The Babyfather Alliance pulls no punches in its efforts to counter the stereotypes of black men as drug dealers and criminals. Wendy Wallace gets the message.
Nine years ago, Patrick Augustus set about writing books for and about black men. Inspired by the Ku Klux Klan - which advised "if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book" - he reversed the proposition and wrote the Babyfather series with the encouragement of publisher Dotun Adebayo of Xpress Books and the help of a manual on writing bestsellers.
"A lot of the people writing about us weren't black," he says. "Black men tend to be portrayed as pimps, addicts or criminals. I deliberately made my characters well-off and successful, and I chose a title people could identify with."
Two BBC television drama series followed in 2001 and 2002. Augustus's work - the novels are accessible, witty and tender in their description of messy, hopeful lives - has prompted a massive response. "I've had letters from people in prisons, universities, colleges, schools - all kinds of people, but mainly men feeling they had no hope, no chance of getting access to their child and nowhere to get information or advice on their personal situation," he says.
He set up the Babyfather Alliance in October last year, with the remit of encouraging responsible parenting among black males in the UK, in particular those who were separated from their children. Now the 39-year-old locks-sporting author and father of five has teamed up with the charity Barnardo's in a bid to foster debate on black men, black children and the relationships between the two. For Barnardo's - anxious to shed its image as a white middle-class organisation - the alliance is an attractive working partner.
Barnardo's, whose family centres in the south of England work with 46 per cent people from ethnic minorities, is keen to "engage the community in a dialogue", says Errol John, new opportunities manager. The result is a series of roadshows planned for six cities backed by funding from the Home Office.
The first meeting, in Manchester's Contact theatre, draws a substantial, involved and mainly black audience to hear the thoughts of Patrick Augustus, Errol John and fellow panel members Bishop Joe Aldred from Birmingham, and social worker Anne Marie Howell - and to voice their own opinions. A wide-ranging debate about identity, culture, sexuality, the Birmingham shootings and the black family follows.
Dr Robert Beckford of the University of Birmingham, speaks of "crisis in our community", with black men and boys over-represented in school exclusion, homeless and prison population figures.
Issues too often misappropriated by politicians - single parenthood, rap culture, drugs, discipline, hope, and the lack of it - are freely aired, along with frustration about institutional racism and police stop and search procedures.
Bishop Aldred confesses that the church has no easy answers and that his generation of Caribbean parents is going through a crisis of confidence in parenting. "The church can be a sterile place; the gospel of Christ is about meeting people where they are and I don't think we engage sufficiently," he says. Education features heavily in the debate, in the form of problem and solution. "Early or late, formal or informal, you have to have it," says the bishop, to loud applause.
Parents voice their concern over the continuing high exclusion rate of Afro-Caribbean boys, speaking in terms not of statistics but of their own children. "Young black teenagers want to see someone who looks like themselves," says Anne Marie Howell. "They're in a state of confusion where being cool is being bad and being good is nerdy."
Patrick Augustus, who left school with no qualifications in 1980, believes he was failed by the system. "School functioned brilliantly musically but terribly academically," he says. "Teachers would say, 'Patrick, you'll be sweeping roads when you leave here.' I left school without even a music qualification, and a feeling that I had failed." He now teaches music part-time at a south London primary school. "There are few black male teachers or role models," he says.
Unusually, the purpose of the allianceBarnardo's workshops is simply to enable and promote debate about issues of identity, parenting, prejudice and education, as they relate to children and families. "We want to engage the community in a dialogue," says Errol John. "It's not about us running things; we're catalysts." For the voluntary sector and education, such debate sounds not just helpful but imperative.
For further information on the work of the Babyfather Alliance and forthcoming meetings, contact email@example.com; tel: 020 8498 7326