Father Figures

Yes, the numbers prove too many black fathers are irresponsible. Now what?


My father grew up without his father. Actually, he's not entirely sure it was his biological father, but in any case, the man left when my father was 6 years old. Growing up without a father had a devastating effect on his material and emotional well-being, and he constantly tells me about the hardships he experienced. He survived, however, and would eventually thrive intellectually and spiritually—no thanks to the paternal grandfather I will never know.

What caused my grandfather's absence?

What is to blame—or, perhaps, who is to blame—for the nearly seven out of 10 black children who are now being raised mainly by single black females?

For as long as I can remember, a war has been raging inside me over these questions. It has been a conflict with three armies of thought. My more conservative intellectual army has argued valiantly that black males' irresponsibility is primarily to blame. My more radical, scholarly army has claimed intrepidly that society is chiefly to blame. My more liberal, cerebral position is that it is a little bit of both.

My conflicted thinking on this matter is emblematic of the larger societal clash of ideas that has persisted for decades. This clash was thrown into sharp relief in the reaction to Barack Obama's now controversial Father's Day speech. In that speech, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president said: "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that too many fathers also are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

Conservatives championed this statement. Radicals derided it. Liberals like the Rev. Jesse Jackson chastised Obama for not talking enough about society's responsibilities.

In the end, Obama adopted the traditional liberal line, telling reporters on his campaign plane that his "argument is simply … not an 'either-or' proposition, it's a 'both-and' proposition."

But which proposition is right? Who and/or what is to blame? That has yet to be settled. Are the conservatives correct? The liberals? The radicals?

This war of ideas should never have been a war at all. The conservatives are correct to emphasize black male irresponsibility. The radicals echo reality when they underscore society's role. The liberals should highlight accurately that it is a little bit of both.

How can they all be right?