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Journal ArticleDOI

Black Single Fathers: Choosing to Parent Full-Time

01 Aug 2002-Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 31, Iss: 4, pp 411-439

Abstract: This ethnographic study uses the narratives of African American, single, full-time fathers to explore the motivations precipitating their choice to parent. While the fathers had in common a number of demographic characteristics, such as full employment, residence, and support systems, which factored into their timing of and ability to take full custody, none of these are salient in their own narratives expressing why they wanted to be full-time fathers. Instead, their main motives centered on fulfilling a sense of duty and responsibility, reworking the effects of having had weak or absent fathers themselves, wanting to provide a role model for their children, and fulfilling an already established parent-child bond.

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Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
DOI: 10.1177/0891241602031004002
2002; 31; 411 Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
ROBERTA L. COLES
Black Single Fathers: Choosing to Parent Full-Time
http://jce.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/31/4/411
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JOURNALOF CONTEMPORARYETHNOGRAPHY /AUGUST2002Coles/ BLACKSINGLE FATHERS
BLACK SINGLE FATHERS
Choosing to Parent Full-Time
ROBERTA L. COLES
Marquette University
411
ROBERTA L. COLES is an assistant professor in the
Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at
Marquette University. Her research interests are in
war discourse analysis, race and ethnicity, and fam-
ily. Some of her work has been published in Sociologi-
cal Quarterly, Sociological Spectrum, Journal of
Aging Studies, and Cultural Studies/Critical Method-
ologies. Any comments or questions can be addressed
to the author at Roberta.coles@mu.edu.
...rather than
re-creating that
paternal motif in
their generation,
many of these men
found their lack of
a nurturing father
to be a
consciously
motivating factor
in their own
parenting
experience.
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 31 No. 4, August 2002 411-439
© 2002 Sage Publications
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This ethnographic study uses the narratives of African American, single,
full-time fathers to explore the motivations precipitating their choice to
parent. While the fathers had in common a number of demographic char-
acteristics, such as full employment, residence, and support systems,
which factored into their timing of and ability to take full custody, none of
these are salient in their own narratives expressing why they wanted to
be full-time fathers. Instead, their main motives centered on fulfilling a
sense of duty and responsibility, reworking the effects of having had
weak or absent fathers themselves, wanting to provide a role model for
their children, and fulfilling an already established parent-child bond.
F
or decades, in the popular media as well as in academic litera-
ture, African American men have seldom been viewed in the
context of a family. At best they are treated as a neutral sociological
construct—the black male—or worse, as an unattached danger to soci-
ety (Cochran 1997; Gadsden and Smith 1995; Madhubuti 1990;
Mirande 1991; Rutherford 1988; Staples 1986). While an increasing
number of studies have looked at married or cohabiting black men in
two-parent families (Ahmeduzzaman and Roopnarine 1992; Allen
1981; Bowman 1993; Bright and Williams 1996; Fagan 1998; McAdoo
1981, 1988a, 1988b, 1993; McAdoo and McAdoo 1994; Mirande
1991; Taylor, Leashore, and Toliver 1988; Wade 1994; for instance)
with respect to their child-rearing values, provider role, or gender rela-
tions, most recent studies (e.g., Barnes 1987; Christmon 1990;
Furstenberg, Morgan, and Allison 1987; Furstenberg and Harris 1993;
Hawkins and Eggebeen 1991; Lerman 1993; Lerman and Ooms 1993;
Marsiglio 1987, 1991a; Miller 1994; Mott 1990; Rivara, Sweeney, and
Henderson 1986; Robinson 1988), and the burgeoning number of gov-
ernment programs on “responsible fatherhood” as well (Johnson and
Sum 1987; Pirog-Good 1993; Savage 1987), have concentrated on sin-
gle black men who are nonresident fathers. This focus, along with the
high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and teen and nonmarital births
among African Americans as a group, has led to a close association
between the terms “black father” and “absent father” (Dowd 1997).
1
Fortunately, a number of these studies (Danziger and Radin 1990;
Seltzer 1991; Taylor et al. 1990; Wattenberg 1993) have indicated that
412 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY / AUGUST 2002
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author wishes to thank the men who generously gave of their time for this
study and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful criticisms. This study was funded by a grant
from Marquette University.
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the lack of marriage or coresidence with the mother does not necessarily
indicate parental noninvolvement, as might be inferred from the term
“absent. Indeed, while recent research on fathers in general indicates
that fatherhood is turning out to be a much more varied and complex
arrangement that defies simplistic categories, no study has looked at
single African American men who parent full-time. One would think
they are nonexistent, but most data indicate that they exist at a higher
rate than white single dads.
Eggebeen, Snyder, and Manning’s (1996) study of National Survey
of Families and Households data indicates that single-father families
represented 15.5 percent of all single-parent families with children and
that single-father families are increasingly formed by fathers who are
young, have never been married, and have low incomes and fewer chil-
dren. In each decade from 1960 to 1990, they found nonwhite children
more likely than white children to reside in father-only families.
Eggebeen, Snyder, and Manning’s reading of census data indicated that
by 1990, 3.3 percent of white children would be in father-only families,
while 5.6 percent of black children would be. However, 1992 census
data showed that 3.4 percent of black children seventeen years old or
younger lived in father-only households, compared to 3.3 percent of
their white counterparts (Diverse living arrangements of children 1993).
The confusion of these numbers is frequently exacerbated by the use
of a myriad of terms—single father, unwed father, father only, lone
fathers, father custody, and male-headed families—without distin-
guishing among them. For instance, father-custody families can include
fathers who have remarried,
2
and since white men have higher rates of
remarriage than black men, the percentage of white single-father cus-
tody may be overstated (Zill 1988).
In any case, the proportion of African American single-father fami-
lies seems to be at least as high as, or higher than, that of white single-
father families. Nevertheless, the glut of studies focusing on single-
father families, whether qualitative or quantitative, has focused on
white fathers (see Barker 1994; Bartz and Witcher 1978; Chang and
Deinard 1982; DeFrain and Eirick 1981; Gasser and Taylor 1976;
George and Wilding 1972; Gersick 1979; Greif 1982, 1985, 1990; Greif
and DeMaris 1989; Hanson 1981, 1986; Hipgrave 1982; Katz 1979;
Keshet and Rosenthal 1976; Mendex 1976; Orthner, Brown, and Fergu-
son 1976; Robinson and Barrett 1986; Risman 1986; Rosenthal and
Keshet 1981; Santrock and Warshak 1979; Smith and Smith 1981; and
Coles / BLACK SINGLE FATHERS 413
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Tedder, Libbee, and Scherman 1981). Not one has focused on African
American single fathers with custody of children.
Despite the fact that African American men tend to be disadvantaged
in terms of education, employment, income, and health in comparison
to white men (Davis 1999), it appears that they are as likely or more
likely to take on the task of single parenting. Hence, with the cultural
turn in societal expectations for men to increase their domestic duties, it
is important to begin to determine (1) what factors enable and motivate
such men to choose to be single custodial fathers, (2) how they parent
and the effects on their children, and (3) what benefits and disadvan-
tages attend to the fathers themselves. This article addresses the first of
these questions. How did these fathers decipher their ability to choose,
weighing their own free will against perceived or real constraints? To
what extent do past experience and present circumstances mesh together
or constrain one another in the individual’s decision-making process?
METHOD AND SAMPLE PROFILE
Combining the qualitative research principles of grounded theory
(Glaser and Strauss 1967) with limited quantitative data, this research
focused on identifying key elements in the process buttressing the
choice to become full-time fathers. In addition to tracking some quanti-
tative factors (education, income, age, etc.), I analyzed the qualitative
data for emergent themes regarding the motivations and reasoning
behind the decision.
Given the relatively small percentage of black men in the U.S. popu-
lation and the even smaller percentage of single custodial fathers,
recruitment for this research has been a challenge. A sample of ten
fathers was obtained through so-called convenience methods, primarily
word of mouth. This sample was recruited mostly in Milwaukee and
Madison, Wisconsin, through various local organizations, such as
schools, neighborhood centers, adoption agencies, parenting resource
centers, churches, and Islamic centers; single-father Web sites (one of
the fathers has a personal Web site, in which he details his parenting
experience); the fathers themselves (snowball sampling); and advertis-
ing in local alternative newspapers and radio stations. The participants
are the first ten respondents in an ongoing ethnographic study of Afri-
can American, single, full-time fathers. While future respondents are
414 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY / AUGUST 2002
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"Black Single Fathers: Choosing to P..." refers background in this paper

  • ...According to Polkinghorne (1988), “motivation for action is closely related to the capacity to retrieve in the present experience inherited from the past” (p. 145)....

    [...]


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