This is an excerpt from "Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. Which was a chapter that I wrote in Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.).
In any beginning counseling course, one of the first things that a counselor in-training will learn is the importance of providing the clients that we work with an unconditional positive regard. Rogers (2007) explained that unconditional positive regard refers to the act of placing one’s personal feelings aside, and providing a non-judgmental environment for the client to grow within. This concept seems to provide a useful frame for understanding the environment that my father provided for me, as I developed and grew into a man. Over the course of my life, I cannot recall a time when my father made his love contingent upon any particular choice or achievement that I might make. Even when he was unhappy with a particular aspect of my behavior, or when we disagreed, or even when life events pushed us apart, my father never closed himself to me. There was, in fact, no time in my life that I believed that my dad did not care about me.
One major way that my father was able to provide this non-judgmental environment was in the way that he buffered me from the judgments of the outside world. Both he and my mother were zealous defenders of their children, in public. Parham et al. (1999) discussed the tendency for black children to find themselves in educational settings where they are expected to do poorly. Boyd-Franklin (2003) explained that black children who attend majority white schools can be exposed to educationally and socially challenging situations around being “the only one.” These descriptions ring true in terms of my personal experience of one of few black children who attended the predominately white schools that were available in my neighborhood. Though there was little that my parents could do about the social challenges presented by my white and Asian classmates, my parents were able to stand between me and the more institutional level threats.
While in elementary school, there were a number of times when my mother and father were forced to assert their selves in my defense. Earlier in this chapter I alluded to the need for a black boy to know how to defend himself, living in a predominately white neighborhood. Though I would not consider myself a person that is prone for physical altercations I found that, between grades three and seven, some of my peers refused me the choice. This became more problematic, in that the administrators at my elementary schools had a tendency punish the person that they see first, and not necessarily the one who started the fight. My parents took exception to this unofficial policy and on multiple occasions, my father visited the school in order to insist on a more fair approach. This is not to say that there were not consequences to be had at home; it was just that my parents refused to let me be mistreated by the school. Boyd-Franklin (2003) explained that black parents who make a habit of insisting things to school personnel could be labeled as trouble makers. From my teacher’s reactions, I believe that this label was given to my father. Lucky for me, he did not care.
Along similar lines to social institutions, my Father has also been protective of me in social situations. Though one might find dissenting opinions within my current group of friends and colleagues, I have always been a shy and thoughtful person. As a child, I was just as comfortable playing alone, if not more so, than I was interacting with groups. This was especially apparent when I was placed in new situations, and was particularly evident when in the presence of other black men. For me, the “black macho role” was just not immediately apparent. This is why, when my father took me to Harvey’s Barber Shop for the one time, when I was around age 10 years old, the guys around the shop focused on me as though I was the proverbial sore thumb.
I remember sitting in the barber chair, with Harvey, the shop’s owner, giving me the first professional hair cut that I remember. I have to admit that it was an intimidating environment, with the guys talking “smack” (i.e., trading personal insults in a way that challenged each other not to respond with a more clever retort, while giving the impression that you were not affected by the comments of others) at a level that was just beyond me. Yet however intimidating the barber shop might be, it was also a space where everyone was included. This meant that both I and my dad were open game, and Harvey started in on both of us. He talked about how I flinched when he tried to comb my hair, and compared me to my father, explaining that he was “tender headed” too when he was my age. Then he joked with my father about the trouble that he used to get into. I remember how my dad just laughed and talked about how old Harvey was, and I began to realize that though people there was a large amount of smack talk, that people were mostly getting along.
The moment that most stuck with me about this event, was when someone was speaking to my dad and said to him; “he’s a quiet kid, isn’t he” referring to me. This was not meant to be an insult, nor was it taken as such, yet it was a definitive moment for me personally, and in terms of my persona in that particular social setting. More than that, it was a rare moment when I would be able to hear what my father actually thought about me. His response was to tell the other man, “not really… he’s just not used to you guys, but he’ll talk your ear off when he gets to know you…” In that short statement, my father provided me with the room to grow into that particular social environment, without having to fight the expectations and assumptions that came with being a “quiet kid.” But more than that, my father showed me that he understood my way of being, and provided me with a template for how to acculturate myself into a community of black men.
Though, like at the barber shop, my father provided implicit guidance in terms of how I might grow into my own, I never felt that he pressured me to move in any direction other than forward. I have seen many of my friends spend a great deal of energy attempting to follow in one of their parent’s footsteps. For some it may be in terms of career, in others it might have to do with sports or some other parental expectation. In terms of my parents, the only real push was towards doing well in school, but even that was kept to a reasonable level. My father seemed to be more interested in providing me and my sisters with opportunities to try new things, than choosing what those things would be. Humorously enough, even without pressure from him, my path seemed to converge with his in many aspects of my life. An example that comes to mind is that of when I began to play football in the 9th grade.
I remember being afraid to ask my dad for the money to play Pop Warner football. I honestly, do not understand why I was worried, as he had agreed to pay for my earlier Kung Fu lesions, and before that the Boy Scouts, and before that for my saxophone, and so-on. At the time, it just seemed like it would be too expensive to do. Yet to my surprise, he not only let me sign up, helping me to convince my mother that I would not get hurt, but he became one of the main boosters for our team. He seemed to approach my football experience with the same level of enthusiasm that was usually reserved for the local professional football franchise. I remember having a conversation with him about how he felt about me playing football during my first season. We were driving somewhere, maybe to practice, and I asked him if he played football when he was a kid. To my surprise, he not only played football, but he was very good at it. He explained to me that he had always wanted get me into the sport, but that he did not want to be one of those parents that make their kids follow after them.
In that one statement, my father made it clear that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. I learned that he would cheer for me regardless of the activity, even if he would cheer somewhat louder for the ones that he particularly enjoyed. What continues to strike me is that this was an intentional style of interaction. My father was not just acting on instinct and personality traits; he intentionally checked his personal feelings and placed my goals before his. More than building a non-judgmental environment, I have come to realize that behind his non-pressuring stance laid an underlying level of trust. My father trusted me to make my own way, not in some aloof or ambivalent shirking of responsibility, but instead with a resolution to support me and provide guidance when the occasion presented itself.
Boyd-Franklin, N. (2003). Black families in therapy: Understanding the African American
experience (2nd ed.). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.
Palmer, B. E. F. (2011). Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. In M. E. Connor, J. L. White (Eds.), Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.) (pp. 129-141). Routledge Academic.
Parham, T., White, J. & Ajamu, A. (1999). The Psychology of Blacks: An African Centered
Perspective (3rd ed.). New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
Rogers, C. (2007). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 240-248.
About the Author...
I'm an African American man with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. I'm married. I am a professor, a clinician, a social justice advocate, a multicultural competence trainer, a dog owner, an ex-professional photographer (i.e., people paid me, lol), and a self proclaimed nerd, who loves Sci-Fi, Anime, Zombie fiction, cooking shows, character studies, anti-heroes, and telling people about things that I like...
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