A. Historical Influence
B. Media Influence
III. Present Concerns
A. Possible Causes of Paternal Delinquency
B. Black Family Awareness
IV. Black Father Absenteeism
A. Formal Statistics
B. Informal Statistics
African American fathers have come under much scrutiny in recent years. Most notable is the attention given to nonresidential fathers (those who do not live in the same home as their child), or what are sometimes referred to as absentee fathers. From the rise in African American juvenile crime to the increase in single-parented homes headed by black women, the African American man as a father has been consistently blamed for such occurrences. Statistics affirm that the majority of black children are without the presence of a father. About 70 percent of all African American births occur to unmarried women, and over 80 percent of African American children will spend some years of their childhood without a father in the home (Nelson, Clampet-Lundquist, and Edin 2002). With statistics such as these, the black father’s role in the family has been closely examined. Although the validity of a number of arguments that blame black male fathering for many social ills seems legitimate, a number of speculations are false. As with most human endeavors, there are those who perform well and those who do not excel at the task of fatherhood. The role of black fathers is one of the strongest and most important traditions in the black community.
There is no question that, in their earliest years in the New World, enslaved African Americans were concerned about their fathers. Their loyalty to their fathers (and mothers) served as a target in the efforts of their white slaveholders to break their family bonds. In her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks asserts that scholars have examined and emphasized the impact that slavery has had on the consciousness of the black male. These scholars argued that black men, more so than black women, were the primary victims of the institution of slavery. She documents the case that “chauvinist historians and sociologists” have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most malicious and dehumanizing impact of slavery on the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. Historians and psychologists have argued that the overall interruption, but particularly the disbanding, of pre-emancipation black family structure has had an undeniable effect on family life. The fact that the African American father is a viable and resourceful entity in the home remains undeniable.
The traditional as well as unorthodox depictions of the strong African American father of the late 1970s and early 1980s in such programs as Goodtimes ( James Evans) and The Jeffersons (George Jefferson), provided a glimpse into the more socially predominant view of the black father as strong, stern, and often frustrated due to his status as a black man in the United States. Although many of these stereotypes would have been true and relevant to the times, they also created a stigma of anger and questionable judgment on behalf of the notable black fathers who were portrayed. Viewers may recall the countless slurs George Jefferson would aim at his white counterparts as a means of expressing his distrust or dislike of them. Parallel to this was the consistent dejection, anger, and disappointment portrayed through James Evans, a barely-making-ends-meet father of three living in a public housing facility in Chicago. While these portraits and personalities were scripted, they were reflections of a society marked by inequity, social dysfunction, and frustration. However daunting these portrayals may have been, there was an alternate side to the coin. There was strength, resilience, and determination to provide for and keep the family afloat and together through the harshest of times.
This view would, however, shift as times have progressed into a more socially equitable age. As a result, along came The Cosby Show. This was the portrayal of the contemporary black father at his best. Here was a family headed by both parents, whose professions were doctor and lawyer. Above all, viewers saw a father who was not angry or frustrated; he was affluent and funny. This portrayal remains utopian and was, neither then nor now, as socially accepted as the aforementioned perspectives. Undeniably, the post-emancipation African American father had to be of a stronger and stricter variety, but this was of necessity by his circumstances and not the result of natural inclination. To imply, as some have done, that such experiences as the Cosbys’ did not exist throughout the course of African American history would be false.
As society has progressed into a more technologically advanced social, economic, and academic age, the multiple uncertainties and social ills surrounding the family unit have come into focus. Likewise, attempts to fix what does not work in today’s families have become more common. The black family and its supposed dysfunctions have been a prominent area of inquiry and concern, probably because of the continued higher numbers of such families in poverty. The absence of the black father in the home has been tagged as cause for a myriad of increasing social problems and irritations, including rises in black male juvenile crime, an increased number of black male juveniles with criminal records, an increase in the number of homes parented by single black mothers, increased numbers of illegitimate children, and the increased dependency of black women–headed households on the state. All of these can be attributed to the black fathers’ recent absence from the home. In order to determine the effects of father absence, it is just as vital to denote the causes or sequential happenings that have led to the absence.
Possible Causes of Paternal Delinquency
In The Woes of the Inner-City African-American Father, renowned social inequality specialist William J. Wilson argues that there are structural and cultural explanations for the lack of black fathers in inner-city African American homes. He contends that structural economic forces such as deindustrialization and globalization have decreased the number of high-paying manufacturing jobs in the United States, which were replaced by lower-paying types of employment. Wilson argues that low pay and limited education have made it increasingly difficult for black men to marry. Also, the lack of employment and educational opportunities creates a cultural environment that allows black men to personally assimilate racist sentiments and negative attitudes about themselves. As a result, these African American men view fatherhood and marriage as burdens that they are unwilling to assume. Wilson also suggests that there needs to be a policy that addresses black men’s self-esteem and creates readily available, higher-paying employment opportunities (Wilson 2002).
There is also the issue of divorce or separation that influences absence. Approximately two in three divorces are initiated not by the husbands but by the wives, and the children remain living with their mothers in 93 percent of these cases. Encouraged by the government, family courts have consistently taken the stance that if the mother does not want the child to see the father any more, then that must be what is best for the child. Consequently, following divorce or separation, 60 percent of fathers have no further meaningful relationship with their children. These fathers may be walking away and exhibiting negligence, but they are also being pushed out of their children’s lives.
Black Family Awareness
There is a question of accountability and responsibility that black men must answer regarding the present state of many African American families, but as a culture and society there has to be a reciprocal solution. In a 2005 Chicago Sun-Times poll, of 11 response categories to the question, “What is the most important thing you do for your children?” the largest response (25 percent of the total responses) was to the category “provide.” When asked what the idea of a good father meant, the category of nine possible answers that received the most responses was “being able to provide and protect.” When asked about the worst aspect of having and raising children, 26 percent of the fathers responded that it was not being able to provide for them. The issue of basic needs provision was chosen most often in all conditions.
With so many African American fathers desiring to support their children but finding it difficult to do so, there has to be a strategy to combat the absence of black fathers and the systemic ills that accompany it. As an advocate for strengthening African American families, famous black actor and comedian Bill Cosby has been involved on many occasions in recent years in discussions about the role of black fathers. He has gone on speaking tours, appeared on television news programs, and penned books on the subject. With Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, Cosby coauthored the book Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, in which he argues that children in single-parent homes often do not receive the guidance they need or deserve. He suggests that, in a generational, fatherless situation, regardless of whether the father was married to the child’s mother, where the male is not present, the child perceives the situation as abandonment. While his harsh criticism of some black families has not always been well received, he has done a very good job of bringing the issue to the public’s attention.
Regarding family and personal relationships, today’s African American men are no less sensitive than their forefathers. According to black psychologist Marvin Krohn, black men come to the psychiatrist’s office in large numbers, in pain and genuinely seeking help. Krohn goes on to assert that African American fathers have little or nothing to say about the statistics, myths, and other sociological indictments so often made about them. Rather, many of them come in speaking of depression, unease, aggravation, fear, shame, esteem issues, and anger that are most often associated with the close, ongoing relations (child’s mother) in their lives. This suggests that black men are as frustrated over their absence in their children’s lives as is the rest of society.
Black Father Absenteeism
Father absenteeism has been explored by examining the physical and financial presence of the father in the home. Eighty percent of all African American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Seventy percent of African American children are born to unmarried mothers, and 40 percent of all children regardless of race live in homes without fathers. Further studies of African American fathers do indeed suggest that many young African American fathers are relatively uninvolved in the lives of their children.
The National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience of Youth indicated that, of African American children with mothers ages 20 to 25, about 40 percent primarily lived with both parents, compared to about 90 percent of non–African American children. Of the nonresident fathers, 20 percent had never visited in the past year or had seen their child only once (Lerman and Sorensen 2003). In a sample of 100 fathers and a comparison group of non-fathers, all but one of whom was African American, 18 months after the child’s birth, only about 25 percent of the nonresident fathers reported seeing their children daily. A follow-up study of 110 boys mostly born to African American teen mothers in the Baltimore Parenthood Study revealed that over half of these young men have never lived with their father, and most of the nonresident fathers had irregular contact with their children. Only 20 percent of young fathers were living with their children five years after the child’s birth, and an additional 20 percent visited regularly.
As it relates to economic support, there is even less information on child support payments by African American fathers. National studies tend to show that about 50 to 75 percent of fathers paid the full amount of court-ordered support in the preceding year. A study based on the Current Population Survey found that minority group fathers of children born to never-married mothers are less likely, overall, to pay child support.
In short, previous research has generated a rather negative image of young African American fathers. Additionally, the portrayals of these men in the media highlight their struggles and absence as normative. They may even be shown as sexual predators, seeking personal gratification and likely to abandon the child and the child’s mother when a better opportunity comes along. This image has found its way into the nation’s consciousness about race and family, perhaps to the extent of influencing public policy on public assistance and associated issues. One of the most important limitations of much research on fatherhood is that nonresident fathers are highly underrepresented in household surveys, and therefore their perspectives are underrepresented in the literature. Data on young, urban, nonresident African American fathers are particularly thin, and the limited research that has focused on them continues to employ generally small, unrepresentative samples.
African American fathers often are seen as deadbeats due to their lack of economic support in the home, but it would be a bit fairer to say that they are dead broke as well. Seventy percent of the child support debts owed in 2003 were accumulated by men earning $10,000 a year or less. Over 2.5 million nonresident or absentee fathers of poor children are poor themselves, thus making it extremely difficult for them to fulfill the father role as it is currently conceived in U.S. society (Furstenberg and Weiss 2000).
Statistics that account for father support of children have largely been derived from formal child support payments; however, the unaccounted-for informal child support, which may constitute a significant percentage of the mother’s resources, has been overlooked in many cases. Some researchers have suggested that the nonresident status of the fathers may not forecast their lack of involvement, as was previously believed. Some studies have indeed suggested that the contribution of both financial and nonfinancial support by nonresident African American fathers has exceeded expectations. Many African American men are practically involved in their children’s lives and make nonfinancial contributions to their children. Diapers, milk, toys, and baby clothes are only a few of the noncash provisions.
Many have asked why these fathers who provide some basic items do not simply pay child support. There are a number of reasons why they do not. Many of the items a father brings to his children are physical support of his efforts to provide for them, despite his dismal economic conditions. In return, the bits and pieces have greater significance, visibility, and permanence than cash payments. Such cash payments often vanish almost instantaneously as bills are paid, they are misused by the custodial parent, or, in the case of children receiving public assistance, they are used to reimburse the government for necessities it has provided the children.
It is quite likely that black fathers have been assaulted, and their contributions in a number of categories have been unjustifiably denigrated. Research supports many assertions about the positive contributions of African American fathers. African American fathers in two-parent families spend more time with their children than do Hispanic or white fathers. African American fathers and black fathers in the Caribbean are more likely than white fathers to treat boys and girls similarly when they are babies. They also interact just as frequently with their young daughters as they do with their young sons.
On the other hand, in the United States, black families have higher divorce, separation, and never-living-together rates than white families. However, a top predictor that a black couple will stay together is the black man’s enjoyment of, and interest in, being a father and sharing in the day-to-day care of his children (Fatherhood Institute 2005).
Rates of nonresident fathers being involved with very young children are surprisingly high among nonresident African American fathers, but father involvement drops off considerably as the children age. Correspondingly, as the time since the father has lived with his child increases, father involvement decreases. Most nonresident African American fathers speak movingly of the meaning of their children in their lives, even if they rarely see them. African American fathers sometimes say that when they cannot contribute financially, they feel too guilty to have ongoing contact with their children. Many times a pregnancy and the ensuing birth provide African American fathers who have been participating in frequent illegal activity a strong motive to leave their hazardous street lives. Because of this, African American fathers often claim that their children have literally saved them (Fatherhood Institute 2005).
However, low-income African American fathers are more likely than both black and white higher-income fathers to place an equal value on the breadwinning, provider role and on the relational functions of fatherhood. Both structural and behavioral factors, such as unemployment, drug use, criminal activity, and conflicts with their child’s mother hinder black fathers from fulfilling the duties they say are necessary to be an adequate or good father.
There is a question of accountability and responsibility that black men have to answer regarding the present state of many African American families. At the same time, social and cultural supports could be enacted that would assist black men in more fully meeting their obligations. Given the constraints of living in poverty, many African American fathers are torn between their desires to effectively parent and their need to ensure their own survival. The general public, influenced by the stereotypical portrayals of black men in the media, may not recognize the roles that black men do play in the lives of their children.
Having an involved father has noticeable benefits to children. Fathers are important because they help to teach children values and lessons in solving the problems they may face, and they do so in a way that differs from what mothers contribute. Fathers also serve as role models in their children’s lives that affect how well they relate to peers and adults outside the home and in society. When speaking of the benefits of being an involved father, focus is placed on the benefits that children receive from such a relationship. Being an involved father means being actively involved in nearly every aspect of a child’s life, from direct contact, play, and accountability for child care to making oneself available to the child. Black men’s social situations influence how well they may or may not meet these demands.
While the common stance regarding African American fathers today is that their absence results in significant financial and social harm to their off spring, it may not be universally true. Researchers studying the issue of paternal involvement for a substantial amount of time have found concise evidence supporting the importance of paternal participation. Recently, some researchers have found that African American fathers can contribute to the health and well-being of their children, even if they do not live in the same household. The results of investigations of the influences of nonresident father involvement on children indicate that positive father involvement relates to better child outcome.
Researchers note that it is the quality rather than quantity of time that youth spend with their fathers that is important for their well-being. Research has also shown that children whose fathers are involved in rearing them score higher on cognitive tests (they appear smarter) than those with relatively uninvolved fathers. These improved cognitive abilities are associated with higher educational achievement. In fact, fathers who are involved in their children’s schools and academic achievement, regardless of their own educational level, increase the chances that their child will graduate from high school and perhaps go to a vocational school or a college. A father’s involvement in his children’s school activities protects at-risk children from failing or dropping out.
Research shows that fathers who are more involved with their children tend to raise children who experience more success in their careers. Career success can lead to greater income and greater financial stability. Involved fathering is related to lower rates of teen violence, delinquency, and other problems with the legal system. Furthermore, paternal involvement is associated with positive child characteristics such as understanding, self-esteem, self-control, psychological well-being, social competence, and life skills. Children who grow up in homes with involved fathers are more likely to take an active and positive role in raising their own children. For example, fathers who remember a safe, loving relationship with both parents were more involved in the lives of their children and were more supportive of their wives.
Finally, being an involved father brings benefits to the dads themselves. When fathers build strong relationships with their children and others in the family, they receive support and caring in return. Research has shown that healthy family relationships provide the strongest and most important support network a person can have, whether that person is a child or an adult. Being involved in their family members’ lives helps fathers to enjoy a secure attachment relationship with their children, cope well with stressful situations and everyday problems, feel as if they can depend on others, feel more comfortable in their occupations, and feel that they can do their parenting job better.
The benefits listed above are only a small portion of what accrues for fathers and children in a healthy relationship. There may be others that the research has yet to uncover. Nevertheless, all of these benefits for both fathers and children in the African American community will require hard work, patience, support, and diligence. It seems a more prudent and wise use of resources to determine how African American men can be assisted to be present in their children’s lives rather than to denigrate them for their absence.
Aaron D. Franks
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- Coles, Roberta L., and Charles Green, eds., The Myth of the Missing Black Father. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
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- Cosby, Bill, and Alvin F. Poussaint Jr., Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. New York: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
- Fatherhood Institute, “Finding Black Fathers in Families” (2005). http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/2005/finding-black-fathers-in-families/
- Furstenberg, Frank E., and Christopher C. Weiss, “Intergenerational Transmission of Fathering Roles in At Risk Families.” Marriage and Family Review 29 (2000): 181–202.
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- Nelson, T. J., Clampet-Lundquist, S., and K. Edin, “Sustaining Fragile Fatherhood: Father Involvement among Low-income, Noncustodial African American Fathers in Philadelphia.” In A Handbook of Father Involvement, ed. Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda and Natasha Cabrera. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.
- Smith, Carolyn A., Marvin D. Krohn, R. Chu, and O. Best, “African American Fathers: Myths and Realities about Their Involvement with Their Firstborn Children.” Journal of Family Issues 26, no. 7 (2005): 975–1001.
- Wilson, William J., The Woes of the Inner-City African-American Father. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.