Saturday, June 21, 2008
Talking tough on Father’s Day, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) challenged African-American men on Sunday to play more of a role in raising their children and warned them that “responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”
“Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL,” he told a huge African-American congregation in Chicago. “There’s a hole in your heart if you don’t have a male figure in the home that can guide you and lead you and set a good example for you.”
“What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — any fool can have a child,” he said, to applause. “That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”
Obama drew laughs when he talked about gyrating portrayals of him in the media: “That was when I wasn't black enough. Now I'm too black.” Responding to cheers and applause, he added ruefully, “Y'all remember.”
Obama said parents can’t use lack of government resources as an “excuse” for not doing anything for their children: “As fathers and as parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and turn off the TV set once in a while, turn off the video game and the remote control and read a book to your child."
The point about the remote is one Obama often makes on the campaign trail, always to big applause.
Obama met this week with evangelical ministers, and the speech could help him reach out to family-oriented conservatives who remain unenthusiastic about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Obama’s fatherhood speech was delivered at Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, where the crowd overflowed from the 3,000-seat sanctuary into the banquet hall.
Obama’s wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, also attended.
The senator declared that even many two-parent families can do a better job of preparing their children: “It’s a wonderful thing if you are married and living in a home with your children, but don’t just sit in the house and watch ‘SportsCenter’ all weekend long.”
Obama began by saying that too many fathers are “missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes,” having “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
“You and I know how true this is in the African-American community,” he said. “We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”
Reeling off a list of potential excuses, Obama acknowledged that cities also need more police, “fewer guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” more money for schools, better teachers, more after-school programs and more jobs and job training.
“But we also need families to raise our children,” he said. “We need fathers to realize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”
Turning to his own life story, Obama said he knows “what it means to have an absent father, although my circumstances weren’t as tough as they are for many young people today.”
“Even though my father left us when I was 2 years old, and I only knew him from the letters he wrote and the stories that my family told, I was luckier than most,” he said. “I grew up in Hawaii, and had two wonderful grandparents from Kansas who poured everything they had into helping my mother raise my sister and me — who worked with her to teach us about love and respect and the obligations we have to one another. … So my own story is different in that way.
“Still, I know the toll that being a single parent took on my mother — how she struggled at times to the pay bills; to give us the things that other kids had; to play all the roles that both parents are supposed to play. And I know the toll it took on me. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls; that if I could give them anything, I would give them that rock — that foundation — on which to build their lives. And that would be the greatest gift I could offer.”
Speaking as “an imperfect father,” Obama spoke of three lessons “we must strive to live and learn as fathers — whether we are black or white; rich or poor; from the South Side or the wealthiest suburb”:
* “The first is setting an example of excellence for our children — because if we want to set high expectations for them, we’ve got to set high expectations for ourselves. It’s great if you have a job; it’s even better if you have a college degree.”
* “The second thing we need to do as fathers is pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy — the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes.”
* “[T]he final lesson we must learn as fathers is also the greatest gift we can pass on to our children — and that is the gift of hope. I’m not talking about an idle hope that’s little more than blind optimism or willful ignorance of the problems we face. I’m talking about hope as that spirit inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting for us if we’re willing to work for it and fight for it. If we are willing to believe.”
Obama said that Washington also has a responsibility. “Because if fathers are doing their part, if they’re taking our responsibilities seriously to be there for their children, and set high expectations for them, and instill in them a sense of excellence and empathy, then our government should meet them halfway,” he said.
Obama acknowledged that this kind of change is a big undertaking, but said: “Life doesn’t count for much unless you’re willing to do your small part to leave our children — all of our children — a better world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if the work seems great. Even if we don’t get very far in our lifetime.
“We try. We hope,” he concluded. “We do what we can to build our house upon the sturdiest rock. And when the winds come, and the rains fall, and they beat upon that house, we keep faith that our Father will be there to guide us, and watch over us, and protect us, and lead His children through the darkest of storms into light of a better day. That is my prayer for all of us on this Father’s Day, and that is my hope for this country in the years ahead. May God bless you and your children. Thank you.”