Black Fathers: A Call for Healingby Kristin Clark Taylor
"The fathers may soar. And the children may know their names," Toni Morrison wrote. In Black Fathers, Kristin Clark Taylor takes this wisdom to heart. Focusing on the irreplaceable gifts fathers bring to their children's lives as well as on the untold joy that comes from fathering a child, she invites all black fathers -- those who soar, those who are only learning how to fly, and those whose wings have been temporarily clipped by circumstances or personal failure -- to celebrate themselves, heal the fissures that separate them from their children, and reclaim their place in the hearts and lives of their families. Black Fathers brings together the heartfelt, and sometimes painful, reflections of black Americans, young and old, male and female, with each chapter examining a unique and identifiable characteristic of black fatherhood. It examines the complexities of the African American father as well as some of the challenges and pitfalls that many men encounter at some point in their lives. There are anecdotes evoking the nostalgic glow of old-fashioned family togetherness; portraits of New Age fathers who juggle the demands of a career with the unshakable dedication to being there for their children; interviews with single, divorced, or widowed fathers who are trying to fill the roles of both father and mother; and tributes to the miraculous mentors in black communities -- uncles, teachers, volunteers, and other father figures who make a huge difference in a child's lonely life. Taylor describes her own father and husband, as well as other exceptional dads she has encountered, and discusses the importance of rebuilding broken and fragmented relationships.
- Doubleday Publishing
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Read an Excerpt
THE BEAUTY OF "BEING THERE"
A CLARION CALL TO BLACK FATHERS: YOUR PRESENCE IS MANDATORY!
"My son is the flame in my heart. . . . How could I live in a world without him?"
--GEORGE SANKER, DIRECTOR OF BEST MEN, INC.
We are in need of our fathers. Our stomachs are growling, hungry for their presence. Our throats are parched, thirsty for the moment, the minute, the second they walk back into our lives, bringing the smiles and certainty and solidity that only a father can provide.
Our fathers of yesterday--and the countless faceless fathers of today who too often go unnoticed and unappreciated--are the reason we need to rejoice. These strong black men were and are the backbone of the family unit, holding things together as the stress and strain of daily life does all it can to stretch and tear apart the fabric of our family lives. These are the men we celebrate. These are the fathers we thank.
That being said, there still exists a gaping hole where our fathers used to stand, stalwart and strong, at the epicenter of our lives. It is a hole that seems to be growing deeper and darker; a hole that represents their alarming absence and swallows up our young black children, leaving them angry, despondent, and "hurting like when you get the wind knocked out of you," as one young man described it to me. A hole that forces single black mothers, strong and resourceful as they may be, to play a dual role that is physically and emotionally impossible: the roles of both father and mother simultaneously. The two-in-one parent. As dedicated, determined, and flexible as many of my single sister-mothers are, they cannot be fathers. I willnot--cannot--mince words, struggle for verbiage that is genteel and inoffensive, or dance daintily around the ugliness of the absentee father. But I can offer shared quotes, personal stories, and inspiring life lessons that I've received from others during the writing of this book, which redeem and uplift those fathers who are there. Who do care. Who somehow manage to blend and balance the qualities of courage, leadership, and authority with compassion, gentleness, humility, and respect. Who reach out to their child during both the happy and the sad times, or when the one thing that child wants more than anything in the world is to hold his daddy's hand and secure that special place in his heart.
The absence of the black father speaks volumes about our larger society in general and about our black community in particular. These fatherless children do not know the unique and comforting joy of having the man who is their father simply "be there" at their side. Through no fault of their own, these children cannot savor--or even look forward to--the promise of their father's embrace or a goodnight kiss on the forehead when the day is done and the cream-colored crescent moon hangs from its invisible thread in the sky.
But therein lies the joy: there is no doubt that the sun has darkened our familial skies, but it has not yet disappeared completely behind the horizon. To those black fathers who are already there, praise be to you. But to those who have strayed, you can again "be there" for your children, to lead them and guide them, before the setting of the sun. It will require a fundamental change in the way we define our priorities and a careful reexamination of the tools we employ to gauge the depth of our faith in fatherhood, but it can be done.
Remember our fathers of yesterday? The ones who worked hard at good-paying jobs and brought home their paychecks to provide for their wives and their children? Who cherished the sacred institution of marriage and taught their children the difference between right and wrong--even if it meant an occasional slap on the backside or a voice raised in anger? The ones who instilled the values of valor, dignity, honesty, and accountability into the hearts and minds of their children through their own thoughts, words, and deeds? Where staying in one place, under one roof, with one family didn't mean--as many young people think today--that they are "stuck in a rut" but, rather, cocooned within the comfort of a safe, stable home and peaceful harbor?
Martin Luther King, Jr., saw black America's families and fathers slowly ripping apart at the seams as well--but he, like me, believed in redemption, rejuvenation, and rehabilitation. The ravages of racism--the bitter taste of a history that enslaved our black men and shackled their feet as well as their pride--was the first great rip at our familial fabric. But through faith, fearlessness, and sacrifice, we somehow managed to keep our families together--and it was the black father who was the primary strength: the resin, the provider and protector who helped keep us intact.
Dr. King's words echo in my mind:
"The Negro family is scarred; it is submerged, but it struggles to survive."
If I could roll the pages of this book into the shape of a foghorn or a makeshift trumpet with which to issue my clarion call, I would. I'd make a loud sound, a sound that takes us back to the days of yesterday and is steeped in the safety of security and tradition. We cannot stress the importance of a father "being there" for his children until we can identify the reasons that so many of them vanished in the first place.
Sadly, the notion of the traditional nuclear black family has all but vanished, and what has vanished with it, particularly as it relates to our fathers, are words we used to hold dear:
I'd love to simply say, "Let's open the dictionary and find those words again and paste them all over our hearts and soak them into our spirits and spread thick coats--just as we would a fresh new can of paint or a roll of beautiful new wallpaper--all over those fathers who, for whatever reason, can't 'be there' for their children."
But the solution is not so simple.
How in the world can a child love, honor, and respect a father who is absent from his life? One way is to draw from the strengths and rock-hard family values of yesterday, when integrity, stability, honor, and discipline--you know the kind of discipline I mean, that "look sideways at your mother like that again and I'll take my belt off" kind of discipline--stood for something.
This chapter calls us home. It urges black families to get together in love and laughter. And in my opinion, the best way to get back to the "way it used to be" is to reestablish the values that were cemented in us when we were children: values that had to do with both parents playing vital, visual roles in their children's spiritual and emotional development; where fathers led by example, positioned themselves as the standard-bearers; where their assured paternal presence was absolute and predictable.
Can you hear it?
It's my call, my trumpet sound. In the form of a poem, written in the language of Malink'e (spoken in the Ivory Coast of Africa), that epitomizes all the joy and jubilation a child feels for the father whose presence looms large in his life. I share it now as a celebratory tribute to all the black fathers who stand close to their children, the black fathers who see their highest calling as one of "being there" for their children, showering them with love and bathing them in light. To you, beautiful fathers, these words speak. And to those who aren't or can't be there for their families, these words invite:
Baba E kokandigne' Baba M'bi le'le' Bognan Baba M'bi le'le' Barahou Baba M'bi le'le' Sarata Baba E le' Minan N' la Fongnonan
Father, it is you who I love Father, it is you I respect Father, it is you who I honor Father, it is you who I need Father, it is you whom I look up to Father, it is you who gave me life.
Now, let's make a joyful noise to the fathers who are there, and extend a loving, healing hand to those who aren't.
For too many black men, fatherhood has become optional. Debatable. Expendable. Discretionary. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that this thing called "fatherhood" is not a value-added enhancement, nor is it an option to be exercised at the will or discretion of the interested party. Fatherhood is not a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment afterthought. It's not an enhanced service like call waiting or a dry cleaner that delivers.
As the song says, "our children are our future," living, breathing, vulnerable creatures who laugh when they're happy, bleed when they're pricked, tremble when they're frightened, and cry big, salty tears when they're sad.
Too many of our black children today are not merely "sad" about the absence of their father in their daily lives.
They are dying from it.
They are our walking wounded: lonely, angry, and confused. They are being cheated out of their own childhood, the edges of their lives singed and the center of their hearts scorched by being forced, for whatever reason, to grow up in a world without Daddy.
A few points of clarification are in order: I'm obviously not saying that every black child is at risk or every black father is at fault. I hold fast to the belief and celebrate the fact that there are more responsible, responsive fathers out there than there are absentee fathers. Nor is it my intention to undermine the superhuman efforts of single mothers who are raising their children just fine, thank you, in a world without their fathers. But it is also my strong belief that a return to the fundamental values that we used to cherish--and now that I think about it, probably took for granted at the time--will give us the compass we need to get our families, and the faith of our fathers, back on track.
Now that we've dispensed with those important clarifications, let's move right to the middle of the madness: a dual definition of the word "mad" that includes both "angry" and "insane." Because that is what black fathers who are "missing in action" and who are playing the cruel "hide-and-seek" game with their children are creating: a mad, angry, insane world where their children must take a backseat and hope for the best, which is too often the worst.
To those fathers--and there are many--who are there for their children, who ask questions at the PTA meetings, read Green Eggs and Ham to their child on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and leave work early to make it to their daughter's soccer game, I hope you can hear my hands clapping in raucous applause. To produce a healthy, well-adjusted child who will eventually grow into a stable, well-balanced adult who can skillfully navigate these choppy, turbulent waters we call life, you must be there to provide ballast and direction in your child's life. You must be there to provide your children not only with a compass, but with an anchor. You must be there not only to help keep the wind in their sails, but the hope in their hearts.
You must be there.
Unless you are imprisoned, incapacitated, or legally prohibited from seeing the children whom you helped create and bring into this world, your presence in their lives is not merely a warm, fuzzy abstraction. It is mandatory. As mandatory as the air we need to fill our lungs; as the water we need to quench our thirst; as the love that God showers over us, even when we're not looking, which He, in turn, expects us to shower over others (particularly our progeny).
With that said, my mind has cleared a bit. We can now move past the middle of the madness that "invisible fathers" seem to breed. Now we can look past the bitterness to the beauty: the beauty that flows from a father simply "being there" for his child.
And if divorce or separation is unavoidable and imminent, listen to the words of this loving brother who still cherishes his time with his daughter:
"I treat my visitation rights like gold. If I am scheduled to pick up my daughter at 3:00 p.m. to go to a movie or something, I get there at 2:45." --Earl ofari hutchinson, author and father
Here is a brother--a father--whose marriage didn't work but whose love for his daughter remains as solid as a rock, and the moments he spends with her, in his own words are more precious than gold. So even though he's no longer sharing the same roof with his daughter, he's still sharing his soul--as well as the promise of his presence.
A wonderful man named George Sanker is a shining example of black fatherhood at its best. He and brothers like him are why we celebrate all that is good about black fathers.
As the director of a national organization called Best Men, Inc., Sanker offers definition and development to young African American males in an attempt to mold them into responsible adults and, as a natural outgrowth, faithful fathers. The mission of Best Men: to provide boys with the tools and an environment that will help them acquire a clear picture of what it means to be a man.
Their work offers a healing hand to at-risk males, predominantly African American, who may be (or who may feel) fatherless and who have, for some reason or another, simply veered off track. How does Best Men help young men acquire a clear picture of what it means to be a man? The organization's own mission: by implementing a multifaceted program that not only teaches boys right and wrong, but provides them with a community of men of character and peers who will support and encourage them in their desire to become men worthy of respect.
Sanker's spirit is similar to mine. He, too, wants to bring back the traditionalism and values of our past. In his mind, as in mine, the existence of the black family unit (and the father's position within that unit) depends on it. He responds honestly and directly to my call to fathers:
"Let's face it: you can invite the black father back into the family unit and urge him to reassert himself into his child's life, and your invitation may sound beautiful; even poetic, but it's hard. [The problem] must be looked at realistically if it is to be solved. If a divorced or absentee father suddenly tries to come back into his child's life, it could become a battle; imbalanced and protracted. Sure, he can cherish those court-ordered moments or hours or days he has with his child, but he cannot assert his full, round-the-clock authority as a father because it has been taken away from him: legally, emotionally, and physically."
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