Black fathers talk resilience, communication and presence while parenting in the Lehigh Valley


Darian Colbert didn’t meet his dad until he was 29 and he had four children of his own.

Colbert visited him just a few times before he passed away on Father’s Day 2006. His father’s service was the first time he officiated a funeral as a pastor.

“So I think the challenge, for me, was meeting him later on in life, which I think looking at his life was a good thing,” he said. “But, how do I become a dad? How do I do this thing?”

This year, Father’s Day falls on Juneteenth, the anniversary of slavery’s end across the entire US For many Black fathers, it’s a day of celebration, but it’s also a reminder of systemic racism embedded in the country and the challenges of teaching their children how to navigate it.

Colbert, executive director and founder of the Allentown nonprofit Cohesion Network, had to draw on the example set for him by a mentor he met at age 11, while he was in a Big Brother Big Sister program.

“I watched [my Big Brother] and his wife become very young parents,” Colbert said. “One of the things I took from them was that we always ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together when I was over there. And it was a sit down — we’re going to talk. And I gleaned that from them, so raising my kids, I made sure we sat down.”

Colbert, whose four children are now adults, ranging in age from 23 to 30, said self-hate played a large role in his life, noting the often-negative portrayal of Black men on newscasts and in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Watching all the news that I watched, it really taught me not to like myself,” he said. “I really submitted myself to the dominant culture, and believed what that dominant culture said about me. And even though I tried to overcome stereotypes, I still kind of didn’t love myself enough to really embrace who I really, really was. And I spent a lot of time hiding.

“So, a barrier was really embracing everything that I am, right where I was at then, and learning and growing through that process.”

Justan Fields, founder of Black Lives Matter Lehigh Valley, said there are differences between how he was raised and how he raises his two children, both teenagers. He’s working to break what he calls “generational curses” — habits or behaviors passed down that don’t align with his parenting goals.

For example, when his children disagree with him, it isn’t “talking back” to voice their opinions, he said. He encourages his children to communicate when they disagree, and Fields will apologize to his children if he’s in the wrong.

“Those moments — knowing that my kids are happy, safe, healthy and don’t want for anything, I know I’ve done a job well done,” he said. “And knowing, even though you made mistakes along the way, but they end up OK and better than you.”

Like Colbert, Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, didn’t have a relationship with his father.

“But I was blessed to have many Black men later on in life that taught me about fatherhood,” he said. “Fatherhood is something you learn through modeling, and it’s a challenge when you’re raised without a father.”

Batts has three biological children, two stepchildren and a “community full of children” in the region he mentors. Honesty and communication are key, he said, especially when confronting racism.

“When you’re talking about Black children, you have to have real conversations that you shouldn’t have to have with those children. But you do,” Batts said. “And I think that’s one of the least understood things, that Black children have conversations about safety, conversations about courage, conversations around racism — just to keep them well — that white families don’t necessarily have.”

But he noted that raising Black children is also a collective responsibility that extends into the community.

“You need lots of love, because the systems are so difficult in which we live,” Batts said. “Representation matters”. You don’t see yourself represented in the school system, you don’t see yourself represented in the police force, in politics.

“So, you have that village around you that has a representation of excellence and that reminder that you can be whatever you want to be, and not just in theory — you see it.”

Stereotypes perpetuate that Black fathers are often absent from their children’s lives, even though that’s not the case, said Fields.

“There are a lot of amazing Black fathers out there,” he said. “Black fatherhood is alive and well.”

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Allentown police officer Jamil Newsome has three sons, all teenagers. Parenting becomes easier when children become self-sufficient, he said.

“They start to gain independence and they want to do things on their own,” he said. “That could be hit or miss, because with that independence, they start to think they know everything. And, you know, start to rebel a little bit, but my kids are great.”

Newsome also grew up without a father, so it’s important for him to be present with his kids, he said.

“I think the presence of being there and helping your kid out, through just everyday struggles that a kid goes through and helping them navigate through life — I think that was big for me, being able to just be there,” Newsome said. Just the presence. That was my number one goal.”

Colbert raised his children eating meals together and foregoing cable television in favor of board games, conversations and family drives. To him, the Black community isn’t marginalized — it’s underestimated.

“Growing up in an underestimated community, you are taught resilience as a reality,” he said. “I will tell you all four of my kids are kind individuals, all of them are generous. My kids are just helpful, because we role model all of that.”

Morning Call reporter Molly Bilinski can be reached at mbilinski@mcall.com.

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