Changing a hurtful image of Dad

The Baltimore Sun

He's crying again. Daddy must be drunk, I remember thinking as he sat on the edge of the bed in my parents' room. About 6 years old on that fall morning in 1983, I had grown used to this behavior. Usually during the week, my father was subdued and pleasant after work.

But most Friday nights, he was holed up in a juke joint, a woman's house or Lord only knows where else. He wouldn't return home until late Saturday evening.

And when he showed his face again, it was usually wet with tears. But his crying didn't stop my mother from cussing at him, which infuriated Daddy. Then usually he'd strike Mama first and the two would wrestle to the floor, knocking over furniture. My two sisters and I would scream, run and hide until the storm settled.

After 13 years of such trauma and drama, Mama filed for divorce. She wasn't home when Daddy called me into the bedroom, tears streaming down his face as he told me, "Your mama don't love me no more."

His voice broke; his shoulders shook. I didn't know what to make of all this. I wanted to go back into the living room with my younger sister and resume watching Saturday morning cartoons. I saw the packed luggage at the foot of the bed.

"I wanna go," I whined.

"Naw, you can't."

"You coming back?" I asked.

He didn't answer. My uncle was waiting outside on the porch and eventually came in to help my father with his things. I stood at the living room window and watched the car pull off. Daddy was gone. For good.

I'm 30, and my story is unfortunately too common among black men around my age. At least I knew who my father was; many have never met theirs. In an effort to fill the void, in trying to deal with the pain and anger of feeling abandoned, many of us later found outlets in gangs and drugs, which permeated our culture.

With no model for manhood or fatherhood, hip-hop culture in all its nihilistic glory became a surrogate parent for a generation coming of age between 1979 and 1999, experts say.

"I've always said hip-hop is the generation of the unparented," says Bill Stephney, head of Joseph Media in Summit, N.J. In the 1980s, he was the co-founder of Def Jam Records and the revolutionary rap collective Public Enemy.

"For a generation that didn't develop a family and a religiosity, hip-hop became those things. For the unparented, hip-hop is all they got, and they don't want to let it go."

For too many black men, such self-destruction has ultimately led to an early death or incarceration.

In the past 10 years, the rate of incarceration for black men increased 10 times that of white men, according to data gathered by the Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization based in New York City that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.

The misogyny, gross materialism and communal apathy celebrated in mainstream hip-hop for years have been strongly debated in the black community. But in all of the discussions, no one seemed to cast a light on the growing movement of black men fighting the perpetuation of shiftless stereotypes in hip-hop and beyond.

Within this movement, young black fathers who grew up during the rise of hip-hop are struggling to change old deadbeat images of black men.

Even Hollywood has taken notice. Will Smith extolled black fatherhood in last year's The Pursuit of Happyness. The movie, based on the best-selling memoir by millionaire broker-philanthropist Christopher Gardner, dramatized the struggles he endured while raising his young son.

Daddy's Little Girls, a movie written and directed by Tyler Perry, which hit theaters in February, was a poignant film about a working-class single dad raising three daughters.

African-Americans want to see black men, particularly fathers, portrayed in a more realistic light in entertainment.

"Men have been attacked with these forced images, especially in hip-hop. You can't be human; you can't be vulnerable," says Derek Phillips, founder of the Harlem-based Real Dads Network, a seven-year-old resource organization that helps fathers become active in their children's lives.

Other likeminded networks - Harlem Men Stand Up and Daddy University in Philadelphia - have sprung up in recent years. These resource centers provide support groups and information about issues regarding health, child support and the family court system.

Phillips says he has noticed a progressive change in how male hip-hop stars are depicted away from the stage, but trifling gangsta machismo is still the norm when cameras are rolling.

"The old deadbeat image is being flipped, in a way," says Phillips, a Brooklyn native and father of two daughters, ages 11 and 7. "You see Snoop Dogg involved with his kids' football team; 50 Cent is very active with his son. But when they're onstage, they're promoting something else."

Stephney, who after a nasty court battle 10 years ago gained custody of his eldest son, says despite all the lip-service about men stepping up, there's still a sociopolitical system and a black female-oriented culture in place that marginalize too many men from families and communities.

"The term 'breakdown of the black family' is a misnomer," he says. "In the hip-hop generation, families never really formed. We have such a lack of our own value as people," he says. "If black men need to get their [stuff] together, then who raises them? Until we get to the point when we realize that men are important in raising men, we're going to have the problems. They will continue."

Twenty-four years after my father left and 11 years after his death, the void hasn't been filled and will probably remain immense. While I was growing up, Mama held on to her bitterness. My sisters grew up to be despondent single mothers, and I refuse to have children. Sometimes I can still hear Mama say, "You ain't got no daddy." And it hurts.


Rashod Ollison grew up in Hot Springs and Little Rock, Ark., For the past five years, he has been the pop music critic for The Sun.

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