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How have we stigmatized and utilized an absentee father in the Black community? What is the reality of the trauma, and how can we better understand this issue?

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In former President Obama’s 2008 Father’s Day speech he stated (would go on to further repeat), the subsequent problems he attributed to the absence of a Black father in the home. 

“They (Black fathers) have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it,” Obama said.

As the Washington Post explains, the concept of issues within the Black community being traced back to the lack of a nuclear family structure can be seen even in research from 1965 when Sen. Patrick Moynihan published, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” which argued that women-led households in Black communities were the largest obstacle to Black people. 

“The thinking goes like this: The high rates of poverty and incarceration and low levels of educational achievement in black communities can be traced in part back to the high number of black babies born out of wedlock and subsequently raised in single-mother homes. It’s a patriarchal twist on the mythological magical Negro. Black fathers could supposedly stem the devastating effects of oppression imposed from the classroom to the workplace to the court system. If black men just showed up in the homes of their children — acted like men instead of boys — black families and communities would fortify themselves and our long-held problems would simply wither away,” Mychal Denzel Smith said.

This focus on the absentee father is also reflected in an article by Denisa Fathers that discussed “daddy issues,” and how (particularly among women) they are utilized as a running joke (see the utilization of the phrase, “fatherless behavior,”). Fathers argue that this results in people using it as a catch-all for a woman’s behavior rather than an examination of the reasoning behind why a person with an absent father may behave a certain way. 

“Complex psychology is thrown out of the window and a thousand subconscious problems of one girl that all branch out and intertwine in multicolored structures are branded one single thing: daddy issues. And then she becomes a laughing stock,” Fathers said. 

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As for the complex psychology involved and how it connects to absentee fathers, Crystal Lockett-Thomas (a licensed professional counselor who has worked with at-risk youth), finds the effects of an absentee Black father are “an underlying curiosity,” about what it would be like if he was in their life. 

“Sometimes kids think that- “it’s me, I’m the reason why he’s not here.” But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll also find that they struggle with not understanding themselves fully as far as “what is my identity,” because I’m missing this one piece of the puzzle,” Lockett-Thomas said.

Toby Ingham, a psychotherapist who specializes in addiction, anxiety issues, depression and grief backs this.

“For a son, an absent father leaves unanswered questions which can create problems building up, developing and maintaining a coherent and constructive sense of personal identity,” Ingham says. 

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In adults, she finds that there is a continuation of these childhood issues, presenting themselves in dating. This can result in people doing more trial and error in dating (picking toxic partners) due to not having an example of a healthy relationship. 

“They continue choosing the wrong types of persons or partners, until they’re like, “Okay, I’m done with dating,” and now you just have this residual bitterness or there’s no good men type of mentality so that’s how I see it come across you know, when the Dad is missing,” Lockett-Thomas said. 

In terms of the misconceptions and myths around people who have an absent parent, Lockett-Thomas stated that she does find that these phrases are used like a “cliche umbrella,” stating that this creates an issue where there is a focus on the issue rather than where do we go from there, and how we could even get absentee fathers to rehabilitate. 

“Everything is correlated to you not having a father but I don’t think that’s true.  I feel like there’s an environmental factor as far as where you were raised, and how you were raised. Then after a certain age there comes in where there is a critical thinking problem-solving decision-based factors. So if you didn’t build up those skills, then you’re going to make bad decisions as far as going to Bali with a person you just met yesterday. With society, what it does is it magnifies that there is an issue and it focuses on the issue itself and, tears down the man (for whatever reason that he’s not there, it’s not good enough). It also chooses (or maybe there is not a clear answer) as to where do we go from here? Now that we recognize he was not in the picture or a lot of men are not in the picture of their child’s life, how do we buffer that,” Lockett-Thomas said. 

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She states that this can even cross over into the relationship that these people (who are now adults) have with their own kids. From her experience, people will either raise their child based on how they were, or they want their children to have an experience opposite to how they were raised. This can also result in parents who have gone through these issues, according to Lockett-Thomas, being hard on their partners parenting technique. 

“They may have disagreements on parenting styles, you too harsh with them, and I’m not as harsh as you are. They kind of go back and forth when it comes to how the child should be raised. Because again, they don’t have a good model. And I always say that parents model for their children how they should behave in the real world, especially once they become adults. So if a person who was only raised by their mother, never sees interaction between or healthy interaction even between a male and a female appearing, a mother and a father then they’re just kind of going off with this is what I think should happen. It’s like I said- throwing darts and seeing which one hits the bull’s eye,” Lockett-Thomas said. 

Lockett also pointed out that there is this idea perpetuated of the mother and father having issues co-parenting, with the mother keeping the child away from the father or the parents fighting, with the child in the middle. 

“So you have a lot of media where it plays on the bickering and childish fighting between the two parents and the kid stuck in the middle. I don’t know what’s wrong with y’all, I just want to see both y’all. I feel like there’s a lot of attention given towards that. And I think that also white America sees that and that also, further perpetuates the reason as to why they dislike the Black man or why they have a negative mind frame, if you will, of who the Black man is,” Lockett-Thomas said. 

The media’s portrayal of Black parents (particularly Black fathers), and the negative effects it has are backed in Lindsey Lee Wilsons dissertation, “Collaborative Effort Towards Social Change: Understanding Media’s Influence on African American Fathers of Young Children.” In the abstract, Wilson explains that the depiction of Black fathers is typically that of a “dead beat,” or “irresponsible,” which they (Black fathers) were aware of and hoping to change.

“Results suggest that Black fathers believe that media are less likely to portray them positively and more likely to portray them in negative or stereotypical ways. Acknowledging that media presents an incomplete picture of Black fatherhood, fathers reported that their relationships with their own fathers, social fathers, life experiences, and navigating barriers have been key factors in understanding their roles,” Wilson said.

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As for what can be done to help with the effects having an absentee (whether emotionally (what Lockett-Thomas calls a “wallflower dad” or physically) parent can have), she suggests looking at programs that can help children who feel the effects of an absentee parent should look towards mentorship programs, particularly statewide initiatives. Though, she does believe that in light of America benefiting from a broken family structure in the Black community, this may be more difficult. 

“Research would definitely be of help. Programs and initiatives statewide, I think would be awesome, especially in the Black community. But again, I feel like that would be harder, because certain aspects of America thrives off of the broken family or it was started that way based on how we get here, as black folks,” Lockett-Thomas said. 

Fatherhood/Mentorship Programs