(The Root) — More than four years ago, in one of my first columns for The Root, I wrote about pop star Usher Raymond's proud papa moments in a piece titled "What My Father Could Learn From Usher."
At the time black fatherhood was dominating the airwaves with shows featuring Snoop Lion (née Dog), Deion Sanders and Rev. Run. Adding to the list of Cliff Huxtable heir apparents was Usher, who had just married Tameka Foster, the mother of his unborn son. The wedding wasn't well-received by fans or Usher's own mother, Johnetta. The "controversy" baffled me because all I could see was a man standing up for the woman he loved.
As a fatherless child, I was awed by Usher's 2008 appearance on MTV's TRL. Addressing the rumors swirling around his new marriage and threatening to suck it down into a tabloid abyss, Raymond grabbed a mic and looked all the haters out there in TV Land directly in the eye: "I'm a black, strong man in America standing up for my people as a man," Usher said to the camera.
"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."
Four years ago I wrote that I'd wished my own father had received a message like that in 1980. A message about sticking around and sticking to your guns. A message about what men "should" be doing as opposed to what too many men were doing. It resonated with me and with readers.
Friends emailed about how I'd hit them in the gut with lines like the one in which I described how little girl Helena dreamed her father was something of an astronaut: "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." Or the fact that despite feeling a bit lost without him, I still maintained that "I didn't need saving, but I needed something."
It's one of the few pieces of mine that I re-read from time to time, reflecting on the sometimes sincere and symbiotic relationship one can have with the cultural zeitgeist. I actually cared about what a celebrity had to say — more than cared; I was invested in it. I didn't know Usher then and I don't now, but his attempt to do the right thing truly touched me.
All that is why I was particularly interested in Oprah Winfrey's recent Oprah's Next Chapter episode with Usher, who's remained tight-lipped (outside of court proceedings, of course) about the breakdown of a marriage he was all too enthusiastic to shout about.
"I really wanted to do things right or at least the perception of what right may be," he told Oprah when asked why he'd decided to wed Foster in the first place. He admitted to not having the "best point of reference" when it came to making that type of decision. Usher Raymond III (the singer's dad) wasn't around to see his son grow up, so it's no surprise that Usher Raymond IV would perhaps do the opposite to make sure "baby cinco" didn't feel the same loss.
What did surprise me, however, was Usher's assertion that his proud papa moment — the de facto fatherhood PSA I wrote about — was, in fact, a mistake.
"I can remember being on MTV, and I went on and defended her," he said. "I shouldn't have did that, that made no sense."
If there was a thought bubble filled with all the blown expectations I had, Usher just popped it.
According to the now-divorced single dad, that impromptu moment on TRL made the personal public in such a way that it might have hurt his relationship in the long run. Instead of addressing the rumors and the haters and even the folks like me just eavesdropping, maybe he should have just skipped the over-the-airwaves affection and gone into relationship witness protection. Perhaps then no one could say I told you so.
But even with the vast difference between the Usher of four years ago and the Usher who admitted to cheating on his wife at the end of their marriage, I'm still optimistic about the message he's spreading about fatherhood. It can not only survive a broken relationship; it can arise out of a family culture of fatherlessness — a stark lesson for the two out of three African American children without fathers in their homes.
"How can you be a great father when you have not been fathered?" asked Oprah.
"Having not had a father," Usher begins, "that was all of the reason to be a good father because I didn't have it."
In 2008 I wrote that I wished the fellas watching Usher got the picture, and I still do.