Raheem Brooks (front, left) walks with young men from the CUNY Fatherhood Academy.
Courtesy of Raheem Brooks

When mainstream media paints a picture of black fatherhood, the image is usually marred by racialized prejudices and stereotypes about black manhood in general.

Case in point: Remember the little boy who fell into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the death of the endangered silverback gorilla, Harambe? (Of course you do.)

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The boy’s father was not even at the zoo with the mother, but that didn’t matter to the Daily Mail. First the site manages to bring his criminal record into play; then, buried in the story beneath the salacious headline, the reader finds out that he seems to have “turned his life around” and dotes on his four children.

So why bring it up at all?

Black dads are often portrayed as cold and uncaring deadbeats. Rarely are they portrayed as being involved. Rarely are they portrayed as loving.

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And young black men? The mainstream media will call them “thugs” before they call them good fathers.

This is a problem, because nothing could be further from the truth.

“Television focuses so much more on [black] masculinity in terms of how they front themselves, more than what they do in terms of being a parent, companions, lovers, fathers. We don’t see the whole package; we see less than one-fourth,” Janice Kelly, with the Atlanta-based Fathers Incorporated, told The Root. “They’re changing diapers, they’re doing hair, they’re doing all of the things that are required … but when it comes to television, it becomes the one-dimensional character.”

Indeed, black dads, even young black dads, are doing all of that and more. They want to be involved. But a lot of the time the conversation about dad involvement revolves around monetary support. And while child support is important, it’s not the be-all and end-all.

“We see more conversation around the who guy doesn’t pay child support rather than the images of young guys that are stepping up and doing all they can do for their family,” Raheem Brooks, who works with young fathers between the ages of 18 and 24 at the CUNY Fatherhood Academy, said. “For years it’s been more based on money, and I guess that’s tradition … but there’s so much more—guys being more engaged, having conversations, laughing with their children—and that’s what we see when we have our family days.”

These are guys, he says, who are looking for the resources, looking for a way to take the initiative, regardless of the type of model for fatherhood that they have growing up, regardless of their relationship with their child’s mother.

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In recent years, the media space has gotten a bit better about its imagery. There was that adorable ad that showed hulking NFL players carefully grooming their little girls’ hair. NBA MVP Stephen Curry was beautifully featured in Parents magazine, with his wife, Ayesha, doting on and laughing with his two little girls.

However, the biggest player responsible for shifting the narratives around young black fathers is social media.

Why? Because the news comes straight from the source itself: young black fathers boasting about their babies, posting videos of themselves playing with their babies, chronicling their lives with their babies in daily vlogs like the amazing ones done by La Guardia Cross.

The times are a-changing, and the truth is coming out.

“Blogging, Twitter and everything else, there’s multiple voices out there that are not going to let themselves become silent to the media, and that’s very important,” Kelly said. “They need to tell their stories. What is written in journals or on television does not necessarily replicate what is being experienced in our society.”

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“[Young black fathers are] the biggest billboards and messages. The messaging is within them. To hear from them specifically is great. Education is not the only thing, but it does tend to be an equalizer,” Brooks said.

And volume is also key. The more young black fathers step up on social media, unabashedly being their amazing, dadlike selves, the harder they are to ignore.

“I think that is writing more books, I think that is producing more films, doing more research on our people … beginning to tell the stories that have never been told before about black men and black boys and black women and black families. I think we need to highlight each other more,” said Kenneth Braswell, founder and executive director of Fathers Incorporated, which does a lot of work around responsible fatherhood and black male achievement across the country. “These kinds of images that we’re seeing now on social media, with fathers being more open to sharing who they are, [are] just huge, a benefit to raising the level of compassion in our families around this country.”

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Individualized platforms are powerful, especially when they show things that are different from what people normally read or hear.

“The end point of having those platforms around, I feel, continues to break those barriers down and get people to look at it differently. When we have the opportunity to have media come in the room and listen to some of the stories of young men … it’s always exciting for us because we tell our young men, ‘You all are myth busters … knocking those barriers down,’” said Sheldon Smith, the founder of the Dovetail Project, a Chicago-based organization that teaches young dads parenting skills and gives them other resources to better provide for their families.

“Those stories are not being told, and that’s because there’s a part of the world that don’t want to hear stories like that,” Smith added. “They want to keep the negative parts going, so long as we have platforms like YouTube and Facebook and Instagram [that] show people the truth … that’s one thing you can’t battle against, the truth.”