Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood
Black father absence is a contentiously-debated social issue in the US and other countries. Too many Black men, so the argument goes, are missing, irresponsible, selfish, not stepping up to the plate. Visuals of deadbeat, absentee Black fathers abound in mainstream media, often intended to sensationalize and ridicule rather than to raise awareness.
These stereotypes did not emerge out of thin air. Married couples with children constitute less than one-fifth of African American households. Over 60 percent of African American children are raised by single mothers. As Americans are struggling to cope with the social and economic consequences of the worst recession since the Great Depression, it appears this will likely become more of a reality for not just Black children, but many kids of all racial groups.
Several complex factors play a part in this phenomenon, yet the numbers lead to the convenient assumption that many Black fathers are simply absent. Pundits across the political spectrum root this issue in a decline of morals and personal responsibility. If we encouraged a return to “traditional family values” and if only Black men would “stop acting like boys” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, so the recommendations claim, we could reverse these trends and make our communities vibrant again.
The realities are not that simple. Studies show that individual circumstances are highly complex for many fathers, making the context of father “absence” and “presence” rather fluid: While many men may deserve the “deadbeat” label, many others simply do not fit traditional notions of fatherhood. Often forced to define parenting in their own specific ways, these men strive to be present despite adverse circumstances: They may not live at home with their partner or kids, they may not be legally married to their kids’ mothers and they may struggle to provide on a consistent basis, but this does not automatically mean that they are irresponsible. And I began to wonder why these examples of fatherhood remain so invisible when it comes to Black men. In fact, judging purely by popular media coverage, one could easily consider the term "Black fatherhood" an oxymoron.
It was not too long ago when a family secret was uncovered: My own biological father was a Black man who disappeared when he learned my mother was pregnant with me. For a long time, holding on to the pain of that discovery was easier than dealing with it: As long as I was able to project my misgivings onto a negative stereotype, I could justify my anger and hurt. But I also realized that a huge part of me was curious to know more about my Black father, wanting to understand, get to a place of forgiveness. And that longing had informed my creative process all along. Without any information about my father’s identity or whereabouts, the only way to come to terms with my feelings was to examine them through photography.
Over the course of two years, I’ve developed relationships with several Black fathers from different walks of life and in different cities in the US and Canada. Every father I met spoke with his own voice. They expressed their swagger, life rhythm, and ways of relating with their kids and partners in very unique ways. And perhaps more importantly, as I observed these families, another truth manifested loud and clear: Contrary to the prevalent media caricature of Black men as aggressive, violent, and irresponsible, the fathers I met were loving, affectionate, and dependable. They readily shared their feelings and emotions, their concerns and fears. They were vulnerable enough to allow me to photograph them in moments of joy and times of frustration. They were by no means perfect, but unsung everyday heroes nonetheless, committed to being present one fatherly act at a time.
At first, working with these loving fathers was actually the last thing I wanted to do. Many of the encounters were filled with situations I had not experienced as a child, so they were difficult to witness, difficult to understand, and often difficult to photograph. But I knew I had to push past that resistance and spend time with these families – sometimes even live with them for a while. That was the only way to establish the trust and connection necessary to make the images I wanted.
Father Figure is not about reinterpreting “good/bad dad” categorizations, or myth-busting. It’s primarily about personal redemption. But by showing those quiet moments that are deemed un-newsworthy, I hope this work can also prompt people to question assumptions and become sensitive to the broader context of Black fatherhood. Perhaps it can serve as a counterbalance to the prevalent visual narrative.
In sharing of themselves so freely, the fathers I collaborated with gave me access to the richness of their human experience, which enabled me to find and share my own truth. That was perhaps the biggest gift I received and for that, I will always be grateful.
Washington Heights, NY.
Separated. Father of Jeremy and Esmeralda.
Married to Cindy Godoy-Richardson. Father of Selah and Zaida.
Single. Father of Jerome Williams.
Married to Lanik Conley-Miller.
Father of Nijeyah, Nijel, Guy Jr., and Lanae.
San Antonio, TX.
Married to Tyra Tennyson-Francis. Father of Tena and Tyja.
New York, NY.
Single. Father of Fidel.
Exploring African-American Fatherhood
By David Gonzalez.
New York Times Lens Blog, June 15, 2012
What compels you to shoot? That was the question David Alan Harvey asked his students during a workshop last year in Brooklyn. We all have our reasons - if not our obsessions - flashes of realization that come through the viewfinder and into our hearts. For Zun Lee, one of the students, the answer was uneasily evident.
As a street photographer, he had always been attracted to fleeting scenes of fathers and children. He was drawn to those moments, even if he wasn’t quite sure why.
Well, maybe he was.
“In 2004, I discovered my biological dad was African-American,” said Mr. Lee, who had been raised in a Korean family in Germany. “It had basically been a one-night stand. He ran away when he learned she was pregnant. She doesn’t even remember his name anymore.”
That revelation would inform his latest work - “Father Figure,” an exploration into the lives of black fathers. Working over the last year in New York, Chicago and Toronto, where he now lives and works as a healthcare consultant, he has delved into the lives of men who have made the choice to stay near their children as best they can.
His goal is to show an everyday, ordinary love between children and fathers. The kind of moments that get lost in the shuffle of media caricatures.
“On either side it’s stereotypical,” Mr. Lee said. “On one side it’s the Jerry Springer, Maury Povich stuff about irresponsible dads who run away from their baby mama and don’t take responsibility. On the other hand of the discourse, you have Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the über-dad. In the media, there is very little in the middle, of the everyday dad who may not be perfect, he may be struggling, but he’s present in their child’s life.”
Mr. Lee knows about being in the middle. His mother, a nurse, had moved to Germany in the 1960s. After he was born, she married a fellow Korean who was working there as a journalist. They raised him, though his relationship with his stepfather was rocky. Even looking in the mirror, something did not add up: he didn’t look like anybody in his family.
As luck would have it, he grew close to African-American families stationed at American bases in Frankfurt. Rebuffed by German children his age - and being a bit of a latchkey child himself - he grew close to one boy, Jamal, and his family. He spent most of his time with them, picking up on everything from music and food to how they spoke.
“Learning about my biological father wasn’t just a traumatic experience,” Mr. Lee said. “Learning the news was in a weird sense a homecoming.”
Mr. Lee grew up to be a doctor - a profession he left after deciding the clinical side wasn’t for him. Yet an encounter with a patient slowly set him on the path to photography. He had once been a painter, before medical studies took up all his time. While doing a residency in New York in 1993, he treated Rigoberto Torres, an artist who suffered neurological damage after an asthma attack left him unable to breathe for several minutes.
Mr. Torres - and his collaborator, John Ahearn - encouraged Mr. Lee to not give up on art.
“They asked me what were my passions beyond medicine,” Mr. Lee recalled. “So if you ask me, why do I photograph? I can trace it to that conversation. It stayed with me as something I could do instead of painting. I owe John and Rigoberto everything.”
Fast-forward almost two decades to Brooklyn, where Mr. Lee was enrolled in the David Alan Harvey workshop. Already shooting on the streets, he decided to follow Mr. Harvey’s urging and plumb the swirl of emotions that led him to look at the world in a certain way. Mr. Harvey suggested he not just stick with the project, but get deeper into the lives of his subjects. At times, the emotions have touched close to home.
“Being in the presence of these dads was difficult for me,” he said. “They were interacting with their kids, which is something I didn’t have growing up. I had a dad growing up, but he wasn’t a model dad. For me, seeing things I never had as a child was hard to witness, never mind having to shoot in those circumstances.”
He has continued to work with three or four families, particularly one in the Bronx that has welcomed him warmly. He has also reached out to sociologists and other researchers who have done work on African-American families and fathers. One of them, LaRon Nelson, a faculty member and assistant dean for Global and Community Affairs at the University of South Florida, praised the project.
“There is a spirit, an essence, a sense of shared meaning that somehow most images don’t exude,” Dr. Nelson said. “I had not noticed this myself, until I saw Zun’s pictures and had them juxtaposed with the images of black fathers that were cataloged in my memory from years of media consumption. I knew instantly that I was seeing the ‘thing,’ the spirit, essence, shared meaning, about which the fathers had found so absent from the public domain.”
Mr. Lee now plans to take four months to devote to the project. In some ways, it has gone way beyond photography.
It has even been redemptive.
“This is a chance for me to find a way to connect my personal story to the photos I’m doing,” Mr. Lee said. “I’m not talking about taking pretty pictures, but finding out what is the one thing that compels me to do this. It’s taking it one level further.”