Opening the book Fathers and looking at the first few groups of images you likely begin to gather the book’s very earnest aim. The first suite of black and white photographs shows a grown man holding two babies in diapers on a couch, then huddled with the same children under white blankets — Groesbeck, Ella, and Elijah. Like the subsequent groupings, these images are named for the father and children. On the following pages the images bloom into rich color as Groesbeck explores outdoor spaces with his children. Always, the father is holding the youngsters, cradling them, supporting them, perching them on his shoulders.
The images that follow continue along the thread of this theme of fatherly intimacy. There are deeply poignant snapshots, in which fathers and their children mug for the camera, along with unselfconscious and even haphazard images, portraying these men as they go about the most quotidian tasks of life: cooking and eating, grooming, reading, traveling, and sleeping. It’s the proximity of fathers to children in all of the photographs that symbolizes their emotional connection. Even when the fathers are not holding their children’s hands or hugging them, they stand close, attentively watching them swoop down a zip line, ride a small pony, or balance themselves on a bicycle.
All the images in this collection are of men of color — a great number of them. There are 64 families, with several photographs of each, included in this hefty, 400-plus-page volume. At this size, the book feels like it is filling a gap. In his preface to the book Jelani Cobb explains what that breach is:
To be both black and a father is to be seen by much of the world through a haze of stereotypes and half-truths; to be damned by the faint praise of people who expect so little that merely showing up is regarded as a minor miracle. It is to be a silhouette; seen only in your outlines, recognizable more by what is absent than what is present.
Even if one skipped over Cobb’s prelude, the blinkered ideas that the issue of single-parent families is seemingly endemic to majority Black communities in the United States, and that this issue ripples outward to destabilize the larger social sphere permeate our culture. The problem of missing Black fathers is seen by a wide range of people as the cause for a range of societal failures: poverty, widespread incarceration rates for Black men, anti-police violence, even the prevention of Black people in the US achieving full economic and social equality. This book throws its considerable weight against that myth. In every image the fathers are palpably present. They are watchful, playful, and loving, and thus emerge from that dark, two-dimensional silhouette, and present themselves as almost fully realized human beings.
Among the most touching images are those of Ebbie and Noey, particularly one in which Ebbie carefully applies nail polish the color of tropical hibiscus to Noey’s fingers. The epigraph to their photos reads “My daughter’s laugh melts my entire heart.” It’s clear from the pictures that they love each other’s company. Father and son Carter and Quadean, shown in a black and white image, are so full of joy that they burst into laughter. I am also charmed by the picture of Gibson and Parker, the father having stuffed himself into a child-size tent littered with colored balls to play whatever games his daughter has in mind to play.
But images of men showing affection, care, pride, and concern for their young children hit the same note, page after page, and that is where this book falters. For the most part, it shows fathers in one mode of fatherhood, with very young children who are physically dependent on them — as opposed to teenagers who might begin to challenge their parents’ authority. There are no images, from what I can tell, that clearly show the challenge, of a father being pushed to the limit of his patience or empathy, or being at a loss of what to do. These moments are typical and plentiful in raising children. Although Cary, for example, expresses fear that he doesn’t know when his time here with his children “will be up,” the overarching story is one of capability that never falters or stumbles or gets it wrong. Because of this construction the book reads a bit too much like hagiography. We end up with an idealized portrait of Black fatherhood, which doesn’t provide insights into how one gets through the muck and mire of daily life to find the joy we see here.
Fathers falters strategically in imagining that the most effective way to fight myths is with other myths. Not so. The way to best fill in the shadow presence of Black fathers is with real versions of these fathers who every so often fail to catch their children when they fall, or fail to say the thing that buoys them up, or fail to anticipate the needs that the child cannot quite articulate. The great achievement of Black men who remain active, loving, and attentive fathers throughout their children’s lives is not that they show care constantly, but rather that, when they lapse and fail, they pick up themselves and their children and try again.