Fatherless child


I believe it was my Black aesthetics professor at Howard University, Dr. Gregory Carr who implied that the concept of asserting “I’m better than you” is a European ideal adopted by Black people. Social media gives one a good sense of this notion. You can see our people on these networks bragging about this or publicly trying to shame people for that. During my time on Twitter, I’ve seen a recurring, problematic term used by those who enjoy “slandering” others online in hopes of retweets, popularity and relevance. That term is “fatherless.”

Anyone is susceptible to the term regardless of their actual family structure. If a guy is gay, he’s “fatherless” (because his presumably deficient masculinity was surely caused by an absent dad.) If a woman is promiscuous or wearing revealing clothes, she’s “fatherless” (no daddy to teach her how to be a lady!) Hell, anything below certain unreasonable people’s unreasonable standards for living can get you smacked with a “fatherless.”

Now, let me say this: I’m a grown man. It’s been a while since a stranger’s negative words to me meant much. However, having been raised by my late, single mother in my grandmother’s house, I do view the phrase with contempt. There’s gotta be a better way to get in those Twitter brackets without using a term that cuts so many people so deeply.

Imagine someone criticizing you over your missing father for haws and guffaws.

When I was a I kid, I hated running into people who knew I was my father’s son and told me I looked like him. The sensation in my body was the same as if a White person called me a nigger. My grandmother is still hot over someone asking us if we were going to sit with my father’s family at my paternal grandmother’s repast way back in the day. There was nothing funny about my father’s choice to remain absent from my life.

Remember the episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” when Will’s father, Lou (played by Ben Vereen) came to California to see his son, then ditched him before they were supposed to go on a trip together? Of course you do. Now, I’ve seen a lot of people make fun of the pain that Will released onto Uncle Phil telling him about how he’d turned out OK regardless of Lou’s absence then breaking down crying with the words, “Why he don’t want me, man?” I don’t remember a television episode ever resonating with me as much.

My mother married my father when she was in her twenties. Then, along the line, she had my twin brother and me. A month and some change later, after too many mistakes by my father, my mother moved out of their apartment into my grandmother’s house with us. I’ve definitely felt like my brother and me were his reason for losing interest. Like Will, I wondered often why he didn’t want us. The wondering is quite consuming at quiet times. Mom didn’t talk about it much. I had many questions, but the answer was the same: he just wasn’t there.

In addition to my own angst, I also bore much of my mother’s pain and there’s nothing we could ever do to soothe it for good. As I got older, I used to think about how we appeared. All three of us have his name. She was a teacher with the title “Mrs,” but never had a husband around. Naturally, people thought she was a “baby mama” and she lived with the stigma of being a single mother, though she did everything the “right” way. She was educated and intellectually gifted, but she died in her mother’s house, the same house she grew up in. When we were out and someone disrespected her, there was no man by her side to defend her, only two boys. She also never found love again, and never really looked hard to find it. As her son, all of these things weighed on me and still do now that she’s gone.

I guess my gripe with the term fatherless is not only it’s supreme insensitivity and ignorance, but it implies that I was neglected somehow. I guess, in a sense, I was. Given my experience, I’m not exactly sure how a constant, male role model in a child’s life is important, but I know there have to be benefits. A man is a best teacher of manhood and my brother and I missed out on that. We had men in our life, but nothing regular. It would’ve been nice to see a man in action and have someone teach us how to fix things or change tires and things of that nature.

My mother did the best she could and there is no shame in how she tried to raise her children. Tragically, her father died in a car accident right before she was born, so she didn’t grow up with a father either, but she gave us her all. We were both in the gifted program at school and have degrees. She taught us how to throw and catch before signing us up for every sport. She taught us how to tie a tie and got us ready for the prom. She taught us how to mow the lawn. She taught us to ride bikes. We learned how to be courteous to women from her. Every birthday and Christmas was a happy one for both of us. The best lesson she taught was one of loyalty. She dedicated her life to us completely, doing very little for herself, while some parents would go out and have some fun from time to time. My brother is now a single father after the tragic loss of his child’s mother (I pray no one ever calls my nephew “motherless” as an insult), and not growing up with a father has instilled the will in him to be everything to his little boy. While there are some advantages to having a father, you don’t miss out on everything if he’s not around, nor does having a father in your life regularly doesn’t guarantee anything.

Though I’m a proud member of “Team Fatherless,” I may not meet the requirements anymore. At the age of 30, still grieving the loss of my mother to pancreatic cancer in 2009, I have started a relationship with my dad. I went through a period when I was down and out and when everybody abandoned me, I turned to him (we had recently been in contact) and he was there. He’s been there ever since. I’m still warming up to him because, lets be honest, I went many years without hearing from him and it’s hard to release all of that anger. But he’s trying do to better by my brother and me. He’s invited us to watch games and go to events with his family. He’s even told us he loves us. I have a lot of questions that I’ll probably never ask him, though. It’s not important now. He’s here. Eventually, I’ll probably buy a Happy Father’s Day card for the first time ever.

I say all that to say, though an invite to the next “Tweetup” may be awesome, calling someone “fatherless” isn’t the way to get an invite. Even if it’s just another joke to you and/or your target may not, indeed, be fatherless, the term is and extreme affront to the men, women and children who have grown up without fathers and to the single mothers breaking their backs and bank accounts to raise their children to be the best they can be.

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‘Fatherless’ Is No Insult,’ by Ryan K. Smith, appeared first on EBONY.com. It was reprinted with permission.

Photo credit: Dennis Stauffer for Flickr Creative Commons.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. All I can say is, what a great article, and if anyone still believes words can’t hurt? They’re wrong, I’d add so many other terms used in a negative and insulting way such as, retarded, babymother, etc I’d guess that those who write such things on Twitter to make fun of people would die of shame if they had to say it in a real place in front of real people, but what they need to know is, these ‘social’ networks have ‘real’ people who sign up to them, with real hearts and feelings and for all they know that person or persons they are judging, could be someone they know, and if that person reacts by behaving differently in some way towards them, even though they don’t know who said it, they need not ask why, because they already know the answers. I know there’s a quotation here somewhere but I can’t remember it in its entirety. I.e. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, etc etc

  2. Thank you so much for this article!!! As a young girl who grew up with no father or daddy to call for anything, your words and more significantly, your pain and power resonate deeply within me. To this day, as a grown woman dealing with whole grown people, I find myself having to check other people’s ignorance in attempting to shame my so called “fatherless” past.

    I even had someone that I considered to be a close homie, tell me that I shouldn’t be jealous of her, or feel bad for myself because her father was in her life, and mine wasn’t. I was floored by the immense and robust stench of presumption, audaciousness and downright disrespect in her words. What she did reveal to me, nonetheless, was the deep insecurities and self- projection embedded in the souls of others. Looking back, I know now that she was saying “How did you turn out as intelligent, driven and powerful as me, if not more, without having a daddy?”

    Projection is almost always the most powerful elephant in the room, never being detected or revealed without force and determination. In any regard, your article just reminded me of the beautiful job my very single, very poor and many times ignorant momma did. She was no scholar, no career or education driven woman, whatsoever. Yet, she was the most powerfully intelligent, wise and articulate teacher I’ve ever had.

    This article is not only a wake up call to folks about the power of the words they use, but also a wonderful reminder that there is a large band of amazing women out there, who during a time when absent fathers seemed to be the highest, were able to build their strength to be higher. Thank you again! May an abundance of blessings and peace be with you on your journey, always!

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