Deconstructing Deadbeat | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Deconstructing Deadbeat

How some black fathers separated from their kids confront a stereotype

There are some real bastards out there.

We're talking about the "men" who refuse to financially support the babies they've made, even though they have the income to do so. We call them "deadbeats."

But then there's the 2.5 million noncustodial fathers who are missing payments not because they are deadbeat, but because they are dead broke: either unemployed, jailed, disabled or making below poverty level. A study conducted by psychologist Stanford Braver and published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry shows that when divorced men are employed and making enough, most all of them are up to beat with their payments.

In Los Angeles, ads produced by the National Fatherhood Initiative were placed at bus stops throughout the city featuring the sullen faces of apparently neglected black children. One ad reads, "Easter Bunny. Tooth Fairy. Daddy. Eventually kids stop believing in things they don't see." Another one, "Dear Daddy, my Mommy can't be my Daddy too." The messages and the faces imply it is only black fathers who skip out on their duties, an implication protested by African Americans in L.A. The nonpartisan Urban Institute reports, in fact, that of the 2.5 million poor noncustodial fathers, 41 percent are black and 40 percent are white.

Still, walk the streets of L.A. or Pittsburgh and you just might hear about some guy's "babymamadrama" or some woman's "baby daddy." A couple summers ago airwaves and TV music stations were flooded with B. Rock and The Biz's catchy but corny: "Who dat? Dat's just my baby daddy" chorus. Earlier this year, Hollywood took it a step further with My Baby's Daddy, which featured a predominantly black cast. The term has become somewhat endeared, and to an extent glamorized, by blacks, even though white fathers in the same lower-economic pockets carry the same burdens at nearly the same rate.

Here in Allegheny County, where 70 percent of the prison population is black and only a quarter of black families are headed by married couples (blacks make up roughly 12 percent of the county), a different picture is forming. The number of black single-father households increased by 80 percent in the last decade. In Pittsburgh, black single-mother families dropped from 69 percent to 67.5 percent while black single-father families jumped from 4.4 percent to 7.7 percent.

Black fathers increasingly are handling their business, and the credit is due in part to father-support organizations such as the Coalition for Fathering Families, started by Larry Davis. Davis wrote the proposal for his organization while in jail. He was serving time for missing child payments on a child he was raising alone in his own home. Davis' convoluted tale, which was the subject of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article last January, involves a situation where the state was garnishing his paychecks for the daughter solely in his care. While fighting Allegheny County's aptly named Family Division courts, which he and many others say have tipped too far in the favor of mothers, he decided he would set up a program that would educate fathers on their rights.

Davis says the fatherhood program he set up almost 15 years ago is the first locally -- there are almost a dozen here now -- but probably the least-funded. The organization, however, earned some much-needed funds when earlier this year it won a $1,000 Jefferson Award for community service.

Regularly he consorts with the heads of other male support groups at an umbrella fathers' support group called the Fathers Forum: Melvin Hubbard El of Healthy Start, Inc.'s Male Initiative Program, Ragland Biggs of the Hill House Association, William Stenhouse of the Cadre Men's Book Club and Ghadu'd Na'um El of the Self Development Men's Association. All of the men aim to be responsible role models not just in their families but in their communities.

At a recent forum, Ghadu'd El -- a bald, deeply dark-glazed man wearing a dapper, crisp suit -- summarized his feelings on the "deadbeat dad" label: "For nine years I raised three kids by myself. At my workplace I had 20 to 30 people working under me and they were mostly all men who looked like me. And they all took care of their kids. So when it comes to so-called deadbeats I wanna know who are they talking about?"

While there will always be fathers -- black and white -- who stiff their families, groups like the Fathers Forum hope to make these deadbeats an anomaly. For black men who may be most likely to be entangled in the justice system, short-shrifted in the labor market, and brought up without fathers themselves, making money -- and time -- for their kids can be a struggle. Still, while some struggle to break away from stereotypes, others are challenging the negative and inaccurate portrayals head-on through activism and leadership.

Tim Gilcrese. Unemployed. Father of three.
"I don't remember my dad reading any books to me," says Tim. "My dad never really talked to me. He never talked to me about girls, about the streets. Everything I learned, I learned on my own. I learned how to fix cars."

Tim, 32, is working on his car as he speaks, adding some belts and hoses so that he can sell it. He earned the vehicle by working through a welfare-to-work program called SPOC -- Single Point of Contact. It helped him purchase a car once he found employment. He worked for a trucking company and later did customer service for Lord & Taylor.

After getting bounced for possession of marijuana, intent to deliver and unlicensed firearm possession, Tim gave up his previous life of street dealings, but it still presented problems for his family.

"When I was in the streets, I would just front -- that's not really me," says Tim. "I like to do stuff like paint the house. My father's not like that, though. He likes to drink and talk to all kinds of women."

More talks with his father might have guided Tim through his decisions and ordeals, but he's not quick to blame all his duress on his father.

"My dad worked a lot so he was under a lot of pressure," says Tim. "I'm not hatin' on my dad. He definitely wasn't deadbeat. I always had -- I just didn't have that emotional attachment."

Tim has two daughters and a son to three women. He hasn't seen his eldest daughter, now 11, for at least five years -- though he believes she stays here in Pittsburgh. He says he didn't even know he had her until she was three, and his name isn't on her birth certificate.

"My friend [the mother's cousin] called me one day and asked me how my daughter was. I'm like, ‘What daughter?'"

After hearing from the mother that the child was his, and seeing she looked just like him, Tim says the mother asked that they begin a relationship together. When Tim refused -- for "immature" reasons, he admits -- the mother kept him from his daughter again. She never took him to court for child support because she didn't want him in their life. Meanwhile, Tim says he was urging her to go to court.

"She knew if she sued me then the judge could then regulate when or where I could see my child and take away her control of the situation," says Tim. "I used to beg her to sue me just so I could see my child."

Since his name isn't on the birth certificate he can't sue her to see the child, either. Instead of begging to stay out of court, some fathers now beg for the judge so they can at least have a chance to play some part in their children's lives.

The only info Tim has on his daughter's whereabouts is her mother's license plate number, from a car he thinks he saw her get into at a shopping-plaza parking lot a year ago.

He's been on unemployment since January. He receives $150 every two weeks for him and his son to live on. It would be more but $100 leaves his check for child support for his other daughter, who stays with him every summer.

Tim's current struggle is with the probation he's been on the past three years, the product of his weed and gun charge. He's been offered employment with Yellow Cab but can't get the necessary specialized driving license from the city until his probation is up, at the end of June. His probation officer isn't offering to shorten the term so that he can work.

"He asked me if I could just wait two weeks, I'm like, ‘I can't wait another two minutes,'" says Tim. "I'm a man, y'nahmean, I like to work. I ain't wit' sittin' on my ass."

This is why Tim is working on his car -- with his son -- so he can sell it. He also wants to take his daughter to Ocean City, Md., this summer, but that might have to wait also.

"Sacrifice," says Tim about fatherhood. "When I look at my kids I see me. I want to give them all I never had and more."

Magail Sahara. Artist. Father of one.
You can barely make out the father's face. He's bent down, his bushy 'Fro resembling the young boy's below him. His chiseled arms reach down to puny developing arms. The father is steadying his dimply toddler with his hands as the young one tries to walk.

It's a charcoal sketch, "In Daddy's Footsteps," by Magail Sahara, depicting an intimate moment inspired by his own daughter in her first years. When his daughter was 3, he and the mother separated. The mother and daughter moved to Virginia, where she later married while Magail remained in Pittsburgh to pursue his craft.

"I wanted us all, of course, to stay together but personally I was still searching for my identity," says Magail. "I knew I could draw but I lacked a clear sense of direction."

He admits it was the mother who wanted marriage but Magail, depressed after losing much of his artwork in a fire, and uncertain of his future, wasn't ready.

Custody was never an issue from that point, says Magail. They wanted everything civil, so the parents made a private financial arrangement. He sees his daughter mostly during summers, but not as often as he'd like.

"There's clearly a void," says Magail. "I never got a chance to see her evolve and mature. There's a pain that could never be repaired."

It was mostly the decisions Magail made, and didn't make, that made this detachment possible. But he wants people to know that he, and many like him, are still working to fulfill their duties as men -- in his case meaning providing for his distant family and realizing his artistic passions.

Growing up, Magail watched his own father return from long days at the Budweiser Company in the shipping yards. Before that his father worked in the steel mills. It's the work ethic Magail remembers most of his father, now deceased.

For four years Magail has been running his own business, producing portraits that project positive images of black fathers playing with their kids, black families embracing and praying together -- everything he imagines himself doing with his family had they remained together. It became his sole source of income two years ago when he gave up his day job at the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. There he helped brew and ferment hops while also working, like his own father, at the shipping dock.

His mother worked as a maid in hotels and Squirrel Hill homes. He says he gets his creative energy from his mother, whom he'd aggravate as a youngster by drawing inside her books and Bibles.

Today, he travels to festivals and conventions throughout the country, selling his paintings and prints. He sends some of those earnings to his daughter and her mother, and makes do with what's left.

"It's tough because as an independent artist so much of what you make is lost in overhead and travel expenses. Many times it's a bad showing [at the expos] and it can be difficult meeting those expenses."

It's worth it, though, because his mission with his art is to create "healing processes" with examples of black families at their best, to counter prevalent portrayals of black folk at their worst, he says.

"We need to tear down the stereotypes, especially the one we're quite familiar with: that all black fathers are deadbeat or could care less."

When the subject of the movie My Baby's Daddy comes up, Magail rolls his eyes, then grows solemn. To the commonwealth, and probably most of his peers, he's exactly that -- "a baby daddy." There's so much left unsaid, though, of his experience as a provider from that ghetto-pop tag. He's not convinced that black people embrace this title as much as they seem to.

"We find ourselves perpetrators of our own negative stereotypes and I'm not sure we're even aware when we do it," says Magail. "We engage in things that are habit-forming [and] if you don't have a social consciousness you do things that serve to make things worse than they should be."

Magail will be taking time off from his heavy touring to add some pieces to his black-family series. "A Love Supreme parts I and II" will be two separate portraits: a mother and child, a father and child that when fit together will show a complete family. He'll also do "Forgiveness," a portrait "designed to psychologically heal divisions between couples in general, black couples in particular."

William "Ty" Stenhouse. Starbucks manager. Father of three.
Like Tim and Magail, William has a child out of wedlock. His eldest daughter, Brittney, a "beautiful dark child," was born to the woman he dated while in high school when living in Pascagoula, Miss. It was William's father who led the family to Mississippi where he would pastor a Pentecostal church. After graduating from high school, William went into the Air Force -- like his father before him -- then moved around from state to state, and country to country. Not long after Brittney was born, William was deployed to the Middle East for the first Gulf War. A few years later he and Brittney's mother split. William continued to provide, even as he married and had two more children.

"I would rather she be with me, honestly," says William of his daughter. "I'd like to have all my children together. But I realized she needs her mother and there's some lessons she needs to learn from her."

Before embarking for the Middle East, William and two other blacks in his unit began studying Islam, perked from reading about Malcolm X and his discoveries once he pilgrimaged to Mecca. The conversion intensified a rift between he and his conservative Christian father, begun when the minister separated from his mother for his own religious pursuits. William says his father became totally absent from his younger brothers' lives while he was in the military.

"I basically reduce my father's intentions down to selfishness," says William. "He had his own life agenda and he wanted to live it the way he wanted to."

But, "I have to understand that his father was absent from his life. I'm not making excuses for my father, but how can I expect him to be a good father if he doesn't even know what a good father looks like?"

William stops short of indicting his father for his shortcomings, especially since his father was "a good provider" who gave him more than many kids his age. But there's this reoccurring theme of black fathers of yesteryear, so preoccupied with labor and provision that they institute somewhat of a phantom paternalism in the house -- physically present but emotionally bankrupt. Though the overworked papa is nothing unique to black homes, William believes it's more profound among black fathers due to American slavery's legacy of mandating black men to till fields while robbing them of the opportunity to protect their children and wives.

It's a cycle that William, 40 -- though looking about half of that -- purposefully has decided to break. He works to bring home the groceries, cook the food and also wash the plates-- as his Islamic way of life informs him.

"Whenever a Muslim looks at how to be a man, or a father, or an uncle, or a businessman, we always look to the prophet Muhammad as the perfect example," says William. "If there was cleaning to be done, he helped; if there were clothes to be washed, he helped. He was actively a part of not only being a good provider but also the best husband as well and that's a big struggle for men today."

For William, being a strong man entails more than being a good father to those in the house, but also those in the village. At the Manchester charter school his two sons attend, William serves on two subcommittees for the school's board, and is active in the PTO. He also edits the elementary school's newspaper with his son, Jacob. Outside of school, William began the Cadre Book Club of parents from the Hill District who had kids in the Growing with Trust mentoring program, for which he once served as director. His son Jacob started a junior version of the book club at his school.

From the book club came a collaboration with the Central Parents Education Resource Center, run by Nancy Hornsby, who suggested that William start a collective for fathers. Hornsby provided the venue and even food while William began what's known today as the Fathers Forum. Here men from various male leadership programs socialize and break bread with disadvantaged fathers.

"We wanted to build a support network around fathers -- fathers who can't afford to take care of their children; can't understand their children, can't understand the mothers," says William. "There's so many programs out there for males -- if they just came to the forum they'd know that there is something out there useful to aid them."

For about a year now the Fathers Forum has met about once a month, attending plays, concerts and dinners at soul-food restaurants around town.

These same activities William enjoys with his sons and wife. William says his own father is an intellectual -- "one of the smartest men that I know" -- who often took him to the library to read. William continues that tradition with his own sons, taking them not only to the library but also to hear lecturers at universities and to the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty to hear different forms of music and poetry.

Says William, "Exposing them to different kinds of things and people, that's how I've been doing it. I introduce them to all these people who to them are just strangers at first, but I teach them that there's a lesson in everyone they meet. And that's how I feel about fatherhood."

Father Support Organizations

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson