This year is the 100th anniversary of Father’s Day. Juneteenth, the day African Americans commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery in the United States of America, was also the day fathers were first recognized in this country.
On June 19, 1910, in Spokane, Washington, the daughter of William Smart, a Civil War veteran, decided she wanted to do something to honor her father who had raised six children.
Sonora Smart Dodd was inspired by a sermon she had heard in church on Mother’s Day. She felt her father also deserved to be recognized, and her determination launched a national movement to celebrate all fathers.
A century later, we continue to honor fathers with their own day, the third Sunday in June, just like mothers have every second Sunday in May. But, unlike Mother’s Day, Dodd’s desire was met with laughter and ridicule. Despite that, she persevered against the jokes and resistance to her idea.
Although she succeeded in creating a special day for dads, it wasn’t until 1972 that Father’s Day was officially proclaimed a national holiday.
And like Dodd’s struggle to establish Father’s Day, the rough ground on which Black dads walk and toil to survive and keep their families intact often is saturated with deep pitfalls and camouflaged traps.
Jawanza Kunjufu, author of “State of Emergency” and “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys,” remembers his father as the man who was always there for him. “My father worked evenings at the post office but he called my sister and me, literally, every night at 8 o’clock,” Dr. Kunjufu says. “My father attended my track meets, concerts and debates, even if it meant connecting breaks and lunch.”
Kunjufu says his work and passion are driven by African American fathers who are not always available to their children and face significant challenges in today’s society.
“Ninety percent of Asian children have their fathers,” Dr. Kunjufu states. “Seventy-five percent of White children have fathers; 59 percent of Hispanic families have fathers at home. But only 32 percent of African American children have their fathers with them.”
Entertainer and educator Bill Cosby, an outspoken critic of absentee fathers, addresses the issue of incarcerated fathers on his “State of Emergency” compact disc.
The track, “Dads Behind the Glass,” reflects the voices of Black sons who fear they will follow in their absentee father’s footsteps and end up in prison.
“I wish my daddy was home. I’m tired of sitting here all alone. Momma’s not here; she’s working two jobs all by herself so she can provide.”
Cosby says many Black boys ask their missing fathers, “Do you care about the child you created, and because of you he feels he can’t make it.” With pulsating Hip-Hop indignation, Cosby’s ‘lonely son’ demands of his jailed father, “Only male figure, how dare you leave me.”
“Cosby would have us believe there is something wrong with the parents and with the children,” responds Dr. William H. Grier, author of the classic “Black Rage” and former professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Meharry Medical College. “What he does not say is that there is something profoundly wrong with the environment in which they are embedded,” Dr. Grier insists. “Parents do not parent in a vacuum. The society provides or denies them resources in a multitude of ways.”
Dr. Grier continues, “I want to talk about the ones who were killed in the process of trying to bring me into the world. I want to talk about the men who were crushed spiritually, who could no longer distinguish friend from foe, the ‘Uncle Toms,’ the walking dead who did their best; a lost legion which also deserves honor. I’m not sure I could have done as well.”
Dr. Rodney Hood, former president of the National Medical Association (NMA), thinks about an angry young man who came to him. “He was raised by his mother and grandmother,” Dr. Hood says. “He did not know his father very well and did not care to get to know him. He apparently was abandoned by his father with very little financial or emotional support.
“He would get angry at his mother every time she would mention ‘how much he acted like his father.’ He felt any actions he exhibited like his father must be bad, and did not want to be reminded of him.”
The former NMA president believes it is important to celebrate fathers, “No matter how terrible the abandoning by a father may have been. I suspect the comparison that his mother was making was not all bad.”
Dr. Hood goes on to say, “We are so much like our (fathers) whether we like it or not. Therefore, we should thank our (fathers) for the role they played in our creation and learn to forgive and move on.”
He prescribed a remedy to help the young man deal with his pain and anger, “I simply suggested that although his biological sperm donor may not have been there to reward him being called ‘father,’ he still was his ‘daddy’ and the more he learned about him the better he would understand who he was.”
Equenia Bohn, a middle school counselor, is instructive about the term father, “I think of the following words: Provider, protector, teacher, and mentor.” She notes, “Father means biological donor. A person can make life, but one needs to help the child in life.”
Bohn advises, “When a child is abandoned by her biological father, the child instantly thinks she has done something wrong. A father teaches his daughter what healthy relationships between men and women should be. Studies suggest young ladies who have healthy relationships with their fathers tend to have healthy relationships with men, when they are adults.”
Dr. Hood agrees. “I learned from (my father) to be an excellent provider for your family, work hard and (take) personal responsibility.”
Looking back, Dr. Hood reflects, “(When we were) young children, (my father) frequently took me and my brother fishing. He always was prepared.
We had bait for the right condition, even if the weather changed. My father’s lesson was to be anticipatory, and always be prepared for whatever life may bring. My father was very pragmatic about life.”
Kunjufu identifies seven different kinds of fathers: Sperm donors, ice cream, no-show, step, divorced, daddies, and single fathers:
1. Sperm donors impregnate women and stay about 18 seconds. They brag about the number of children they have, but don’t provide quality care.
2. Ice-cream fathers feel guilty and give their children whatever they want.
3. No-shows have problems with the mother of their children, send negative messages to children, and tend to blame their behavior on White men.
4. Stepfathers stay with children, whether or not they are theirs biologically; they pay the bills and check homework.
5. Divorced fathers try their best to spend time and money with children within the confines that the mother allows. The mother can control the children physically and emotionally. Although divorced fathers have rights to spend time with their children, it may be limited to every other weekend.
Their time with children may depend on when the mother allows them to be together.
6. Daddies stay close to their families, wife or mother of their children. They (the mother and father) play together and share an affinity for each other.
7. Single fathers are highly committed to their children and place a priority on the care of their children. There are more than 300,000 African American single fathers who braid hair, cook meals, and maintain the upkeep of their households alone.
Historically, Black fathers have had to conquer extraordinary conditions to provide for and stay with their families. Kunjufu talks about slavery as an extended period when Black men were forced to separate from their children. He says they made heroic efforts to reunite.
“Slavery ended in 1865, and 55 years later 90 percent of (Black fathers) were still with their children. Even in 1960, it was 80 percent,” he says. “It was not slavery that removed fathers,” Kunjufu contends, “it was crack and a post-industrial economy along with a school system that ill prepared them.”
Dr. Grier, the psychiatrist, says Black men have had to struggle to retain their dignity. “I cannot imagine a bigger lie than ‘the lazy Negro.’ All the men in my family literally, I mean, actually worked themselves to death and were buried looking up; always up.”
He recalls stories he heard from his grandmother, “I was told about the men who survived (slavery): Some mutilated, all humiliated, deprived of the wealth they created, robbed and run out of the state. Some stayed, built homes, sired families, and set a troop of progeny on a road to better times.”
Dorothy Reed, a college instructor and former television anchorwoman, also remembers her father, Dr. Eugene Reed, a dentist who was a fierce advocate for civil rights. He was president of the New York State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Reed explains the financial security her father provided his family was not always available to other Black men. “The greater impact as a result of our racist history is the systemic economic deprivation of Black males. They often could not find means to support their families. Their role as financial provider was denied them, and with it they were stripped of pride.”
Dr. Hood noted, “My father worked as a ship mechanic at Boston Navy Yard for over 30 years and missed very few days from work.”
Thinking about his own father, Dr. Grier says, “In most ways, my father was breathtakingly ordinary, but socially, he was a genius. He made friends effortlessly. It was said that he could charm a bird out of a tree. He was the leader of whatever group. When people spoke his name, they smiled.”
Reed recalls fondly, “Following a painful break-up with someone I loved dearly, my father sent me an envelope. Inside he had typed on an index card: ‘Very little really matters and nothing matters very much.’ I loved him forever in that moment.”
There are many impressions and portrayals of fathers, but, in reality, fathers touch our lives in precious and precise ways that leave an indelible mark. They set us on a life course that can determine how we affect other people around us and understand ourselves.
As we celebrate and honor African American fathers this Father’s Day, we must appreciate their survival despite horrific, threatening challenges. We owe our very existence to our fathers. Their gift of life is more than sufficient for us to say, “Thank you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.”
The Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs is pastor of the San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ in San Marino, Calif. He is also an independent video producer and former broadcast journalist.