As part of my ongoing dialogue on the past, present and future of the Black Nation, I’ve been exploring the dynamics of the role of Black men, its importance and how it has evolved through the centuries.
That’s not to say Black women do not have a significant part to play in the building of our nation—far from it. Instead, I wanted to acknowledge that something has gone very wrong in Black communities around the world, particularly with our men and fathers.
According to Pew Research, race and ethnicity are strongly associated with the likelihood that a father will live apart from at least one of his children. While 21% of white fathers do so, the number rises to 44% among African American fathers.
The effects hit closer to home, too, according to a CBC report on Canadian statistics.
It begs the question: How can we end that devastating cycle created by the enslavement experience?
On my podcast, Hey, I’m Listening!, I recently had the honour of sitting down with Reverend Dr. Ken Gordon Jr., a business executive, pastor, award-winning author, husband and father. We had an in-depth conversation on the vital role Black fathers have in rebuilding our nation.
But before we dive into that, it is critical to explore how we wound up here.
The evolution of the role of Black fathers
Europeans’ entry into the African continent marked the beginning of a destructive movement that shifted Black men into roles that previously didn’t exist.
Take, for example, the pre-enslavement practices of West African folks that led to a very different family structure once they arrived in Virginia as slaves: “Each person was a member of a people, a clan, a family, and a household…The family was extended to include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other relatives….The household was the smallest unit – usually mother, father, children, and maybe, but not always, grandparents.”
Like sugar plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. plantations skewed their labour force toward males through systemic import of male slaves. The result? “Profound demographic and social consequences including matrifocality, forced celibacy for men, early widowhood for women, and absence of fathers for children.”
Consequences from slavery also led to a legacy of long-term effects on the family structure, with Black men dehumanized in unconscionable ways like slave breeding. Men were sought out to produce more workers by way of their sperm, so plantations could be more “self-sustaining” when America banned the import of slaves from Africa and the West Indies.
The enslavement experience left an indelible mark on our nation, destroying the familial structures of our ancestors and the father’s original role as protector. Tearing parents and kin apart, inflicting unimaginable trauma—it’s no surprise this pattern of leaving, separation and disconnection has left lasting effects on families, even generations later.
“They wanted us to shift into a role of self-destruction—a role that is self-defeating, a role that is subservient. And the reason they needed to do that is because we were kings and queens,” Gordon said during our discussion. “We were the leaders of this world…and they wanted to convince us that we were not that; rather, that we were subservient to them.”
Many of the reasons behind absent or unengaged fathers are related to that collective intergenerational trauma. In the centuries that followed, Black fathers have faced—and continue to face—a number of systemic barriers, like the ongoing racism, economic disadvantages and growing incarceration numbers that are intrinsic to the Black experience.
We see this pattern play itself out at the individual, group and country level time and again. One example is the Haitian Revolution, whose subsequent declaration of independence led to Haiti becoming one of the poorest nations in the world despite it once being home to the wealthiest, most profitable colony in the world.
According to this journal article on the origins of the African-American family structure, sociologists and historians have proposed a variety of economic explanations for the disruption of Black families after the Civil War. The most commonly cited hidden traumatic experience? Conditions of extreme poverty that destabilized them.
This New York Post opinion piece states the “biggest cause of black inequality isn’t slavery or red-lining or Jim Crow – it’s our community’s dependency on social welfare programs and the fatherless families they continue to subsidize…these programs paved the way for the dissolution of the traditional black family.”
Black fathers as protectors and providers
In his books, Gordon outlines how fathers are protectors, providers and priests. By ‘providers’, he isn’t referring to finances—but to love, empowerment, wisdom, encouragement and humility. When considering the traditional male role, the father’s presence in the household also provides stability, support and other positive child developmental outcomes.
But stepping into the role as the protector is no easy task, given the challenges facing Black men over the past 500 years.
To act as the protector, they must heal their own wounds.
To help rebuild and reimagine the Black community to be as strong as possible, we must first build up ourselves.
Based on my conversation with Gordon, I’ve outlined four key steps we can take now.
Embark on a healing journey
The first step, according to Gordon, is to acknowledge the issues at hand, addressing past and present pain. “For a lot of us, we don’t understand that our behaviour is a result of us not being well—mentally, socially or relationally,” he said during the episode.
This conversation is reminiscent of my work with my not-for-profit, The Village of Peace, which places a strong focus on communal healing using a powerful truth, forgiveness and reconciliation process.
At our gatherings, we talk about racism as traumatic and enduring across generations. We talk about and celebrate what we have built and offered to the global community. We talk about forgiveness and how to move past the victim narrative into that of a victor.
“This is [something] that a lot of men refuse to accept…[because] in many communities, therapy is seen as a negative,” said Gordon. “We hold all of this in because of this misplaced sense of strength…Real strength is being able to say, ‘I’m hurting.’”
Resources like Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome also help put so much into perspective about our fears and group-level responses to trauma and enable us to look ahead to the future, while still acknowledging our collective responses.
Lean into your responsibility
The healing journey continues by encouraging men to lean into their responsibilities as fathers and husbands, preventing negative narratives from defining them. In doing so, they can provide guidance and demonstrate to their children what manhood looks like and what it means to be a protector and a provider.
When we are able to access our ancestral memories, we will remember that the Black man, when connected to his true nature, is the nurturer of the family. It is he who catches the baby as it exits the womb, wraps the child in warm blankets and cradles the newborn with a protective warmth the mother cannot offer in this early stage of life. It is the father, not mother, who is tasked with whispering into our unconscious state the plans that will prosper us and give our nation a future.
It is the vibration of a father’s voice that commands respect and allows a child to take in the historical memories that come with his storytelling. Only his vision of the future can make little children drunk with an intoxicating hope that demands they willingly and openly pursue becoming the best version of themselves.
If only we could ask every father, for the sake of our nation, to go on their healing journey. Memory of their true nature—not the colonial stag nature—would return and catapult us into a new era of life and living.
Ken might be a little less poetic, but we were on the same page.
“Because we haven’t leaned into our [responsibilities], we’re forcing women to be more than what they’re supposed to be and do more than they should—and it’s making them tired; it’s making them weary,” Gordon said.
Given the father’s role in forming our identity, our values and our character, it’s imperative they step up to the plate, “stand up to combat the stigma about them being absent and set an example in fatherhood or mentorship,” according to this PsychCentral article.
“One of the things I remind everyone is our children are 50% of the father, 50% of the mother,” says Gorden. “If something is missing, our children are literally missing half of who they are…that defines and informs so much about their lives.”
He likened an absent father to trying to tell a person with one leg to run a mile, an analogy that stuck out to me. “Even if they run a mile or three and fashion something together that serves as a leg, over a period of time, their hips will become disjointed.”
Become an engaged parent
Black men must proactively banish the narrative of the ‘deadbeat dad’ and take control over the narrative by engaging with their children. (Friendly reminder: Even if a father is physically present in the home, it doesn’t mean he’s present with his children.)
Books like Black Fatherhood: The Guide to Male Parenting are a must-read, as they detail the importance of a Black father’s involvement with his children and the basic principles of good parenting.
In a recent blog post, I also covered several tips on how Black mothers and fathers can become more engaged parents.
Go back to your roots
Leaning into our cultural and spiritual roots is imperative.
“We’ve got to understand the power of education,” said Gordon. “But equally as important—and perhaps even more so—is we’ve got to get back to who we are as a people. And that’s a people who had a spiritual foundation and a spiritual grounding,…In spite of what people have done, this is a call to return to the greatness of who we once were.”
So what does it mean to be spiritual, anyway? Well, I thought you would never ask.
According to encyclopedia.com, the word ‘spirit’ find its origins in the Hebrew word rûaḥ and the Greek word πνεύμα. The basic meaning of rûah in the Old Testament is breath or wind and by extension, it came to mean the breath as signifying life and then spirit, mind and life principle.
It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, who said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Rûaḥ or spirit is the Seat of Human Experience, and the Hebrew traditions made the connection between strong feelings and their effect on respiration and breath. Thus, dejection, sadness, astonishment, anger, patience and pride are all expressed by corresponding changes in our capacity to breathe.
The absence of rûaḥ connotes the lack of vital force or life energy. All religions and spiritual journeymen acknowledge God as the life-giver. Life breath comes from Him and man lives as long as God’s breath remains in him. When God withdraws His breath, man and all flesh die.
We seek to know ourselves as spiritual beings. We seek to tame the mind and our responses to the events of this life. We seek to uncover the principles of life and align ourselves with them. We seek freedom from all that enslaves us and keeps us from remembering who we are.
If every Black father could remember who they are as spiritual beings, freedom would come to our nation. I have found that the fastest way to remember who we are is to go on a healing journey. This quest removes the veil of amnesia that stops us from knowing ourselves as spirit. Once the veil is removed, we pursue self-knowledge and God-knowledge and somewhere in the middle the two meet. A state of peace and love is the only place where we fully know and understand ourselves and the part we are yet to play in this world.
Historically, the village was part of raising our children and making us stronger. That all-hands-on-deck approach will help us usher Black males into a place where they can rebuild their role as protector, provider and priest.
I echo the thoughts of writer Kenneth Vaughan who in this article on five things he wants other Black dads to know, makes this bold statement: “More than ever, it’s important for Black fathers to emphasize their active role in cultivating our communities, partnering with each other to teach kids about our culture, becoming mentors, and creating a system to pave a new way forward.”
Looking ahead to the future
Let’s imagine, for a moment, what our nation could look like in the coming decades as Black fathers help rebuild what has been destroyed and be the change we seek in the world
I, along with Gordon, envision an evolution of manhood that returns men to their roles as protectors and providers—one where they own their mistakes, honour their partners and children, and seek to become better men (and better human beings). It will require a lot of healing, strength, courage and truth-telling, but I am optimistic we’ll eventually manifest a version of that future.
Perhaps this comes into play in a reimagined role as nurturer, where men literally catch their babies as they exit the womb.
Where they speak positively into the heart, mind and spirit of the child, envisioning a future far greater than what our current society has to offer.
Where they bring the community together in both traditional and exciting new ways.
Where they teach and pass on the wisdom of our kin and support networks.
To accomplish that, they must first lean into their own healing and responsibilities, rooted in culture. Only then can we truly prosper as a community and as a nation.
Listen to my entire conversation with Gordon by tuning into my podcast, Hey, I’m Listening!
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on who you’d like to see as a podcast guest, or any topics you’d like me to cover in future episodes. Connect with me today!