There are too many missing black fathers. That is what Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, told a black megachurch on Chicago’s South Side. It was Father’s Day, and Obama was at once preacher and campaigner. Introducing himself as “at home” in the church “with my girls,” Obama condemned those black men who ignore their responsibilities, specifically, their children. He cited statistics—how likely it is that children raised by single parents will live in poverty, commit crime, drop out of school, end up in prison—and he moralized: “What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child; it’s the courage to raise one.” Instead of watching sports on television, Obama intoned, black men should get involved in their children’s lives. The nation’s foundation is strong when there are fathers present.1
Obama’s remarks are part of a conversation about black fathers that has been in and out of the public spotlight for the past half century. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously offered Lyndon Johnson a way to switch from defense to offense on civil rights issues by shifting the terms of the debate. With legal mechanisms for racial equality established, the most pressing issue requiring national attention, according to Moynihan, was “the Negro family.” Like Obama, Moynihan mixed statistics and moralizing, making the case that the absence of black fathers impairs the economic health of the black community and threatens its moral fabric. Between Moynihan and Obama, such criticisms have been echoed with more or less nuance by public figures—usually middle-aged black men—ranging, in recent years, from Bill Cosby to Louis Farrakhan and Cornel West.2
These criticisms resonate strongly with some black Americans, particularly those who are more religious. As these criticisms pass into conventional wisdom, the reason that black fathers are absent is often forgotten. That slavery and white supremacy set the course leading to these current family structures is not mentioned; only individuals, the missing black fathers, are condemned. Critics on the left point this out, and they argue that families can thrive in many configurations. For these critics, talk about absent black fathers merely serves as an excuse for white intervention, for helping hands that historically have done more harm than good.
This recurring debate about black fathers overlooks a connection that Obama makes as his speech concludes. The soon-to-be first black president pivots from black fathers to the heavenly Father. Black fathers can strengthen foundations, but ultimately “we keep faith that our Father will be there to guide us, and watch over us, and protect us, and lead His children through the darkest of storms into light of a better day.”3 So what can be learned by tracing and interrogating the connection between earthly and heavenly fathers, which has deep roots in the social imaginary, particularly in the African American social imaginary?
We might immediately note that there has also been a long tradition of black reflection on the absence of the Father, particularly on the apparent absence of God during black oppression. Spirituals worked through the problem of theodicy in words and sounds. Towering black intellects including David Walker, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. took up the apparent absence of God—a problem pithily summarized in the title of William R. Jones’s 1973 book Is God a White Racist? And then, instead of responding to God’s apparent absence by pointing to the unbridgeable divide between heaven and earth, more recent proponents of black theology, from James Cone and Albert Cleage to Emilie Townes and Katie Cannon, argue that God is very much present and active in a world of racial injustice. God stands with blacks, fighting for the oppressed.
Black intellectuals have developed sophisticated resources for understanding what it might mean for father to be present despite his apparent absence. This is in contrast to the all-too-easy call for presence, of fathers or Father, witnessed in Obama’s speech and elsewhere—for example, in Beyoncé’s saccharine “Daddy,” with its refrain of gratitude to a father for providing unequivocal acceptance and “security,” for taking “responsibility,” punctuated by a call to the Lord. Likewise, the public conversation about black fathers in the United States implicitly likens fathers to God but fails to grapple with the apparent absence of God in much of the African American experience. Discussion of black fathers would thus be enriched by listening to black reflections on God. Similarly, a historically nuanced examination of black fatherhood demonstrates the ways in which the forces of white supremacy, from slavery through mass incarceration, have undercut the role of the black father and have opened new black kinship structures. Black theological reflection could learn from such studies of black fatherhood how white supremacy attempts to cut off access to the divine, and it could learn strategies for resistance.
The problem that I am most interested in, however, is deeper. I want to know what gods and fathers have in common, at least in our social imaginary. They are authorities, sources of norms. They transmit knowledge of what ought, and ought not, to be done. The imagined role of the father is to teach the child right from wrong, what to do in this circumstance and what not to do in that circumstance. More broadly, the father is to give the child a moral compass so that when a new circumstance arises, the child knows what ought to be done. Likewise, God gives laws. He gives commandments. The ultimate authority on the rightness or wrongness of a course of action is God, and it is our task to discern God’s view on such matters through our examination of what he has given us, the Bible and its tradition of interpretation. Again, this is at the level of the social imaginary.
The broader problem to which fathers and God point is that of moral epistemology: How do we know what to do? How do we know how to live? This is the “foundation” anxiety which Obama speaks about—what is the foundation provided to us by God and by fathers? When fathers are absent, sons and daughters run astray. Immorality ensues in the form of drugs, crime, and irresponsibility. Cornel West famously labeled this the problem of “black nihilism,” the social disorder that results when authorities are absent or absented.4 Turning to black accounts of an apparently absent God responds to this worry. If God is the source of norms, but white slave owners or a white-dominated legal system is policing and enforcing those norms, how are blacks to live? Specifically theological responses to this question have been offered, but it is not a specifically theological question.5 It is, in its essence, the question that defines blackness.
The experience of blacks in America has consistently involved a severing of paternal authority; understood broadly, as it should be, this means that the agents of white supremacy have severed black authority. Regardless of whether we are speaking of enslaved black children who are sent an ocean away from their fathers, black children who witness the daily humiliation of their fathers under segregation, or black children who see their fathers only in the prison visiting booth, the black father is prevented from acting as a source of norms, prevented from fulfilling the role of father. In each case, the father stands metonymically for the black community, for black tradition, for a universe of norms implicit in history and stories and shared practices. The normative universe of Africa was lost in the Middle Passage, and whatever normative universe re-formed in African American communities was always responsive to, and ultimately undercut by, the world of white norms. The norms put forward by the black father, or the black teacher, or the black church, or the black newspaper could at any minute be voided by white authority.
This special, precarious status of the black normative universe also, crucially, affects the relationship of the black present to the black past and the black future. Instead of the father transmitting norms from past to present and present to future, there can be no smooth pathway through time on which norms pass when the figure of the father remains always already undermined. The aspiration to become a father in both senses, to embody the best values of the past generation and to cultivate the best in the next generation, has no force when the overwhelming power of whiteness trumps the connection with the black past and the hopes for a black future—the connections with the black father and the hopes for a black child. This peculiar normative universe, all shadow and no substance, is what ultimately defines blackness.
In contrast, it has become popular, of late, to define blackness as an exclusion from the realm of being, where the realm of being is defined by whiteness in law and in political and social institutions but also in the way we perceive the world. In this view, no amount of policy change or protest will have an effect until Western ontology, dependent as it is on the foreclosure of blackness, is transformed. This view strikes me as quite mysterious and not particularly helpful. I agree that it is essential that we recognize the distinctiveness of antiblack racism. It is not merely one more color in the racism rainbow, next to anti-Latinx racism, anti-Asian racism, and anti-Semitism. But what makes antiblack racism unique is not that its instances are symptoms of a deformation high in the metaphysical sky. Rather, antiblack racism is unique because there is no black normative universe transmitted from generation to generation. Antiblack racism is the continuous undermining of a normative universe, which means that blackness is precisely the status of having a normative universe continuously undermined, the status of having the father’s authority always already undermined, the status of having faith in an absent God.
Leading black intellectuals have persistently pondered the problem of the black normative universe and its intergenerational transmission. W. E. B. Du Bois’s most poignant passages in The Souls of Black Folk concern the death of his son and the way his hopes for the future are crushed as whites cry “nigger” during the funeral procession. Du Bois precedes his lament for his son with a chapter on “The Faith of the Fathers,” documenting the religious practices of past generations of African Americans, with a particular focus on the pathologies in those practices. For Du Bois, it is impossible for blacks to become fathers, to embrace the normative order of the past, or to transmit a normative order to the future. Du Bois identifies the essential problem of blackness and stays with it in Souls, refusing a solution. Indeed, the answer to the question, What characterizes the souls of black folk? is the status of having one’s normative universe always already undermined. The only hint at a solution that Du Bois offers is his gnomic affirmation of “a hope not hopeless but unhoped for.” When norms cannot be transmitted from one generation to the next, it makes no sense to attempt to mold the next generation into the image of the present or to mold ourselves into the image of our fathers.6
Other black intellectuals identified this fundamental problem of blackness and did offer solutions. Anna Julia Cooper committed herself to educating children and working adults and to raising five adopted children. Born in the last days of slavery, she did not know her father’s identity, but she suspected he was her enslaved mother’s owner. Cooper’s husband died shortly after their marriage, and she never remarried. She could not transmit norms in the way expected by whiteness and patriarchy, but she persisted in the attempt nonetheless, living outside of a conventional family structure. Martin Luther King’s teacher Howard Thurman titled his most powerful meditation on the Christian tradition, published in 1949, Jesus and the Disinherited. The title suggests that to be black is to be orphaned, to be without father—a metaphor that would later be extensively probed by James Baldwin. Thurman offered a solution to the problem of disinheritance: God.7
Baldwin, like Du Bois, would resist solutions, or he would see the work of writing, of probing, of thinking and feeling and imagining without solace as the solution. Baldwin’s most famous text is, significantly, a letter to his nephew, which indicates that transmission can only be indirect if it to be properly black, if it is to accept the mysterious essence of blackness. Ta-Nehisi Coates misses this point entirely in his Baldwin-imitating letter to his son, Between the World and Me, illustrated with father-son pictures romanticizing the purported transmission of black tradition, framing Coates as an authority in that tradition. Indeed, Coates’s memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, is a coming-of-age story that tracks the author’s resistance, then embrace, of his father’s Afrocentric convictions. Once the young Coates accepts his father’s values, he becomes a man—he can then later become a father himself. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father follows the same pattern, except Obama becomes a man through the journey, through the search for his father, which culminates in an African expedition. Thurman resolves the problem of blackness with a heavenly Father, whereas for Coates and Obama the problem of blackness is resolved with earthly fathers. Henry Louis Gates has recently popularized another resolution: genetic testing of blacks to prove paternity scientifically.8
In short, concern about the black father is a symptom of the problem of blackness itself. There are two responses to the problem of blackness. Either a resolution can be proposed or the problem can be taken as irresolvable. I label the former response idolatry. I charge that proposing a resolution is a white response to a black problem. In the white world, where there is a robust normative universe passed down from generation to generation, this process of transmission is not without struggle. As Sigmund Freud imaginatively depicts it, sons aspire to kill their fathers, to take their positions, take what is theirs, and become fathers themselves. Much of Western literature is animated by the challenges involved in struggling with and then becoming a father in one sense or another. These fathers need not be biological fathers; it is the normative order as such that the young man enters into, through travails. Coming-of-age involves realizing that the father is merely human, fallible, vulnerable; in other words, it involves realizing that there is a gap between the normative universe created by the father and the normative universe as it exists in society at large. The challenge of growing up is to navigate this gap between the father’s norms and the world’s norms. Personal growth can resolve this challenge, or some supplement can help, an ideology that gives the social world the same stability and legibility as the world governed by the father. Institutional religion, nationalism, aesthetic romanticism, and traditionalism offer such supplements. Literature—the republic of letters—offers another option. In any case, the challenge is to find the best means to move from the small, stable world of the father’s commands to the world at large. But this only works in the white world.
In the black world, what matters is not the path from father to society at large because society is always doubled, black and white. The black father will necessarily fail in the task of initiating the child into the normative universe because the black normative universe, like the commands of the black father himself, is always subordinate to the white normative universe. To come of age as black in America means to enter a black normative universe while also realizing that this universe is ultimately hollow, subordinate to the white normative universe. This, again, is the problem of blackness.
Those who would offer a solution to the problem plot the black bildungsromanfollowing white conventions. They depict the challenges of a transition from omniscient, omnipotent father to social world, and they hock supplements to ease that transition. Self-discovery, discovering Africa, or discovering a friend in Jesus can ease that transition, offering a new sense of security beyond the security of the father. But these tactics will fail. They will fail just as surely as the black father fails, for the father never offered any security to begin with, undermined as he is from the start by the white world. Worse, they offer false confidence, and they ultimately conceal racial domination. This is why I call them idols: they attract our attention and hold it, offering us the pleasure of confidence and security while evading the painful realities of life in the world and the doubled pain of life in a shadow world.
Just as the role of black father is undermined by white authority, the role of God is also undermined by white authority. This, however, is not a bad thing. In fact, it is theologically wonderful: it is a way to cleanse worldly contamination from our understanding of God. Yes, the norms of the white world run counter to the norms of God. In the Christian story, this is how it has always been: it was the norms of the world that led to the death of Jesus. Recognizing a correlation between the norms of God and the world would entail a fundamental misrecognition of the nature of God. Moreover, it is not just a norm or law here and a norm or law there that runs counter to God. The norms of the world are systematically awry—that claim is fundamental to the Christian story.
This is the truth that the black experience and black fatherhood model. The authority of the black father, and of black tradition, are but shadows. They have the outline of authority, but their force is absent and their substance remains largely indiscernible. This is how the Christian tradition, at its best, relates to God: there is but a shadow of God’s authority discernible in the world. Yet Christians are still tasked with acting rightly and avoiding evil. How can one act according to a standard that remains fundamentally hidden? This is but a rephrasing of my earlier questions: How can the authority of the black father be respected in a white world? How can the tradition of blackness be embraced in a white world?
Recall one of the cornerstones of black liberation theology—the epistemic privilege of the oppressed.9 The claim that God is black does not only mean that God identifies and sides with those who are the most disadvantaged; it also means that those who are the most disadvantaged are the most likely to properly understand God. They are the most likely to see through the distortions of the world more generally. Worldly power conceals itself, spreading untruths and ideology that make domination seem natural. But for those whose lives are most affected by domination—in the context of the United States, blacks—these lies are unsustainable.
That is, I am suggesting here that there is another way to understand the epistemic privilege of blacks. Rather than having to do with knowledge of the world, such epistemic privilege concerns what ought to be done in the world. More often than not, what ought to be done is taken to be what has been done before—what ought to be done is what was done by our fathers. Yet for blacks, with the black father put under erasure by white supremacy, this is not an option. It is clear that doing what the black father does and doing what the white world does will result in doing what is wrong, bringing reprimand. It is clear, too, that any aid, any idol, that purports to stabilize the normative universe will be of limited use.
This is not to say that all, or most, blacks reflect in abstract philosophical or theological terms on the question of how life ought to be lived. Indeed, because this question is so pressing, because the abyss it opens so terrifying and the stakes in a context of white supremacy are so high, the incentive to take a shortcut is great. One set of shortcuts are those of idolatry: adopting a package of norms offered by the world as absolute. Take, for example, those norms given in church or mosque, in the world of those striving for respectability, in science or pseudoscience, or in the code of the street. Another shortcut is to reject the desire for a normative universe altogether and to embrace a life of dissimilation—doing what one does when among white people, doing what one does when among black people; doing what one does when among rich people, doing what one does when among poor people. The trickster’s play with language and rules is a reminder of this, saying two things at once, pursuing desires by means of cunning instead of truth. The lives lived by most real black people are, most of the time, located somewhere between the idol and the trickster, embracing each at certain moments, in certain spaces.
The greatest opportunity for thoroughly interrogating this problem—norms’ provenance and authority—and generating new responses lies in the representation of black life by black artists. I mean artists in the broadest sense. I am referring to those striving to produce and participate in beauty whether through music or dance or writing or scholarship or a grandmother’s wisdom. Among those black artists striving to be ordered by beauty, which means striving to be ordered by God, we find resources for grappling with impossible authority. Ralph Ellison. James Baldwin. Audre Lorde. Alice Walker. Tookie Williams. Samuel Delany. And this is just to begin to name the writers who invite us to think of black fatherhood aesthetically. When we do so, the significance of gender and conventional family configuration recedes. What matters is a commitment to that which is perpendicular to the ways of the world, a commitment to challenge those idolatries that elevate worldly things to ultimate import, a commitment to beauty which necessarily eschews simplicity. This is what the figure of the black father represents, and this is why public figures from Moynihan to Obama are so concerned with eliminating these potentialities, with understanding black fathers as white fathers, with reducing fatherhood to worldly terms. Embracing black fatherhood, in its fullest sense, is indeed risky, but this is simply the risk of aesthetics—and the risk of life. We must judge without rules, discerning the bad from the good and the good from the extraordinary. We must attempt to act rightly, knowing that we will never find confirmation of the rightness of our act in this world and knowing that there will be plenty of friends, neighbors, officials, and even family members who tell us that we have acted wrongly. But we are carried forward in our actions by a commitment to an authority greater than the world’s, to the authority of beauty yoked always with goodness and truth. This is faith in God the black Father.
- Obama, “Obama’s Father’s Day Remarks,” New York Times, June 15, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/us/politics/15text-obama.html.
- Moynihan,The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965).
- Obama, “Obama’s Father’s Day Remarks.”
- West, Race Matters (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1993).
- See, for example, the work of Emilie Townes, Kelly Brown Douglas, and M. Shawn Copeland.
- Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg, 1903).
- See Cooper, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998); Vivian M. May, Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007); and Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (New York, NY: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1949).
- See Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015); Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2008); and Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York, NY: Random House, 1995).
- See, for example, James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1970). On epistemic privilege more generally, see José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).