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President of Wayne County Community College addresses "the crisis of the black family"

Feb 20, 2015

Twenty years ago this fall, Curtis Ivery was appointed chancellor of the oddly named Wayne County Community College District. The place was a mess. One of its campuses was closed, funding and facilities were wretched, and many thought it wouldn’t survive. But as Ivery, who had grown up poor and black in Amarillo, Texas, once told me, “whenever anybody told me I couldn’t do it, I did it.”

Today he is still in charge, and the WC-three, as it is often called, still has problems, but is thriving. It takes students who often have inferior high school educations and gets them ready for a career, or college.

Yet the black family is not thriving, and Ivery knows why. It’s because fathers aren’t present, because far too many black men aren’t living up to their responsibilities.

They abandon their families or are never part of them in the first place.

“There’s this myth that a single mother can do just fine on her own, and I know many try,” Ivery said. “But it just isn’t true. You need a father present.”

There’s somewhat of a taboo in the black community about speaking out about this, but he doesn’t care about that. He knows education and young people and what he’s talking about.

He was barely in his 30s when he became both the youngest and the first black member of a governor’s cabinet in the history of Arkansas, appointed by an almost equally young governor named Bill Clinton.

He learned enough about politics to help get a sequence of millages passed that gave new life to Wayne County Community College.

But more than 70% of the students today are women.

The missing men aren’t working on the line. They are too often living Hobbesian lives: Nasty, brutish and short.

This has bothered Ivery for years, and now he’s done something about it.

He and his son Marcus, who works in finance for General Motors, have written a new book: Black Fatherhood, Reclaiming Our Legacy.

It’s beautifully bound and illustrated, and something he calls “a practical handbook for understanding the multifaceted legacy of black fatherhood.”

Both Iverys, Curtis, 64, and Marcus, 27, are sadly unusual in one sense; they grew up in a stable black nuclear family with parents who stayed together. That’s increasingly uncommon everywhere today, but especially in the black community.

The vast majority of all black children are born to unmarried mothers, and some who are married don’t stay that way.

Ivery understands that, but wants to send the message that even in failed relationships, “we must love our children more than we despise our partners.”

Black Fatherhood doesn’t yell at you, nor is it a sociological treatise. It is meant to be gently and warmly inspiring, and has been praised by the likes of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, who wrote a preface.

Much of what it says could apply to fatherhood in general.

And changing black society in the way this book suggests may be even more necessary to saving Detroit than even the most skillfully crafted economic plan of adjustment. This is black history with a blueprint for the future, and a book that deserves to be better known.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.