There is an easy way to meet Joe Jones, and a hard way. Let’s start with the easy way. If you and I were at a cocktail party, I’d introduce you to a tall, bald, black man, standing a shoulder above most everybody else. Knowing Joe Jones, he’d probably be wearing a tan suit and muted tie. Joe’s subdued, square-rimmed glasses fit nicely with his veiled intellect—he’s the kind of guy who readily drops six-dollar words without a hint of pretense.
I’d probably ask Joe to tell you about the nonprofit he runs, the Center for Urban Families on Baltimore’s West Side. CFUF is a national model for helping men and women who are confronting addiction, poverty, and despair turn their lives around, and teaching absent fathers how to reconnect with their kids. Joe’s a modest guy, so I’d have to brag on his behalf, about the bigwigs who have dropped by his center, and all the awards the organization has won.
Finally, I’d say in passing: “You know, Joe has a powerful personal story himself. His own father wasn’t around, he struggled in the streets for a while, and then pulled himself up, and made it out.” Nice and neat. Joe would nod and smile. You’d nod and smile. I’d nod and smile. We’d all be smiling—appropriately inspired.
Joe Jones recalls the day his father walked out on his family.
That’s the easy way to meet Joe Jones. But there’s also the hard way. The hard way is to grapple with the fact that Joe’s family didn’t just emerge from some unseen ghetto thousands of miles away. No, his grandfather migrated to Baltimore from North Carolina, and started a business—a waste-management facility, one of the city’s more successful ones. His grandparents were “models of stability,” Joe told me. A few generations before that, Joe’s family were slaves.
It’s hard to figure out what happened to Joe’s dad, and thousands of other black fathers like him. Joe’s dad was training to be a teacher, but one day in the mid-’60s he hopped into the driver side of a Ford Thunderbird, visibly angry, slung his duffel bag on the passenger side, and drove off for good. Joe saw the whole thing from his upstairs window in the Lafayette Court housing projects; he thought his dad was going to the laundromat, and sat waiting for him, for hours.