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An open letter to my son, Miles: Fatherhood

Dear Miles,

Eleven months ago, you arrived on this earth. I felt tremendous pressure, a weight of responsibility. I filled my time thinking about a financial, spiritual, and educational foundation for your life that would empower you to do great things.

I realized that your life journey is directly connected to my own life journey – who I married, where we live, what I do, and on and on. Your growth is shaped by my growth. Your world view is shaped by my world view.

Interrelated destiny

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” And so I find myself accountable to you. But our interrelatedness does not stop with the two of us. We are black men, and we cannot be all we ought to be until our group is what it ought to be.

But I know stories of great students, great fathers, and great men, and they are black. And I am here to tell them to you.

Statistics are used to see patterns in groups of people in order to predict future behavior patterns.

The social picture of the black male is defined by statistics. Across our state, 61% of black male students graduate from high school compared to 77% for white male students. If the trends through 2001 in incarceration continue, then one in three black boy babies born today can expect to spend time in prison.

Even before you can walk, as a black boy, if statistics are the predictor, there is not much reason to feel empowered.

But I know stories of great students, great fathers, and great men, and they are black. And I am here to tell them to you.

Hawthorne Effect

The term “Hawthorne effect” is used to describe individuals who improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. I wonder about society’s binoculars observing and tracking group behaviors and the response it engenders.

The statistics are so loud for black men that the Hawthorne effect doesn’t have a chance. The image of the dead beat black father is pervasive – too many single moms; too many of us failing to pay child support; too many without job security; too many dropping out of high school, college, life.

Before you were born, I questioned my ability to be a father. My insecurity was informed by statistical behavior that was not committed by me and is not reflective of my individual character. I noticed after you were born that people noticed and would comment that I was a good dad. They seem surprised that a black man could be a good father. It hurt my soul that the world’s expectations of me were so low.

Remember that “I can’t be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.” As fathers, we lead the way.

I want the Hawthorne effect to have a chance with black fathers. I want us to have the space to show an interest in the learning, growth, and health of our children. If we have faith in the potential of our children to achieve, then I believe they will achieve, irrespective of the statistics, irrespective of the negative messages.

The best kind of faith to transmit is faith in the potential of the child to learn for themselves, to do for themselves – and to do well, whatever the context or the conditions. Remember that “I can’t be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.” As fathers, we lead the way.

Scholars have proven that there are more differences within racial groups than across racial groupings but that is culturally ignored. It is unfortunate that I have to introduce you to an American culture that accepts the lens of race rather than the more comprehensive lenses of socio-economic status, health, political affiliation, or religion.

Your skin is your ornament of a great rich unique history. Your race does not predetermine your life journey.

Baby shower

When you were a few months old your mom had a baby shower. We received Pampers, wipes, clothes – all of the traditional gifts. But one coworker gave me a gift that forced me to consider my own hopes and dreams for you. Wrapped in a small thin box was a desk plate. On the desk plate, it read, “DR. MILES RUTH.” My choice to pursue higher education frames your life, but you will chart your own path, determining your own values, your own mission, your own passion.

By reaching for greatness, you will force the hand of society to re-interpret racial stereotypes.

As your father, I want you to know that I have unwavering faith in your greatness, but you get to decide what that greatness looks like.

Your Dad

Letter 1 on information technology

Terrance Ruth

Dr. Terrance Ruth is an education policy communications specialist at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, North Carolina State University. His research focus is poverty and globalization. He is also the principal of an alternative school, AMIkids, in Raleigh.