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Annette John-Hall: The real life of an African American father

Ronnie Brown doesn't want you to get the wrong idea. He is grateful. Still, a day after being feted for fatherhood, he can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about.

Ronnie Brown doesn't want you to get the wrong idea. He is grateful. Still, a day after being feted for fatherhood, he can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about.

Yes, Brown, 44, is a single dad raising five children, ages 20 to 16. And yes, it is validating to know that his parenting efforts have been recognized.

But still.

"I just do what I have to do for my children," says Brown, who, along with 19 other local dads, was honored yesterday at the Father's Day Rally Committee's Fatherhood Award reception held at the Hyatt Regency Penn's Landing. FDRC, whose mission is to promote positive images of African American males - something we don't see enough of - will host a picnic at Belmont Grove Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. as part of its 20th anniversary celebration.

It would be easy for people to think that black men are the only ones who don't parent their children. Especially when more than 50 percent of all African American children live without their fathers.

But here's the rub when it comes to black men and fatherhood: Perceptions of African Americans are so loaded with irresponsibility, absenteeism, and indifference that the scores of fathers who are doing right by their kids are seen as exceeding expectations, even to the point of being award-worthy.

Research shows that African American fathers, more than any other group, are more likely to maintain lasting relationships with their children when they don't live with them. And invisible are the dads who go about the everyday duties of raising their children by themselves, without fanfare - and, for those like Brown, despite myriad struggles.

In Brown's case, crack almost destroyed the mother of four of his children, the woman he had been with off and on since the ninth grade.

DHS threatened to take the children away from their mother and put them in foster care. Brown, who by then wasn't living with the children's mother ("too many arguments, too much dysfunction"), took over parenting duties, moving his kids to his Southwest Philly apartment.

Only to later discover that his landlord had been renting his unit illegally.

Forced to quickly find somewhere to live, so that his children would not be taken from him, Brown did something he never thought he'd do; he moved to West Philly with his still-addicted ex and her boyfriend, and brought the children with him.

The adults "were on drugs, and I was in the basement," says Brown, who endured the arrangement for six excruciating months. "The neighbors thought I was half-crazy, the way the situation was. But I was only there for my children. . . . It was like I was sacrificing my life for my children."

Brown managed to find an apartment in North Philly - a one-bedroom that housed him, his sons, and a teenage daughter.

"I told my daughter, 'Sharae, you're going to get your own bedroom and bathroom someday. God's got to make a way, that's all.' "

But there were plenty of dark days when his faith foundered.

"There was a lot of times I just wanted to give up, I really did," Brown says. "Times that I didn't know how I could care for my kids, not just physically, but financially."

Through it all, Brown held on to the memory of his own parents, Henry and Maggie Brown. Remembering how it wasn't easy for them either, how Henry worked two jobs to make sure his nine children had everything they needed.

Henry was always there, until 1972, when he died of a massive heart attack.

Brown and the kids eventually moved to a more spacious three-bedroom apartment near Temple after their building was torn down.

As Brown promised, Sharae, 18, who is headed to Community College of Philadelphia, has her own bedroom. And there's room for his son, Raheem Mike, 17, from a past relationship, to sleep over.

Brown is proud to say that his ex has been clean for three years now.

Though life is far from perfect, Brown, who counsels adolescent males at the Kirkbride Center in West Philly, lives out the definition of manhood each day just by being a good father.

"I don't want no pat on the back." said Brown. "Just to see my children grow up and turn into young men and women. . . . That's the most beautiful thing in life."