Dreams of My Father

Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus last week and all I could think about was how vulnerable he is. Politically, he is a fierce competitor. There’s nothing about him that says “back down” and, even when he was hedging about whether or not he might run in 2005, his fire smoldered. He still strikes me, nevertheless, as a vulnerable man: pliable not in his manner but in his beliefs. Then again, I have a predilection for reading the people deemed “fatherless,” those people who primarily (for whatever reason) were raised by their mothers. This is not a discourse on masculinity by any means. I was raised by my mother and I feel it makes me somehow more masculine. But there’s a quiet sensitivity –perhaps even an air of capitulation — among the half-raised population. Billy Sunday of XXL Mag once wrote a blog about the effects of the fatherless generation of hip-hoppers, positing that the reason for Tupac loyalty was partly that he was an icon of the mothered children. Billy strayed dangerously off course when he insinuated the softness of that contingent. Although I’ll give him his credit for recognizing that children are susceptible to their parental influences, I won’t grant him the license to make sociological conclusions regarding that group. Still, Barack Obama is that representation and more. He employs some of the panache required to be a hip-hop spokesperson as well as the humility of a bruised boy from a Single Parent Home. Like Clinton before him, his origins play less like a sob story than an underdog drive, grind stones and all that. That’s why his campaign has taken an up-tick, surged for the dramatic. Not solely because of his oratory ebullience, but also because his story is that of a million other neglected boys and girls. When the underclass rises, it’s serious news.

In opposition to his triumphs from class dredges stands the two symbols of hip-hop fatherhood, Snoop Dogg and Reverend Run. Both of the aforementioned have a (staged) reality show which extols the necessity of fatherhood, all the while exposing the blissful ignorance of fathers long heralded in other campy shows. Reverend Run even delivers a neat moral at the end of each show to emphasize the importance of togetherness and completeness. Snoop Dogg carries on in his staged but avuncular manner, looking less like a traditional “Dad” than like the cool uncle who’ll let you smoke around him. You have Run representing the Cosby-fied, wholesome part of the binary and Snoop as the unorthodox, leftist millionaire. Run’s House is a far superior show, both scripted and organized by character appearance. Snoop Dogg’s FatherHood, I imagine, mirrors his life: a grand ride to riches with few regrets and fewer moral hang-ups. Competing ideas of fatherhood are nothing new for the television audience but black fatherhood has often taken on more of the former dullness, leaving Dad little room for ardent compassion.

It leaves me wondering what kind of dad Barack Obama is. Growing up without a father’s presence can leave an impossible hole in your heart. Obama betrays the image of a battered victim of absenteeism. The debate in the community of Obama sympathizers tends to fall on one of two predictable sides. One is the “maybe a black man can win and cure all evils” side, and the other is the “measured optimist-mostly pessimist set-him-up-to-knock-him-down too soon to tell” side. Although I understand the hopes and concerns of both, I can only look at him as a man composed of his origins. His white mother and black father came together to create a child with presidential ambitions, who fought through that biracial murkiness and some confusing times to become a symbol of blackness. Better yet, he’s a symbol of black manhood without touting his athletic skill or his ability to spit a hot sixteen. His triumph is neither imminent nor doomed, however. I have a planned meeting with my mostly absent father on his 60th birthday. If I’m bold enough, I’ll travel to see him in Florida and celebrate another year for him as well as try to mend some bridges that were long decrepit. At some point in his life, Barack Obama must have made peace with his father, however begrudgingly. Taking a page out of his book might lead me to greener pastures, to heights of black symbolism, to new representations of my manhood.

For that, I thank him for being powerful and persistent. The search for black father figures will remain harried in the black community unless more Snoops and Obamas begin to emerge with changing ideas of fatherhood. A father is not always the august, austere dictator of discipline. He is not the detached jovial patter on the back. He is one half of a complex equation. He must believe in femininity just as much as he believes in masculinity. Dad has some explaining to do.

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