The Washington Post

Finding fatherhood

There are many black men in this city who are considered to be nothing but statistics: Another ex-con. An unskilled, unemployed worker. A deadbeat dad.

Twenty-five-year-old James McClain is trying to transcend the labels. He spent three and a half years in Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland on a drug charge. He’s been out since 2008 and for nearly each of his days as a free man he’s taken care of his six-year-old son, Jehrylle- alone. McClain received full custody from the court earlier this year. The struggle is a daily one: They’ve slept in homeless shelters and on relative's couches.

He’s working part time, but is looking for a full time gig. And even though he has his own place, nothing is secure: he’s fighting eviction. In his spare time, he tries to manage and produce local music artists. But even as he pieces his life back together, he thinks constantly: “How can I be the best father to my son? How can I make up for time lost?”

James McClain and his six-year-old son Jehrylle wait for the bus. (Chris L. Jenkins/The Washington Post)

Most of the time, when I was in, after listening to them I began thinking: I have a piece of me waiting on the outside. I have a son. I have a seed waiting on me. Since then I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to be in his life full time. To be in the game. But I had to go through a process. It was never easy. But really, it’s been a time when my son and I gained the best relationship we could. And you know how I started? I started talking to him, telling him about my life, our life.

For me the integrity is important. Doing this the right way. Doing something and actually following through with something is really the most important thing. These kids man, they didn’t ask to come here. It’s on the individual to take care of the responsibilities that he’s faced with. My situation was more like - I was already late in terms of taking care of my responsibilities. In general my whole focus was... I didn’t want to repeat the cycle. I had to cut that off. I didn’t have my father. My son, at first didn’t have his...I was already late in that process, so I had to catch up so I didn’t take part in that cycle.

Even though I’m doing right, people are still reaching out, supporting me, so we can get things in order. The thing is I need stability. Paying attention to the small things, like... keeping a smile on his face. And this is not a situation where you can say: “Oh I’ll try this and try that” It’s not that because regardless things have to get done. I’m his father. I’m the type of person that I put a lot of pride on my shoulders - but I had to put my pride to the side because it’s not about me. It’s more about him because he’s my future. I gotta get things done. I may not have money to take him on the bus to get him to school, so we’ll get up extra early and make sure somehow we get there on time. I need to stay focused and positive. Make sure that I stay positive and he sees the positive things going on.

I try to teach my son everyday that even with what we’re going though, to stay positive. I teach him to say his prayers every morning. That we should be grateful for waking up another day. And I tell him and I tell myself that it will turn out okay if I continue to do what I’m supposed to do. That’s what keeps me going. Having faith.

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