“Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge” by Etan Thomas with Nick Chiles
By MICHAEL LINDGREN,
This inspirational meditation on fatherhood from former Washington Wizards forward Etan Thomas offers a lot to chew on, both as a primer for thoughtful fathers and children and as a particularly trenchant entry in the ongoing conversation on parenthood and race. In addition to relating his journey into fatherhood, Thomas has enlisted a cohort of men from the worlds of sports, music and media to add their stories, with the resulting chorus providing a stream of warning, encouragement and guidance.
Although Thomas maintains that “being a good father is an issue that crosses color lines,” there is no doubt that “Fatherhood” is intended mainly for black men and their families. Several times Thomas mentions that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in single-parent households, one of those oft-cited statistics that seems to reflect the reader’s presuppositions as much as it sheds clarity or insight. Is the problem cultural? Economic? Educational? Historical? Into the maw of this immensely complex and deeply emotional topic Thomas has launched this earnest, deeply felt, sometimes muddled book.
Thomas’s story deserves hearing in that it both typifies and diverges from standard conceptions of African American masculinity. Like many black men, he was raised largely by a single mother — in his case, in a working-class part of Tulsa. Playing in the NBA is, of course, the most visible and widely emulated black success story. Perhaps less conventionally, however, Thomas is a passionately engaged student of American history, of politics — his blistering speech denouncing neoconservative bromides was a highlight of a 2005 antiwar rally in Washington — of poetry and of music from jazz to rap. His love for his three young children is open and moving; his respect for his wife and his mother is sincere and unaffected. When Thomas writes about the importance of fathers as role models, he’s leading from the front.
That’s not to say all is sweetness and light in his world, however. Thomas writes eloquently of his father’s absence from his life and the pain it caused him: “From the day my father first walked out our front door when I was six years old, anger has been a constant in my life.” He is blunt about his differences with his coaches Jim Boeheim (Syracuse University) and Doug Collins (the Wizards), and he is openly irritated by former NFL great Jim Brown’s suggestion that to come from a single-parent household is to be doomed to a life of mediocrity.
Thomas is as scornful of gangsta culture and the ethos of conspicuous consumption (“He doesn’t even have any ice on,” one young L.A. teen says dismissively of Thomas) as he is of No Child Left Behind and for-profit prison management. Most tellingly, Thomas rejects the “virtual tidal wave of negativity” that he hears in contemporary rap and hip-hop and the “scandalously inappropriate” videos that go with it, although, charmingly, he admits that “I know I must sound like an old man now, the crotchety dude on the corner complaining about ‘these young folks.’ ”
While Thomas’s fulminations are heartfelt, they border on the repetitious; they are helpfully broken up by mini-essays from men ranging from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Tony Hawk to Mumia Abu-Jamal. As varied as the authors are, these pieces serve mainly as unsurprising corroborations of the importance of fatherhood, although any book that brings the words of Howard Dean and Yao Ming between the same covers is noteworthy. The authors of these testimonials fall, broadly, into two camps: those who had a strong father figure in their lives and are grateful for it (“The power of a man in a boy’s life is amazing,” affirms Rep. Elijah Cummings), and those who did not, and felt damaged or incomplete because of the hole in their lives (“It made my blood boil,” in the words of NBA star Derrick Coleman). “This is a delicate topic for me, for all of us,” Thomas writes, “because I understand that there are going to be many, many fathers reading this who are no longer living with their children.”
Meanwhile, it seems sour but somehow essential to point out that the very men most in need of a stern bucking-up in the fatherhood department are also the ones least likely or able to fork over 26 bucks for said pep talk, regardless of how compelling its author may be.
Thomas’s book is thus part polemic, part scolding, part exhortation and part inspirational tale. It suffers from diffusion and a lack of focus, largely because its author is so careful not to say anything outrageous or openly confrontational, choosing his words to avoid being drawn into the noisy crossfire of competing agendas. Caught in the contradictions that all such cultural controversies feed on, he veers between self-righteousness and sympathy, between calls for personal responsibility and outrage at discrimination and prejudice. Know that the odds are stacked against you, he says, but don’t give up; abandoning your children is bad, but being raised by a single parent is not a death sentence. These “dual messages,” as Thomas calls them, make for a tricky line to walk — balancing street cred with idealism, anger with acceptance — but for the most part he pulls it off with aplomb. Fathers of any skin color would do well to emulate him.
Michael Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.
FATHERHOOD Rising to the Ultimate Challenge By Etan Thomas with Nick Chiles New American Library. 290 pp. $25.95