As a man, I was saved by the realization, 14 years ago now, that despite a painful divorce, I wanted to be a father to my two baby children. The moment of recognition has defined me as something other, something better, than I was before I fed my baby son a bottle in my bachelor pad and deeply inhaled his smell as he fell asleep in my arms.
I don't often question how or why I had that awakening. To me, it was some kind of miracle. An act of God. A coming home to my true self in a way that is beyond my ability to describe in words.
But for Father's Day, I set out to think about what it would have been like if I hadn't had a father in my life--what it would have been like if, in fact, I hadn't in fact had a standard for fathering in my extended family that caused me to feel deep shame at my single-minded pursuit of my career over my responsibilities as a dad and husband.
What if I had been born poor with no dad or grandfather? Would I have had the same awakening? Would I have been able to turn my life around?
To get an idea of what it is like to be African American, young, and fatherless, I sat with three boys who are a part of Street Potential in Roxbury--a creative program designed by Trinity Church in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) to help boys committed to the creation of visual art and hip-hop music. The DYS does not allow me to identify them by name. Two of the three boys have girlfriends who were pregnant when we spoke a couple weeks ago. One of those two has become a father.
Who taught you how to be a man?
[I learned] just manly stuff--how to beat people up, like...get money to bring home any way you have to. Because honestly, when my father left, I said, I'm always going to be looking for a father figure. He didn't leave all my life, but when he left, he moved farther away...and when I seen him, it was...like once a week, and then it'd turn into once a month, and then...until this day, still like once a month. I wouldn't--yeah, just like that. It's the little kids--"Ooh, I see my father fight this dude. That must be manly." So--it's what it takes to be a man. Yeah.
I learned from personal experiences...and that doesn't make you a man because you're going to end up being locked up. And I want to be there for my son, and if I'm in jail, he ain't going to look at me like a man.
Does becoming a dad make you a man?
What kind of dad are you going to be?
How did your dad impact you?
I think without a father, the kid's always going to be looking for somebody like a father figure. It's human nature to...look for a father figure and a mother figure. Like you're always going to try to look for it somewhere. Sometimes kids go to the wrong person, and the wrong person teaches the wrong things.
When are you going to be a dad?
Are you going to marry the mom?
How are you getting along with her now?
I don't know how people could deal with a female when she's pregnant. It's like nobody's using their common sense, so you just got to manage the craziness. That's how I handle everything. I just manage...her craziness.
How about guys who leave their kids?
It's just selfish in my eyes. Like how do you bring someone into this world and you can't--you don't have the time to take care of it? I think that's changing with time, because like now that's frowned upon. Like nobody respects you for that.
What scares you about being a dad?
I'm scared of like, not knowing the answers to something. Like if my son has...a question or something and I don't know the answer. Not like, what's the capital of this? I'll tell him like straight up, I don't know. [But] like something serious, something he needs help on, and I don't know the answer to it, or I don't know how to fix it for him, that's my biggest fear.
I left the three boys sitting in the basement in Roxbury. I wasn't so sure whether or not I would have had my moment of grace holding my baby son if my background had been different. I hoped the guys I had been sitting with would somehow be touched somewhere deep in their souls by the feeling of their own child in their arms. The CEO of an organization that serves 14,000 young people in the city of Boston recently told me that every teenage father he had ever met talked a big game beforehand, but very few were able to follow through. That's why the cycle has continued without end.
Here's a Father's Day prayer that, in this case, fate is not true for these boys and that they form a bond with their babies that is strong enough to withstand the challenges that lie directly ahead; that in this case the cycle is broken.