WHEN ARE YOU going to write something about the black men who are taking care of their kids?" asked my friend Rodney as he clutched his 2-year-old daughter. "When am I gonna see that in the paper?"
He was challenging me to examine my own feelings about African-American men and their parenting skills. I have read the stories and seen the television reports about the destruction of the black family. Young black women who look as though they should be playing with dolls are pushing the strollers of their children. I always ask myself the same question: Where are the fathers?
I was born to young, unmarried parents. Thankfully, my parents later married and my father, Gary Respers Sr., has guided our family through tough times. He has worked two jobs to feed our bodies and nourish our minds. The boy who was just a senior in high school when my mom became pregnant with me is now the man who wasn't ashamed to cry when, at 23, I was baptized. He's been an example to my younger brothers.
But far too many children will grow up without the benefit of a father. The absentee father is a legacy of slavery, when black men and women were exploited as "breeders," and slave owners rarely made any attempt to keep families together.
Last month Newsweek ran a special report about black families, "A World Without Fathers: The Struggle to Save the Black Family." It reported that two of three first births to black women under 35 are out of wedlock, compared with two of five in 1960. Statistically, a black child born today has only one chance in five of growing up in a two-parent household until the age of 16. These disheartening statistics paint a dismal picture of black families that have fallen apart as the economy has shifted from manufacturing to high-tech, leaving thousands of blacks out of work.
Recently, at the invitation of a co-worker, I traveled to Annapolis to attend a Men's Day prayer breakfast at Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church. I expected to see mostly older men and only a smattering of younger ones. Instead, I sat among a group of men of all ages who were a testament to their motto, "African-American Men, Defying All Odds -- Expanding All Opportunities." These men were willing to do whatever it took to reclaim their community. The morning speaker summed up their commitment: "The measure of a man is not based on how many women you can lay down with and make babies, but how you hang in there when times are hard."
A few weeks earlier, while dining in a pizza parlor, I saw a group of young black males run out without paying their bill. They were soon caught and rousted back to the restaurant by an off-duty police officer who happened to be passing by.
As they were about to be hauled away, two black men who had been eating in the restaurant, and who did not appear much older than the boys, approached the manager and the police officer and offered to pay the bill. They wanted to speak to the offenders before they were arrested. The manager and officer agreed, and the two men stood outside with the younger guys talking to them about what they had done.
The two men were attempting something that was very common in my parents' and grandparents' era -- community parenting. Children used to be raised not only by their immediate families but also by extended families, friends, church members and neighbors. But the struggle for economic survival has cut into the amount of time that black men are able to devote to their own families, let alone to surrogate children.
Black women have been burdened with an awesome responsibility. Many of them have had to raise their children without the help of adult men. Bless them, but there is an old saying that black women raise their daughters and love their sons. They are able to instill in their daughters the necessary survival skills to be women. They cannot, however, teach a boy-child how to be a man.
Black men have gotten a bum rap as parents. They have been portrayed as lazy, shiftless louts who impregnate scores of women and then are unwilling to act as parents or pay child support. This stereotype ignores society's increasing tolerance of pre-marital sex and an economy that has left black men on the fringes. And there is a vicious cycle here: It is very difficult for black men to act as parents when there have been no examples in their own fatherless families.
Look beyond the stereotype. While some men falter as parents, others do not. Some are willing to act as surrogate fathers to children who don't have fathers of their own. They are ready to be positive role models if given the opportunity.
I think I can speak for all of the black children who have had strong male figures in their lives, men who have realized that the state cannot effectively raise children, men who have given of themselves to ensure a brighter future.
But with the continuing cycle of boys coming of age in fatherless homes, these men, now rare, may become extinct.
Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in the Carroll County bureau of The Baltimore Sun.