How Has Life Changed For Black Dads? I Interviewed My Own Father To Find Out

You’re reading Gen:Blxck, a series exploring Black culture, history, family and identity through the generations.

The first time my father told me he loved me was when I was 30. I am 37 now. It’s not an experience unique to me; I know many of my friends whose parents came to this country have experienced the same. 

My father worked as a school teacher in Kankia, Nigeria, before he came to the UK in 1983, when he secured a radio job with the BBC World Service. He tells me leaving behind everything he knew, aged 28, was “tough to begin with”.

We lived in a one-bedroom flat in Stratford, East London, and in my earliest memories, my father assumed the role of disciplinarian, with a lot of emphasis on learning. I saw him as strong, as someone who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, but who always provided for our family regardless. 

I would describe our relationship as ‘close-but-not-close’. He would provide financial support for my educational endeavors and show pride when I did things in a prominent sphere, but he rarely expressed a lot of emotion. 

I have never spoken to my dad about the early years and his attitudes towards parenting. How many men do? But now as a parent myself to a seven-year-old girl and four-year-old boy, I’m intrigued to know what it was like for him raising a boy and two girls in a new country.

To find out how fatherhood has changed (or not) between generations, I asked him what it was like raising me and my siblings in the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

Umar Kankiya and his father Alhaji Yusuf. Umar Kankiya and his father Alhaji Yusuf. 

Umar Kankiya (UK): In 1985 I arrived as your first born. How did it feel to become a father?

Alhaji Yusuf (AY): It was a very proud moment, I remember announcing your birth on the BBC World Service and that was how many people back home heard about your birth. It was also a daunting moment, because we did not have a support system here in the UK in the same way we would have done if we were still in Nigeria.

UK: What challenges did you face at this time?

AY: At this point it was tough, because I was at work during unsociable hours which meant your mum having to manage things at home without me, this I found challenging. But I also knew that I wanted to do everything I could to be able to give my family everything that I did not have.

UK: By 1991 you had three children under the age of five. What would you say your parenting style was?

AY: The way I parented is very different to how I see you parent now. Back then I would have to smack if there was no listening. If you didn’t listen to my word or if you were naughty, you would be beaten with a slap or the belt.

UK: What challenges did you face in the 90s?

AY: In the 80s/90s there was still a lot of racism around and when you started to go to secondary school I was concerned about the level of violence that was being experienced by boys your age. 

UK: Violence is something that has always been there and it’s arguable actually that today is much worse than it was for me back then. Also I feel that I had more freedom back then than my kids do now.

AY: This is true, when you were growing up it was a lot easier to let you go out to play, go to the park unsupervised when you were older and generally learn to navigate the world in a more different way than it is today.

UK: Given that social media did not exist when I was growing up, what do you think of it and its impact on children now?

AY: When you were growing up, to call your friends you would have to come to the living room and use the landline telephone. It was more supervised then. Now I can see that children have their own mobile phones; I love how they can access more of the world compared to even when you grew up, but I am also fearful that kids grow up a bit too fast.

UK: To be honest I felt that even when I was younger I grew up quite quickly because of living in East London and having to try and navigate in a way that made us more street-smart, because you needed to be.

Alhaji Yusuf and his grandchildren Alhaji Yusuf and his grandchildren 

AY: This is true, but you also have to think of the fact that in your time it was more physical. Now there are more emotional elements, because of the use of mobile phones and social media, so people do not confront each other in the same way as before.

UK: What do you think has changed or stayed the same from when you were parenting me to how you view the way I parent my children?

AY: What I think has stayed the same is that we both have tried to instill good values in [our children], we have both worked hard to give what we didn’t have growing up. What I think is different is that when you were a child, it was very easy to go down the route of hit first, ask questions (if ever) later. Whereas when I watch how you parent it will often be to diffuse the situation through talking and then explaining things more to your children. 

I also feel that you are definitely more involved and more present then I was. I was heavily involved when it came to your education and trying to steer you in the right direction, but I was nowhere near as hands on as I have seen you be. I didn’t do the school run for example, in the same way you do, I didn’t take you and your siblings out frequently.

Umar Kankiya with his wife and children. Umar Kankiya with his wife and children. 

As I reflect on my discussion with my dad, it’s interesting to see that there are a lot of similarities (instilling values, working hard) and how things are different (punishment vs talking). 

My wife and I made the very conscious decision that smacking was never going to be part of our way of disciplining our children. In the 80s and 90s, I get it because this is what our parent’s generation grew up on. But while it was something I grew up with, too, it was not something that I wanted to continue for my kids.

We find as parents that it is far better for our children to have an understanding about what they have done wrong, speak to them about it, and encourage positive behaviour rather than raising a hand. There is a lot to be said about passing your own trauma to your children, and this is something that I am actively working against.

But I feel that it’s easy to give our parents a hard time, especially those who came over from various countries. When they arrived in the UK, the name of the game was survival and trying everything they could to give their children the best start in life.

For my generation, it’s about embracing what our parents did and taking it on to the next level. My wife and I are both lawyers and this is because of the sacrifices our parents made to get us to tap into the potential we had.

The challenge for us now is about teaching our own children about the history that brought us here, but also ensuring that the next generations continue to grow, and are able to do so in a way that’s progressive, influential and game-changing.

What does it mean to be Black and British? Well, it depends which generation you ask. This Black History Month, HuffPost UK has teamed up with BuzzFeed’s Seasoned and Tasty UK to find out. Read more from Gen:Blxck here.

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