Millennial Fathers: Will the Reality Be Televised?

One writer laments the invisibility of complex black-father characters on television.

Proud papa Abdul Ali (right) and daughter Kayla

For those of us in our 20s and early 30s -- Millennials -- our ideas about fatherhood were shaped by the cultural vertigo that was the 1990s. Back then we had to settle for a default black president, not a real one. Black fathers on television like The Cosby Show's Heathcliff Huxtable and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's Philip Banks were powerful black men who made no bones about showing off their wealth. Simultaneously, images of black men on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum were omnipresent in the music, television and film of the era, raising questions about what was "real" and where the images of black folks who were somewhere in the middle were.

Through popular sitcoms like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, America became hip to the reality that there were black fathers in the home -- though how they managed to juggle demanding careers, multiple kids and shopping for rare sweaters escapes me. I digress. It was benign television promoting old-fashioned American values and the nuclear family model (which hadn't been true of even white families for quite some time). Heathcliff Huxtable, for all his contributions to raising the profile of black fathers in television, seemed too specific a character to embody an everyman type of black father.

In recent years, TV black fathers have become more nuanced and middlebrow, in programs like Everybody Hates Chris and All of Us. But my all-time favorite black father is on the big screen: Laurence Fishburne as Furious Styles, the stern but loving father in the urban classic, Boyz N the Hood (1991). Though I didn't grow up in South Central L.A., there was something authentic, unpretentious and relatable about Furious Styles. It's shameful that conscientious fathers aren't seen more often in contemporary black film and television.   

Nearly half of those responding to The Root's recent fatherhood survey had their first child before age 25. For many fathers, given the concentration of that age bracket, maturing into adulthood and their children learning to crawl or say "dah-dah" are happening simultaneously. A good number of us are first-generation custodial fathers. As college students and working professionals, we are faced with a cyclone of firsts while having few real-life models to emulate, aside from the most visible black father of all: the one who resides in the White House. And as it turns out, he wasn't raised by his father (something he has in common with many Millennial black fathers).

How does one pull off the tremendous task of fathering, while all the wrong messages are being thrown our way by the media like poisoned Cupid's arrows? Arguably one of the most telling results of the fatherhood survey is that 82 percent of the black men surveyed believe society views black fathers negatively, with two-thirds placing the blame for that perception on media -- raising an interesting question about the gap between what's real and the very lucrative business of creating "reality" for mass consumption.


My real-life "reality show" began with the arrival of my daughter on a Friday morning (at 11:20 a.m., to be exact). I was 20 years old, staring at her minutes-old body, nine pounds. I felt small in her presence, afraid she'd slip through my arms. She was 20 inches long and lanky, and resembled Winnie-the-Pooh's sidekick, Piglet. She was stunning, a satin doll already, with a head full of hair smooth as corn silk. I can't recall how much money I had in my pocket at the time, but I'll never forget the fact that her eyes were closed. I changed her first diaper, fed her, stayed awake the whole night watching her. In the morning, her eyes opened for the first time. I think she gave me a slight smile.

Though there were no cameras running, I know I'm not alone in having had this experience. Yet if it took decades to see a sweater-toting black doctor who fancied jazz and raised five children onscreen, how much longer will it take to show a 20-something black father, who may not be as old or wealthy as Bill Cosby, but can still hold his own in the fatherhood department?

Moreover, how about showing Millennial dads who fall outside the traditional mold of fatherhood? How about a reality television show showing the fathers who were incarcerated or those who don't identify as straight? What does their reality look like? Or those fathers who adopt, are sperm donors or weren't told they were fathers when the baby was born? The increasing number of interracial couples of previous decades whose offspring are now fathers having to navigate a tricky postracial landscape. I could go on … who will document a fascinating dynamic "reality" that black fathers are real, but strangely invisible from the center of the narrative played out on television?

Abdul Ali is a frequent contributor to The Root. He's an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at American University. Follow him on Twitter.