“It was the third of September. That day I’ll always remember. Cause that was the day, that my daddy died,” and so goes the song Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by the Temptations, a chart topping hit for the group released in 1973.
“It was the third of September. That day I’ll always remember. Cause that was the day, that my daddy died,” and so goes the song "Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone" by the Temptations, a chart topping hit for the group released in 1973.
As I sat down to write this column and typed today’s date atop the page, for some odd reason that song began to play in my head. It was especially odd because the lyrics are in such sharp contrast to the topic I sat down to write about: How Sen. Barack Obama’s selection as the Democratic presidential nominee should be viewed as a validation and confidence booster for African Americans. But instead the song continued in my head and the lyrics rang out like an indictment against Black men.
“I never got a chance to see him. Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him. Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.”
The song was about a Black man who shirked his responsibilities as a father, leaving his children wondering what his absence said about their own self-worth. Thirty five years ago, this imagery of a Black father unfortunately mirrored the experiences of too many in our community, and sadly it still does today. While it was a catchy tune, it contributed to the negative perceptions and wounded spirits that have dogged Black men – and strained their relationships with Black women–for decades.
That brings me back to Obama. On the night he delivered his acceptance speech last week in Denver, the Illinois senator referenced his own absentee father, a brilliant man whom Obama met only once as a child and would seek to learn more about as a young adult as he tried to understand his own unique heritage. Surely, by now, most Americans know Obama’s story and how his mother and her parents did all in their power to ensure that young Barack Obama did not become a statistic.
Last week, I stood among the nearly 95,000 people gathered in the Mile High City to witness the historic moment when an African American accepted a major party’s nomination for president. Obama’s speech was moving to many in the diverse and enthusiastic crowd. People understood the weight of that moment, which took place on the day 45 years ago that our beloved Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” on the mall in Washington.
Everyone was crying, but what struck me was the reaction of young Black men. Many of them broke down and wept; some were nearly inconsolable. Then, something amazing happened: Older Black men in the crowd stepped in like surrogate fathers and held these young men in their arms, tears rolling silently down their cheeks. They didn’t need words. There was an understanding between these men that their tears represented the pain of perhaps not knowing their own fathers; the pain of having the world view them as a threat; the pain of being misunderstood; the pain of not being viewed as a real man.
The power that moment symbolized took my breath away. I realized then that Obama winning the nomination meant something even more special to young Black men than it did for everybody else in that stadium. And what an awesome, inspiring evening it was: To see genuine love and mutual respect between Obama with his wife, Michelle; to see both a Black mother and father at the head of the family; and to see a Black man being uplifted in full public view was downright therapeutic to Black folks watching around the country.
If you felt validation and that, going forward, history will have to recognize the contributions of Black fathers, like mine, who did not abandon their families, you are not alone. And if your father was absent from your childhood, that doesn’t mean you are worth any less or that you are bound to repeat the cycle.
I took away from that evening a hopefulness that fills me with pride and strengthens my resolve to keep working to improve the lives of African Americans through our programs at the Chicago Urban League, to get our stories out there and to tell all of who we are. As a people, we can turn down the volume on the negative images that hurt our community and wound our spirits, and rewrite history with the strength of our own collective embrace.
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