In one of his more interesting comic sketches, Chris Rock compares one group of African Americans, “niggas,” to another more wholesome group, “black people.” “You know what really bugs me about niggas is the way they always take credit for stuff a normal man would just do,” says Rock. “Like, ‘I raised my kids.'”
By Rock’s definition, I know exactly where I belong among African Americans today. For I am sure that even for this meager deed of fatherhood I am performing, I deserve a lot more than credit. My mission sounds simple enough: carting my young son through West Manhattan to visit another friend, working in Chelsea. I have logged enough baby hours to earn the title “stay-at-home dad,” so I’m not exactly new to this. But our trek into the city elicits terror because of three converging factors: 1.) I am a hefty 6’4″ black male—anything can happen. 2.) It’s Manhattan—everything might happen. 3.) My son is 7 months old—something always happens.
To take the mystery out of the island on this visit to New York, I have recruited two friends. It helps that they are native New Yorkers and know the geography. It doesn’t help that they are also young, black, male writers, whose size and dress (like my own), says almost nothing about who they are. Pushing the stroller, I remember the last time I was in New York with two other black male writers. As we were emerging from a Brooklyn subway that day, a white lady coming down the steps glanced our way and when she did not see Langston Hughes, immediately reversed direction.
Complicating things further today, the clouds that have been threatening us all afternoon open up with all their lordly might. Thunder and showers are everywhere. I suggest a cab. My friends remind me that we are the bane of taxis the realm over. But at least with a stroller we have a chance at netting a compassionate driver, right? Several yellow drive-bys later, we trot off with this one truth: Not even a stroller and a wet infant can take the monster out of three black dudes on a corner.
We walk the next several blocks in the rain to reach our goal. Our taxi episode initiates a contest for who has the worst “cabbies hate black men” story. I think I could win, were I focused on sorting through my “Astonishing Tales of Negrophobia” database. But I am too busy dealing with my own phobia—the one of my partner.
Samori Maceo-Paul Coates is the big-headed result of my union with Kenyatta Matthews. We met during a mutual stint at Howard University and have been together ever since. Before we met, she had a dim view of men as fathers. Her plan for parenthood was basically: get pregnant by some dude and then conveniently lose him. A father would only complicate things, she thought. When she got pregnant with Samori, I was able to convince her otherwise, but during my time as a dad, I have given my share of evidence to bolster her original view, and today’s trip in the rain only promises to add another letter to the file.
Until now, Samori has been the picture of health. I am not even sure I’ve heard him cough. If he comes down with anything from this jaunt through the elements, Kenyatta will make worm’s food of me. As if I needed confirmation of this, when we arrive in Chelsea, our host squeezes Samori’s drenched pullover, then looks at me and keenly notes, “You’re dead.”You see, for black men like me, fatherhood is a mission, a chance to atone for all the legions of errant black fathers.
Thankfully, I make it back into Brooklyn before Kenyatta gets home from work. By the time she walks in, Samori is sound asleep, with no cough to speak of. Only his damp clothes, hanging on a door like discarded snakeskin, give a clue to our ordeal. But either out of fatigue or forbearance—it matters not which—she decides to save the haranguing for another day. And there will be another day. Indeed, for the black dude attempting to be June Cleaver—a man standing at the nexus of two undervalued experiences—this is his lot. Everywhere he looks there is another burden, be it the glare of his partner, or the blind eye of a cabbie. But in his own mind at least, he is a hero.
You see, for black men like me, fatherhood is a mission, a chance to atone for all the legions of errant black fathers. The black stay-at-home dad in particular gains purpose from all of this, and convinces himself of his own Gandhi-like nobility. Of course, most of this mental crusading occurs before the kid pops into the world, and the idealistic black father is left to wonder, “Did Gandhi have to contend with crappy diapers?”
Deadbeats by the Dozen
If you believe the people who study such things, the odds of my becoming a responsible father were slim to none. On paper, according to both liberal and conservative models, my demographic profile should make me a deadbeat. I’m a young, black, underemployed male who fathered a child out of wedlock. I also grew up in the center of the absent-dad epidemic, in which it was so common for black men to abandon their children that there was no longer much shame in it.
In high school in Baltimore, it seemed that I didn’t have a single class where there wasn’t a young lady who either had a child, was pregnant, or both. The fathers were much harder to identify, and more anonymous, I suspect, because many of them were older. Even at plush, thoroughly middle-class Howard University, many of my fellow students were absent parents. In my last year in school, I remember meeting a dude from some small town in Pennsylvania. I was shocked when he told me he had a child. He was unemployed and pursuing an undergrad degree, and really had no means of supporting a child.
“Where’s the baby and the mother?” I asked
“Back home,” he said, smiling at a joke that I didn’t find funny.
When Kenyatta first became pregnant, I never thought twice about embracing fatherhood. Even as we weighed our options, all I could think about was this grand opportunity to join the ranks of present and accountable fathers. My fervor sprang from all the typical reasons people give for having children—mainly a desire to see a continuance of my gene pool. But there were other reasons, fraught with sociological implications.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a father, if only because I knew so few. You don’t need to grow up in the projects or abysmal poverty to know that black fathers are in short supply. If you assembled all the dads in my working-class Baltimore neighborhood, you might have the starting five for a basketball team. Of course, they would lose to the moms, who would have a bench, a coaching staff, a mascot and the home-court advantage. With such a depressing backdrop, those African-American fathers who elect to be more than a sperm bank become de facto heroes, demi-gods born out of utter desperation.
Much conservative ink has been spilled boiling the problems of black America down to its absent daddies, but no one in the black community needs pundits to lecture him on family values. Deadbeat dads rank about one step below the Klan in popularity among African Americans. Hiphop may be grossly misogynistic, but you will be hard pressed to find a cultural movement that more reveres mothers and reviles fathers. (Indeed, rap’s only mother-hater of note is a white guy, Eminem.) The anti-paternal sentiment in rap expresses a larger fatigue among African Americans for “tired-ass” black men who doom kids to fatherless lives. So when Jay-Z says “Momma loves me, Pop I miss you/God help me forgive ’em, I got some issues,” he isn’t simply having a cathartic moment, he is speaking for 70 percent of African-American children. He is also speaking for my partner and me.
My own father’s pedigree—seven kids by four women—looks like the rap sheet for one more deadbeat. But he was a stable and consistent presence in my home. And yet so dismal is his context that my siblings and I often find ourselves in the absurd situation of listing among his virtues the fact that he actually acknowledged all of us.
But after the solid presence of my father, the search for men of substance in Samori’s lineage disintegrates into a trail of figures who could claim the title “father” only in the coldest sense of the word. My paternal grandfather sired so many kids that no one has an accurate count of his seeds. My father last saw him alive when he was nine. My mother’s father abandoned his wife and five kids when my mother was a child. When I was a kid she boldly tracked him down with me in tow, only to be told that we both must now call him “Raymond.”
Kenyatta, like my mother, is the product of a daddy on the lam. And her maternal grandfather, theoretically present in her mother’s life, was a spousal abuser and a suspected child molester who died in bed with another woman. The result of all these paternal shenanigans is a patchwork family tree, with Kenyatta’s father and grandfather’s family completely blotted out.
From this perverse montage of ghost dads, I gleaned a somewhat melodramatic message: To be a father is the most noble calling an African-American man can ever undertake. Viewed within the historical context of racism and lynching, to me, the black father was a soldier taking up the sword and banner of a disgraced order of knights.
I was not alone in this belief. To whip up popular appeal for the 1994 Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan declared war on no-account black men, and singled out dead-beat dads in particular. It was a brilliant tactic and struck a chord in the black community as nothing had since the Civil Rights movement. I was at the Million Man March, but I didn’t need Farrakhan to declare war on deadbeat dads for me. I would do it myself, by taking a shot at fathering a child as soon as I felt I had the means to raise one. That moment came a little sooner than I’d expected, but when Kenyatta got pregnant, and we began hashing out the possibilities, I really only had one in mind. I would join a citizen army, restore honor to the tattered banner of black fatherhood, and hoist it high for all to see.
For the first two weeks after Samori was born, we had Kenyatta’s mother to lean on. When she returned to Chicago, Kenyatta was still available to handle swing-shift feedings, so my real tenure as a stay-at-home dad didn’t begin until Samori was three months old, when Kenyatta returned to work. Even then, contending with all those diapers on my own, I was still caught up in the romance of being a black daddy, and one who, at least in his own mind, was very good at it.
Indeed, accolades rolled my way at first. Women who witnessed even the simplest display of my baby-handling techniques were wont to melt into a chorus of “awwws.” My multifaceted identity allowed me to cross borders; I could easily move from a conversation weighing breast milk against formula to another weighing Barry Sanders against Emmitt Smith.
But of course, some borders are never crossed: The black Mr. Mom is still black before he is a Mr. Mom. And quite frankly, he is still a Mr. before he is a Mom. Reality quickly came crashing into my one-man dad’s group. I could deal with the relatively few old ladies who used to think twice about crossing my path. But now it was those same old ladies, emboldened by the presence of a stroller, who wanted to launch an inquisition into my parenting skills. I found myself regularly interrogated by panic-stricken strangers: Is that a rash? Should you be carrying that boy on your shoulders like that? Is that jacket thick enough? I became especially nervous when visiting my parents. If Samori looked as if he were about to cry, my mom would interrupt whatever measures I was taking, swoop in, and proceed with her own time-tested methods.
On top of all that, before Samori was even born, I unwittingly made my tour of duty especially rigorous. I was a 24-year-old college dropout and freelance journalist. By that description, you can probably get a ballpark figure of my income. Despite heavy family pressure, my partner and I are not married (hence the term partner) and have pretty much ruled it out for the time being. When she got pregnant I moved into her apartment, which she didn’t mind paying for by herself.
In more than a few sectors of America, there are highly technical terms for unemployed college dropouts who are supported by their pregnant girlfriends—bum and freeloader the most common ones. But in the black community, where there is an involuntary tradition of working moms and unemployed dads, the nomenclature is even more defined: no-good-nigga being the current label of choice.
Snide comments about our living situation filtered in from all quarters. At a family cookout, a woman cornered Kenyatta and lectured her on the need to “trap” me into marriage. Once, while interviewing a source for a story, I made the mistake of mentioning I was a dad living in sin. A 10-minute lecture on God’s intentions for family pretty much killed the story.
Yet through it all, I was never sorry for the choice I had made. And eventually, I found my community more supportive than I had imagined. My mother’s meddlings with Samori sometimes annoyed me, but when I needed to go back to work full-time, she also ponied up $400 every month for day care. I hated the interrogations from women on the street. And yet, it’s very hard to equal the high of pushing a stroller up Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue and seeing a black woman about your mother’s age shoot you a smile that says, “You done right, boy.”
Boys to Men
How did I end up doing right when so many of my peers have done wrong? I had some help at home. My mother was an uncompromising advocate of responsible fatherhood. Her non-relationship with her father hung overhead constantly, as well as the specter of what she called “nothing men.”
Whenever my path appeared to stray, particularly as a teen, I think my mom must have seen visions of raising a man like her father. In these instances, her eyes would flash and even though I was several inches taller than her by then, she would still snatch me up, wrench my arm with one hand and jab my chest with the index finger of another. Boring through my eyes with hers, she would swear that she was raising a lot of things under her roof, but she wasn’t raising “niggas to hang on the corner.”
Even in moments when I had committed no transgression, I was treated to lectures on my responsibility to self, family, and the black community. Always frank with me about taboo subjects like teen pregnancy, my mom had a rule: If a girl showed up to my house and claimed she was carrying my child, paternity tests tests were not an option. If I’d had sex with her, I was the father, and my mother expected me to take responsibility for that child. And yet, I don’t think that even my mom’s diatribes against deadbeat dads were much different than any other black mother’s. What made a difference for me, I think, was the example of my father.
On the surface, my father could not be mistaken for Cliff Huxtable. He was the product of abject poverty in Philadelphia, a high-school dropout. Before meeting my mother, he had already fathered five kids by three different women. But while her family was horrified by his gaggle of illegitimate children, my mom was attracted by the fact that he always seemed to be toting one or two of those kids around.
In theory, I suppose, my father probably qualified as a deadbeat in the sense that he provided little financial support for his large family. He never had any money. But what he lacked in money, he made up for with time. By the time I was born, my father had left the Black Panthers. But he still carried on his political activities, and tried to drill them into his kids. He dragged us around to black-nationalist events and he made us read little books on famous black people such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Thanks to him, I even was forced to endure a bout of “self-esteem work” in one of those Afrocentric rites-of-passage programs.
My dad also served as the “no-shit dude,” who, as we got older, ran something of a reform school for kids—his kids—when they were teetering on the edge of serious trouble. When the mothers of his other children reached the point of exasperation with their teenage sons, those sons were often sent to live with us (I lived with both my mother and father). My father served as disciplinarian, and somehow managed to help my mother steer all of us back from the brink. He wasn’t all bark, though. My fondest memories are of my father—a cooking enthusiast—gathering all his kids at his house and preparing a Maryland feast of crab cakes, fried whiting, hush puppies, and shrimp.
Oddly enough, the family feast idea was something he’d picked up from his own father, who was no Ward Cleaver. Aside from his many unclaimed children, my grandfather was also, by all accounts, a woman-beater and vicious disciplinarian. And yet if you ask my father what he remembers of him, he will tell you he remembers his father gathering all his kids together whenever possible, for whatever quality time he could.
My father’s attempts to replicate those gatherings—and then some—show how far a good example can go towards creating a decent parent. Indeed, the combination of my father’s example served us better than any rite-of-passage program could have. There are seven of us kids now. All except one of the four boys have children of our own. Some of us are married, most aren’t. But there are no deadbeats among us.
Multiplying Mr. Moms
Many middle-class people, especially white ones, will think that my father should never have had all those kids in the first place. Likewise, to mainstream America, I am not exactly a hero for staying home to take care of my son, but irresponsible for having sired the child in the first place without finishing college, getting a good job, and securing a wedding ring. Yet if more men whose children weren’t born under the most perfect of circumstances did what I did, the nation’s black children would be far better off than they are now.
Farrakhan was right in calling on men to return to the family, but his insistence that they assume the traditional role of provider, while women submit to them, was highly misguided. After all, no black woman was going to take that submissive stuff seriously, and given the realities of the economy, a lot of dads, especially young ones, aren’t going to become venture capitalists before their kids reach draft age.
Perhaps, instead of focusing so much on the check-writing aspect of fatherhood or trying to marry off unwilling partners for the children’s sake, it’s time for a political movement that seeks to transform “no-good niggas” into an army of Mr. Moms. Since no one has figured out how to make black men much richer, or married, for that matter, why not at least take advantage of the one asset we have in abundance: our time. For instance, instead of throwing young guys in jail when they fail to pay child support they couldn’t possibly pay, how about making them babysit (with a few parenting classes first) while their children’s mothers go to work?
Not only would the children be better off, but their fathers might actually discover what I already know: that fatherhood is fun, and that it really is the noble calling that I had envisioned, despite the crappy diapers.