What it means to be a Black dad of Black sons in 2018

Black Daddies Club founder Brandon Hay talks parenting, community and what he teaches his three boys

The day I meet up with Brandon Hay, the founder of the Black Daddies Club, a parenting support group for—you guessed it—Black dads, he’s a busy man. He’s running an event called “Journey to Black Liberation Symposium,” and he’s got volunteers to instruct and inspire, speakers to introduce. Hay, who founded the group in 2007, is being pulled in five directions, but he’s calmly dealing with thing after thing. As a new father myself, I’m watching with interest. (I have a lot to learn.) But when he sees me, he warmly comes over to chat. Here, Hay breaks down the unique challenges of parenting Black boys, explains what he hopes dads will get from his work and why the Black Daddies Club, which hosts discussion groups and events, and advocates for more positive representations of Black fatherhood, is still so necessary. 

You have three kids, right? What’s that like? 

Three boys! Tristan, Julian, Elijah. 15, 13, and 11. It’s interesting. Right now, they’re becoming these young men; they’re coming to their own. You see what is negotiable and what’s not negotiable to them. The reason I started Black Daddies Club was to be a better father, and it’s definitely helped—but also it takes a lot of time to do this. I have a day job, so this is on top of that. It’s survival work, but it takes me away from spending time with my kids. I question all the time the purpose of doing this.  

Black Daddies Club founder Brandon Hay seated on stairs

Take me back 15 years ago—Tristan is born, you’re looking around, you’re looking for support. Then what? 

I’m from the east end of Toronto, from Malvern. I was looking for programs for new parents, and I heard about a family resource centre from a couple of people, so I went. I got dressed up, I was proud of myself for taking these steps. I said to the secretary at the front desk, “I’m here to find out about your programs for new fathers and new Black fathers.” She looked at me, totally confused. 

She said, “We have a program for mothers, grandparents, guardians, but nothing for fathers, not to mention Black fathers.” I remember leaving feeling dejected. If there’s no programming for Black fathers—or fathers at all—you’re telling me our role as parents are not important.  

Wow. Yeah, like there’s no place for you in the narrative. 

Right. And the challenge I was having was, when I typed in “black fathers in Toronto” in Google, what came up was a whole bunch of negative shit. “Black fathers are nonexistent,” that kind of thing. And it was frustrating because here I am seeking programming, and there is none. Yet the media representation of Black fathers was this negative piece. So, I’m like… maybe it’s true? 

Right. That’s so discouraging. 

Exactly. I kept thinking about this, and about doing something about it. Fast forward to a couple of years down the road, I went to visit one of my cousins in jail. As I walk in, I flash back to the first time I visited that jail: I realize it was to see that cousin’s father, in the same jumpsuit. I remember when I left the jail that day, I was like, I have to call this Black Daddies Club. 

I wasn’t sure about putting the word “Black” in it at first. The feedback I was getting at first was, “You don’t want to seem like you’re a racist, or excluding.” But that day it was evident for me that I had to leave “Black” in the name, so I could be very specific about who I’m trying to reach, and ensuring that I’m not erased. There are specific things Black men navigate that fathers in other communities just don’t have to. 

So really, Black Daddies Club is about three things: first, creating space for Black men to talk about our challenges and share strategies on how to fight them. Second, we work with media to create a more positive image of Black fathers, and finally, it’s about community education. 

Honestly, I think the way most people operate is: if they showed up seeking a resource and were told it’s not there, they would just walk away. Why do you think you kept returning to wanting to start a resource like this? 

I was raised by a single mom for the most part, but I knew my dad. When I returned to Jamaica, I would visit him. We had this strained relationship in the sense that he would often break plans to see me. So, whenever I did see my dad, it was like Christmas.  

But in 2004, I got a call that my dad was murdered the night before. 

Oh wow. Sorry to hear that. 

Thanks man. When I went to Jamaica to speak to the detective, he told me that my pops was killed by an 11-year-old boy, and the same boy was killed two weeks later by the people who hired him. He said, “This kind of thing happens all the time.” 

I was floored. I’m taking all this in, and I’m like yo, this sounds like a TV script. I sat and paused. And it hit me that there is a normalization of crisis within Black communities globally. This really was the catalyst of starting Black Daddies Club. Because I didn’t want my father’s death to be in vain, but also, I didn’t want to continue the same cycle of fatherlessness with my own kid. 

And there’s a selfish piece here, too: after my dad’s death, I thought about legacy. Before that, I would watch the news and see someone get killed and say, “Well, the world is crazy!” and turn it off and go to bed. 

I think that’s what most people do. 

But when it happens close to home, I was looking for this response that wasn’t there. And it made me reframe and rethink what community is. And how do I develop and be a part of community? In a lot of ways, Black Daddies Club is about community building. 

Interviewer Elamin Abdelmahmoud seated in a green chair

So, I have a daughter. But man. You have three Black sons during a time when it’s tough to have sons and real tough to have Black sons.  

I remember coming home and seeing Eric Garner getting choked out. [Reminder: Garner died in Staten Island after a white police officer detained him in a chokehold.] I’m a Black man in a big, Black body. So, my lived experience is different than if I was in a smaller frame, or had lighter skin. Growing up, I was told that because I’m big and Black, I should smile more to disarm folks. For me, recognizing how destructive those narratives were and not trying to pass them on to my boys is important.  

That, and advocating for them in the school system. Because there is this point when Black boys go from cute babies to adolescents. School systems are sometimes not equipped in terms of diversity training, and when they see these Black boys who are developing as they should for someone in their age, the response is to penalize them. So, we see dropouts, we see things like the school-to-prison pipeline.  

For me, I focus on teaching my three boys to be critical. To be humble and respectful, but also to challenge when they see… B.S., so to speak. 

It’s important for me to teach them that Black masculinity is not a box. 

How’s that going so far? 

You’d have to ask them. But I often joke that the therapist bill is going to happen, just a matter of how high. 

I find when I go out with my daughter I get a lot of, “Oh, is daddy babysitting today?” Man, it gets under my skin. Like somehow, being a father—being a Black father—is automatically a part-time job. 

That’s the work we gotta do, right? To redefine what fatherhood means to us as Black men, but also working with the media to change the narrative around Black fatherhood. It’s important that more folks see Black men like yourself spending time with your kid. These are the realities for Black men.  

Imagine there’s a Black man who just became a father reading this interview right now. What are you hoping that person gets out of it? 

We did a research project, and in it we asked, “What is a Black father?” And the number one answer was, “provider.” But we know that Black men specifically have one of the highest unemployment rates in the GTA. And the highest rates of being criminalized or having a criminal record. And we know when you have a criminal record, it’s hard to get employment. These are systemic barriers that affect how we can parent or co-parent. 

So, I’d like to highlight the importance of doing what you can where you’re at. There’s an importance to being present. The biggest lesson I learned around fatherhood was: you don’t have to be rich. Obviously, it helps, but not every activity has to cost money. Spending time doing little things like reading helps so much. And kids remember that stuff. 

More than anything, I want that Black father to know his role is important. His presence is important.