While viewed by many as a controversial figure due to his statements on race, religion and politics, Malcolm X is less known for delivering powerful lessons about men, fatherhood and family. One of his lessor known (at least rarely quoted) speeches was on the responsibility of manhood:
It is imperative that a man works. Get off welfare, get out of that compensation line. Be a man, earn what you need for your family, then your family will respect you. They are proud to say that's my father, she is proud to say that's my husband. Father means you are taking care of those children. Just because you made them doesn't mean you are a father. Anyone can make a baby, but anyone can't take care of them. Anyone can go get a woman, but anyone can't take care of a woman. Husband means you are taking care of your wife, father means you are taking care of your children...you are accepting the responsibilities of manhood.
When listening to this speech or reading these words, one can only wonder about the context in which they were delivered, and how the dynamics of African American families were changing at the time.
A lot has changed since the 1960s, and the black family in America has reflected this change. Federal statistics have shown that 78% of black households were married couples in 1960, and this percentage would drop to 62% in 1980 (just two decades later). With the rapid change in families came an equally rapid change in expectations and gender roles. With less men in the home, more women went to work to provide for their children, or had to rely on public assistance to make up for the loss of income. An unfortunate consequence of this change in roles was also a change in attitude: With less men in the home to provide for children, came an expectation that fathers were not needed as providers.
Changes in the expectations of men is seen in many fatherhood groups, as well as father engagement programs. In an effort to encourage more fathers to become involved with their children, many fatherhood groups emphasize spending time with children over financially providing for them. The message about the importance of men spending time with their children is an important one. The time fathers and their children spend together helps with bonding and creates a lifetime of memories. Yet time alone should never be seen as a substitute for financially providing for your children. Reflecting on the powerful manhood lesson delivered by Malcolm X, it should be clear that he was not just talking about the responsibilities fathers have to their families (responsibilities to his children and to the mother of his children). Malcolm was teaching men they should never expect anyone else to provide for his children if he is not able to on his own.
The unfortunate reality is that most people will experience financial hardship at some point in their lives, and many men have found themselves unemployed or underemployed. Financial hardship can make it impossible for a man to provide for his family as he would like; however, this position is never one a man should accept or resign himself to. It should be understood that it can be emotionally devastating and shameful when a man can not provide for his children, and this shame may keep many away from their families. Fatherhood programs honorably try to address these feelings by demonstrating a man's worth is more than a paycheck; however, a healthier approach for the family may be to educate men on what providing for their families means.
In today's time not every man will be the primary wage earner for their family, but most can contribute to their children's needs in some way. If a father can not pay a mortgage or rent, he should aim to buy food for the household (groceries for the month or two weeks). If a father can not afford a car, he should try to at least buy clothes and school supplies for his children. If a father can not afford to provide health insurance for his children, then he should try to help pay for medical bills (if only a copay for his children to see the doctor). Fathers should help pay for their children's diapers and childcare (at least a week or two if he can't afford to pay for the entire month). When it comes to providing for our children, men should realize that something is better than nothing. We should provide what we can, while working on achieving the goals that will allow us to provide in the way we want to. As we strive to get more men actively involved in their children's lives, it is important that the necessity of provision is not lost. Fathers should provide for their children, restoring this balance will not only benefit them, it can also be healing for the family as a whole. In the words of Malcolm X, "When a man provides for his family, his children are proud to call him father...his wife is proud to call him husband. You are accepting the responsibilities of manhood".
Dr. Mark Echols has been working with children and families in both educational and social service settings for the last 16 years. He is a Fatherhood advocate and the creator of Black Dads: Changing the narrative on Fathers in the African American community on LinkedIn. You can connect with Dr. Mark Echols on LinkedIn.