In 1996, NBC News produced a documentary that examined several Black babies who were born in the same week and in the same Newark hospital. Back then the New Jersey city was one of the nation’s poorest. Now, 12 years later in a new documentary titled “A Father’s Promise,” MSNBC goes even further by catching up with three of the children—Marquis, Tianna and Heru—all born to single mothers and all with well-meaning fathers. Hosted by “Today” show veteran Al Roker, the special airing Sunday night and throughout the month, includes a roundtable discussion with Newark Mayor Corey Booker and NBC correspondent Tiki Barber. ESSENCE.com caught up with Roker to discuss fatherhood and whether these fathers in the documentary actually kept the promises they made so many years ago.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get involved with this project?
AL ROKER: The producers told me they had this project and asked if I wanted to be involved. It intrigued me. I was fortunate that my dad was in my life the entire time and he and my mom stayed together. When he died, my parents were just shy of being married for 50 years. I have three children and I am divorced from my oldest daughter’s mother but I worked really hard at staying in her life, but even so, I think that had an affect on her, so I can’t imagine what that would be like if you were a child and your father wasn’t there at all.
ESSENCE.COM: Why did they pick all the kids from Newark?
ROKER: You have to remember we were looking at this 12-years-ago and Newark was not the success it is today. There has been a real turn around on all levels due in no small part thanks to Mayor Booker. It was representative of what was wrong in the inner city at the time.
ESSENCE.COM: How did having your dad in your life affect you?
ROKER: He was a positive influence in that he let you make your own mistakes but still let you know that he was always there. In my family, he was probably the softer touch. When I went to college, I remember going back to see my parents to say goodnight before they left me on campus and he had been crying. My mother on the other hand was pretty stoic as I went off to school.
ESSENCE.COM: In the documentary, you see what happens to all three kids and all three fathers and the relationship they now have together. Do these three kids have a fighting chance at having a good life?
ROKER: I think they seem to be on a good path and I hope they do well. It’s just life would be easier if their dads were there. That’s just one more support to help you get through life. Even now as an adult, even though I am married, I have friends, my children, but my dad isn’t there and I still feel like something is missing. My mom died last year but losing my father was a real blow. I think it’s because we weren’t expecting it, and with my mom, she was sick for a while. The reality is that dads are taken for granted. You watch any football game and when a player scores a touchdown, they never say, “Hi, Dad!” It’s always “Hi, Mom!”
ESSENCE.COM: What are you trying to ultimately achieve with the documentary?
ROKER: I don’t know what the solutions are but I think there are people doing things to help and you will see that in this piece. We used to take parenthood for granted in that we saw how to parent and how not to parent depending on what our own parents were like. But if the fathers are not there at all, these young men only know what it’s like to be a mother and have no idea how to be a father because you learn by example. I’m not saying by any stretch that my father was perfect, but at the end of the day, as much as I try to be a new age parent, it’s still the old school that works. I don’t pull out a belt like my dad used to but it’s because my children know that this is not a democracy. If you don’t have that example, then how will you know how to be a father?
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think that’s the reason why so many Black men end up just leaving?
ROKER: Look, if you are not prepared for those days when your children drive you crazy, it can be very overwhelming. So some young man who has not had any training or example of how to be a father, it’s got to be just mind-boggling. It’s difficult and if you haven’t seen what your own father did to put you on the straight and narrow, it’s going to be hard all around.