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.