Dr. Roberta L. Coles is a white college professor and an unlikely advocate for black fathers.
For the better past of a decade she has worked tirelessly collating a large body of research on an often-overlooked group — responsible African American dads, including black single custodial fathers.
Her latest offering is a forthcoming book on social fathers: men who play an important or central role in raising a child.
Unlike traditional definitions that focus on adoptive or stepfathers, Dr. Coles’ book, will include mentors which in the black community often act as role models for kids growing up in female-headed households.
Her most noticeable works on African American fathers are The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers and The Myth of the Missing Black Father: The Persistence of Black Fatherhood in America.
While not attempting to romanticize fatherhood, both books set out to challenge negative stereotypes thrust on black males and fathers.
“It’s important to get it out there that that’s not the whole picture,” said Coles, a professor of sociology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “People need to know there are men out their trying to do their best.”
Indeed, images of “happily married” young men like Georgia-based drummer Jorel Flynn a.k.a. JFly are not strongly embedded in our collective psyche.
“It’s about being there, not just being present, but emotionally connected as well,” said Flynn, referring to his relationship with his 5-year-old daughter Ja’Rai. “It’s important for me that she has a positive male figure in the home to guide her to make educated decisions”, adds Flynn, who does not feature in Coles’ work.
In The Myth of the Missing Black Father, Coles and co-editor Charles Green acknowledge that black men are less likely to marry than their counterparts (backed up by statistics) but they assert many continue to co-parent through cohabitation or informal caretaking if they are outside the home.
Professor Green from Hunter College in New York said it is also essential to recognize that there is a host of external factors, such as economic inequality, that affect the ability to parent. “There are a variety of variables, structural factors and macro influences that make it more difficult for black men to navigate.”
Coles’ book The Best Kept Secret: Single Black Fathers puts the spotlight on single custodial fathers who have became lone parents through divorce, widowhood, adoption or cohabiting relationships simply falling apart.