Over the last few decades increasing rates of single mother households in the United States have triggered a national alarm over the effects of father absence on society. Father absence has been linked specifically to many of the problems plaguing black communities in the United States (e.g. poverty, low educational attainment, etc.) and as a result community and political leaders alike have consistently promoted responsible fatherhood practices as a way to address them. Although responsible fatherhood has received, in this context, a considerable amount of social attention, this attention has come intertwined with considerable political and moral rhetoric at all levels, making an idea invested with a wide variety of often-conflicting meanings and interests. Given the paucity of academic studies giving voice to black fathers at the metaphoric "front line" of the national responsible fatherhood effort, this author used a variation of The Listening Guide (Gilligan 2003) to capture the narratives of four black fathers volunteering in a local responsible fatherhood program. Critical Social Representations Theory was used to frame the interaction between participants and the social contexts within which they are embedded, paying particular attention to participants' positioning in regard to social representations of race and gender. The widely different understandings of fatherhood present within the results point to fatherhood as a highly dynamic concept. Responsibility, on the other hand, was understood primarily as father presence, a middle class ideal that I argue is problematic given the realities of poor black fathers. Finally, all fathers tended to resist ideas of race as essence, even if in regard to gender all fathers adopted hegemonic positions endorsing views of gender difference as essential and as grounded in biology. Overall, results reveal complex portrayals of black fathers and their lives in communities where race, poverty, incarceration, drugs, violence, or family court all pose additional challenges to responsible fatherhood. (Author abstract)
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