Paul Bradley, of Oak Park, dialogues with Damon McGhee, of Maywood, right, during a May 29 conversation on fatherhood held at Tonsorial Artist Studios in Austin. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Last month, in anticipation of Juneteenth and Father’s Day, a small group of men from around the west suburbs and Chicago’s West Side gathered inside of an Austin barbershop to talk about a subject they know best – Black fatherhood. 

The roughly two-hour-long chat, held May 29 at Tonsorial Artist Studios, 5939 W. North Ave., was moderated by lifelong Austin resident Jeremy Polk, the single father of a young son. Polk said he wanted to create a safe space, where Black fathers can come together to speak candidly and transparently about the joys and challenges of fatherhood.

“I’m 72, so I come from a different generation of fathers,” said Freddie Addison, of Little Village. “I’m glad to be able to do something like this.” 

Addison, the elder of the group, said he was in his 40s, when his father’s words about family started to make sense to him. 

“It was an awakening I had that a lot of dads probably have later in life,” he said, adding that his perspective about his father, who worked a range of jobs, evolved over time. 

“My father wore so many hats and had so many responsibilities,” Addison recalled. “It took me a long time to realize just how powerful his position was in our family to provide for all of us.” 

Damon McGhee, of Maywood, shared one of the most powerful memories he has about his father. They had taken a trip to Israel after McGhee graduated high school.

“That was the first time I can remember really being alone with him and having deep conversations,” he said. “It was a great experience but also a source of frustration; like, why haven’t we done this before?”

McGhee said that memory has become both a treasure and an inspiration for how he handles his relationships with his own children. He said he makes a conscious effort to be routinely present in their lives. 

Daryl Richardson, of Hillside, said that, while having a certain level of transparency between children and parents is something he didn’t grow up with, he hopes that it empowers his daughters.

“Back in my day, the [popular] expression was, ‘Children are to be seen and not heard.’ But I think that when those [unheard] children become adults, they don’t know how to express themselves,” Richardson said. “I wanted my daughters to be able to express themselves.” 

Richardson said that while some people may think he’s too friendly or too familiar with his daughters, he’s glad that he chose to keep that emotional door open.

“One of my daughters is a psychology major and she has no problem asking me how my therapy session went. She wants to ‘unpack’ things with me,” Richardson said, laughing. 

In addition to maintaining healthy relationships with their children, the fathers agreed that they also want their children to grow up in safer and more uplifting environments than they did. 

“I grew up on the West Side and we [he and his family] live here too,” said Polk. “It’s better than what it was, but I want my kids to not be afraid. [I want them to be] aware of their surroundings, but not afraid or ashamed.” 

Addison said that he’s seen the West Side change over time, although many things are the same. 

“Some of the communities still look the way they looked when I was coming up,” he said. “The main thing I notice though is we had a strong sense of community [as far as knowing your neighbors and helping each other out]. That is what seems to be gone now.”

Paul Bradley, of Oak Park, said that, while his kids are not growing up in the community he grew up in, he makes sure that they spend time with family on the West Side. 

“Sometimes, my wife and I worry, but we know they’re safe with family,” Bradley said. “It’s important for them to see the different neighborhoods and get to know their family who lives [across Austin Boulevard] on the West Side.”

McGhee said he wants his children to know the neighborhood he grew up in and to share some of the same struggles he experienced growing up.

“I remember telling my son about the distance I’d have to walk to school,” McGhee said. “One day, I took him and we walked the exact route I used to take to school and the time it took to do it. Now, he sees how much easier he has it [than I did].”  

Bradley said that, while his father had a “tough-love” approach with him growing up, he can appreciate the softness his dad now has as a grandfather. 

“He used to call me soft, but now he’s the one soft with the grandkids,” Bradley said, laughing. “He’s always telling them he loves them and reminding me to show my love. He’s always telling me to be gentle.” 

As the men wrapped up the conversation, they agreed that more talks like this need to happen to give Black men a space to share their truths, wisdom and insights. 

“Thank you, Jeremy, for having the forethought to do this to raise our consciousness,” said Addison. “It’s a battle y’all. It can be scary, but this was nice.”

This interactive, citizen-led reporting project was made possible by a generous grant of the Field Foundation.