Navigating Fatherhood as a Black Man

This year Father’s Day will fall on June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States after the Civil War. And for Michael D. Hannon, an associate professor of counseling at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., that is “an awesome coincidence.”

“We can celebrate Black fathers who are doing their best to protect, provide and prepare their families for success, while also acknowledging the spirit and the resilience and the pursuit of freedom among Black people in this country,” he said.

Dr. Hannon, the self-described father of “two dope Black children” — an 18-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter — has been counseling Black fathers for the last 10 years. And as the editor of the new book “Black Fathering and Mental Health,” he now seeks to elevate the voices of Black fathers — and aspiring ones, too — who also happen to be mental health counselors. Through a series of essays, each writer offers unique perspectives on the needs, challenges and victories of Black fathering in an “anti-Black world.”

The book can serve as a resource for other counselors to help them provide culturally affirming and relevant support to Black fathers, but the personal stories in the collection are also meant for a general audience, who may identify with many of the joys and difficulties presented within.

“It should not be this hard, am I right?” asked one of the essayists, S. Kent Butler, a professor of counselor education and school psychology at the University of Central Florida. “No, I am not right. When it comes to our Blackness, very little is easy about self-acceptance and others’ acceptance. So, where does the strength and resilience come from? What makes it all right? I believe it is my tribe.”

Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to create this book? And why now?

Much of the research I do is about Black fathers. So this has, quite frankly, been a long time coming. I really wanted to do at least three things.

The first was to amplify the voices of Black fathers. Period.

Second, I wanted for other people to be able to read and hear these voices in ways that maybe they hadn’t before.

And then third, all of the people who wrote chapters in this book are mental health professionals. I asked them to answer some very specific questions: What might be useful for mental health professionals who are treating or serving Black father clients? What influenced their fathering practice? Did they seek counseling support if and when they confronted challenges and obstacles? And if they did, what did they learn? And if they didn’t, what stopped them?

One of the essayists, Linwood G. Vereen, an associate professor of counseling education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania who has fathered five biracial children, wrote: “What I have learned in my journey through counseling is that my needs are valid. I have learned that it’s OK to release the unrealistic expectations of others that hurt my soul, and that my Black life matters. I have learned that as much as my children need to see success in life, they must also learn humility through seeing their father show humility.”

Tell me more about why it was particularly important for you to feature the voices of Black fathers.

It’s very easy to consume content about Black men that focuses on some of the challenges that have been systemically placed before us.

You know the stereotype of the absentee Black father, or the overrepresentation of Black men who are incarcerated. But there’s a much more nuanced, rich and complex set of experiences that Black men have. There’s so much to know and understand and appreciate about who Black men are in the context of their communities and how they serve their biological children, and their fictive kin — or the children for whom they are “play uncles” and “play cousins.”

And that’s important because we’re all subject to stereotyping and having prejudiced viewpoints, and no one deserves that. Things like going to the pediatrician with your child and the medical professionals telling you that they’re surprised to see you. Or going to another specialist appointment, maybe with your partner, and the medical professional or the specialist not even addressing any questions to you. Custody cases can transpire in the court systems, as well, that may position Black fathers to not be able to be as engaged as they may want to be.

Are there gems of wisdom from the book that may be helpful to Black fathers?

We are socialized to be protectors of our families, protectors of our partners; to provide for our children and families; and prepare them for success. And that’s a lot of pressure. And many times that ability has been influenced by somebody’s socioeconomic profile. What we know now is that fathers, and Black fathers in particular, are contributing in ways much broader than financial provision, and finding ways to emotionally provide for their children. I can’t overstate how important those things are.

“My children are the poster examples of strong, graceful, resilient, fearless and powerful, and most days they use their agency in an unapologetic manner,” Dr. Vereen wrote. “My greatest hope as their father is that they will always do this.”

How can Black fathers protect their mental health?

It’s not easy. What I would remind all Black fathers, and people in general, is that we have to find people and spaces that allow us to be as transparent as possible. We have to find community.

For me, personally, my professional network — whether they’re counselors or my fraternity brothers — there are groups of men to whom I can go and be as brutally honest and as vulnerable as I need to be. It allows me to share all of the victories and the things that I want to celebrate — and it allows me also to share the most challenging, the most vulnerable parts of my experiences, hopefully without fear of judgment.

If you just hit a wall, and you can’t get past or over the wall, maybe it would be helpful to talk to a professional counselor to help set a goal and reach that goal, because you haven’t been able to do it otherwise.

“I have definitely sought counseling when needed and sometimes not sought it when I needed it,” Dr. Butler, the University of Central Florida professor, wrote in his essay.

“I did seek family counseling services to help me support my stepson, which was tremendously useful for us as a family and for me as a father figure to him,” he said. “I was reminded that I did not have all of the answers, nor should I expect to have them all.”

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