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I overheard a man suggest to another that Father’s Day be renamed. For him, and for so many other black men he knew, there was or is no biological father to celebrate the holiday with. “Fatherhood Day” was his first guess. “Manhood Day” was his second. “Masculine Day” was a last effort, the final in a sequence of thoughts that sought to retain the ideal of fatherly guidance while acknowledging the frequent gender imbalance and role malleability for domestic duties in black families. The topic of discussion was not itself about Father’s Day. It was about the hidden social space Zun Lee opens in his new book Father Figure: Exploring Alternative Notions of Black Fatherhood.
Lee’s life changed in his late thirties. During an argument with his mother, he discovered that his biological father was not Korean like his mother and his father are. He was black, and he left Lee’s mom during her pregnancy. Lee was thus plunged into a different history, one of the black absentee dad, which helped explain both the abuse he suffered under the Korean man he lived with and the unique physical attributes that once brought him ridicule by many around him. It also explained his attachment to the black families that came and went through an American military base in Lee’s hometown of Frankfurt, Germany. Living now in North America, Lee chose to find for himself a new genealogy and document it in pictures.
Black fathers with their children — biological fathers, stepfathers, men serving the role of a father in a young person’s life — populate the photographs Lee shot in cities that include Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, New York City, and Toronto. Lee develops relationships with black men and their children who become his subjects and reveal to him, actively or passively, their lives of affection, faith, anger, doubt, and mostly struggle. Lee then gives us this side of black fatherhood that goes ignored, if not unknown, in popular media, or even in the popular imagination.
Art teacher James Reynolds, in an all-white suit, sits beneath a portrait of Booker T. Washington and next to his former student Jerome Williams, in a bow tie, a knot taught to him by Reynolds as photographed elsewhere. These men hold in self-awareness a physical frame fitting of Washington’s words that the measure of a man is not in the position one achieves but in the obstacles overcome. That said, with their confidence no less robust than Washington’s above them, an achievement of position is recognized too. Williams was 15 when he first called his teacher “Dad.”
Trust and admiration is not exactly a dominant theme in Lee’s book. The expression of faithlessness in a boys face divided by the crucifix hanging from his father’s neck tells a story of disbelief and rejection. “In” – what – “we trust” can be guessed in the father’s chest tattoo, but it’s covered by a tank top that appears near adolescent against his son’s pressed button up shirt. In contrast to this boy’s stoicism is father Jerell Willis’ letting of tears hidden from his son Fidel. This display of what we guess is the struggle of parenting, a struggle of virtues, is captured too on Willis’ bicep tattoo that depicts him as part Mother Mary, part guardian angel, holding a baby, his son.
Guy Miller has four children. Nijel, on his bed with “I love my mom and dad” written on the window ledge behind him, masks his left hand flipping the bird, it seems, with his right, testing the threshold of parental rebuke. Covering his lower lip too, with the middle finger, is an act of self-resistance, a self-denial of speech. The moment is strangely a mix of childlike expressiveness and play with latent worry, his mouth neither smile nor frown.
Nijeyah, in her “someday I’ll be famous” T-shirt, is on display, but not in a fully assumed pose. She is in movement, caught in a physical position quite like the man’s on the TV screen behind her. “Famous” in marquee typeface is center frame, the focal point and counterpoint against which all that surrounds it puts in question. A mix of trash, unused cables and cords, a mattress and air conditioner on the floor, and a laminate entertainment center serving as shelves for still-disorganized shoes, are props on a stage.
Art – good art at least – should give back, should return the interest paid to it, be worth revisiting and mined for multiple meanings that words alone cannot give shape. If there is a distinction to be made here between art and documentation, between fine art photography and documentary projects of this sort, it is that institutional tastes in fine art fear sentiment as a slippery slope to kitsch. But good art, the way I think of it, begins with the personal before it becomes public, resonating and emerging from within one’s self before it becomes an object for third party viewing. Zun Lee’s work succeeds on both fronts, as works of textured focus that arise from an interior life, first his own life, then from the lives he grafts himself into while making a new family tree.
Father Figure: Exploring Alternative Notions of Black Fatherhood is published by Ceiba and available on their website.