Q&A with Aasha M. Abdill on Fathering from the Margins: An Intimate Examination of Black Fatherhood
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 exclusive interview with author Aasha M. Abdill!
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Q: So, I understand that Fathering from the Margins is a community study which uses ethnography as its primary method. Can you tell us more about your sociological focus on community-level actors and factors?
Aasha M. Abdill: The great thing about ethnography as a qualitative method is that it allows me to not only analyze what people say, but compare it to what they actually do. While interviews are essential to the work, ethnography allows the researcher to add this other layer of observation. At the community level, this is especially useful to uncovering local history and context. It is also helpful in understanding the agency of people within the structures and systems that shape their lives. I present and analyze the actions of moms, grandmoms, teachers, and mainly the fathers themselves. I talk a little about actors outside of the community too such as researchers, journalists, and HipHop artists.
HipHop artists are actually in kind of a special category. Part of the local history is the many artists coming straight out of Bed Stuy and close by from the other boroughs. I talk about the influence of HipHop music and personas on fatherhood. For example, some artists promoted poses of the hard dangerous criminal who avoid connections to families in order to gain money, power and fame in the music industry. But, we already know that part of the story. That story helps fuels the deadbeat narrative, but what about the other side? Some HipHop artists have been rapping about the struggle of black fatherhood with its victories and losses. There are also artists who, in the 90s, promoted softer personas like the pretty-boy persona as opposed to harder masculine styles. These choices influence images of manhood, which in turn influence ideas of fatherhood. HipHop music is important in the study of black men with children.
Q: You use the phrase black men with children a lot. Why don’t you just say black fathers?
AMA: Oh I do! I do say “black fathers.” It is important to say “black fathers” because it adds something, something that helps us look at black men a little differently. Perhaps, with a bit more compassion. At times I say “black men with children” because that matters too for a few reasons. There are a lot of black father figures in the black community like older brothers, uncles, stepdads, coaches, and school custodians. All of these men act in fatherly roles for children in different ways. While I focus more on biological fathers, the phrase “black men with children” is more precise when I talk about a key community-level factor influencing black fatherhood: the public display of men with children out on the streets. As observers, we don’t know the technical status of these men. But seeing black men with children means something. It affects our understanding of fatherhood. It also affects our understanding of black men.
You asked me about my focus on community-level factors. Well, one huge community-level factor is witnessing black men with children out and about the community. Interestingly, there was a recent New York Times article about how racism significantly impacts the life outcomes of black boys, even black boys from wealthy households. Although the article isn’t focused on fatherhood, the researchers unexpectedly revealed that a community presence of black fathers can positively impact life outcomes. The importance of the public presence of black fathers is a core argument of my book. We need to understand this phenomenon better.
Still, racism and racial bias are ever present components. I talk about the tension some men feel about what it means to be a black man and what it means to be a black father, and, in particular, how you get treated based on that perception. I use both terms intentionally.
Q: In your methodological appendix, you talk about the importance of having the background and biases of a researcher front and center. Can you tell me where you caught yourself having biases?
AMA: Good question, one that more people need to answer. Researcher biases, are hard to uncover, but I consider it an important part of the work. There were several occasions that I checked myself on my bias as a mother studying fathers. One was actually just the other day when I was writing the op-ed about the Keyser Söze of Fathering from the Margins. I initially wrote “mother,” but checked myself and instead wrote “parent.” Actually, to be upfront, I emphasized “mother” and then really had to stop myself in the middle of my writing to interrogate why I felt “mother” needed to be emphasized when talking about the police killings of black boys. That added about an hour to my writing. See what I mean when I say it’s part of the work? There were times like that when analyzing my data that I caught myself, argued with myself, and won. Because the integrity of the research wins every single time I probe a potential bias.
So I would consider my mom bias an outsider bias. But, there are also insider biases, like being black and from the neighborhood I was studying. I think the hardest insider bias I struggled with was wanting to control how my community is presented and how it will be perceived. Sometimes, I didn’t want to write about how prison is sometimes called college, or about the many times at the playground we have to hurry up and grab the kids because of a shooting. But it’s part of the structure that makes up the backdrop of community life. As a researcher, I make decisions on what gets presented and what details matter in the search for sociological truth. Some academics hide behind false objectivity and third person while their unanalyzed implicit biases frame their research on black men and black families. I don’t want to do that. I find ways to check that.
I use “I” a lot. My methodology section is pretty personal, especially for me. I talk about my father and the father of my children. I share that with you because I am human and my efforts to be objective will never be 100%. I try to get to 99.9%, though. My research is shaped by my view of the world which can only be through my prism. So I tell you part of my story so you can see my prism. I don’t hide my prism from the reader and say, “Trust me, I am an objective social scientist.” No, I say, “These are the ways I tried to keep my biases in check. What do you think, reader? Here’s my prism. Here are my strategies. Did it work?” My prism is there while researching and analyzing and writing. I am aware of it and allow you to be aware of it too. My prism shapes my work in ways I know and don’t know. So, I show it to you… in all its color.
Q: I appreciated your methodological appendix. There was one part where you talk about how your advisors and other academics just didn’t get it. Can you talk a little more about what you thought they didn’t get?
AMA: Hmmmmm… It was just funny to see the patterns in the criticism different groups of peoples had for my work. For academic reviewers, the biggest critique that kept coming up was the question, what about the children? And, I get the question. I really do. It is a very important question, but it isn’t the question I was trying to answer. My study wasn’t set up for that. There are researchers who focus on that, but the question I wanted to focus on, the question the field led me to focus on, was specifically about the fathers. To some, black fathers wasn’t a worthwhile topic to study, not if I could not directly connect it to the outcomes of black children. This truly baffled me in the beginning. Do we not care about the lives of black fathers, in and of themselves? There is something about the role children play in shaping black manhood. I admit I still shake my head at how common this critique was. But, no one from the community asked me this—just academics.
Q: What did people from the community ask you?
AMA: Number one question, hands down by a long shot, was, “what about the single mothers?” Phew. Sometimes, I felt like I was walking a tightrope answering this one. And, I could fall to the right, or I could fall to the left, but I was gonna fall if I wasn’t reeaaallll careful. I wasn’t asked this excessively, many moms got it, but I was asked enough to make it… uh… exciting. There’s one instance that I write about in my book where this grandmom was none too happy with me about studying black fathers. It’s a lot to unpack, which is why there are two chapters that focus on moms’ voices and actions in a book about fatherhood. It’s impossible to study black fathers without studying black mothers.
That being said, I think it is time we start thinking about the use of the term “single mothers.” Because, some of the time, there is a father in the picture who is very much involved. If a mom and a dad are not involved, you might be a single woman, but really—are you a single mom? The single black mother narrative is deeply entwined with the absent black father narrative. And since we know that that ain’t true, then maybe we need to update our language a little bit. I’m open to the dialogue on this, but I think we are ready for it. I actually can’t wait to see where black families take this dialogue.
Q: So you are an independent scholar not affiliated with any university. What exactly does that mean? And what is next?
AMA: Before I trained to be a sociologist, I was a program evaluator. Before that I was a community practitioner/organizer. So, upon writing the conclusion of my book, which offers recommendations for practice and policy, I could not resist thinking—well, what can I do? The #fatheringfrom campaign is my effort to do something to correct the enduring narrative that black fathers are absent or deadbeat. When you go to the website www.fatheringfrom.com, the first thing you see is hundreds of black men with their children, and it does something to you. It hits you on the level where we all need to be hit. If you don’t do anything else, just go do that. Just go take a look and have a feel. Perhaps it may reduce your implicit bias about black men just a smidgen. The photos show black men, looking the way they look, doing what it is that they do, sharing their own snapshots of their lives with their little ones.
If this warms you, than support the campaign. In my professional and personal quest to bridge the often disconnected worlds of research, practice, and communities, I wanted to find a way to make sure insights from Fathering from the Margins reach the masses, whether they buy the book or not; whether they read it or not. So I will take key findings and concepts and break it down into image-based, easy-to-understand, relatable concepts that can be used to spark thinking, dialogue, and action on social media. I’d really love to partner with an organization also doing this work and move toward some of the broader practice and policy recommendations I offer.
As a researcher, I would like to take all my journal notes from executing this project and turn it into a book and get real in-depth about the struggle of being a “me-searcher” in an institution that sort of devalues it. The caliber of my work should not be devalued because of it. Indeed, as I argue in my methodology, it enriches it. There are so many minority scholars out there and I’d love to share my experience and the lessons learned because it can get really real studying your people. There are teardrops in the pages in my book, but there is also laughter and anger and hope and frustration. All of that, along with strategies I came up with, are in scattered journal notes that I wrote to keep my sanity and to stay true to the work. It would be great to do something of greater value with all those notes. I mean my sanity is very valuable, but you know what I mean. I’d like to help others through that journey. I would also like to maybe write an addendum to the book. Perhaps catch up with the fathers, mothers, teachers, community members in Fathering from the Margins and update results.
As for my status as an independent scholar, I don’t know how to be just a sociologist, or just an evaluator, or just a community practitioner. When I am thinking I want to be doing, when I’m doing I want to do it better, and that leads me back to thinking. I’m all of those things and I think it adds value to my work. It certainly adds value to my life.