Mercy Quaye: Cool dads are shattering myths of black fatherhood
I watched a man wrestle with the items in his grocery cart while trying to quell the cries of one kid and holding the hand of another, much calmer, one. With his free hand, he transferred one item after another to the conveyor belt. The clerk smiled at the somewhat struggling father, I presumed because women tend to admire single and active dads.
It was only after her smile moved in my direction that I realized my presumption was slightly off. Since the dad’s blue eyes and dirty blonde hair didn’t match his sons’ brown eyes and curly black hair, she obviously enlisted me as a member of the clearly interracial family. I returned the smile, but I didn’t offer much of a verbal response, my assumption hadn’t yet been confirmed so I thought it crass to address it.
After the dad finished loading all of his groceries, I put mine behind his, using the separation bar to avoid the inevitable confusion. Once the clerk scanned all his items, she reached over to mine to complete the family’s transaction. He and I made shy eye contact, immediately understanding the confusion — though he was slower on the pickup than I was. We both stuttered over our words and lightly laughed as we politely corrected the clerk and he declined to pay for my items.
I thought about him as Father’s Day approached. The warmly frustrated father who may not be as graceful at the art of juggling two children in the grocery store as moms are, but who shows up for the job every morning, afternoon and night for bedtime stories. In that, I’m also forced to think about the myth of absent black fathers and consider its impact on the perception of the black community.
My brother-in-law is easily the coolest person I know — a banker turned musician with a knack for pulling off a floor-length pea coat. He may also be the coolest father alive. Not just because of the jam sessions with the kids, but because of the conscience dismantlement of patriarchy embedded in his parenting style that embodies liberal cool. Because of Paul’s intentionality, my nephew, Kwei (named after the original spelling of my last name) will grow up knowing how to experience the full range of emotions that patriarchy robs from men.
Similarly, my older brother is raising the most socially conscious 12-year-old, who because her father spent time in prison, looks at systemic issues through fresh eyes. Her vantage point of injustice will likely change the world, simply because the common narratives about the formerly incarcerated don’t match what she knows about her dad.
The absentee black father myth didn’t materialize out of nowhere. We can credit the overwhelming rate of imprisonment of black men, who are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. It’s easy to blame that fact on the men themselves, and I supposed if I had more faith in the justice system I might do the same. But a few things make me softer on that idea. Namely, we know that poverty breeds crime and black communities have been strategically impoverished and disadvantaged for generations. We also know that black men are four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana though they use at nearly identical rates as other demographics and that the war on drugs, mild ones like marijuana included, wreaked havoc on black communities. Meanwhile, the opioid crisis hasn’t erected a myth on deadbeat or absentee rural fathers in the same way.
The Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention supports my woeful skepticism of this stubborn myth, finding that black fathers (70 percent) were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped potty train their children every day compared with white (60 percent) and Hispanic fathers (45 percent) in a report on American father’s involvement with children. They also found that a higher percentage of black fathers took their children to or from activities and helped their kids with homework every day compared to other demographics.
I see black men take swings at the myth all the time. Images of the stereotypically masculine, bearded, dark-skinned dads carrying their tiny daughters on their shoulders at the Freddy Fixer parade who probably soften their shells for manicure/pedicure time are a consistent reminder of that.
Black dads have lined the entrances to Hartford and New Haven schools to welcome kids back each fall for at least the last five years — a trend that has been replicated throughout the country. Acts like these serve as a not-so-subtle call to action. Not to get black fathers more involved — they’ve been doing that on their own — but to get everyone else to adopt a new narrative about what fatherhood can look like.
Older generations tend to hold on to myths and stereotypes more firmly them Millennials. We’ve experienced decades of problematic imagery that defines masculinity as a brooding force to be reckoned with and limits men from dealing with emotions in healthy ways. My grandfather exemplified this limitation — he was vehemently opposed to therapy and firmly pro-gender roles, even if it meant experiencing crippling untreated depression because shrinks are for women.
In some ways, I’m grateful for that example. Millennials have used examples from our parents as a case study and have crafted a model of parenthood that liberates fathers and in turn, better supports mothers. It allows for daddy/daughter nail night and even father/son tea parties. But more importantly than anything else, it passes on a new case study for fatherhood. One that our kids will use as their launching pads to be softer, kinder humans who take mental wellness seriously, reform patriarchy, dislodge gender roles, and dismantle damaging myths.
Shout out to fathers everywhere, and to the droves of black dads who are raising the leaders of tomorrow while fighting the myths of today that have long misrepresented the black family.
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.