During the spring of 2012, I had an experience like no other. One that made me question, examine, and (re)define what exactly it meant to be a father in Phila.; within a society with so many, many new socially acceptable, expected norms. It was, in some ways, a rather pleasantly rewarding experience, while at the same time a humiliating one as well.
One weekend during the early part of June, I decided to take my son out to MLK Drive so that he could practice riding his new bike. It was something that he needed and looked forward to for quite some time. It also gave my wife a little time off; some very much needed, very much well deserved R&R from work, grad school, and duties of being a full time mother of a (then in the beginning stages) rambunctious two year old. I remember it was a seasonably warm Sunday morning, a couple of Sundays before Father’s Day.
Once we arrived I took him out of his car seat, his bike/big wheel out of the trunk, and walked over the East Falls Bridge to the closed off four mile stretch designated for bike riders. As we walked over the bridge, I saw a two year old boy that was both excited and nervous as he crossed over the Schylkill River; amazed by the reflection of the sun shimmering off of the water. We put on his bike helmet, went over a few things about steering, control, direction and peddling, then took off on a few trips up and down the hill so that he could enjoy the thrills of finally being able to ride his new bike. A much needed practice on becoming (more) independent especially since he was going to begin preschool during the fall, full time in a larger school setting. After about 25 minutes or so, a gentleman -perhaps closer to my parents age- pulled alongside my son and I on his road bike.
“Good morning. I’m glad to see that you (two) decided to come out here today”.
“Good morning”, I replied back. “It’s a good day to be out here”.
What he said next caught me by surprise.”How come we don’t do this anymore”? Since I was quite sure I had never seen this man before, I was hoping, assuming that the stumped look on my face would force him to recognize that I had no clue as to who he was, who he thought I was, and what exactly he was referring to.
“What do you mean”?
“Us. Fathers”, he replied. “You don’t see us out here doing these things anymore”.
I was confused particularly because there were plenty of fathers on Kelly Drive, on the other side of the river, and MLK Drive where we were doing the same exact things they were doing. Enjoying a seasonably warm Sunday morning with our families, riding bikes, jogging, roller blading, fishing. Moreover, they are usually always out here doing these same things every weekend. Perhaps for some this was a family outing that may very well be a norm, an expectancy, a time honored family tradition leading up to Father’s Day (weekend). A time honored family tradition that signaled the beginning of summer; a much anticipated time to spend with family. A much anticipated time for parents (particularly fathers) to spend with their chidren who were arriving back home after being away at school/college. A much anticipated time where their other children in elementary, middle, and/or high school would also be home -now that summer vacation began for them as well- trying to reconnect with those older siblings coming home from school, Peace Corps, Teach for America, or perhaps from their tour(s) of duty in the armed forces. Why was he not seeing this?
“A father and his two sons just rode past us as you were coming up”, I said.
“No, not them. Us (African-American fathers). You hardly see this anymore. Why? Where did we go wrong? What did we do wrong? Why aren’t we doing this (type of stuff) anymore”?
I did not have an immediate answer for him. I tried to think of something to reply back with that would make sense. I wanted to give a sound, logical, reasonable explanation that was acceptable; something that was perhaps true as well as untrue. After a few moments, I finally responded with something. However, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a (fairly) accurate, decent response to answer his question(s) that could truly be unbiased based upon his perception, experiences and mine.
“We started placing (more) value on possessions, fictitous lifestyles, fantasies, desires, and chasing dreams. Things (i.e. values, morals, principles, expectations, standards) aren’t where they once were, where they ought to be. We left them. We just left them alone for what we thought were better things I suppose’.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I just don’t understand it. Anyway, like I said, I’m glad you two came out here. Keep doing what you’re doing. Y’all have a great day.”
As he turned his bike around and proceeded back down the hill, part of me felt very pleased to have someone acknowledge my efforts for trying to be what I thought a father ought to be; what I thought a father ought to do; what I thought was a very common norm, an expectancy for any father, all fathers. While at the same time, I was (somewhat) confused, shocked, and disappointed that what he wished he saw, but obviously no longer did, was an all too familiar reality that has come to describe our heinous, hideous crime of negligence. Absent from the lives of our children both in the home and outside of it. Is it possible for us to be in the public’s view without seeking the attention, adoration, admiration, “congratulations” from others while being actively involved parents with/to our children like those other men from different nationalities and ethnic groups? How likely is it for us to simply be fathers not seeking “The People’s Choice Award”, merit awards/certificates, vindication, validation, nor glorification by default, dishonor, repudiate from those men who are not the fathers their children want and need them to be?
I suppose there was a prelude to this experience (forthcoming) when I was greeted by another older gentleman (around this very same time of year in 2011) before this one left its impression forever imprinted into my mind. As my son and I walked down a North Philadelphia street to attend Friday prayer (i.e. jummah), a man was making his way out of his home to perhaps take an early afternoon walk around the neighborhood.
As he saw us walking by his house he smiled and said, “Boy, you don’t see that anymore”! I was clearly clueless as to what he was talking about. I thought that it might have been our appearance as we both looked like we were going to some sort of exclusive event, engagement. In order not to assume anything I asked him what he meant. “Holding hands”, he replied. “You don’t see anyone holding their child’s hand anymore. Sometimes not even when they’re crossing the street”. Another flattering compliment that really (possibly) should be unflattering. An all too common abnormality that has become a way of life that no one from The Cosby Show era could have ever predicted, ever imagined.
How is that?
Why is that?
As I often reflect heavily, deeply upon what used to be from such an era, from those expectations, those standards, those norms, and those sought after realities, I am bombarded by the constant reminders by our modern day society and cultures that violently scream that you are/were simply living a lie; inside what’s probably best known as “The Matrix”. There is no revolution to come, nor reloaded utopia you/we once knew, had, want, and/or pray for. That way of life cannot, will not make its way back. This is the new, acceptable, welcoming reality.
It is this new reality that makes me yearn for yesterday. It is this new reality that invites me to live in, for yesterday. It is this new reality which causes me to vividly recall growing up in Hunting Park where/when the reality I once knew never showed any signs of departing. This (now) surreal place allowed, encouraged adults to take their rightful place (of authority) in their communities, in our society. All of the adults, both male and female, married or unmarried, young and old, looked after all the children on our block. This, of course, was well before neighborhoods became hoods because (now) nobody wants to be neighbors; (we’re) just animals surviving with that animal mentality and behavior.
Summers were filled with an enjoyable “edutaining” nurturing -from sun up til sundown- where porches were linked and lined with adults taking a sincere interest and liking in their neighbor’s values for life, family, education, work/careers, endeavors, ambitions, life experiences, etc. No relation by blood, yet more tight knit than their own extended families. And not only were the men and women actively engaged, participating in the lives of their children, but also to/with/for their neighbor’s children as we busily played games and rode bikes on the pavement below. While we were growing, maturing, and changing like the seasons, so did the parents, “our parents”, within the community who wanted a more fulfilling life for their children as well as for themselves. So, like any change -good or bad- separation or division becomes necessary for the much needed, desirable outcome to be achieved. This is especially true when many of the adults (mostly men) within the community unfortunately began noticing that they were being pushed into becoming a part of the shift within the labor force, the diminishing role of leader/provider within the home, within the community, within the American society that was (now) described by many of them as “The Era of Reaganomics”.
High rates of unemployment. Higher taxes for the poor. Lower taxes for the wealthy. Large numbers of manufacturing and service jobs moving overseas. The introduction of crack-cocaine to those living within the inner city.
This effected all of us to some degree. Some moved away. Some men were able to “weather the storm”, while others learned how to reinvent, re-establish themselves and withstand the brunt force of the impact. Then there were those who were simply overwhelmed, overmatched by the burden of trying to survive in the golden age of yesteryear, life after the post industrial revolution. And if that did not do away with them (completely), then perhaps it was the blunt force trauma delivered with a thunderclapping strike of inadequacy; incompetence; the newly emerging acceptance of defeat; forced to believe and live in/with/for a life of complacency that was mistaken for contentment. A man -”The Man” of the relationship, of the house, devalued- now was simply proving to be more of a hindrance or liability for his family, to the community. As a result, many men simply could not handle these pressures and (unintentionally) slowly began withdrawing from their obligations as a husband/provider and a father.
When unemployment widened, more and more wives and girlfriends who shared a child with their husband or significant other grew fatigued, impatient, and intolerant as 18 days of unemployment quickly became, 18 weeks, then 18 months of a constant, continuous burden and strain of carrying the family off of her $18,622 earnings/salary.
There were some men that understood this reality better than most, therefore they were much better prepared to make sure that neither they nor their families would ever live in, with such a reality. As I watched one of my closest peers become better equiped to fight such things through his father’s guidance, it never really dawned on me the magnitude of such lessons and how beneficial they were (going to be) later on in life. I saw a man, his father, that never complained, never consumed alcohol, never smoked, never cursed, never disrespect or annoy anyone. He was never the life of the party, nor was he ever not taken seriously. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but I never saw or heard about such ill things about his character. He was a man that provided for his family during one of the toughest economic times in our country, in our city. One of perhaps only three men that I have ever known that insisted his wife stay home and take care of the home while he made his living earning his wealth, their wealth to provide a stable and nurturing home that produced 3 out of 4 college graduates. One Ivy League graduate, and one perhaps on her way to completing her doctorate degree in __________________________ if she hasn’t already. And, let’s not forget about Dawn.
The oldest (or second oldest) child did just as well in his own right without a degree as he was almost like the man that raised him by providing for his (then) two children despite a relationship that took an unexpected turn leaving him one of the few men that are/were single parents.
At that time, this was uncommon, unheard of (at least for me anyway). This was as close to the modern day Cosby Show family that would/could escape from what was happening just around the corner from where we lived. My other peers and their parents/families where similar as we all fed off of each others success, but I’m not sure if we all had a similar education, blueprint, understanding of the reality of success and what it would/could cost in this era. As I saw this man work almost tirelessly to keep his son, my friend, close to him by giving him projects to complete that would interfere with our fun, this also aided him in his own education, studies, and ventures. No one else quite picked up what he was doing as he was preparing a young man to become an excellent provider for his family (first) before ever engaging in the act(s) of producing one.
As “The Era of Reaganomics” passed after two presidential terms in office, its lingering effects, philosophical approach to economics, the role of the federal government, passed legislation, and “legacy” continued on. Some men never recovered from those years, and so they became years lost. More and more men were commiting welfare fraud, tax fraud, false law suit claims, turning their homes into day and/or evening “speak easy” by selling corn liquor, opening their homes for after hours beting and gambling, becoming number writers for the street lottery system, and collecting social security (early) through false disability claims. There were also a large number of men becoming drug dealers/drug trafickers who were always “on the grind hustling”, and/or addicted to drugs (i.e. crack-cocaine), alcohol, and only knew of means to subdue the pain of having to resort to such extremes to make it in life by/through an overindulgence in having way too much of a good time, the finest jewelry, luxurious clothes, expensive cars, while trying to shatter Ron Jeremy like porn industry records (since the Mrs. was always exhausted from work and worrying).
And while some of them barely held on to their families, because “The Woman” of the house insisted that her child/children would/should know their father, hustling, grinding, and other lucrative crimes either slowed to a crawl or lead him in and out of prison throughout the early years of their child’s/children’s life. Also, there were those whose addictions, inadequacies, incompetence, and/or complacency went unchecked for far too long; encouraging, reinforcing, self-promoting and marketing this way of life. Fueled by neglectfulness, carelessness, recklessness, self pity that eventually -somehow- became arrogance, and a new sound and image coming from “urbanized music”, many men went off the deep end by committing crimes of assault to, for, with, against their wives/significant others. Even their own peers, their fellow “brotheren” became enemies to/with them. Now the entire community was suffering and in shambles.
Not long after this, wives and girlfriends had heard and seen enough. Figuring a way out to save themselves and their children by following the footsteps, the blueprint that aided so many of those that they knew way back when (before much of this started during the early years of “Reaganomics”) would eventually lead them to flooding into colleges and universities; more lucrative and stable careers. All the while we, the men, were being left behind to try and “figure this thing out so that I can get myself together”.
Some how, some way, some relationships were salvaged while others just simply worked out for the moment. “I’m not looking for Mr./Ms. Right. I’m looking for Mr./Ms. Right Now!” When individuals are connected by a(n) intimate past, children, it never really ends until one of them finally realizes they were making love to someone that was only lusting them. Casual sex eventually becomes nothing more than casual talk/gossip in bars, barbershops, and hair salons as men and women -both intentionally and unintentionally, consciously and unconsciously- share their stories, desires of penis jealousy (i.e. “why they always getting theirs and I don’t never get mines and I’m way better than them”) and penis envy (i.e. “I’ma be just like that, only better”) which dictates then navigates what life and relationships is (or should be), and for how much longer. Not long after casual sex becomes a norm, an expectancy at least three days/nights a week, it becomes the new (re)defining experience in determining “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. Casual accidents produce casual consequences which usually means they’ll/we’ll just simply have more casualities (or collateral damage) to answer for.
Meanwhile, the instability/fluctuations that naturally comes with hustling and grinding, in and out of prison, the addictions, inadequacies, incompetence, and complacency is rediscovered as the illusion behind empty claims and false promises are finally revealed. Time to move on… again? Already?
Now in the “Clinton Years”, some (women) managed to get a few things back that were lost, or what should have been in place already at this stage/age in their life. However, time and a decent childhood can never be replaced. Women then began substituting the loss of not having a reliable, stable male (figure) in their lives, and the lives of their children, by doing any and everything that made sure they’d never have a reason to think about what is, what was, what could be for themselves and their children. This way of life since then has not only become an expected norm, but a standard as many women today have become so disciplined against their own desires, their children’s safe upbringing without dissappointment from the failures of men, we have become alienated, foriegn. And as many of us try to get our families back by “going hard” into finding those legitimate, legal jobs that would reassure the seriousness of our efforts, the reality is they’re never coming back. Eventually hustling and grinding is all we know, all we can do, all we can afford to know because the cost of higher education comes at a much higher price than we are willing to pay.
But, that didn’t stop, doesn’t stop women from continuing to pursue such things.
That pursuit leads to the final “break up to make up” which ultimately creates the fitting example of why relationships fall apart, and why some fathers are MIA.
Our children eventually, essentially grow up never knowing what a father is or does. So naturally they never know what type of father they’ll become as no adequate male figure has been in their lives long enough to demonstrate, guide, and practice along with them in order to be that excellent provider and nurturer. This is why today there are the select few men in Philadelphia that over compensate (similar to the way that women have) by efficiantly performing dual roles -of the traditional mother and traditional father- so that their sons know what and how to do for his family, as does their daughters know what to expect.
I know this is especially true when one of my closest friends, a single father of two, sends me pictures of the first piece of furniture to go up in his new home; a dry erase board to teach his children. I know this is especially true when I see more and more men pushing strollers throughout the city while their wives walk along side of them looking, feeling confident that she has a complete husband. I know this is especially true when I see all of my peers that I’ve grown up with living in the same home with their wives and children. I know this is especially true when these select few have not allowed the “legacy” or excuse behind “Reaganomics” deter them to be anything else other than the father and husband they want their sons to be, and the father and husband they want their daughters to fittingly use as an example on what they can/should expect from the man she chooses to create and share a life with.