Telling the best kept secret

Changing the social perception of single black fathers

To begin her project, Dr. Roberta Coles contacted the National Institute of Health for a research grant.

There was just one problem. The person she started speaking with couldn’t understand her idea.

So what was this esoteric topic? Single black fathers.

“They could not conceive of the possibility of a black man as a full custodial father.”

For Coles, the confusion from the other end of the line only underlined the need for her research.

The deception and damage of racial stigmas is something Coles has spent years teaching on and researching. Her most recent book is the first research of its kind on a group often unseen and undervalued — single black fathers.

“The stereotype of black fathers was that they were absent,” Coles said. “It really didn’t occur to people to go out and look for black single fathers because most people didn’t think they existed.”

Coles, a professor of social and cultural sciences, published her book The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers in 2010. The book presents the findings of her research, stories of personal interviews and advised policy changes.

The study took form when a single black father, raising his 9-year-old son, enrolled in one of Coles’ courses on race and family. Coles relied on student help, single-father websites and word-of-mouth to find more fathers that met this demographic.

The population of single fathers is hard to access because it is small. According to 2013 census data, 38.8 percent of black children were living with both parents and 50.5 percent were living with their mother. Those residing solely with their father accounted for only 4.6 percent of black children.

Being novel research, Coles could not rely on previous studies or contacts. She used an exploratory model, gathering information for later analysis.

During the five-year study, Coles interviewed 20 fathers. She required that the fathers have custody at least four nights a week; however, all the fathers in the study had complete child custody.

Along with a questionnaire, Coles conducted personal interviews with each of the fathers. The questions were designed to determine motivations to parent, perceptions of their roles and their levels of satisfaction as fathers.

The social perception of absent black fathers is one that Coles contradicts in her book.

“It’s important to get it out there that that’s not the whole picture,” Coles said in an interview with Grio. “People need to know there are men out there trying to do their best.”

However, the more difficult perception faced by single black fathers is that they had no choice to parent. Things such as widowhood, divorce, non-marital birth or a mother who was not mentally or physically capable may be factors, but not necessarily the entire story.

In her book, Coles shows that fathers have a multitude of options, such as extended family, various state services or maternal custody, that do not force them to parent. Rather, it is the choice of the father to be the primary caretaker.

Many in the study faced economic trouble, working multiple jobs or using social services. For single fathers though, the structure of social services presents several problems.

Most family services are set up for single mothers and children. For instance, there are specific meal programs and child clothing services for single mothers only. Family shelters often prohibit men, reserving rooms to mothers and children. In a homeless family, fathers are often forced to leave their children and find a different shelter.

Coles hopes her book sheds light on the various types of black fathers and ends this ingrained social idea.

“I’d like to see people view them from multiple perspectives, not just the absent father,” Coles said.

Dr. Coles has also published The Myth of the Missing Black Father.

Her book has received much praise for exploring an understudied topic and she frequently receives calls from graduate students looking to do further research.

In 2013, Dr. Coles received the Nora Finnigan Werra Faculty Achievement Award for excellence in research, teaching and mentoring. She has also published The Myth of the Missing Black Father and is currently working on a chapter for an upcoming literature review of research on single fathers.

Research and reporting by Wyatt Massey, a junior studying writing-intensive English and advertising. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.