Two became literary giants. Another etched an indelible mark on the civil rights movement. The youngest made history the day he walked into the Oval Office.

Though they lived in different eras and under different circumstances, these four African American men have one thing in common: During the formative years of their lives, the fathers of Barack Obama, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright were absent.

Dr. Tara T. Green, director of the African American Studies Program at UNCG, explores the impact of the fathers’ absences and how their now-famous sons coped in her new book, “A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men.”

“One question pulls this together: What is the impact on black men when their fathers are absent?” said Green, who is also an associate professor at UNCG. “It’s quite significant, but it’s not debilitating. It doesn’t mean life is over for them, that they’re ‘at risk’ or that they have a target on them.”

Instead, Green discovers that the men folded into the arms of their community in a quest to define their identities without their fathers’ influence.

“A father’s absence makes it necessary for the son to find a place of belonging and to connect with other males in the community who can teach him cultural practices that may be thought of as distinctly black and male,” Green writes in the book. “Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and Barack Obama prove the need for an engagement within black communities to define themselves as black men, a need made more prominent by the absence of their fathers.”

Her research – which examines Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” Hughes’s “The Big Sea,” Wright’s “Black Boy” and X’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” – was prompted by a classroom inquiry. While teaching an African American literature course, a student asked Green, “Why were so many of these black male writers abandoned by their fathers?”

Far from being mute on the subject, the writers voice their feelings of loss and pain, vulnerability and resolve in their autobiographical works, often in stark terms.

The same happens today, Green said. “One reason this book is important to me is because we don’t listen enough to young African American males when they’re talking to us.”

Fatherlessness remains an issue. According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau information, close to a quarter of American children live in a single-mother household. Fifty percent of children identified as black or multiethnic with black heritage live in single-mother households.

But the success of the profiled authors proves that the absence of a paternal figure doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle, Green found.

“I’m not saying in this book that not having a father doesn’t make a tremendous impact, because it does,” Green said. “I’m not saying they will all become award-winning writers or the president of the United States. What I am saying is that they have a chance to be something – and we need to encourage that.”

Green, who joined the UNCG faculty last fall, holds a doctorate in English with an emphasis in African American literature from Louisiana State University. Her research interests include African American autobiographies, 20th century novels, gender studies, protest literature and movements and literature of Africa and the Caribbean. She is the editor of “From the Plantation to the Prison: African American Confinement Literature.”

“Fatherless Child,” 172 pages, is published by the University of Missouri Press.