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08 May 2009

Fatherhood and the African-American Community

NOTE: I apologize for the lateness of this posting. I have been working diligently this past week to finish a paper for a graduate course in which I was enrolled; now that that is done, I should have more time to come up with article ideas and to post to the blog.

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, starring Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding, Jr., among others. The movie, for those of you that might not know, is essentially the story of three young men living in South Central Los Angeles during the early nineties and how their lives are different. One is a promising football star, while his best friend is a hardworking student and his brother is the leader of a local gang. Through a great deal of loss and tragedy, the viewer gets an honest depiction of the gangland violence and unfortunate despair that grips many of America's urban centers.

It also addresses an important issue facing Americans today: fatherhood, or, more accurately, the absence of it. Gooding's character, Tre Styles, is the only character in the movie who is raised by his father. His father, Furious Styles, is a stern disciplinarian who seeks to keep his son off the streets and out of the gangs of his neighborhood. It is no coincidence, then, that at the end of the movie Tre makes it to college, whereas both of his friends have been murdered, one unjustly, the other as part of a gang vendetta.

Strong parenting is something that is sorely missing in the African-American community. Several months ago a student of mine gave a presentation on this very same issue, and his classmates responded with a firestorm of denunciations. He very simply pointed out the number of African-American men in prison, as well as the number of single African-American mothers, and drew the conclusion that many of the problems African Americans wrestle with stem from the absence of strong fathers or father figures in their lives.

His fellow students reacted immediately and violently to his conclusions--and they made some good points. Yes, the lack of strong father figures alone does not account for the vicious cycle of violence and crime that traps so many young black men in a life of gang warfare and murder. There are some deep economic and social problems facing the African-American community today, and to say that a dearth of fathers is the root of the problem is overly simplistic at best and, at worst, draws attention away from other, more sinister factors.

The students, however, were ultimately more concerned about not appearing racist than they were about making these points. This fear is one of the central problems of any discussion of race in America today: it has become virtually impossible to talk about rationally. And this was in a classroom full of white, upper-middle class private school students.

That is an entirely different issue, though, and one that will have to be addressed later. While this young man was probably oversimplifying the broad range of issues that have created such unfortunate conditions within segments of the black community, he still had a compelling point. And this point is not just one that affects black families in inner city areas. Strong parenting is facing changes in all parts of society, regardless of race, socio-economic condition, or any other inherited or ascribed condition. Fatherhood especially has come under blows in recent years, Bill Cosby's excellent book notwithstanding.

This crisis of fatherhood is felt most strongly, however, within the African-American community. African-American culture--to the extent that one can discuss something as broad and protean as "African-American culture", which is by no means monolithic or uniform--has minimized the role of the responsible father. This situation is due largely to circumstance, as the economic conditions facing many young black men offers them the choice between glory in athletics or (false) security in gangs. Also, certain segments of African-American culture have adopted an unfortunate anti-intellectual attitude that discourages learning or any attempts at bettering one's condition. Add to these problems a hypermasculinization and the glorification of violence and money in hip-hop and rap today, and conditions are ripe for a culture that denounces responsibility, encourages quick financial gain through illegal means, and disrespects women. (I should note that old school rappers like Ice Cube and N.W.A. were not glorifying South Central L.A.--they were actually talking about how bad it was.)

Ultimately, however, parts of African-American culture ignore or even denounce fatherhood because the role of parent has been assumed by the federal government. If we look back through history, every major gain on behalf of African-American rights and liberties has been bestowed on behalf of the federal government. The Emancipation Proclamation; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; various pieces of civil rights legislation; affirmative action: these were all spearheaded and enforced by the federal government.

And, certainly, many of these had to be enforced by the federal government. It took a war to end slavery in the South. National Guardsmen, under the orders from U.S. presidents, had to escort little black children to school to make desegregation work. I do not mean to downplay the important role of activists, both black and white, in the Civil Rights Movement, but even their efforts eventually led to action on behalf of the federal government.

Therefore, all throughout African-American history major support for blacks has come almost exclusively from the federal government, which, on the whole, has treated African-Americans very paternally. Who needs a strong father figure when Uncle Sam is there to feed your children?

Regardless of why it is absent--and I will admit that my theory is a bit of stretch--the presence of strong, authoritative, and supportive fathers could profoundly benefit young African-American men and women and could help to improve the state of many African Americans today. This improvement would come not from a paternal federal government but from individual incentive and action. Blacks would still face many problems, but with strong fathers--and mothers--they could approach those deeper issues with confidence, intelligence, and vigor.

And I'll be there to help, even if I am as white as a reflective road marker.

1 comment:

  1. In the first years of my college experience, I was a volunteer tutor at an inner-city community center in South Carolina. The center, situated in an African-American neighborhood, was intended for students in elementary and middle school, and even at that early age, both the lack of father figures and the influence of gangs was blatantly apparent.

    Nearly all of the students it seemed--many of them siblings and cousins--were raised primarily by mothers and grandmothers. I never saw a child's father in the time I was there. Many of the mothers were admirably trying to provide for their families by working multiple jobs, leaving the grandmothers in charge of child care. More often than not, the center was a means of free babysitting where the students could at least attempt to finish their homework in the haphazard environment.

    In the meantime, the older brothers of the students were involved in gang activity, and this was already affecting their younger siblings, who would brag about which gangs they would join when they were of age.

    It was especially sad to see the young men and boys at the center believing that their only options in life were gang membership or professional sports. (Not one played on a school team, that I know of, and many did not participate at all in the sports they bragged they would play as adults.)

    They days I spent at the center were enlightening and wonderful, but they were also the times of my life that I felt the most small and ineffectual. It is my experience that a change on a social scale is going to require extreme motivation on the part of the collective community, rather than any external pressure applied by the government, federal or otherwise.

    As for myself, I would just like to add that when such action begins to happen, I will do my utmost to help, even though I--whose pallor is not quite enough to be reflective--am still socially excluded from the debate by the lightness of my skin.


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