ST. LOUIS — Mike Gerdine carefully chose the outfits for his family’s first-ever photo shoot three weeks ago: white T-shirts for himself and his 13-year-old namesake, Michael, and a light blue dress with matching sandals for 3-year-old Malia.
Before they left home, he tossed a football into the car in case there would be time for catch before the sun went down at Lafayette Park.
Gerdine, of St. Louis, is one of about a dozen men Naisha Bailey-Johnson photographed last month for a special project featuring Black fathers.
“It’s needed. It’s very much needed,” said Gerdine. “The light shed on Black fathers is not good.”
Bailey-Johnson, who runs YoSnap Photo Booth, is one of a number of business owners using their professions to supply a counternarrative — through photographs, artwork, clothing and digital platforms — to racist stereotypes about African American dads. Most agree that while a more three-dimensional view is emerging, the pervasiveness of the myth of the missing Black father makes it hard to knock down.
“I hardly ever see Black men lifted up,” said Bailey-Johnson, who had the idea for her project after a video of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia went viral in May.
She decided to waive her usual $125 fee for fathers who had never had a professional portrait taken with their children, spreading the word at her church and through social media.
“It’s just a labor of love for me,” said Bailey-Johnson. “I want to show positive images of Black men. In the news, they’re shown as menacing.”
Research has found that Black men are underrepresented in media stories, movies and television shows overall, but overrepresented in accounts about crime and poverty. A 2017 study found the news media showed photos and videos of Black fathers interacting with their children at half the rate they showed Black mothers or white parents. In 1965, a report by Sen. Patrick Moynihan blamed the supposed absence of Black fathers for keeping African Americans from economic and social equity, a premise echoed for years by cultural and political leaders, including President Barack Obama.
The perception that Black men shirk their responsibilities persists even after an extensive study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2013, found that Black fathers were more likely than other racial groups to be involved in the day-to-day lives of their children — and in the case of Gerdine, a football coach at St. Mary’s High School, the lives of other young people as well.
“I take care of my two children, but I also take care of like 30 other kids. It takes a village,” he said as he played catch with Michael, while Malia skipped circles around the two. “What you don’t see in the media is fathers every day, at school, at sporting events.”
‘More work to do’
Jesse Alex Fortner and Lamar Johnson, founders of Dear Fathers, are attempting to change the narrative around Black fatherhood. In August, they created an online media platform for Black men to share their experiences.
“There’s nothing out there that tells our story,” said Johnson, who grew up in Hazelwood and now lives in Oakland, California. The father of two was once complimented in a grocery store by a white woman for “sticking around” for his children.
“That lets us know we have more work to do,” Johnson said. “Not just white people think that. Even our own people have the same thought.”
He and Fortner, who grew up in Jennings and now lives in Dallas, had worked together before for online publications. Dear Fathers features podcasts, videos and articles, including a series of first-person essays called “1,000 Fearless Fathers.”
They have collaborated with other national and local organizations to showcase Black fathers and offer support and resources. An online panel discussion in April drew 1,200 views.
And it included Joshua Johnson, of St. Louis.
Johnson, a public safety officer at St. Louis University, started building a “network of fathers” three years ago, when his daughter Kori was just 2. He named it Dope Dads and designed a logo, topped with a crown, to adorn a small line of merchandise.
“I wanted being a dad to be something to be proud of,” said Johnson.
He uses proceeds from the sale of Dope Dads-branded clothes and caps to fund meetup events for fathers, which he hopes will fuel a hub of resources for men like him, who worry they don’t have it all figured out.
‘Trying to learn more’
The push to accurately represent Black fatherhood has become more evident in the past few weeks, since Black Lives Matter protests have spread in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. A New York-based group called the Dad Gang organized a march in Washington to mark Father’s Day, drawing a couple hundred demonstrators.
The effort is not new. St. Louis artist Cbabi Bayoc trained his eye on Black fatherhood in 2012 when he kicked off what was intended to be a yearlong undertaking called “365 Days with Dad.”
“I had always wanted to do a project on Black fathers,” said Bayoc, who has three children. “I was looking for a way to reboot and get my art selling.”
He put out a call for photos to serve as inspiration: dads and kids playing ball, gaming, cuddling up with a book.
“I got a big reaction,” he said. “I was completely thrown off by the demand.”
The project raised his profile as an artist and quelled his insecurities as a parent. It ended up taking a little more than two years to complete 365 paintings — 787 days to be exact, a number he had tattooed on his calf to commemorate the achievement.
Aaron Banks got a canvas early, No. 14, a gift from his wife. The painting shows him with his two sons and his mom looking out at the ocean in Hawaii, a perpetual living-room reminder of a relaxing family vacation.
Banks, a public defender in St. Louis, is hesitant to say the bigger picture has changed since he hung his portrait eight years ago. He feels like the larger community is just now validating that Black fathers are underrepresented and misrepresented, and that frustrates him.
“What’s different now is that corporate America has latched on,” he said. “I’m skeptical and appreciative at the same time.”
Jeffrey Blair is familiar with those conflicted feelings.
Blair and his wife, Pamela, opened EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore five years ago in University City. Though it’s improving, the depiction of Black characters doesn’t come close to mirroring the population, and “even in the small space of Black books, Black fathers are pushed to the side,” he said.
The father of four children, now grown, doesn’t see his experiences and those of the dads he knows reflected in the media. Pressure from consumers is needed to broaden the representations of Black people, particularly men, said Blair.
In the past few weeks, EyeSeeMe has had a rush of new customers, especially white ones, snapping up books on race and racism.
“White America is trying to learn more,” he said.
One of EyeSeeMe’s most popular children’s books about fathers, “Hair Love,” tells the story of a man trying to style his daughter’s voluminous hair. A short film based on the book won an Oscar this year.
Those accolades are telling, said Blair.
“It speaks to the times, that people are connecting to that missing piece,” he said. “The book is exceptional, but it shouldn’t be. It should be a regular thing.”