This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

June 22, 2009

Imagining Black Fathers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:39 pm

This blog post is about a movie I saw recently with my 9 year old daughters, starring Eddie Murphy as a father who learns to love his young daughter—and in the process, rediscover his own humanity—via imaginary princesses in an imaginary world.

Or—

This blog post is about a young father I used to see at a bus stop in St. Paul, MN, standing with his toddler daughter in all kinds of weather, her pink and lavender Dora the Explorer backpack slung around his shoulder and his jeans hanging below his hips.

Or, this blog post is about the way that the MSM cannot get Black fathers right.

Well, all that is a mighty tall order. Let’s start with the movie and maybe I can work in some of the other points. This will be somewhat of a random ramble but I’ll see what I can do.

Imagine That…

If I told you it was a Nickelodeon film…if I told you it came on the heels of another movie about an adult male (starring another, this time White, comedian/actor) prospering at work due to the imagination of a child…if I told you it was yet another movie about divorced adults behaving badly and the children who must bring them to their senses…if I told you the female “lead” (and I use the term loosely as in this movie, like many starring men, the women do not have a whole lot to do) looked an awful lot like Mr. Murphy’s own ex… If I told you all that you might imagine that “Imagine That,” starring Eddie Murphy, would not be a movie you should go see.

I myself only saw it because the grandparents wanted to take the daughters and invited me to go along. I expected to get a few winks in the comfy theater chairs and wake up in time to agree with my girls what a good movie it was.

Instead, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off of the movie. I had been thinking a lot about Black fatherhood, see. And in this movie Murphy’s character is struggling with being a Dad. Struggling in a real way, I thought. He doesn’t “get” his daughter. She touches things and bothers things and piddles around when it’s time to go and doesn’t seem to listen to him. And she has a blankie that she refuses to give up, because it is her means to talk to her imaginary friends. All this is getting in the way of him being a superstar financial investment professional, in line to become the new boss—if only he can outperform a rival with a sexier ethnic heritage (American Indian) with unorthodox methods who the White higher-ups, colleague, and clients seem taken with.

That’s enough of a set-up.

BMW (Black Men Working)

The first thing that struck me while watching the Murphy movie was how infrequently in films we get depictions of upwardly mobile, well educated, high income Black folks who are just people. In some movies (cough***tylerperry***cough) upper income people are bad guys or sell out buffoons or symbolic of all that has gone wrong with The Black Community. In other movies they are merely the best friends or sidekicks to the main White character.

Remember when Eddie Murphy’s movie “Boomerang” came out? I remember reading a couple of reviews by White critics that lambasted the film for its lack of realism in depicting a virtually all-Black high income professional world. (I doubt that these same critics fault any of Woody Allen’s movies for depicting an all-White NYC, but that’s another story.) As if movies have anything to do with what is “real.” As if it is so hard to imagine Black folks with high profile jobs working with other Black folks.

I have been talking a lot about Black women in workplaces. I know that Black men have similar, but also different challenges with dealing with competing masculinities—White, other Black, and other non-Black men of color—at work. By now we have all heard of the research about “baby-faced,” non-threatening-looking Black men doing better as CEOs than other Black men.

I knew a Black man once who was a top executive at his university. Everyone knew him, as he had become kind of a public “face” of the institution. He once mentioned to me that when he is walking around campus after working out at the gym, dressed in t-shirt and sweat pants, the same White people who would readily say hi to him were he dressed in a suit or walking astride the president, did not even recognize him. In fact, they averted their eyes when they caught a glimpse of his big, tall, dark chocolate body coming towards them. He laughed off his comment. I did not know him well enough to be able to tell if there was anger or sadness or anything else behind the laugh.

I know another professional Black man. At first he was only the second “of color” person of any gender at his job. The first was a Black African man. Then a man from India was hired. An admin assistant said, “Have you all met? Now there are enough of you to have a minority association here!” Regarding the first-hired guy, this man was frequently called by his name. No matter that the first spoke with a Nigerian accent and the other, a midwestern pattern, or that the one was very dark skinned while the other was brown-skinned, one was very tall and the other medium height, one had worked there for years while the other only a few months. Oh, but they were both bald, so…

I suppose Barack Obama has a “baby face.” I have written here before how I believe he bends over backwards to be self-deprecating to put people (especially White people) at ease. That’s a lot of time wasted, IMO, that he could be doing other things with his personal energies. But he is well aware of what he has to do. People have a hard time imagining a Black man as a top advertising executive, or financial investor—let alone POTUS.

“Will you be my Daddy?”

I do not know what it is about male stars turning to family/children’s movies at critical points in their careers. But I must say, I am all for it. (Remember, this is coming from someone with two kids.) We’ve seen it with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with Adam Sandler, with Eddie Murphy, even with Ice Cube. In these movies these men are fathers, or otherwise are caretakers to children. They must overcome former tendencies—with selfishness, with workaholism, with womanizing, with partying—in order to “grow up” and “be a man.” The pathway to this personal growth is children. (Again, the women in these movies are largely absent or at least non consequential.) I have not seen anyone hailing these movies as tackling important issues of gender, or Black fatherhood, or anything else. But I think that is a mistake. I think these movies are trying to tell us something about how some men may be feeling about their roles at a certain point in their lives.

There is a song out that I absolutely despise. It’s by, I think, Twista—the cat that rapid fire raps—and features hook vocals by a  female vocalist. She sings, “I need a Daddy. Can you be my Daddy? …Come and make it rain down on me…” I am pretty sure that she is singing to a potential romantic partner and not a potential actual father figure. The song irks me for too many reasons to go into here. But I do think it points out a twisted (pun intended) view of fatherhood as a symbol. Only recently has a wider spread conversation started about the effect of fatherlessness on Black girls—after much public agreement from all quarters about its effect on Black boys.

Are grown women looking for “fathers” in their beds? Are grown men looking to be “fathers” to grown women who they are having sexual relationships with? From the song I gather that part of the role played by the potential Daddy is mainly that of protector, pleasure giver, and financial security blanket. So with at least two out of the three, we’re back to the upwardly mobile professional Black men. Our music is full of images of Black men providing protection and financial security through rapping and gray/black market entrepreneurship. No critics say that is unrealistic. We can easily imagine that. We do not have as many models for Black men being social fathers to little girls, providing that same protection and financial security. That is, I guess, harder for us to imagine.

As I mentioned in the intro, when I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, I used to pass by a certain bus stop early each morning as I drove my daughters to school. At this bus stop every morning, no matter how cold or how much snow was on the ground, was this young brother with a toddler-aged little girl. I thought about them and especially him every time I passed by. He was, as I said, young and Black. He was always dressed in the latest “urban” fashion: bubble jackets and sagging jeans and expensive looking sneakers, and baseball caps for every day of the year. If I saw him on the street without the toddler I would probably make all sorts of assumptions about him.

But there he was every single morning. Along with his fly gear, he also frequently sported the little girl’s backpack over his shoulder. At the stop light I’d watch him, backpack over his shoulder, holding the little girl’s hand. I would watch him and wonder why it is so hard for me to imagine someone like him. I do not know, actually, if he was the girl’s father, or older brother or uncle or whatever. I do not know where he went or what he did after he dropped the little girl to the day care center or child care providers or his mother’s house or her mother’s house. But for, probably, an hour or so each morning—whether it was 82 degrees or 20 below—he was this child’s protector and provider.

I try to superimpose the image of that young brother on other young brothers I see on the street, dressed in urban fashions and looking very un-baby faced even as I know they are practically babies.

Imagining Black Fathers

By the end of Eddie Murphy’s new movie, he has gained the love and respect of his (formerly) estranged little daughter. I have noticed that in movies with female leads about career and family, the women often have to give up one to have the other. But in movies about male leads seeking this balance, the one actually leads to the other. Eddie’s character has a new relationship with his daughter and becomes the big boss—despite acting in a way that is considered highly unprofessional (= not putting work first) in his workplace. I do not know how real this is for men. Maybe male work-family fantasies have not reached the same conclusion as women’s have—that “balance” is not incredibly realistic, or even desirable, or it at least involves a redefinition of the word.

(Or maybe we women are being led to believe that only we need to give up notions of balance all together and get back to being subservient to men. But that’s another blog post.)

Maybe in the next Eddie Murphy family flick he can explore both sides—Black men embracing fatherhood in their workplaces and Black women embracing motherhood in their workplaces. Or, even more worth the price of admission, maybe Eddie can co-star with Arsenio Hall or Adam Sandler as romantic partners balancing fatherhood and work roles—along with their roles as ex-husbands to women…and sons to mothers and fathers…all in the context of navigating their relatiopnship with each other.

Wow. Imagine that!

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6 Comments »

  1. Arsenio Hall and Eddie, shame on you PPrscibe.

    Your post was filled with so much meat that I felt just like I do on Thanksgiving, I don’t know where to start.

    Well, I have a bad habit of running my mouth so I’ll just pick a couple of items. One piece stood out to me.

    I agree, I black man in a young girls life is a defining factor in the development of that child. I might say even more than his affects on a male …very debatable.

    It’s a shame that we have to use **cough** tylercoughPerry** in every discussion about black Cinema.

    I loved they way you phrased the words for “sugardaddy” & “trick”. I can say those words but you can’t *lol*

    Comment by careycarey — June 22, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  2. I truly believe The “Tyler Perry” effect will be a class in college one day.

    P.S. Obama isn’t the only person that has to bend over backwards for white folks on the job. They higher you get the more cricks in your back…

    Comment by citizen ojo — June 22, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  3. As a man with his own checkered past regarding fatherhood, I am always visibly uncomfortable about conversations about Black Fatherhood.

    Invariably, the conversations always break down to a rehash of the daunting numbers of absent fathers and chronic babymakers on one side and Heroic father archetypes on the other.

    The reality is far more complicated.

    The fly cat with the Dora backpack could just as easily be standing their with his girlfriend’s child while his own child stares out of a window waiting for a daddy who will never show up.

    The vacant spot in a chantreuse’s heart that might lead her to serenade for a “daddy” might have been caused by a tragic death at war. and the “daddy” she sings for is merely a nickname burdened with a social construct oblivious to the songwriter.

    Unlike fiction (be it good, bad, or *coughTyler Perryesque*), getting to the truth behind the story is always going to be elusive.

    Just as elusive as truths on Black Motherhood.

    or White Fatherhood.

    Behind EVERY story of an absentee father is a story that has multiple sides varying levels of culpability.

    Comment by inkognegro — June 24, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  4. Carey, yes fatherlessness and girls I think is a huge—and still largely unexplored—problem. I have been meaning to read that book on the topic I linked to. Maybe I’ll put that in my summer must-read queue.

    Citizen Ojo, I hear you that President Obama is not the only one. How tiring that must be to always work to put other folks at ease.

    Inkognegro, I agree 100% about complexity. One of the other points this movie brought up for me was recognizing, at this point in my life, the multiple sides of important men in my life. How do I deal with competing versions if who these men are/were? I have had a post in draft form about my maternal grandfather about this topic since my old blog. It is a very hard thing to come to terms with let alone write about.

    I think for many a first step is recognizing that there can be another side, one that involves transformation from “bad Dad” to “trying to be better Dad”—and that middle class Black men can struggle with this along with their other roles. Some aspects of this struggle are familiar to all middle class men of a certain generation. Some are unique to Black men.

    I wish we could see more cinematic depictions of this. The Murphy movie was by no means perfect, but I think it did more than most in exploring this topic.

    Comment by pprscribe — June 24, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  5. Hi there!

    I don’t think that the white media understands black fathers because I don’t think enough black fathers out there tell their stories…

    Where are the documentaries by black men about fatherhood??

    Where are the news features on BET on black fathers? Black viewers have to DEMAND what they want! Isn’t that the excuse BET gave for keeping up the steady flow of debasement of black women? They claimed that the programming the offered reflected what the viewers were clamoring for.

    Well… we have a responsibility to CLAMOR for truthful stories about black men…

    Comment by BlackWomenBlowTheTrumpet — June 25, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

  6. BWBTT: Hi to you!

    Yes we do have to demand these stories. And hopefully they are stories that can be told. And we have to support them when they come out on the big or small screen, in print, etc.

    Comment by pprscribe — June 26, 2009 @ 10:49 am


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