THE HALLMARK PROBLEM
Let me begin this conversation by stating that a single mother raised me and that I have a great relationship with my father even though, for reasons beyond my control, he could not be an everyday presence in my life growing up. I was deeply affected by his absence and have had to work through my own issues as I struggle to be the best husband and father possible. I love my Mom and believe that she had to be twice the mother, than was to be expected, due to our circumstances. In my opinion, being twice the mother is extremely honorable and should definitely be celebrated, however, it does not make you a father. I often walk through the greeting card section of various stores around Father’s Day to see how big the display will be or if the card aisle is nearly empty the way it is when I am trying to find a card on Mother’s Day.
Usually, I have my pick of cards because the aisles are still well stocked even though the selection is considerably smaller. This year as I perused the aisle I came across a card that instantly infuriated me. After carefully looking it over I realized my issue with this card was deeper than the sentiment behind it but also the incorrect and incomplete narrative it perpetuates about fatherhood, motherhood and the value of black life. (Disclaimer: After visiting their website I did find that Hallmark discontinued the printing and shipping of the card in 2014. The card I saw must have admittedly been a straggler. Here is a link
to their corporate statement.
MOTHERHOOD IS EXCEPTIONAL
I want to begin by pointing out that as the product of a single mother I believe motherhood should be celebrated. Our mother's are the holders and nurturers of life. Even for women who may never experience childbirth (I would like to say I see you) the ability to nurture and sustain life is a gift available for any woman who takes up the mantle. As the product of a single mother and a bit of a Momma’s boy, I would like to say that I believe motherhood should be celebrated, however it is also often idolized. As a society, we have fallen prey to the notion that fathers are expendable and then continue to wonder why many fathers are living into the expectations. I often do a training activity where individuals get in a circle and place labels on the foreheads of others in the circle. The group is asked to plan a community barbecue while treating one another as the label on their head. Some labels are perceived positively and others negatively. What happens is usually one of two responses either the individual completely rebels against the label and continues to participate fully in the planning or they live into the label and participate only as much is expected.Sometimes they even leave the group in frustration. Real life labels are no different; people will either rebel or most likely live into them. Mothers are celebrated, as they should be, and are given the label of exceptionality however, even on the day set aside to celebrate them, fathers can often feel labeled as expendable.
FATHERHOOD IS EXPENDABLE
The absence of a father and the effect it has on children has been well documented. Statistics show that a child who is raised without a father is more likely to end up in a marginal society role and to struggle as an adult. According to the US Census Bureau, children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. Many men who have grown up without fathers find themselves passionately trying to break the cycle for their families because they know that fatherhood is not expendable. The sentiment this card shares is no help to a father battling the uncertainty, insecurity and fear of trying to do something he never saw modeled. It reinforces for him that even if he gives up and walks away everything will be fine because Mom can just fill his role. I don’t believe mothers truly believe this but the narrative is still perpetuated. Once again, let me say that being twice the mother is honorable and necessary but it does not make you a father. Rather than slighting all of the fathers and father figures who are involved in children's lives by taking the one day set aside for fathers to celebrate mother’s again, we should be celebrating the uncles, brothers, grandfathers, stepfathers, godfathers mentors, teachers and other father figures that have stepped up in the absence of biological fathers. As a majority African American church, this is how Canaan decided to celebrate the fathers and father figures in our community; we would never accentuate negative family aspects on a day to celebrate, to us that is a form of exploitation.
BLACKS IN THE "HOOD" ARE EXPLOITABLE
Of course, many will wonder why I am making this about race when it is just a Father's Day card. However, I need to point out that this card is a part of Hallmark's Mahogany line which is described on their website as cards, ornaments and gifts that honor and laud African-American traditions and authentic culture. Let me begin by saying statistics definitively prove that the rate of fatherlessness in the African- American community is higher than in other communities but it is far from only a black family issue. According to the US Census Bureau 67% of black children, 53% of Native children, 42% of Hispanic children, and 25% of white children are all living absent their biological fathers.
As do most of you, I personally know many children (and adults) who struggle with Fathers Day because of the absence of or even the loss of fathers. However, the problem with this card is not that it is an inaccurate depiction of a huge issue we experience in our community but the fact that it can in no way deal with the systemic reasons behind this phenomenon. By designing this card Hallmark was perpetuating an incomplete narrative of fatherhood in the black community and making a generalized statement without any commentary on how the issue became a reality. This is once again a form of exploitation especially since there were no similar cards in Hallmark's regular line. (of course this has changed.) It is another way that black life is a constructed paradigm in this country rather than a reality to be lived out in all of its diversity. While others have nuanced narratives ours is created, packaged and sold to us to consume as truth. This is our reality and it is once again a way our country continues to show it does not value black life. To place that card on the shelf without any recognition of the structures and systems that have helped to create the reality is to perpetuate a singular narrative of personal responsibility that I see as victim blaming. Now don't get me wrong, I will agree there are some brothers who are making personal decisions that are further damaging the black family structure. However, I am also aware that no one makes decisions in isolation and every decision we make whether helpful or hurtful has a story behind it and a social context from which it is informed. This is what makes those six words on the front of that card both inadequate and extremely problematic.
BLACK PARENTHOOD IS NOT EQUIVALENT
I understand that some people, especially black single moms, may think I am overreacting. They will see this as just a harmless card that is celebrating single mother's, who definitely need to be doubly celebrated. I agree with the sentiment of doubly celebrating single moms but disagree that this card is harmless. What Hallmark has done, on a day when Fathers are to be celebrated, is to drive a further wedge between mothers and the fathers of their children, children and their absentee fathers while perpetuating a narrative that black fathers are not only absent but also expendable. This narrative is not only incomplete but also incorrect! This cards sentiment is only acceptable because black life has been limited to a singular narrative that looks something like this. “A young “baby mama” with four different “baby daddies” none of whom are in the babies lives.” What frustrates me the most is not just the incomplete narrative but the fact that if this is the reality of someone’s current life circumstances, we as a society look down on them as some sort of an unwanted prototype of black life. Its like were trying to make them feel less human! The fact that this card was only part of the Mahogany line further proves that black parenthood is looked at lesser and our norms as black people in this country are prescribed rather than described. What this means is that the card designer believes they know black parenthood and so rather than observe or interview the black community they can just tell the black family what it should look like.
In America race complicates everything, which is why social issues cannot be addressed apart from an open and honest race dialogue. Black fatherhood and the black family have been under attack since we were forcefully brought to this country. Although the attack has taken many forms and continues to morph with each generation, we are all aware that it has not stopped. With that being said, I would like to say to the Mahogany line of the Hallmark company, creating a line of greeting cards which appeal to black culture in no way confirms your value for black life. Since you have taken on the task of representing our culture in the public sphere you also carry the responsibility of being careful how you represent us. Removing the card from production and shipping was a start but the stragglers still left on shelves are a reminder of the bigger issue, the monolithically degrading way black life is portrayed in this country. To the African American community, we must hold corporations, media outlets and politicians accountable for the way they portray our community. We cannot continue to endorse them by consuming or regurgitating the consistently incomplete narratives of black life often created for us. To every black mother whom, jokingly or honestly, asked, “Where’s my gift?” on Father’s Day, my answer to you is that you received it in May. I challenge you to read my words not as dismissal of real life family struggles but as a public cry for fathers to truly matter in the family structure. If we keep creating low expectations for fatherhood we cannot continue to be surprised when fathers reach those expectations. I also challenge you to see it as a part of our larger collective cry for black lives to matter in this country. Before we spend our money with companies, like Hallmark, we need to ask ourselves if the images and language portrayed are an affirmation or an attack on our collective identity.