Graham Crumb


black fathers live

September 23, 2019
98 Picks

I was at home with my two children, tucking them into bed — giving them a last cup of water, pulling the covers over their little frames and kissing them goodnight, doing all this fathering — when noted thinker Andrew Sullivan was spitting out hoary, fake cliched stereotypes about how Black fathers ain’t shit. Sullivan’s specific words on Bill Maher’s HBO show were: “When 70% of African-American kids are born without a father or two parents, they aren’t supported… There is a real problem in African-American society about bringing up kids… It’s much more acute in that community.”

Oh boy. I love it when people who know nothing about the Black community make public pronouncements about the Black community. That’s always fun. Sullivan’s statistic is incorrect — about 60% of Black fathers live with their children — the CDC found 2.5 million Black fathers live with their children and 1.7 million do not. But people in the community know that not living with your children doesn’t mean you’re out of the children’s lives. Many Black fathers live outside their kids’ homes and are still a presence. 

These mythological notions that the Black father isn’t at home and isn’t doing his job, are among the core tenets of racist thought. It denigrates the character of Black men, supposing they’re not contributing to the well-being of their families, and sets up the expectation of immorality from the next generation of Black children who supposedly were not raised by two parents. (Let us say right now that single parent household can produce extraordinary people but that’s not the canard we came here to kill.) One of the things that the CDC study on fathers noted was that Black dads are more likely than white or Latinx men to say that watching children grow up is life’s greatest joy, and more likely to be involved in their children’s lives on a daily basis. That means bathing, diapering, dressing, playing with and reading to their children every day. The fact is most Black fathers are deeply invested in their children’s lives.

Certainly, that’s my life. My kids are 11 and 10, and I take them to school every morning. I don’t have to make their breakfast anymore, but I used to. I don’t have to feed or bathe or change them anymore, but I used to do that too. I love being a dad, and while doing that work was hard, it was satisfying in part because it reminded me of my own dad, who was also a fully present father. He drove us to school, changed our diapers, spanked our butts, and never let us fear that we wouldn’t have enough money for dinner. I cherish his memory as an exemplary father who I’m trying to live up to.

Most of the Black dads I know are proud to put in the work and show off their children. I remember interviewing Usher for BET and hearing him talk about changing his new son and being proud at how quickly he could do it. I remember interviewing Ice Cube for my podcast Toure Show a few weeks ago and talking to him about encouraging sons to cry when they’re sad. Mr. NWA doesn’t tell them to suck it up and be a man, he teaches his sons that sometimes crying is part of being a man. 

I remember going to Snoop Dogg’s youth football league practice when I was doing a cover story on him for Rolling Stone and watching him out there for hours with those boys, teaching them everything he knew about football. Snoop’s oldest was on the team and he purposely ignored the boy, not commenting on his play at all, clearly working through a pre-arranged pattern meant to keep others from getting jealous. Snoop drove home after practice and let me ride with him. He pulled up at a split-level ranch house that could’ve been the Brady Bunch’s second choice. Nothing about it said rap superstar. We walked through the living room where his sons were sitting on the couch watching some kids show. “This room used to be mine,” he said wistfully, telling me he’d been displaced from his living room just like so many dads. But Snoop had a tiny house out back just big enough to fit a two seater love seat. We sat in his little backyard man cave, but he wasn’t there to escape his kids. He was there to watch footage of the pee wee football team his team was going to play in a few days. He was as committed to this as any parent was ever committed to any after-school activity. I give you celebrity examples because they’re a bit more colorful but this is the sort of commitment to fatherhood I see throughout my generation.

When I was becoming a man, it felt like it was quite common for my Black peers to not have their father at home. Rappers claiming to know nothing about their biological dad — and perhaps even cursing his name — was a recurring theme in the hip-hop of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Jay-Z told me about his father abandoning his childhood home when he was 10, and that seemed archetypal. In the recent Wu-Tang documentary on Showtime, all the members of the legendary crew say tell how their mothers knew each other and their fathers did not. They laugh about that because we all know why. But those hip-hop stories and mentions also included deeply felt shout-outs to all the single moms who made magic to raise them and the men who stepped up. As CL Smooth said on “TROY (They Reminisce Over You)”: “When I date back I recall a man off the family tree/ My right hand Poppa Doc I see /Took me from a boy to a man so I always had a father / When my biological didn’t bother.” Shaquille O’Neal took that last line and made it the hook of a song that salutes his devoted stepfather.

As my generation moved into fatherhood, we seem to have been determined to not repeat the past, driven to be there for our children, doting on them, staying with our families, and loving the parental experience. We want to do better by our kids. In today’s hip-hop, the message is often pride about showing off their children — look at how often Jay-Z talks about Blue Ivy, lets us see and hear her talking (or even rapping). He’s a typical modern Black father who’s deeply invested in his child’s life, at his kids’ school on a regular basis. 

The idea that Black men are not positive or present fathers is a lie shape by slavery and the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, which cut many fathers off from their children. And, in the modern era, many Black men are diving into and deeply enjoying the journey that is fatherhood. I would not expect people from outside our community to know that, but I would also hope that people who are called upon to express (supposedly) intelligent political thoughts would do better than repeat old bankrupt ideas. I have read Andrew Sullivan’s work for years and I have admired a lot of it and although he is conservative, he has never been one of those conservatives who I’ve heard say racist things. I would never say Andrew Sullivan is racist, he can be quite revolutionary at times, but in this case he repeated a racist idea and his status as a noted public intellectual gives that idea credence. Even though Heather McGee, a noted Black public intellectual, was there to say “No, Andrew, that idea is untrue,” many people will believe the lie he spread because he’s Andrew Sullivan. And in this way we see that non-racist people can give aid and comfort to white supremacy by giving power and credence to ideas that are racist.