Absent Fathers and the Blame Game: Where Does it End?

tumblr_myqpr4G8dU1qib7wuo1_400As you all probably know by now, a few nights ago James Avery passed away. A veteran stage, television, and movie actor — Avery was probably best known for his portrayal of Judge Phillip Banks on the 90′s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  And while the show has been long beloved for its comedy and helping to launch the acting career of Will Smith, what’s come out the most in the wake of Avery’s recent passing is just how much the character of “Uncle Phil” resonated with the audience as a counter to the myth of the irresponsible or absent father in the black family in America.

When you think back to the show’s origins, and how it was basically crafted as a vehicle for Will Smith’s comedy, the original design of Uncle Phil’s character was pretty simple.  He was basically there as the stodgy authority figure — an easy archetype for jokes to be made about how out of touch he was (parent’s just don’t understand), his haughty attitude, and even his weight.

In the hands of another actor, the part could have easily fallen into simple parody.

But what Avery did with the role, and what eventually made Uncle Phil so iconic — was that he looked back on his own experiences when crafting the nuances of the performance. Using cues from his own life to enrich the character, Avery embellished the idea of the former activist turned Judge by drawing on his memories of his time after returning from two tours in Vietnam where he focused on writing poetry and plays about the Black Power movement.

But more importantly than that, as revealed in a recent piece by Mark Anthony Neal — it was Avery’s decision to reference his own upbringing that helped humanize Uncle Phil in a way that resonated so deeply with the show’s audience.

Avery was raised by his mother; his father was largely absent in his life. When Avery began his stint on The Fresh Prince, he reached out to his own dad, with whom he had not spoken with since his fifth birthday. “I made a decision to find my father, and to talk to him and get to know him, because he was getting old, and it was time to resolve those issues, and I did,” Avery admitted in 1996, also noting that “there is one thing I learned from him, though, and that’s how not to be a father.”

The dynamic between Avery and his own dad was played out in a moving episode of The Fresh Prince, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” (May 1994), about Will’s absentee father, Lou, portrayed by the legendary stage actor Ben Vereen, who briefly re-enters Will’s life, only to reject him once again.

In the episode’s closing segment, an emotional Will embraces Uncle Phil as he cries, “Why don’t he want me?” Yet the episode was a reminder of the relationships that have been the bulwark of black families; Will’s father might have left, but Uncle Phil more than fulfilled the role of his father figure.

As a husband and stepdad in real life, Avery told the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, “I think black men get a bad rap sometimes that we either can’t nurture children or choose not to … I like depicting African-American fathers who are caring and supportive—men who take care of their responsibilities.”  [source]

 

aunt-vivOf course life is rarely like television, and there are lots of kids out there who didn’t have their own real-life version of Uncle Phil to draw strength and inspiration from when life confronted them with tough questions or hard truths.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any source for guidance, support, and strength in their lives. After all, Uncle Phil didn’t exactly raise three kids and his nephew alone, now did he?

Sons need father figures. Models to build their values on. Anyone who tries to tell you different is lying. But life doesn’t always provide these things directly. Sometimes the combination of the leaders you find in education, sports, faith, or community and the strength of the women who give everything they can to make sure that their child has a chance is all that’s available. Perhaps it wasn’t the model you had in mind, or even the one you would prefer — but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen it work time and time again in the men we meet every day who rose above the absence of those who didn’t have the guts to stick it out when things got real.

Which is why it’s hard not to get a little pissed off at a recent article that’s been showing up in various places by Dr. Boyce Watkins called “Six Ways Single Mothers Can Raise a Sorry Black Man”  (or “Single Mothers: Six Surefire Ways to Raise a Sorry Azz Black Man” — depending on the kind of website the article is being posted on).

To be sure, the title and tone of the article are designed to spark rage and arguments. Regardless of your political affiliation or how much time you may or may not spend on twitter — this sort of “outrage baiting” should be all too familiar anymore — especially if it’s covered in Duck Dynasty-style camouflage or accompanied by Ani Difranco-sounding indie folk music. But unlike these incidents that rise up in the news from time to time, this issue of looking for someone to BLAME when it comes to the apparent “lost cause” that is the future outlook for any young black man brought up in a “broken” home never seems to truly fall away.

Which brings us to Dr. Watkins — economist, college professor, and social commentator who spends lots of time arguing with Bill O’Reilly, appearing on CNN and MSNBC as a panelist, and calling out national corporations for appropriating negative racial stereotypes in their advertisements (he was the one calling out Mountain Dew for using Little Wayne and Odd Future as spokespeople). Like a lot of pundits on TV, Watkins seems to have an opinion on a lot of topics — especially those that touch close to his own interests and experiences.

But why is it that when it comes to discussing the state of young black men (or young men of any heritage) in this country, he chooses to open the door with sexism and blame?

Black single mothers, did you know that it’s your fault (ugh..again) that a generation of young men are so devoid of goals, motivation, and standards?

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Look, there’s always a discussion to be had on the state of the family and improved approaches to parenting. Whether single or partnered — protecting, teaching, and guiding children along their path to adulthood is never easy.  There are compromises and sacrifices that have to be made. There are priorities that have to be adjusted, timelines that have to be balanced, finances that need to be covered (among a million other tiny problems that come up when you least expect it). Managing all of these issues requires discipline and focus on the part of the parent — so it’s not surprising that more often than not, most family advocates and pundits suggest that structure, discipline, and a strong sense of values are among the most important qualities that you should maintain for the children in your home.

When you boil it all down, this is basically what Dr. Boyce Watkins is advocating in his article:

“Let’s be clear:  If you raise your son to be a boy, he’s going to remain a boy.”

 

Good advice, to be sure.  So why in the hell does it have to be presented in an article like this?

 

If you want your son to grow up to be a horrible father and husband for somebody else, here are a few things you can do:

1. Never make him accountable.  If he goes to jail, mortgage your house to pay for the attorney.  If he gets fired from his fourth job in a row, of course it’s because he’s Black.  Anything that goes wrong in his life, explain to him why none of it is ever his fault.  Make a long list of excuses for everything he does. If he gets in trouble at school, it’s the teacher’s fault. If he has an angry outburst and attacks someone, it’s because he had too much sugar. Remember: Nothing that he ever does wrong, to anyone, at any time, is ever his fault. Jesus will make him better eventually.

2. Allow him to be lazy. Clean his room for him, wash his clothes, don’t make him do any chores.  Don’t make him work for anything….EVER.  When he’s 32-years old, let him live in your basement and spend the day in his drawz smoking weed and playing Xbox.  He’ll get that record deal eventually.

3. Don’t ever force him to manage his money.  Buy him a lot of really expensive material possessions, like $250 Air Jordans and don’t make him work for any of that money.  If he wrecks the new car you bought him, just buy him another one. Don’t talk to him about saving, investing or being a good provider.  If he wants that 14th tattoo on his neck, go ahead and give it to him.

4. Congratulate him for being a “playa.”  Let him treat his girlfriends like garbage without your saying a word.  When he tells you that he got a fourth girl pregnant, just congratulate him and agree to watch the kids while his baby mama is at the club.

Oh but he’s not done..

When the third baby’s mama asks you about the other girls coming to the house, lie for him so as not to blow his cover.  The world is his oyster, and he has a right to sow his oats without any semblance of responsibility.  Don’t forget to save money to pay his child support for him so he can be free to make more kids without the burden of those gold-digging newborn babies.

5. Don’t make him get an education. If he brings home straight Ds on his report card, just remember that he’s the best player on the basketball team. Go buy him something nice to make him feel better, since those bad grades are going to hurt his self-esteem.

6. Coddle him. He’s your baby after all, even if he is 6’3”, 250 pounds. Never throw him out to the wolves; he won’t make it.  Never force him to stand on his own two feet; he might break a toe nail.  He doesn’t have to be a man for anybody; he’ll always be your baby. If his wife comes around and complains that he’s cheating on her, beating her, or not taking care of his kids, explain to her that he was your man from the very beginning, and he always will be. They should just leave your baby alone.

Overly sensitive single mothers may take this (admittedly exaggerated) article to be an attack on them. Instead, it is a clarion call for mothers to realize the importance of their role in building a nation.  If we build weak men, then we have weak families.  Weak families lead to weak communities and White America has its foot on our collective neck. I argue that Black men should be at the forefront of those fighting to stand strong against oppression, but too many of our men have not been raised to be leaders.

 

See, there’s a point where offering common sense platitudes starts to feel like piling on. Where making straightforward and likely valid points about instilling discipline, responsibility, accountability, and education into the minds of sons starts to get lost in the waterfall of generalizations and stereotypes about black women that sound more like blame than advise.

Regardless of how the article itself claims to be exaggeration and comedy (because you know, jokes) — isn’t there a way to have this conversation without invoking this tone?

Are we supposed to be reading these things as “well of course I wouldn’t do that to my son”  – or is this an attempt to frame the picture of your neighbor or relative who is doing these things so that we can just hoist the yoke of everything that’s wrong with black culture on them?

Your son isn’t a loser who takes advantage of his situation. His biological father isn’t a coward who bailed on his responsibilities. Noooo, silly — it’s you black women who are slacking on the job. You’re the ones who aren’t doing enough to raise the leaders who should be growing up to speak for your interests and leading cultural charge instead of you, or your daughters (who apparently don’t even rank a mention in these conversations?) It’s like you didn’t even consider these things when you obviously chose to be a single mother instead of catering to a man as the head of your household.

There’s a difference between offering suggestions that can lead people to better choices and simply blaming someone for everything not working out the way you like it.  And just because someone isn’t raising kids exactly the way you think they should, doesn’t mean that they aren’t there doing everything they can for the children they love.

And if you even try to come say something like that in my house, you better be ready for what comes next.

 

 

But then again, maybe that’s just me. What do you think?

 

Hex
Hex is about as wrong as two left feet and there is nothing right about him. Every time we yell at Hex, his rebuttal is always that we are doing so simply because he is Black....yeah..think about that.
Hex
Hex

Hex

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  • Djodeci Unsanged

    Hex is that dude yo! Very Well put sir! I wish Avery were still here to read this piece.

  • naturallyangelic

    All of this rings true. Its sad to say that out of the 10 men under the age of 40 in my family, only 3- 4 are making something of themselves. Very well written Hex

  • ph2072
  • originalwharris

    *applause*

  • Baegatha Christie

    That article reminds me of something that OHNer No4realdo said:

    “Black male culture HATES black women and don’t even realize it. No one creates a double standard for black women better than the black man. No one talks with such rage and conviction about what black women do wrong while contribution to the problem like black men do. There has been an unspoken shift where “THE MAN” is no longer the umber one enemy of the black man. The “whorish black girl” is. Men won’t stay home, money don’t look right, kid look and talk a mess, our society is declining, the morals our kids are lacking, marriage rates declining, high school drop out on the rise, neighborhood crime up, teen pregnancy, teen drug use, bullying…(the list can go on and on forever0 are all things I have heard black men blame on black women and this is just in the past week”.

    • Yaya

      alll of this ^^^^.

    • I Have Logorrhea

      Chuch!

    • No4realdoe

      Its still true.

  • Yaya

    I’m just gonna choose to take this as advice for the single mother of a young black man. I could choose to get defensive at the fact that this advice seems to only be geared towards the present party (women) but I will not. I’m here, I’ve accepted my mistakes/choices and the challenge of raising this future man on my own. I can take this advice from a man because I choose to focus on the message and not the messenger or nitpick his intentions. I am not a man and will never pretend to be one. I am raising my son to be(hopefully) the man that my father was not for me. I refuse to dwell on the absent party, because nor anger, disdain or pity will ever be conducive to raising a man of good.

    • Beffa

      ALL OF THIS!!!

      I read this article months ago and was not offended. My only comment about the article was that it could have been written for all parents because honestly the advice is pretty decent…

  • Les

    If there are no more comments on this article, it’s because EVERYTHING has been said by original post and comments alike.
    I applaud you all.

  • Folk

    The bigger question is how does a society bring the resemblance of humanity to a ground scorched by nuclear psychological warfare? Sure you can build a neighborhood over contaminated soil. Sure you can construct roads and schools over nuclear wastelands. And you can even plant and water the most beautiful varieties of local flora in biologically dead dirt. You can do all of this. We have. No one has taken the time to address the wounds of the original war. We just have relocated people to these wastelands and aimed everything would work out and now v we wonder why these creatures have emerged and why they feed and prey upon their own. The difference between native Americans and Blacks is they killed enough of them off to not even consider the side effects but the results are the same. Sad thing is mother America hasn’t learned her lessons from the past and is going nuclear on the disenfranchised, the poor, and the weak. The water source has been tainted with the blood of our own and we’re to die a slow death unless as a society we learned to live love and work together for our collective children’s future and turn this contaminated soil together.

    • Yaya

      ^^

  • http://dontshootmessenger.blogspot.com/ JediReturns

    EXCELLENT write up Hex.  I guess I missed the blame placing, because I saw this as an “if… then…” article and not an attack on single mothers.  It seemed more that he was writing to them than writing about them, which is why it was one-sided.  He often sounds callous in his address, but if a doctor prescribes medicine, if it is the right medicine it will address the problem even if the doctor’s bedside manner is horrible.  I agree with pretty much everything he said, but it is “an” answer, not “the” answer.

    The bottom line is, boys, and girls, need male presence in their upbringing.  Both women and men are capable of parenting alone, and God bless the ones who do.  But the input of both is best even when both aren’t in the home.  I will add an “if… then…” to Dr. Boyce’s opinion.  If men fail women, then women will fail boys.  When men fail/hurt/abuse women, the women lose trust in men.  This will often result in two things: 1) the women will spoil their sons so he won’t leave, so she will have a man she can trust around; or 2) she will keep men away from her sons she they won’t do them wrong like they did her.  Unfortunately, #2 is sometimes the right response.

    For my answer to this, I always advise sisters to put their sons in sports, Scouts, Boys Club, or something where there are rules and a man to enforce them.  Unfortunately, you can’t make a bad man good, as sisters well know, but you can find a good man for your sons.  Good coaches/men give the boys what they need, and often give the women a man they can trust.  When it comes to what is happening with young males, there is enough blame to go around, but placing it has yet to help any of them.  With that said, if you are a good man you need to be in some boys (yes plural) life. Again, that’s not “the” answer, it’s an answer.

    • Yaya

      ^^^^^ ???

  • http://www.blackenoughsomeday.blogspot.com Kera

    Is it jusy me or did tose rules kinda apply to the young white kid who just got off after killing 3or 4 poeple while drunk driving…I love this article, you get major props for that.
    What I like is that it is directed towards black males and their parents…what I dont like is that it was directed to black males and their parents…we see this BS across cultures. And the onky difference in the cultures is the excuses used to down play the negativity.
    What I really want to know is when do the excuses stop and individuals start taking personal responsibilty for their action…

I dunno what i'm putting here yet. It'll be something ignorant though.
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