In Search of Books about African American Fathers
(In Honor of Father's Day)

By Dr. Maxine Thompson

About six years ago, during a guerilla-marketing effort, I would sell books with a fellow doll maker/artist in what I can only euphemistically describe as street-corner campaigns. On a weekly basis, here in Los Angeles, California, we would set up colorful tables with African print table cloths, flowers, baskets filled with my books, incense, ribbons and the other woman's handmade dolls.

That year, on Mother's Day, we sold out of our inventory and made a profit. However, a month later, on Father's Day, it was a different story.

In fact, many of the men (and women) who stopped by our fancy table just about gave us the old middle finger, told us where their fathers could go and what they could do when they got there.

Wheww!!! Looking back, this is a sad indictment as to the scars left behind when our fathers are not in our lives.

Nowadays, it is common knowledge that we need our fathers, so this isn't what this article is about. As I thought about writing this article for Father's Day, I tried to think of the books I'd read with strong images of Black fathers. I'm not talking about fairy-tale images, but literary facsimiles, dealing with the complexity of racism, poverty, and discrimination.

I had to really think on this. What does strong mean for a black male in a society that has once enslaved your ancestors, paid your family welfare for you to stay out of the house, and currently incarcerates one in ten young black men versus one in 100 white men?

So I had to come up with another definition of what strong meant.

I thought of the books I've written. In my first novel, THE EBONY TREE, (written in 1995), I can't say the male image was flattering that I painted of the Black men of my 1950-1962 world. However, it was real for that 1950 period in Delray, Michigan where I grew up.

I wish I could say that the up-close-and-personal pictures I witnessed of these men were pictures of fathers who went to work every day, and who attended church on Sunday. But that was not the case. In fact, the pictures I painted were so vivid, that in 1999, I remember a male book club member who accused me of "hating black men."

Because I did not sugar coat the reality of the world as I knew it, he felt I must hate black men.

But that is far from the truth. I have two adult sons and I've been married for almost thirty-five years myself to a Black man. I love Black men in real life, flawed and all.

Personally, I think it takes strength just to be a Black man in this society and show up every day.

But if this male reader had looked closer, THE EBONY TREE was a celebration of the many men who stayed with their families during that 1950 recession. Although these were the fathers that stayed on my block (which included my raconteur, story-loving father), I could only reflect and portray what I saw growing up. This also included high alcohol consumption, high unemployment, and high rate of womanizing.

In my second novel, NO POCKETS IN A SHROUD, Reverend Godbolt is a strong, powerful black man, who never cheated on his wife. Even so, a secret has kept him from fully loving his wife and one of his children.

In my most recent story, SECOND CHANCES, which is part of anthology, SECRET LOVERS, due out on 6-6-06, I wrote about a different type of man. Elijiah, who is only five foot six, (but one of the tallest men I've met in literature,) is a physical/massage therapist, a practitioner of yoga and meditation, and totally different than the typical tall, dark, handsome romantic lead in many novels. In creating this character, I considered Elijiah to be a sensitive, caring man, unlike so many of the macho images portrayed in our romances or even street fiction. He is also a widowed father, raising his eight-year-old son.

When I examined my male character creations, I would say they all are good men-they are just heavily flawed.

Then it posed a question for me. If a white author writes about a flawed white male character, it is not an indictment on their whole race of men so why should ours be? (Who can account for the success of the psychopath, cannibal, serial killer, Hannibal Lector, in Thomas Harris' novel, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?)

So then I thought of some of the most powerful books, which still resonate in my memory about fathers; written by black authors. Many showed complex, imperfect, wonderful human beings.

I still remember the "ugly-beautiful" father Deighton, who was a charming, pie-in-the-sky dreamer, which Paule Marshall depicted in BROWN GIRL, BROWNSTONES, her first novel.

Back in 1977, when I read Alice Walker's novel, THE THIRD LIFE OF GRANGE COPELAND, it had to be one of the most painful stories of depravity yet redemption I'd ever read up until that time. It was also very real.

This is a book of generational curses. Just as Grange Copeland physically abused his wife and son, he left this legacy of domestic violence to the son he abandoned when Brownfield was still a boy. On, it states about this book, "Frustrated with the futility of life in the South, Grange Copeland walked off and left his son and wife and headed North for a better life. He returned later to help raise his granddaughter after his son, Brownfield, goes to prison for murdering his wife. As the guardian of the couple's youngest daughter, Grange Copeland is looking at his third-and final-chance to free himself from spiritual and social enslavement."

In Alice Walker's COLOR PURPLE, even Mister, (whom I recall seeing a group of black men on TV protesting the movie version, charging that it portrayed a black man in a negative light), had redeeming qualities by the end of the book. He and Celie, (whom he tormented earlier in the book,) seemed to have become like family, even if not lovers.

And who can render a more tender, flawed Black man than Toni Morrison? My favorite male character from her novels was Paul D, who it was said to be so "blessed" that women wept after his presence in their house. (Novel: BELOVED.) Also, I recently pleasantly revisited Morrison's third novel, SONG OF SOLOMON's money-grubbing Macon Dead and his free-spirited son, Milkman, which is a very male-centered book. But some have even said she rendered the father character Cholly, who molested and impregnated his 11-year old daughter Pecola (Novel: THE BLUEST EYE), in a human light where you could at least empathize with his twisted, perverted love.

These are just some of the flawed fathers in African American books.

Just as we love (and recognize) them as readers, in real life, children loved flawed fathers.

Unfortunately, many single fathers give up and don't form a relationship because they don't have money. But children don't care. They just want the love and the time from their fathers. Judging from that Father's Day six years ago, adults (former children) not only want that time, they need it.

So what are the answers? They are not easy ones. These are just some suggestions to help fill in the gaps.

For men whose fathers weren't there, join male groups at your church so you can learn how to father. Don't let history repeat itself.

And for Black fathers who are stepping up to the plate, the next generation applauds you. Even so, why not include other fatherless boys in your activities with your sons?

For fathers with daughters, be a good example of what a man should be. Tell your daughter she's beautiful, so she won't be easily misled by men who mean her no good.

For those who grew up with fathers who were emotionally or physically absent, they should go back and rewrite their scripts of their own values so that they can heal themselves and not be bitter. Carrying negative baggage from the past only hinders our relationships and our spiritual growth.

With that said, many Black fathers today feel unappreciated-even when they are in the home, doing the best they can in a racist world.

Therefore, today, on Father's Day, we honor and appreciate you, the Black father.

Suggested titles:

Black Fathers, A Call for Healing
Written by Kristin Clark Taylor
Black Fathers in Contemporary American Society: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Strategies for Change. Edited by Obie Clayton, Ronald B. Mincy, and David Blankenhorn, New York, Russell Sage Foundation; 2003. 179 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-87154-161-0.