For millions of Americans, the TV version of fatherhood is all we have.
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…"
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.
Helena Andrews covers the nexus of pop culture and politics at Politico.com.