The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Nix: The power of a father and a mother in the black family
The story of the black family, and of black men in particular, that is often told in our society is that black men are living marginal lives at best and have abandoned their many children and don't want to be involved.
A young African American man I'll call Alex told me sobbing in a group session I was leading one day that "If my father had loved us like he loved his new children (by his second wife), I would never have become addicted." He bought the almost always false idea that his father had not wanted to love him and his siblings. That version of the story misses the real reasons some black fathers aren't involved with their children.
Alex began to see his father differently when another man in the group told him in tears (yes, black men cry) that in his first marriage, he was often high, often out with other women, and not connected to his first group of children. The stresses of life and marital struggles were major factors in his lack of involvement with his kids. But now, he told us, he was remarried, had become a serious Christian, was drug free, and had a good career. And he was trying to be a good husband and father to his "new" family with the support of his church. That's not a "turnaround" story we often hear.
And then there are the stories of black men like my father Theophilus, Delaware's second black attorney, who stayed with my mother for 56 years until he died and was a great dad. That's another kind of story that doesn't often get told. We have to understand the multiple "father stories" in our communities, the different patterns of involvement and parental effectiveness and the factors that influence involvement and effectiveness, if we are going to strengthen the black family.
And it's shocking how much it matters that fathers be involved in the lives of their children. In Delaware, 40.1 percent of white children are born to single mothers, but 72.1 percent of black children are born to single mothers (Source: Kids Count 2014). And the impact of that one fact is shattering. Just take poverty. A child in Delaware living with two parents is living in a household earning $82,058 a year on average. A child living with just one parent is living in a household earning just $25,201 – over three times less income (Source: Kids Count 2014).
Put another way, the poverty rate for kids drops dramatically when the child is living with two parents (biological or step-parents). Nationally, children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor, and significantly more likely to end up in prison, end up using drugs, become pregnant as teens, end up dropping out of school, and yes, end up dead.
"Helping fathers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds improve their own lives and helping them be good fathers and partners is the purpose of the Delaware Fatherhood & Family Coalition" says Mary Polk, founder of, the state's largest father-focused organization (www.DFFCdads.org). With over 150 organizations and leaders as members, the coalition is spearheading a movement to promote father involvement in the lives of their children, and to enable effective co-parenting between fathers and mothers regardless of whether the two biological parents are still together as a couple.
As the Complexities of Color Agenda makes clear, there are other "pillars" upon which we must rebuild our struggling community. But the enormous impact of father absence on the lives of our children makes a compelling case that, in addition to the vital task of supporting single mothers, we must also strengthen father involvement.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Nix is coordinator of the Delaware Fatherhood & Family Coalition.
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