Like many African American men of a certain age, I grew up in a home headed by a single mother. While my father was no stranger to me, he was decidedly absent for my brother and I for the majority of our lives. This isn’t an uncommon tale among black Gen Xers. We grew up in an era of transition for the American family that was highlighted by and large by divorce and blended families, but punctuated for many African American families by external factors like the War on Drugs. Hell, if we’re gonna be honest, the Reagan Era in general leading to a more pronounced vacuum of black manhood in a lot of households. Out of my ten closest black peers growing up, I can honestly say that maybe only two of them lived in a home with a traditional nuclear family. The rest of us wore keys around our necks, mastered microwave cooking, and learned early that the only thing we could rely on was us.
But we survived… some of us.
We had our uncles, our grandfathers, big brothers, momma’s boyfriends, older heads, and cats at the barbershop to guide us, mold us, and keep us on something like the straight and narrow as best they could. Hell, even my old man showed up from time to time to try to tell me to do shit like take out the garbage or stay in school or listen to my mother like he had some authority. Try as they might and with all their imperfections, they just couldn’t do it all and, like most other children of the 80’s and 90’s, we were just left with television to raise us.
That’s why so many of us African American men now can trace our parenting skills back to a few iconic black daddies from television’s yesteryear that filled in for our fathers when our biologicals didn’t bother. For me, at least, these images of black manhood on the small screen were a necessary supplement to and character study in how I’d perform the task of fatherhood if it were ever given to me (and let me break character for a sec and make it clear that I really never planned on voluntarily having any kids unless I’d knocked up Mariah Carey or some shit).
Black TV dads were, and still are, the men that made me and a lotta other dudes like me. They were there every day. They were consistent and wise, and when the muthafuckas started getting on your nerves, you just changed the channel and watched He-Man or Phil Donohue.
But, let’s take a look at the black TV dads that raised us and give them their props for helping to make us the men we are today…
Fred Sanford: Sanford & Son
Fred Sanford leads the list because he’s the oldest of old school black dads imbued with the combined powers of extreme surliness and fierce wit. While we don’t know much about his child rearing skills we can tell that he was at least moderately successful at raising his son, Lamont (the big dummy). I mean, for a guy that had to grow up in a junkyard in the middle of Watts, seemed like a pretty well adjusted adult and only really had one truly gangsta ass friend (you know, Rita Lawson’s boy, Rollo).
What Fred Sanford taught us about black fatherhood was that moxie and ingenuity can make a great cover for a lack of resources. So what if your home is literally a pile of junk or if you gotta hustle the Social Security office or sell your friend’s daddy’s Blind Mellow Jelly records to make ends meet? If it’s for a good cause like doing a little something extra for your family, it’s worth it and if that’s how y’all survive then the hustle is more than a habit.
Plus, if you’re married and have a sister-in-law, you’ve probably wanted to give her the Aunt Esther treatment when she’s getting a little too liberal about her criticism about how you’re raising your kid or handling your personal finances or seasoning some meat.
Lester Jenkins: 227
I know some people might be surprised to see someone as unassuming as Lester from 227 on the list of black fatherhood archetypes because of his quiet, calm, and generally unassuming demeanor. But bear with me. I think Lester Jenkins is the black dad with a dark past that nobody talks about now that he has a family and done got right with the Lord.
That’s right, Lester probably did some wild shit back in the day that he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about now so he doesn’t say much of anything just because. Need proof? Think about how shook Calvin got whenever Brenda’s daddy walked in the room. You don’t get that level of threat-by-presence unless you done did some real shit. You couldn’t be an adult male in Southeast DC at that time and not have some dirt under your nails.
But that’s cool because Lester Jenkins taught us how to be strong just through presence rather than aggressive in appearance. Or, more simply stated, he was the strong silent type who did his duty as a husband and a father without fanfare or fuss.
But I also got good money that says Lester had one of them old school Marion Barry, “The Bitch Set Me Up” t-shirts in his second dresser drawer that he busted out for the Stone Soul Picnic in Rock Creek Park in ’86.
Carl Winslow: Family Matters
Husband. Father. Cop. Look, I’m gonna be honest here, Carl Winslow was a massive disappointment as a black TV dad (not Reginal Veljohnson though, he’s that nigga) for the fact that he got sonned week in and week out by his herb ass next door neighbor.
Man, listen. If you’re a black dady and you got a simp muhfucka next door to you in some highwaters and suspenders sexually harassing your daughter while you’re a deputized and firearm carrying member of the law enforcement community and you ain’t doing shit about it, you losing. Bad.
Our lesson from Carl Winslow, you don’t have to put up with that shit. Carl did, but you don’t. I’m not advocating for bullying, but there comes a time when you just gotta grab Steve Urkell by his suspenders and tell him to stay his ass outta yo’ house, man.
And did I mention that he was supposed to be a cop in Chicago and, as a black man that lives in Chicago, he’s probably the only member of the CPD that I’d be 99% sure wouldn’t shoot me?
Fun Fact: Family Matters was a spinoff on ABC of Perfect Strangers. So yeah, two of the most annoying characters on network TV in the past 30 years, Balki and Steve Urkell, live in the same universe.
James Evans: Good Times
The gold standard for the Mad Black Daddy. James Evans Sr. might’ve been poor, he might’ve not been that educated, he might not have been able to get that promotion to foreman or even hold down a steady job, but gotdammit if that man didn’t demand and receive all of the respects. He stared down the Gangster Warlords, he stared down Sweet Daddy, he stared down the cops, he stared down the judge, and Alderman Davis wouldn’t even dare step foot in the Evans’ apartment for fear that he might get a good ol’ fashioned black daddy beatdown from the family’s patriarch. All praises due to Lucky Black Jesus aka Ned the Wino for the hood blessing that was James Evans.
He represented a bygone era in the hood when men were men and they adhered to a code where the family came first and last. Even while immersed in poverty, he was proud and powerful. A man who, while dealt bad card after bad card, never demurred from his responsibilities and never quit on the people that loved him most.
What we learned from Mr. Evans was grace under fire. A man who couldn’t catch a break, couldn’t seem to get ahead, and who always seemed to get two steps forward greeted with three steps back but never relented in demanding the respect he deserved.
Oh, and if you’re doubting just how legendary James Evans was, drop a something fragile on the floor around a group of black people over the age of 35 and watch them all yell, “DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!” in unison. That’s right, we’re STILL mourning James and he’s been gone (fictionally) since 1976.
Heathcliff Huxtable*: The Cosby Show
Let’s start this off by intellectually and emotionally divorcing Bill Cosby the man (the put some drugs up in yo’ drank and rape you man) from Heathcliff Huxtable, the glorious and shining example of black fatherhood par excellence. There’s no denying that Cliff changed the game for black sitcoms, portrayals of black characters, and how America views black families on and off television. One might even draw a logical fault line between the introduction of the Huxtables and the acceptance of the Obama’s. The Cosby Show was a seismic force in popular culture that still influences black folks’ decision making now.
Shit, I can’t tell you how many people I went to school with who married resumes, credentials, and hair texture because they wanted to start their own Huxtable family (and I went to Morehouse so people took that shit serious). A doctor married to a lawyer that produced a Brooklyn brownstone full of nattily attired children that covered the entire color spectrum of the black diaspora (how the fuck was Sandra and Denise so light skint?) and ain’t none of them kids get strung out or pregnant? That shit was #goals before we knew what goals was. And Cliff wasn’t just black America’s dad or America’s black dad, he was just the dad that every American (save upper middle class white people who already had it good) wanted.
Dr. Huxtable taught us how to parent with empathy and compassion while showing us that we could aspire to do and be more than we thought to be. Their universe of black achievement as a norm and black excellence as the standard refocused a generation to be better and their embrace of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) gave us an avenue to accomplish those goals. To this day, my wife and I refer to the bougie big home that we want to buy as our Huxtable House. We, as a collective, are achieving the personal, familial, and financial prosperity that the Cosby Show put in front of us and that’s pretty fucking awesome.
*How did we not see that shit coming? Like, for reals. Bill Cosby telegraphed this whole shit man. Dr. Huxtable was a motherfucking OBGYN. How you gonna be out here playing a character that drugs women and then messes with their ladyparts and THEN, be out here in the streets drugging women and messing their ladyparts for sport? Cos been done told us he was a freak, we just weren’t listening, man.
Phillip Banks: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
I’m going to go on record and say that Uncle Phil is Apex Black Daddy. He truly encompasses all of the things that made the pantheon of black TV dads great. Fred Sanford’s wit, Lester Jenkins’s shady past, Carl Winslow’s heft, James Evans’s gravitas, and Heathcliff Huxtable’s pedigree. All wrapped in a façade that was equal parts teddy bear and Sasquatch. One arm wrapped around Carlton’s shoulder, telling him it’s gonna be alright and he’ll make the water polo team next year, the other gripping the back of Jazz’s pants ready throw (pronounced: “thow’) him out of the front door for asking a dumb ass question. Phillip Banks was at home from Carson to Bel Air and from the halls of justice to a pool hall on Slauson.
But the thing that makes Uncle Phil stand out is that he wasn’t just a black dad, but he was also a black uncle who, like so many other black uncles, stepped up and took on the gig when the main man went derelict in his duties. He, while breaking his own barriers, raising his own family, and forging his own path to prosperity took in his wife’s sister’s son and afforded him all of the access and privilege of his own children. We all wanted that from our own fathers but dammit if we wouldn’t have accepted that from an uncle like that if we’d had one.
Uncle Phil taught us that you can be who you are while never denying who you were and embracing who you’re gonna be while raising children that you’re consciously exposing to a different and (debatably) better life than what you’ve had.
Plus, who doesn’t want the kind of negritude and juice that would allow you to roll up on a Podunk police station tryna hold your son and nephew and read them to filth because you’re an attorney, an aggrieved African American with a firm grasp on his rights, and a black daddy who ain’t having that shit from some fuckboy cops who don’t know who you are but they fitna find out?
FYI: from here on out, we’re scaling black fatherhood skills on a scale of 0 to Uncle Phil.
George Jefferson: The Jeffersons
No, he wasn’t primarily a black dad on TV, but he did teach a whole generation of black men how to not take no shit from white folks. To this day, if I’m having a contentious interaction with a white person I channel the spirit of George Jefferson to act as my patronus and order my steps.
Honorable Mention pt. 2
Phillip Drummond: Dif’rent Strokes
Man, listen. At a certain point in the 1980’s as a black child in America, becoming an orphan and getting adopted by a rich white benefactor was a legitimate path to advancement. Like, you might get a scholarship to school or maybe make it to the league, but if your moms croaked and the rich white man whose house she used to clean had a big enough heart, you could wind up on easy street where all you need is a cute face and some pithy comebacks to endear yourself to your new white world.
Honorable Mention pt. 3
Master Splinter: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
He’s a mutated rat that taught some turtles karate. That’s all you really gotta say.
Without them, there’d be no us, bruh.
But, yo. With all that said, apparently being raised by black TV dads worked. According to Pew Research and the CDC, African American fathers have become some of the most active an engaged with their children when compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts. Shit’s crazy, but the failure of our own fathers coupled with the guidance that we got from the streets and reruns actually coalesced around us to make this generation of black dads pretty fucking awesome.
And I know it’s supposed to be research not “me” search, but as a focus group of one, I get the motivation. Having felt the void of not having my old man around as a consistent and constructive force in my childhood I’m all in on doing everything I can to not be that for or do that to my own kid. I drive her to school every morning, I read her a story every night, I prepare meals and I tell her how much I love her every day.