Like thousands of others, I am a fan of the TV series Homeland. I take particular pleasure in the success of Black British actor David Harewood, who plays CIA boss David Estes in the programme. Harewood was just another struggling Black actor frustrated by the lack of decent roles in the UK, till he went stateside to try his luck, and struck gold when he landed the high-profile part in this international hit of a series.
But he wasn’t the first to make such a move. A few frustrated thespians have been treading that path for the last decade or so, but the most high profile success has undoubtedly been enjoyed by Idris Elba, who hit the big time when he won the part of Stringer Bell in the cult US series The Wire. Elba was able to turn his success on American TV into an A-List movie career, going on to star in blockbusters like Ghost Rider, Thor, and Prometheus. Even Barack Obama was a fan of The Wire and Elba got invited to a White House reception. Because of his high profile success over the pond, Elba was able to return to the UK and be taken seriously enough to be allowed to executive produce his own cop drama for the BBC, Luther.
In previous blog posts I have advocated that Black men who are struggling to find success in the UK should consider emigrating to wherever opportunities are more plentiful. We are, after-all, only in this country because our parents or grandparents came here in search of jobs, and if those jobs have now dried up, then it only makes sense to move to where they now are.
But while I was patting myself on the back and looking at the success of Harewood and Elba as confirmation of my arguments, I remembered Courtney Ledbetter. Courtney came to this country from the Caribbean in the 1960’s and settled in London. He married and had four children, two boys and two girls, a perfect family one might think. But Courtney wasn’t satisfied. In the 70’s, despite this still being a relatively buoyant time for the UK economy, Courtney became dissatisfied with his life in London. He thought he could do better elsewhere, so like Harewood and Elba, he went off to make his fortune in North America – Canada to be precise. I’m not sure if the plan was for him to send money back to the UK for his family, or to send for them to join him once he had made it big. In the event he did neither. The money never came, and the contact dried up. Courtney never sent for his children, and he didn’t return to the UK. Instead he left his wife to raise those four children by herself. Like most single mothers she managed, but she struggled. Those four kids are now all middle-aged adults, their parents eventually divorcing and re-marrying, but the struggle to raise them was far more profound than just putting food in four hungry bellies and shoes on four pairs of growing feet. I know those four children (now adults) personally, and I can see the effect that the abandonment by their father had on them.
The eldest son, who was 16 at the time his father left, was least damaged. At that young age he had the role of ‘man-of-the-house’ thrust upon him. It made him determined and resilient, but old before his time. It also gave him a demon work-ethic that he now needs to provide for his own children, and errant nephew. Sadly, his desire to earn money meant that school work took a back seat, and he achieved far less academically then his intelligence would have allowed in more nurturing circumstances. The three younger siblings fared less well.
Whilst mother and eldest son were struggling to provide, the eldest daughter saw education as her way out. She focussed on her studies, did well at school and managed to make it to university. But after graduation she suffered a breakdown, and spent much of her twenties and the majority of the thirties in secure mental health units. I visited her in the latest in a long line of hospital units that have been her home, earlier this year. She was upbeat and looking forward to getting released back into the community. But after I left the building, I wept. I shed tears for her unrealised ambitions and her wasted life.
The middle daughter (perhaps looking for love from a surrogate father figure) had two children in quick succession whilst she was still in her teens, fathered by two equally unsuitable men. The strain of being a single mother so young, eventually resulted in her too having a mental breakdown. Mercifully, she managed to extricate herself from the clutches of institutional care after not too long, and manages to live an evenly pitched life as long as she continues to take her medication and avoids stress.
The youngest son, managed to keep out of institutionalised mental health care, but to my view is hanging onto his sanity by the tips of his fingers. He spends much of his unemployed days, in his rented flat, researching conspiracy theories and the impending fall of western society. When I stop by to visit him, he will warn me of the imminent collapse of the dollar and the euro, or show me videos that explain how to escape the surveillance of government agencies, or how to survive when Armageddon comes and running water and electricity can no longer be taken for granted.
This is the story of one family, four children whose lives have been damaged and potential unrealised, because of the actions of an irresponsible father and the blight of mental illness. But they are by no means unique. Absentee fathers, abandoned daughters looking for love too soon with unsuitable partners, and abandoned sons who walk around full of rage, are all too common sights in the Black community.
I know of a similar story with another Black family. The unmarried matriarch had her first son aged 14, and the second a few years later. Her first born ran away from home at 15 and was taken into care. From there he started on his criminal career that culminated in him being sentenced for 17 years for drugs and firearms possession. The second son didn’t sell drugs, but he certainly smoked them. So much so, that it led to cannabis psychosis, and he was regularly to be seen on the streets of South London talking loudly into a pocket calculator that he believed was a mobile phone. Eventually, he too was taken into psychiatric care.
One mother, two sons, no father…….two more wasted lives. I’m not sure who’s more to blame. The irresponsible men who see fatherhood as something that begins and ends at the point of conception, or the foolish mothers, who chose to have children with these ‘waste-men’, and though barely adults themselves, believe that they have the necessary skills to turn boys into men.
But its not just those on the periphery of society who are damaged by the abandonment of their fathers. Even those living apparently happy productive lives can be carrying such mental scars. There are many women carrying around ‘daddy issues’. Like those sisters in commited long-term relationships who cannot shake the feeling that someday their man might cheat on them/leave them, because thats what their Dad did. Even for myself, the fact that I never vote in elections, don’t support a football team, and don’t believe in God, I explain by asserting that I refuse to put my faith in any man (or group of men) for my welfare and happiness. Maybe that kind of faith only comes when one has had a father they could rely on.
The four Ledbetter children, and remarkably also the mother, have all apparently forgiven Courtney, but I haven’t. I didn’t live through the financial and emotional struggles that they had to suffer as children. (My single mother only had one child to raise). I don’t even know their father, but I am angry at what he did, because I can see, perhaps more clearly than they can, the long lasting damage that his actions had on his children.
But as the saying goes, a wise man can learn more from a foolish answer, than a fool can learn from a wise one. I use ‘waste-men’ like Courtney Ledbetter as an example in my own life: an example of what NOT to do. It is because of the example of men like him that I vowed never to abandon my children. (I have their dates of birth boldly tattooed on both of my forearms, so it would be impossible to forget them even if I wanted to.) It is due to my dedication to my children that I left London and put my media career on hold for a decade.
So follow the example of Idris Elba and David Harewood if you want to. Go to whatever country you feel you need to, to make your fortune. Just don’t forget about your children. Never, ever abandon your children.