The Start of Something New

August 26, 2007

As per my weekly Boy At The Window blog, I often update all of you on some obscure anniversary from some point in my life’s timeline for the manuscript in which I seek publication. This weekend and week coming up is no different, except for the fact that most of the anniversary dates are more positive and their effects just as lasting as some of the more depressing ones.

But I should start with August 25 of ’85. It was a Sunday that year, the last one in August before the start of eleventh grade. My stepfather got into it again with me that afternoon, over the usual. He wanted me to “some him some respect” by calling him “Dad.” “You’re not my father, and you’re never gonna be my father!,” I yelled in response. He tried to wrap his fat left arm around my head in our narrow hallway while trying to punch me in the head at the same time. I was fifteen and realized that he was attempting to do too much at one time. I twisted out of his hold and inadvertently elbowed him in the side–where his blubber apparently was less thick–in the process. I ran as far as I could for the front door twenty-five feet away. When I turned to see where he was, I saw the big guy on the floor holding the side of his stomach. I left, beginning a twenty-one hour odyssey through the streets of Mount Vernon and in Mount Vernon High School.

I walked for almost two and a half hours, looking for my father Jimme–who was in the middle of one of his summertime drinking binges–and generally pissed off about our impoverished fate while looking at the homes that I knew some of my classmates lived in. The contrast was so striking that I couldn’t help but feel that though I saw myself as a child of God, that somehow God’s blessings had completely skipped us all. I ended up spending the night inside my high school, in the offices of the gifted track coordinator for our program. After spending more time walking around the school and looking at its Wall of Fame (including Dick Clark and other Mount Vernon natives), walking around Mount Vernon and spending three hours at a Catholic Church praying and listening to Latin liturgies, I went home and awaited my fate. Ironically, nothing happen. I went to sleep, dreaming again of the life I wanted to have, with my young siblings voices dancing in and out of my head.

Two years later, August 26 of ’87, twenty years ago on today’s date, I left Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s literally the dividing line between my childhood, my five years of familial and K-12 torture, and the beginning of living my life for me (as opposed to for my mother, my siblings, dreams of my first or second crush, etc.). The details of waking up at 4:30 am–I barely slept really–to take a 7:50 am Amtrak out of Penn Station in NYC to travel nine hours to Pittsburgh aren’t all that important. The reality was that in some sense, I’d won but didn’t realize that I had for another two years. I was leaving 616, my world of uncomfortable comfort-ness and no longer in Mount Vernon’s public schools, which had become a world of strife, confusion and loneliness by the time we threw our caps in the air two months before. My summer of obsession over my second crush was over, or at least, so I thought at the time. Regardless, I had much more to look forward to than what I was leaving behind. But at the moment I got into a Reliable Taxi to catch the 2 Subway at East 241 in The Bronx, I mostly felt sorry for my mother.

Other dates are almost as important. I started graduate school on August 28 of ’91, sixteen years ago this week. I moved into my first “by myself” apartment on Friday, August 31 of ’90, seventeen years ago. And my wife, my son and I are on the biggest roadtrip and vacation we’ve ever been on this week, having left suburban Maryland to visit my father in Florida–whose been a recovering alcoholic for nine years now. We stopped overnight along the way, with my wife meeting my first crush along the way. Now that we’re here, we’ll spend time at Sea World, find a bowling alley for my son to jump up and down about, and maybe even find a miniature golf course for my son to putt to his heart content while I’ll find a driving range and learn how to hit driver for the first time. But none of these dates wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t done what I did on August 26th, 1987.

My Silly Side, My Serious Side

August 20, 2007

In the past year or so, I’ve become a fan of the Disney preteen cartoon Kim Possible. For anyone with kids between seven and fourteen, I hope you understand. Of course, my son Noah’s only four, but he’ll watch “KP” anyway. Anyway, the cartoon’s about a cheerleader who’s also an up-and-coming superhero who handles the typical pressures of teens and tweens — popularity, friends, the pressures of grades, boys, work and fighting super-villians. Kim’s somewhat geeky and nerdy sidekick is Ron Stoppable (for those of you unfamiliar, I apologize), who’s been her best friend since kindergarten. The storyline of the series is that they gradually become boyfriend and girlfriend. It’s an interesting take on two characters who — under normal cartoon standards — would be about as compatible together as a Yugo would be to a BMW.

What attracts me to the show besides my son making me watch it with him is that despite the hair, clothes, popularity and other stereotypical variables of the cheerleader construct as developed by Hollywood, the main character really cares about her ridiculously un-cool sidekick and friend. Kim Possible shows a level of complexity rarely seen on any cartoon in terms of sensitivity to others, knowledge of one’s self and our impact on the world around us (okay, I’ve probably taken this reasoning a bit too far). I’ve said to my wife multiple times in the past year, if Kim Possible had been at my high school, she probably would’ve been my first girlfriend.

Unfortunately, no one I knew during those wonderful days of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (with Full Force) and Tears for Fears even approached a level of maturity or sensitivity of this character, male or female. Even the so-called outcasts at Mount Vernon High School were as clique-ish as a bunch of Houston high school cheerleaders on ESPN. And our teachers — at least the ones we had in the high-achievement track — were about as concerned for our general well-being as a lion concerns herself with the feelings of her prey as she chomps and gulps down another mouthful of flesh. I think that there should be a rule in which there’s at least one Kim Possible in every Class of Whatever in every school district in the US.

On a more serious note, I did have one teacher whose concern for his students and his penchant for asking me “Is everything at home all right?” was such that he was able to reach me, as a student and as a human being. He didn’t let me go with my grunting, “I’m fine” responses. He became the only person who knew about my family’s financial straits, had a sense of the domestic violence, and understood my standoff-ish stance toward almost all of my classmates and other teachers. If it weren’t for him, my level of trust in others would be about as high as a dead Mafioso type down at the bottom of the East River in Manhattan, weighed down by cement shoes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have him as my teacher until my junior year at Mount Vernon High School, way too late to begin forming meaningful friendships with more than a handful of classmates, too late to do more than to begin to imagine relationships with a few girls in my class. Even more unfortunate, though, was my teacher’s untimely death at age sixty-six. He took early retirement on his 57th birthday because the powers-that-were didn’t like his style or tactics in dealing with students. They had tried for nearly twenty years to remove him from Mount Vernon High School, to take away his favorite classes, to discredit him as a teacher. It’s a sad story, and too much to go into here.

But it’s also an uplifting story. Learning how to trust others after your trust has been shattered, burned, and scattered is somewhere between more difficult than the quantum physics of a black hole and as impossible as hooking up an electrical appliance directly on the sun’s surface. I’ll miss my teacher and all of his sing-song, meandering stories, his homilies about history and human nature, about love and trust. Just like there need to be more Kim Possible’s in this world, there need to be more teachers like my eleventh-grade AP American History teacher.

Why Controversy Over Diversity?

August 17, 2007

A quick addendum to my normal Monday blog musings must be made today. Several articles have appeared in recent weeks over social scientist Robert Putnam’s (author of the bestseller Bowling Alone, which looked at the decline in civic and community participation in the US) bleak look at the short-term effects of diversity on civic participation. It’s been reported that in his survey of dozens of communities over the past five years, Putnam has found that members of diverse communities in the short-term tend to lead lives isolated from the rest of their community, not in open hostility or disenchantment, mind you. Just a lack of interest in crossing racial and ethnic lines to meet neighbors from different background, or in the case of African Americans and Latinos, folks from different socioeconomic backgrounds or who may be recent American arrivals.

This is the first release of the results of his data, in a speech given for an award he received in Sweden, titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” and published in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies (June 2007). Despite some conservatives loving the results of Putnam’s work, some are dissatisfied with the fact that this data troubles him. Conservatives like Pat Buchanan are especially unhappy with Putnam’s wait to release more data until he can come up with ways to deal with this short-term diversity malaise, because scholars should just “report data, not write about what to do about it.” That’s just a load of crap because conservatives think anything about diversity–especially anything in favor of it–is evil.

But Putnam’s study and the conservative response is a bit beside the point. Boy At The Window is hardly scientific. But in discussing my life and the lives of my former classmates, my neighbors, my teachers and others in my hometown, Mount Vernon, New York, it’s clear that recent upsurges in diversity in a relatively un-diverse community can cause folks to hunker down in their homes and to become more protective of their mini-neighbors and neighborhoods. My bedroom suburbs wasn’t just half-White and half-Black. It was working-class Italian, middle class Jewish, affluent and WASP, middle class Black, recent-migrants-from-the-South-Black (and working poor or welfare poor), Afro-Caribbean, and increasingly Latino when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. In a school district that had mostly Black and Afro-Caribbean students and a mostly Italian school board, the diversity malaise frequently became much more hostile. Putnam’s point is well taken. To publish a book on short-term challenges to civic participation due to increasing diverse is irresponsible when most of the research in this field show long-term benefits to diversity in the workplace, in education and in other settings.

But my story notes a cautionary tale when a community or any group of folks–conservatives included–decide that diversity is a bad, unwanted thing that we shouldn’t do anything about. My first hometown doesn’t have the vitality that the best of all of the groups mentioned earlier brought to it during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. So many folks necessarily leave Mount Vernon for a better, easier life elsewhere, because the city offers so little for so many. I’m sure that some of my former classmates will disagree with this, but let’s be real. Mount Vernon has rarely confronted its diversity challenges with inclusion as an answer to White flight and middle class Black flight, increases in crime and poverty, and declining public services. And when inclusion has been invoked, it’s been there as a political plum for someone in city council or on the school board to take advantage of.

So I applaud Putnam for sticking to his guns regarding his research. His research confirms my own work as a researcher (see my other book, Fear of a “Black” America) and my own lived experience. I just hope that he convenes a diverse group of folk to help him write up his remedies for the diversity malaise he’s uncovered all over our country.

The Harvard of Black Colleges — Not!

August 13, 2007

It’s unfortunate, but today is my last day as an adjunct professor at Howard University. I know, I know, I barely started teaching there two months ago. The reasons? There are so many that to list them all would make today’s blog a rant about the administrative incompetencies of Howard and typical of many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Oh well.

I ended up teaching a six-week course titled Teaching Black Studies, even though the course was all about research methods and helping undergraduates learn how to do research using various methods. At the time I began teaching the course, my paperwork hadn’t been processed by Howard’s Provost Office, paperwork that would’ve authorized me to teach at the university. This meant that I couldn’t prove that I was a teacher at Howard, at least without calling the chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies in case security gave me a hard time. Three students were on the roster for my course, but only two–including one not on the roster–showed up for the first class, the day after July 4th. I wouldn’t know for two weeks whether Howard would cancel the class or not.

Well, they didn’t cancel the class, but they should’ve. When I first agreed to teach at Howard, it was for evening classes, once a week. Now I was teaching a two-hour per day, four day per week class after work in the heat of a Washington, DC July. More days than not, only one of my students showed up for class. The other student was attentive when there but not ready for a class of this sort. Neither of them bought the books for the class until the fourth week, but blamed me for not going into the nuanced of these books even though they didn’t have them. The worst thing that happened, though, was that my less attentive student was robbed at gunpoint in his off-campus housing during week four of my course. I didn’t see him for more than a week.

This wasn’t the only raw deal that affected me or my two students. I never received a post-registration period class roster, so I never knew how many students had actually registered for the course. I never received confirmation that my employment paperwork was processed, which also meant that I didn’t get a paycheck for this course. No one–not the Provost Office or the Dean’s Office or my department chair or her secretary–ever notified me of my employment status or course schedule with Howard for the summer or Fall.

So when I went to Howard’s website one more time to look at the Fall 2007 course schedule, only to find that Teaching Black Studies had been scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 5:10 to 6:30 pm, I realized that it was time to put my foot down. I sent the department chair an email asking for the class to be once a week, from 5:10 to 7:30 pm, a reasonable request I thought. Especially in light of what I originally asked for in October 2006. Instead I get a phone call five days later in which she accused me of “not caring about the students” and “not being fair to her or the students.” Plus, she said, “all of our classes are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Tuesdays and Thursday”. Howard apparently doesn’t offer many evening classes for undergrads, much less one day-a-week evening ones. I made the only reasonable decision I could. “If you can’t reschedule the class, then I can’t teach it at these times,” I said. Of course, it turned out that no one had registered for the class anyway.

What did I learn from this experience? That the administrative and attitudinal problems of HBCUs like Howard are as good as advertised. My course ends today, and I’m still not officially teaching there yet. I’ve assigned grades for my two students, and yet I haven’t been paid for my work. I’ve taught at five other universities over the years besides Howard — University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, George Washington, and the University of the District of Columbia — and yet Howard has the proud arrogance to say that they don’t offer evening courses once a week at the undergrad level, and even the evening schedule request isn’t typical. No wonder Howard has a hard time surviving a research/teaching university. It still acts as if it’s some small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, the only game in town for African Americans.

It’s a recurring theme in Boy At The Window that some Blacks in my life have their own sense of race and individual advancement more in mind for themselves than for other Blacks. Such is the case with my experience at Howard and my knowledge of happenings at other HBCUs. It’s sad but true that the folks I’ve been dealing with at Howard, while they purport to care about their students, are more about taking the path of least resistance (e.g., incorrect naming of courses, refusal to see benefits in scheduling a course on research and research methods for only once a week, putting an unofficial faculty member between a rock and a hard place) than about doing the right thing. Even if it means filling out forms in triplicate.

Picnics and Despair

August 6, 2007

Today marks twenty-four years since one of the six most bizarre events in my life. It was a triple-H Sunday afternoon at Wilson Woods Park in Mount Vernon, New York. Our family was picnicking in the part of the park near the Hutchinson River, which due to the lack of rain, was little more than a dribble of a stream. My mother had gone all out, making macaroni and potato salad, grilling kosherized hot dogs and hamburger meat, barbecuing chicken leg quarters, and baking two cakes–one chocolate on buttery Duncan Hines yellow cake, the other a vanilla on lemon cake. She had laid out about half our monthly allotment of food stamps on everything from A-1 sauce to two watermelons.

Under normal circumstances this would’ve been a wonderful time to have a feast. After all, it had been a year since the last time my stepfather had tried to punch and choke me into submission. My inebriated father Jimme was providing me and my older brother Darren some much needed funds every week, giving us some of our childhood back. And even though my mother was now unemployed and on welfare and there were now three younger siblings, there was food in the house from the beginning to the end of the month for the first time in two years.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. My mother had put together this picnic to celebrate two things. One was the fact that my sister Sarai was six months old–a big deal because she had sickle cell anemia (neither my mother nor my stepfather checked with the prenatal care folks to see if they both had the trait). Two was our celebration of my stepfather’s thirty-third birthday. I wasn’t exactly happy about my sister’s birth. I’d asked my mother to have an abortion at the end of her second trimester.

To celebrate my stepfather’s birthday, though, was a slap in the face, one that went on for hours throughout that weekend as I went back and forth to the C-Town store in Pelham to buy this bounty for the fat slob. By now Maurice was well over three hundred pounds at 6’1″, with skinny frog legs and a stomach that could stop nine-millimeter bullets. I couldn’t believe my mother was still having sex with this abusive asshole, much less throwing him a party.

What was the most bizarre of it was how embarrassed those who didn’t live with us at 616 seemed while they were there. My Uncle Sam–my mother’s brother–was as pissed as I’ve ever seen him. He had the look of someone whose mouth and fists wanted to do something destructive, but couldn’t. A voracious eater himself at 6’4″ and nearly 240 pound, Uncle Sam ate next to nothing during this shameful picnic. My stepfather’s friend Dennis made small talk with all of us throughout the affair, but was obviously uncomfortable around us kufi-wearing Hebrew-Israelites. Nothing to say of the obvious tension between me and Uncle Sam and my mother and stepfather. Darren, the opportunist that he was, just stuffed his face as always, pretending not to notice the agitation that was present that afternoon and evening.

My mother’s brother left after helping with some of the clean up. I would bump into Uncle Sam at the local bookstore on Gramatan Avenue thirteen months later, but I wouldn’t see him again in a happy mood until I graduated from Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I wouldn’t see Dennis again until after my mother and stepfather divorced in ’89.

Why did she do it, why did she go out of her way to please someone whose greatest family achievement was a six-month trial separation in ’80 and early ’81? Was it an act of desperation, to prove that this was a family worth preserving, to show that despite it all, that she still loved someone undeserving of her love? Was it an attempt to save herself from potential abuse in the future–did she sense that if she didn’t throw the SOB a party that he would snap and beat her unconscious again? It was probably all of the above, especially the sense of despair that comes with a failed second marriage, welfare poverty–something my mother swore would never happen to her–and five kids. I was angry with her, but I wanted my stepfather to stuff himself until he went into a coma and died from a brain hemorrhage.

What I learned from that day on it took about six years to undo. I learned not to trust my mother, to not give much trust to authority figures unless they worked damn hard to earn it, to not even trust myself or my own ability to discern the feelings and motivations of others. I stopped being a Hebrew-Israelite that day. I wanted to believe that there was a God, one who cared about what happened to me. This God of the Lost Tribes of Israel, though, wasn’t it. If I couldn’t trust homo sapiens, at least I could find a God I could trust. I needed answers to all of these, and in the weeks that followed, I started searching for a savior, one religion at a time.


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