The words scrawled across the page made deep, dark impressions between the lines. Sometimes there were tears, often there was exuberance, as the 10-year-old boy tried to write letters to an imprisoned father he never really knew. His memories didn't contain images of birthday parties, days at the ballpark or graduations – at least, not with his father in them. And so, like many black boys his age, DamarQio Williams sailed through childhood, coasting the tumultuous waves of adolescence, absent of a male figure to guide, as lighthouse, as moral support. His story – all too familiar in the black community – is part of a larger narrative that includes black men and boys stuck in a seemingly endless generational cycle.
According to a report from Rutgers University, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, including 1 in 9 African-American youth. Blacks also make up 43.9 percent of the state and federal prison population; a trend that might result in "one of three black males born today" expecting "to go to prison in his lifetime," the report notes. And, while Williams loved his father, he had little interest in wanting to emulate him or become just another "black" statistic.
FROM FATHERLESS TO FATHERHOOD
Growing up in Ypsilanti, Williams excelled academically. Thanks to a dedicated mother and the other strong women in his life, he set his sights on higher education, earning an associate degree in liberal arts from Washtenaw Community College and, later, a bachelor's degree in business administration from Liberty University in Virginia. He was the first in his family to go to college.
"We have five living generations on my mother's side … not one generation had a college degree," Williams says. "Me and my mom practically grew up together – a lot of people thought we were brother and sister. I give her advice, she gives me advice." That's because his mother was pregnant at 13, separating them by 14 years. Unfortunately, Williams' father stayed in trouble, a combination of drug dealing "and a whole host of other scenes," he adds, which landed him in prison. This left Williams and his mom alone – together. One of the things that
Williams shares with his mother is the fatherless experience. "My mom didn't have her father in her life, so my grandfather was not in my life," Williams says. "He had upwards of 12 to 13 kids. She (his mother) dealt with that. She identified with me of growing up without a father. All I had was strong women around me growing up. That impacted my identity." Regardless, Williams went on to claim his own story, from his graduation from college to meeting the woman who would become his wife and, eventually, the mother of his children. He didn't process the news that he was to become a father very well at first.
"I remember getting the news on the phone … I was just mad. Not mad at her, just mad at the situation," Williams says. "How can I be a father? I don't know how. I can just remember getting books, reading articles, doing a lot of research. It just morphed into understanding the relationship that I had." They lost their first son, Judah, in 2014. Then, in 2016, a daughter, Jenesis, was born – but, earlier this year, they lost another son, Joseph, who lived about a day. As a man of faith, Williams was determined not to let these losses destroy him.
"When I first found out about my (first) son, it was almost like my whole world had collapsed," Williams says. "I fell into a bit of a depression and then came my daughter – she's the joy of my life. Now, I've been able to take a step back and assess. I'm restoring the past while building a future. That's kind of the way I live my life." Despite the loss, he still felt the power of fatherhood's lure. "I found out I was still a father – I could be a father in the community."
In January, he launched an initiative called Fatherless-2-Fatherhood, or F2F, which strives to help black men with a fatherless past embrace not only the responsibility but also the joy of fatherhood. F2F has since evolved into a community for dads, with mentoring opportunities and encouragement for young fathers. Williams has partnered with Detroit Public Schools Community District and Quicken Loans with hopes of expanding the collaboration to other entities.
"We're doing mentorships with young men there (at DPSCD)," Williams says. "We have a group that meets every other Thursday – Detroit Parent Network." Williams was so committed to doing something, he moved his family from Ypsilanti to Detroit. "I felt called to do something," he says. "Downtown and Midtown, all this great stuff is happening, but you got all these despaired neighborhoods. I can help change that. That's really where this whole thing started from."
Another Detroit-based organization, D.A.D.D.Y.'S Disciples – which is an acronym for Developing Attitudes Discipline & Determination in our Youth – launched in 2017 and aims to elevate black fatherhood. Founder Carl Braggs hopes to "restore that sense of fatherhood in the community." He wants to create programs for children where they can thrive, focused on conflict resolution, leadership skills, financial literacy "and things like that, so we can get the men to lead the charge on those programs," he says.
Similar to Williams, Braggs is a fatherless father, but his experience is slightly different: His father had legal trouble. "When he was removed for that time, that was a real rough period for me – but it made me," Braggs says – as in it made him more cognizant of the higher stakes for black men. So he promised himself, "When I have kids, I (would) never do anything criminal or nothing against the law to jeopardize me being away from my kids. My father had a situation where he couldn't be there."
Braggs has two sons, ages 5 and 2, and a daughter who's 1. His oldest son, from a previous marriage, is living out of state; they've been estranged due to a bad relationship with the child's mother. At home, Braggs says he's avoided overcompensating, though, by being too permissive; rather, he's the disciplinarian compared to his wife of two years. "I'm the one who's not letting a lot of stuff just go," Braggs says. "I'm patient, but I'm stern at the same time, especially with my son – because I know he's going to need that. For our young men in particular, they need that discipline; they need that strong, stern hand to see to it that they're not wavering."
Now, as an adult, Braggs is close to his father, yet he'll never forget those childhood lessons. In a way, D.A.D.D.Y.'S Disciples is an outgrowth of that painful experience in his youth. From it, he hopes to contribute something meaningful to his community. "That's my whole goal really, just to bring some honor and respect to black fatherhood," Braggs says. "We don't get the best of rep. For a long time, fathers have been absent. I would like to lead the charge in changing the whole forecast, as far as the way people view black fatherhood in general. That's our whole goal and our whole mission."
MISSING 'THE BASIC STUFF'
Compared to Williams and Braggs, Courtney Price, a machine assistant, has the largest commitment. With a blended family of seven, Price stays busy. He remembers a time when it was just his mother, brother and him – his father was never there. Even after having contact with cousins, uncles and others, there's never been a re-acquaintance or reconciliation. "I know he's alive, (but) I don't see him or talk to him," Price says.
He laments the things missed all those years back – important things that only a father can teach a son. "I didn't have him to help … the basic stuff, to put a toy together on Christmas, on birthdays, to put a baby crib together," Price says. "I didn't have a father to show me how to make this, or build this."
Nevertheless, he persisted. For fathers struggling against the deep tide of that past, Price suggests not looking at what you might have lost. If you have an opportunity to be a father, think of everything you've gained. "Think about what you did have, what you didn't have growing up as a kid, and how much you want to give your kids out of life now that you're a parent," Price says. "I think any parent – whether it's man or woman – want to give their kids more than what they had when they were kids."
SECOND CHANCES, SECOND MEETINGS
Williams often reflects on what he didn't have while growing up, too, but he comes back time and again to those letters. "He traveled a lot," he says of his father. "It seemed like almost every so many months he was moving to a different prison. He was always at least four to six hours away. I cannot even remember a time of me actually being able to visit him in prison. So the letters were a way that we stayed connected."
For every three letters Williams wrote, he got one in response. Periodically, he received a phone call and, just as rarely, his father would get out of prison – but would quickly violate his parole. It was the back and forth that likely hurt the most. "Writing these letters, waiting for a response and never getting them," he says, "you just learn not to divulge what you're going through. It was tough."
Today, their relationship has vastly improved. His father is getting a second chance at fatherhood because he recently won full custody of a daughter – meaning there's new opportunity for both father and son. "It's almost like we're on this journey together now, and he's embracing it," Williams says. "I think that's where our relationship is really going to grow: We can share and grow and go deeper. We can share and grow on how to be fathers to daughters."