MAXWELL:  FACING FATHERHOOD

6/20/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

BECOMING DAD:

Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

Peace with the past, responsibility for the future.

A child without a loving father is a child who grows up to become an incomplete adult, a condition that affects black males in particular. Or so suggests Leonard Pitts Jr., author of the book Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood.

Pitts, a writer for the Miami Herald since 1991, has penned a tour de force that every African-American male who is a father or who plans to be a father should read. Born in a small Mississippi town to poor parents, he uses his own experiences to establish the authenticity of his far-reaching observations about fatherhood.

His father, an angry and abusive alcoholic, created a world of terror for Pitts, his siblings and his mother. As a child and later as a parent, he rarely talked about his father’s legacy of neglect. The silence was debilitating, and the author knew that the only way to free himself of the entrapment was to write about it.

“When you grow up as I did, you find yourself keeping secrets _ and keeping them long after the people you’ve sought to protect are gone,” he said. “You keep them by habit, so the secrets become this weight that sits heavily upon your heart. This book was therapeutic for me in that it allowed me to lift that secret off my back, to look it square in the face and finally come to grips with it.”

While Becoming Dad eases much of Pitts’ anguish, it also fulfills his need to enlighten other black men: “I want other young men to read this book and realize that the ways in which they’ve learned to define and celebrate manhood have been self-limiting. Their children need them, and for more than just financial support. The fact that their fathers failed them doesn’t mean they have to fail their children too.”

Remarkably, Pitts avoids the usual indictment of black men as a group. Instead, he lets individuals tell their own stories, in their own words, warts and all. The result is an honest portrayal of dire circumstances that can be _ and must be _ overcome. Each man who chronicles his life in Becoming Dad attempts to exorcise his progenitor’s ghost, a feat that reveals the torment of enduring beatings, showdowns at gunpoint and constant screaming and profanity. The miracle is that Pitts and his interviewees survived their childhoods at all and managed to establish normal, loving lives with their own families.

Each man tries to be a good father, but some of them fail, reliving the old violence, bringing misery to their own children. Pitts tells them and his readers that a better way exists: “A hard past doesn’t die. Not never. But you can, if you are willing and brave, sit down and negotiate a peace.”

To negotiate his peace, Pitts traveled to the town where he grew up, found many residents who knew his father, Leonard Pitts Sr., and learned as much as he could about him. He wanted to understand the forces that created the monster whose seed produced him. He also discussed fatherhood with many experts and social activists.

What did he learn? He learned that transformation is possible, that black men, even those who suffered abuse, can “flip the script” of “demeaning expectations” telling them that they will fail their children because they have no control over circumstances in larger society.

Pitts buys none of the doom and gloom. With 64 percent of black children growing up in fatherless homes, he pleads with black men to take up their responsibility as fathers. He marshals 18 principles that, if followed, would equip men of any color for fatherhood. He wants all men to discover and rediscover their children, to love them, to respect them, to shower them with praise, to provide them with safety and financial security.

Fatherhood is not a game _ the mere result of a sexual encounter. Fatherhood should be a conscious effort to rear happy, healthy children, Pitts writes. Fatherhood is good for children, it is good for society. It is the most important duty a man can perform.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer.