Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American experience”? It depends where you look.
Black fathers are something special.
They’re also men who carry the baggage of dangerous stereotypes and misrepresentation in the mainstream media. Fathers Shaka Senghor and Glen Henry know this firsthand.
Senghor is the proud dad to 5-year-old Sekou, whom he co-parents with his former partner Ebony Roberts. Both Senghor and Sekou were born in Detroit but recently moved to Los Angeles. Senghor is an advocate for prison reform, influential motivational speaker and author of Writing My Wrongs, a New York Times best-selling memoir documenting his 19 years of incarceration. He appears in the forthcoming docuseries “Pops,” which follows him and three other dads raising children.
Henry is the stay-at-home dad of three: Theopilous, 4, Uriah, 3, and Anaya, 6 months. The San Diego-based musician is also the mastermind behind Beleaf in Fatherhood, a YouTube channel where he documents his life with his wife, Yvette, and children for his more than 66,000 subscribers.
Though influential in their own right, Senghor and Henry aren’t exempt from the unique stigmas and challenges black dads face. In separate conversations, the two spoke to HuffPost about overcoming these obstacles, redefining representation for black fathers, and raising fully realized black children in America.
What did you learn from your mom and dad either directly or indirectly about parenting?
Senghor (Michigan): I learned what I wanted to be as a father based on some of the things I didn’t have as a child growing up, which is great communication. I think it’s really important for fathers to really listen to their children to be available to them. The thing that I learned from my parents, more specifically from my father, is emotional availability and how important that is for young boys growing up ... my father [has] never been afraid to express how he felt. And I think it’s important for young boys to see the full range of emotions that men experience.
I would say one of the valuable lessons I learned from my mother is how to be self-sufficient. A lot of times boys are raised with this idea that there are different gender assignments and different roles that they should play and I told my son through my everyday efforts ... I want him to be very self-sufficient, I want him to know how to take care of himself. I don’t want him to grow up with the idea that that work is only women’s work.
Henry (California): I think my parents did the best that they could given the tools that they had. My mom was a single mom who was raising two boys. I think she could’ve put more time in but she couldn’t because she had to provide. And I think that what she taught me was that I for sure wanted to have a wife and I wanted to be ... a father who was present.
My dad, I had summer visitation so I would spend some time with him and it wasn’t a lot of quality time but it was like he’d pay attention or if things got out of hand he’d intervene. I think I learned a lot about what I wanted my future to look like by watching my parents and I don’t see it as a negative thing, I just see it as they could only give me what they had. And unfortunately they didn’t have a lot of tools that’d be good for raising a black man in America. I don’t want to seem like I’m saying negative things about them but it is something that I always think about, like man, we can only give what we’ve been given. And we can’t choose what we’ve been given.
What do you think is different in your parenting approach?
Senghor (Michigan): I think I’m less rigid than my parents. I don’t believe in corporal punishment. I believe that I’m a lot more patient than my parents. My parents were also raising multiple children. But I just think that the things I learned from me and my siblings’ experience, the hurt we endured at the hands of our parents ... I feel like what I do different is I have real conversations with my son. I don’t talk at him. I respect his humanity the way that I would want mine respected. His opinions are valid. I think the more ownership of their opinions and views and thoughts that they have the more empowered they are as children and the more empowered they’ll be as adults.
Henry (California): One thing my mom told me growing up: I had two strikes against me and those two strikes [were] that I was a black man in America. So what that meant was people would see me differently and I would be treated differently and so that brought a lot of paranoia to me as a young kid. She actually prepared me for how I would be perceived. Now comes the question as a father in today’s age ... What am I to tell my children about how they are perceived publicly?
Do I tell them the same thing my mom told me or do I get an “everything is going to be OK, just stay positive.” I know that if I don’t tell them, if I don’t give them a framework of a story about who they are, then someone else will tell them and they will believe that. What I’ve learned is that I have to ingrain and tell them who they are or who I believe they were created to be so at least they have a foundation of “OK, I’m not the bad guy, I’m the solution to the problem. I can come and I can make change. I’m a trendsetter, I’m a leader. I’m smart. I’m gentle. My skin is beautiful.” I’ve been seriously ingraining my children with positive images of themselves and positive thoughts about themselves.
What are some of the most harmful stigmas surrounding black fatherhood today?
Senghor (Michigan): I think [one] of the most harmful stigmas is this whole idea that black fathers are not present. And just recently, CDC put out a report saying that black fathers are more engaged than any other fathers in this country. We don’t hear that reality. And then it’s other ideas that fathers’ only role is the disciplinarian and the provider. I think that’s bullshit and I say that because fathers are nurturers as well. We are educators, we are spiritual leaders and so this whole idea that we’re one-dimensional or absent is a crock of nonsense.
Henry (California): That we are violent. I think that has plagued us even to us, this imagery that black men are more aggressive and more violent than any other race. And we see it with the judicial system and how we are convicted. If someone gets caught with some weed, they’re doing more time than someone who’s white and rapes someone. It’s totally evident in the way that we are perceived all around the world.
The funny thing is, they love our children. They will celebrate our children, they will adopt our children but I know as soon as I turned 8 and the police started looking at me and stopped waving back when I waved, that I wasn’t a cute kid anymore. I started to look like someone who committed a crime or would commit a crime in Baltimore. You could feel it. When people see my son 15 years from now, they’re not going to be [like,] “Oh, my gosh, he’s so adorable.” They’re gonna grab their purse, move across the street, ’cause our identity is only what we look like.
How do you approach working with your child(ren)’s mom to ensure that you’re doing what’s best?
Senghor (Michigan): [Ebony and I] communicate with Sekou being the center of our focus. Her and I broke up; one of the things we really wanted to be clear about is whatever happens between her and I, we would always put him first and that we would always discuss things that we believe mattered to us individually as parents and collectively. And so we’ve come up with several agreements that we stick to. We started off with certain responsibilities that we each have and we make sure that we honor that, and the other thing is not infringing on the other person’s responsibility.
For example, when it comes to his diet, Ebony is vegetarian, I’m not. We discussed and we decided we would raise him vegetarian. And so as a father, my responsibility ultimately in co-parenting is to respect his mother as his mother and to honor her wishes and to set up parameters to make sure she’s being honored. We have a cool understanding of what each other’s responsibility is. We both know that parenting doesn’t come with a manual. We do have parents and we learned what we liked and disliked from our parents but communication is the key. Communication without ego and when the child is the center, it’s just a lot more productive parenting relationship.
Henry (California): It’s a huge stigma against stay-at-home dads: you’re lazy, you don’t work, you’re a bum, your wife is the breadwinner. The interesting thing about me is that I’m a creative so I’ve been making music for like 12 years and so I can make money sitting in the house and I can make a couple hundred dollars just by spending two hours in the studio ... So my wife is the one who was like, “Yo, you can make money from home. I’m a teacher, I think you can stay home and I’ll go ahead and I’ll work.” And I was like, OK.
It’s always better for the parent to raise the child, I believe, instead of a nanny or a school system. I think it’s better because no one’s gonna care for your child like you would. So my wife is the piece that holds it all together. She’s everything to me and I think that’s pretty much the most important thing because me treating her well is going to show my sons how to treat their wives well or women period well and my daughter how to be respected and treated by other men. The way I treat my wife is the most important part about fatherhood.
Are your kids aware of racism yet?
Senghor (Michigan): He’s very conscious of it. ... Sometimes he and I have what we call our nighttime talk. And after I do his affirmation, read him a book, sometimes we’ll just lay in the bed and we’ll just talk until he’s sleepy and he asks questions like, “Dad, tell me about our ancestors,” or he’ll be like, “Why did white people enslave people from Africa?” So we dig into the whole labor issues and how people exploit people and I try to give him something he can relate to.
We give him the real conversations and with police brutality, I’m always explaining to him what’s going on in the world. I make sure that I do it in a way that’s equitable; I don’t want to vilify all police officers, I think that’s unfair to those who do the job for the right reasons. But I do make him conscious that he will be treated differently during those encounters. I have a rebellious spirit so I don’t believe in the whole idea that we have to raise our boys to be meek and basically we don’t have to raise our boys to be bootlickers in order for them to survive. I always want him to stand up for himself, I want him to stand up for what he believes. I want him to know what his rights are. I think that’s our responsibility as parents to ensure and that he always knows that daddy and mommy are a phone call away.
Henry (California): There was a shooting ― a Hispanic man was trying to evade arrest and was shot right around the corner from here and then two weeks later there was a march. We came outside and looked ’cause music was blasting and my son was like, “What’s going on?” That was [the] perfect time for me to explain what happened. And so it was weird because I’m having this conversation, I’m freaking out because it’s such an adult conversation with this 4-year-old. So he’s like, “Hey, Dad, what are they doing?” And I said, “They’re marching because their friend got killed,” and he said, “Well, who killed their friend?” And I was like, “Well, it was a police officer.”
He was like, “Well, I wanna beat them up, I wanna beat ’em up right now.” I was like, “Well, if you fight one cop, the cop can get taken out and you can get taken out. You gotta learn how to take down the system.” And so that was just like a subtle way of me saying not yet. There’s bigger fish to fry and there’s better ways to fight this thing instead of going hand-to-hand combat with a cop. You would lose, but even if you didn’t lose, it still would be for naught because you’re not really fighting the system.
How do you have conversations with your kid(s) about race?
Senghor (Michigan): We have very candid conversations with Sekou and we’ve been having those very early on. He’s very conscious that he’s a black boy growing up in America. He’s very conscious of his history of his culture. We’ve taken him to museums from the time he could walk to show him the relics of the past. We talk about our ancestors, we buy him African- and African American-inspired books to read and he asks a lot of questions and we’re very patient.
I mean, both of us are pretty knowledgeable about our history and culture, which is a great benefit as parents because we don’t have to rely on the school system to tell him who he is. Every night we do affirmations. That’s a ritual I started when he was around 2 years old and the idea behind that was that I want to affirm for him who he was before the world tells him who he isn’t.
He’s in a school that’s mixed. It’s not a predominately black school so he’s intersecting with different cultures and there’s been times when people have made remarks regarding his hair ― he has locs ― or his skin color and some of them were hurtful and we sat down and we had deep conversations about ignorance, bigotry, biases, racism. And he’s 5 years old but he has a very high comprehension level. I think we underestimate what we can ... talk to our children about and fortunately me and Ebony, we don’t feel like we have to shelter him from the reality he’s gonna face growing up in this country.
Henry (California): I think you have to initiate it or if you hear it being talked about, navigate the conversation. Everybody’s kids are gonna say something about race one day. You have to attack it head on. I see this in most people of Anglo-Saxon descent, in their families, they don’t really discuss these things. I know this because I have a huge community, I have a lot of different friends and a lot of them are white. They’ll say, “Yo, I would’ve never talked to my kid about this had he not seen this video. Thank you.” I think it’s really important that we discuss these things because stereotypes and all types of judgmental innuendos get in the way of knowing who a person really is. It’s about doing life with people who don’t look like you so that you can break whatever mental things you have in your head about that person.
Do you have any fears about raising a black child in America?
Senghor (Michigan): I don’t. I don’t have any fears. I believe that my only fear would be raising an ignorant black boy in America. I believe when you raise a conscious, thought-evolved, mostly evolved child, I believe at that point you have to just let their destiny be what it’s gonna be. And I refuse to live in fear so I can’t raise a child with fear hanging over my head. I really think it’s important to raise them with confidence and a sense of ownership in a world that we live in. I don’t wanna raise him as if he’s just some type of subject in the world as opposed to somebody who’s fully engaged in the world and who deserves anything that comes with being a human being.
Henry (California): I used to. But I know that if something happens to my kids it would be for a purpose. If something happens to me it would be for a purpose and I know that it will activate someone else and so I just hope that when I die, I die with purpose because that’s really what my fear was. “Beleaf in Fatherhood,” the show started like, “Yo ... if I die, I don’t want my kids to have just photo albums. I want them to have home movies that are fun and they could actually see what I was like as a dad.” What really sparked it was, “How can this go to my legacy?” I don’t have any fears about raising a black son or black kids cause I’m doing all that I can. If you’re inactive or you’re not doing everything you can, then it might produce some fear. It might make you feel like you can’t do anything and you’re helpless, but I don’t believe I’m helpless. I really do believe that we as a people can do great, amazing things and change our households, which will change the world.
What’s the most challenging thing about fatherhood to you?
Senghor (Michigan): I would say for me, the most challenging thing is my career. It requires me to travel a lot and I’m not always able to take him with me so there’s moments where I miss out on things that I wish I could be present for, but on the flip side of that, I know I have a responsibility to prepare for his future, to make sure he has the things that he needs. I believe that financial responsibility doesn’t stop with buying clothes and food. It’s like how much are you willing to invest in your child to make sure that their future is secured? So setting up a savings account, college account, teaching him about money management early on. Like those things are really important to me, so the big challenge is just being on the road but then the blessing to that is when I’m actually home, I don’t have a 9-to-5 to go to, so he gets my full time, he gets all the attention.
The other tough part is sending him off to school. We’ve both worked from home since he was born so we’ve had that privilege of just having him here and being able to homeschool and now he’s a big boy, he’s off to school and I worry about that sometimes. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment for him so it’s work.
Henry (California): The challenge is finishing the race. Anybody can be a good parent when your kid’s cute or 6 months, it’s easy. The kid is adorable. But when that same child is 18 and they steal your car or go joyriding and get into an accident, that’s a whole different level of love. But you’re the same parent and that’s the same kid. So finishing the race I feel like is gonna be the hardest part. Being there, turning from a coach into a cheerleader.
What’s the most rewarding thing about black fatherhood, in your opinion?
Senghor (Michigan): The most rewarding thing for me has been the things that I learned from him about being a human and about empathy, compassion and really putting somebody before yourself. It’s such an honor to me to do the things I do for my son. Like when I’m making lunch, that feels great. It feels amazing to be a caretaker when I’m doing his laundry and preparing him for school or teaching him something and he’s learning new things or exposing him to things, that feels amazing and I’m fortunate.
I get to expose my son to a lot of things I wish all children could be exposed to. And there’s some honor in that, there’s some pride in knowing that I’m helping to shape a human being I know is going to be an amazing blessing to the world. I believe all children have the capability or the potential to be so I guess that’s the most rewarding. There’s nothing like hearing “I love you, Daddy,” or when I go pick him up from school and he takes off running and jumps in my arms. That in itself makes anything else worth it.
Henry (California): I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons about being a man, about being a father. I realize, what fatherhood does is it exposes you, [similar to] what marriage does. When someone gets that close to you in proximity, you realize how great you’re not and how much better they make you. Fatherhood does the same thing so one thing that fatherhood has exposed to me is how bad of a son I am, and why I say that is because when I come home from work and I open up the door and the first crack of that door, I open it up, the kids run to me.
And that’s really awesome and rewarding but the real reward is knowing that my father wants me to pursue him in the same way. Like I always thought that the father was supposed to pursue the son but the father just makes himself available and the children pursue the father. The gems that I get from just like everyday activities ... with my sons and the questions they ask or how forgiving and loving they are, that’s the biggest reward. Just being there and being able to be taught. Letting life teach you.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.