/ The Dynamics of African American Fathers' Family Roles


The roles of African American fathers have changed, as have all other ethnic groups. Families have been influenced by internal and external factors, particularly economic changes. Patterns that have existed in African American families are now appearing in all families. Families of all types are found, and often exist within supportive networks of extended kin and community support, rather than only within nuclear families. Fewer men live with their families, their health rates are poorer, and unemployment is higher. These men have often been ignored in social science literature, presented in stereotypical manner, but literature references on African American fathers are available for family professionals.

Key Words: African American, families, fathers, demography, men's health, marital roles, child socialization

    1. Harriette P. McAdoo, Ph.D., is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, 106 Morrill Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 48824-1030. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to mcadoo@pilot.msu.edu.return to text

    2. This article is from notes written before the death of John L. McAdoo.return to text

    The roles of fathers have been ignored too long in the social science literature, particularly in the area of family studies. The dynamics of the roles of fathers in all ethnic groups—especially African Americans—have changed dramatically over the years. The purpose of this article is to explore the roles that African American fathers play in families—whether present or absent in the day-to-day running of the household. These roles must be examined in relation to the many persons who may be part of today's family: mother, grandparents or other relatives, and friends. This article also explores why African American men are seen as invisible or absent players in the family dramas that take place every day.

    Over the last several decades, changes have occurred in almost all American families because of economic factors. It is increasingly difficult for one parent to earn enough a living wage to support an entire family. Jobs have gone off shore, companies have been down-sized, and entire industries have been mechanized. Those at the lower end of the occupational hierarchy—particularly poor persons of color—have faced the most negative effect. Most mothers of young children are now employed at some level outside the home, marriages and relationships have been truncated and changed, children are being cared for through a variety of arrangements, and parents of both genders have had to become involved in family tasks. These are patterns that have existed within the African American community for decades.

    African American fathers are as different from one another as they are from other groups. They come in all shades, shapes, and types, yet the stereotyped Black father is seen—by those who are not of color—as a visitor to his family, underemployed, marginal to his family, inattentive to his children, rather violent, and plainly not in the family picture. In reality, African American fathers are as dedicated to their children and families as are men of other racial groups; some are models of perfection, and some are deadbeats.

    An important issue is why the negative image of Black males and fathers is so strongly embedded in the psyches of lay and professional family social scientists. The reasons lie in three historical circumstances: economic isolation; enslavement; and the carryover of African family forms that differ from Western forms. The contemporary portrayal of African American men in the media only adds to the negative images. The ultimate reason is racism that they face throughout their lives. This racism has isolated them from the world of work and education and is seemingly ingrained in the fabric of Western societies.

    The widely held ethnocentric view is that a traditional family is an independent residential unit with two parents, and a mother who is not employed. Even though we know that historically this has not been the pattern for all families, it is still presented as the ideal. In past times, women on the farms and in rural areas in worked as hard as their husbands, families were often extended, and roomers in the home were commonplace. Yet, we are presented with a romantic version of family.

    A report about child-rearing practices from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development contradicts the traditionalist view. It concludes that young children cared for by adults other than their parents have normal cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional development. In addition, the quality of infant care—which ranges from poor to excellent—greatly influences the development of young children, and good quality day care can to some extent make up for poor parenting (Scarr, 1997). We can no longer say that children need full-time maternal care, and the majority of both parents who work can feel more assured. Indeed, children may benefit from multiple attachments, rather than an exclusive attachment to their mothers.

    The roles of fathers in families are influenced by internal as well as external factors (Bowman, 1993; Hyde, Texidor, 1994; J. McAdoo 1988, 1993). Research has shown that social capital networks, in the form of coping strategies and community-wide resources, help to mediate negative external influences that may interfere with the parenting role (J. McAdoo, 1993; Hanshaw & Thompson, 1996). Furthermore, Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, and Lewis (1990) stated that significant growth has occurred in the quality and quantity of African American family life. Fathers, though, are often overlooked by researchers, professionals, and practitioners (McComanachie, 1994).

    The reasons for African American fathers being away from their children are linked to external factors: unemployment; imprisonment; high death rates; and the imbalance of the male-female ratio. Joblessness among Black men meant separation from their families in order to qualify the mothers for state aid. Historically, Black males have always been incarcerated at a higher rate than those of White males (Ross, 1996). Black men in Michigan die prematurely at twice the rate of White men and the rest of the state's population (Bauza, 1997). Traditionally there have been more women who are marriageable than men (Chapman, 1996). Therefore, some children are born to older women who do not expect to marry the fathers of their children.

    The African American Family and Male Demography

    The Black population of the U. S. in 1996 was 33.9 million, or 12.8% of the total, up from 30.4 million in 1990 (Bureau of the Census, 1996a). Presently, there are 15.8 million Black men and 18.1 million Black women. Blacks are younger than Whites, with a median age of 28.4 years compared to 36.5 years. About 31% of Blacks are married and live with their spouses, but 43.6% have never married. The respective figures for Whites are 57.8% and 23.6%.


    The family structure of Black children in 1996 differed drastically from the White population. Whereas of 71.6% of White children under age 18 live with both parents, only 38.7% of Black children do; 5 6.9% live with their mother. The 3.9% of Black children who live with their fathers only is similar to the White rate of 3.4%. Grandparents parented 5.4% of the Black children and 1.3% are in foster care (Bureau of the Census, 1996b; Children's Defense Fund, 1997).

    A major difference between Black fathers and other groups at the same income level is that fewer Black fathers live in the same home as their children. Black families did not differ significantly from mainstream families until 1970, when the majority still had two parents. Modifications in their structure and orientations then occurred as the result of a series of recessions in the 1970s, which became depressions with the Black community (Hill, 1988). These changes also occurred within mainstream families in the late 1980s and began to be even greater in the 1990s.


    The survival rate has been declining for Black men, while the rate for Black females and all White groups has been extended. According to a Michigan study, "African American Male Initiative," the percentage of men expected to live until age 65 fell from 6l% in 1960 to 58% in 1993 (Bauza, 1997). Black males had the highest rate in nine of the top ten causes of death in Michigan—with the exception of suicide. However, the suicide rate is 11% lower among Black men than White men.

    The top five causes of death among Black males in Michigan (in descending order) are heart disease, cancer, homicide, AIDS, and stroke. Black males die of heart disease at a rate 46% higher that of white males: Cancer deaths are 50% higher—with the highest rates for lung, rectal, and prostate cancer. In 1990, Michigan's homicide rate was 58% among Blacks. In 1995, Black men between 25 and 34 years of age were nine times more likely to die as a result of homicide that were White men in that age group. AIDS is the second leading cause of death among Black men between age 25 and 49, the third highest cause for Whites that age (Bauza, 1977).

    These bleak statistics point to the fact that African American families cannot depend upon a long sustained presence of the father. Even if the father lives with the family, his time there is more limited than in other families.


    In 1996 nationally, education levels were lower for Blacks: 84.5% had finished high school; 32.1% had attended college, and 13.7% had college degrees. For whites the figures were 92%, 29.4%, and 30.6%, respectively. Blacks over 16 years of age were in the labor force, and 67% of Whites were employed also. The unemployment rate in 1996 was 11.6% for Blacks and 4.6% for Whites. The per-capita income for Blacks was $10,982, and $19,759 for Whites (Bureau of the Census, 1996a). In families with children under 18 years, 7.7% of the households had fathers who worked and mothers who remained at home (Children's Defense Fund, 1997). The income of 2.1 million Black families (26%) was below the poverty level (Bureau of the Census, 1996a). The result is that 41.3% of Black children under age 18 years live below the poverty line. Some child support was received by 14.4% of the children under age 18, usually from the father (Children's Defense fund, 1997). The poverty levels of families, the strain of coping in families who are recognized differently from those in the mainstream, and the inequities associated with educational systems of African Americans have resulted in major gaps in the educational achievement of Black children.

    Perspectives on Fathers' Roles

    The major roles that Black fathers play are marital, provider, and child-socializing roles. Ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) allows one to explore the historical, political, and familial influences on African American fathers. Peters (1988) notes that this theory allows researchers and practitioners to observe paternal role functioning in the environment in which it occurs. To understand the developmental processes of parents and children of color, it is necessary to explore the intersection of social class, culture, ethnicity, and race to create integrative models for developmental competence (Coll, et al., 1996).

    More research is needed on the use of religion, of the extended family, and of community networks by men for parenting (J. McAdoo, 1993; Bowman, 1993). There are choices that fathers of various socioeconomic classes make in their efforts to support their families and to find stability. We need to explore the positive and negative roles they play and the impact on their families. Two areas in particular deserve attention.


    Although mothers are the primary socializers of children, both parents provide nurturance and discipline. In a study across two generations, Casenave (1981) found that fathers reported that they were more involved with their children that their own fathers had been. They took an active part in child care, changing diapers, and playing with their children. This trend is similar in all racial groups and social classes.

    It has been found that in two-parent middle-class homes, the nurturance of wives leads to positive self-esteem in their children (McAdoo, 1993). There appeared to be no direct relationship between highly nurturant fathers and self esteem of the children. Instead, there was an indirect relationship between the fathers' nurturance of the mothers and the higher self esteem of their children. It is in the provision of a nurturant environment that children are often able to develop better self-esteem.

    In families where the father's interaction with the children is limited because of marital statuses, he still has an effect on the children—but to a lesser extent. The roles of the father figure are assumed by male relatives, partners of the mother who live in the home, and by extended family helping networks (McAdoo, 1996).


    Little attention has been paid in the literature to the positive role that the father plays in the nurturance of his wife. Some researchers have investigated the relationship between paternal happiness or subjective well being and marital happiness (Ball & Robbins, 1986; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990). Men who were married reported greater life satisfaction (Ball & Robbins, 1986). In a study by Zollar and Williams (1987), all classes of Black men reported greater happiness than did their wives, but both spouses reported being happy. As the couples grew older, the levels of happiness increased for both partners.

    Even in families in which the father is not present, the father has an important role to play. Researchers have found that more than 30% of the fathers in divorced, separated, or never-married homes do have some level of contact with their children (McAdoo, 1983, 1992). These contacts are not necessarily regular—and often financial aid is irregular—but they still are important. It should be noted that two thirds of unmarried births are to women over age 20—and many of them have been married previously. Only one third of unmarried births are to adolescents (Edelman, 1987). This finding refutes many of the stereotypes about young men and women. Many of the unmarried women over 20 years of age have been married before, but were unable to maintain the marriage because of the imbalance in the gender ratio. The competition for men is often a real problem in Black communities.


    Some African American fathers live within the home and some live outside the home. Blacks have families of all types and have continued to exist within the supportive networks composed of kin, friends, churches, and the greater community (Hatchett, Cochran, & Jackson, 1991). These supportive networks are the mainstay of many African American families. With increasing poverty, restructuring in the marketplace, and unending racism, they will continue to be essential to fathers and their families. In order to meet the developmental needs of fathers, mothers, and their children, it is necessary to assess accurately the roles fathers play, the pressures under which they function, and who they are in reality.

    Literature on African American fathers is available and should be sought out by family researchers and practitioners. It is counterproductive to use stereotypes of the roles that African American fathers play within families. As we look at the intersection of class, race, and culture, we cannot assume that all African American fathers are lower class. We must realize that fatherhood cuts across all groups—all of whom will want services at some point in their existence. Misconceptions will interfere with the provision of services, assistance, and support that these families need. If nonobjective approaches are used, research efforts will lead to incorrect conclusions. Social service workers, educators, researchers in the family field, and the parents themselves need more objective images that will allow for more meaningful service and support.


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