16th March 2021: Part of a dream where I am trying to sort out something at a local post office. Ian Beale (from the BBC television show Eastenders) works there, and I watch as he tries to forge and hide cheques for his customers. I wonder about this as the cheques have to be collected by someone from a rack at the back of the shop, and wonder if a staff member wouldn’t notice there were far too many of them. It seems like a poor story line for a soap opera.
In 2006 I remember the process I undertook when I decided to write a paper on the importance of the black father (Turner, 2007). That paper, whilst very much of its and my time, still had a lot to say about what it is to be a black father and worked hard to challenge many of the negative narratives around black fatherhood both beamed into the culture from outside as well as reinforced within the culture by our own internalised prejudices about black paternalism. This summer blog though reopens this discussion and does that little bit more to shine a personalised light upon some of these internalisations, together with sounding a clarion call to all those black fathers who are obviously doing the good, and often unrecognised work of parenting and being the role models their sons and daughters need.
I was talking to my daughter over dinner this week about her maternal grandfather. Then at some point we started to talk about my father. At that exact moment, and bear in mind that I have not spoken to my father in over ten years, he suddenly rang me up. It wasn’t a long conversation. He asked me briefly how I was, then started to ask me for money. At that point, I put the phone down on him. My daughter heard all this (the call was on speakerphone), and she said she wondered if he really did need some money and why didn’t I help him, as he was my father. I had to explain to her that he didn’t really need any money, and that this was just how he was, asking for things from me, and not really being interested in who I am or how I am. My therapy session the day after built on this. My therapist said he’d had a dream about my dream where he saw Ian Beale and had heard the words ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ I was stunned as I had only just seen the film of the book of the same name by the Civil Rights leader, James Baldwin. For me the book and the film were about black men, about black masculinity, and about black fatherhood. The film had bought me to tears, I recall that much.
The marginalisation of the father as a tool of subjugation has never been limited to colonised communities. Many centuries past, invading armies recognised that in order to control a population one of the best means was by breaking up the powerhouse which was the family. By containing the fathers, often separate from their partners and children, and then breaking their spirits, the will to fight back was often lost, dissipating like a mist on a morning breeze until it was no more. A perfect example of this emerged out of the Internment Camps established on the Isle of Man by the British Government during World War II (Unknown, 2016). Built to house suspected Austrian and German spies, these camps were often a first home for Jewish refugees with nowhere else to go. On the island though, the camps were regularly split between one prison for the men, and the fathers, their families being left under curfew in the local Bed and Breakfasts in the towns.
This institutionalised rage (and fear) against the father when our lens is redirected back towards black men is not just echoed but is manifestly reinforced when we consider the commercialisation of the prison system. For example, the Prison Reform Trust report that 26% of the current prison population are from minority backgrounds. Given that these minorities make up 14% of the population, were representation related to population, this would reduce this amount by 9000 inmates, or 9 full sized prisons, or reduce the bill for incarceration by £92 million per year.
That many of those incarcerated are men, and are fathers, is without doubt. The loss of the father to our communities is something which in part fuels other painful stats, such as the fact that in 2002, two out of three (68.4%) African American infants were born to unmarried mothers (Lu et al., 2010, p. 50). In all of these situations, the enforcement of power over black men, and the external and internalised separation of father from partner and child, runs like a scar through the culture.
Links to slavery though are annoyingly obvious. From Akbar’s (1984) writings on the diminished role of the father in a colonised world, to the punishments forced upon him were he to attempt to re-establish himself as a man and as a father in said environment, the defeated black father is an aspect of black masculinity which has long been underestimated. This passage from a paper by Roth, is just one story of many based around the punishment meted out against black men for even attempting to assert their right as fathers, where he states, ‘in an even more horrific incident of punishment for rebellion, Josiah Henson told of the consequences when his father prostrated an overseer who had attempted to rape Josiah’s mother. ‘The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand against the sacred temple of a white man’s body,’ Henson recalled with bitter irony, ‘was all it was necessary to establish.’ For this attempt to protect his family, Henson’s father received a severe flogging, followed by the severing of his right ear from his head (2007, p. 263).
Maybe I am over-thinking this, but there is a reality based upon the truth embedded within past experiences. Having a father who disrespected everything I did and everything I said, I guess I’ve come to internalise all this. I have made it ok for others to disrespect me over and over. Admittedly, this is much better now than it has been, but much of what has happened to me lately has involved a disrespect for me and for who I am. Interestingly, this line of thinking has led me to consider the feminist ideas around autonomy, to Immanuel Kant and his ideas of respect, to how when one is adapted then one loses respect for self and is disrespected by others. The more ‘woke’ I become therefore, the more respect is due from myself and others, I guess. A bit deep all that.
I was always struck by something Crenshaw said about the civil rights struggles as often being positive as a fight between competing masculinities (Crenshaw, n.d.). In way, I think this miraged formation of what equality is like any form of fakery has an element of truth. The intersections of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism in these instances all work hard against the black father, against black men. The father’s incarceration and subjugation, as mirrored by the piece presented by Roth, can be transported to any era and any situation where a black father is present and seen as powerful. For example, there is the footage shared widely on social media of the stopping by the police of Bianca Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos in Maida Vale, West London a year ago. For this blog only, an important aspect of this story is the separation, the subjugation and therefore the shaming of the black father, his black partner bound in handcuffs, his child crying alone in the car (Reuters, 2020).
I had a father where being a man in the house wasn’t allowed as it threatened his position as the patriarch (this isn’t to say my mother didn’t play her role in this emasculation, she did her part as well). In fact, your words, where you see me as a Tough Bastard with a Sensitive Side, are well met. It is these qualities which meant when I fought for my daughter that I just kept going, that at times I just sat in silence, being patient, waiting for the right time to act. It is these qualities that meant I didn’t fold, that I didn’t drive to Beachy Head and stare into the abyss that is death. It was this combination of true masculinity which carried me through that fight, which at the same time wrote #Mockingbird, which drafted articles, saw clients, and maintained my work at the university. Anyway, shouldn’t you be out for dinner?
‘Basically you have to be a good father because your kids are going to look up to you. You have to do what’s right .. . you want them to follow the same footsteps that you’re in and even become something better than what you are,’ (Gordon et al., 2013, p. 157). My Uncle Bree was the most brilliant father figure I could have had. An uncle not even by birth, when he visited from Trinidad he watched over me, guided me, and told me off in the most kindly of ways that meant I always listened to him. We made vanilla ice cream together in his house in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and he told me subtle stories of his life, inspiring me in this regard as to how I could be a father in mine. He had a more profound impact upon me than even my own father. It was men like him, fathers who now sit with the ancestors, who are the types of fathers I let guide me in my dreams and through my therapy. They are the inner wellspring that can never be evaporated by the systemic oppressions of that intersectional trinity. Like the archetypes which guide them, and therefore myself, I will use them to guide my daughter and my clients as I work to be the best type of father I can for all of us.
You are right about the ongoing influences upon my daughter that I have as her father. I know I have a huge role to play in helping her to grow into a woman, a real responsibility, and I love and respect that. I’m also aware that I cannot be everything, and whilst any future partner has a part to play in being a role model for my daughter, that ideal is too much for any one woman to hold, I feel. So, alongside my role as her father, I am spreading this responsibility outwards to some of the women I know, those women I consider my friends, incredible women like yourself, women who my daughter deserves to have as landmarks on her journey towards adult womanhood. So, thank you always.
Akbar, N. (1984). Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery. New Mind.
Crenshaw, K. (n.d.). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics Recommended Citation Crenshaw, Kimberle () “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1).
Gordon, T. V., Nichter, M., & Henriksen, R. C. (2013). Raising Black Males From a Black Father’s Perspective: A Phenomenological Study. The Family Journal, 21(2), 154–161. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480712466541
Lu, M. C., Jones, L., Bond, M. J., Wright, K., Pumpuang, M., Maidenberg, M., Jones, D., Garfield, C., & Rowley, D. L. (2010). Where is the F in MCH? Father involvement in African American families. Ethnicity and Disease, 20, 49–61.
Reuters. (2020). UK police officers face misconduct probe over stop of two Black athletes. Reuters Online. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-global-race-britain-police/uk-police-officers-face-misconduct-probe-over-stop-of-two-black-athletes-idUKKBN26T2YF
Roth, S. N. (2007). ‘How a slave was made a man’: Negotiating black violence and masculinity in antebellum slave narratives. Slavery and Abolition, 28(2), 255–275. https://doi.org/10.1080/01440390701428048
Turner, D. (2007). The Smoke that Thunders : A personal perspective on how the absent father hinders the growth of black men in the new millenium. Journal of Critical Psychology Counselling and Psychotherapy, 15(2), 85–91.
Unknown. (2016). Isle of Man exhibition features history of WW2 internment camp. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-36906504