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Friday, March 7, 2014 || By Michael Romain
During a panel discussion convened on February 28th inside of Village chambers by Isiah Brandon, Founder and Executive Director of Youth on the Move, a small crowd of mostly women discussed the plight of the missing father. However, the conversation quickly turned in a slightly different direction.
Rev. Dr. Michael James, the founder of HOPE (Helping Oppressed People Emerged) and author of several books, including one called ABSENT: The Assimilation of African American Males Into Nonbeing, both facilitated the discussion and recounted his personal experience of fatherlessness. Dr. James was born to a single mother, but raised by his older brother.
“At 12, going on 13, I distinctly remember my mother turning my brother and saying, ‘I’ve done everything I can with Michael. I’m turning him over to you now to become a man,'” Dr. James recalled.
That moment changed his life.
“I’m not saying that my mother couldn’t lead me into manhood, but there are certain things that only males can teach males…My mother was a mother par excellence, but she couldn’t be my father,” he said, before polling the audience to see whether any of them believed that single mothers could sufficiently substitute for absent fathers.
His question opened the space for a minor difference of opinion between him and one particularly prominent member of the audience–Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins.
“My mother raised my brother, so I do feel that a mother can be a father,” the Mayor said. “Our father was in the hospital and my mother raised the four of us off on 40 dollars a week. There were three girls, but my mother raised my brother, so I’ll have to disagree with you on that.”
The Mayor’s adamant point, however, wouldn’t sway Dr. James, the man raised as a fatherless son and who would raise his own two daughters as a single father. The double perspective seems only to have reinforced his belief in the importance of gender roles in child-rearing.
He said that he would braid his daughters’ hair and cook them hot meals, all while pursuing a Ph.D. and writing books. But there were some areas in which he felt more like an intruder than a protector. When his daughters reached maturity and began dealing with their menstrual cycles, he would call over female family members.
One woman in the audience who had been left to raise her nine nephews was faced with a similar predicament.
“I ended up becoming a guardian for nine of my nephews,” she said. “Once they got a certain age, I had uncles from Mississippi who came and took my nephews with them. All of them,except for one, ended up staying down there. Right now, they’re thriving and learning man things.”
The discussion on parental absence ultimately turned to the often fractured, messy nature of relationships between parents who are no longer together and their mutual vitriol, which inevitably ends up scarring their children.
“I see so many people, children and adults, who can’t get past the father-mother fights,” said one audience member. “At some point, whatever was unresolved, the child was in the middle….and the loyalties should not be divided like that.”
Dr. James recalled his own fraught relationship with this ex-wife, which took more than a decade to mend. He said that his daughters were his ultimate motivation to heal the past hurt.
“When my children’s mother got sick, I went to the hospital with flowers….I hadn’t slept with her in 12 years. Do you know what that did to my daughters?” he said.
“I called my wife seven years after the divorce at five in the morning one Saturday and asked her to forgive me, whether what I did wrong was conscious or unconscious; whether what I may have resulted in the failure of our marriage or not….I wore her out [with my contrition] to the point that she hung up the phone in anger. I called her back and said, not until you forgive me. I said you, myself or the girls cannot go forth until there’s healing…I think that’s what’s wrong in the black community. We’re not creating space for healing.” VFP