Andre Coleman was born in 1973 in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of seven children, all of whom soon became wards of Baptist Children’s Services and were raised in a group home. After having been born into an environment of poverty and neglect, Andre was forced to deal with the instability of life in foster care.
Andre’s discovery that he could succeed in school gave him an anchor in life. As a leader of his school’s safety patrol, an active participant at the West Philadelphia Community Center, and a member of Drexel University’s “Pre-Bound” program, Andre found that he could leave the bleak realities of his life behind and create a bright future. An unexpected event in his teens threatened to pull Andre off his positive path in life, but after a few stumbles, he regained his footing. Andre attended Penn State University and is a certified emergency medical technician. He works as a corrections officer at Chester County Prison in Pennsylvania, where he is a training officer and a member of the honor guard. He is serving his second term as a member of the board of Baptist Children’s Services, the organization that provided foster care for him and his siblings. Andre and his fiancée live in Wilmington, Delaware.
About Ray Jones
The son of a career military man, Ray Jones spent his early years moving from one East Coast city to another. But when his father left the family, ten-year-old Ray and his mother and siblings settled in Philadelphia.
As a senior journalism major at Temple University, Ray landed an internship in the office of Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode. There he became interested in the work of community activists. After college he joined the staff of Chaka Fattah, then a state senator and now a member of Congress. Ray spent ten years working for Rep. Fattah, including a year in Washington. D.C. After returning home to Philadelphia, Ray co-founded Black Men United for Progress, a group dedicated to working with troubled young project residents. He later helped develop Men United for a Better Philadelphia, a group focused on reducing violence in the city.
Community activism is Ray’s life. “My calling is to show young Black men that they have positive options,” says Ray. “I’m from the same streets that these cats are from. I know how important it is to feel you’ve got somebody pulling for you. My son, above all, is the force that drives me. He’s only 3 now, but I know soon he’s going to look to me in order to learn how to be a man. I could not love my daughter more. But in the Black community today, being a good father to a son is a special mission.”
Ray and his wife Rhashidah are the parents of two children, Raymond III (“Trey”) and Hasina.
Ray Jones Speaks African American men don’t value being fathers. Caring African American fathers do not exist. Black fatherhood happens by accident. Being a Black father is a role you spend your life regretting or denying. We Black men just make babies, we don’t take care of them. Black children are rarely planned—they just happen.
My love for my son has challenged those misconceptions of African American fatherhood. For me, the sacrifice, discipline, planning and hard work that go into being a good father are the same elements that create a great man. As a first-time father at age 41, my first promise to my son was that I would always be there for him. My second promise was that I would provide him with a positive male example. Finally, I promised my son that I would leave a legacy as a father, son, husband, friend and activist for him to use as a guide as he makes his own way in the world. Isn’t that what other cultures provide for their sons? Those three promises are very important to me to this day because when I was a young boy growing up, my own father was largely absent.
I am convinced that every man’s journey to knowing himself and realizing his potential begins with coming to terms with the first man in his life: his father. Throughout that journey, both the father and the son need to face a number of questions. For example, is there a strong connection or friendship? Or was the relationship one of trauma and disappointment? If it was a painful relationship, how do you move forward? These questions lead to personal growth, and for many it begins the necessary process of healing.
My relationship with my father was damaged early on. My parents were teenage sweethearts. When I was born, my father was 19 and my mother was 18. These teenagers were barely old enough to take care of themselves. And yet when I was born in 1963, they were expected to magically become mature adults and parents. After my birth, my father enlisted in the navy. He spent the next 35 years there and, unfortunately for me, my mom, sister and brother, Uncle Sam kept him away from his family.
Soon after my father’s military career began, his marriage to my mother ended. It was the early 1970s, and we lived in the tough Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in North Philadelphia. My mom worked part-time. My father, though legally separated from my mom, wasn’t sending any money to help with a growing family. Neighborhood gangs were a major fact of life. Young men in my neighborhood either ran with a gang as a member or ran from a gang as a potential victim. We didn’t have too many other choices. The gangs gave us a sense of belonging, and boys who were involved in gang life received special attention from the “cool” people in the neighborhood as well as, in many cases, the cutest girls. At that time I was too young to join the major gangs in the neighborhood. The gangs usually started recruiting boys in their early teens. Instead, I belonged to an elementary school gang—a junior version of a street gang in the neighborhood that we copied and looked up to. We focused on vandalism and recess fights with other boys to deal with the frustration that many of us were experiencing at home and in the neighborhood. Gang life taught us about manhood, in a sense. It taught us to protect and stand up for ourselves. If our families could not provide male role models as guides for a better life, gang leaders stepped in to fill that void.
But gang leaders weren’t our only role models. If you were good with your fists or at sports, there were older men who would provide you with advice and show genuine concern for you. In a lot of ways, they would see themselves in you and act as your “old head.” An old head was an older male who was respected because he had a reputation for protecting himself well or he was good at sports or attracting girls. Like other young boys looking for direction and attention, I was proud to do whatever I could to be noticed by an old head. Old heads offered an alternative “street example” of a father figure. Often these men would give us advice about girls, maybe even give us some money. The absence of fathers in the neighborhoods allowed some men with questionable character and background to have influence over younger boys. Some of the old heads were working men with wives and children, but others were ex-convicts and street hustlers.
The old head that had the most impact on me was our next-door neighbor, Mr. Blocker. I was torn between wanting to grow up to be a gangster or a family man like him. I used to pretend that Mr. Blocker was my dad. Mr. Blocker was a car mechanic with a good work ethic. When he wasn’t repairing cars, he was often dispensing wisdom and kind words to children in the neighborhood. He was the first example I can remember of a positive man taking care of his family. I thought Mr. Blocker must be a very special man because he was there with his family, unlike my own father. Not only did he take care of his own children, but he made us other neighborhood kids feel that we were important, too. He would tell us if we were doing something wrong, and encourage us if he noticed us demonstrating a skill. Although I looked up to the gang leaders in the neighborhood, I recognized in Mr. Blocker what I really yearned for: a committed father. Mr. Blocker’s existence helped me cope with the absence of my own father. He never seemed to get tired of answering questions about cars. He always had a smile and a greeting for all the kids and neighbors. I often thought that the perfect father would be a combination of a family man like Mr. Blocker and a street-smart old head. Both of those examples were in my neighborhood. I think I benefited from seeing both of those types of men on the block, but what I really wanted was a relationship with my own father.
In the meantime, Raymond Thomas Jones, Senior
had become like a ghost. My dad was someone I would overhear my mother talking and cursing about to our relatives. After a while, I couldn’t remember what he was like at all. I used to pretend that he was trying to get our family back together, but that his job in the Navy prevented him from coming to North Philadelphia. But questions kept haunting me: Does he know how dangerous it is where we live? Why doesn’t he at least check on us?
As I reached my teen years, I was filled with a tremendous amount of anger about the disconnect with my father. I also resented my mother’s authority. I told myself I was becoming a man. She couldn’t teach me how to be a man, I reasoned, so why should I listen to her? I developed a temper, which led to fights with neighborhood kids. I wouldn’t let anyone know if my feelings were hurt. If I thought someone was trying to bully me or make me feel bad, I would be the first to put his hands up to fight. I was floundering emotionally with no real direction.
Finally some friends of mine left a small package of marijuana joints at my house. I was trying to sell them to another kid when my mother caught me. I think my mom saw a future of crime and jail time in front of me, so she called my father.
In response, my father called me. This was the first time I could remember him calling because he was concerned about me. I didn’t respond well. I thought he was a little late calling to give me the “I am your father; what are you doing with your life?” lecture. But the calls kept coming, and sometimes I called him as well. We both struggled through this period. We yelled most of the time, trying to communicate, but usually our talks ended in frustration and disappointment. My anger was deep, and I think my father felt bad because he had never been there for me.
After a while, though, our relationship began to slowly change for the better. I believe the turning point was a phone call I placed to him when I was 18. I called my father and spoke to him from my heart. I told him about it all—my frustration, my anger, and my rage. After I was through speaking, I let him speak, uninterrupted. I began to really listen to him—not just hear the words coming from the end of the phone. That was our real beginning.
My father told me about his experience of being a teenage father. He told me how scared he had been when I was born, and how little he had known about being a man, a husband, or a father. My grandfather, he explained, had not showed him any affection as a child; neither had my grandfather prepared him for the responsibilities and sacrifice a father makes to keep a family together. So, in a sense, he failed us because he had been failed. He was quick to tell me that his explanation was not the same as an excuse. He told me that he could have done better as a father and a man and did not. He apologized to me, and that helped me a lot. For a long time, I think I felt I was not worthy of having a father. He set me straight about that, making it clear that it was he who had failed in our relationship, not me. I began to feel a lot better about myself and my own future.
My father’s description of his own childhood was an eye-opener. When you are a child, you think that your parents are bigger than life. They can do anything; they have no problems; they have all the answers, right? But finally I began to see my father as just a man. He was a man who made mistakes, a man who had faults; but he was a man who was reaching out and trying to become a better father, even at this late stage.
Getting to know my father, not as some fantasy figure but as a flawed human being, was at times a painful process. But I’m convinced that acknowledging the pain and insecurities that are part of life are a necessary part of growing up. Maybe that is especially difficult for young African American men. Like many of my friends, I had worked hard on my “cool pose” exterior—that false front of bravado that says, “You can’t hurt me” or “I don’t care.” Often that front masks a deep hurt and a longing that too many of us carry into adulthood. Growing up without a father makes it especially hard for us to admit our hurts and vulnerabilities. As a kid, being the oldest male child, I felt responsible for protecting myself as well as my sister, brother and mother. I remember wondering who in the world was going to protect me. I became a substitute father figure at a very young age, often encouraged by my mother. Looking back, I think life was just as difficult for my mother, who was raising three kids without a man to help provide for the children and protect her. The absence of a father affects everyone— including the missing father. A part of me has had to forgive my mother and myself for having the unrealistic expectation that a boy should act like a man.
When I reached my early twenties, my father and I began what would ultimately turn out to be a ten-year odyssey in discovering each other as men. We were both past the stage where we expected to have a typical father-son relationship. We accepted that we would start where we were—using the past as a beginning and realizing that the “end” of our relationship had not been written. We are very good friends now. We accept each other for who we are and have come to terms with the past. That does not mean that I do not wish things had been different. I often think, “What decisions would I have made differently if my father had been there to teach me how to be a man? Would I have excelled in school, instead of struggling? Would I have had a healthier view of relationships with women?” But instead of being embittered, I use my experiences with my father to help me raise my own son, Trey. My father advises me, “Make new mistakes with your kids. Learn from my mistakes, and don’t do the same things!” Those are wise words, and I try hard to take advantage of that advice. Coming to term with my father’s absence has made me, in my view, a better father and a better father figure to the young men that I come into contact with.
Today, I am a co-founder of the group Men United For A Better Philadelphia. I try to reach young men on the street corners and provide them with alternatives to the lives that they are currently living. Doing my work, I’m back on the same streets I grew up on. I look at those boys now and I see myself. Through social service information, job development programs, and direct action such as protests and boycotts, we extend ourselves to men and young boys to help them help themselves. We Men United are doing our best to display the full character of African American men. Many of us are fathers, and we are making our presence known as leaders in the neighborhood, protecting and providing for communities on the margins. I am the “old head” now. I want to protect and nurture young men and boys because I see the bigger picture: how the cycle of abandonment leads to dysfunction and self-destructive behavior that can last a lifetime. I have learned that when you feel as if you are not worthy of affection and love, often from a father, you act out in protest. You can hurt others, and you can also hurt yourself. I know how that feels because I have lived that experience.
What is the value of living up to responsibility as an African American father? Mr. Blocker’s example showed me that being a responsible African American father has value in and of itself, period. In a neighborhood where expectations of Black men were low, he set the standard higher. In doing so, he provided an example of manhood that helped me see the possibilities within myself.
I am now, in many ways, my father. Although I am
present for my own child, I make mistakes that Trey, my son, will someday talk with me about—probably in a loud voice. I have expectations of my son that he may grow up to accept or reject. I will leave a legacy of life- lessons, experiences, mistakes and achievements that will fall somewhere between my high hopes for it and what value it will actually have for my son.
Discovering that my father was and is just a man continues to help me as I mature. In his turn, Trey will discover that although I am his father, I, too, am just a flawed human being. When fathers and sons can reach out, acknowledging our need for one another, all our futures become brighter.