With all of that as backdrop, I am of a generation of black men who see absenteeism as a curse of the race. That curse has been rendered a truism in the popular American imagination, so much so that the presence of an actual black father is viewed as disruptive; it’s as if the concept of an involved, engaged black father is unfathomable.

Case in point: When I accompanied my daughter on a recent doctor’s appointment, my daughter was asked, “Do you live with both your parents?” That might seem like an innocuous question, given the high divorce rate in the country. But when you are a black father there’s the sting of presumed absence.

What the physician really wants to ask of me is, “Who are you?” I hear this implicit question in the background when women, usually white women, feel compelled to bestow honor on me because my teenage daughters are sitting with me at a local coffee shop. I heard it, too, when women offered assistance to me when my youngest —always the youngest — was willful in the way that the little white boys wearing the fireman boots in the middle of July always are.

My unspoken response is that I’m a parent to two brilliant and thoughtful black daughters. Yet the point of their interest in me and my daughters is never lost in me. Very often, it affirms the assumption that I don’t spend much time with my children — because black men don’t do that.

It’s my belief that my daughters, and black girls in general, should experience the carefree freedoms enjoyed by every white child I’ve confronted in my life. No doubt this has caused more than enough confrontations with teachers and school administrators who have other ideas about how black children, and in particular black girls, should comport themselves. All the more so when they assume that I’m not present in the house to enforce some notion of discipline.

When my wife sarcastically remarks that I am great father, it’s not because she doesn’t believe it. Instead, it is her way of telling me that I am a much better father than I am a husband — and she ain’t lying. In all honesty, black men are not held accountable in their roles as husbands and partners, with the same vigor with which we are demanded to be good and present fathers. Because of the shame associated with being absent or inattentive fathers, we now have a generation of black men not nearly as invested in the labor to be good husbands and partners. Whether we fail or succeed at the former, the implications are deemed so much more critical.

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, where he chairs the Department of African and African American Studies.

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