I: White Fathers Remembered

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Barack Obama's Father's Day speech critiquing Black fathers for not taking up their family responsibilities got me to thinking about the fathers -- all of them white -- whom I knew growing up in a once-small New England town back in the '50's. My brother and sister and I grew up on a tree-lined street with grassy lawns in the back where kids played ball in the day and hide n'seek in the evenings. For someone driving by, it would have seemed just about perfect, rosy as a summer peach, a "Jack 'N Jill" cover come to life.

Inside those tidy-looking homes there were stories not exactly fit for Jack 'N Jill. A lot of those stories had to do with those 'responsible' white fathers who never left their families. The father next door to our left committed incest on his older daughter, leading her to a lifetime of poverty and degraded living. The "almost rich" one two doors down to the right, told to stop drinking or die, went down to the local bar the next evening and did just that a month later. The quiet one across the street was so chronically depressed his wife stopped talking to him the last ten years of their lives together. And my father believed his mail was being opened by the Pentagon, drank a half bottle of scotch each evening, and never once called my mother by her first name.  Luckily, there were the Packers, my best friend Mel's mom and dad, who fell in love the day they met and stayed that way for the rest of their lives.

One out of five. 20% fitting that Jack 'n Jill image. Some blocks undoubtedly had it better, maybe a few were even worse. All I know is that the image of the "happy home" so easily constructed about white families  didn't apply when I was growing up and it sure hasn't gotten better since.  As a white man, my concern about Senator Obama's Father's Day speech is less about what he says regarding Black men's responsibilities -- how would I really know anyway? -- than the unspoken assumption that so easily attaches to such critiques: white families don't have problems... we're the norm of what's "right." No, no, no! If you ask me, those who are getting it right on family life aren't doing so because of their race. And those who are getting it "wrong" aren't messing it up just because of race either.

Senator Obama was brilliant in his discussion of race because his analysis could hold the multiple realities of racial oppression for people of color and the simultaneous truth that a lot of white folks haven't had it very easy either. Perhaps the same kind of multi-layered analysis is needed for fathers and families, too.


2 Comments

The fact that Barack Obama chose to deliver a Father's Day speech at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago is worth noting.

In a country where Joycelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon General, was forced to resign for making a controversial remark about sex education, Senator Obama by his own choice of venue avoided a frank discussion about making sure every child is a wanted child.

Since children are not necessarily chaste, a discussion about fatherhood as an unintended consequence of sexual activity would have transcended race altogether and put the responsibility for teen pregnancy on the doorstep of every secular and faith-based institution across the country.

Such a conversation about teen pregnancy like the one which is scheduled to take place this Fall in Gloucester, Mass. due to a spike in the number of teen pregnancies at Gloucester High School should have taken place a long time ago.

If Joycelyn Elders was not forced to resign back in 1993 and was allowed to use her bully pulpit to put prevention first, then perhaps fatherhood would not be in the state that it is currently.

We need frank conversations about so much in this country, including race and sex. "Our America" seems up to the challenge...confronting "Their America" with genuine awareness of what people struggle with. In this way truth to power resonates for the many and not just the few!

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on July 2, 2008 4:17 PM.

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