Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day and Black Men

This day has always felt incidental. Father's Day was an "Oh, by the way" holiday that involved a quick stop at a tie wrack, cheap wrapping paper, and a firm pat on the back.

Way to go.

Thanks for hanging in there, Dad.

You are not a terrible Dad. Huh, go figure.

In the Black community the celebration of Dads seems heavily weighed against the bad Fathers of the world. Posts are worded to say 'for all the good Dad: thanks for not beating us silly...yet.' That's not exactly a raving compliment but more like a backhanded insult against men in general.

Several years ago I remember listening to 99 Jamz while driving around in Miami. The DJ announced that Angie Stone was going to write and produce a tribute song for Black men. There was a hilariously long silence after the statement. In the room was the DJ, who was a Black man, his sidekick (also a Black man) and the news announcer, who was a Black woman. The DJ was the first one to open his mouth.




There was an edge of caution in the voice of the Black men. There weren't fast-talking or cracking jokes. Their words were slow, carefully measured, and sparse. They were waiting for the punchline to what must be a joke. There had to be a catch. A Black woman was going to publicly compliment Black men. You could almost feel the arched eyebrows and crossed arm posture in the silence. The pause spoke volumes about the state of Black men and receiving a compliment.

You're going to say something nice? Why? 

What do you want? I didn't do nothing! Leave me alone!!!

And the all-time favorite Black male anthem of my generation: IT WASN'T ME!!!

I remember bursting out laughing at the silence and then feeling really depressed. Wow, the state of relations between men and women in the Black community has gotten to a point where gratitude is met with skepticism.

Tune into afternoon and late-night TV and you see where this skepticism festers. On TV Black men are the biological fathers unwilling to take responsibility, the adulterers, ex-convicts, men on the DL, thieves, jobless, thug-lite, and the physical embodiment of mumbling ignorance. Black women are the 'wronged' victim, loud, demonstrative, wrathful, that gets the audience cheering and hooting. Often the Black woman is the one with the job, expressive, educated, with the car, with the house and with the kids. The Black man is somewhere off to the side, desired by never really attained for most lower-class and working class scenarios that are shown.

Jerry Springer and Maury Povich have made a fortune off this model that is eagerly watched in disproportionate numbers by Black and Latino women. And who could forget the incomparable Miss Cleo. The famed psychic with the exaggerated Jamaican accent and head wrap that seemed like an SNL skit. Miss Cleo's psychic powers seemed particularly honed at finding out if a man was or was not the Baby Daddy.

I remember working as an intern at theatre one summer and running into the painful dynamic of Black fathers and their public perception. I was just a summer intern answering the phones and every so often we would get a call from a woman. She was requesting the phone number of a certain Black male writer. I would write her name down and pass this along to my supervisors.

The calls increased in volume and frequency from this mysterious woman, with each call getting worse. The writer in question had been out of contact with her. They had a child together. He owed child support. He wasn't fulfilling his responsibility.

The allegations flew and I calmly listened while I promised to pass along the basic information (minus the gossip) to my supervisors. The other people in the office got into the drama. It was like a mini-soap opera that happened a few times a week and offered some distraction from the boring office work. She would call and then the gossip would fly shortly after hanging up.

Uh-oh!!! He better handle his business!

Baby Daddy Drama!!

And we laughed while I subtly noted that I was often the only Black man laughing. And while my laughter was coming from a place of discomfort and awkwardness, it seemed (although there's no way to know for sure) that other people were laughing from glee. There was a joy in the cliche misery of a successful Black man who wasn't paying child support, who had an angry ex-girlfriend on the line, who had a child who was being deprived. There was laughter. Even at the level of success he had attained, he was acting just like they expected: like a deadbeat.

Would do any good to note that I was raised by both my mother and father. That my father mentored not only his children but dozens of others while working as a school teacher. Would it amount to anything to record the good Black fathers when the bad ones are more alluring for TV cameras? Does any care to note Jack and Jill, Cooking Gents, and many other organizations that are supported by Black fathers.

When I say "Happy Father's Day" my words are weighed with all of these questions. I have no answers, but only my experiences with other caring fathers and my own family.

I was blessed with strong parents. My Dad is Stanley Squire. He deserves more than a day, more than tie, more than I could ever give back to him. He was rarely thank'ed, often dismissed, ridiculed, presumed unintelligent and liar for being a Black man and a father. He didn't drink, he didn't beat me, and he rarely raised his voice. He helped me with my math homework, taught me how to ride a bike, coached me into a championship child tennis player, drove me to violin practices, and saw me through college, graduate school. He encouraged me to be provocative, ask questions, sit in the front of the class room, the middle of the bus, how to talk to the police without getting beat up, and read like my life depended on it (because it often did).

There aren't enough days in the calendar to honor men like my father. But at least we have this one.

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