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What Love Is: Black Fathers Doing It Right, Doing It Their Own Way

At Atlanta Black Star, we are spending this entire week celebrating, honoring, exploring and uplifting Black Fatherhood by examining it through the lens of 7 themes: Lead, Build, Provide, Care, Protect, Work and Love. This is the final story in the series, by three-time New York Times #1 bestselling author Denene Millner, who has movingly examined the many ways that her father expressed his Love for her—and the way that she sees it expressed by black fathers all around her.

I am told that I was left on the stoop of an orphanage, down in Lower Manhattan somewhere—a baby and a blanket on hard concrete.

Still, I was wanted.

My father, a son whose fractured relationship with his own dad could have forever shaped—and ruined—his parenting journey, knew this one true thing: he wanted a little girl, a chocolate drop to call “daughter.” And so he hustled his wife to that very orphanage, four days after I arrived, and found… me.

There are so many ways my story could have ended, but love found its way to that orphanage’s basement, through the dark, to the back of that room, to my crib. And in the moments that eyes locked and fingers touched, hearts connected. No matter blood nor flesh: I was his. He was mine. And that was that.

There is something to be said for a man who can love so heartily, so mightily, so deeply. Surely, all of this could have gone down in another way. Fate is funny that way. But the Heavens saw different—decided to put me in the arms of a man who knew how to love. That good, hearty love—the kind that can’t be found at the bottom of a wallet or in empty promises. Daddy’s love was expressed in action and in deed. All at once regular and… extraordinary.

For starters, he was there. That was love.

There was the roof over our heads and the food on the table and the clothes on our backs and the heat in the cold New York winters—all that, by hook or crook, Daddy made sure was there. That’s love.

He didn’t know algebra or the finer points of the Constitution or care much for penning essays, but he encouraged and coaxed when it came to the school work—knew that a proper education, the kind he was denied in the rural South in the 40s that was given freely in to his children in the 70s and 80s, was not only critical, but needed to be embraced with great reverence. That’s love.

And while I was charged with doing what it took to get a college scholarship by day, his job on the overnight shift would rule his nights—leave him exhausted from working while we slept and cheerless about the fact that while we were up, he had to sleep. But he did it. For the sake of his family. That’s love.

There were warnings about boys. About respect for the elders. About respect for self. Lessons on how to make the perfect over-easy egg. And the perfect bowl of pan-popped popcorn—the kind that tasted dead right on our father/daughter fight nights. All of that—love.

And I felt it, you know. Of this, he made sure. It was most acute on Fridays. My favorite person in the world, gone all week from sundown to dawn’s early rise, always managed to save that one day for his daughter. And that meant… everything.

Mind you, we did nothing special. Exhausted, hungry, desperate for quiet, Daddy would come in from his overnight shift at about 7:30 a.m., lay it down for a few hours, then pop up—clear-eyed, focused. Ready. There were bills to be paid, errands to run, stories to catch up on, friends to visit. And there I’d be, shotgun in the black Eldorado, caring not one lick that an occasional ice cream cone at the mall was the height of excitement during our Fridays together. It was his time, after all, that I wanted. His presence.

When he could, Daddy gave it freely. Still does.

That’s love.

It’s the same kind of love that I see in my own home, with my husband, Atlanta Black Star editor-in-chief Nick Chiles, whose love for and dedication to our daughters and son is so strong, so incredible, so dedicated, so bright, it rivals a thousand stars.

 Our Father, Our Heroes:

It’s the same kind of love I see out on the soccer fields on Saturdays, where little brown girls push the ball up the grass and toward the goal, the wind and their fathers’ cheers at their backs. It’s the same kind of love, too, that I see at school functions, where black daddies beam and snap pictures of their children as they sing and present their art and collect their academic certificates for work well done. Open your eyes at the grocery store, and there is that love, standing over in the fruit section and in the milk aisle, warm and ever-present in the giggles and the “Daddy, can we get that, please?” pleas that tumble from little mouths. Peek in the barbershops on a Saturday afternoon and that love is sitting on the couch, joking and jonesing and telling stories, with watchful eyes on the little heads getting edged up right. And it’s ever present in church pews on early Sunday mornings, where, with hands raised, black fathers praise their God and show their children, by example, how to do so, too.

Of course, there are all-too-many who are blind to that love—who insist that the loving, caring, dutiful black father does not exist. But my God, he does. They do. Despite what the black marriage statistics say. Despite what the prison statistics say. Despite what the child support checks look like. Black fathers are capable and do love their babies. It may not be picture perfect love. It may not always be the way we mothers think black fathers should show their love.

But it’s love. And it’s there.

This—this is what we should choose to meditate on this Father’s Day. Of course, there always is room for finger pointing, ridicule and blame tossed at the can’t-get-right dads. But not today. As the sun dances across the sky and we take these 24 hours—this one day out of 365—to celebrate fathers, choose, instead to give a little air to humanness and imperfection and a pinch of understanding, then focus—really focus—on how love manifests itself in good black fathers. Good black men.

The fathers who bring their paychecks home…

And kick in toward the mortgage/rent, or pay it outright…

And rub the swollen feet and sore backs of the pregnant women they love…

And change diapers and warm bottles and bounce babies on their arms, even when they haven’t a clue, really, what they’re doing, or we stand over their shoulders, ordering them to do it our way…

And play horsey and helicopter over and over and over again, their exhausted bodies energized only by the glee in their giggly children’s “please, Daddy—one more time?” pleas…

And dole out discipline in healthy doses—with great love and the profound knowledge that setting their kids straight will go a long way in helping them become better human beings.

And make their families feel protected, even when deep inside, they’re scared crapless…

And find a way to raise kids with their children’s mother, even if the love isn’t there any more…

And, for those still with their children’s mother, kiss their wives passionately because they think after all these years, she’s still hot…

And do it in front of their kids, so that they can know that they’ve seen true love…

And love the Lord…

And their children with abandon…

Let’s open our eyes and really see them, in their many manifestations.

That’s love.

Denene Millner is a New York Times bestselling author and the editor of


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