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The Myth of the Missing Black Father

Edited by Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green

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Paper, 400 pages, 6 illus., 20 tables
ISBN: 978-0-231-14353-0
$31.00 / £21.50

December, 2009
Cloth, 400 pages, 6 illus., 20 tables
ISBN: 978-0-231-14352-3
$90.00 / £62.00

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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. 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 (Martin et al. 2003). 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 (as will be discussed below). 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 nonfamily 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.

The historical transformations were experienced across racial groups but not to the same extent. The family forms of all racial groups in America have become more diverse, or at least recognition of the diversity of family structure has increased, but the proportions of family types vary across racial groups. Because African American employment was more highly concentrated in blue-collar jobs, recent economic restructuring had harsher implications for black communities and families (Nelson 2004). The higher and more concentrated poverty levels and greater income and wealth inequality—both among African Americans and between African Americans and whites—expose African American men, directly and indirectly, to continued lower life expectancy, higher mortality, and, hence, a skewed gender ratio that leaves black women outnumbering black men by the age of eighteen.

All of these societal and family-level trends affect black men’s propensity to parent and their styles of parenting in ways we have yet to fully articulate. For instance, Americans in general have responded to these trends by postponing marriage by two to four years over the last few decades, but that trend is quite pronounced among African Americans, to the point that it is estimated that whereas 93 percent of whites born from 1960 through 1964 will eventually marry, only 64 percent of blacks born in the same period ever will (Goldstein and Kenney 2001). Consequently, in 1970 married-couple families accounted for about 68 percent of all black families, but in 2000, after several decades of deindustrialization, only 46 percent were married couples. The downstream effect of marriage decline is that the majority of black children no longer live in married-couple homes.

Certainly, the skewed gender ratio mentioned earlier contributes to this declining marriage trend, but the role of other factors is under debate. Wilson (1987) and others have suggested that black men’s underemployment, along with black women’s higher educational attainment in relation to black men (and smaller wage gap than between white men and women, according to Roberts 1994) may decrease both men’s and women’s desire to marry and may hinder some black men’s efforts to be involved fathers (Marsiglio and Cohan 2000). However, other research (Lerman 1989; Ellwood and Crane 1990) has found that even college-educated and employed black men have exhibited declines in marriage, and yet additional research points to attitudinal factors (South 1993; Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan 1995; Crissey 2005), with black men desiring marriage less than white and Latino men.

Other parenting trends may also be affected by black men’s unique status. Their higher mortality rate and lower life expectancy may affect the timeline of parenting, increasing pressure to reproduce earlier. If married or cohabiting, black women’s higher employment rate may increase the amount of time black men spend with their children (Fagan 1998). Higher poverty and collective values also pull extended family members into the mix, diffusing parenting responsibilities, which may lead to more protective or more neglectful styles of parenting.

Because of these society-wide and race-specific changes in family formation and gender roles, academia and popular culture have exhibited an increasing fascination with the diversifying definitions of masculinity and the roles men play in families, particularly as fathers. Research and publications on fatherhood have increased exponentially, and courses on fatherhood are popping up in the nation’s colleges and universities. However, most of the research has been based on samples of respondents who are all racially white. And when men of color have been included in small numbers, the researchers do not address race as a variable; hence their conclusions are stated generically.

In conjunction with this increased amount of research and, in fact, frequently fueling the research, has been a proliferation of public and private programs and grants aimed at creating "responsible fatherhood." While many of the programs have been successful in educating men on how to be qualitatively better fathers, many have aimed primarily either at encouraging fathers to marry the mothers of their children or at securing child support. Marriage and child support are important aspects of family commitment, but marriage is no guarantee of attentive fathering, and garnished child support alone, particularly if it goes to the state and not to the mother and child, is hardly better parenting. Within this policy focus, African American men are most frequently attended to under the rubric of "fragile families" (Hobson 2002; Gavanas 2004; Mincy, Garfinkel, and Nepomnyaschy 2005). Although this classification may be intended to bring attention to structural supports that many families lack, once again it promulgates the idea that black men cannot be strong fathers.

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." (12)

Similarly, journalist Michael Datcher (2001:3) wrote in his memoir, Raising Fences: A Black mans love story, that in his east-side Long Beach, California, apartment building of thirty families, he never saw a father visit, let alone live in, a household. Because of that, he says, "I’ve been obsessed with being a husband and father since I was seven years old. Quiet as it’s kept, many young black men have the same obsession. Picket-fence dreams. . . . But usually we strike a cool pose. Hide Huxtable-family dreams in the corner: Can’t let someone catch us hoping that hard."

Whereas we usually think of sons as being naturally more affected by the absence of a father, daughters, too, hurt, as journalist Jonetta Rose Barras’s self-revealing book Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women illustrates. Speaking from her own experience and those of women she interviewed, Barras said (2000:5) that she wrote the book because

"I wanted other women to know that someone understood. I know fatherlessness. I know the emptiness it creates, the years searching for something to help fill the void, looking for a substitute to make me whole. I know the insecurity; the endless battles with doubts that are re-created with each new relationship—battles that are never won; the pain that resurfaces after each departure of a man in my life. I wanted women to understand the distinct patterns of sadness, insecurity, confusion, and unresolved pain that connects those of us who experience father loss either through death, divorce, or abandonment."

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) figures 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 figures, 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.

Jarrett, Roy, and Burton’s (2002:234) review of qualitative studies of black fathers managed to capture the perspectives of a few low-income social fathers. One sixteen-year-old talked about his fatherlike relationship with the young daughter of a friend.

"Tiffany (a pseudonym) is not my baby, but she needs a father. To be with her, I work in the day care center at school during my lunch hour. I feed her, change her diapers, and play with her. I buy her clothes when I can because I don’t make much money. I keep her sometimes. Her mother and her family appreciate what I do and Tiffany loves me too. Every time she sees me she reaches for me and smiles."

Fagan’s (1998) study of low-income biological and stepfathers in two-parent homes found that the two types of fathers of black children were equally involved (contrary to findings from other studies on stepfathers generally). Similarly, McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) found that, compared to those who live in single-parent homes, black male teens who lived with stepfathers were significantly less likely to drop out of school and black teen females were significantly less likely to become teen mothers. The authors speculated that the income, supervision, and role models that stepfathers provide may help compensate for communities with few resources and social control. Although they are often pictured as childless men, these social fathers may also be some other child’s biological father, sometimes a nonresident father himself. Consequently, it is not easy and is certainly misleading to discuss fathers as if they come in discreet, nonoverlapping categories of biological or social.

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. 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 findings 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.

In this volume, we do not intend to decide which set of dads is better (whether by race or by type of father within races). We are not interested in the good dad–bad dad typology. We make the assumption that good fathering is best for children, but we also assume good fathering can take many forms and styles. We want to explore how black men perceive and decipher their various parenting experiences and give them voice in the pages of this anthology. We want to consider policies, tried or suggested, that impede or facilitate parenting on the part of black men. We seek to provide a forum in which black fathers in their full range of parenting take center stage. We feel that the timing of this book is opportune, with the recent election of the first black president of the United States. Many African Americans are optimistic that President Barack Obama, who experienced the absence of his own father and is expressly committed to furthering involved fatherhood, will be able to significantly weaken the existing stereotype of the black father, both through his own public example and through facilitative policy.

The Organization of the Book

The Myth of the Missing Black Father is an interdisciplinary volume with contributors from sociology but also from the disciplines of social work, family studies, and psychology. It comprises sixteen chapters—all of which were specifically prepared for this volume—organized into six parts. Consistent with one of the main objectives of the volume—to showcase the diversity of African American fatherhood in contrast to the often unidimensional portrayal of black fathers as largely absent single fathers—these sections explore key categories of black fathers in contemporary society and some of the challenges they encounter. They also explore children’s perceptions of their fathers alongside certain legal and social policies that contradict the objective of responsible fathering.

Three chapters are included in part 1, "Married Fathers," that draw attention to the persistence of this basic familial typology in the Black community. Loren Marks, Katrina Hopkins-Williams, Cassandra Chaney, Olena Nestruk, and Diane Sasser’s interviews with married fathers underscore this point. A quantitative study by Ron Bulanda examines the intersection of poverty and the parenting styles of married African American moms and dads, while Erica Chito-Childs and Heather Dalmage examine the sensitive matter of black fathers in interracial unions who have undertaken the gargantuan task of socializing their biracial children as African Americans.

Part 2 focuses on the emerging family type, "Single Resident Fathers." Until now, single custodial fathers have been underrepresented in the literature in part because of demographics but also the larger society’s reluctance to fully embrace this family type. Roberta Coles’s lead essay uses a qualitative study to provide an overview of this emerging family type. With the perplexing debate about gendered nurturing as a backdrop, Charles Green’s qualitative study compares single mothers’ and fathers’ views of one another as parents. This section ends with a quantitative study by Aurea Osgood and Ryan Schroeder, who compare black and white single custodial fathers’ use of public assistance benefits.

Another expanding typology of fatherhood is captured in part 3, "Social Fathering." While this category is not new to the black community, it has nonetheless taken on increased importance in the past few decades. Mark King’s quantitative examination of the movement of various father figures in and out of low-income families further clarifies the conceptual aspects of social fathering. Aaron Smith’s essay considers the special but overlooked role that grandfathers play as social fathers. The final essay in this section, by Bethany L. Letiecq, navigates us through fathering in violent inner-city neighborhoods, with a critical eye on the differences between biological fathers and social fathers.

Part 4, "Young Fathers," derails the stereotype of young fathers as irresponsible. Kevin Roy and Colleen Vesely’s qualitative analysis of thirty-five young, low-income African American fathers shows the receptiveness of these young men to supporting their children and illustrates that father involvement is shaped by the support and expectations of kin systems. Further reason for optimism concerning young fathers is advanced in Jacqueline Smith’s essay on Division I college athletes who are also fathers and who are determined to dismiss the myth by demonstrating their ability to balance fatherhood, athletics, and academics.

Whereas most of the studies in this volume examine the problem of fatherhood through the lens of fathers, part 5 offers a snapshot of fathers as they are perceived through children’s eyes. Eunice Matthews-Armstead’s essay reports on her extensive interviews with adult black women whose fathers were absent for most if not all of their lives and how they have narratively reconstructed those fathers as adults. Suzanne Lamorey creatively addresses the matter of father absence and portrayals of father figures in children’s literature and analyzes how fathers affect meaning making for children.

The final section in this volume, "Policies Affecting Black Fathers" addresses the all too often negative effects of social policies and certain legal institutions on fathering, particularly among black fathers. The first chapter, coauthored by Amy Smoyer, Kim Blankenship, and Tracy Macintosh, examines the plight of black fathers who seek to fulfill their responsibilities as parents but are trapped by their legal status as parolees or probationers and the bureaucratic rules that govern their lives. The final two chapters, by Cheryl Mills and David Pate, respond to the radical welfare policy changes that began in 1996 during the Clinton administration, which introduced new welfare and child-support-payment legislation that in some cases has weakened rather than strengthened the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives. Mills concentrates on the history and background of the problem, while Pate focuses on the hotly debated "marriage promotion" plan.

A Word About Methods

Since the primary objective of The Myth of the Missing Black Father is to broaden our understanding of Black fathers, who for too long have remained in the background and invisible to the public eye, we wanted the essays in this volume to contribute to changing that image by placing fathers’ voices in narrative form. Thus, the majority of the studies are based chiefly on qualitative research procedures, though a few rely heavily on quantitative methodology. Qualitative methods aim for depth of information concerning subjects’ inner feelings and viewpoints but are not without limitations. A key limitation is the tendency for these studies to rely upon small samples, making it difficult to generalize findings across wider populations.

Despite this, we hope that the studies in this anthology will cumulatively provide the reader with rich information on how black fathers feel about their circumstances, choices, regrets, and aspirations as related to their own and their children’s futures. These studies should inspire us to increase our efforts to attract more resources to expand our samples, extend the research, and strengthen our findings.


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About the Author

Roberta L. Coles is associate professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she teaches courses on family, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is the author of Race and Family and Best Kept Secret: Black Single Custodial Fathers. Her publications have appeared in the Sociological Quarterly, The Sociological Review, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Journal of Aging Studies, Sociology of Religion, and The Western Journal of Black Studies. Charles Green is professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology at Hunter College (CUNY) and also teaches in the Ph.D. sociology program at the CUNY Graduate School and University Center. His published works have focused on race and ethnic relations, urban politics, Caribbean migration, and issues in comparative urban development. He is the coauthor of The Struggle for Black Empowerment in New York City: Beyond the Politics of Pigmentation and editor of Globalization and Survival in the Black Diaspora: The New Urban Challenge. His most recent work is Manufacturing Powerlessness in the Black Diaspora.

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