stereotypes, generously giving time,
and learning from Dad’s best efforts:
one black male’s journey into fatherhood
one of his more interesting comic sketches, Chris Rock
compares one group of African-Americans, “niggas,” to another
more wholesome group, “black people.” “You know what really
bugs me about niggas is the way they always take credit for
stuff a normal man would just do,” says Rock. “Like, ‘I raised
my kids.’ ”
Rock’s definition, I know exactly where I belong among African-Americans
today. For I am sure that even for this meager deed of fatherhood
I am performing, I deserve a lot more than credit. My mission
sounds simple enough: carting my young son through West Manhattan
to visit another friend, working in Chelsea. I have logged
enough baby hours to earn the title “stay-at-home dad,” so
I’m not exactly new to this. But our trek into the city elicits
terror because of three converging factors:
I am a hefty 6’4” black male—anything can happen.
2. It’s Manhattan—everything might happen.
3. My son is 7 months old—something always happens.
To take the mystery out of the island on this visit to New
York, I have recruited two friends. It helps that they are
native New Yorkers and know the geography. It doesn’t help
that they are also young, black, male writers, whose size
and dress (like my own), says almost nothing about who they
are. Pushing the stroller, I remember the last time I was
in New York with two other black male writers. As we were
emerging from a Brooklyn subway that day, a white lady coming
down the steps glanced our way, and when she did not see Langston
Hughes, immediately reversed direction.
Complicating things further today, the clouds have been threatening
us all afternoon to open up with all their lordly might. Thunder
and showers are everywhere. I suggest a cab. My friends remind
me that we are the bane of taxis the realm over. But at least
with a stroller we have a chance at netting a compassionate
driver, right? Several yellow drive-bys later, we trot off
with this one truth: Not even a stroller and a wet infant
can take the monster out of three black dudes on a corner.
We walk the next several blocks in the rain to reach our goal.
Our taxi episode initiates a contest for who has the worst
“cabbies hate black men” story. I think I could win, were
I focused on sorting through my “Astonishing Tales of Negrophobia”
database. But I am too busy dealing with my own phobia—the
one of my partner.
Samori Maceo-Paul Coates is the big-headed result of my union
with Kenyatta Matthews. We met during a mutual stint at Howard
University and have been together ever since. Before we met,
she had a dim view of men as fathers. Her plan for parenthood
was basically: Get pregnant by some dude and then conveniently
lose him. A father would only complicate things, she thought.
When she got pregnant with Samori, I was able to convince
her otherwise, but during my time as a dad, I have given my
share of evidence to bolster her original view, and today’s
trip in the rain only promises to add another letter to the
Until now, Samori has been the picture of health. I am not
even sure I’ve heard him cough. If he comes down with anything
from this jaunt through the elements, Kenyatta will make worm’s
food of me. As if I needed confirmation of this, when we arrive
in Chelsea, our host squeezes Samori’s drenched pullover,
then looks at me and keenly notes, “You’re dead.”
Thankfully, I make it back into Brooklyn before Kenyatta gets
home from work. By the time she walks in, Samori is sound
asleep, with no cough to speak of. Only his damp clothes,
hanging on a door like discarded snakeskin, give a clue to
our ordeal. But either out of fatigue or forbearance—it matters
not which—she decides to save the haranguing for another day.
And there will be another day. Indeed, for the black dude
attempting to be June Cleaver—a man standing at the nexus
of two undervalued experiences—this is his lot. Everywhere
he looks there is another burden, be it the glare of his partner,
or the blind eye of a cabbie. But in his own mind at least,
he is a hero.
see, for black men like me, fatherhood is a mission, a chance
to atone for all the legions of errant black fathers. The
black stay-at-home dad in particular gains purpose from all
of this, and convinces himself of his own Gandhi-like nobility.
Of course, most of this mental crusading occurs before the
kid pops into the world, and the idealistic black father is
left to wonder, “Did Gandhi have to contend with crappy diapers?”
you believe the people who study such things, the odds of
my becoming a responsible father were slim to none. On paper,
according to both liberal and conservative models, my demographic
profile should make me a deadbeat. I’m a young, black, underemployed
male who fathered a child out of wedlock. I also grew up in
the center of the absent-dad epidemic, in which it was so
common for black men to abandon their children that there
was no longer much shame in it.
In high school in Baltimore, it seemed that I didn’t have
a single class where there wasn’t a young lady who either
had a child, was pregnant, or both. The fathers were much
harder to identify and more anonymous, I suspect, because
many of them were older. Even at plush, thoroughly middle-class
Howard University, many of my fellow students were absent
parents. In my last year in school, I remember meeting a dude
from some small town in Pennsylvania. I was shocked when he
told me he had a child. He was unemployed and pursuing an
undergrad degree, and really had no means of supporting a
the baby and the mother?” I asked
home,” he said, smiling at a joke that I didn’t find funny.
When Kenyatta first became pregnant, I never thought twice
about embracing fatherhood. Even as we weighed our options,
all I could think about was this grand opportunity to join
the ranks of present and accountable fathers. My fervor sprang
from all the typical reasons people give for having children—mainly
a desire to see a continuance of my gene pool. But there were
other reasons, fraught with sociological implications.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a father,
if only because I knew so few. You don’t need to grow up in
the projects or abysmal poverty to know that black fathers
are in short supply. If you assembled all the dads in my working-class
Baltimore neighborhood, you might have the starting five for
a basketball team. Of course, they would lose to the moms,
who would have a bench, a coaching staff, a mascot and the
home-court advantage. With such a depressing backdrop, those
African-American fathers who elect to be more than a sperm
bank become de facto heroes, demigods born out of utter desperation.
Much conservative ink has been spilled boiling the problems
of black America down to its absent daddies, but no one in
the black community needs pundits to lecture him on family
values. Deadbeat dads rank about one step below the Klan in
popularity among African-Americans. Hiphop may be grossly
misogynistic, but you will be hard-pressed to find a cultural
movement that more reveres mothers and reviles fathers. (Indeed,
rap’s only mother-hater of note is a white guy, Eminem.) The
anti-paternal sentiment in rap expresses a larger fatigue
among African-Americans for “tired-ass” black men who doom
kids to fatherless lives. So when Jay-Z says “Momma loves
me, Pop I miss you/God help me forgive ’em, I got some issues,”
he isn’t simply having a cathartic moment; he is speaking
for 70 percent of African-American children. He is also speaking
for my partner and me.
My own father’s pedigree—seven kids by four women—looks like
the rap sheet for one more deadbeat. But he was a stable and
consistent presence in my home. And yet so dismal is his context
that my siblings and I often find ourselves in the absurd
situation of listing among his virtues the fact that he actually
acknowledged all of us.
But after the solid presence of my father, the search for
men of substance in Samori’s lineage disintegrates into a
trail of figures who could claim the title “father” only in
the coldest sense of the word. My paternal grandfather sired
so many kids that no one has an accurate count of his seeds.
My father last saw him alive when he was 9. My mother’s father
abandoned his wife and five kids when my mother was a child.
When I was a kid she boldly tracked him down with me in tow,
only to be told that we both must now call him “Raymond.”
Kenyatta, like my mother, is the product of a daddy on the
lam. And her maternal grandfather, theoretically present in
her mother’s life, was a spousal abuser and a suspected child
molester who died in bed with another woman. The result of
all these paternal shenanigans is a patchwork family tree,
with Kenyatta’s father’s and grandfather’s family completely
From this perverse montage of ghost dads, I gleaned a somewhat
melodramatic message: To be a father is the noblest calling
an African-American man can ever undertake. To me, the black
father, viewed within the historical context of racism and
lynching, was a soldier taking up the sword and banner of
a disgraced order of knights.
I was not alone in this belief. To whip up popular appeal
for the 1994 Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan declared war
on no-account black men, and singled out deadbeat dads in
particular. It was a brilliant tactic and struck a chord in
the black community as nothing had since the Civil Rights
movement. I was at the Million Man March, but I didn’t need
Farrakhan to declare war on deadbeat dads for me. I would
do it myself, by taking a shot at fathering a child as soon
as I felt I had the means to raise one. That moment came a
little sooner than I’d expected, but when Kenyatta got pregnant,
and we began hashing out the possibilities, I really only
had one in mind. I would join a citizen army, restore honor
to the tattered banner of black fatherhood, and hoist it high
for all to see.
Kenyatta and I evaluated our situation, it soon became clear
that it made fiscal sense for Samori to stay at home with
me for his first year. My career as a freelance writer could
continue from home, while Kenyatta could continue her copy-editing
work in the field.
some men, becoming Mr. Mom may have seemed a severe form of
emasculation. But my own father had been a stay-at-home dad—for
many years my mother was the breadwinner in the family—and
he was manly enough to be a Black Panther when that meant
something. So when my turn came, I moved pretty easily into
my role as keeper of the hearth. In preparation, I began to
bone up on my cooking skills, already a hobby of mine, and
pored over What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
For the first two weeks after Samori was born, we had Kenyatta’s
mother to lean on. When she returned to Chicago, though, Kenyatta
was still available to handle swing-shift feedings. So my
real tenure as a stay-at-home dad didn’t begin until Samori
was 3 months old, when Kenyatta returned to work. Even then,
contending with all those diapers on my own, I was still caught
up in the romance of being a black daddy; one who, at least
in his own mind, was very good at it.
Indeed, accolades rolled my way at first. Women who witnessed
even the simplest display of my baby-handling techniques were
wont to melt into a chorus of “awwws.” My multifaceted identity
allowed me to cross borders: I could easily move from a conversation
weighing breast milk against formula to another weighing Barry
Sanders against Emmitt Smith.
But of course, some borders are never crossed: The black Mr.
Mom is still black before he is a Mr. Mom. And quite frankly,
he is still a Mr. before he is a Mom. Reality quickly came
crashing into my one-man dad’s group. I could deal with the
relatively few old ladies who used to think twice about crossing
my path. But now it was those same old ladies, emboldened
by the presence of a stroller, who wanted to launch an inquisition
into my parenting skills. I found myself regularly interrogated
by panic-stricken strangers: “Is that a rash?” “Should you
be carrying that boy on your shoulders like that?” “Is that
jacket thick enough?”
I became especially nervous when visiting my parents. If Samori
looked as if he were about to cry, my mom would interrupt
whatever measures I was taking, swoop in, and proceed with
her own time-tested methods.
On top of all that, before Samori was even born, I unwittingly
made my tour of duty especially rigorous. I was a 24-year-old
college dropout and freelance journalist. By that description,
you can probably get a ballpark figure of my income. Despite
heavy family pressure, my partner and I are not married (hence
the term “partner”) and have pretty much ruled it out for
the time being. When she got pregnant, I moved into her apartment,
which she didn’t mind paying for by herself.
In more than a few sectors of America, there are highly technical
terms for unemployed college dropouts who are supported by
their pregnant girlfriends—“bum” and “freeloader” the most
common ones. But in the black community, where there is an
involuntary tradition of working moms and unemployed dads,
the nomenclature is even more defined: “no-good nigga” being
the current label of choice.
Snide comments about our living situation filtered in from
all quarters. At a family cookout, a woman cornered Kenyatta
and lectured her on the need to “trap” me into marriage. Once,
while interviewing a source for a story, I made the mistake
of mentioning I was a dad living in sin. A 10-minute lecture
on God’s intentions for family pretty much killed the story.
Yet through it all, I was never sorry for the choice I had
made. And eventually, I found my community more supportive
than I had imagined. My mother’s meddling with Samori sometimes
annoyed me, but when I needed to go back to work full-time,
she also ponied up $400 every month for day care. I hated
the interrogations from women on the street. And yet, it’s
very hard to equal the high of pushing a stroller up Brooklyn’s
Flatbush Avenue and seeing a black woman about your mother’s
age shoot you a smile that says, “You done right, boy.”
How did I end up doing right when so many of my peers have
done wrong? I had some help at home. My mother was an uncompromising
advocate of responsible fatherhood. Her non-relationship with
her father hung overhead constantly, as well as the specter
of what she called “nothing men.”
Whenever my path appeared to stray, particularly as a teen,
I think my mom must have seen visions of raising a man like
her father. In these instances, her eyes would flash, and
even though I was several inches taller than her by then,
she would still snatch me up, wrench my arm with one hand
and jab my chest with the index finger of another. Boring
through my eyes with hers, she would swear that she was raising
a lot of things under her roof, but she wasn’t raising “niggas
to hang on the corner.”
Even in moments when I had committed no transgression, I was
treated to lectures on my responsibility to self, family and
the black community. Always frank with me about taboo subjects
like teen pregnancy, my mom had a rule: If a girl showed up
to my house and claimed she was carrying my child, paternity
tests were not an option. If I’d had sex with her, I was the
father, and my mother expected me to take responsibility for
that child. And yet, I don’t think that even my mom’s diatribes
against deadbeat dads were much different than any other black
mother’s. What made a difference for me, I think, was the
example of my father.
On the surface, my father could not be mistaken for Cliff
Huxtable. He was the product of abject poverty in Philadelphia,
a high school dropout. Before meeting my mother, he had already
fathered five kids by three different women. But while her
family was horrified by his gaggle of illegitimate children,
my mom was attracted by the fact that he always seemed to
be toting one or two of those kids around.
In theory, I suppose, my father probably qualified as a deadbeat
in the sense that he provided little financial support for
his large family. He never had any money. But what he lacked
in money, he made up for with time. By the time I was born,
my father had left the Black Panthers. But he still carried
on his political activities, and tried to drill them into
his kids. He dragged us around to black-nationalist events
and he made us read little books on famous black people such
as W.E.B. duBois. Thanks to him, I even was forced to endure
a bout of “self-esteem work” in one of those Afrocentric rites-of-passage
My dad also served as the “no-shit dude,” who, as we got older,
ran something of a reform school for kids—his kids—when they
were teetering on the edge of serious trouble. When the mothers
of his other children reached the point of exasperation with
their teenage sons, those sons were often sent to live with
us (I lived with both my mother and father). My father served
as disciplinarian, and somehow managed to help my mother steer
all of us back from the brink. He wasn’t all bark, though.
My fondest memories are of my father—a cooking enthusiast—gathering
all his kids at his house and preparing a Maryland feast of
crab cakes, fried whiting, hush puppies and shrimp.
Oddly enough, the family-feast idea was something he’d picked
up from his own father, who was no Ward Cleaver. Aside from
his many unclaimed children, my grandfather was also, by all
accounts, a woman-beater and vicious disciplinarian. And yet
if you ask my father what he remembers of him, he will tell
you he remembers his father gathering all his kids together
whenever possible, for whatever quality time he could.
My father’s attempts to replicate those gatherings—and then
some—show how far a good example can go toward creating a
decent parent. Indeed, the combination of my father’s example
served us better than any rite-of-passage program could have.
There are seven of us kids now. All except one of the four
boys have children of our own. Some of us are married, most
aren’t. But there are no deadbeats among us.
Many middle-class people, especially white ones, will think
that my father should never have had all those kids in the
first place. Likewise, to mainstream America, I am not exactly
a hero for staying home to take care of my son, but irresponsible
for having sired the child in the first place without finishing
college, getting a good job, and securing a wedding ring.
Yet if more men whose children weren’t born under the most
perfect of circumstances did what I did, the nation’s black
children would be far better off than they are now.
Farrakhan was right in calling on men to return to the family,
but his insistence that they assume the traditional role of
provider, while women submit to them, was highly misguided.
After all, no black woman is going to take that submissive
stuff seriously, and given the realities of the economy, a
lot of dads, especially young ones, aren’t going to become
venture capitalists before their kids reach draft age.
Perhaps, instead of focusing so much on the check-writing
aspect of fatherhood or trying to marry off unwilling partners
for the children’s sake, it’s time for a political movement
that seeks to transform “no-good niggas” into an army of Mr.
Moms. Since no one has figured out how to make black men much
richer—or married, for that matter—why not at least take advantage
of the one asset we have in abundance: our time. For instance,
instead of throwing young guys in jail when they fail to pay
child support they couldn’t possibly pay, how about making
them baby-sit (with a few parenting classes first) while their
children’s mothers go to work?
Not only would the children be better off, but their fathers
might actually discover what I already know: that fatherhood
is fun, and that it really is the noble calling that I had
envisioned, despite the crappy diapers.