The Myth of the Absent and Neglectful Black Father
Whether the world wants to admit it or not, there is a biased stereotype regarding Black fathers who are absent in the lives of their children. This stereotype generally paints Black fathers as neglectful and is harmful because it feeds the fuel for prejudice thinking that African descendants in North America are to blame for their generations of inequalities and grievances. There is an assumption in this accusation that assumes that if there is no father figure in these children's lives, they are set up for failure.
Before I continue, let's go back. In 1909, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was concerned with the declining birth rates of white people and claimed that "White Americans are facing an 'infertility crisis' and risked a 'race suicide'". It was the duty of white couples in particular to marry and raise children. Similarly, Canada had the same worries, which we see in policies that were created to prevent intermarriage between races. An example of this can be found in the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act of 1923.
In North America, the 'traditional family' appeared in the 1950's during which the modern day perception of the 'ideal' family was born. An ideal family includes: married heterosexual couples, white, two parents with children. Before the Stepford Wives imagery was created to aid in moral efforts after/during WW2, many family units were built upon economic value (e.g. children were bred to work the farm). This image of the 'traditional family' is no more real than a romanticized notion stemming from the misreading of history. This model ever since has been imposed on North Americans and passed on in spite of the fact that it did not reflect the reality of many family units.
To many Canadians and Americans during these times - and even seen now - any family that does not conform is seen as deviant from the norm. This leaves a lot of individuals vulnerable in all facets of our institutions and societal structures. In particular, to the topic I am about to discuss, this is where much of the prejudice began that targeted family structures of non-White North Americans.
Alright, let's fast forward to recent years. The stereotype of Black fathers in North America stems from cherry picking of data that in tale has perpetuated the negative reflection of these fathers. Black families in general are not represented correctly in the numbers that are seen in our censuses. To elaborate, 72% of Black mothers in the U.S. were unmarried when giving birth in 2015- without context, this leads to the perception that there is no father in the child’s life. The reality is statistics show Black men are more involved in their children’s lives than Whites and Hispanics (living in or outside of the child’s home). Because marriage is not always the top priority for some Black families (which if you go back to my previous points is considered deviant) there continues to be a picture painted that Black fathers are dysfunctional and prone to leave their children and the mothers to fend for themselves. What seems to materialize in these cases is that not getting married appears to be a neutral agreement. There are more variables to be looked at. Black couples are more likely to become pregnant within the first year of living together and some men may have children with other women (meaning they cannot live in each house in which they have children). Again, this plays into the ‘deviant’ perceptions of Black family models compared to the ‘traditional family’.
Finally, the largest issue facing Black fathers particularly in America is that a majority of them have been taken from their family lives because of systemic injustices (I am not sure of the stats in CA, but in the U.S. there is a claim that these individuals represent up to 50% of Black fathers). Because of disadvantages like systemic racism, Black fathers are more likely to be incarcerated over petty crimes and have a higher death rate than other ethnicities in America. Although some of these fathers want to be there for their children, these barriers become more powerful, leaving a portion of Black children without a father figure throughout their childhood. With this point, I would like to highlight a distinction in wording. 'Neglectful' and 'absent' are a dichotomy. A father can still father without being in the home, whether that be they do not live with their children or they are away in jail for some years. Stats show that Black fathers are very involved in their kids lives, it just may not be in the societal image that dominates our perceptions. The myth of the ‘absent, neglectful Black father’ is truly just a social construct and has no meaning beyond that.
For my own reflection, I will admit, my father was absent throughout the majority of my life and I have had to deal with the repercussions. My father was in my life until the age of 12 and he did not neglect me by definition. He taught me to be the empathetic person I am today. He taught me to treat strangers of all kinds with respect. He taught me how to garden. He taught me to kill with kindness. He taught me how to be a good human being. I often think about where he is now, and how his life has been conquered by addiction. As a teenager, I was resentful and questioned how much he loved me if we would pick addiction over his family, but I had to come to terms with the fact addiction is a disease. I think about how from the moment he arrived in Canada from Jamaica, the mouse traps were set for him not to succeed in this country as a Black man. I know life has not been kind to him growing up. I am not blaming others for my father's absence. At the end of the day, it was choices he made. But I cannot help but wonder what opportunities he truly had in this country in an era known to prey upon Black men.
Here is an article that inspired this post in combination with other findings taken from my Anthropology of the Family class that I recently completed: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/08/opinion/charles-blow-black-dads-are-doing-the-best-of-all.html