September 27, 2007

Authenticity–otherwise known as “keepin‘ it real” for those of us whom are Black and into such an idea–is itself a dangerous and disingenuous concept. There’s a big difference between “being yourself,” as the more common saying goes, and “keepin‘ it real,” as Dave Chappelle demonstrated in one of his hilarious skits from his now defunct show a couple of years ago. “Being yourself” requires all of us to trust in ourselves, our abilities, our quirks and ticks, our very nature of living and being. It requires all of us to relax, to be okay with ourselves when others in our lives are less than accepting of the qualities that make us who we are. “Keepin‘ it real” is more like a gettin‘- somethin‘-off-yo’-chest attitude, one that allows us to speak our minds when we’re angry or upset or lustful. It can empower us to take life on in the spirit that others approach us.

But keepin‘ it real doesn’t allow me to relax, to truly be myself. If keepin‘ it real is only about having an I’m-not-taking-no-crap-from-nobody attitude, then it’s not a standard I’d call authentic. Sure, I tend to keep my BS quotient monitor on so that I can sniff out crap in my life. But I don’t think that this is a Black thing, a way to show how Black I truly am. There are roughly 40 million of us in the US, which in my mind leaves us with at least 40 million ways to be Black. Each one of us can listen to hip hop and enjoy country music or hard rock. I can love Zane or Michael Eric Dyson and read Eric Schlosser or Kurt Vonnegut. Most importantly, I can can keep it real by being real with myself, by being who I want to be.

Of course, this isn’t such a problem for me these days unless I decide to hang out at a club (this is rare with a wife and a four-year-old, by the way) or when I talk with someone–Black, White, Latino or otherwise–who thinks that Blacks should sound “Black” all the time. But it was much more of a problem during my Boy At The Window days. It’s hard enough as a tween or teen to figure yourself out without the added pressure of how to be Black by the time you grow up. My refusal to act anymore “Black” than I obviously was made for few Black male friends. For whatever reason, Black women seem more accepting of each other’s quirks than young Black men.

It was a sin for me to listen to music by White groups like Tears for Fears or Wham! (which is playing right now on my iTunes). I sounded “White” because I could say words like “specific” or “pontificate” instead of “pacific” or “preaching” without sounding like I was former NBA star Moses Malone. I wanted to be White because I was part of a gifted-track program while in middle school and high school. I had to hear all of that and much more in the years before college, and to a much lesser extent, during my college years.

It didn’t matter that I was an active member of a Black group on campus at Pitt or that one of my minors was in Black Studies for some. I couldn’t “speak truth to power” as well as others because I sounded too much like the oppressors who were running Pitt. Of course, that all sounded like BS to me. College isn’t something any of us are forced to attend, and while campus leaders were frequently unresponsive to our demands, we sounded so irrational at times that I thought we couldn’t communicate our calls for inclusion and diversity without sounding like we needed rabies shots.

It was in the midst of those PE (Public Enemy) and Michael Bolton (yeah, I went there) times that I realized that I couldn’t live my life well unless I made my own independent and conscious decisions about how to be myself, even if it did mean risking the occasional ridicule among the folks who just wanted to keep it real. I decided that folks weren’t worth putting up with if they didn’t like how I sounded when I opened my mouth or if they thought the way I looked at the world was too White for them.

As for my music, well, that communicated more about who I was and am than almost anything in my life short of my belief in God. I’ve always liked a bit of everything, from The Bee-Gees and Anita Baker to Sugar Hill Gang and Geto Boys, from Billy Joel and Phil Collins to Maxwell and Luther Vandross, and from U2 and The Police to Earth, Wind & Fire and Terrence Trent D’Arby. If anyone went there in more than a mild joking way, that’s likely one of those times where I decided to keep it real.

Obviously this is a theme in Boy At The Window. It’s impossible to understand my transition from Mount Vernon to Pittsburgh, from high school to college and independent living without understanding how I saw myself as a young Black man. This struggle with authenticity was one that absorbed much of my first year and a half at the University of Pittsburgh. I can only say that my conscious decision to see much of this conception of Blackness as BS was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My life would be far less interesting, vanilla even, if I’d decided otherwise.

Brandie Update

September 24, 2007

After several weeks of looking for additional information, I confirmed through my father, who’d talked with my mother, who talked with Brandie’s mother, that Brandie Weston indeed died in August in California. I don’t know all the details yet, but it appears that my former classmate was not only homeless and mentally ill, but also seriously ill (physically speaking) as well.

It’s been a hard couple of days. As much as I held out hope that maybe this was all a rumor gone awry, I knew deep down that Brandie had died. The Google searches, the calls to the coroner’s office in L.A. and the area homeless shelters had given me a fragmented picture of her life in the last couple of years, just enough for me to know that her last days were far from pretty. Although we weren’t close by any stretch, I still have felt some sorrow for her hellish life and far too soon death.

Brandie’s death is a reminder, at least to me, that we must strive to live our lives to the fullest, that tomorrow isn’t a guarantee and that the important things we need to do with our lives ought not wait. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have fun or be happy, for in reality, all the important things in life, if we were to pursue them, should bring us fulfillment and joy and give us the opportunity to have fun.

So many of us want to be seen as special, as important, as successful in our careers and in our lives outside of work that we forget that life is about connecting to others and to ourselves in ways that enable us to be true to ourselves. For all of the horror of Brandie’s last years and months, the one thing that might have been the most heart-wrenching of all was her giving up on herself, her dreams, her ever connecting to another human being in a fulfilling and wonderful way.

Brandie is a character in Boy At The Window, a character that won’t be revised as a result of her sad end. She confirmed much about the value of taking an optimistic approach to life. But she also confirmed how life can run each of us over when the mind and heart betray us, when by will or force end up living life in our heads, in our imaginations, in our hopes or dream or nightmares. I managed to fight my way out of my own imagination ages ago, to temper my heart and head with an acknowledgement of reality beyond my own mind, as well as the realization that I could use the hope of imagination to change my reality.

Brandie in her last years wouldn’t get that chance. I’m just glad that her suffering is over and hope that in all of my searching threw her life that I’ve learned something about myself as well.

Day of Atonement

September 21, 2007

Tonight is the start of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement for religious Jews all over the world. Even though I haven’t been a Hebrew-Israelite for nearly twenty-four years now, I still remember my Yom Kippur days at temple in solemn prayer and the days before in endless fasting (which is a great way to save money on food if you have to stretch every dollar like my mother did, by the way). Shalom to everyone who understands the significance of atoning for their sins and looking for a way to reconcile with Yahweh.

As for me, the beginning of the end of my Hebrew-Israelite days started the day my stepfather attacked my mother (see my blogs from June and July 2007 for more details), Memorial Day ’82. But it wasn’t until Yom Kipper in September ’83 that my search for my own higher power began in earnest. I missed a day of school to go to temple with a bunch of hard-looking, salt-and-pepper bearded men for several hours of kneeling and praying in Hebrew, a language that I didn’t know more than ten or fifteen words in. All of the men were dressed in their Afrocentric garb and wearing yarmulkes, having fasted for three days before making the journey to temple to atone for a year’s worth of sins. All that was missing was the sacrificing of an unblemished lamb, the ritual rendering of its body and its burning as an offering to the Lord of Hosts.

Then it hit me. What in the world have I done in the past year that I needed to atone for? Masturbation? Fighting a guerilla war with my stepfather over my right to see myself as someone he couldn’t control? Telling my mother that she should’ve had an abortion three months before the birth of my only sister? I uttered the words I needed to for atonement for these sins, but I realized that I didn’t care and surely didn’t believe in what I was saying. I felt that I had every right to fight to live my life, to survive my situation as best as I could, since Jehovah had abandoned us and saddled us with this asshole as a pretender, a charlatan of a man with no moral center.

And where were the women, the folks who cooked and cleaned and worked so that these men of Yahweh could gather in the One’s house and be cleansed temporarily of their transgressions? Worshipping in a separate room or at home, I guessed. My recent experience with abuse and my knowledge of my stepfather as a abusive adulterous liar and general SOB left me questioning the whole Hebrew-Israelite. By the time we left temple, I realized that I didn’t believe anymore. The whole Lost Tribes of Israel thing wasn’t exactly bullshit. It just stank of rotting intestinal flesh to me.

It took months of personal study time and my ninth grade Afro-Asian History class to keep me from becoming an atheist. Learning about Eastern religions and being able to see the big three belief systems of the West (Judiaca, Christianity and Islam) through a fresh set of eyes soon led me back to God. I realized that what I’d been looking for since my stepfather had come back into my life in ’81 was for someone or something to save me. I was seeking redemption, someone or something to tell me that I was worth something and that my life meant something of value to others, to this world or the next. It took seven months, but I became a Christian out of the simple need to have someone to look to as a shining example of personal and spiritual redemption.

That’s not to say that Yom Kippur is useless or is a crock. Yet for me, carrying around the weight of my sins and the sins of my parents and guardians proved to be too much. I needed (and still need) to have a higher power, God, the One in my life where I could take my sense of hopelessness, my feelings of disillusionment, my wounds of betrayal and give them up for hope, for peace, for love and faith, for the strength to carry on. One day a year for atonement, at least for me, is not enough. Not if redemption can only be granted once a year.

Looking for Brandie

September 17, 2007

I’ve made it a rule as part of my weekly blog about Boy At The Window to not mention the names of folk who serve as character in my manuscript (family and the deceased are generally the exceptions that I’ve made). Today I’m breaking this rule, for no other reason than the fact that the person in question may in fact already be dead. I don’t do this without some internal conflict — I would prefer for my characters to remain anonymous. But one way or another, I need some answers around this missing person.

Her name is Brandie Barrie Weston. She would be thirty-eight years old, an African American woman about five-seven and overweight. She would also be severely mentally ill, homeless, and missing for the better part of the last five or six years. During the course of Boy At The Window I attempted to locate Brandie for an interview. Only to discover most of the facts listed above. I spoke with her mother about two years ago, who told me that she was either homeless in New York City, had gone south to Atlanta, or was wandering somewhere out west.

About a year and a half ago, another interviewee and former classmate had informed me of a couple of Brandie sightings by him and a couple of other folks in New York in 2003 or 2004. I interviewed one other classmate, this one in March of this year, who said that he’d found classified ads that Brandie had placed in an indy rag in Los Angeles, ads that rambled on about “the oppressor” and how she was a “foster child” (not true) and a multiple degree graduate of the “University of Homeless Services.” I stopped my search after that interview, realizing that even if I found her, the illness (likely schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) would likely make it impossible for me to interview her or even hold a coherent conversation.

Three weeks ago, another former classmate called to tell me that Brandie was dead. She’d received this information via email as part of an email chain that went through three or four other people. There wasn’t any real evidence in these emails, not a newspaper obituary or death notice, not an article from the police blotter of a body found or anything to confirm the rumor. I said that I would check into it.

Since then, I contacted another classmate, one that at one point in life was Brandie’s best friend, who then went through the email chain himself and declared her dead. I also contacted the L.A. County Morgue, an emergency homeless shelter for the mentally ill in Santa Monica, traced Brandie’s travels to L.A. and Berkeley/Santa Cruz, and discovered that she was in a band as a backup vocalist prior to and at the beginning stages of her homeless wanderings. Yet none of it gave me any evidence that she was alive or dead. I’d contact her mother, but I knew from my phone conversation with her two years ago that she’d know less about Brandie’s current existence (one way or the other) than I do.

It’s truly sad in so many ways. I first met Brandie a bit more than twenty-seven years ago, before we became classmates in our gifted-track program at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon. Our’s wasn’t anything close to a friendship. We met because Brandie’s mother and my father Jimme were drinking buddies. On the day we met, me, Jimme and my older brother were at Brandie’s place with her mother. As Brandie walked into her bright and yellow apartment, idiotic me said, “Wow, she’s fat!” Not exactly the best first thing to say to a girl in the beginning stages of puberty. She was beyond pissed off with me for years after that. It wasn’t until high school that we even became weak acquaintances. This despite having bumped into and conversed with Brandie’s mother and Brandie’s older sister on multiple occasions throughout those years.

There are a lot of things I remember about Brandie. Her infectious laugh and smile. Her off-center creativity. Her love for music — which I assumed she picked up from her mother, a great singer in her own right — along with the arts in general. Her contrarian attitude toward Mount Vernon High School and its hundreds of cliques. Most of all, I remember her saying to me, “You’re such a pessimist, Donald! You need to be more optimistic about life.” Brandie said this to me all of the time in our last three years of high school. It suggested that I needed to be more like her, that I needed to take the things that happened to me less seriously than I actually did at the time.

The last time I saw Brandie was in August of ’93, yelling out of the back of someone’s beat-up Chevy something or other near Gramatan Avenue and Hartley Park in Mount Vernon. She seemed happier than she was at the end of high school. I was in the middle of a family visit and getting geared up for my third year of graduate school, this one being my first at Carnegie Mellon. I waved at her, realizing that she hadn’t changed much since the first time we had met.

I wonder whether anything I ever said to her, including the “Wow, she’s fat!” ever affected her outlook on life. Or was it years of insults about her weight, her face, the constant comparisons with her sister, her mother’s slights and anger, her college life or the everyday unfairness of this world that triggered her downward spiral? All I know is that somewhere between ’87 and ’07 Brandie traded in her optimism for depression, that she preferred the life of a mentally ill wandered minus meds to the lifelessness that comes with anti-psychotic medication. Or maybe she didn’t trade in her optimism after all. She left for L.A. in the hopes of making it, despite the awesome odds against her. Either way, I hope to find her soon.

On September 10th . . .

September 10, 2007

in 2001, the not-so-famous day before you-know-what, I was a tired and disgruntled assistant director of a social justice nonprofit project en route to Atlanta for a 2 pm meeting with some hotel folks at the Emory University Conference Center. I was doing a short one-day trip to run reconnaissance in planning a winter retreat for the folks that we funded. For the trip I only packed one-pair of everything casual and wore a suit on the flight in, went from the airport to MARTA rail to a cab to the meeting and then to my hotel in Buckhead.

I was in the middle of five weeks of insomnia caused by my neurotic worker-bee self, my idiotic and paranoid boss at the time, and by my family in Mount Vernon. I had learned about a month before that my seventeen-year-old and youngest brother Eri had knocked up his girlfriend back in April or May. She was due to make my high-school-dropout-of-a-sibling a father — and my mother a grandmother for the first time a mother — in January. My mother was going nuts over this reality, and wasn’t exactly pleased with me for having turned off the money faucet for her and my siblings at 616. My then boss had run me into the ground with travel and projects all during the spring and summer months, with my only real break my honeymoon with my wife in Seattle in May.

The honeymoon might as well have been five years ago on September 10th. I was mentally preparing myself for my next move. I wanted to quit my job. But I also knew I needed to get my family off my back. So I also decided to do a family intervention, to confront my mother and siblings about all that was wrong with our lives and with our family. I wasn’t sure about doing this, about possibly and permanently damaging my recently strained mother-son relationship.

Yet I was tired, T-I-R-E-D of the demoralizing weekly telephone calls where my mother would say “Tired” with a sigh that seemed to have come from a dying zebra whenever I asked her how she was. I was tired of pouring money into a bottomless pit of laziness, not on my mother’s part. Of my younger siblings, one was a college dropout after graduating with honors from Mount Vernon High School — this after having been labeled mentally retarded in kindergarten. Two — including my youngest brother — were high school dropouts. Eri had spent two and a half years in ninth grade. And my only sister Sarai was an eighteen-year-old little girl, having been completely infantilized by my mother. My older brother Darren still wallowed in his miseries, the result of a kid being placed in a school for the mentally retarded for fourteen years after teaching himself how to read at the age of three.

Then I woke up the next morning around 8 am, went downstairs to the hotel restaurant, came up to my room just before 9 am and turned on the Today Show. I saw the one tower on fire, heard the cries and assumptions about terrorists and thought it typical media hype. Then I saw the second building get hit. I was in so much shock that while watching I continued to pack my bag — not that I had much to pack — as if my noon-time flight was actually going anywhere. After catching the MARTA train downtown and hearing that all flights had been grounded — except for the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family (okay, I didn’t find that one out for a few days) — it finally hit me that my nation, my world was under attack. As soon as I got back to my hotel in Buckhead and re-checked into my room, I called my wife and my older brother Darren. My wife had just gotten home from her job, four blocks from the U.S. Capitol. She also had an adventure getting back from her office that morning. Darren was a mail courier who delivered almost every day to the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers. I didn’t hear from him for four days because the telephone lines were so jammed.

I was stuck in Atlanta for three days. I couldn’t so much as rent a car or take an Amtrak because of the attack and the immediate impact of grounding the airplanes. I ended up getting back to the DC area by Greyhound, a most unpleasant sixteen-hour experience. I was on a bus with White guys who wanted to beat up a South Asian man because he “attacked our country.” There was this constant sense of senseless coming out of the mouths of the passengers all trip long about “kicking some ass” and “nuking them.” And then I woke up in time to see the damage done to the Pentagon by the third airplane attack as we crossed the Potomac into Washington. I was mad, but not just at the terrorists. I was pissed because I knew that our acquiescence to our government’s ridiculously one-sided foreign policies with regard to the Middle East had contributed to this ridiculously vicious response.

As an obvious consequence for me, I didn’t do my family intervention for several months. My insomnia continued for another six months, complicated with images of my first home, the New York City area, seared in my mind’s eye. But when I did do the intervention, I’d had nearly half a year to think about what to say, time to allow my anger and rage to be channeled into suggestions for my younger siblings to live. My relationship with my mother hasn’t been the same. It was really nonexistent for a couple of years, but it has gotten better. Eri’s since finished his GED, learned how to drive. Unfortunately, he also joined up with Uncle Sam as a Army reservist and is serving in Iraq. My other brother Maurice is almost finished with his associate’s degree, and my sister moved to Alabama with friends in order to live her life.

These events influenced my decision to write Boy At The Window sooner instead of later. I realized that later may in fact be too late, that if I waited too long I would be cheating myself of the opportunity to help others, to influence the hearts and minds of those who’d been abused by life or family or friends in some way or another. These events also helped me to understand that victory and defeat in our lives aren’t absolute. They can’t be. For if each of us are true to ourselves and to the lives we choose to live as fully as we can, we have to be prepared for success and for challenges, and ready to accept that those closest to us may or may not be ready to turn their own lives around, even with your help.

Laboring Under the “Self-Made” Myth

September 3, 2007

In the spirit of Labor Day, I want to take on one of those subjects that our society glorifies and idealizes every day. It’s this idea of a so-called self-made man. We idolize everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Sam Walton (founder of WalMart) for being penultimate success stories who started from humble beginnings. Our media’s most savvy commentators trip all over each other when they find the time to discuss America’s favorite stories of success. Rarely do they forget to remind us of the importance of hard work, that without it we are all to blame for our individual failures and our lots in life.

Except that the idea of the self-made man isn’t true at all. Everyone who “makes it” has had some help along the way. Benjamin Franklin’s family might not have owned slaves or a plantation. But between his colonial family members in Philly and Boston (not to mention hard work), Franklin became a colonial American success. Sam Walton, like so many of today’s self-made men, did have some help from the Federal government, otherwise known as America’s corporate welfare system.

I don’t discount the reality that people like Franklin and Walton worked hard, and in Walton’s case, literally to death to get where they ended up. Their hard work, though, was smart work, strategic work, calculated work meant to involve others as role players in their larger vision. It wasn’t sheer hard work. If that was the case, millions more of us could say that we’ve “made it” based on working two or more jobs or working in mines or factories or working for evil bosses.

Plus, the self-made man myth is sexist and devalues the work of so-called ordinary Americans. Plenty of women have achieved greatness without even half the help that men like Franklin and Walton ended up getting in their march to success. For most of us male and female whose backgrounds are considerably more humble than those that our society typically puts on a pedestal, even we recognize that without someone in our corner at one time or another, we wouldn’t be who were are today. My life is as close to “doing it on my own” as anyone’s. Yet to say that I’m a self-made man would be a boldfaced lie. The dozen or so teachers, friends, mentors and the occasional kind stranger are the difference between me working on publishing Boy At The Window and being an embittered thirty-seven-year-old or not being here at all.

Success isn’t as easy to define as our press and media make it. It’s about much more than making enough money to buy an island or charming the pants off of heads of state or the press. It’s about achieving dreams, having friends, family, and lovers worth loving and living life with. It’s about knowing when and where hard work is required and when to just chill and relax. It’s about living the life that’s meant for you. While many may be beloved and remembered by media types because they’ve dedicated their lives to building an empire of success, laboring to emulate that kind of success can make our lives so much poorer than they otherwise should be.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 776 other followers