Father’s Day is fast approaching and I have been thinking about President Obama’s relationship to black fatherhood.
His loving engagement with his daughters is the very embodiment of idealized male parenting. Michelle Obama even encouraged us to link Barack’s fatherhood to his capacity for political leadership. At the DNC convention she retold the story of Barack driving her and their first child home from the hospital- carefully navigating the difficult terrain of Chicago’s snowy streets. Michelle encouraged us to see that he could similarly act as a father for the nation, safely steering our country through an uncertain future. It was an effective metaphor.
In his role as "good" father, Obama has been critical of "bad" fathers. During his campaign Barack Obama appalled some in the African American community during a guest sermon at a black church when harshly criticized absent black fathers. To some this criticism seemed liked a cheap and easy way for Obama to distance himself from black communities in order to gain white votes. His goal may have been racially strategic, but I suspect that Obama sincerely believes in the absolute centrality of black fathering.
So it is interesting that Obama’s role as good and loving father allows us to ignore the simple fact that the first black president of the United States did not have a present and available black father. I suspect that had the elder Barack Obama remained married to Ann Dunham and present in the young Barack’s life he would not now be the President of the United States. President Obama’s particular life experiences, his challenges, his search for self-identity, and his exceptional achievements were possible, in part, because his father was absent. Obama largely documents this reality in his thoughtful autobiography, Dreams from My Father.
Had his father remained Barack would never have lived in Indonesia, his grandparents would have taken a less active role in his upbringing, he may even have grown up in his father’s Kenya rather than in the United States where he made a home and political career. Had his father been present he might have had less adolescent angst, but then again that angst was part of what sent him into a world of books from which he emerged a formidable intellectual. Part of Barack Obama’s greatness is his fatherlessness.
I don’t mean to suggest that it is better, in general, not to have a father. President Obama is right when he points to the importance of loving, involved, financially responsible men in the lives of their children and their communities. I do want to suggest that President Obama lacks some imagination when it comes to analyzing the necessary ingredients for childhood success. That lack of imagination is odd given that the recipe is readily apparent in his own biography.
Barack Obama survived and even thrived even though his own father was absent because he had an intergenerational support network, access to quality education, and opportunities for travel and enrichment.
In America today black women are more likely than any other group to never marry, to divorce, or to be widowed young. We will mostly raise our children alone. Those of us who are parenting with little financial or emotional support from our children’s father appreciate President Obama’s insistence on greater male responsibility. Mothers deserve and desire support. But we have little choice but to proceed in child rearing even if that support is not forthcoming. We have daughters and sons to raise right now.
We live in an age when family is being remade in creative ways. Gay men and lesbians are fighting for the right to marry and raise their families with full civic equality. There are more interracial and bi-lingual households in our country. Financial necessity is bringing friends, neighbors, and extended family into single households. We have to do more than assert and embody a single, rigid ideal of parenting and family.
As we embrace new models of family we can also support children who are growing up in many different circumstances. President, Barack Obama can’t make all fathers be responsible parents but he can help single mothers give our kids the opportunities he had.
In order for grandmothers and grandfathers to be able to provide important back-up coverage for working single moms they need to be able to retire at a reasonable age, have quality health care, and opportunities for dignified housing. We need the federal government to shore up social security, protect and extend Medicare, and make more affordable housing opportunities available for seniors. In order for all kids to have the chances young Barack had, we need quality public schools and enrichment programs that offer travel, language, and cultural exposure to poor and working class kids whose life opportunities are too often limited by parental income. In order for single mothers to provide adequately for their children they need affordable child care, gender equity in pay, and support for continuing education and job training. In order for the children of LGBT couples to have the secure family unit President Obama trumpets we need to have marriage equality.
We can assert the value of fathers and still create government and community structures that more fully support families of all kinds.