Dr. Tamari Kitossa
Sociology, Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario
The Myth of the ‘Absent’ and ‘Missing’ Black Father: Toward a reconstruction
I have suggested the slow and sadistic asphyxiation of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, aided and abetted by his subordinates, should direct attention to ritualized violence against Black men as acts of sexual domination. But, just as the murder of George Floyd exemplifies the normalization of the mythologies of inherent criminality and hypersexualization, his life also exposes another mythology that is damaging to Black men, families and communities.
Here I am talking about the myth of the ‘absent’ or ‘missing’ Black father. Under this myth, every Black man is a putative ‘dead beat’, ‘derelict’, ‘no-good’, ‘shiftless’, and ‘better dead than alive’ sperm donor. With tap-roots deep in the manure of a Western culture that erects images of the Black bogeyman as an enemy around which social solidarity can be built, Black men must resist and expose this stereotype as dangerous and unfounded. Our focus should be on the evidence of our actions as fathers and other-fathers.
Both Tracey Reynolds and Erica Lawson show that Black men separated from their spouses are ‘non-resident’, but rarely if ever ‘absent’ from their children’s lives. Before them Earl Ofari Hutchinson dispelled the trope of the ‘absentee or ‘missing’ Black father as a product of the hateful and fertile imagination of academics, journalists, their editors and publishers, politicians, and assorted anti-Black misandrist ideologues.
The life of George Floyd tells us a different story, though. As a father and ‘other-father’ who mentored African American youth, George Floyd, like James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon, was all about ensuring Black children had a man in their lives who would nurture and guide them. The life of George Floyd puts the lie to the myth of the ‘missing’ Black father as a clever trick calculated to normalize the failed, fraudulent and, often, oppressive Western experiment called the nuclear family. Just how badly the fracture-prone nuclear family has failed, just how much it is a myth that falsely universalizes a historical anomaly in the human experience, and most certainly the Black one of the African diaspora, is well-noted in Christopher Ryan’s and Cacilda Jethá’s informative and amusingly written Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality. Contrary to what E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel P. Moynihan had to say about the “tangle of pathologies” that mired the Black family of the Diaspora, it must be said that is not and never was in the majority of instances ‘nuclear’. And even when they seemed to be, a closer look reveals an altogether different reality of extended and fictive kin connected, very much, like the tendrils of brain cells to form a holistic network of relationships that comprise Black communities. Sentimentalism aside, children in this configuration remain very much the beneficiaries of the African proverb that ‘it takes a community to raise children’.
George Floyd was not an anomaly in living the principle of this proverb. He exemplified that Black men have always undertaken fathering/other-fathering in an unbroken line from the slave ships, plantations, Jim Crow, segregation and religious schools to contemporary youth programs, sports coaching, weekend heritage programs and formal and informal mentoring. Borrowing from Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, I suggest that Black men undertake fathering/‘other-fathering’ as a culturally evolved form of “dispersed paternal care”. Tommy Curry in his ground-breaking book The Man-Not: Race, class, genre, and the dilemmas of black manhoodshows this to be very much the case. He cites strong contemporary research showing that African American men have the highest levels of sexual egalitarianism and commitment to childcare among men in the USA.
So how is the myth of the ‘missing’ or ‘absent’ Black father maintained in Canada? Look to government immigration policy. Canadian immigration policies continue to skew the numbers of Black females to males by exploiting the labour of highly skilled Black women from the Caribbean and South America in particular. Between 2011 and 2016, the Canadian census reveals that about 45,000 Afro Caribbean women, many in their prime child-bearing years emigrated to Canada. As a result in Toronto, for example, there are 79 African Canadian males for every 100 females. Nationally there are more than 100,000 more African Canadian females than males. This effectively means that in spite of fewer Black men to Black women, it is also means that Black men are pulling double duty as fathers and other-fathers. Look also to incarceration practices and policies: 94% of all African Canadians in penitentiaries are males. But tragic as this may be, David Grant reveals remarkable instances of young Black men taking care of the children of their imprisoned friends.
It is time to change the narrative of the ‘absent’ and ‘missing’ Black father for a more empathetic, encouraging and realistic view of Black fathers and other-fathers.
Join Dr. Kitossa at our next Barbershop Talk Series
“Train a child the way he should go and make sure you also go the same way.”African Proverb