The Future of Fatherhood and Families in African American Communities
Franklin, Robert Michael, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy
THE UNANSWERED CALL
In the fall of 1998, a historic conference, sponsored by the Morehouse Research Institute at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, almost succeeded in placing the issue of father absence on the national agenda. Morehouse is the only all-male, historically Black college in the United States, and it happens to be the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This bastion of African American male achievement was the perfect venue for a conference designed to examine issues pertaining to the future of marriage and parenthood in Black communities. In contrast to other conferences on the topic, whose proceedings slumber between the covers of academic journals, the conference organizers, Obie Clayton (from Morehouse), Ronald Mincy (of the Ford Foundation, now Columbia University), and David Blankenhorn (of the Institute for American Values), decided to produce a thirty-page, user-friendly report directed at a broad audience: "Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America" (Clayton et al. 1999). Three things made this conference and the resulting report both promising and remarkable. First was the comprehensive way in which they defined the issues. The proceedings were informed by a variety of disciplines and brought together historical, global, and grassroots perspectives. Second was the diversity of their fifty signatories, including an impressive variety of academic disciplines, sectors, institutions, political persuasions, and ethnic-racial identities. And third was the audacity of their proposed ten-year strategic agenda in advocating specific policy ideas, expenditures, and collaborative public and private action aimed at reversing father absence.
"Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America" issues a "call to action" to fathers, churches, civil rights organizations, and the public sector to prioritize this issue for the next ten years. The wide-angled analysis of the section "Why Fathers Matter" identifies various economic, cultural, and wisely places the American family crisis within the context of global trends. The report finds that by fault of strident individualism and a weakened sense of obligation to the family, "fathers the world over, rich and poor alike, are increasingly disengaging from their children and from the mothers of their children" (Clayton et al. 1999, 9). The section "Spiritual Dimensions of Father Absence in Black America," invokes African notions of the sacredness of being a father (creator) and remembers the history of Black religion's success in empowering Blacks to overcome oppression. The report concludes with ten recommendations for collaborative and self-empowering activity designed to reverse this crisis.
By way of providing a sense of the tone of the report and beginning to frame the state of the conversation, I include several brief passages here:
"We gathered together because of our shared concern about the national trend of father absence that is affecting nearly all races and ethnic groups in the United States, and because of our particular concern about father absence in the African American community" (Clayton et al. 1999, 4). "We gathered together because we believe that among the most urgent problems facing the African American community, and the entire nation, is the reality that 70 percent of African American children are born to unmarried mothers, and that at least 80 percent of all African American children can now expect to spend at least a significant part of their childhood years living apart from their fathers" (Clayton et al. 1999, 4). "Although we differ on the relative weight to be given to economic, cultural, and private and public policy factors in shaping the lives of African American fathers, we agree that each of these factors is at work, and that comprehensive strategies are needed to confront the crisis of father absence in the African American community" (Clayton et al. …