Last year on Father's Day, Barack Obama delivered what I believe has been his most important speech directed specifically to black America. Addressing thousands of parishioners and guests at the Apostolic Church of God on Chicago's South Side, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee urged black fathers to assume their filial responsibilities and become more positively engaged in rearing their children. Obama's wife and two daughters sat in the front pew.
I am revisiting the speech, because its truths go to the core of one of the seemingly intractable crises in black culture: the absent father. On the campaign trail, Obama regularly talked about the absent black father. This same issue, paradoxically, has caused the condemnation and ostracism of comedian Bill Cosby and many others of less fame.
Some of Obama's observations are worth repeating. Each is a gem of wisdom or a clarion call for action.
• "Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it."
• "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it."
• "We all know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it."
• "We also need families to raise children. We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. It's the courage to raise one."
Instead of receiving gifts on Father's Day, Obama said black fathers should be giving gifts to their children, and the greatest gift they can give is the "gift of hope." And hope begins with being in the home.
How, I asked rhetorically at the time, could a black man in America object to anything in the speech? Many did.
One was syndicated columnist, political analyst and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson. His recent book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.
In a column published a few days after Obama's speech, Hutchinson wrote: "Obama, as Cosby and others who beat up on black males for alleged father dereliction, would almost certainly publicly bristle at criticism that he takes the worst of the worst behavior of some black men and publicly hurls that out as the warped standard of black America. Yet that's precisely what he's done. And since every utterance by him is instant news and is taken as fact by legions of supporters and admirers, that makes his . .. stereotypes about black men even more painful."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's dislike of the Father's Day speech was expressed more dramatically and made big news. Not realizing a camera and microphone were live in a TV studio, Jackson whispered that Obama had been "talking down to black people" in his pleas for more parental responsibilities among black men.
"I want to cut his n---- out," Jackson said, pretending to grab his male anatomy and pulling. A few days later, when Fox News aired the video, the old civil rights lion apologized to Obama during a hastily called news conference in Chicago.
The objections by Jackson and Hutchinson go the heart of a crippling phenomenon in black culture: Even when we can see and feel the harm we do to ourselves, we will not tolerate self-help from fellow blacks related to problems whose causes we trace back to forces in larger society. In short, we will not be chastised by our own.
The apparent miracle is that Obama, in his Father's Day speech, reached enough blacks with his self-help lecture to make a difference for some of us.