What My Father Could Learn From Usher

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

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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…”

It makes sense that I would see myself in those words—less than culture’s “normal” and sometimes unfazed by loss of something I never knew. How do you miss a person you’ve only seen in pictures—in one picture, in fact? But how do you not?

Nearly one out of every three children grows up in households without their biological fathers. Or two out of every three African American children, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to spreading the word about the “crisis” of father absence.

When I think about the black fathers dominating reality television today, none of these real men can stand up to the fatherly fiction that is Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. On Thursday nights at 8 p.m., the little 8-year-old me pretended a character on a television show was all the things my father wasn’t—present, paid and promising.

As unmoved as today’s reality dads leave me, though, I’m actually excited about Usher’s recent impromptu paternal PSAs. “I want to see more men standing with their women. I want to see more men be open and honest about where they are in life,” Usher told Ellen Degeneres recently. “As an African American, to be there for my child is so important when there are so many young African-American kids without their fathers.”

And then on MTV’s TRL, Raymond had another breakthrough, this time deciding to address rumors about his wife, Tameka, and his son, “baby cinco.”

“I’m a black, strong man in America standing up for my people as a man,” Usher said to the camera, while taking off his huge sunglasses and looking his television audience (us) dead in the eye.

“To my wife, to my son, to my family, I’m making a stand that a lot of us should make. I could’ve been like any other man who would have a child and just, you know, live with that woman and continue to just, you know, play the game. I’m tryna do it the right way. This is the way you should do it. Pay attention, fellas.”

I wish my father was paying more attention in 1980. I wish I hadn’t needed to pay so much attention to Cliff Huxtable eight years later. I wish the fellas watching Usher on MTV get the picture.