Fatherhood is simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. It offers a joy at being called upon to pour into a young life and the honor of that responsibility remains unmatched. At the same time, the fear of making a mistake and failing a young life is enough to stop even the strongest of men in his tracks. In many ways, most of us are stuck in between those two poles for most of our lives as fathers. For Black men, simply existing in a world that aggressively seeks to denigrate everything about you makes fatherhood particularly daunting. In the age of Black Lives Matter or Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Black fathers find themselves having all at once to grapple with the complexities race, history, and politics while trying to be naturally sensitive and caring fathers. Frankly, it’s enough to make you wanna holler like Nathan McCall.
For Black men in America today, fatherhood requires a special agility that others have the luxury of taking for granted. Black fatherhood in America is about the quality of presence and the necessary ability to constantly re-adjust, pivot, and balance, while remaining a consistent and positive force in the life of your child. I’m not an expert nor am I perfect, I am at least emotionally and psychologically comfortable with my daily commitment to trying to get this fatherhood thing right. I’ve come up with five maxims that have guided how I approach fatherhood as Black man living in the United States.
- Pay attention to the way you make your child feel
The best way I can describe this first maxim is by discussing the way I felt about my own father as a child. You see children at a very early age are beginning to look for how and where to situate themselves in the world. They are looking for important cues and the reassurance of a parent can be an absolutely critical component in the growth and development process for children. Whether it was the way he carried me on his shoulder into the hospital when I was stricken with severe malaria at nine years old, or the way he would calmly let me shampoo and cut his hair in the months just before his death, my father made me feel important. When a child feels important and/or valued by a parent, it generates a deep self-confidence, a sense of poise, and an ability to confront the world with bold personal clarity. As Black men, we have the awesome responsibility of preparing young Black children for the rigors of facing an increasingly hostile world. So do what you must everyday as a Black father to pay attention to how you make your child feel.
- Understand and accept that you are a teacher FIRST AND FOREMOST
My father taught me many things. In some cases I imagine there were intentional lessons and in others the lessons were unintentional. For example, my father loved fine clothes and jewelry, he loved fine cologne, and he loved fine Cognac. He kept his nails manicured and his hair was always shaped up. He paid so much attention to his style of dress that he earned the nickname “James Brown doctor” amongst his medical colleagues. Even with all of the attention he paid to his personal grooming, he was still Liberia’s only Osteopathic Surgeon in those years and the first surgeon to successfully perform an open-heart procedure in the country. For me, his was a lesson in personal grooming – an essential part of manhood, and it was a lesson the discipline of work. I also remember when my father took me to have my first tailored suit made. There was something magical for me about engaging in that uniquely grown up ritual of going to see the tailor and being measured for a perfect “swearing in” suit. Simply being there amongst other men with their sons made me feel important and it made me feel like I was a part of a special fraternity. Those moments taught me about self-pride but watching my father interact with the tailor also taught me to maintain the common touch and never loose sight of the dignity of work. Teach your children as much as you can because they are ALWAYS watching, listening, and learning even when you think they are not.
- Use every opportunity to help your child to surpass your personal aspirations for adulthood
The reality is that as times change, so too will the challenges and opportunities that life presents fathers. I have no doubt that the aspirations my father held as well as the challenges he confronted, changed as he got older and I stepped into manhood. Still, my father used every opportunity he could to instruct us in how to be better and more caring human beings. This was undoubtedly important to him because of his own very humble beginnings in a small village in rural Liberia where as a child he did not even speak English fluently. I remember the evening of April 14, 1979 as violent riots raged through the streets of Monrovia and automatic gunfire rippled through the air, my father gave my siblings and I some very important advice. Dressed in blood spattered surgical scrubs having just gotten home from ER duty, my father sat us on the front porch and instructed us to “always treat people with dignity and respect and never look down on anyone.” With the sound of gunfire as the backdrop, my father explained the roots of Liberia’s social upheaval, his own struggles with social discrimination and exclusion, and our personal responsibility a young people to ensure that we never become willing participants in a system of social and political oppression. Although I was only eleven years old, the lesson given by my father that night has stayed with me all of these years and has impacted all of my professional choices and personal relationships. As a direct result of that conversation and several subsequent one, I’ve spent my professional life working in the social justice space.
- Always remember to spend quality time with your child
As a kid, I was fascinated with soccer. In fact, before I discovered basketball and “Dr. J,” my heroes were Liberian soccer stars like Sekou Gomez, Patrick Teah, Tommy Manneh, Sarkpa Myers, David Momo, Forkay Nepay, and Solomon Sipply. I knew the names of all of the players of popular soccer teams like St. Joseph Warriors, Bame Sports Club, Invincible Eleven, and the Mighty Barrolle. This love of soccer was fueled by the love my father had for the game. Some of my fondest memories involve going to soccer games with my father at Liberia’s Antoinette Tubman stadium. As a doctor and a soccer enthusiast, my dad often volunteered his medical expertise as team physician for several of the soccer clubs. As “team doctor,” my dad was guaranteed free access to the games. I remember my Dad would walk up to the entry gate and simply announce, “I’m the team doctor” and the guards would respond with “How you doing doc!” With that, we’d enter the stadium and we always got to stand on the sidelines just next to or right behind the players. Understand, this was the equivalent of having your dad take you to games where you literally get to sit next to LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. My father would perch me up on his shoulders and that’s where I would stay for an entire 90 minutes of exciting soccer. Those were among the most exciting and memorable times I had with my father and I believe those memories positively shaped the man I am today.
- You are the blueprint for the kind of father your son will aspire to be
When I first learned that I would be a father, I did not immediately think about the pressures I would inevitably face trying to raise Black children in a world that under-valued them. In fact, when my wife told me she was pregnant (the first of four), all I kept thinking about was how much fun I wanted my child to have. I had an amazing childhood and I always wanted my children to have that same kind of experience. I also knew that I wanted to be an attentive and responsive father not only because that’s the way my own father was to me, but also because that’s what I experienced with all of the surrogate father figures in my life. Today I find myself using many of the same behaviors and gestures towards my children that my father used toward us. I play and rough house with my children because my father did that with me. To the extent that I am even a remotely decent father, it is because I have tried to follow the blueprint for the role that I received from my own father. Intentional or unintentional, my father set an example of what caring and attentive fatherhood looks like. His approach to fatherhood seemed effortless but it also showed that he cared and valued our thoughts and feelings. Being encouraged to express our thoughts, feelings, and opinions during sit-down Sunday dinner was one of the ways my father engaged with us but it’s also how he developed us. Challenge your children to think and to question. You are raising adults who will very soon have the responsibility of being citizen.
Lest I create the impression that fatherless men are doomed to fail at fatherhood, let me clear: While having a father is extremely important, not having one in your life does not mean you will never be a great dad. The basic lessons for being an outstanding father (protection, instruction, sensitivity, listening, guiding, and showing love) are all around us everyday. For some of us, the lessons can be found in relationships with other father figures in our lives. Those lessons can also be found by paying attention to life and all that unfolds around you daily. Think about the kind of future you want for your child and begin thinking about how you might help them realize that future. Committing yourself to that task is the first and most important step in being an amazing dad.
If you simply follow these suggestions with fidelity, you will forearm your child to boldly and self-confidently step out into a world and command respect. Even when the world refuses to treat them with fairness and dignity, they will not be deterred or discouraged because a father will have already given them sufficient social and emotional body armor.
Michael Sio Wotorson