I am a father. And since the boy came in March–since we found out we were expecting, really–I’ve been looking for good information to strengthen myself as a parent. I found one such resource in Listen My Son: Wisdom to Help African American Fathers by Lee H. Butler, Jr. Dr. Butler is a professor of theology and psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Black Faith and Life at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
I asked Dr. Butler to consider being interviewed for the blog shortly after reading Listen My Son. I’m pleased to have him answers on the blog. I hesitate slightly to say so, but this book isn’t just for African Americans or just for men even if the content springs from the work of African American men. I asked the professor about that, too. I hope you’re interested enough to search out this resource for your own knowledge and appreciation.
1) You and the other contributors are open about personal experiences as sons and as fathers. What motivated you to write Listen, My Son?
Listen, My Son has been written by special invitation by the publisher, Abingdon Press, the publisher of the United Methodist Church. I was intrigued by the invitation and motivated to write because African American manhood is an identity in transition. I wanted to be able to make a contribution by encouraging a much needed discussion that will help us to develop a more positive self-understanding as Black men in America.
2) You worked with three colleagues on this work. What was the writing process like, and how did you determine what you’d write and what the other contributors would offer?
The project design was mine. Just as no one person can be all things to all people, I was clear I didn’t have the life experience to write about all topics. Because I wanted this book to be readable and not a research project, I invited a few friends to join me in the project. I developed the chapter outline, then I asked the others to write specific chapters that matched their lived experiences, which of course differed from my own.
3) Your contrast of sirehood and fatherhood is compelling and powerful. Can you summarize the difference between these two marks of manhood and say a word or two about how men can “resist the selfish, immature legacy of sirehood”?
Responsibility and a commitment to relationship are what separate fatherhood and sirehood. A father is not only one who takes responsibility for his actions, he takes responsibility to care for, provide for, nurture, and protect his children. This deep sense of responsibility is guided by his commitment to being present and fully participate in every aspect of his children’s lives. Many men understand responsibility to mean that we work hard to be good providers; but responsibility that is guided by relationship means that we work hard to give of ourselves those things that we have worked hard to provide. It is our presence, participation, and active giving that makes all the difference in the world. Fatherhood promotes responsibility and relationship. Sirehood, on the other hand, is quite selfish and is only concerned about being served. It is always focused on what the man desires to be given and his own personal satisfaction in being able to say he has children, even if he never does a thing for those children. Resistance is an important concept for African American men. We have come to believe that being the sire, “the king in his castle” is how we are to see ourselves. The most noble of kings, however, is concerned about the well-being of all the people, not about what he can get by exploiting the people. We have been exploited for so many generations, we must resist the temptation to do to others what has been done to us. Our children are not to be our servants, they are to live as our sons and daughters who are most loved by us.
4) Parenting is full of surprises, surprises that are hard to prepare for. How do you talk about mentoring and its impact in parenting? And where can men find mentors as we seek to become better fathers?
Now there’s a question for everyday! Each and everyday brings something new. Children are constantly growing, changing, becoming new right before our eyes. In this age of information and technology, we are everyday surprised by what our children are exposed to that we must become more aware of. What I encourage men to see in the book is that none of us can go through life alone. Mentoring is a good way of understanding that we all need support and must give support. A mentoring relationship–and relationship is what is emphasized throughout the book–is a learning as we grow relationship. There is a natural give-and-take that exists in mentoring relationship that allows both persons to give and receive gifts of life. It is the ability to tell and listen to the stories of life’s ups and downs. Also, finding mentors requires an openness to believe that another as a good word about life to share. Becoming a good father means that a man is willing to sit down to tell and listen to stories that speak about the everyday up and down experiences of life.
5) Can you discuss an African American father’s impact upon his daughter’s life, what his role is, and how it is different from raising a son?
Before answering these question directly, I feel it very important to first say that we live in a male-preferred society that encourages men to see our value as men by fathering sons. So strong is this feeling that many men feel disappointment at the birth of a daughter. This feeling must be addressed and transformed before any of us can be true fathers to our daughters. It is the father-daughter relationship that will help the daughter to know she is too important to be abused. If that relationship is strong and truly loving, when she grows into full womanhood, she will not tolerate anyone treating her with less respect and dignity than her father treated her. As a result, a father’s role in the life of his daughter is to nurture her to be strong and interdependent so she will know how to stand alone as well as stand in mutual respect and partnership with another. Raising a son means we must teach him how to respect a girl/woman as another man’s daughter.
6) What would you like readers who are not fathers or who are not African American to take away from Listen, My Son?
To the readers who are not fathers, I have taken the attitude in the book to speak of the importance of every man to adopt a fathering attitude for himself as he relates to every child, to take a mentoring attitude as he relates to every other man. We all, whether fathers or not, have a responsibility to the larger community. This means we are mentors and guides for all for the maintenance of community life. This is no less true for those who are not African American. On the whole, the book helps men to understand more fully who we are, and it offers insights for women to know why we might think and act as we do.
7) One question about another work. Of the many statements I highlighted in A Loving Home, the first book of yours I read, had to do with the role of community in the African American family. You said that fatherhood had to do with a man’s community responsibility. What are some of those responsibilities?
We all know the traditional idea of the role of fatherhood. It is linked to what it means to be a man and his main responsibilities are to protect and provide. We encourage fathers to protect and provide for the livelihood of their household. In America, this is largely understood in an individualistic way; that is, he is only concerned about his own individual household. But if we extend the understanding of family and household to be families of the community, then every man is responsible for the protection and livelihood of the community. He must be concerned about the health, well-being, spirituality, economic viability, happiness, Godliness, of everyone in his life and every life his own life touches.
8) Finally, in what ways has your work as a theologian, your role as a father and husband, and your influence in the community intersected? Do you see these parts of your life as connected in ways you can summarize?
I strive to be an integrated, consistent, whole person. I work hard to not be a different person within different contexts of a day. This means who I am at home is who I strive to be in the community; that who I am in the community is who I strive to be at home. I strive to have a good reputation wherever I am, and I hope that who I present myself as being is consistent wherever I am. The different roles I live have definitely helped me to live better as a person in my relationships as husband, father, friend, theologian, preacher, and teacher. Whether I am wearing a suit and tie, African finery, or jeans and sneakers with holes in my tee shirt, I hope to be seen, and known, as the same person who cares very deeply about African American life.