- Finding Tea Cake:An Imagined Black Feminist Manhood
I have long recognized that my desire to embrace progressive gender politics is, in part, the product of my professional status as a university professor and the social status afforded that position. The primary advantage is not necessarily financial—the social rewards of being a professor far outweigh the economic, especially for those colleagues who teach in the humanities and are employed at public institutions—but rather to be found in the flexibility of our schedules. Since I became a parent thirteen years ago, I've been able to attend parent-teacher conferences, serve as a volunteer classroom parent, and do regular pickup and carpool duty for my two daughters, always aware that I was one of the few fathers who did so on a regular basis. Comfortable in my role as a pro-feminist dad, it has often been all too easy to believe the press clippings and Google searches about how engaged black men are with their children; even the First (Black) Father has found reasons to opine about this so-called crisis.
True, my hands-on style of parenting is in sharp contrast to that of my father, who as a short-order cook, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. As a working-class black man, raised poor in the Deep South, who never learned how to read or write, attending school events and participating in teacher's conferences were a luxury that he couldn't afford. By many standards, it would have been easy to suggest that my father was disengaged, yet there were late night walks on the weekends to the bodega down the block, Sunday morning breakfasts where he taught me how to cook, Sunday afternoons of baseball and jazz, and Sunday evenings of Bonanza and McCloud. My father simply parented to expectations—those of my mother and a society [End Page 256] that expected little more of him than being a provider and an example of the value of hard work. I have no doubt that if my father had been expected to do more—to perhaps become my primary caregiver—he would have done so without much fuss.
Even as I am the product of working-class black communities, it is sometimes easy to forget the rhythms of that life; worldviews that often cut against more bourgeois notions of time and work, that are grounded in survival and what I've called "social improvisation."1 Such was the case a few years ago as I stopped at a traffic light in Durham, North Carolina, early one afternoon and spotted a group of young black men standing in front of a local food truck—the smell of hot grease filling the air. Though I too was not "working"—heading home for a quick sandwich before picking up my daughter from school—my immediate thought was to wonder why these guys were not at work. As someone who makes a living challenging stereotypical notions of black masculinity, I felt a bit ashamed, remembering another encounter with young black men at a restaurant, where I was shocked when those men clasped their hands and prayed before biting into their sandwiches. That incident had a particular impact on me, reminding me of the extent our understandings of black men and boys are scripted and made legible in the United States within the context of the lowest expectations.
As such, I began to reimagine those three black men, now walking away from the food truck with their fried chicken and fish sandwiches. What if one of them was a noncustodial parent, who worked a midnight-to-eight in the morning night shift? What if, despite the fact that the relationship with his children's mother didn't work out, they maintained a working parenting partnership in which he regularly picked up his children from school and sat with them while they did homework before their mother returned home from her nine-to-five job? What if said man regularly asked his "boys" to accompany him to the food truck, offering to buy them lunch, while also sharing information on how he was...