Oscar-nominated movies such as “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “I Am Not Your Negro” are being commended for challenging preconceived notions about the black male experience in America. Although these films are to be applauded for broadening the perception of black males, more people should be made aware that the black male reality is more diverse than even these Hollywood depictions.
As professors of education, we are often asked to name the most pressing issues black boys face in schools. A typical response is to provide statistics about academic achievement, dropout rates, graduation rates, over-representation in special education, expulsion and suspensions and the haven sports provide for them. But as recent films and this month’s focus on black history highlight, now is the time to address and challenge a more insidious and long-term problem for black male educational outcomes: being misunderstood.
No other racial group is more misunderstood by looming misperceptions than black males. Their lives are viewed through the lens of pre-existing ideas, stereotypes and even folklore, meaning that black boys’ lives and experiences in schools remain conceptualized into a single story – a black male living with his single mother on limited financial resources, being socialized within a “street culture” that has resulted in the internalization of a flawed code of behavior and morality.
We’re not suggesting fatherless homes or economic disadvantages aren’t serious problems. They are. But the single story – in all of its empirical and sociological reality – does not account for the contexts that create these conditions, nor does it describe the reality of the majority of black males.
Drawing exclusively from one narrative can grossly over-represent the complexities and contradictions of black males’ lives, even those without fathers and living with economic despair. Instead, one of the surest ways to move beyond that single story is to thoughtfully interrogate our assumptions.
The first step is to challenge the kind of stock stories that are told about black males. For example, the single most discussed variable addressed in making sense of black boys’ lives is the phenomenon of “absent fatherhood,” a phenomenon that sometimes serves as a complete explanation for black male underachievement and drives a tremendous amount of policy directed toward black boys.
Researchers have discussed black men as absent fathers since the 1930s, but new data show this construction is either completely wrong or very misleading. Not only have black families out-married white families at the turn of the 20th century and again in three of the past four decades, but contrary to popular belief, more black fathers actually live with their families than apart (2.5 million vs. 1.7 million), and those who live with their children are the most involved fathers of any group.
How can this be true if data show that 72 percent of black families are fatherless? The answer is simple.
Though cohabitation has risen among all communities, a father who lives with his child but is not married to the child’s mother is legally defined as “absent.” Therefore, if much of our insights about black boys rest on stock stories about black fathers being absent, we totally miss the mark by ignoring the contexts that shape their experiences.
The danger in a solitary narrative is that it produces a distraction from the multitude of factors that inform the lives of black men and boys both inside and outside of schools. Sound research from multiple perspectives is vital to disrupting this process. The simple and profound truth is that not all black males are the same. There is no single narrative capable of describing our myriad stories.
As we celebrate Black History Month and await the Oscars ceremony at the end of the month, we find it heartening to see a multitude of stories about black men and boys acclaimed within popular culture. Society needs to turn to meaningful and relevant research.
Doing so will create a productive discussion based not on conjecture and stereotypes, but on empirical, conceptual and historical truths that give voice to black males from the inside out.
Brown is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Harrison is a professor there and is affiliated faculty of the John Warfield Center of African and African American Studies at UT-Austin.