[Today marks the birthday of AmericanStudier pére, as well as one of the very best digital humanists, scholarly writers, and grandfathers I know, Steve Railton. In his honor, a series on some noteworthy cultural and historical American fathers! Share your paternal responses and reflections for the father of all crowd-sourced posts!]
On political, literary, and cultural engagements with a vexing late 20th century American issue.
Few, if any, governmental publications have in our long national history achieved the kinds of controversial, galvanizing, long-lasting significance and effect as The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). Written for President Lyndon Johnson by Assistant Secretary of Labor (and future Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and thus known forever after as The Moynihan Report, the document began as a simple statistical analysis of African American poverty and related issues, but as the subtitle suggests turned into a set of warnings and recommendations in response to those issues. By far the most famous, controversial, and to both Moynihan and his readers (critical and supportive) central of those warnings had to do with single-parent households, and more exactly with single mothers and missing fathers; it was that heavily present family dynamic, to Moynihan, that explained—even better than historic and broader contexts and causes, although he made clear that it was related to and in part caused by them—much of the worst of what impoverished African American families and children (particularly in the period’s disintegrating cities) were experiencing.
In the more than fifty years since the Report’s release, that particular argument has, along with the rest of the Report’s findings and analyses, been subject to numerous critiques, addenda, agreements, revisions, and so on. But whatever we make of Moynihan’s ideas on the topic, there’s no question that the theme of missing black fathers has been an important and ongoing one in late 20th and early 21st century American society and culture. That theme, and more exactly what the missing fathers mean for their families and especially their sons, is at the heart of two of the greatest African American novels of the decades following Moynihan (or any time period for that matter): Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981). Without spoiling either of these mysterious and complex works, I’ll just note that Morrison’s Milkman Dead and Bradley’s John Washington are (in different but not unrelated ways) obsessively searching for the truths left behind by their missing fathers, and that both their quests and their culminating discoveries and choices represent profoundly powerful and symbolic narratives for late 20th century African American men and for the society in which they face these challenges.
About a decade later, one of the period’s most original and important films, John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), would extend and add further layers to these narratives. On the one hand, Singleton’s most famous character, Laurence Fishburne’s absolutely compelling Furious Styles, is for most of the film a single father to his son Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and one determined to perform his fatherly roles to the utmost (no matter how much Tre tries to resist). And on the other, the complex and tragic arcs and fates (spoiler alert!) of Tre’s friends Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) seem entirely connected to the absence of a father in their lives, although the college-bound football star Ricky and the gang-banger Doughboy have prior to the film’s main events clearly responded to that absence in profoundly different ways. In its own ways, Singleton’s film is still grappling with precisely the same questions as Moynihan’s report—Doughboy’sfinal speech suggests a broad national culpability for its characters’ setting and experiences, while Furious might agree with Moynihan that more African American fathers need to take on their responsibilities as he has. The debate continues—and literary and cultural texts, as these great ones illustrate, have their place in that debate to be sure.
Last father tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fatherly texts or figures you’d highlight?
PPS. Happy birthday, Dad!
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