Stop the damaging myth of absent Black Fathers.

Last week I bumped into a mummy friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. I usually see her at local playgroups and ‘stay and plays’, and in between wiping noses, asking our children to “Get off that table” or “Don’t eat the paint” we talk and share a joke.

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I like talking to her; even though she’s quite a bit younger than me we’ve got a lot in common.  Her daughter is just a few months younger than mine and she became pregnant with her son shortly after I had my mine. I was really pleased to bump into her outside our local supermarket as it had been awhile since I’d last seen her. She had just picked her daughter up from nursery and her son was fast asleep in a sling on her chest. After the obligatory cooing over the newborn and wowing at how big her daughter was getting, I asked if she’d be coming to a playgroup we used to go to. She told me no when I asked her why her answer shocked me.

She told me that she was uncomfortable going out with both her toddler and her newborn because she felt that people were judging her. She felt self-conscious when the baby cried or when her toddler acted up because people shot her disapproving looks and were unhelpful, she thought they assumed that because she looked young (she is 27 but looks much younger) and is Black that her babies had no Daddy (or Daddies). The myth that Black men are useless had hurt her even though the Black man who is her children’s father is her husband and very much present.

She was being kept indoors by the persistent myth that Black fathers are absent fathers, that Black fathers are irresponsible; that Black men just make babies and then disappear into crime, unemployment and/or jail.

One could argue that she was being oversensitive or that maybe she was imagining things but I have heard too many similar stories from fellow Black mothers to dismiss her fears as paranoia or social anxiety. And although I pride myself on not caring too much what people think about me, if I am honest I must admit that I know exactly where she is coming from, sometimes when I’m on the bus and my son is screaming to get out of the buggy, I look up and see nothing but hostile eyes fixed on me and my gorgeous boy, I sometimes make a point of twirling my wedding ring because I hate being reduced to a stereotype. I hate the fact that in his absence my husband is dismissed and my kids and I are judged.

The reality is that yes, some Black fathers are absent but they are not the majority, according to the UK Office for National Statistics 2011 Census 36% of Black African children and 48 percent of Black Caribbean children are being raised in single-parent households. These figures are high but I argue that they have been used provocatively to signal a crisis in Black communities, I argue that we cannot look at race in isolation, factors such as class, income, access to housing, and the age of a man when he becomes a father will do more to determine whether he actively participates in parenting his children than his race. We also cannot assume that only fathers who live with their children have meaningful relationships with them. I know that in my daily life I see Black men parenting all the time. I see them in playgrounds, doing the school run, in the waiting room at the doctor’s and at the toddler sports class I take my kids to. I know that my experiences, as a daughter of a Black man, and as a mother to children whose father is Black may not be universal but they are not so rare as to justify the infrequency with which I see Black fathers acknowledged. They are notably absent from parenting magazines, television advertisements, and social media. So in an effort to address this misrepresentation, I want to emphatically proclaim that there are many Black men out there who love their children and who are very much in the picture, that although my father and my husband are not perfect they, like so many Black men are present fathers. My father and I have sometimes had a difficult relationship but he has always been there. He has indelibly shaped my life, in particular, I thank him for my love of reading and I thank him for a house filled with books. I was 13 when he gave me an amazing anthology of writing by Black women, Daughters of Africa, inside he wrote, ‘To my daughter Lynette, a great Black woman in the making’. I still treasure that book today.

Yes, there are Black men who may fit the negative stereotypes but there is a host of others who defy those stereotypes and their existence should be acknowledged too. So many men like my husband who work full time and share the burden of parenthood, doing bedtime, laundry and ironing nursery uniforms, foregoing lie-ins to take our daughter swimming every Saturday, they exist too.

It’s time for us to seriously consider how racism and discrimination are fed by racial stereotypes. We have to think about what it does to our children to be starved of positive images of Black men; it’s time for us to think about what it does to society to persistently see Black men as a social problem. It makes people fearful and suspicious. When I’m out and about I consistently notice people’s body language change when they pass a group of Black boys laughing in the street or running for a bus. I shudder to think that when my son is 12 or 13 he’ll be seen as a threat by the world, how will that affect him, if people start treating him like a criminal, will he start behaving like one? If a teacher or a police officer believes that Black males are inherently deviant are they capable of treating them fairly? There are serious repercussions to negative stereotyping which need to be urgently addressed. In 1952 in Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon contemplates the white gaze and its objectification of Blackness “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” How much has changed today?

- Lynette Lisk

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Candice Brown-Brathwaite