AWOL Black Fathers
Long Island, New York, 1945 / Alamy 

AWOL Black Fathers

John Washington
John Washington
13 min read

When my mother called me in from play one afternoon to meet the man seated in our living room, her introduction was redundant—I immediately knew who he was. And, right off, I did not like him. His absence had been a painful matter in my life. The house that we lived in explained some of it. It was unfit for human tenancy—a decaying hovel with a leaking roof, creaking structures, and a termite infestation. I was ashamed to let anyone other than my closest friends know where I lived.

I was 12 that year of 1956. This was the Jim Crow South where poverty was the default condition of the black masses. Black males were restricted to the lowly crafts of ditch digger, janitor, and farmer, unless they catered directly to the black community, in which case the jobs of preacher, teacher, and shop-owner were also open. Most worked the hardscrabble categories so there was poverty all around, and since my mother was the only breadwinner, our poverty was wretched.

But this is not a story of black victimhood. This is, instead, an essay about a flaw in black culture that is just as uncomfortable for me to speak about as it is for my black brothers and sisters to hear. But a problem must be acknowledged before it can be fixed. And the failure of black fathers is among the worst problems afflicting our community.


My mother was a maid. Since her $25-a-week salary did not go very far, I was a skinny kid with a constant cold, owing to a poor diet and a house that grew Arctic in the winter months. There was a wood stove in the living room and another in the kitchen but their heat did not radiate beyond those rooms. We only ever used the kitchen stove for cooking in order to save fuel. To keep warm during winter, we slept under five blankets. If a glass of water was left out overnight, it had iced over by morning. There was no hot running water.

The poverty programs back then were designed to ensure survival. They were not like those today which help a person through life. Even if programs like those had been available, my mother’s stubborn pride would not have allowed her to use them. I am not criticizing the safety net of our current welfare system. I am a liberal. But my mother’s code of honor was simply part of who she was—a tough lady.

Most devastating for me was the psychological impact of my father’s absence. The most miserable moments of my childhood were when other kids asked me where my father was. In the days before we understood conception, I could just tell them that I just didn’t have one. But after we all learned a bit of biology, the question became so upsetting that on a few occasions I had to walk away from play activities.

I didn’t know what to tell them because my mother refused to speak of this man, even when I asked. He was a forbidden topic in her house, and so I learned to keep my mouth shut. I found out later from an uncle that my father regularly beat my mother which is why she divorced him when I was born. This shows her grit and gumption, for in those days, women could scarcely fend for themselves economically, and so battered wives were condemned to suffer as punching bags. But not my mother.

Growing up without a dad made me feel as though I lacked the full humanity and manhood of my cousins, friends, and classmates. From what I can recall, every other black home seemed to have a father. Southern blacks were already second-class citizens and I felt even lower than those around me. And since I did not have the self-confidence and self-esteem of my male peers, I sought adventures later in life to compensate. In the Army, I volunteered for paratroop units, fought in Vietnam, and was disciplined for insubordination four times. I boxed as an amateur. I drove at 120 miles an hour on the German Autobahn. I ran marathons. I worked as a demolitions specialist and as a long-haul truck driver. And I would hang out with some of the most ferocious males I could find.

Does the criminal behavior of some young black males today owe something to a sense of lost masculinity? I feel sure that this is so. A friend who works as an Army recruiter told me that so many black males have criminal records, the military is no longer the instrument for building machismo that it was when I joined. So, in inner-city communities where viciousness defines manhood, darker paths have become the option.

In 1965, a controversial report entitled “The Negro Family: A Case of National Action” was published by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist working at the Labor Department. Moynihan concluded that a lot of the social problems affecting American blacks owed to the disintegration of the black family. “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society,” he wrote, “is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” He went on:

As a direct result of this high rate of divorce, separation, and desertion, a very large percent of Negro families are headed by females. While the percentage of such families among whites has been dropping since 1940, it has been rising among Negroes.

The percent of nonwhite families headed by a female is more than double the percent for whites. Fatherless nonwhite families increased by a sixth between 1950 and 1960, but held constant for white families.

It has been estimated that only a minority of Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents.

Once again, this measure of family disorganization is found to be diminishing among white families and increasing among Negro families.

These figures were troubling, but they only offered a hint of what was to come. By the time the “Moynihan Report, Revisited” was published in 2013, 73 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers. The figure for non-Hispanic white children was 29 percent:

I was stunned. A few months ago, I mentioned this to a black activist who was working on the problem of black violence in a nearby town. He had been trying to figure out why violence seemed to be endemic among their young black males and had reached a dead end. When I suggested that father-absence was not properly socializing black youth and asked him if he had read the Moynihan Report, he told me that the report was written by racist right-wingers determined to condemn blacks for their own misfortunes. I didn’t bring it up with him again. For now, the town’s solution is recreation centers.

It was not the first time I had heard the report dismissed in this way. It was basically the attitude of the black community upon the report’s publication. The backlash from the community was so militant and damning—reviling its author in the process—that the Johnson Administration dropped the issue and turned its attention to the Vietnam War. This reaction was not entirely surprising, given the demonization of blacks by many whites since first contact in the 1400s. Denigration used to justify outrageous and dehumanizing treatment produced a hypersensitivity among blacks that reflexively prevents us from accepting criticism from outsiders. Criticism from insiders has become something like heresy.

I understand this, owing to some of the dehumanizing circumstances I have experienced. I have been beaten by whites and called a nigger. I have been refused jobs, and was denied the right to vote in my state after I returned dazed and traumatized from the blood-spattered jungles of Vietnam. However, America has changed enormously since my youth and some of us do not seem to want to leave the dark caves of slavery and Jim Crow behind. Yes, racism persists, but it is no longer the principal cause of our damnation; that spot has been seized by cultural deviance. Progress cannot be made until we admit this and free ourselves from self-victimization.


Moral responsibility is something I had to discover for myself on a personal level. One morning in August 2018, I awoke on the floor of my dining room caked in my own vomit and too drunk to pull myself up to answer the doorbell. It was not the first time that this had happened during my decades of drinking. As I struggled to my knees, retching, I had an epiphany—I understood that I did not have to continue to live my life like this.

I had isolated myself in my house for a two-week binge during which I had hallucinated at night and did not eat properly or shower or shave for days. Twice retired, I had all the money necessary for my survival, and my drinking buddies resupplied me with wine, food (when I was able to get it down), and all of the companionship and merriment I needed until I passed out. I had started drinking after my infantry tour in Vietnam where I lost 48 friends. My miserable psyche refused to leave the battlefield, and now I had the memories of two broken marriages to add to those of an unhappy childhood. Booze gushed into my life like monsoon rain.

But as I staggered about the house trying to orient myself, I realized that I had to find a new and better path. I did not have to self-destruct. Even though I felt that my life’s circumstances had flung me into a chasm of despair, it was up to me to find a way to shoulder my troubles and go on. The house stank of the litter and wine bottles that were flung about. As I gagged on a glass of wine to calm my shakes, I took an honest look at myself and I did not like what I saw. I finally understood that I had to stop using my past as a scapegoat. I was face to face with the ogre who tormented me, and it was me.

After a dreadful three weeks of withdrawal filled with self-doubt and the threat of relapse, I got back on my feet. I have been sober ever since. And I think of that morning as a metaphor for the moment at which the black community finds itself now—do we continue down a destructive road of self-pity or do we try to take control of our lives, recover our self-respect, and grapple with the problems produced by a damaged black culture.

My childhood was filled with influential male role models who tackled life with guts and grit even though they were bent double by their humble labors and by the indignities of Jim Crow. These were my maternal grandfather, uncles, older cousins, and the responsible black fathers in the neighborhood, who took care of my early development as a young man until I got to the Army. I was part of a large clan that formed a protective ring around my mother and me. I was passed around my maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older cousins who looked after me while my mother worked as a maid.

When I map these early experiences onto the experience of the black community today, I am angered that such a support system no longer exists. Where are my people? I would not have survived some of today’s inner-city neighborhoods plagued by high rates of father absence and no fill-in dads. Without family, homo sapiens would be a failed species.


I don’t remember much about the encounter with my father, except that he appeared to be unusually battered for a 56-year-old. He spoke with a black southern brogue that exposed his lack of education but he held himself with a kind of boldness. He was civil enough. I learned much later in my life that he had worked as a janitor and had no education. He had been married before he met my mother, and was married to another woman when he came to see me.

I don’t recall most of the conversation in that room, but I do remember him telling my mother that he wanted to take me for a drive so we could have a man-to-man talk. I did not want to go anywhere with this stranger and I balked, but my mother overruled me and soon I was sitting in his ragged car. At least he had one—most black men in that town still did not.

I was withdrawn and monosyllabic. He asked me if I was circumcised and, thank God, that was all of the sexual talk I got from him. “Is there anything you want?” he asked. “An ice cream sandwich,” I replied. He left me in the car while he went into the town’s black drug store only to return empty-handed. “They don’t have them,” he said and then drove me back to the hovel without stopping anywhere else. He didn’t even offer me the dime they cost at the time. I don’t remember much else about the drive.

Isn’t a father supposed to know whether or not his son is circumcised? And if the store is out of ice cream sandwiches, aren’t there other substitutable items? Weren’t there other stores that sold them? And isn’t your man-to-man talk with your son supposed to be about morality and his obligations to his family and so on?

I tried to do better by my own son and provide him with a role model, but I will honestly admit that my efforts fell short of excellence. I was never about to be selected as father-of-the-year, but I gave it my best shot under the circumstances. At least I was there and made certain that my son was never cold in winter, that his belly was full, that he understood morality, and that he knew that if he had kids, he would have to take care of them. And he has.

My son and I have put my splendid grandson on notice too—he is now 23 and he knows that if he brings a child into the world he will have to take care of it emotionally, socially, and financially. He will not be just another sperm donor, swaggering cluelessly about the neighborhood. He understands us well enough to know that this is what is expected of him now.

The following infographic was produced by the non-profit National Fatherhood Initiative uses US Census Bureau data to illustrate the cost to children of fatherless families:

Astonishingly, the subject of father-absence remains taboo among many black activists, even though the rate of father-absence among blacks is horrifying. For these activists, any attempt to discuss black cultural failures is a kind of victim-blaming and a distraction from what really ails the black community—the persistence of white supremacy.

The FBI’s crime database contains more chilling and embarrassing facts—data so inglorious that it took me a long time to accept them. I love my people and what I was reading left me angered and distressed. But I was not looking at opinion, I was looking at indisputable statistics, and they began to alter the way I thought about myself and my people. They finally cleared my psyche of victimology.

The FBI's expanded homicide statistics are based on reports from 15,875 of 18,623 law enforcement agencies across the country, so they are incomplete. Nevertheless, in 2020, the year that George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were murdered, at least 9,941 blacks were killed. Blacks make up 13 percent of the US population, but in 2020 they accounted for 56 percent of all homicide victims. A fact-checking report by USA Today based on FBI data established that rates of intraracial homicide are relatively stable—“Between 1980–2008, the U.S. Department of Justice found that 84% of white victims were killed by white offenders and 93% of Black victims were killed by Black offenders.” We did this to ourselves.

Of the 615,989 violent crime offenders arrested in 2020, 273,595 were black, which means that 13 percent of the US population committed 44 percent of these offenses. For robbery, 58 percent of offenses were committed by blacks, and blacks were responsible for 42 percent of aggravated assaults. These percentages are repeated, with slight variations, back to 1985. And since violent crime offenders are overwhelmingly male, we are actually speaking about 6.5 percent of the US population, not 13 percent.

Source: FBI Crime Data Explorer

Curious to know how domestic homicide figures compared to US combat fatalities sustained during the Vietnam War, I added up the number of black homicide victims between 2011 and 2020. In Vietnam, the US lost 47,434 soldiers in combat. Over the 10-year period ending in 2020, 73,906 blacks were murdered in their own country, overwhelmingly by other blacks.

When I called a friend and told him what I had discovered, he didn’t want to hear it. He kept changing the subject until I gave up. On a later call, another one of my friends became enraged by my failure to appreciate that black males “under assault from whites” were forced into impossible situations. But whatever the disadvantages faced by blacks in a majority-white society with a legacy of slavery and segregation, these are surely aggravated by poor choices.

I have seen and experienced the distressing effects of father-absence in my own life. The family is the foundational police force, and if it is not there to govern behavior and instill values in our youth, statistics like those I have cited should not come as a surprise. So, where is the activism? Where is the appetite to address family dysfunction and to take an honest look at ourselves?


About six months after my father’s only visit, my mother called me into the house from the front door. When I entered the living room, she looked at me solemnly and said, “Your father died today.”

“Okay,” I replied and went back to play in the yard. No big deal, I thought. However, it turned out to be one of the most important developments in my life. A few months later, during the coldest winter of my memory, my social security check hit the mailbox. I had finally got my ice cream sandwich and the first sense of my legitimacy. I had been authenticated by law.

Things improved then and we were able to move up the socioeconomic ladder, just a bit. But are things improving for my people? I don’t think that will happen until black fathers return to the job. We cannot continue to blame all of our problems on racism. If the black family can be restored, and if we can recover the dignity and self-respect that we have lost, we will find that we have finally arrived in the Promised Land.

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John Washington

John Washington is a center-left liberal and retired father and grandfather living in North Carolina.