Barack Obama and the Abuse of Black Fathers
Barack Obama and the Abuse of Black Fathers
by Tyrone Simpson
This article will be featured in the upcoming issue of Acoma, an Italian journal on American politics and culture.
"We don't need our governmental leaders to teach us about family life, we need them to create the economic circumstances that will support it."
I am a well-educated African American male in my late 30s; married, though childless (a condition that has rendered my marriage increasingly tenuous), and among the many effects I expected Barack Obama and his presidential candidacy to have on me, a contraceptive one was hardly chief among them.
Over the course of the last decade, my wife and I have been engaged in a painful debate about the course of our mutual future. She wants to be a mother, a desire, I am sure, that signals, although does not guarantee, that she would be a good one. Few are as generously loving and attentive to other people as she. She would be as much a gift to the child, as she believes a child will be a gift to her.
I do not want to be a father. I state my position this way more to depict our postures diametrically rather than to actually express what is true. Fear disables optics that are otherwise reliable (the Iraq war stands as macabre evidence of this psychological fact); it handicaps the ability to see and decipher one's will. I am, indeed, afraid to be a father and thus I am utterly unsure if I want to be one. This fear of my own paternity, one that my relatives and friends diagnose as irrational and self-penalizing, has much to do with my own experience as a son.
Like Obama, and the numbers of black men he claimed in solidarity this past Father's day for having shared the same misery, I have been bereft of my father's financial and emotional support for the balance of my life. The existential distance between my father and I, moreover, has deprived me of the data necessary to account for his absence. When given the opportunity to narrate the estrangement between us, I tell a story of a bright and capable man who braved Manhattan to establish himself amidst the lucrative, yet treacherous corridors of Wall Street's global finance. A promising middle manager when the Reagan presidency began, my father became acquainted with the unfeeling calculus of corporate downsizing. His dismissal from his post traumatized him, as sudden joblessness injures the psyche of most men, and thrust him into a depression that defied relief. I suppose it was pride that made it difficult for him to secure stable employment from that point on (still inadequately accounted for in the shiftless black dad narrative that has become a staple of American political discourse, is how often the demise of the patriarch hinges on a certain sense of personal, if not racial pride. The desire to have one's social desire filled, without compromise).
"The shiftless black dad narrative that has become a staple of American political discourse."
Unwilling to labor below the professional status he once had, my father made it certain that he would do so. Odd or insecure jobs were his lot in the years to come. Despite the abrupt decline in station, my father at times would act as if his once promising career continued to persist. He would rise early, dress himself in shirt and tie and hurry from the home in a blaze of white-collar seriousness. My sister and I learned the truth later; the ritual was contrived-an anguished performance of a man not wanting to admit to his neighbors and his children that he had lost a crucial battle with this world and needed repair.
I saw my father shrink in size, shuffling soullessly through our project apartment, his head clouded by musings of his own defeat. True passion would emerge from him, it appeared, only when his children did something to disappoint-neglecting chores, grades, or curfews. It is possible that our shortcomings held up a mirror to his own or, in fact, that we symbolized the remaining vestiges of his once proud domain. Controlling us meant his word still mattered in this world, somewhere. His alternating emissions of patriarchal anger and impotent self-mourning made him the type of man with whom few would want to keep company. The gloom he spread throughout the home and the economic austerity that underwrote it, made our apartment carceral. This containment was scarcely able, however, to prevent the four of us-me, my sister, and my parents--from emotionally going our separate ways. On many levels, we still fail to find intersection to this day.
Among the many reasons why Mr. Obama's words last month were so piercingly painful was because of how uncaringly they misrepresented and mishandled a story like my father's and those of other black fathers like him. Among the many wishes African Americans have pinned on Obama's presidential candidacy is that he would, alas, bring a measured black political voice to the national stage. We anointed him to express, in the finely crafted, corporate English that he wields with elegance and ease, a perspective sensitive to the deep complexity of black life in the United States. Not as vulnerable to caricature and ridicule like Jackson, Farrakhan, and Sharpton, Obama was to air our grievances and hopes in a manner that would compel the world to listen. His eloquence would shield us from insult, and on occasion, make us the subjects of salute.
Though it could hardly be considered full advocacy, Obama's "Philadelphia Address" this past March acknowledged in earnest tones the sheer grit required of black Americans to live a livable life. "What's remarkable," the candidate ventured, "is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds, how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them." This was an account of black heroism and perseverance seldom uttered outside of the black church and Black History Month (though the frequency with which it is featured in both venues is noticeably declining). It certainly was not a staple of American electoral politics. Since this oration, Obama has been ordained the biracial messiah whose ability to empathize with the varied and vexed sentiments of the electorate would orchestrate the nation's racial redemption. Shockingly, however, it is precisely this compassion - the sense that devils and angels inhabit all human souls, the sense that life can be rude and unfair to well-meaning people - that is missing from his denunciation of scores of seemingly irresponsible Black men. Though many of the liberal punditry have now declared it sacrilege to question the sincerity of Obama, it is important to note that the difference between these two speeches, the short distance between the sensitivity of one and the callousness of the other, is occupied by a secured presidential nomination rather than a projected one.
"Among the many wishes African Americans have pinned on Obama's presidential candidacy is that he would, alas, bring a measured black political voice to the national stage."
The sheer lack of novelty of this reprimand of black fathers is as disquieting as it is uncharitable. Barack predicated his superiority to Hillary on his ability to bring true change to the nation's political culture. As we now mark historical time by the conflagration of 9/11 ("the world changed that day"), we would be able to do the same with Barack's presidency. Gone would be the days of partisan pettiness, corporate malfeasance, racial strife, arrant income disparities and imperial aggression. Reproaching the black father, however, does little to show that this leader will look beyond the horizons of insight presently known to us.
Students of American intellectual history are aware that anxieties about black paternity have existed since the close of the Civil War (because, of course, there was no such thing as a "black father," or a "black mother" for that matter, before emancipation). W. E. B. Dubois worried about black families in his 1899 publication, The Philadelphia Negro, a work still inadequately recognized as seminal work in American sociology. E. Franklin Frazier supplied additional hand-wringing about this issue in The Negro Family in the United States" in 1939, and the revered senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, punctuated the hysteria with the federal publication, "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action" in 1965. (Those who study the public discussion that Moynihan's work instigated will notice that it is at this time that American citizenship becomes publicly redefined. At the moment that the United States finally conceded to admit African Americans into the polity as full citizens, national leaders and opinion makers re-imagined citizenship not as something enjoyed by people born on or naturalized to American soil, but by those who fulfill the imperatives of "good" heterosexual fathers and mothers-producing civically the very epitome of a flipped script).
For those who pay attention to the ebb and flow of racial politics, a reflection on this scholarly archive, however, is not necessary to recognize the shopworn nature of Barack's critique. The "family values" platform of the Republican Party in the last quarter century has shrewdly "signified" on what it understood as the dishonorable familial and sexual practices of underclass blacks, and not so surprisingly, their rhetoric has resonated with the black bourgeoisie-a demographic historically embarrassed by the seemingly unruly ways of its black lessers-and have gained echo in the public commentary of Bill Cosby and many black clergymen across the country. Ignoring the right-minded criticism levied against Cosby for publicly condemning blacks for their own misery while saying little about how white society has contributed to their plight, Barack eagerly repeated this sin in his Father's Day speech (I should note that though it references discrimination, Obama's earlier "Philadelphia Address" on race never assigns blame for this discrimination. It emerges from the ether, we are left to deduce, since Whites are cast as innocent former immigrants).
Barack's condemnation of fugitive black fathers is not the airing of dirty laundry; it is pointing to lines of dirty laundry already suspended above the grass while ignoring the flock of guilty pigeons perched indifferently above them. In delivering this critique without an equal meditation on the socioeconomic factors that frustrate good black fatherhood, Obama's speech does not signal the intrepid leadership one would expect of a political messiah. Instead it steeps the candidate in second-rate mimicry, and reveals a cynical ploy to amass popular support by conjuring up, for the purposes of banishing, a bogeyman that holds only a modest threat: the absent black father.
"Obama's speech steeps the candidate in second-rate mimicry."
The clear evidence of the folly involved in speaking of the absent black father as a national concern lies not merely in the fact that it is not one (if it was, then the nation would deploy its resources to ameliorate the problem. But as we know, government has restructured itself so that it seldom addresses issues of social welfare. That is why we need Oprah, and Dr. Phil and Tyra and Judge Mathis to buoy our self-esteem because our fate will only be what we make it), but in the professional competence and achievement of Obama himself. As opposed to our present president, whose family is so fully functional that it threatens to turn the executive branch into a monarchy (the sins of the heir went unchallenged by his subjects for far too long), the democratic nominee himself is a product of a broken home. His fatherless plight did not prevent Obama from qualifying for the highest office in the land. To declare paternal absence pathological, one must ignore thousands of black men who have persevered through the misfortune of being fatherless to become productive members of society. Moreover, it risks making a fetish of the father, someone we desire so hysterically that we ignore the selfless sacrifices of the women who heroically raised little boys into good and great men. By making these women invisible, the absent black father narrative reproduces the sexism that enabled black men to abscond in the first place.
As I have been suggesting, Obama's preachment last month does more than disrespect the fears, sweat, and tears of black mothers. For many of those fatherless boys who have become adults, particularly those who have engaged in the difficult emotional labor of forgiving their neglectful fathers, it resurrects feelings of victimization and resentment that does nothing for the personal and collective growth of black men. A central yet deeply understated dynamic in the continuing struggles of the black community is the difficulty black men experience with valuing and trusting each other (How else would one explain the curious drama between Obama and Pastor Jeremiah Wright). Certainly, black men are quite adroit at sharing barbershop banter about sports, women, and the political affairs to which we remain spectators, but we still struggle with conversing about the matters that count: how to raise our children, how to love women, how to manage anger, how to disagree without becoming violent, how to collaborate on business matters, how to change public education, how to bring brutalizing police to account, how to shut down jails, how to depose princes. Such crucial existential intraracial and intrasexual cooperation is made more fraught by the sloppy, yet strategic recollection of how we have been forsaken by the black men who sired us. We need not be reminded that we have been wronged in some way and that our lives have been hard. The public disparagement of our dads hinders our ability to love them and thus love ourselves.
Of course, the dogged strength that we sons bring to loving ourselves despite the unnecessary reminders that our fathers have abandoned us sometimes produces a healing that brings with it its own injuries. The deadbeat black dad narrative that Obama revived for national consideration last month powerfully shaped my ghetto adolescence decades ago. I learned early on what society thought of black men, and thus, in order to avoid becoming someone unworthy of public regard, elected to avoid fatherhood at all costs. To achieve this psychic neutering, I made of my own sexual impulses an enemy and often saw my desire for intimacy as an inconvenience that deserved my begrudged attention. Naturally, this attitude compromised the health of my romantic relationships in youth, and, as I am suggesting here, continues to besiege me during my adulthood. Part of my present difficulty lies in the fact that though I have succeeded in eschewing the affliction of teenage parenthood and am now economically capable of raising a child, I now find myself incapable of shutting off the prohibitions that I imposed upon myself years ago. I have listened to the inhumane wisdom that the racist interpreters of the Moynihan Report instituted as gospel: I am not supposed to be a father, because a person like me cannot be a good one.
I am thus straitjacketed in my own life by the idea that my father's professional demise and parental inadequacy are not merely defining parts of a social inheritance but of a biological one. Maybe absenteeism, as the pundits frequently suggest, is part of my black DNA. Like him, I need not go to the lengths of abandoning my family outright. Instead, when misfortune hits, rather than brave solutions and play my role as caretaker of my wife and child, I would curl cowardly into a depressive cocoon and let misery take shelter in my home. Maybe my absence would be more subtle. Maybe I would be hesitant to hold the infant when it needed to be held, unavailable when it needed a partner for an important moment of play, distracted when it needed help with homework, late when the child needed to be retrieved from choir practice, preoccupied with office matters when one of many teenage crises visited upon the youth and s/he needed my counsel. These are the everyday requirements of effective fatherhood. What if I miss my cue and do something to cause my wife and child to hate me, hate me enough to say the same ugly things about me that people have said about my father. People who don't even know him say these things. People like Barack Obama.
"We have become too comfortable with receiving sermons from our politicians rather than service."
The democratic nominee is not solely culpable for the violence of his words, but rather the unfortunate political culture that we hoped he would change. As an extension of the millenialist awakening that has increased the importance of faith and spirituality in the lives of many Americans, we have become too comfortable with receiving sermons from our politicians rather than service. For those still confused about how George W. Bush was able to gain a second term as our president despite his profound inadequacies in all matters of state, you need look no farther (election fraud notwithstanding) than his style of address. "Dubya" is the Baptist-preacher-turned-politician par excellence. He has mastered the call and response style that lends itself to teaching his audience life-lessons-a charismatic practice that overshadows his incapacity to manage foreign and national affairs. It is as if we have now come to expect from our national leader the feel-good homilies that on Sundays bolster us through another week of soul-killing labor. With the frequent comparisons to Reverend King, we are asking Obama to continue the conflation of the ministerial and the presidential without counting its costs. We don't need our governmental leaders to teach us about family life, we need them to create the economic circumstances that will support it.
What causes me concern is that Obama and the black people who support him actually see the performance of competent black patriarchy as the key contribution he can make to black politics as president. His proponents expect him to model proudly what a black father should be so that his example may be held up as a guide for other African American men to follow. There is certainly honor in this idea. It fades into preachiness and treachery, however, if this is all the nominee plans to do to impact black people, specifically. His Father's Day remarks, the campaign's persistent attempts to make a spectacle of his wife and daughters, and Obama's reluctance to detail clearly his policies and initiatives, have done nothing to quell my suspicion that this may be the extent of his plans.
This dream of the Obamas bringing the Cosby fantasy to the White House signals what should be the true fear of progressives: the possibility that the election of Obama will conclude the process of politically sedating African Americans begun during the Clinton years. Though no longer embraced by blacks as the nation's "first African American president" because of his race-baiting during his wife's campaign, Bill Clinton was once deeply beloved by the black electorate. We showered him with unconditional affection while he expanded the prison system, destroyed welfare, and exported solid jobs beyond our borders. His uncanny ability in public to make us feel good about ourselves, to pawn off symbolic black enfranchisement as the real thing, enabled him to pursue such policies without the inconveniences of black resistance or critique. Is Obama positioning himself to enjoy the same privilege? Will he be able to abuse black people without consequence?
I have written this essay to strongly insist that we should not provide Obama this luxury. We should be disturbed by his insulting critique of black fatherhood. If some black men are indeed "just sit[ting] in the house watching ‘SportsCenter,'" instead of fulfilling their paternal responsibilities, some of them, and I would like to think most of them, are doing so because they have been rejected in some way by a society that remains inhospitable to their hopes and dreams. Any other interpretation of their malaise is tainted with a racist mythology that our leaders, regardless of their race, are supposed to discredit rather than endorse. These tales of abandoning dads, in all their wretchedness, are nonetheless the sacred stories of the African American experience. They are stained with tears and blood and they are ours for us to recite. They should be milked for whatever nourishment they may provide their sons and the sons that come after them. In the sounds made by their telling, we must listen for the humanity that dwells therein and regard it as holy. To do otherwise, is to dismember corpses.
"I am waiting for the resentment of insulted fathers and wounded sons to be turned back on Obama."
If we believe the official reports, the most despicable aspect of Obama's diatribe about absent black fathers is the fact that its message was not solely intended for the people it scolds, but instead for white cultural conservatives whose votes can tip the electorate in his favor. If this is true (and experts seems to think it is), Obama reveals himself deaf to the lesson his struggle with Hillary tried to teach. Obama gained a decisive advantage with black voters when the Clintons demonstrated that they would willingly cater to the racist opinions of the nation in order to accrue votes. To this day, many African Americans see the race-baiting behavior of Bill Clinton as an unforgivable trespass that will forever serve as the reason for their estrangement from him. I am waiting for the resentment of insulted fathers and wounded sons to be turned back on Obama. Regardless of how the campaign for president evolves, these black men will recall that one of his first gestures after securing the Democratic nomination was to make a spectacle of our pain. The deed is unlikely to result in exile (for Obama, regrettably, is too symbolically important for black men to fully disown him), but might emerge as indifference when the nominee is in dire need of support. When the lynch party sets out for him (and it will. The drama of Reverend Wright was merely a dress rehearsal for things to come). Who will take up arms, man the front yard, and prevent the attackers from making their approach. It won't be my father. It won't be me. It certainly won't be my son or daughter...who is likely to never be.
Tyrone Simpson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vassar College. He is also part of the Urban Studies Program, Africana Studies Program, and Program in American Culture. Prof. Simpson can be contacted at email@example.com