The Myth of the Missing Black Father [book review]

Written by Love Isn’t Enough co-editor Julia.

“The black male. A demographic. A sociological construct. A media caricature. A crime statistic. Aside from rage or lust, he is seldom seen as an emotionally embodied person. Rarely a father. Indeed, if one judged by popular and academic coverage, one might think the term “black fatherhood” an oxymoron” (p. 1).

So opens the introduction of the compelling new book, The Myth of the Missing Black Father, edited by Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green. The book, a collection of research studies from various disciplines, demonstrates that black fathers–while rendered largely invisible by mainstream media–are hardly a myth or an oxymoron.  The focus of the book is broad, with sections on married fathers, single fathers, young fathers, and social fathers–those who may not be fathers by definition but take on a fathering role in a family or community.  There is also a section on children’s perspectives on their fathers and another on the policies that affect black fathers.

Even within these sections, the book is ambitious, casting a wide net. The section on married fathers, for example, includes chapters on poverty and parenting style, rearing biracial children, and portraits of involved, married black fathers. Since each chapter is a separate research study, approaches and methods vary widely as well. In short, everything but the kitchen sink is here. Depending on your point of view, this may be a strength or a weakness. If what you want is a seamless, carefully organized account of black fatherhood in all its permutations, this is not the book for you. If, however, you can accept the slightly higgledy-piggledy nature of this edited volume with its multiple perspectives, approaches, and topics, you will find this book a rich and compelling read. The other advantage of such a collection is that it allows the reader to pick and choose: interested in the differences between single custodial African American fathers and single custodial African American mothers? Or in the important fathering role played by “the invisible black grandfather”? Or what the challenges are of being a black father and a college athlete? Then there’s at least one chapter is this book for you. For my own part, I found the policy section particularly engaging, with chapters on parenting while on parole or probation, the effects of child-support policy on low-income fathers, and “the marriage-promotion policy.” 

The section titled “Fathers through Children’s Eyes” may be of particular interest to our readers. One chapter presents a study of twelve African American women who grew up in households where the biological father did not live with them and did not maintain close contact with them.  While the author is careful to point out that that all of the women are “high-functioning women with a positive work hisotry who have avoided many of the pitfalls, such as mental issues, substance abuse, and early pregnancy, associated with growing up in low-income households without a resident father” (p. 264),  she is frank about the difficulties these women experience as a result of their fathers’ absence. The author reports that none of these women was able to dismiss her relationship with her father; instead, women adopted various methods of coping that allowed them to maintain attachment in some way: some held anger and resentment toward their fathers, others made excuses for their fathers, and some idealized their fathers.  The other chapter in the section examines African American father figures in children’s story books. The study is fascinating and worth a read, although one of her main findings will come as no surprise to many of our readers: of 4,334 story books at her public library, the author finds that only 1.8% focused on African American families. “African American children will have a difficult time finding their families in the books available at the library,” she concludes” (pp. 291).

In case some might be put off by the academic nature of this book, let me reassure you that the text is accessible and straightforward. In general, this collection is refreshingly light on jargon, and the number-averse among you will be pleased to learn that, because the majority of the studies are based on interviews, there aren’t piles of statistics to wade through. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. The full text of the  introduction  is available here–it’s a quick and interesting read–and we’ll be featuring another chapter from the book later in the week.

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