It's one of those wouldn't-it-be-wonderful-if stories, and it would have made a lovely Father's Day column if I had come across it in time. A young man has asked the court to declare that he is the father of a boy born three years ago to an unwed mother. And it's not just any young man who filed the unorthodox paternity suit. It is LeVar Burton, the 26-year-old actor who played the young Kunta Kinte in the TV series "Roots."
Burton said he hadn't even known of the child's existence. But, according to his attorney, Gloria Allred, "after tests confirmed the child was, in fact, his, he decided to do everything possible to assume equal responsibility for his son." He asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to grant him joint legal custody and visitation rights. He also volunteered to pay $600 a month child support. "I grew up in a broken home, raised by my mother," he explained. "I would like for (my son) to have the benefits of both parents."
Wouldn't it be wonderful if more fathers took seriously their responsibilities toward their children, including those born out of wedlock? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could come to grips with the fact that for every unwed mother who must do what she can to rear her offspring there is an unwed father for whom the enterprise is more or less optional?
Scores of recent studies agree that the children most at risk--economically, socially, educationally--are children of single parents. Single-parent families are the fastest-growing poverty group in America, and the disproportionate contributor to this pool of poverty is the father-absent black family. There are a lot of reasons this is so, among them the fact that low-income black males find it harder than their female counterparts to get work; the fact that oppression is particularly erosive of the qualities we regard as "manly"; the fact that marriage and family no longer are the central values they used to be in America.
But one reason, too, is that, for some of us at least, taking care of a family is no longer a major part of being a man. Our cities are full of young (and not-so- young) men who are proud to have proven their manhood by getting their girlfriends pregnant. They go around with their chests poked out when they might more appropriately hang their heads in shame.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if reaching out to take care of out-of-wedlock children became the "macho" thing to do? Wouldn't it be wonderful if the ascription of manliness that used to come from merely siring children were withheld from men who fail to take care of their children to the best of their ability?
The thing about LeVar Burton is that he understands that manhood isn't about making babies. He said he didn't know that his one-night encounter with a young woman he hardly knew had produced a baby until the district attorney told him. But once he found out, he moved quickly to meet his parental responsibility. Wouldn't it be wonderful if LeVar Burton's became the accepted definition of what it is to be a man?