Apologies to black fathers

Courtland Milloy
Columnist March 25, 2012

In a column last week, “Time for black fathers to stand their ground,” I unfairly cast two men in an unfavorable light: Tracy Martin, father of the slain 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and Chad Shumate, father of Jordan Shumate, a 14-year-old who had complained about being subjected to racial taunts by a teacher at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church.

The column noted that public protests by the boys’ mothers had ignited widespread calls for justice, but the implication was that the lower profile of the fathers, by comparison, meant that they were somehow less involved. I want to correct that misimpression: Shumate is deeply concerned about his son. Martin was, too, before Trayvon was shot and killed by a so-called neighborhood watch volunteer last month in Sanford, Fla.

Neither father asked for an apology, but the response from readers — and a subsequent conversation with Shumate — helped me to realize that I owed them one. So I have written letters to both men and offered my condolences to the Martin family. May justice be done.

Some readers also asked what was the point of the column if not to make black men look bad.

“This strange distinction between the response of black mothers vs. that of black fathers is so bizarre and unnecessary that I can’t even figure out what might be going through Milloy’s head to make him write a whole column about it. . . . Something is eating at him [and] it’s messing with his ability to do his job,” one reader said.

Actually, I could use some help.

Between 1975, when I moved to the Washington area, and 2011, there have been 12,988 homicides reported in the District, according to FBI statistics. Many of the victims were black youngsters being raised by single mothers, and they were killed by other blacks who had been raised the same way.

Whenever I attend a wake or a funeral for one of them, or sit in on their murder trials, I look for the fathers. Many times, the person I see holding the family together is a grandmother.

This eats at me.

If there is any good to come out of that flawed column about black men last week, it may be a conversation I had with Shumate after it was published. He reminded me how complex relationships between parents can be these days, especially if they are separated or divorced. How much time a father can spend with his children is not always up to him.

“My son has never experienced racism the way it was in my youth,” said Shumate, 44, who grew up in the Washington area. “We had a talk about racism and what had happened at his school. It opened his eyes, and we were able to turn a negative into a positive.”

Looking for similar transformations, I’ve been combing the news for stories about black fathers who are using Trayvon’s tragedy to talk to their sons about staying alive on the streets. But the overwhelming majority of the accounts I’ve come across have been written by or about mothers.

One mother says she doesn’t allow her 12-year-old son to stick his hands out of the car’s windows because it could be seen as “throwing a gang sign.”

Another mother tells her son to “keep your hands out of your pocket because people perceive that as threatening or they may think that you’ve stolen something.”

Yet another warns: “Don’t talk back to police officers. . . . Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, be prepared to enter a world that often views you with suspicion, and sometimes fear.”

Some of the responses to Trayvon’s death sound as if the boys are growing up in Mississippi during the 1950s. So much for dreams of growing up to be like President Obama. Now they’ll be having nightmares about getting lynched for looking white people in the eye.

This is not to imply that black men don’t have “the talk” with their sons — or to presume that their advice would be any less chilling: a lesson learned from last week’s mistake. But the question still eats at me: Where are the fathers?

To read Courtland Milloy’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
milloy
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