In the heart of downtown Oakland stands two 7ft tall, larger-than-life sized photos depicting Black fathers and their sons. The two pieces are accompanied by a collection of black and white photo collages showcasing the sacred presence of Black fathers across Oakland.
For centuries, the essential contributions of Black fathers in America have been overshadowed by dominant narratives of absenteeism and violence. Visual artists Umi Vaughan and Eesuu Orundide counter these narratives by illuminating Black fathers with their families in their photo exhibit and art installation titled “Afro-Fatherism: Black Dads Here and Now,” which is housed in the center lobby of the Uptown Station.
“I came up with the theme of Afro-Fatherism playing on the term Afro-Futurism,” Oakland native and griot Vaughan told Oakland Voices. “For me, affirming Black people’s presence in the future connects with highlighting the presence and contributions of Black fathers here and now.” Vaughan’s own father was the documentarian of his family, and bought him a camera as a child. “It started my love for telling stories with photos.” Today, Vaughan strives to build community and reduce violence through art.
With the support of Sorrel Raino-Tsui from ABG Art Group, Vaughan and Orundide made the exhibit a three-dimensional and immersive experience. Raino-Tsui enlarged the photos and helped place them onto styrofoam boards, boxes, tables, and cement slabs. This enabled the imagery of Afro-Fatherism to be experienced on a grand scale.
Visual artist and designer Orundide says the imagery is a reminder of the strength of Black men through fatherhood. “There is a need right now to see Black fathers in a light other than ‘deadbeats’….When I think of ‘Afro’ anything, I think of values. The values that have been strained in a diasporic manner.”
“Oakland is in a crisis right now. A lot of us are living on the street – and when I say ‘us’ I mean Black people specifically,” Orundide added. “We need to remember our strengths, remember the assets that we bring to the table. We are not completely without and we are not powerless.”
As guitarist David El warmed the opening reception with graceful melodies, families and community members immersed themselves in the space by sharing stories about Afro-fatherism amongst one another.
One attendee, visual artist Shomari Smith, discussed the challenging reality of being a Black father and raising a son in America: “We navigate a few different levels within the community- social, economic, and there’s this unspoken one where we are navigating through pitfalls. That’s something I tell my son all the time, ‘Hey, as you’re navigating through life you almost have to be perfect in order to qualify for almost anything.’”
Despite the societal burdens that plague the lives of countless Black fathers in America, they continue to persevere in order to serve their families and communities. “It’s one thing to talk about the kinds of distortions and misrepresentations of Black fatherhood that are sort of prevalent in America, but they’ve [Vaughan and Orundide] leveled up and are showing what the actual state of Black fatherhood is,” cultural strategist and filmmaker Celia C. Peters said. “What we see here is much more of a representation of Black fatherhood than anything else.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 National Health Statistics Report, 70% of Black fathers in the home were most likely to support their children with daily activities and routines in comparison to White (60%) or Hispanic (45%) counterparts. Further, it was reported that 81% Black fathers ages 15-44 read to their children. Even Black fathers who lived outside of the home were reported to be highly involved in the lives of their children.
The exhibit uplifts the core values of the Black family and calls in viewers to reflect on their role as community members. “I believe that having a greater sense of respect for each other – as humans, Americans, Oaklanders, Black men and so on, would go a long way toward decreasing violence,” Vaughan said. “Seeing ourselves and fellow citizens represented and honored in prized public spaces can grow this sense of respect.”
Raino-Tsui shared his reflections on the significance of the project: “I love the impact of fathers. It’s a mission that’s universal. Oakland, like many cities, has problems and a lot of problems are solved by fathers.” He explains, “I think there needs to be more of an emphasis on keeping dads part of the family and I think men need to see that and hear that, and realize that when they have a kid, they really have to step up.”
Vaughan and Orundide partnered with the Cultural Strategists in Government, City of Oakland Department of Violence Prevention, The Square and Uptown Station, ABG Art Group, and Kinfolx Oakland for the project.
The exhibit is free and open to the public. The photo pieces will be on display in the Uptown Station lobby and in window spaces of the building that will be visible on streets of Telegraph and Broadway until September.
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Editor’s Note: The exhibit opened Friday, July 28, 2023 as part of the Oakland’s Town Nights events, and was in part funded by the city’s Department of Violence Prevention. (Disclosure: this writer works for the City of Oakland).