Fathers 'Need To Step Up' For Black Daughters

More children are growing up without a father at home. In his documentary Dear Daddy, filmmaker Janks Morton explores the emotional consequences for black girls and the women they become. Host Michel Martin speaks with Morton, Jasmine Bowden, who was featured in the film, and Jonetta Rose Barras, author of Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl?

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we talk with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, though, we decided to talk about what happens when Mom is the only one around. That is, what happens when fathers aren't around. That's a situation that is becoming more and more common. A report from the nonprofit group Child Trends found that a majority of children born to women under 30 in the U.S. are born to single mothers. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in the black community, where less than a third of black children are now being raised in a two-parent household.

Now, this reality has been the subject of much political debate, both within and outside of the black community, but now there's a new documentary that takes a very different approach. It explores how fatherlessness affects African-American women. It's called "Dear Daddy" and it features many young black women talking about and writing letters to their fathers, the ones who were there and the ones who weren't.

One of the young ladies who told her story in the film is Jasmine Bowden.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, 'DEAR DADDY')

JASMINE BOWDEN: I hate the simple fact that you left me and I had no one to talk to when I couldn't go to my mother. I hate the simple fact that you wasn't there when I had my first heartbreak and it hurts me when I don't have a father to go to when I have a problem.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk about this very emotional issue, as you've heard, so we're joined now by Janks Morton. He is the filmmaker behind "Dear Daddy." Also with us is writer Jonetta Rose Barras. She is the author of "Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women." She was interviewed extensively for the film. We're also joined by Jasmine Bowden, the young woman whose voice you just heard a moment ago.

And welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JONETTA ROSE BARRAS: Thank you for having us.

BOWDEN: Thanks.

JANKS MORTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, just even that little clip is really hard to...

BARRAS: Yeah.

MORTON: It is.

MARTIN: ...hear. So, Janks, what inspired you to do this?

MORTON: Well, this is a continuation. "Dear Daddy" is step two in a film from last year entitled "We Need To Talk," where we talked to women who were older, 35 and above, about the effects of fatherlessness and, for some reason, that movie doesn't resonate well with young girls. So, to take a different cut, we interviewed women like Jasmine, younger women, so they can connect or see someone that is going through this experience right now.

MARTIN: Where did you find the young people whom you interviewed in the film?

MORTON: I've worked with this Boys and Girls Club here in Washington, D.C. for the past four summers. I've seen them every summer. I've made a mistake every summer. I've been the answer man. I talk too much. I've been that adult who did not listen empathetically about what was going on with them. Finally had them write the letters and - just open your ears and shut your mouth - and this wave of emotion just began to pour out.

MARTIN: Jasmine, why did you want to talk about this? And I appreciate your being willing to talk about it, not just in the film, but also with us because, obviously, it's not an easy thing to talk about.

BOWDEN: It's not.

MARTIN: Take your time. Not ready yet? OK. We'll come back to you. When you're ready, I'll come back to you. So, Jonetta, I happen to know that you - because you've been a columnist in the Washington, D.C. area, you've had a lot of different sort of roles in the media. And you, I understand, believe that the policy discussion around fatherlessness tends to focus on boys and it also tends to sort of be kind of at remove, in a way. It's like a kind of a finger-pointing. You people, as opposed to an, you know, outside-in about the effect that it has. And you feel girls' voices have kind of been left out of it.

BARRAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more to say about that.

BARRAS: Yeah. I think that, often in these policy discussions, you're right. It's sort of two, three persons removed. Sometimes, it's mostly males and not women actually having the conversation and so what I think is important is that people like Jasmine - young girls like Jasmine - have the opportunity to express what's in their hearts. It's been there for years and they haven't been able to tell their story using their language.

Like Jasmine said, he wasn't there to - you weren't there to talk to me. You weren't there to...

MARTIN: Just having somebody to talk to.

BARRAS: You weren't there to tell me about boys. You weren't there to tell me I'm beautiful. You weren't there to - you just weren't there. And I think that, as a policymaker, we have to listen to the people who are most affected by it.

MARTIN: OK. Jasmine, you ready now?

BOWDEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just tell me whatever you want to tell me.

BOWDEN: I guess...

MARTIN: It's hard.

BOWDEN: Yeah. It's a little hard.

MARTIN: There are tears here. I'm not going to lie to people. There are tears here. It's still hard, isn't it, to talk about? So...

BOWDEN: Yeah. Because he's still not around. Like...

MARTIN: Did you ever know him?

BOWDEN: My mother said he was around when I was real little, but I don't remember it.

MARTIN: What has she told you about him or why he's not around?

BOWDEN: She said we was moving. She said we kept moving or something like that.

MARTIN: What has she told you about him or why he's not around?

BOWDEN: She said we was moving. She said we kept moving or something like that. I don't know, but I remember the arguments and stuff, like he keep arguing or saying he's going to take her to court so he can get custody of me and stuff. That made her mad 'cause he don't be around, he's not around. How are you going to get custody of me if you not around to take care of me? Like my mother was around when I was little. My mother been there through all the hard times and good times. Like, every time I go to the hospital my mother is right there. But he's not there.

MARTIN: Janks, you talked about a lot of relationships, girls who never knew their fathers. There are young women whose fathers were in and out of their lives. Did you notice a difference in the stories that the girls told of what those different scenarios and what they meant?

MORTON: What I saw, it doesn't matter. The deserter, deceased, the disenfranchised, the whatever the circumstance, it doesn't matter. The trauma that these girls - these 1.8 million, 18 to 24-year-old black girls, 1.8 million - are carrying on their heart, it's not been given a voice. And what I found is that this arc, it goes through a woman's life. It just manifests itself in all these different ways that I think, that if we can get this generation, you know, an opportunity to purge themselves of this trauma, I think there are some greatness that can begin to happen in the relationship dynamic in blacks.

MARTIN: We're talking about the film "Dear Daddy." It's a documentary about the effects of fatherlessness on African-American girls. The girls are front and center in this film. Our guests are filmmaker Janks Morton, Jasmine Bowden, who's featured in the film, and Jonetta Rose Barras, the author of "Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl?"

Jonetta, your book about your own experience came out a decade ago. I was wondering if you think that part of the reason that there hasn't been the kind of conversation that Janks Morton has talked about, that you've talked about, is a sort of a shame factor, is that this is considered like airing dirty laundry, that there has been kind of a protectiveness around this issue in a way that hasn't allowed these stories to come forward for people to talk about it.

BARRAS: I think just generally the fatherhood movement, when it kicked off in the 1990s, was a real movement that was designed to try to connect boys with their fathers. We were all kind of concerned about what was happening to the male population in the country. By the time I got into it in the late '90s, I was one of the first voices that, sort of, said, wait a minute, if boys are - if fathers are great for their sons, then they certainly have to be great for their daughters, and let's focus on that.

I care about what happens to black men, but I'm equally or maybe even more concerned about what's happening to women because when we look at what's happening in society, the people who are actually rearing children and taking care of the families, are the women. And so if you have women who are wounded and you have generation to generation of wounded women, then you're sure to have generation after generation of wounded men and a society that is definitely dysfunctional and actually handicapped.

MARTIN: But could part of the reason be that - and I just have to be, trying to be sensitive here - is part of the issue here that black women are the ones who perpetuate this by continuing to and choosing to - in some cases choosing to -have children without fathers who are reliable, without men who they know they can rely upon? And I have to ask if that's part of the issue?

BARRAS: Well, I have to look at my own self. I've been married twice. I had a child out of wedlock before I was married the first time. And I think that part of the problem is that you develop these kind of, I call them symptoms - the fatherless woman syndrome - you develop these handicaps based on the absence of your father. So you don't believe that you're lovable or worthy of love. You suffered the triple fear factor - fear of rejection, fear of commitment, fear of abandonment. You actually get involved with sexual activity because you're looking for someone to love you. You have rage, anger and depression issues, and then you overcompensate, either using drugs, using work. And so these things come out in your life in ways that, kind of, alienates you in relationships.

MARTIN: That's a lot to put on Jasmine. Jasmine, I'm not associating you with all this. I understand, you know what I mean? I'm not making that all your story. OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOWDEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But, just saying. But I did want to ask if you feel that, you know, you're 18 now? Right?

BOWDEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Eighteen. Do you feel - well, first of all, how do you feel now that you are talking about it? Does it feel better to talk about it?

BOWDEN: Yeah. I feel a little bit better because I get to get it off my chest and I get to tell - I told my mother about it. So, like, I feel like I'm not the only one, now, that I know.

MARTIN: Do you feel that this has affected your relationship with boys, not having your dad around that maybe you don't feel as confident you would be in with dealing with...

BOWDEN: But if I had my dad around I really think I probably would've made some good choices in boys.

MARTIN: Better ones you mean?

BOWDEN: Yeah. Better choices.

MARTIN: We do hear from your mom in the film, Tina Bowden. I'll just play a short clip. Here is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DEAR DADDY")

TINA BOWDEN: To me, the older a female gets, even though she needs her mom, she needs her dad too. She needs that fatherly stage, you know, the stage when there's time for boys, you know, dad is right there monitoring the type of boys. I mean, moms can do but so much.

MARTIN: You know, but your mom also said in the film Jasmine, that you hadn't really talked to her that much about it.

BOWDEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I wonder why is that. Were you afraid of hurting her feelings or making her feel as though you blamed her or she wasn't good enough? Or what do you think? Why do you think you didn't talk about it?

BOWDEN: 'Cause I'm not used to talking about my feelings. Like I usually hold it in, but like that was bothering me so much that I had to say something. Like I told her, like, a little bit but she was like well, at least say how you feel and I finally told her.

MARTIN: Go ahead. What else? Well, I'll come back to you. Whenever you're ready I'll come back to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'll keep looking.

BOWDEN: It's so hard.

MARTIN: I'll keep checking back with you. But Janks, I have to ask. Again, I have Janks, I'll ask you this question. I asked Jonetta question...

MORTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...is I think I'm wondering if part of the reason that this hasn't been more discussed is that it's like...

MORTON: Taboo?

MARTIN: Taboo.

MORTON: Or...

MARTIN: And it's also is a part of it that it kind of fights, the sisters are doing it for themselves kind of mentality?

MORTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: That there's something that is ashamed of. There's some element here that doesn't want to imply that a man is needed because that would either hurt too much, or it's just considered, you know, another black mark against the black community that...

MORTON: I think your talk...

MARTIN: ...that for some reason and, you know, women tend to be very protective of the community image.

MORTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I wonder if that's part of it too.

MORTON: I think you're touching on all the kind of all these thrusters it is. And what I've seen with these young women specifically is that this kind of cultural construct we, or this mantra we have of, you know, all the women, independent, stand on your own two feet - which leads to all those great workshops that Jonetta talks about. They'll give you all of these great things, self-worth, identity, financial literacy, all of these things to deal with all of the secondary manifestations. But to get to the pathology of where the pain hurts, where it starts, I don't know what it is but that thing is off the table in our community. And this film is, what I'm trying to do, I think that really, if we start here a lot of this other things, you know, abusing your body with drugs, abusing your body with food, all those other workshops get put out of business if we deal with father absence and void vacancy at this juncture.

MARTIN: And so I was going to ask each of you this, what do you hope will come out of this film?

MORTON: I think one of the great postulates that Jonetta actually advances in the film. She talks about, you know, again, I work with faith-based organizations so I want to qualify with that, but I've never seen inside of a church a father-daughter reconciliation ministry. Ever. I see dad's ministry. I see singing ministries, single mom ministry, youth ministry. I see every ministry, even mentorship, but this construct of saying there needs to be a safe space where a daughter can be transparent, begin to heal and reconcile from this trauma, and also a father who wants to be involved, a place where these two can come together, it just doesn't exist. I don't see it.

MARTIN: Did you make any effort to find Jasmine's dad?

MORTON: Oh, I did. I...

MARTIN: Yeah. And you weren't able to?

MORTON: I did.

MARTIN: Were you able - OK.

MORTON: I didn't include him in the film for some very, very specific reasons.

MARTIN: OK.

MORTON: And too often we as adults want to get into this game: Where was you? What did you do?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MORTON: Or Mama, why did you? All of that is off the table right now, because it takes us away from this.

MARTIN: Jonetta, what do you hope people will draw from this film?

BARRAS: Actually, I hope that this will be an opportunity for women, regardless of their age, color, class, who have been affected, to know that there are others just like them. And to give themselves permission to actually cry and to say I hurt. And also, if they want to go and find their fathers, I want them to take that journey. I tried it. I met my father two years before he died. I wasn't able to really reconcile with him, but meeting him gave me a freedom that I needed to reconcile with myself and to heal myself and to become a whole healthy person. I want that for every woman who has grown up without her father or is growing up without her father. I think this film is the first step to that.

MARTIN: Hmm. All right, Jasmine, I'm going to give you the last word. What do you hope people will get out of this film?

BOWDEN: That they will, after watching this, they will want to connect with they fathers. Like the fathers will want to talk to they daughters, want to be in they life and stuff like that. Like not everybody is as strong. Like if they act strong that don't mean that they are. Like they really need they father around. They really need to talk to 'em. And they fathers should look at they daughters and just sit 'em down and be like what do you want to talk about or what what's going on in your life. Like, it's kind of hard just by having just a mother, like, the mother can't do everything. They can't make the choices. They can't have certain conversations with they daughters that the fathers can. And all fathers need to step up, because like it's real terrible out here and we need our fathers around..

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you this, and you can say no. If you could talk to your father, what would you tell him?

BOWDEN: I made it without him.

BARRAS: But have you really?

MARTIN: OK, Jasmine, we're not going to - we're going - Jasmine Bowden is one of the young women featured in the film "Dear Daddy." It's a film by social activist and filmmaker Janks Morton. It's touring around the country now. Jonetta Rose Barras is a writer and the author of "Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl? : The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women." And they were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you all so much.

BARRAS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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