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When I lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago over a decade ago, I remember pushing my infant daughter in her stroller and seeing all kinds of Black fathers also pushing strollers and walking slowly with their fussy toddlers.
At the time, I was struck by the stark contrast of the image of these Black dads versus the dominant images of Black fatherhood portrayed in various media and the wider American imaginary. I personally know many wonderful Black dads, but I am also aware of the negative stereotypes about Black fatherhood.
Black men are often portrayed as “deadbeat dads” or as having multiple children that they care very little about. This limited narrative of Black fatherhood is incredibly damaging and does not fully represent Black fathers and their relationships with their children.
It is true that there are fathers of every racial-ethnic background who meet the stereotypic notions of the absentee dad but unfortunately, that narrative is the dominant one for Black dads.
In my own work with Black dads in counseling, we often unpack how difficult it can be to be a good dad when they may not have grown up with one or had negative male role-models.
Many Black dads question: “How do I perform a role that I have never seen or experienced?” Having positive models of Black fatherhood helps answer this question. There are few consistently positive role models of Black fathers in popular media, and this lack of representation has a negative impact on Black men’s perception of themselves as dads.
The images we consume on a regular basis shape our perceptions of our roles, especially parenting. This lack of positive representation sends the message to Black dads, “you don’t exist” or “you are not supposed to exist.”
The impact of missing or negative representation of Black fatherhood diminishes the importance of their role as dads. Just imagine the impact of seeing Black dads pushing their children in strollers, playing with their children at the park, and teaching them how to cook on a regular basis. These narratives are real but are rarely highlighted in media and in everyday life.
“Black Fathering and Mental Health”
Just the other day, I took a picture of my daughter cooking with her dad in matching aprons, and I have a memory of my own dad doing his best to put my hair into Afro puffs when I was five. These powerful examples of Black dads participating in their children’s lives in daily activities are missing from the accounts that are told about Black dads.
Dr. Michael Hannon recently wrote a book, Black Fathering and Mental Health, which explores Black fathers’ experiences and thoughts about parenting and how to navigate parenting in an anti-Black world.
Dr. Hannon highlights the ways many Black fathers connect with their children and talks about how critical it is to support the mental health of dads in their roles as parents. His book is a series of essays from Black dads about their struggles and joys in parenting. In this book, Hannon allows Black dads to explore their humility, vulnerability, and desire and efforts to be good dads.
Here, Black dads self-reflect on their own journeys of fatherhood. In my view, this is the narrative about Black dads that is not told nearly enough. Representation matters because having models provides examples, shapes expectations, and helps teach what is possible.
Contexts of Black Fatherhood
Black fatherhood can exist in all kinds of contexts, all of them valuable. Whether parents are married, single, raising children within the same household or separate ones, whether Black fatherhood comes from uncles, ministers, grandfathers, or mentors, it matters.
It matters to the lives of Black children, Black communities, and Black families. Ultimately, it matters to society as a whole.
Good parenting has little to do with perfection and everything to do with being consistent, physically and emotionally available, and predictable. These factors contribute to children feeling loved and secure.
What do Black children need from their dads? Children need to know that their dads will be there for them and that they will follow through on commitments to their children (e.g. show up at my basketball game, etc.).
There are myriad systemic influences including racism, discrimination, emotional trauma, lack of role models, and poor social support that can shape Black fatherhood in ways Black fathers, mothers, and families cannot always control. Yet, having positive representation of Black dads is one powerful way to support Black fatherhood.
The experience of Black fatherhood is as diverse as Black fathers themselves, but all fathers, just like all mothers, need social and emotional support to assist them in the stresses of parenting. Positive representation of Black fatherhood matters because it can allow Black men to see themselves in these narratives and develop positive attitudes around becoming dads years before they actually do.
These narratives offer support to Black dads as they parent their children and let dads know that other Black men are highly invested in being good dads too.