The Myth of the Missing Black Father

“The black male. A demographic. A sociological construct. A media car­icature. A crime statistic…. Rarely a father. Indeed, if one judged by popular and academic coverage, one might think the term ‘black fatherhood’ an oxymoron.”

The Myth of the Missing Black FatherWith Father’s Day coming up, we’ll be featuring some of our books focusing on, not surprisingly, fatherhood. First up is an excerpt from the introduction to The Myth of the Missing Black Father, edited by Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green. In the introduction Coles and Green take a closer look at the cultural and scholarly misunderstandings that gave rise to the myth of the missing Black father:

The black male. A demographic. A sociological construct. A media car­icature. A crime statistic. Aside from rage or lust, he is seldom seen as an emotionally embodied person. Rarely a father. Indeed, if one judged by popular and academic coverage, one might think the term “black fatherhood” an oxymoron. In their parenting role, African American men are viewed as verbs but not nouns; that is, it is frequently as­sumed that Black men father children but seldom are fathers. Instead, as the law professor Dorothy Roberts (1998) suggests in her article “The Absent Black Father,” black men have become the symbol of fa­therlessness. Consequently, they are rarely depicted as deeply embed­ded within and essential to their families of procreation. This stereo­type is so pervasive that when black men are seen parenting, as Mark Anthony Neal (2005) has personally observed in his memoir, they are virtually offered a Nobel Prize .

But this stereotype did not arise from thin air. In 2000, only 16 percent of African American households were mar­ried couples with children, the lowest of all racial groups in America. On the other hand, 19 percent of Black households were female-headed with children, the highest of all racial groups. From the perspective of children’s living arrangements, over 50 percent of African American children lived in mother-only households in 2004, again the highest of all racial groups. Although African American teens experienced the largest decline in births of all racial groups in the 1990s, still in 2000, 68 percent of all births to African American women were nonmarital, suggesting the pattern of single-mother parenting may be sustained for some time into the future. This statis­tic could easily lead observers to assume that the fathers are absent.

While it would be remiss to argue that there are not many absent black fathers, absence is only one slice of the fatherhood pie and a smaller slice than is normally thought. The problem with “absence,” as is fairly well established now, is that it’s an ill-defined pejorative concept usually denoting nonresidence with the child, and it is some­times assumed in cases where there is no legal marriage to the mother. More importantly, absence connotes invisibility and noninvolvement, which further investigation has proven to be exaggerated. Furthermore, statistics on children’s living arrange­ments also indicate that nearly 41 percent of black children live with their fathers, either in a married or cohabiting couple house­hold or with a single dad.

These African American family-structure trends are reflections of large-scale societal trends—historical, economic, and demographic— that have affected all American families over the past centuries. Trans­formations of the American society from an agricultural to an indus­trial economy and, more recently, from an industrial to a service econ­omy entailed adjustments in the timing of marriage, family structure, and the dynamics of family life. The transition from an industrial to a service economy has been accompanied by a movement of jobs out of cities; a decline in real wages for men; increased labor-force par­ticipation for women; a decline in fertility; postponement of marriage; and increases in divorce, nonmarital births, and single-parent and non-family households.

These historical transformations of American society also led to changes in the expected and idealized roles of family members. Ac­cording to Lamb (1986), during the agricultural era, fathers were ex­pected to be the “moral teachers”; during industrialization, breadwin­ners and sex-role models; and during the service economy, nurturers. It is doubtful that these idealized roles were as discrete as implied. In fact, LaRossa’s (1997) history of the first half of the 1900s reveals that public calls for nurturing, involved fathers existed before the modern era. It is likely that many men had trouble fulfilling these idealized roles despite the legal buttress of patriarchy, but it was surely difficult for African American men to fulfill these roles in the context of slav­ery, segregation, and, even today, more modern forms of discrimina­tion. A comparison of the socioeconomic status of black and white fathers illustrates some of the disadvantages black fathers must sur­mount to fulfill fathering expectations. According to Hernandez and Brandon (2002), in 1999 only 33.4 percent of black fathers had attained at least a college education, compared to 68.5 percent of white fathers. In 1998, 25.5 percent of black fathers were un- or underemployed, while 17.4 percent of white fathers fell into that category. Nearly 23 percent of black fathers’ income was half of the poverty threshold, while 15 percent of white fathers had incomes that low….

Given the increased focus on fatherhood in scholarly and popu­lar venues, what do we really know about black men and parenting? We know more than we used to but less than we should. Scanning recent anthologies on fatherhood still reveals that despite the inter­est in broadening the scope of fatherhood, African American fathers, when discussed at all, continue to be addressed predominantly under categories frequently associated with parenting from afar, as nonresi­dent, nonmarital fathers; see Lamb (1997, 2004), Daniels (1998), Dowd (2000), Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera (2002). Even books specifically on black fathers concentrate almost exclusively on nonresident fathers (Barras 2000; Hamer 2001; Clayton, Blankenhorn, and Mincy 2003).

So let’s start there, with what we know about nonresident or so-called absent fathers. Studies on this ilk of fathers indicate that generally a large portion of nonresident fathers are literally absent from their chil­dren’s lives or, if in contact, their involvement decreases substantially over time. A number of memoirs by black men and women, sons and daughters of literally absent fathers, attest to the painful experience that this can be for the offspring—both sons and daughter—of these physi­cally or emotionally missing fathers. For instance, writing in his 1999 book Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, award-winning journalist Leonard Pitts wrote of his own father and others:

He was one thing many other fathers were not: He was there. Present and accounted for every day. Emotionally absent, mind you. But there, at least, in body. I know so many men, so many black men, who can­not say the same. So many men for whom the absence of father is a wound that never scabbed over.

Although these anguished experiences are too common, they re­main only one part, though often the more visible part, of the larger fatherhood picture. An increasing number of quantitative and qualita­tive studies find that of men who become fathers through nonmari­tal births, black men are least likely (when compared to white and Hispanic fathers) to marry or cohabit with the mother (Mott 1994; Lerman and Sorensen 2000). But they were found to have the highest rates (estimates range from 20 percent to over 50 percent) of visitation or provision of some caretaking or in-kind support (more than formal child support). For instance, Carlson and McLanahan’s (2002) . gures indicated that only 37 percent of black nonmarital fathers were co­habiting with the child (compared to 66 percent of white fathers and 59 percent of Hispanic), but of those who weren’t cohabiting, 44 per­cent of unmarried black fathers were visiting the child, compared to only 17 percent of white and 26 percent of Hispanic fathers. These studies also suggested that black nonresident fathers tend to main­tain their level of involvement over time longer than do white and Hispanic nonresident fathers (Danziger and Radin 1990; Taylor et al. 1990; Seltzer 1991; Stier and Tienda 1993; Wattenberg 1993; Coley and Chase-Lansdale 1999).

Sometimes social, fictive, or “other” fathers step in for or supple­ment nonresident biological fathers. Little research has been conducted on social fathers, but it is known they come in a wide variety: rela­tives, such as grandfathers and uncles; friends, romantic partners and new husbands of the mother, cohabiting or not; and community . g­ures, such as teachers, coaches, or community-center staff. Although virtually impossible to capture clearly in census data, it is known that a high proportion of black men act as social fathers of one sort or an­other, yet few studies exist on this group of dads. Lora Bex Lempert’s 1999 study of black grandmothers as primary parents found that many families rely on grandfathers, other male extended family members, or community members to fill the father’s shoes, but unfortunately her study did not explore the experience of these men….

A smaller amount of research has been conducted on black fathers in two-parent families, which are more likely to also be middle-class families. Allen (1981), looking at wives’ reports, found black wives re­ported a higher level of father involvement in childrearing than did white wives. McAdoo (1988) and Bowman (1993) also concluded that black fathers are more involved than white fathers in childrearing. However, Roopnarine and Ahmeduzzaman (1993), and Hossain and Roopnarine (1994) find no or insignificant racial differences in the level and quality of married fathers’ involvement. Across races, fathers in married-couple families were about equally involved with their chil­dren, which in all cases was less than mothers.

In terms of parenting style, studies of black two-parent families have found that African American parenting styles tend to be more authoritarian, with an emphasis on obedience and control or monitor­ing, than those of white parents. This style difference is frequently explained by lower income and neighborhood rather than by race it­self (Garcia-Coll 1990; Hofferth 2003). Bright and Williams (1996) con­ducted a small qualitative study of seven low- to middle-income black fathers in two-parent families in an urban area. They found these fa­thers worked collaboratively with their wives to nurture their children and that chief among their concerns were rearing children with high self-esteem, protecting their family members in unsafe environments, securing quality education, and having a close relationship with their children. Marsiglio (1991) also found black fathers to talk more and have positive engagement with their older children.

Finally, and ironically, most absent in the literature on black fa­therhood have been those fathers who are most present: black, single full-time fathers. About 6 percent of black households are male-headed, with no spouse present; about half of those contain children under eighteen years old (see table 0.1). These men also may be biologi­cal or adoptive fathers, but little is known about them. Aside from the contributors to this volume (Coles 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2003, 2009; Green, this volume; Osgood and Schroeder, this volume), Hamer and Marchiorio (2002) are the only ones who have researched this group of fathers. Brett Brown’s (2000) study of single fathers included black men, but his .ndings and conclusions did not disarticulate the data by race.

In sum, research on black fathers has been limited in quantity and has narrowly focused on nonmarital, nonresident fathers and only sec­ondarily on dads in married-couple households. This oversight is not merely intentional, for black men are only about 6 percent of the U.S. population and obviously a smaller percent are fathers. They are not easy to access, particularly by an academy that remains predominantly white. We hope to use this volume to fill in some of the gaps and to broaden the scope of what people see when they look at black men as parents. We want to adjust the public’s visual lens from a zoom to a wide angle to view black fathers in a realistic landscape, to illustrate that they are quite varied in their living arrangements, marital status, and styles of parenting.

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