Column

For boys, present laws can’t substitute for absent fathers, and I should know

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Editor’s Note: Son of a Saint is a support group for boys whose fathers are incarcerated or dead. At the organization’s annual gala Nov. 1, Hechinger Report columnist Andre Perry delivered a keynote speech in which he revealed that as a child, he faced the same situation as the boys helped today by this group:

Good evening family. My lovely wife and I thank Sonny Lee and the boys of Son of a Saint for asking me to be the keynote for tonight’s important event. I’m deeply honored that Sonny would bring me off the bench to speak in relief of the incomparable Steve Gleason who could not be here in person. I’m also excited to talk with the sons. This is my second go-around as I met with the sons more than a year ago. We played catch in the fields outside the University of New Orleans Arena. We talked vulnerably about pursuing goals and careers. I left that visit so warmed and inspired that when Sonny called to invite me I was definitely more excited about receiving the invitation than Sonny was extending it.

I think the program moves me because I would have been eligible to be a Son of a Saint. As you know, to qualify for the program the boy “must be fatherless due to their father’s incarceration or death.” I met both conditions simultaneously. My father, Floyd Criswell was murdered in Jackson State Prison, which is about 80 miles west of Detroit. Another inmate killed him when I was eight years old. But Floyd was never really alive in my head. I don’t ever remember seeing him. My family members insisted that Floyd used to visit on occasion. They also told me he was killed while trying to break up a fight in prison. If it were not for my family’s romantic remembrances of Floyd, I don’t think I would have ever pursued his story.

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But now that I have, I’ve learned that the question of who is present in my life is much more immediate and obliging than who is absent. When we delve in the narrative of the absent father, we tend to accept the stereotypical assumptions of individual character and ignore the structural reasons why so many men are absent. In addition, when we focus on who is absent, we also tend to abdicate our own responsibilities from filling a void in someone’s life.

Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, founder of Son of a Saint, with boys in the program. (Photo: Kimberly LaGrue)

Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, founder of Son of a Saint, with boys in the program. (Photo: Kimberly LaGrue)

So why are so many fathers absent?

First of all, being absent is part of life because death is part of life. It’s hard for us to accept, but the one constant in life is death. As Groucho Marx once said, “I intend to live forever, or die trying.” A father’s absence is a matter of timing. Mary Catherine Bateson said, “The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it.” In other words, we should bring meaning and purpose from the inevitable.

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But let’s be clear. Too many black males are dying unnecessarily. Too many are incarcerated. Why are one in seven black men in New Orleans in prison or on parole? Why is the unemployment rate nearly fifty percent for black men? Why is the unemployment rate nearly fifty percent for black men? We’re not born with guns in our hands, dying to go to prison. It’s a shame we have to remind the masses: black boys aren’t broken; systems and policies are. Prison systems, under-resourced schools, and a lack of employment opportunities have killed more people than sagging pants and gun violence ever will.

We must go upstream and abolish systems and policies that perpetually hurt black men and boys’ chances in life. I’m happy to see that Son of a Saint is raising funds to provide high school scholarships because money should not be a barrier for an education. Still, in funding circles there is a debate on whether money is best spent on initiatives like Son of a Saint that provide a direct service or those that take aim at policy. Nevertheless, in our efforts to destroy the institutions and policies that reproduce inequality, we have no choice but to positively engage with the people who’ve been harmed by those systems. Our children can’t wait for policymakers to get their acts right. As long as policies aren’t responding to our children’s needs, we will need a Son of a Saint. We need people who can fill the voids. My immediate needs were no different than Sons.

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Family secrets are hard to break. Even at the ripe age of 44, some of my family members refuse to tell the prelude to my birth or the events that immediately followed. I do know that I am 17 years younger than my mother. I was her second of four children. Kevin, my older brother of two years was already in tow.

Unable to carry the weight of her children, Karen gave Kevin and me to Elsie Young and her daughter Mary Herndon on my birthday. Mom Elsie was born in 1907 in Pittsburgh. She was 63 when I was born. Mom attended local elementary and secondary schools until she married Henry Young when she was seventeen. Although she did not finish high school, Mom was well-educated and thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing. She was known in her community as someone who took in kids before formal foster care systems took shape. Mary moved back in Mom’s house after enduring an abusive relationship that ended in divorce. Throughout the years, Mom and Mary became the informal adoptive parents of many children.

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Such arrangements are not unusual. Floyd more than likely abused my birth mother Karen who will still end most sentences about Floyd with “but he was a good person.” Like many women of color, Karen was caught at dangerous intersection of race, gender, and poverty.

Andre Perry with boys in the Son of a Saint program (Photo: Kimberly LaGrue)

Andre Perry with boys in the Son of a Saint program (Photo: Kimberly LaGrue)

One of my greatest struggles was getting institutions to believe in my family like I did. I consciously or unconsciously removed the conception of what a “normal” family was supposed to look like. Idolizing the Cosby’s would essentially mean demonizing my perfect arrangement. I didn’t have the luxury to long for something I didn’t and couldn’t have. I accepted my new mother as my mother – my new family as my family. Loyalties move to who’s in front of you.

Just because a father is absent doesn’t mean a child is physically or mentally alone. Kids will have someone in their lives. The question is, who? Hopefully it will be someone like Mom, someone like Mary, someone like Sonny.

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I said earlier I learned that the question of who is present in my life is obliging – as in obligating. Being present in someone’s life allows us to see the obligations we have to change our surrounding condition because we decide to share the same fate. Unfortunately, only a few choose to get close enough to a child to accept that obligation.

Mom and Mary were not related to me. They were not rich. More than a dozen children entered our house for varying durations of time. Each child became my brother and sister. She charged $5 a day to “babysit.” But daily babysitting often turned into weeks, months and years. Parents gave what they could. Mom and Mary understood the context of the parents’ absences. They didn’t blame people who weren’t there. Instead, Mom and Mary managed to rear the family largely from an income stemming from two Social Security checks. With little means, they built the capacity to be present in my life and more than a dozen other kid’s lives.

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And that’s why we’re here. We choose to support Sonny and Son of a Saint because Sonny decided to be present. Not only has Sonny has taken on the responsibility to fill the love gap; Sonny is also shouldering our obligations.

The overwhelming statistics for boys of color demand intimate and intrusive intervention, yet few of us get close enough to a child to make an impact. Let’s face it; we’re scared of boys who come from challenged households, particularly poor boys of color. The annual murder counts are more than alarming. Murder creates an environment of fear that may facilitate a hands-free ethic of care.

Consequently, even the best of us essentially drop in from our collective ivory towers only to helicopter out with deliberate speed. We never become a part of the social milieu. We’ve become what I often refer to as arms-length advocates.

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Arms-length advocacy can’t replace the strong hugs our children actually need.

As many of you know, I am a staunch education advocate. I believe in schools and universities like congregants believe in churches, synagogues and mosques. I know that education policy must change if we are ever going to achieve educational equity. Notwithstanding my deep belief in formal education, I cannot deny that I owe most of my success to two undereducated women who decided to care for me when they didn’t have to.

Amidst widespread education reform, let us not forget that there’s nothing more innovative than care.

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Son of a Saint is innovative. We have to help build Sonny’s capacity to love more children. I challenge each of us to introduce more people to the organization. I actually don’t expect many to be a Mom, Mary or Sonny, but I do expect us all to support people like them.

In the beginning of my talk I said, “I think the program moves me because I would have been eligible to be a Son of a Saint.” That’s true. But I support Son of a Saint primarily because it reminds me of my home. I guarantee you that the sons will look back and say; the absence of a father didn’t keep me from having a home.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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