The Keyser Söze of Fathering from the Margins
This week, our featured book is Fathering from the Margins: An Intimate Examination of Black Fatherhood. Today we are happy to present to you this thought provoking op-ed by author Aasha M. Abdill!
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Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, and Eric Garner are but a few of the names that I cannot see or hear without an intentional catch of my breath, a catch I have trained myself to do in order to prevent any tears from escaping from the well deep inside. A well many of us bury deep inside hoping never to drown in it. These men have two things in common. They are black, and they died at the hands of police. They have something else in common. They were fathers.
A producer interested in the documentary potential of my book asked me a question. “Fathering from the Margins is wonderful, but an engaging documentary needs an ulterior motive. What is the ulterior motive for stereotyping black men as deadbeat fathers despite evidence to the contrary?” I found the framing of the question odd, but what surprised me was my answer. I didn’t realize I had one until it tumbled out of my mouth.“You’ve already learned to hate a black man. It takes a little more effort to hate a black father.”
The call went quiet. The only thing more deafening than the producer’s silence was my own. I couldn’t believe I had uttered those words. As soon as I said it, I understood it, but it took a moment for my thoughts to catch up. I do not remember the rest of the conversation. I was too busy sorting through the racing thoughts in my head, scared they might betray me as well. Sometimes, it isn’t only tears that escape from the deep well. Words do. I caught my breath, and I went to my quiet place.
“You’ve already learned to hate a black man. It takes a little more effort to hate a black father.”
Black men have historically been portrayed as isolated figures, connected primarily to each other, a point I carefully argue in Chapter 1. The ulterior motive the producer sought, I had not considered. At least that is what I thought. My swift answer belied my truth. I interrogated my words as the pages of my book raced through my mind. In bits and pieces, my answer showed up. The conclusion is where it becomes the most apparent, but even then you might not spot it. Still, the research was pointing to it all along. Pieced together, there is the ulterior motive and something more elusive, the book’s Keyser Söze.
Who is the Keyser Söze of Fathering from the Margins? Before I divulge, I need to make sure the reader clearly understands a very important sociological concept. If you are a sociologist or consider yourself a well-read intellectual, I am sorry, but that won’t help you here. This concept comes straight out of the oral, linguistic tradition of the black American community. So, let me break down this extremely important concept for you. Let me break down Da Man.
“If you take away a black man’s connection to his family, it’s easier for him to be seen as a criminal, as a thug, as someone unworthy of support or mercy.”
Da Man has a few uses. One use is to denote the harsh realities of a capitalist society. The phrase “working for da man” expresses the sentiment that the working class and poor perpetually work hard to barely scrape by yet seldom get ahead. Another use is to recognize someone who is getting it done despite obstacles such as in the phrases “Who’s da man? I’m the man.” Or, “You da man!” These exclamations often acknowledge someone who has found a bit of power or prestige. Yet, the true brilliance of the term Da Man lies in its technical phrasing. While the use of the concept encompasses both structure and agency, the two simple words never let the user lose sight of who benefits the most from this nebulous, complex system of institutions, organizations, and individuals. Da Man is often used as the shortened version of “da white man.” The single most important thing never to forget about the interests of the elusive omnipresent complex system of the Da Man is that at its core it truly only benefits a specific category of persons- those in power, which in this time and place is rich white men. Everyone else is just temporary winners and losers whose actions and inactions, wittingly or unwittingly, contribute to the sustainability of a system that uses racist stereotypes to further the interests of this privileged group at the detriment of not only the other but all of democratic society.
If you take away a black man’s connection to his family, it’s easier for him to be seen as a criminal, as a thug, as someone unworthy of support or mercy. The narrative of the deadbeat black father supports this portrayal, black men nurturing children does not. The deadbeat narrative has been bought into and used at varying levels in order to wield temporary power by different sets of actors trying to find a way to benefit from it. While Fathering from the Margins discusses some of these actors and their motivations, particularly at the community level, at the end of the day, Da Man really only serves one master. The ulterior motive of disconnecting black men from their children is a racist one. It allows the painting of an American villain that gets everything he deserves including to die senselessly, time and again, at the hands of police. Black lives that not only do not matter, but whose murders can be spun as necessary for public safety or, even more insidiously, internalized by the public as moral karma.
“These racist beliefs disconnect black men from their families so that they are easier to scapegoat, hate, and kill.”
Fathering from the Margins is a four-year sociological study about black fatherhood that zooms in on community-level actors and factors that influence the engagement of black men with their children. The black community is my primary frame of reference both as a topic and as an audience. Yet, the self-interests of the white, rich and powerful as an ever-present designer can’t be ignored; our Keyser Söze, if you will.
Unlike my book, this is an op-ed blog post where I am purposely seizing the opportunity to entangle the study of black fathers with the experience of being a black man in America. It cannot be disentangled. Fathering from the Margins is the first ethnography to comprehensively study black men as black fathers. Why? My book answers this question. But, the answer here, like much of black vernacular, is simple and plain, yet colorful and meaningful: It’s cuz of Da Man, a complex system fueled by racist beliefs to preserve the privilege and power of a few white men.
These racist beliefs disconnect black men from their families so that they are easier to scapegoat, hate, and kill. Racist beliefs also fuel a system that kills black boys whose status of man is determined so that little black boy deaths can be easily ignored or forgotten by parents whose sons don’t look like them. Young boys like Tamir Rice, Tamir Rice and Emmit Till. Young boys like Kalief Browder, who did not die directly at the hand of cops but by a criminal injustice system that led him to his death starting with a three-year prison sentence for stealing a backpack for which he was never convicted. Even after marking the third anniversary of his death, laws drafted to correct such racist policies have been blocked from passing, despite years old pledges by Governor Cuomo.
As quoted about Keyser Söze, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” For black folks, the term Da Man will never let us forget, neither will the racist killings of our sons, brothers, partners, and fathers.
Aasha M. Abdill is an independent scholar who advocates for the inclusion of marginalized voices in the scholarship informing initiatives dedicated to family and community socioeconomic empowerment. Abdill, a proud HBCU alum, also holds advanced degrees in quantitative methodology from Columbia University and sociology from Princeton University. Visit fatheringfrom.com to learn more about the movement.