What My Father Could Learn From Usher

For millions of Americans, the TV version of fatherhood is all we have.

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On my desk, in my office, is a picture of my mother and me. I might be 2 weeks old. She's cradling me with one arm against her chest, her slender fingers smoothing down my baby hair. She's got a close-cropped afro, and we're in somebody's kitchen—maybe ours, but probably my Grandmommy's. There's a bag of Wonder Bread on the table.

As with 24 million other Americans, there's no man in my picture or in the picture.

Obviously, I've never been a big fan of Father's Day.

Still as a pop culture stalker, I've been captivated by the new obsession with black fatherhood. On television there's Snoop Dogg's Father Hood, Deion Sanders' Primetime Love, the Rev. Run's Run's House, and Flavor Flav made a big show of "proposing" to Liz, the mother of his youngest son Karma, on VH1.

Even new father Usher has taken up the fatherhood cause. While promoting his latest offering, Here I Stand, the man's been on The Ellen Degeneres Show, in People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, and most recently MTV's Total Request Live, talking about marriage and babies—in a real way.

It makes sense that I would be delighted by the attention that higher profile black fathers have been getting lately, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I'd rather have the real thing, not the "reality."

In real life, I found a photo of my father in a tin can hidden under my mother's bed when I was around 8 years old. He wore a black afro and black flip-flops. It looked like he was on the floor of a dorm room (actually he was on a ship). He had long legs and light skin. I fell in love with him then. This was him. The man my mother never talked about—badly or in any other way.

I imagined he was on the moon, and if I hoped for him enough, thought of him enough, prayed for him enough, he'd come back down. I didn't need saving, but I needed something. Every night for years, I repeated the same line to baby Jesus or grown-up Jesus or God or whomever like mantra: "Dear Lord, please let our paths cross someday." I seriously said it like this in my little 8-year-old head. I didn't even necessarily have to talk to him. I just wanted him to see me.

Each Father's Day, I'm reminded first of his abandonment and second of my mother's strength. Fortunately it is the latter that has made an impact on my life, but I still count myself among those unfortunate fatherless souls.

In Salman Rushdie's new novel The Enchantress of Florence—a mythological love story starring princes and prostitutes—this line caught my breath: "[Akbar learned] … about abandonment in general, and in particular fatherlessness, the lessness of fathers, the lessness of the fatherless…"