Despite being published just a few months after I was born, I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father at 14. It was 2008, and it seemed as though the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president had consumed all of society. It had certainly taken over my family; for some of my loved ones, including my mom, it was their first time voting in a U.S. election.
Though I can’t quite remember who in my family purchased Obama’s autobiography for me, I vividly remember being captivated by his story.
It reminded me so much of my own. Though the circumstances were different, I also grew up without my African father in my life. Navigating through that has been, at many times, exhausting, challenging, motivating and downright painful. But for me, as well as the multitude of Black children who were raised by mothers and matriarchs, Obama’s story was inspirational to say the least.
“I never really knew my father. I still wish that I had a dad who was not only around, but involved, another role model,” President Obama shared in a 2013 Father’s Day address. Sure, the rest of his life experiences may have differed quite significantly from mine, but here was a man who had experienced many of those same frustrations, speaking candidly about that pain.
And while absent fathers are not mutually exclusive to African Americans, the way we talk about them sure is. Whether it’s blaming their absence for everything from intra-community violence, generational poverty and, more recently, police brutality towards Black Americans, our racialized view of fatherlessness has real, hurtful consequences for the Black community.
And though President Obama himself has invoked these tropes in many a campaign stop, often choosing to portray the phenomenon of absenteeism as one of pure ignorance and lack of responsibility, instead of discussing the myriad ways in which mass incarceration, state violence and inadequate sex education have contributed to it, seeing him ridiculed last week by conservative author and notoriously corrupt donor Dinesh D’Souza triggered a feeling of rage I thought I had long suppressed.
Here we had the President of the United States being subjected to the same type of “you ain’t got no daddy” put-down that many people, including myself, had to suffer through at the middle school playground.
Aside from being intentionally rude, D’Souza’s below the belt remark grasped at the dark yet obviously false belief situated deep within many of those whose fathers were absent from their lives: that they were the reason their fathers walked out, or in my case, not important enough for a judge to allow their fathers to stay.
D’Souza’s remarks have little to do with partisan and ideological differences, and everything to do with pure, unrepentant hatred, for only hate could motivate someone to blame an individual for being abandoned. His words also serve as a vile reminder that, no matter how far we go or how high we rise, the world will continue to remind some of us of our unwantedness. But this is not necessarily confined to those who grew up without their fathers; it manifests itself along racial lines as well.
Many prominent politicians, including Bill Clinton and Paul Ryan, lost their fathers while they were still quite young. No one with decency would dare insinuate that they were the cause of their fathers’ deaths. Nor would anyone blame Ronald Reagan, whose father was a known drunk, for the alcoholism that wrecked his health and ultimately led to his death.
But these jokes, crude and hateful in nature, all of a sudden become fair play once Black Americans begin to occupy spaces, both socially and politically, that were never intended for them. The sense of decorum that was once the unspoken ‘golden rule’ of democracy went out the window right around January 20th, 2009.
I cringe at the thought of what other previously socially unacceptable jokes will now situate themselves at the center of political discourse going forward.