laughing black father playing with children
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

“What it meant to be a newly freed Black man and a father in 1865 mirrors what it means to be a Black man and a father today: providing for and protecting your family, nurturing your children’s sense of self-worth and identity, defying stereotypes, resisting oppression, keeping the faith, and reckoning with the understanding, as Smithsonian Institution secretary Lonnie Bunch observed, that emancipation is ‘process that is still unfolding — not simply a day or a moment of jubilee.'” — Johnathon Briggs

In the 50 years since Father’s Day became an official national holiday, this is the second time it has fallen on June 19 — Juneteenth, which was designated a federal holiday just last year. While the timing may be a coincidence, the intertwining of the two holidays is an opportunity to reflect on the unique nature of Black fatherhood — both today, and on the day when Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to deliver General Order No. 3 informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free.

Among the many horrors of the “peculiar institution,” as white southerners euphemistically referred to slavery, perhaps the most agonizing was the wrenching of children from their parents.

“Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” a formerly enslaved woman told an interviewer from the Federal Writers Project in 1938. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”

After emancipation, thousands of formerly enslaved people placed newspaper ads hoping to reunite with loved ones. Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, an online database of these ads, calls them “testaments to their enduring hope and determination to regain what was taken from them.”

But the brutality of family separation as a means of maintaining white supremacy did not disappear with emancipation. Jim Crow took over where the slave auctioneer left off.

In 1965, a federal report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” commonly known as the Moynihan Report, popularized the enduring myth that absent fathers are the biggest obstacle to obstacle to racial economic and political parity.

The Moynihan Report is not just a classic case of blaming the victim, it is the original case. Psychologist William Ryan actually coined the phrase in direct response to the report.

“By focusing our attention on the Negro family as the apparent cause of racial inequality, our eye is diverted,” Ryan wrote. “Racism, discrimination, segregation, and the powerlessness of the ghetto are subtly, but thoroughly, downgraded in importance.”

In the decades since its publication, research has debunked not only the conclusion of the Moynihan Report, but its premise. Not only are missing Black fathers to blame for racial inequality, Black fathers aren’t even missing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of Black fathers actually live with their children. And, whether they live with their children or not, Black fathers are more involved with their children than those of other racial and ethnic groups — 70% were likely to have engaged in childcare tasks every day, compared with 60% of white fathers and 45% of Hispanic fathers.

The myths about Black fatherhood have never aligned with the loving and joyful experience that most of us know. I was blessed with a wise and loving father who was my greatest mentor and role model. I have been triple blessed to be a father to three children who are the source of overwhelming pride and unending joy. The ugly stereotypes of the past are being replaced with loving images of Black fathers pushing strollers, fixing their daughters’ hair, dancing, cooking and playing with their children.

The National Urban League wishes a happy Father’s Day — and happy Juneteenth — to every family as we take our inspiration from everyone working to create a better world not only for their own children but for all children.

Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

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