05 November 2008

Reflections on an American Election


A thought emerges…but it too is silenced.

I'm not sure how to respond to this - this new America. The possibility-turned-reality of a person of color - a black man - being elected to the presidency of the United States is not one for which I've been prepared. I can still envision that little girl with the afro-puff wearing the pink shirt that said, "Future President." The little girl who, when asked what she'd be when she grew up, responded without hesitation: "A teacher, a scientist, a doctor, and president." But then she learned that while teacher, scientist, and doctor might be within her grasp if she studied hard and went to college, president was never, ever, a dream to be reached. Not by little girls and especially not by little brown-skinned girls or boys.

And now, some thirty-odd years later, that little brown girl has exceeded her dreams. And still she wonders "what might have been" had the specter of race not cast a net over her dreams. A political career? Unlikely. Not really her cup of tea. But what other possibilities might have existed in a boundless imagination? More importantly, with the ceiling so visibly shattered, how does she raise that little brown boy, whose laughter rings throughout the house as she writes, so that he hears within his head, "Yes, I can," and not "No, they won't let me"?


Yesterday, a brown-skinned man was elected president. Today my sister-in-law and her family woke up to find that their home, as well as those of other African Americans in their community, had been paint-balled.

Yesterday a multicultural coalition voted in record numbers to honor the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. Today an African American family in Birmingham tries to clean up the $7,000 in property damage and untold amount in environmental damage done by those who rock-salted their lawn.

The hope abounds. And so do the hate crimes. And downstairs is a little brown boy who must be prepared for both of those realities.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.


23 August 2008

Make Room for Daddy

I have been thinking a lot about fathers over the past few months. To be more specific, I've been thinking about the denigration of the role of fathers in the African American community. Denigration is a tough word, to be sure. And it's not one that I use lightly. But increasingly, I'm coming to the conclusion that denigrating the importance of fathers is exactly what we're doing.

It's no secret that the majority of African Americanchildren are being raised in single-parent households - about 65 percent according to the latest estimate. Of course, "single-parent" is not a synonym for "absent father." Although the media and the so-called "Moral Majority"might like us to believe that the children living in single-parent households have all been abandoned by their fathers, many of these children live with their fathers and a good many more have fathers who are actively and critically involved in their lives.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there are far too many African American children who are being raised without the presence of a father. While there are often grandfathers, uncles, or other male mentors in relationship with those children, I suspect that only a minority of those men really fulfill the role of father figure.

What's more, there are some neighborhoods where fathers are entirely absent. It's a running joke on Chris Rock's semi-autobiographical sitcom, “Everybody Hates Chris,” that his is the only father in the community. There are lots of men in the neighborhood, but only one fulfilling the role of father. It cuts too close as an imitation of life. It reminds me of several years ago when I was working with a dataset from a national survey of thousands of high school students across the U.S. In the beginning, to familiarize myself with the data, I reviewed the manual that described each of the variables in the survey and the range of values possible for each variable. It was some pretty heady material but I was making my way through it okay. At least until I got to the section on community data. There was one variable where the range of values seemed statistically impossible. I couldn't make sense of it. Finally, I realized what the manual was telling me - there are communities in the U.S. (in this case defined at the census tract level) where there are no fathers present. Not one. Not even Chris' dad.

We might imagine that the neighborhoods in question were poor. And they probably were. Economic and racial oppression has a lot to do with the absence of fathers. But I am not content to lay sole responsibility for this phenomenon at the feet of The Man. After all, as far as I can tell, The Man doesn't plan on changing the system anytime soon.

Perhaps it’s the focus on economics that has many college-educated, financially successful sisters deciding to bear children without the benefit of a committed father. I'm not going to speculate on why these women aren't married or even argue that they should be married (that's a topic for another day). Rather, I want to question the notion that seems to be underlying this trend - namely that prosperity (and maybe a strong sisterfriend network) is a substitute for a father. The idea seems to be that if a woman makes enough money or has enough support from family and friends, then she can raise a child successfully without the father's involvement. And there are many examples that prove this to be true. In fact, there are many women who have raised children successfully without the benefit of money, a strong support network, or a father.

But is this the exception rather than the rule? Let's face it - maybe Bill Cosby could have worded it better (and nuanced it a great deal more) but he wasn't all wrong - come on people! Yes, racism, classism, and sexism matter - a lot. However, I believe that it is precisely because these interlocking forces of oppression bear down upon black children and create an uphill battle for African American parents that we must do whatever we can to protect our children. And part of that protection has to involve fathers.

In my class on African American families, we read Mary Pattillo-McCoy's “Black Picket Fences,” an analysis of the strengths and struggles of middle-class African American families. At the heart of Pattillo-McCoy's argument is that the prosperity and privilege of middle-class African Americans does not insulate their parenting. Even in this tight-knit community, gangs, crime, and teenage pregnancy were highly prevalent. As we read the text, my students and I noticed a consistent factor in the lives of the teenagers and young adults who had succeeded - fathers. Each of them - whether their parents were married or not - had fathers who were actively involved in their lives. In fact, children who lived with their mothers but had daily contact with their fathers fared far better than did those who lived in households with fathers who were tangential.

Fathers matter. And they matter for more reasons than their financial contribution or even the benefit of having another body involved in childrearing. After a long time of ignoring fathers (and blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children), child development experts have begun to realize this. There is a growing body of research that shows that fathers - good fathers - offer something that is unique from what mothers offer. And I believe that most children need the benefit of both to fully thrive.

In other words, African American women have got to stop using that mantra "I'm mama and daddy." We're not. And if you need any further evidence of that, just look to the number of young women who are chasing down father figures in the form of unhealthy sexual relationships and the number of young men who are chasing them down by emulating a model of manhood that they've seen on the corner or on BET. We have to reclaim the role of fathers in our communities. Otherwise, we may be throwing our children's lives down the drain.

15 February 2008

Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

Last night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to see an exhibit by Barkley L. Hendricks. Known for his life-size paintings of ordinary African Americans, Hendricks’ work is shockingly realistic. I spent about 45 minutes walking through the exhibit. Most museum exhibits that I have seen have focused on the novel and the unfamiliar. But
surrounded by more than fifty of Hendricks’ huge paintings, I felt at home. These were faces that I knew. The detail to clothing, posture, and emotional expression was so remarkable that I expected each painting to come to life and begin talking to me as I gazed at it.

Later, there was a dialogue about African American men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks’ work. Did I mention that there were more than fifty paintings depicting a diverse array of black women and men from across the diaspora? Well, the sponsors of the dialogue chose to focus on one painting – Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed, a self-portrait of the artist
wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers.

Because I’d stepped outside of the exhibit hall for a drink of water and had gotten waylaid by a conversation with a friend, I missed the first part of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white (and some Asian) faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks’ exposed
penis. On an easel at the front of the group there was a flipchart with these words:







hip hop











really nice guys




in control


in your face














As I stood looking at the chart, a few African American couples joined the crowd, including my friend and her companion. Each pair began murmuring among themselves. Finally, a young man leaned over and whispered, “Were you here when they put together that list?” None of us were.

And we were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Perhaps they had specifically asked for negative stereotypes about black men. That was my hope anyway, even though I suspected otherwise.

At one point my friends’ companion spoke to the group at large: “It’s disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like men, and then to come over here and see how the artist’s work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience.” A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, trying to reassure: “I don’t think you were here when we did the exercise. The left side wasn’t actually in response to his work.” As if that made it better.

At the end of the dialogue, I asked one of the facilitators, a young Asian woman, about the question that had prompted the list. She responded brightly, “Oh, we didn’t have anything on the paper other than the two headings, Black Males Today and Black Males in His Art. We just
asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. It could have been from media, from perception, from anything. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art.”

Ironic. At a time when a black man has made history by becoming the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming the presidential nominee for one of our major parties, it is the stereotyped representations of African American men that whites spontaneously report (and
yes, I’m ignoring the “really nice guys” given that it’s a pathetically absurd attempt to make up for what came before it). That this was supposedly the educated, progressive crowd made it even worse.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that there are some African Americans, including those in high-profile positions, who seek to capitalize off of and perpetuate this image. BET (aka Booties Every Time) comes to mind. Which image do you think a white cop is more likely to have in mind when he encounters a black man with a wallet in his hand? How about a white human resources manager when she receives an application from a black man? Based on the list above, it is certainly not Barack Obama’s “bright, clean, and articulate” self. Clearly, this is not just entertainment.

Directly across from Brilliantly Endowed was another image, Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), a painting of one of Hendricks’ black female students from Connecticut College. Slumped on a sofa, hand up to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration that is reminiscent of Fanny
Lou Hamer’s, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’d been drawn to the painting my first time through the gallery. After the group discussion, it became my clear favorite. Looks like that sister had just been around a group of white folks having a discussion just like this one.