The Love Languages of Black Fatherhood

Mark Anthony Neal documents the evolution of a Black father’s love

Mark Anthony Neal sits on comfortable furniture and holds an infant. Both are wearing white.

The concept pays homage to “The Five Love Languages,” a 30-year-old book categorizing five ways people give and receive love: through acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts or by spending quality time together. The framework, as helpful as it is, fails to consider how gender, race, class and other aspects of identity affect the ways we express and interpret love, Neal says.

The project strives to honor the many expressions of love by Black fathers, who for so many generations have been taught to be disciplinarians and providers – stoic models of manhood in a world that, as Neal describes it “gives us power as men, and then only takes it away because we’re Black.” It is based on his own experiences as a father to two daughters, depictions of fatherhood in media and society, and of course, memories of his own dad.

‘What father you got?’

As a young man, Neal’s father Arthur left the South with a 10th-grade education and limited literacy to build a life in New York.

“The picture of my father is, in his own context, a world of so-called unskilled Black men for whom the lowest rung of entry into the workforce was considered an achievement, and rightfully so,” Neal writes. “It was the difference between my family eating or going hungry. In more ways than I understood at the time, we were fed.”

On his day off, Arthur would pull out a stack of vinyl records, bopping around the family’s 700-square-foot apartment to the sounds of Jimmy Smith, B.B. King and Jimmy McGriff. In summer, he would tune the TV to the New York Mets and educate his son on the nuances of baseball. Neal cherished that closeness, even as it went unseen to others, he writes, because his father’s long hours also meant he missed nearly every music recital, school play and graduation.

“For many of my school-aged neighborhood friends, my father was invisible – a literal shadow figure who headed to Brooklyn before dawn, to return home in the dark. ‘What father you got?’ I was challenged on more than a few occasions, as if my dad were in prison, or worse, just simply absent,” he writes.

The absent Black father stereotype has origins in a 1965 federal report on Black poverty by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose generalizations about Black family dynamics have perpetuated the labeling and marginalizing of Black mothers and fathers for decades, Neal explains.

“To think of Black fathers in America is to think of an absence rather than a presence,” Neal writes. “Ironically, in 20th century America, I grew up with non-stop images of white men who were considered successful precisely because of the hours they spent away from their families.”

On becoming a dad

Preparing to become a dad in the late 1990s, Neal was anxious and apprehensive, not only because he wanted to be the perfect parent, but also because he was haunted by the specter of the failed Black father. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, people assumed that if your father was not visible, he had abandoned his family, he says.

“The biggest pressure for me was to figure out how to always be present – and not just physically present, but emotionally present,” Neal says.

That is not to say that he didn’t borrow lessons in fatherhood from the elder Neal, suffusing his infant daughter’s nursery with soothing tunes from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. But having made a career in academia, Neal also had the flexibility to make it to parent-teacher conferences and countless swim meets.

He says expectations and images of what Black fatherhood is are changing. A culture that once valued stoicism now also calls on fathers to shed masculine stereotypes and share the softer side of fatherhood. We see former president Barack Obama describe reading all seven Harry Potter books aloud to his elder daughter, and Jay-Z, a hardened rap icon, taking beginning swim lessons with his young daughter. We see generational differences between Dre, the main character on the ABC sitcom Blackish whose emotions flow freely, in contrast to his emotionally wary father “Pops.”

“Whether it’s in film, or television, in terms of mainstream culture, our notions of who good fathers are – and who good Black fathers are – have evolved,” Neal says.

Monetary support is no longer the primary measure of a father’s worth; instead, he’s expected to offer a different currency: emotional and psychological support, Neal notes.

That his own father couldn’t afford to support a family and give them much of his time during the work week doesn’t mean Neal loved his father any less, he writes.

“What it meant is that our culture was unable to sufficiently recognize the value of Black men like him,” he says.

Neal lost his father to multiple sclerosis 15 years ago this month. He and his wife will welcome their first grandchild this spring.