On January 27, 2020, I had a halting self-realization while watching the 62nd Grammy Awards. After watching an emotional Camila Cabello sing her new song, First Man, an understanding within me surfaced under years of longing. I do not consider myself a Camila Cabello fan, however, this song managed to wriggle through me as if I’d had written it. It mentions the intimate relationship between father and daughter that begins at birth and continues into adulthood as she begins to look for a partner. The line, “You held me so tight, now someone else can, but you were the first man that really loved me,” rang through my body. I began to ask myself, “Could the emotional longing I have for a father’s companionship transcend into my dating life?”
There is a famous Caribbean proverb that originated from Africa: “It takes a village to raise a child” , meaning the efforts of an entire community and their interaction with their children is essential to the development of that child—it provides them with the opportunity to grow in a safe and healthy way (Goldberg, 2016). So what happens to the children who are stripped away of this supportive village? What happens when all validating members may not be present nor accounted for? How does the trauma left behind by a fathers’ absence, neglect, or disownment contribute to how they develop and perceive themselves? Unfortunately, there is no distinct answer to these questions, but rather systemic indifferences perpetuated through social prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes. How do words like “bastard” directed towards a Caribbean child, or the popular joke about a father going to buy milk at the store, yet never coming back, truly affect the structure and stability of Caribbean families?
The dismantling of the Caribbean household began long before the 21st century. In fact, the absence of Caribbean men within their child’s life can be dated back to the era of enslavement(Grannum, 2011). During slavery, sexual intimacy between Black men and women was held in contempt, and with the decline of trafficking slaves in the 1800s (Grannum, 2011), masters were persistent to take matters into their own hands. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act enacted on March 1807 made it illegal to engage in the slave trade while in Britain, so they decided to relocate their trafficking of slaves to the Caribbean islands (The National Archives, Abolition of the Slave Trade). As the trafficking of slaves reached an all-time high in the Caribbean, Black men were being exploited more and more.
The Caribbean islands are thought to have taken ten to twenty million Africans from their homelands, with approximately 600, 000 taken to Jamaica alone—which, at the time, was titled one of the largest net importers of slaves globally (Murdoch, 2009). In the direct event of the anti-slavery movement, the Caribbean economy took a plummeting downturn in the population of slaves (Murdoch, 2009). By this time, the Caribbean had absorbed 47 per cent of the total number of African slaves, where it became extremely vital for the white men to keep this business going (Murdoch, 2009). During this time, Black men were stripped away from their families and ordered to have sexual intercourse with numerous women. They were being used as nothing more than sexual instruments to continue reproducing children into slavery. In that moment, Caribbean men were no longer responsible for the children they helped create.
After this, the lack of sexual intimacy was normalized amongst the Black community, as sex became an emotionless act. The repercussions of this decision decided upon us by slave masters did not only permanently affect Black intimacy, but has also allowed for the transgressional acceptance of single-parent households, in which Black women are responsible for raising the children while the men adopt a passive role. In 2019, approximately 4.15 million Black households in the United States were led by a single mother (Statista Research Department). There are around 4.15 million documented Black children living without the advantages of a concrete village. With the support from both parents, a child can be afforded more time to grow up without the constant fear of not having enough money. They have a chance to participate in extracurricular activities without worrying about outstanding responsibilities at home, which segways into the child missing out on opportunities to socialize. Having higher financial stability offers insurance to many of life’s challenges with the upbringing of a child.
The other area affecting a child’s upbringing has to do with the silent longing for a psychological and emotional connection to one’s father. As a child, as you start to develop understandings of your emotions, you may begin to feel as though you missed out on a viable emotional connection—one that could affect or benefit your romantic relationships, when trying to understand how a man loves you. All things considered, there are both financial and psychological benefits to having two active and present parents in your life.
It is easy to point fingers and say the Caribbean family structure needs to be accountable for the trauma transcending generations and oftentimes carrying into a child’s adolescence, but there is more to this issue than meets the eye. This cycle of single-mother families within Caribbean culture has become a part of our ethnic identity, insofar as we continue to allow the historic baggage to be chained to our people.
I found myself viscously crying along to every word she sang. “You don’t even know how much it means to me now, that you were the first man that really loved me, that really loved me, you really love me”. These emotions that I had bottled up inside me and ignored came bursting through the lyrics of this song. I realized that I may not have had the most compassionate fatherly love, but I refused to let it define me. Being fatherless isn’t my identity, nor does it get to define me. Instead, being fatherless has taught me a lesson about my history, my parents, and the choice I get to make in the future—all of which adds to my legacy.
How can we reverse the effects to ensure Caribbean children grow in a safe and healthy way? The answer to this is simple—we can’t.
We cannot reverse our history, we cannot change the past. We cannot alter the important events that make us who we are. All we can do is become better. Becoming an ethnicity that understands the hurt we cause our children when certain decisions are made, understand that change can take place if we continuously strive for it, and understand that we cannot advance spiritually if we keep placing our children in positions that stunts their economic, emotional, social, and spiritual growth. People do not realize that these ancestral wounds run deeper than we think. It becomes our responsibility to then find justice for and within ourselves. What is often overlooked when it comes to social activism, is that it first begins with fighting for yourself. Once that has been achieved, you have the ability to fight for your existence, your happiness, and your legacy.