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In the name of the fathers // Beyond stereotypes

FAITH OF OUR FATHERS:

African-American Men Reflect on Fatherhood

By Andre C. Willis

Dutton, $22.95

Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

Besides being novels written by two gifted black women and having become blockbuster movies, what other important traits do The Color Purple and Waiting to Exhale have in common?

Each paints one-dimensional, negative portraits of its black male characters, offering the standard litany of contemptible stereotypes that have come to define black maleness. And each comments, either directly or indirectly, on black men's supposed inability to be good fathers.

In response to these and other such assaults, Andre C. Willis produced Faith of Our Fathers: African-American Men Reflect on Fatherhood, a collection of 12 essays that depict black men in all of their complexity, as dynamic humans adapting to and coping with forces often hostile to their existence.

Willis, a father of two and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School, writes that "one of the most important, difficult and heroic tasks in our society is to parent." But, he continues, "given the preponderance of negative images of black men . . . black fatherhood is regarded as a surprising anomaly."

One specific objective of the anthology is to affirm through the lives of the contributing essayists that, rather than being an anomaly, black fatherhood is viable in many African-American homes.

When he commissioned the writers _ the majority of whom are acclaimed academics and professional authors, such as Harvard professors Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. and award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman _ Willis instructed them to go beyond the typical self-pity and blame. He also asked them to bypass the bromides calling for "positive thinking" and "self-reliance" and conduct sensitive, yet critical, investigations into areas of their own lives and those of other family members that, heretofore, have been concealed.

"They were asked to dig in the graveyards of their memory . . . to shed honest light on how African-Americans must do their work as fathers, and how they were fathered ," Willis states.

Indeed, the writers carry out their instructions, often in painful relief. Some of their relationships with their fathers were violent and disappointing. But none of the portrayals become stereotypical. Instead, they are interlaced with substantive, human background that gives accurate context.

For the reader seeking a superficial, feel-good meditation on black fatherhood, Faith of Our Fathers is the wrong book. If, however, the reader wants a realistic understanding of African-American fathers in their myriad roles and duties in a society obsessed with racism, then Willis' book is perfect.

Each essayist distills the wisdom he learned from his father and reflects on how his father influenced his beliefs, ideals and hopes. Most important, perhaps, each writer discusses his own responsibilities as a father. Their shared experiences inspire without sentimentality and, in many instances, reveal their vulnerabilities.

Willis, in summing up the significance of the book, forewarns all current and would-be black fathers that fatherhood, although rewarding, can be daunting: "Being a father is at once intuitive, learned, and embedded in culture, history, class, and location. It is something one has to learn, yet it cannot be taught. . . . It means setting examples, breaking stereotypes, loving hard, loving gently, sharing, being emotionally honest, disciplining. . . . It is providing feelings of connection that sustain, yet feelings of support that are liberating. Being a father is a difficult and important task."

Ironically, the book's major flaw is its major draw: its lineup of the famous and the super-talented. The essayists, hailing from the likes of Harvard, Northwestern and Columbia, rarely have contact with average black men, the very ones who need the valuable lessons expressed in Faith of Our Fathers but who will never read it.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.

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