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The current issue is always free to everyone - Two Fathers - By Nicholas Powers - Guest Commentator

On Fathers Day, two black men passed each other. One stepped into glory, the other emerged from his grief. The former was Sen. Barack Obama, who took the pulpit at Chicagos Apostolic Church of God to castigate absent black fathers. The other was William Bell a black father who organized a rally for his son Sean Bell, killed by the NYPD upon leaving his bachelor party in November 2006. Two men, both fathers, divided by what they represent to America.

Obama began his Fathers Day speech, If were honest with ourselves, well admit too many fathers are missing. His loosed a cascade of archetypal scenes of black pathology; gunfire at night, boys on corners or in jail, each image ended with a plaintive how many? He demanded black fathers come off the streets, come back home, turn off Sports Center and raise their kids. Church-goers stood to applaud. They wanted him to testify against absent black fathers and in turn praise them. They were, after all, there with him, bearing the burden of the fallen.

Obamas biography guaranteed his words. His father abandoned him leaving a shared blackness to cover up the absence. Yet his speech succeeded not because of his sincerity but the passion of his listeners. The black middle class needs him to speak their anger. They laughed bitterly over Chris Rocks 1996 routine Niggas Versus Black People, nodded silently at Bill Cosbys 2004 Pound Cake speech and transformed the 2007 Don Imus controversy into a referendum on Hip Hop.

Obama is the icon of black middle class and this allows him to work the updraft of two groups united in their resentment of the black working poor. White voters who believe their hard earned wages are being taxed and given to blacks on welfare and the black elite itself, weary of carrying the weight of a shared destiny. The shared resentment fused into the image of the absent black father. Yet one father Obama couldnt speak about is William Bell, whose slain son marks the limit of Obamas liberal lyricism.

On the Saturday before Fathers Day, William Bell organized a rally for his son in Jamaica, Queens. I took the train and bus to Roy Wilkins Park and found the gathering. It was less than a hundred people, standing politely, listening but bored, hot but willing to stand in the sun for the promise, if not reality, of justice.

William Bell sat on stage quietly as the speakers took the podium. Some offered clichs, some a poignant analysis of a beleaguered people. I looked at him and thought, here was a father who did right. He raised Sean who stumbled from one arrest to another, got his girlfriend Nicole Paltre pregnant and had two daughters by her. Slowly Sean was turning himself around. He became engaged to Nicole, was training to be an electrician and was going to marry her the day he was shot down by the NYPD. He was 23-year-old. Its that almost completed redemption that makes people ache.

Its what drew Shane Blackwell, a 31-year-old city employee to the rally. He told me of his three brothers. One killed in a shooting, another in jail for 47 years. These streets play for keeps, he said. Ive got a wife and kids. I dont smoke, dont drink. I keep it real straight, but while driving Im pulled over by a cop who is hostile. I was afraid for my life. He shakes his head as if to tear away from the memory.

As I left the rally, I saw Shane and Mr. Bell; two black fathers on the other side of Obamas speech. They did the right thing. One survived to become a father. The other raised his son to become one. Yet the historical violence visited on black people destroyed Bell anyway. Its a violence that Obama acknowledged in his Fathers Day speech as A tragic history. I remember him leaning into the microphone, But we cant keep using that as an excuse. He paused to know if he stepped over the line or nudged it. The church-goers stood and clapped. His voice deepened to hammer in his gain, We cant keep using that as an excuse.

Excuse means to explain a fault, so Obama tells us behind the fault of white supremacy is our complicity with it. So, what if absent black fathers came home? What if they saw the only way to raise black children is to first change themselves; feel the pain beneath their anger, cure the fear that makes their pride so combustible. What if they saw that wasnt enough because city schools graduate only half our children and too few jobs exist after graduation? What if they saw their children entering a corrupt society that feeds off their failures?

These fully present black fathers would not use history as an excuse. Theyd become history by changing the world into what their children need. Their demands would terrify politicians, including Obama. During his speech, Obama yelled into the microphone, The change is not going to come from the government. The change is going to come from us. I hope so, because if it does, he is going to have a lot to answer for.

Nicholas Powers is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Old Westbury. Click here to contact Mr. Powers.

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June 26, 2008
Issue 283

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield

Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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