Larger than Life Black Dads on the Small Screen From The Cosby Show to The Bernie Mac Show to today's spate of reality shows starring famous rap stars, NPR's Tony Cox examines the images of black fathers on television with Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University.
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Larger than Life Black Dads on the Small Screen

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Larger than Life Black Dads on the Small Screen

Larger than Life Black Dads on the Small Screen

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This Sunday is Father's Day. The holiday is bitter sweet for people who have tense or sometimes non-existent relationships with their fathers. And a conversation around fatherhood in the black community takes on another dimension. For some folks, the only time they see an African-American father and his children together is on television. But are the depictions that they see a real reflection of the black experience? We've seen Bill Cosby and Bernie Mac as prominent black TV dads, but now you're seeing hip hop celebs on shows including Snoop Dogg's "Fatherhood", "Reverend Run's House" and Irv Gotti's "Gotti's Way." So, are these man portraying positive images of fathers or reinforcing stereotypes. For more on this discussion, we have NPR's Tony Cox, speaking with Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University. Gentleman, take it away.

TONY COX: Thank you very, Farai. Mark, nice to have you on with us.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (African-American Studies, Duke University): Hey, good to talk to you, Tony.

COX: Listen, let me set it up this way because many hip hop stars have come under criticism because of their lyrics and brushes with the police. The negative image of them clouds everything around them. So, when people mention a reality show base on rapper's family life, many people are just - they do just what you're doing right now. (Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NEAL: I think it's important to remember that for a lot of these guys, you know, that work as rapper, it's just that it's a job, very different on who they are and what they are in terms of their home life. And I think, what's really been surprising when you look at a range of these shows is that you know, these guys turned out to be not-too-bad fathers. They're actually halfway decent, you know, they have certain level of standards in terms of parenting, that I think catches people off guard sometimes.

COX: I think you're absolutely right, in fact we're going to talk about Snoop Dogg's show because he did an interview. And when he talked about Snoop Dogg's fatherhood, here's a soundbite from him.

(Soundbite of TV Show "Snoop Dogg's Father Hood")

Mr. SNOOP DOGG (Rapper): One of the reason why I want to do this television show because 90 percent of the rappers, males, grew up without fathers, and a 100 percent of us are becoming great fathers. And we're breaking the chain, and we're not being appreciated or commended for that. And it's sad, because they always want to say, 20 rappers is in jail for this or that, or they did this. But what about the 100 rappers that's been a father to their kids, and raising them, and doing positive creative things with them.

COX: Now, here's my question for you. It seems that there is a mixed messages sometimes coming from some of these celebrities particularly because of their image professionally, and what they do with their music, and their videos, etc. And then to watch them be these good dads on TV shows like this.

Prof. NEAL: Well, I think, it's you know, it's a struggle for them. You know, they're trying to make a living the best way they can. And you know, the irony is that, you know, their work as rappers gives them an amount of wealth that actually makes it easier for them to be great fathers. You know, I'm with some of us who were, you know, middle class and working class wish we had the kind of money that Snoop Dogg had to be able to invest in time with their son and be involved with them. But I think, it does challenge a lot of perceptions about who these guys really are, and ways that you know, fundamentally - when you look at Snoop in the context of his show, you know, he's probably closer to the Heathcliff Huxtable than a lot of folks would want to give him credit for.

COX: Well, you know, that is - that would seem to be a stretch. I understand why you're suggesting it but for the, you know, the average person who only knows what they see, and not what's goes on, you know, behind closed doors. It's hard to imagine and even - even - let me ask you about this because it's not television per se. But someone like Ice Cube, for example, who has gone into making these family-type movies and to watch him. You know, it's confounding. I think that's the word I would use. Would you agree?

Prof. NEAL: You know, the thing that's great about in the case of Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube, you know, two guys, two example, I mean. These are the guys who had to grow up in public. And I think very often we continue to think about them you know, when they were 19 and 20 year olds - which both of them were when they first came on the rap scene. And they have made decisions in their lives that have been a very different than these decisions that they're making now as 30-something adults you know, who have kids, who pay mortgages, I mean the whole kit and caboodle. And that's what you're seeing now with these folks.

These folks have been allowed to grow up and grow up in public. And you know, like many of us, you know, in our 30's and 40's, you know, one of the things that we're concern about all the time is parenting. How we're raising our kids? Are they going to be productive citizens etc, etc? And I think, the culture now has allowed a venue for them to express that aspect of their lives. And you may not here it in their music but now with reality shows, you see that aspect. And same things with Deon Sanders, like his show that's on now.

COX: Rapper and actor LL Cool J is advocating that young black man from single parent families seek out father figures. He says he reconnected with his own father as his career was taking off and he says, that was important for steering him away from a life of gangs and crime. He says he did it when he kicked off, as I said, his career. Is this a good idea?

Prof. NEAL: I think it's important that even when the father, actual father cannot be present. I think as many adults that can be involved in the parenting process with the kids is important. And there's so many man who can play that role even if they're not the father. I mean, we hear all the stories about coaches and teachers etc, etc. But just adult figures, male, adult figures around the way, you know, can have an impact in the parenting process by providing, you know, a stable situation where an adult can impose certain kinds of values and also be able to weigh in and be counsel for young kids.

COX: Is there a way to determine, Mark, whether or not these new images, these new fatherly images of people like Snoop Dogg are having an impact on the young men and women who are watching them?

Prof. NEAL: I think you would have to think so. I think, kids now watch so much television and there's 50,000 cables or satellite channels. I mean, inevitably what they're seeing on television is going to impact their everyday social relations. And they're seeing a range of different style of parents. I mean, it's no longer the 45-year-old Caucasian parent in the kind of standard family situation. I think, now that they've seen a range of different people express how they work through the parenting situation, that inevitably some of that is going to impact in terms of the decisions they're making their own lives when they become parents. But also as they're working to issues now as children.

COX: Really quickly, I've got about 15, 20 seconds and so, for you to answer this. Do you think that someone like Snoop Dogg would - what do you think he would say to his own son who wanted to become another Snoop Dogg-type rapper?

Prof. NEAL: I think you've seen it already in the show that he's very much discourages his children making a kind of decision the lifestyle choices that he made. I mean, I'd like to think that he would make the argument that he did what he did so that his kid have other choice, you know, kind of like the Tony Soprano narrative. You know, all those years on "The Sopranos."

COX: Yeah, very interesting Mark. Thank you very much. Good conversation.

Prof. NEAL: Good talking to you, Tony.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox speaking with Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American Studies at Duke University.

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