As 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]
Of 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?
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?