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Francesca Royster

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To Obama: Try a Little Tenderness

Posted: 01/23/2013 2:45 pm

"Our journey is not complete until all our children from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

President Obama said these words in his inaugural speech Monday.

Now he faces the work of his second term, the president has positioned himself as both father and president in his inauguration speech, imperfect but committed to a journey that joins all of us. Whether listening to the parents of the children killed at Newtown, or expressing his anguish at the death of Trayvon Martin, Obama has used his fatherhood as the ultimate leveler. He shows us that he is both caring father, leader and one of us.

Given the history of images of black fathers in the country, President Obama reveals that we are still in the midst of a moment of extraordinary change in terms of race. But we are still not post-racial as a society, despite claims to the contrary. President Obama shows us that that positive images of black fatherhood are still rare in our culture.

Less than a week ago, the National Rifle Association used the image of President Obama's fatherhood as a means to split the nation. The ad suggested that Obama was willing to use Secret Service agents for the protection of his daughters, but not for the rest of Americans. Mainstream America is at times surprised, fascinated and even jealous of President Obama's treatment of his daughters.

Obama's public fatherhood opens up the limited ways that black manhood has been treated in our culture, and makes the claim for the full humanity of all of us as citizens. In mainstream America, there have been very few public images of positive black fathers.

Sure, Bill Cosby for a while was a standard bearer of fatherhood in the 1980's, but his image of benevolent, chivalric patriarch -- all-knowing, and unquestioningly financially secure, is one that anyone would have difficulty to live up to.

Since slavery, the image of the black fathers as absent, weak, or even damaging has prevailed.

In her book, Black, White and in Color: Essays in American Literature and Culture, cultural critic Hortense Spillers writes of the black subject as symbolically "twice-fathered" in the context of slavery. The African father's role as biological father was erased by sale, separation and murder, and replaced symbolically by the image of the white slave owner.

This "twice-fathered" state has given the black family an image of illegitimacy. More recently, a so-called crisis in black fatherhood has been linked to everything from a culture of poverty to black-on-black crime to homosexuality.

In Sen. Patrick Moynihan's influential 1965 report on "The Negro Family," he links what he sees as a culture of poverty in black communities to the rise of the black matriarch, and the marginalization of black fathers, who have been disenfranchised economically and socially. This theory not only blames the victims, but pits black mothers against black fathers, and fails to acknowledge the ways that black men, married or not to black mothers, have maintained connections to their children.

While the Moynihan Report has been disputed by sociologists and historians repeatedly, it still has strong persuasive power in our public imagination. We might think of the Oxygen Channel's proposed reality show, Shawty Lo's All My Babies' Mamas, which features rapper Shawty Lo's relationship with the 10 mothers of his 11 children.

The show has been the subject of boycotts and online petitions by The Color of Change and other organizations for its carnivalesque treatment of serial black fatherhood, and stereotypical depictions of black promiscuity. (Despite its recent cancellation, Shawty Lo insists though that the show is meant to portray positive fatherhood, despite the stereotypes.)

In contrast to these images, President Obama treatment of his children convey his every day stability and care: standing proudly with his family on inauguration day; showing interest in his daughters' involvement in sports and other extracurricular activities; and his concern over how much time his children spend on television watching, internet surfing or cell phone use.

From Trayvon Martin's killing to the Sandy Hook school shooting, Obama has reacted as a president and father, often moved to tears. "If I had a son," he told us, "He'd look like Trayvon." He also cried when greeting young staffers after the reelection, breaking the stereotype that he is cool and distant. "I'm really proud of you," he told the group of Chicago campaign workers, mostly 20 to 30 years old.

Ultimately, Obama's image as a father represents a politics of care that could be brought to other aspects of U.S. policy. He could use it to rethink the United States' use of drone technology as a tool of war, given its indiscriminate killing of children and other civilians, for example. Or to develop better policies for the psychological and economic suffering of veterans home from war.

President Obama's image as a protective, tender and compassionate father gives me hope for his second term.

As a father and as a president, Obama has humanized and deepened the image of black men. In all of the unforeseen challenges ahead in this second term, domestic and foreign, I hope he continues to lead with his heart.

 
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