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New dads on the block

MUMSNET FOR DADS: The Dope Black Dads group doesn’t just chat via WhatsApp, they also have started a podcast and meet up in real life,too (Photo credit: Sarpong Photography)

IT’S NO secret that black dads get a bad rap. One of the most prominent stereotypes that exists in relation to black fathers is that they don’t stick around.

In recent years, with the spike in youth violence, commentators have increasingly linked this absenteeism with the rise in knife crime.

In a bid to change the narrative, but primarily to provide support and learn from fellow fathers in the absence of other resources, Marvyn Harrison set up Dope Black Dads. The WhatsApp group and podcast gives black fathers the space and opportunity to discuss issues related to being a black father in Britain as well as sharing and gaining advice from their peers.

The growth of the WhatsApp group, which was set up on Father’s Day last year by Harrison, supports the notion that it’s something that many men needed. Having grown up in a single- parent household, Harrison, 35, was somewhat at a loss of how to behave as a black father when he became one.

“My dad wasn’t around and so you take whatever my mum’s done, pull out the bits that have stuck with you and that resonated, remove the bits that didn’t resonate,” he told The Voice.

Despite the lack of an obvious role model, the advertising executive says he looked forward to becoming a father and the challenges it would bring.

“I was desperate to reverse the cycle and I knew that I would be present and I knew that I would give it everything that I have,” the father-of-two said.

Like Harrison, most of the dads in the group grew up without their fathers. Having his brother become one before him meant Harrison found he had a close male role model to look to – but it still didn’t prepare him for fatherhood.

“There is nothing you do in your life up to that point that gives you experience that you can transfer over. So the day your child is born, you scramble,” he said.

To fill the gap, some men have admitted to using fictional father figures as guidance.

“In our group, [The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character] Uncle Phil comes up, Will Smith comes up, those people come up as like barometers to successful parenting and parenting styles,” Harrison said.

Resorting to such limited examples left many of the men feeling unsupported.

“There’s very little if not no support for men throughout that process and that’s again one of the things we found very common, but also very frightening, that most of us haven’t had our dads in our life,” said Harrison.

UNDERSTANDING

“We’re all doing it based on the sources that I gave you earlier – then you find out that it’s difficult and then you get pretty much ignored throughout the process and discounted throughout that process of on-boarding to be a parent and the focus is very much on the mother, which is obviously very important, but that doesn’t exclude what a man is trying to do or what a dad is trying to do at that point.”

He added: “We’ve created our own resource and we induct fathers regularly into the process and just give them, you know, a place to vent, a place to share ideas, a place to go through that process.”

Harrison described the group as a safe space. It’s a social messaging “Mumsnet for dads” and with its understanding of and respect for cultural nuances and particular challenges for black fathers, it’s become something extremely valuable for those who are a part of it.

“That information coming from someone who looks like you and has lived your life is invaluable,” he said. The group first discuss topics privately via a WhatsApp group and then select some of the issues for public discussion through the podcast.

The weighty subjects explored include everything from discussing the use of the N-word and the breakdown of the family unit, to being LGBT as a black father and surviving stillbirths.

“We probably don’t identify with the black LGBT community enough,” Harrison said, referring to the discussion around sexual orientation, which informed a podcast episode. “It just was a conversation that needed to be had.”

“The podcast was very important. To sit there and just talk about subjects with no real agenda or structure but just genuinely how I feel... so other dads can see us figuring it out too. We don’t have all the answers, we’re just sharing what we do have and growing from there,” said Harrison.

And that growth has been pretty phenomenal. The group, which began with around 20 participants, now includes around 90 dads, located in London, New York and South Africa.

The biggest problem that Harrison has discovered since starting the group is a lack of communication among black men. It’s an issue he’s hoping to solve.

“I think we don’t communicate [with one another] enough. I think a lot of our groups on WhatsApp are sharing memes and football banter and naked women but we’re not challenging each other on some of the things we’re doing, so this group has definitely done that,” Harrison said.

To listen to all episodes of the Dope Black Dads podcast, visit soundcloud.com/dopeblackdads. You can find the group on social media at Dope Black Dads.

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