I’ve been thinking a lot about Black fatherhood lately.
Aside from my own, I have had the honor to be in the company of some remarkable fathers and father figures while working on the school project in Arkansas.
As I have planned and executed a series of family engagement events, I have had to assemble a team of diverse and dynamic vendors to pull everything together.
Many on the team are Black fathers.
It is not lost on me that many of the children who will attend these two schools are just like I was when I was their age: raised by a strong grandmother, rallied around by supportive aunts, and biological father absent. Many of them are not like 5-year-old me at all. Some are the complete opposite who live with and are raised by both of their biological parents. Some live with and are raised by other family members; others live in a blended family. Some live in dire circumstances; others live in extraordinary ones. Needless to say, over the past several weeks, I’ve encountered many different types of families.
But it is the families on our team that stick out in my mind. Specifically, the fathers and their sons.
In typical work settings, I would rarely, if ever, meet my coworkers’ children, nor would I have the opportunity to see them collaborate. This work experience is different. There are many factors that make this particular project stand out, but observing these specific fathers and father figures and their children make this account special.
The community outreach director is absolutely amazing. Not only do we share a birthday (coming up in 18 days, we both are accepting gifts, btw), he is a strong father and father figure to many. In fact, the reason he is in the work of public education is to steer as many Black boys as he can in the right direction so that they may create a successful future. He’s so convinced that Black boys are full of untapped genius (I agree) that he’s dedicated his life to making sure the world knows it. He’s done this by being a driving force in the lives of his own two sons (and the sons of many others).
He brought one of them to Arkansas to work with me. His son worked HARD. He later told me: ‘the single ingredient to raising boys is that they need to see their father working.’ Not working like at ‘work,’ but moving throughout the world. Him bringing his college age son to work is just one small example of how he exposes his son to the world and prepares him for his future success.
He must be right. It seems that many of the other team members share this philosophy.
One of the student recruiters is not a father, but he rears many Black boys. The director of a nonprofit designed to support Black boys, he’s also a city celebrity. Almost everyone who is anyone knows him. He jokes with us and often says things like ‘I have to go rub a few a elbows and hug a few necks’ and ‘my network is my net worth.’ He told me once, ‘I’ve learned that in life, our biggest present is our presence.’ And he lives out that philosophy. Each time he shows up at one of our events, he’s got a gaggle of black boys with him. He calls each one of them his ‘nephew.’ The boys learn from him because he is consistently giving them his greatest gift — him being there. And they are consistently observing how to work and how to live from studying his example, even if they don’t know it yet.
The school principal is a married Black father who brings his entire family, including his 11-year-old son, to work with him. They all get a chance to see — up close and personal — why the leader and provider of their family unit works so hard. They seem to know his dedicated efforts support their family, and other families, too.
One of our DJs is a father. He brings his son to work as his ‘helper.’ He teaches his son to set up and break down the equipment, and allows him the opportunity to experience the events. This DJ is a consummate professional. His son is learning how to be the same. I’ve been watching it happen right before my eyes.
The man who supplies our mobile entertainment centers is a married father of two. His son is barely one, yet he’s been watching his father’s very successful business grow since he was born. I can’t help but to watch the baby boy watch his dad.
The man who supplies our inflatables or bounce houses is a proud father of four. Three girls. One boy. Obviously, the boy holds a special place in his heart as his only son. The dad is a salesman during the week and in the weekends during the summer, he rents out his inflatable bounce houses. The 11-year-old son is his №1 helper. He can set up and take down the huge jump centers by himself. If you’ve ever watched someone put up or take down a giant inflatable, then you know it is REAL work. It’s whole body work. And the son can do it with seemingly relative ease. Looking at it wears me out, I could not imagine actually having to physically do it!
Once, a property owner almost cancelled our event. I was freaking out, but the father and son were steady. They offered support and alternatives to ensure I was taken care of, and that the event would be a success. The father emphasized to his son that day ‘we have to make sure they get what they paid for.’ The event went on. We received what we paid for, and then some. He later told me that it was important for his son to work with him so he’d know what it was like to earn money. He wanted him to understand the value of hard work and the value of a dollar.
Somehow, the team we’ve put together is filled with amazing fathers and father figures: the Black man who provide snow cones in the capital city is a math teacher and he knows that part of his role as a teacher is to model manhood to his pupils; the Black man who provides us with snow cones in the smaller city owns and manages a pee-wee football league and is a role model to nearly 200 Black boys as a result; and one of the other Black male student recruiters is the head of a pee-wee baseball league who doubles as a role model for the 150 or so Black boys in his league. It’s deep. I could go on about how much I’ve observed, and how much I admire them all.
These folks have become something like family to me.
Seeing their stories play out before me reminds me of another project I had the honor of working on in 2013–2014. I led the national media relations efforts for the launch of Bet On Black: Black Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age Of Barack Obama. In an effort to shift the dialogue about Black fatherhood in America, 20 women wrestle with the much maligned image of the Black dad and shed light on the touching relationships they have with the dynamic fathers in their lives in the acclaimed anthology.
The anthology, inspired by former President Barack Obama’s commitment to encouraging and supporting responsible fathers by creating the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, is a standout among the trove of songs, movies and books about motherhood. Too often in popular culture, Black fathers are either absent or characterized as deadbeat sperm donors who have little regard for the families they leave in their wake. Bet on Black shatters these stereotypes and shifts the conversation about what it means to be a Black father in America.
This project (and even this blog) has been like ‘Bet on Black’ LIVE. We are not shifting the narrative about Black fatherhood because there are parts too unsavory to bring to light. We are shifting the narrative simply because it was false to begin with.
These men, who warm my spirit every time I’m around them, live out the real truth, and are simultaneously raising their boys to be awesome — just like they are. And I’m so incredibly lucky to be able to see it.
#BlackBoyJoy #BlackFatherhood #FatherhoodIsDope