When Barack Obama gave a 2008 Father’s Day speech to the congregation of Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, he spoke frankly on the subject of absent fathers in the black community. Echoing some of what Bill Cosby said in his viral “Pound Cake” speech to the NAACP in 2004, then-candidate Obama lamented: “Too many fathers… have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
Citing statistics that show 64 percent of black children are raised in homes where the father is absent, he pointed out that children who grow up in households headed by a single mother are more likely to drop out of school, commit crime, go to prison, et-depressing-cetera.
Obama put it bluntly: “The foundations of our community and country are weaker because of this,” adding, “We can’t simply write these problems off to past injustices. Those injustices are real… but we can’t keep on using that as an excuse.”
Many cringed at his candor. Jesse Jackson famously criticized Obama for the speech, saying the candidate was “talking down to black people.” Jackson immediately apologized for the remarks (ironically meant for a private conversation that had been caught on a mic), and profusely expressed in a subsequent news conference, “I don’t want harm nor hurt to come to this campaign.”
Close ranks. Yank the dirty laundry off the line. End scene.
Just weeks ago, Obama repeated many of the sentiments articulated in his Father’s Day speech in a commencement address at Morehouse College. I have to admit, before reading the speech for myself, I was irritated by some of the soundbytes that buzzed across Facebook, Twitter and various blogs. Specifically, I was concerned the President’s remarks about fatherlessness to a class of graduating black men—men who had defied the stereotype—could be twisted in the public sphere, and used to support the caricature of pathological blackness many Americans still have.
Again, this fear—my fear—of dirty laundry.
But airing the laundry for all to see is a necessary step to correcting the problem, says Joseph T. Jones, Jr., founder of the Baltimore-based Center for Urban Families. “The problem is so massive that we can no longer have private conversations,” Jones explains. “We need other people to be engaged in this conversation.”