Fatherhood has certain principles and experiences that are universal: The joy, excitement and anxiety of having a child in your care is shared by men (broadly defined) of every class, race, and nationality.
But there is a moment in a Black father’s life that is unique to us. I saw it in my father’s eyes when I was barely a teenager. I saw it in the eyes of Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, in interviews as he tried to remain stoic and strong for the cameras. It was in the eyes of Tamir Rice’s father, Leonard Warner, as he spoke of his late son. It was in my father's eyes. It will probably be in my eyes. It is a look of acknowledgement of shame, guilt and defeat because we cannot protect our children from the covert and overt racial discrimination of the world into which we helped bring them.
The shame of not being able to fulfill the patriarchal expectation of our society is a difficult element of Black fatherhood that often goes unspoken, and it’s generational. My grandmother used to tell a story about having been hit by a car as a small child in South Carolina — an accident that left her with a broken leg. The man who hit her jumped out of his vehicle and berated her father, screaming “Look what your daughter did to my car!” My great grandfather’s reserved demeanor during the incident was not born of cowardice, but caution: Given the time, he couldn't defend her or himself lest he put them both in even worse danger. Throughout our nation’s history, we had never been above harming small children like George Stinney or 17-year-old Marie Scott or even an 8-months pregnant Mary Turner, who was lynched for having the nerve to protest a lynching.
The shame of not being able to fulfill the patriarchal expectation of our society is a difficult element of Black fatherhood that often goes unspoken.
I was a wiry, brace-faced, middle-class private school kid when my father had one of several conversations with me to explain that he could no longer protect me. My dad had to look me in the eye and acknowledge that, despite the lifestyle he’d provided me, he couldn’t give me the protection from violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, that his white colleagues afforded their similarly-aged sons. He had to accept and admit to both of us that I could fall victim to the streets, or the people who are tasked with keeping them safe, or to a justice system that views my skin as characteristic of a predisposition towards criminality and violence and desires to neutralize me.
All fathers come to a point where they reluctantly hand off responsibility for their offsprings' wellbeing to the child him- or herself but, for Black fathers, it happens earlier. A study showed that Black girls as young as five are seen as older, less innocent, less in need of nurturing and support, and more knowledgeable about sex. Black boys were also perceived as older and less innocent starting at age 10 in a separate study. Black children's misunderstanding of these perceptions can result in their deaths, even as knowledge of them can end their innocence.
After all, the world watched this month as, without cause, a Black 10-year-old boy was handcuffed and surrounded by law enforcement until he wet himself. We'd all already seen a young girl get tackled and mounted by a police officer at a pool party three summers ago, and a girl thrown across the classroom, and a girl shot during a botched police raid and so much more in between. I assume their fathers watched, too, filled with same disgusted outrage with which many of the rest of us watched, yet with the added burden of embarrassment and guilt. Much like my grandmother’s father, those men could not keep their children physically safe, and further couldn’t preserve their children’s dignity. I didn't understand that until I was a father myself, the sick feeling of knowing that a moment away from your your children could cause them to suffer for normal childlike activities or that, in an attempt to keep them safe, we may be depriving them of the fullness and freedom of childhood.
All fathers come to a point where they reluctantly hand off responsibility for their offsprings' wellbeing to the child him- or herself but, for Black fathers, it happens earlier.
In the past, we marched for the right to protect our families: 50 years ago, Black men marched through southern streets with signs declaring “I am a man”. Encompassed in that statement is “I am a father”, “I am a husband”, and "I demand a system that provides economic opportunity, safety, and judicial recourse for me and my family."
Black fathers must keep fighting these battles, but also fight ones to redefine fatherhood and manhood for ourselves. Our value as men cannot simply rest upon our ability to protect and provide; it has to be based on the efforts we make to build emotional bonds with our children. Yes, we will still need to have The Talk about the system with our sons and daughters, but we should simultaneously recognize that we need to model self-love for our children, not shame and guilt for situations that are out of our control.
We must also acknowledge that the ways in which we were raised were not always right: Many of us were raised by fathers who thought that they needed to hide their emotions, or to run their households with authoritarian discipline and believed it to be a proper masculine expression of love. There is, obviously, a mountain of evidence that shows the danger of corporal punishment for a child’s self esteem. But, more to the point, in a society that puts handcuffs on our children's tiny wrists, where their teachers and school administration call them racist epithets or moonlight as white supremacist bloggers, and where they can be shot for playing with their toys in public, our children get far more than their share of authoritarianism. Black boys and girls need hugs and kisses from their fathers.
Raising confident Black children in America is a revolutionary political act of love, which makes every active Black father a revolutionary.
This Father’s Day, Black men should take some time to honor themselves, as well as the other Black fathers in their community, gay, straight, cis and trans. If you’ve made mistakes — especially in the ways in which you've failed to respect the mother of your children, which teaches them how to give and receive respectful and rational behavior from you— work to forgive yourself and refocus on being better in the future.
Raising confident Black children in America is a revolutionary political act of love, which makes every active Black father a revolutionary. In the words of Tupac Shakur, as fathers we may not change the world ourselves, but one of us “will spark the brain that changes the world” and makes it so that future generations of Black fathers don’t have to have The Talk or live through the look with which we are all so familiar.
Jason Nichols is a full-time Lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland.