Walking arm-in-arm with her father through Harlem on Sunday, Nikita Reid, 11, leaned over to excitedly ask whether she could wear one of her favorite dresses for their special Father’s Day dinner.
“Daddy, can I wear my black-and-white dress tonight? Pleeeaase!”
Usually, Hubert Reid preferred that his daughter wear conservative slacks, but, with her cooing at him, he just couldn’t say no. “If you can find what shoes to wear with it, sure,” Mr. Reid said.
It was a tender moment between a father and daughter who had shared difficult times in the past. A week earlier, at the suggestion of his therapist, they had gone to a pre-Father’s Day cookout organized by a local group — Harlem Men Stand Up — that encourages commitment to fatherhood.
Mr. Reid, 59, said he had raised Nikita by himself since she was almost 2 years old. At the time he gained custody of her, he was only two years out of prison after a drug conviction, and was a recovering crack and heroin addict, as well as H.I.V. positive. He was also jobless and on welfare.
“When my daughter was born, I was on parole,” he recalled. “I’d been a drug addict, but everything I thought I wanted as far as this baby was concerned, God gave it to me.” Nikita, a fifth grader, will graduate from Public School 163 on Monday.
In many parts of Harlem, the gulf between the number of fathers who raise children without a wife and the number of mothers raising children without husbands is vast. According to a Census Bureau survey from 2005 to 2007, there were 12,541 family households in central Harlem with their own children under age 18. Of those, 826 were headed by a father without a wife, while 7,528 were led by mothers.
About two miles south, on the Upper West Side, there were 19,460 households with their own children under age 18. Of those, 905 were led by fathers without a wife and 2,666 headed by mothers without husbands. (The figures may include unmarried couples with children.)
Harlem Men Stand Up set out four years ago to change the thinking and lifestyles of many men in the neighborhood. Founded by three Harlem fathers with long careers in family and community services, the group holds “summits” (some have drawn more than 250 men) with community leaders and motivational speakers, and offers social help through several neighborhood organizations.
“You don’t hear as much about absent mothers. You mostly hear about absent fathers,” said Melvin Alston, 62, one of the group’s founders.
“Predominantly, most of the social services that are available in Harlem and other communities are geared toward women and women’s issues, and they’re often run by women predominantly,” added Mr. Alston, the Manhattan community coordinator for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. “Men are a little more unique in our needs and our concerns. And sometimes we’re like afterthoughts. So we started Harlem Men Stand Up to include men.”
The cookout was intended to honor men who have taken fatherhood seriously. Against a background of laughter, hugs, the smell of flame-broiled burgers and booming soul and hip hop, Mr. Reid said, “It’s good to realize there are other men who stand up and take care of their children.”
The barbecue, held in a huge walled-in lot at the Dunlevy Milbank Center on West 118th Street, ran for most of the afternoon, with speaker after speaker extolling the importance of responsible manhood and fatherhood.
John Adams, 48, a single Harlem father who has been raising his 12-year-old son, John Jr., mostly by himself, attended his first summit about two years ago. At the time, he said, he was fighting to connect with John Jr., who was doing badly in school and was despondent at home.
After hearing Wayne Dawson, another of the group’s founders and the campus director of the Dunlevy Milbank Center, speak about “black men needing to be more involved in kids’ lives, and not letting them get lost to the streets,” he sought out Mr. Dawson for weekly father-son counseling.
According to Mr. Adams, Mr. Dawson had father and son write letters to each other about their feelings for each other, with the father telling the son that he “loved him and wanted him to stay focused, don’t lose track in life of what it is he needs to do.”
Today John Jr.’s grades have improved and, his father said, he seems happier and better adjusted.
Mr. Alston said that the group was working with Riverside Church’s prison ministry. He said nearly three quarters of the men he grew up with had spent time in jails and that crack “wiped out almost an entire generation of parents in Harlem.”
“Those of us who are left have to do our jobs,” he said.
At the cookout, Mr. Reid sat shoulder to shoulder with his daughter on a green bench. “This event is important because it shows that there are black men out there that can be fathers, as well,” he said, “because we’ve had a real bad rap about never being there for our children.”
By Jason Grant
Image by Rob Bennett