By Lottie L. Joiner
In Chicago, my cousin Charles sits alone in a house full of senior-aged women depressed after a stint in jail and hurtful divorce. In Minnesota, my cousin August sits in a prison cell — alone. And in Washington, D.C., Jamari Brighthaupt, 15, has been sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile detention center for robbing a cab driver.
One thing that all these young men have in common is that they are growing up without fathers – no one to give them direction, guidance or help them navigate life.
I featured Jamari in my article “Hurt: The Impact of Father-Absence on the Mental Health of Black Boys,” published in the latest issue of The Crisis magazine. I wrote the piece as a fellow for the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California, Annenberg. My goal was to learn how we, as a community, could address the deeply buried emotional pain African American boys experience as a result of their fathers’ absence.
In a blog post for the Center for Health Journalism, I wondered: How do we take care of the hearts of black boys without fathers?
“That’s the tough part,” Ron Mincy of Columbia University’s School of Social Work told me. Mincy noted that fathers provide discipline, training, protection and support.
“At some point in their life every man is vulnerable,” Mincy explained in my fellowship story. “You have circumstances in your life that you need to be able to go to a man to debrief.”
But what happens when boys don’t have that man in their lives?
Psychologist Fred Phillips explained that we all have a biological need to connect to other human beings for survival — physical survival and emotional survival.”
“Emotions are energy,” said Phillips. “That energy whether it is pain, whether it’s hurt, whether it’s anger, has to go somewhere.”
Oftentimes, this pain, hurt and anger young African American boys feel growing up without a father are manifested into violence and self-destructive behavior.
Family therapist Ayize Ma’at noted that a lot of our youth aren’t bad, they’re just hurting. “Their behaviors are behaviors of them acting out pain. They seek relationships, attachments because their father wasn’t there. They’re just trying to meet a need — the need to be included, to be loved, to be welcomed, respected and wanted. Everybody wants to be wanted.”
In my article published in TheRoot, Wizdom Powell, associate professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said that when boys don’t have a male in their life it creates a kind of socio-emotional void.
“One of the biggest challenges around father absence is the lack of someone to teach boys how to emote from a male’s perspective, and how to manage, how to catalyze anger productively; all of the rules around emotional functioning that they have to actually learn on the fly,” said Powell.
There’s been record shootings in Chicago. My neighborhood in Washington D.C., has experienced more than 200 murders this year. Maybe jail and detention centers aren’t what these young men need, but a sense of respect, protection, support and love. If we tended to the mental health of our fatherless youth, maybe the senseless violence would cease.