Wednesday, October 19, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: In his essay "I Was My Father's Father, and He My Child": The Process of Black Fatherhood and Literary Evolution in Charles Johnson's Fiction" William R. Nash writes about the fatherless males in your work. This seems far from your personal experience and life. Since this theme appears in some of your early work can we conclude that you would not write about it today?

When I was growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 1950s, I was one of the few black kids in my neighborhood who had a father (and an excellent one, at that). Many of my black friends were being raised by single mothers. This was an extraordinarily painful social situation then, as it is now. I remember talking with one of my best friends about our future dreams just before we graduated from high school. He was a good kid, always joking and cheerful. But that day, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of my father's house, he confessed that he feared he wasn't smart enough to go to college. And then he said, "I don't even know who my father is." I was at a loss for words. Clearly, this confession hurt him. It was something---a burden, a pain, an ache---he carried every minute of every day, but never spoke about. (That friend enlisted in the Navy after we graduated, then became a minister.) Decades later, when my daughter brought one of her boyfriends by our house for the first time to meet my wife and myself, that childhood event was echoed when this young man said (later to my daughter) that ours was the first house he'd been to in his thirty years of living where there was both a black mother and a black father.

Seventy percent of young black children today have no father in their homes. As newspaper columnist William Raspberry once put it, this is no longer a "problem." It is a condition. I remember talking once with my former editor at The New York Times Book Review about the plays of August Wilson. After some discussion, it became clear to both of us that the play August always wanted to write---but didn't---was one about the anguish he felt from childhood caused by the absence of his white (German) father from his life. ("He wasn't around much," was the way August put it, bitterly.) Why he didn't write about that is understandable. It's too painful. I remember, too, once giving an interview to a white woman reporter in my office in the English Department at the University of Washington. At some point during that interview, I mentioned my childhood and my father. And what did this woman say to me? "Oh! You had a father?" Pardon my English, but I've long regretted the fact that I didn't bitch-slap this person right then, right there, when she said that. I should have kicked her out of my office. (She was very lucky, believe me, that I try to live my life non-violently as a Buddhist. But remember: I grew up in the environs of Chicago. Bitch-slapping was a thought that crossed my mind but, thanks to vipassana and being raised right, I let it go to maintain Right Action and Right Speech. Black Buddhists have to practice such restraint in the white world all the time.)

Because I did have a strong black man as a father, one who was the most moral man I've every known. Who loved black people. Who taught me how to work, be a man, and take care of my loved ones. I thanked him all my life for that gift. The gift of his example, which I grew up seeing night and day. (Today, my South Carolina relatives remark all the time about how uncanny it is that I look so much like him, that they often think they're talking to my late Dad when they're talking to and looking at me.) But so many of our young black men today do not have their biological father living with them or significantly present in their lives. I've written many times, and in many places, that this situation profoundly destabilizes the black family. And that destabilizes the entire black community. 
Just yesterday, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. of the The Washington Post, wrote in his piece "A Bargain For the American Family," that "The impact of the single-parent family on the well-being of children has sometimes been an explosive matter because it is often discussed in relation to the African-American community. Obama himself has made this explicit link...'We know that children who grow up without a father are more likely to live in poverty...They're more likely to drop out of school. They're more likely to wind up in prison. They're more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They're more likely to become teenage parents themselves.' Growing up without a father (Obama said) 'leaves a hole in a child's life that no government can fill.'...Black men do face a crisis...It does not demean the heroic work of dedicated single mothers to say that two-parent families have a better shot at prosperity."

 So, yes, in my fiction I've often grappled with this problem that is so raw, so  intractable, and so old that we usually prefer not to even speak its name. Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage and both Matthew Bishop and Chaym Smith in Dreamer have never known their fathers. I've always wondered: How can you honor your father if you don't know who he is? How do you determine, then, who you are? Believe me, I will return in my fiction, today and tomorrow, to this genuinely dire sociological and existential characteristic---the Absent Father---of black life in America, because nearly all of our problems as a people can be traced to it. It was a problem that I did not have, personally. But it has left a deep scar, a wound, on so many black people, male and female, that I've known in my life. Actually, if we cannot repair this generations-old problem, then I am not optimistic about the future of black America.

1 comment:

  1. A most moving piece. I've long thought the powerful representation of the black fathers in the Evanston sections of "Dreamer" depends upon Johnson's own experiences of his father. Ernest Gaines is another who writes movingly and perceptively of this condition.