The Pain and Joy of Black Fatherhood
Durham-based photographer and father Cornell Watson traveled the state photographing Black dads—capturing the complexity of raising Black kids
Lately, my stomach has been throbbing in pain. It usually happens first thing in the morning. My chest tightens, which makes it hard to breathe. Maybe it’s the anxiety of being Black in America. Maybe it’s the heartburn from last night’s pizza. Or maybe it’s 30 pounds of a rambunctious three-year-old jumping on my bed and landing on my tummy. This is fatherhood. Black fatherhood.
Our image and presence is too often absent from product packaging, TV commercials, and family movies, but we are not absent from our kids’ lives. Despite all the challenges we face (and there are a lot), we’ll join dads across the nation this Father’s Day by waking up to our kids gifting us fresh socks, T-shirts, and underwear to replenish the holey ones.
As a Black dad, Father’s Day hits a little differently. It’s hard not to think about the history of Black fatherhood and how our ancestors’ families were separated on plantations. It’s hard not to think about my brothers like Andrew Brown, Keith Lamont Scott, and Jerry Williams, who won’t get to be with their children today because of police violence. It’s hard not to think about how part of my dad-duty will include giving my kids “The Talk.” How my brothers who are incarcerated are separated from their families with harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes. How COVID-19 and the country’s history of medical racism have disproportionately killed us.
We have to carry all of this while maintaining the responsibilities of parenting, and that’s not easy. When I think about how we survive and thrive in a system that doesn’t value our lives, simply existing on this day is worth celebrating.
When we’re helping our tiny humans do all the things, hand-feeding tacos, sitting through the 500th episode of CoComelon, cleaning poop out of the bathtub, holding make-believe tea parties, water-gun fights, bath time, brushing teeth, helping them ride a bike, having storytime, and giving them all the love, it's special. Every minute we spend with our kids is more than precious; it feels like an act of resistance. This photo essay celebrates those daily triumphs of Black Fatherhood.
Thomas Boyd - Asheville, NC
Thomas lost a brother to opioids and a close relative to police violence—both were Black dads—but he retains a positive outlook on life. “Black Fatherhood is underrated, and I love everything about it,” Thomas told me. “I need to be here for my kids, and I’d consider myself a failure if I wasn’t. My favorite thing is when they open their eyes, because I’m so grateful to see them another day.”
Kenneth Okam - Charlotte, NC
I was walking around uptown Charlotte when I spotted Kenneth walking with his family. We exchanged the Black nod, and I told him how beautiful his family was. He looked like the happiest man alive, and he had every reason to be.
Damion Fonville - Wrightsville Beach, NC
“I don’t even look at it as a job or a task; Fatherhood is a joy and fun. It’s just amazing watching your kids grow and turn into a little you,” said Damion. “People still have a false perception about Black fathers not being around and not taking care of their kids, so being a Black dad makes me proud and makes me want to give my kids everything in the world. Everything about being a dad is beautiful; it’s a blessing. My favorite thing is getting to be a kid all over again with my kids. Both of my kids cling to me like magnets on metal, and I love it!”
Colin Dunbar - Durham, NC
“Fatherhood is the single most enriching experience of my life. It’s a level of compassion, joy, and heartache that is unparalleled,” said Colin. “As a Black dad, I have a responsibility to not only equip my children to survive but also to thrive. Watching my sons’ relationships with each other grow brings me the most joy.”
Richard Smith - Weldon, NC
With five daughters, eight grandkids, and nine great-grandkids, Richard is no stranger to fatherhood. He still remembers the day his first daughter was born and how his second daughter crashed his Cadillac when she was older. At 80 years old, he remembers how hard it was growing up Black during Jim Crow and doesn’t believe much has changed. But his love for his family also remains unchanged. “I always tell all my children, grands and great-grands as a father and grandfather, I’m proud of you guys and how we are always there for each other,” he told me.
Brandon Watson - Charlotte, NC
“I was living across the street from Keith Lamont Scott when he was murdered by the police,” said Brandon. “That could have been me; it could have been my kids. It’s hard being a Black dad because the odds are stacked against us. It’s a challenge, but it’s also exciting watching them grow. Every morning when the kids wake up, they run into my room and hug me. That’s the best part.”
Dalroyce Jones III - Durham, NC
On Saturday afternoons, you can find Dalroyce teaching his son how to run a business, which started after his son expressed interest in his old hot-dog stand. “Fatherhood is our strength,” said Dalroyce. “Being a Black dad is important because we’ve been portrayed as nonexistent for a long time, and that’s not true. So even if that narrative continues to persist, our children can look at us and see it’s not true. My favorite thing about being a dad is how my son comes to me for validation; it makes me feel good inside knowing that he looks up to me.”
Paul McGregor - Morrisville, NC
“Fatherhood is dope, but it’s scary,” admitted Paul. “As a Black dad, I’m always thinking about my decisions to make sure I come home to my girls. There’s nothing better than the sound of my kids laughing—it does something to me every time.”
Cornell Watson is a photojournalist based in Durham, North Carolina, whose photography is centered around sharing the stories of Black people. Watson’s work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he received the 2020 Alexia Foundation grant for his photo series “Behind the Mask.” When he’s not creating photos, being the best spouse in the world, or saving his three-year-old daughter from drowning in the toilet, you can find him passed out from exhaustion on the living room couch. See more of his work.
The Assembly's Creative Director Taylor Le provided editorial guidance for this photo essay. Le also leads the non-profit Big Black Book, a database of visual storytellers that puts vetted resources in the hands of creative directors, art directors, photo directors, and other creative decision-makers, to amplify the work of underrepresented photographers and filmmakers across all 50 states. BBB launches this summer; contact Taylor: firstname.lastname@example.org