Dr. Boyce: Should Oprah and Iyanla be teaching men about fatherhood?
By Dr. Boyce Watkins
Someone forwarded me an email message from Oprah’s Life Class. In the email was a promotion for an important class on fatherhood. Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant, one of the most empowered dynamic duos in television history, are seeking to lend support to the fatherless epidemic that has occurred in the United States over the last 40 years, particularly as it pertains to the Black community.
I applaud the efforts to help young people realize the importance of fatherhood, so that our children can have better opportunities than we had. Former NBA player Etan Thomas has done a series of fatherhood panels around the country, and I was glad to be a part of them. My own father left when I was born, but I was blessed by another man who stepped in to fill his shoes. Most kids aren’t so lucky.
Much of the fatherhood crisis began with the war on drugs and the broad tentacles of the prison industrial complex, which Russell Simmons and I have been fighting in our recent campaign.
The mass incarceration and marginalization of millions of people, not to mention the presence of drugs and guns in Black communities, have wiped out entire families and led us to a period of intense rebuilding. In fact, jails and prisons have created a mental health crisis, and also increased the spread of diseases, violence and the devolution of African American culture (just turn on the radio to hear what I’m talking about).
A fatherhood class is necessary to teach our youth how to overcome missing dads, and to also teach an entire generation how to become adequate pa-rents.
As I reflected on this important class being offered by Oprah, I couldn’t help but notice that in nearly every image, there was a picture of Iyanla speaking about the fatherhood issue. One picture has Iyanla lecturing a Black man as Oprah gazed from the background. Iyanla appears to be telling the man that even though he didn’t have a father growing up, this unfortunate experience should not shape his future. I agree with this message.
But in spite of the fact that most of us agree with the message, we’d be silly not to realize the importance of the messenger.
We all know that Iyanla is amazing. In fact, she can be many things to many people. But one thing that Iyanla can never be (without adequate surgery) is a man. I sincerely hope that Oprah and Iyanla, in their many important lessons, are willing to realize that the image of women standing over men telling them what to do is going to be a very difficult sell. For decades, men have heard women telling them what they should and should not be doing, and in many cases, that advice is readily ignored.
The even harder truth to accept is that there might be a logical reason that this advice is sometimes ignored, and it’s not just based on sexism: The reality is that men and women think differently and are not the same. The experiences that socialize a young man are not the same as those experienced by young women, and an adult male is more likely to understand how to negotiate the challenges and expectations that come with manhood. A woman’s voice may simply add the pressure to be Superman.
The same is true in the other direction. No matter how hard I try as a father to tell my girls how to view the world, there are some messages they need to hear from a woman. A woman, as opposed to a man, has a far better understanding of the subtleties of womanhood than I do, thus giving her message far more credibility than my own. I’d be silly to think that I can just grow a v@gina at will, inject myself with estrogen and speak to the essence of what it truly means to be a woman. It might actually make me look silly, like I’m applying undo pressure, and the only people agreeing with my message are likely to be other men.
So, my advice to Oprah and Iyanla would be this: Listen to these men as much as you expect them to listen to you. Be willing to step to the side and allow them to hear this message from a man, so that perhaps the message can gain a more receptive audience. It doesn’t mean that a loving mother figure can’t be the most influential factor in a young man’s life (notice how even the most hardened thugs are loyal to their moms), but it does say that many of the principles of manhood are best communicated by other males who embody those principles and present them in an appropriate way.
The bottom line is that our kids are missing balance. Girls who grow up without dads have a hard time understanding why a male would be relevant to their households and boys agree that their presence is not necessary. But what is most interesting is that in this perpetual battle of the sexes, both sides are convinced that the other gender is the cause of their broken relationships. The truth is that, in order for this grand compromise to regain its balance, both men and so women are going to have to have a voice in the conversation. Therefore, in order to get the attention of men, Oprah should ensure that adult men are part of the dialogue so that young men don’t just feel that they’re being bashed.