This article had the potential to be my song.
The writer should certainly be commended. She penned a fact driven, well-written article that grappled with some of the complex issues that surround paternity. But some things about this piece, and the pictures that complemented the coverage, utterly disappointed me. The root of the problem was the racial stereotypes of black fatherhood that were reinforced.
I knew something was up when I did a mouse-scroll over the pictures of the Dads involved in paternity disputes. I was greeted with white father after white father clutching some paraphernalia that attested to his involvement in his child’s life. Then the lone black man appeared, head facing down, sans stuffed animal. It is true that two of the men in the photographs are repeated. But this doesn’t take away from the visual message that was sent: white fathers are present fathers; black fathers are absent ones.
The exhaustive article profiled men who were legally mandated to shoulder the child support costs of children after DNA testing revealed they were not the father. No photograph revealed the identity of the men who, in some cases have married the mother of these children, evaded supporting their biological children. Thus, black men weren’t indicted by the run of the mill, dead beat dad label per se. But as the narrative on fatherhood evolved to focus on the behaviors of non-biological fathers, black men remained the villain.
The heartless ass-hat award went to the black man pictured, Carnell Smith, an activist of the men’s rights variety. His claim to fame was a law he helped pass in Georgia that took non-biological fathers off the hook financially for paying child support — regardless of how this impacted the child involved.
Then we learned about the fate of the child Smith helped raise for 11 years. After he figured out they didn’t share the same DNA, he abandoned her:
Chandria, who is now 20, remembers it, Smith just disappeared from her life. “I was just a kid, so I didn’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “He never did explain why he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.” Chandria says he wouldn’t answer when she called him at home, or he would promise to call back but never did. Smith says he doesn’t recall Chandria calling him.
She stopped seeing friends and holed up in the bathroom, scratching and picking at her skin until it bled. The more it hurt, she told me, the calmer she felt. Her hair started to fall out, her grades slipped and she had trouble sleeping, details her mother and her mother’s lawyer at the time corroborated. Chandria received counseling at her school and privately for years.
Smith’s behavior was a stark contrast to the white fathers who challenged payment of child support only to the extent that it wouldn’t compromise the relationship they had with their non-biological child. The thought of losing the child for one white father was described as “terrifying.” Additionally, the other white father photographed pursued custody of his non-biological child. It’s also worth noting that Smith was not the downtrodden, low-income brotha who slipped through the cracks. He is an engineer. He has policy literacy, his own non-profit and enough clout in the red state of Georgia to pass legislation on — of all things — paternity. Thus, the weight of his actions were even more damning, as he was outnumbered by white fathers who put the best interest of their children over sticking it to a former partner.
In the end, I am not suggesting that the state of black fatherhood doesn’t deserve attention and even scrutiny or that Smith’s story wasn’t factual and important to include in a paternity article. But it is clear that the writer has chosen the voice of Smith over other voices of Black men that are just as valuable. This NYT’s piece has reinscribed the Maury Povichesque portrayal of black men cheering in glee, exiting stage left once he learns he is “not the father.” I can’t say by the numbers how many men of color who are happily raising children who are biologically linked to another male. But I know they are out there and deserved recognition in a news story with almost endless inches to spare. It’s just disarming to know that for as many miles this writer traveled to capture the complexities of paternity, on the question of race, she came up disastrously short.