Two weeks ago, I sat down with Ifeanyi Emesih to talk about fatherhood, black fatherhood in particular, father to father. I had reached out asking him to contribute to a new art education project I am working on tentatively called “Black Fatherhood: Washing out Stereotypes and Illustrating Fathers in a Positive Light.” Here is the gist of our conversation, alongside two images that Ifeanyi brought to mind.
As we got started, I told Ifeanyi about some of my own struggles adjusting as a new immigrant and father in Canada. I told him how I grew up in a patriarchal family where my father was the head of the household, but here in Canada I’m helping out in the kitchen, and heavily involved in all aspects of child rearing. I told him how I find myself in survivor mode, trying to keep up while often feeling like I am losing touch with my cultural roots. I wanted to know if he relates in any way and if he has any coping strategies.
Ifeanyi was quick to express the importance of expressing one’s emotions. He explained how back in his homeland of Nigeria, culture says that men should not cry, men are supposed to suppress their emotions. He insisted that fathers should be allowed to express themselves by crying, feeling pain and letting out emotions. “As a father, I am teaching my son how to express his emotions. I am teaching my son there is strength in being vulnerable, letting people know how you feel. Suppressing your emotions leads to a backlash at some point, which is dangerous.” He told me how this whole culture of suppressing emotions really messed him up for a while. “I was under the impression you are supposed to be strong, but now I know that there is strength in being vulnerable.”
We chatted about how in our respective African countries the man is the provider and he expects to come home to food on the table. Ifeanyi told me this aspect of tradition needs to change. “I don’t think the woman’s role is in the kitchen … women are more than that … women should pursue their careers, their dream careers; women should be supported in the home front, the presence of fathers should be felt.” He added that we should teach our men that support in this context is not just financial, but being there also means being present.
While Ifeanyi has become an advocate for the present and expressive father, he was also sure to note that he is a big fan of preserving other aspects of his cultural heritage. “My son has a native name … I want him to know where we come from.”
He explained that part of knowing where we come from is knowing that you should treat women with respect. “Our culture teaches us to adore women, that women are beautiful … it’s praising the woman as a queen.” He told me how he was taught to cook by his mom before coming here. “I don’t want my son to grow up thinking women should be in the kitchen.” When he said, “I know some homes where boys weren’t allowed to be in the kitchen,” I had to laugh, as that was me!
This led us to talk about expressing love. Ifeanyi explained how in Nigeria, if you say “I love you” to a father, he might respond “thank you.” He wants to change that culture, at least here in Canada. “We as fathers need to be very present; in life you should love. We need to show our men that the foundation is in the house. If you build that foundation, if we show that love by taking caring of our wives, kids will learn by practically doing it. It’s the parent’s relationship that determines a lot as the kids are watching.”