For some of us, fond memories of our fathers can easily be pulled from the forefront of our minds. The way he picked you up when you fell, dusted you off and told you to keep going. Or moments he would wrap you in his arms and no place in the world felt safer. There was nothing sweeter than being daddy’s little girl.
Our fathers represented strength, stability and power, traits that we have embraced on into adulthood. As a wonderful tribute to the fathers in our lives, author Rachel Vassel, has combined stunning photography with endearing stories written by African-American women for their fathers. With celebrity features such as Sanaa Lathan, Beyonce Knowles and Malinda Williams, readers are able to get a sneak peek into the hearts of these women and understand how their fathers played a significant role in their lives. Clutch reached out to Rachel to find out her inspiration and purpose behind her book, Daughters of Men: Portraits of African American Women and Their Fathers.
Q: What inspired you to create a book about African American women and their fathers?
I wanted to make a statement about the importance of fathers in the lives of girls and women because so much of who we are is defined by what our fathers and our surrogate fathers speak to us, how they treat us, what they expose us to and what they believe about us. I am saddened by the state of black families in America today. So many are broken and our children are most negatively affected by this. Today 70 percent of African American children are being raised without fathers in the home. I often wonder how this is going to affect them. Will they be able to become whole adults without such a key component of their development in place? I grew up in a neighborhood where most kids were raised by single mothers. I remember feeling at a young age that something about that wasn’t right. So I hope that Daughters of Men will inspire fathers to be actively involved with their children and inspire mothers to encourage a bond between their children and their children’s fathers.
Q: How many women are featured in your book?
There are 44 successful women in all-–both known and unknown–representing a variety of fields. We wanted to make the point that the likelihood of success among women greatly increases when their fathers are present.
Q: One of the things appealing about Daughters of Men is that it takes an intimate look inside the father-daughter relationships of well known actresses and entertainers. What was the reaction of these celebrities when you approached them about doing this book?
All of the women in this book were very enthusiastic about the project. Many of them had never been asked about their fathers, so they were eager to share their experiences and honor their fathers in a permanent and very public way. They basically carved time out of their busy schedules in order to participate because they wanted to thank their dads.
Q: In an era that pays little positive attention to black fathers, we’ve forgotten the important role that fathers do play in their daughter’s lives. What do you think makes the father-daughter relationship so unique? Fathers are the first men that we learn to love. They are models for the husbands that we eventually choose. The women I interviewed for Daughters of Men told me over an over that their fathers were responsible for their self-image, confidence, outlook on life, career choices, parenting styles, spirituality and so much more. There is a specific kind of love that girls have for their fathers that is different than any other love they share. One woman told me that her father was the closest thing to what she was taught God is. That is a huge responsibility for fathers and they have to know that that feeling exists among their daughters. Who is God? He is a provider, a protector, a confidant, a source of wisdom and guidance—he sets the standard for our lives. That is what fathers are expected to be.
Q: How has your relationship with your father influenced you?
My father was not a part of my life following my parents’ divorce when I was in second grade. So I initially looked at my father as a negative in my life— there was a bitterness there because I thought he should have been present, that he could have done more. But we have recently reconnected and I am grateful to God for that because he has become a positive influence now for me and my children, his grandchildren. I have learned a lot from my father. I used to see things so much more in black and white, but my father taught me that there are layers in every situation. You have to see the full picture of a situation before making a judgment. And we have to be able to forgive each other and love our family members despite their faults. I admire my father’s evolution as a human being.
Q: What advice can you give to women who are now mothers whose fathers weren’t present in their lives?
Make sure your children have an active relationship with their fathers. Do what you can to encourage it because kids need it. If a relationship with the biological father is not possible, then try to find surrogates that can fill the void. My older brothers and my grandfather were my surrogates and they gave me such an invaluable sense of self-worth. Uncles and family friends can play a role, too.
Q: I found Kelly Rowland’s story of her relationship with her adoptive father, Matthew Knowles (Beyonce’s father) a source of inspiration for women who don’t have relationships with their biological fathers. Do you believe that if a father is not present then a child should have at least one great male role model in his/her life?
I do. Kelly’s essay is so telling because she expresses the emptiness she felt prior to being adopted by Mr. Knowles—and the difference it made in her confidence as a young woman. I believe that in our community young black men who are not yet fathers should try to mentor the thousands of young boys and girls who don’t have male role models in their lives. Men who accept this challenge will learn a lot about parenting and will forever impact the life of a child at the same time.
Q: With powerful imagery and inspiring stories, what do you hope readers will walk away with after reading this book?
I hope they’ll be moved. I hope they’ll see that black men are fantastic fathers, contrary to what’s portrayed in the media. I think most African-Americans believe this. But I hope black readers will see that our families are of utmost importance and that we all play a part. For black men, I hope the book will underscore how important their presence is in the lives of their children. Fathers have to know that what they say to their children—even at a young age—remains with them forever. So many of the women in Daughters of Men told me things that their fathers had said to them as young girls that they still use in their lives today!
In addition to enjoying some fantastic female success stories, for women it’s about looking at the importance of fathers to our children. Sometimes we think we can do it all, but we cannot be fathers, ladies! We need men because fathers parent and love their children in different ways than women do. I see that all the time when I look at my husband’s interaction with our children. It’s a good balance. I hope that women will love themselves and their children enough to choose great men. Still, there are several women profiled in Daughters of Men whose parents were separated or divorced and maintained strong relationships with their fathers. This is a testament to the mothers, who allowed those father/daughter relationships to thrive for the benefit of their daughters. For girls with wonderful fathers, I hope they’ll just appreciate their dads even more. So many daughters purchased Daughters of Men for their fathers for Christmas. I’ve heard that the personal stories that they were able to write on the blank pages in the back of the book meant so much to their fathers. They tell me it was best gift ever! For those exemplary fathers and surrogate dads out there – and there are many – I hope they’ll see this book as a gigantic thank you for the love and sacrifices they’ve made for their children. We all as a community reap the benefits of their hard work because we have the pleasure of watching or working with or befriending women like Robi Reed, Malinda Williams, Tracey Edmonds, Sanaa Lathan, Sheila Johnson, Cathy Hughes, LisaRaye and many, many others who are whole people because of the love of their fathers.
Q: There was talk that Daughters of Men will be made into a documentary. Is that still happening?
We began shooting last fall and hope to finish the production this year and I believe, by the grace of God, it will happen. I feel so strongly that these fantastic father/daughter pairs should be seen and heard because their stories are so engaging, so powerful. In the documentary, we explore not only the lives of the daughters but the backgrounds of the fathers, too. What were the challenges these men faced growing up? How did those challenges impact their parenting philosophies? We still need more positive images of African American men and women on television and film and this documentary delivers. Again, our children need to absorb more of what’s real vs. the stereotypes that prevail. What does it mean to be a man? What is true strength, true leadership? What is real love? Our program answers these questions and more. Stay tuned!
Q: Aside from basking in the wonderful success of Daughters of Men, are you working on any new projects?
I am working on a new book that addresses many of the issues that women face in life. Women’s lives are so rich with unique challenges and opportunities and I wanted to showcase some real life women who handle themselves with grace and wisdom in the midst of it all.