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December 18, 2006

Even more on dads

We do seem to have a theme going on here today, don't we? I know I tend to get behind sometimes, but I'm pretty sure it was December and not June last time I looked. But even if it's not yet Father's Day, any time of the year is a great time for concentrating on the need for dads, especially when we so often fail to do so.

So here we have another Washington Post story, this one on African-American fathers, many of whom had absentee dads themselves, struggling to define their role. Tim Wagoner, unmarried father of a four-month-old son, is laudably determined to do better than his father did -- but without that example, it's not always easy to know how.

Wagoner grew up without his father around, he says. His stepfather was shot to death when he was a teen, and his uncle, another father figure, was, too.

Now it's his turn to be a father. Now it's his turn to answer a hard question:

What does a daddy do?

There is a pause. Wagoner doodles his index finger around his son's hand. Zyhir is tapping it.

"Just be there," Wagoner says, not looking up from Zyhir. "That's the most important thing. You can buy them all the clothes, all the toys, and it don't matter. Most important thing is that he knows my voice, knows me when he sees me."

There are other things, too, of course: Nurture. Shelter. Love. Protect. Those entail a lifetime of decisions and sacrifices; fatherhood isn't a job with a time clock where you punch in, punch out.

This is going to be hard, because Wagoner has struggled with stability and achievement. Started high school, dropped out. Worked Job Corps. Worked at Target. Worked at a storage company. Worked as a driver for the handicapped. Worked construction. The longest job he has held was six months, maybe seven. He has a record after beating up a guy, and now it's even harder to find work.

All that makes it tough enough.

But this makes it even tougher: What's apparently left out of the equation in Wagoner's mind is his relationship with his child's mother. To the credit of author Neely Tucker, it's not left out of the article. In fact, Tucker seems acutely aware of its significance:

In the 1890 Census, one generation after slavery, 80 percent of black households were mom, dad and kids. It stayed that way through the 1950s, when the census counted 77 percent of black families as united, compared to 85 percent of white families.

This was remarkable, as the black family had been through slavery, the upheaval of emancipation, the segregation of Jim Crow. The black family survived the Great Migration, when millions of impoverished Southern blacks made the journey to Northern urban centers, often dividing families.

By the early 1970s, historians and sociologists say, the sexual revolution and shifting mores changed American views on marriage and child-rearing.

Among blacks, the marriage rate dropped by half between 1970 and 2000 -- far more than any other ethnic group, as relations between black men and women frayed. Black women had long been accustomed to working outside the home, by the pinch of economic necessity, and now found a new freedom to run their own households. Black men, however, found a harsher and rapidly changing work environment: Many urban, semiskilled jobs moved to the suburbs, or were eliminated by technology. Trade unions often locked black men out of better-paying positions. The result left men scrambling to provide for their families, or to keep pace with women's salaries.

Apparently, Tucker was on to something when he chose to lead his story with this fact: "When 19-year-old Donné McDaniel became pregnant last year, Tim Wagoner didn't consider marrying her." As Tucker follows Wagoner's attempts to get his GED, get a good job, and nurture his son, a "ghost," to adapt a term from Terry Mattingly, haunts the story: the ghost of a family that never was, without which a mother and father struggle separately to "be there" for their child.

I believe it's Jonah Goldberg who talks about how the elites who ran the sexual revolution rarely stopped to think about how the example they set and the lessons they taught were affecting the poor. They certainly didn't stop to think about how it would affect the children of the poor. Just as in the story I mentioned earlier about the children of sperm donation, the falling marriage rate and the skyrocketing rates of premarital sex end up hurting those least equipped to deal with it: kids.

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