The Importance of Months and Symbols


April 14th represents a very good day in the history of my life. I passed my M.A. oral defense on Tuesday April 14th in ’92, and was awarded my Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship on Friday, April 14th in ’95 (which, by the way, was the 130th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth). But then again, Aprils in general have been important months in my life, for better and worse.

We — meaning me, my older brother Darren, my mother and my eventual stepfather — moved to 616 East Lincoln Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York on the fifth of April of ’77, a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot flat in a working-class apartment complex on the North Side of town. It was a clean break from living on Mount Vernon’s overwhelmingly Black and mostly low-income South Side. But it was a place where most of my wide-awake nightmares occurred.

Five Aprils later was when I had my first experience with physical abuse at the hands of my stepfather. He was a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.” My stepfather thought that I was soft, a boy who spent too much time in books and not enough time on New York’s mean streets. This despite the fact that we lived in Mount Vernon, a quietly violent city whose meanest streets were on the South Side, the part of the town that bordered the Bronx. Not that 616 and the Section 8 projects down the street didn’t qualify as “mean.” They were tough, but nothing like the crack and weed wars that would erupt on Third Street by the early ’90s.

Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin-ryu Karate two years earlier — he apparently was a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. And forget about the larger philosophy of spiritual balance and harmony involved in learning an East Asian martial art. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw punches. After I yelled “You’re not my father!” I got drop-kicked to the ground. Maurice then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. I was getting hit by a man who was six-one and weighed 270 pounds. My stepfather, completely exasperated, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.

Other Aprils weren’t nearly as violent or chaotic. But they remained important. April of ’83 was when our family first went on welfare. It was the final nail in my childhood’s coffin. It meant that I couldn’t deny our plunge into grinding poverty any longer. It also meant that I didn’t have to worry as much about when we would have a decent meal to eat. April of ’87 was when I officially accepted Pitt’s invitation for college and their rather generous scholarship and financial aid package. Four Aprils later found me deciding between Pitt, U Maryland and NYU for graduate school, while April of ’00 was when I married my wife Angelia.

Even with the triumphant Aprils in ’92 and ’95 came some pain. My advisor and exam committee made a point of passing me and recommending me into the PhD program of Pitt’s History Department. But not without telling me that I “was moving too fast.” I still don’t know what “too fast” means. Was I showing up my fellow grad students? Was my knowledge or discipline as an historian lacking? If so, then why did I pass? Did I create a political problem for my advisor because I had finished my master’s in two semesters instead of the usual four or five? I never got a direct answer. What I do know is that my advisor and a few others in the department spent the following year attempting to slow me down because I “needed more seasoning.” I knew then that it was time to transfer. My pace as a graduate student was based on what I knew, at least I thought, not who I knew or who I sucked up to, and wanted my experience to stay that way.

Only to find that my next advisor at Carnegie Mellon was even less accommodating of me as a student that worked both quickly and effectively. He once made the comment, “since you have time to travel across the country to present your work, you can make sure to do the same here.” He called himself “running interference” anytime he learned I published an article or was off to present at a conference or at a university. After an exchange we had in April of ’96, our relationship became a cold and dispassionate one. While my advisor taught me how to be a good historian, he also taught me that not everyone with the role of advisor or mentor in my life was actually looking out for my best interests.

So April has been an important month in my life. It’s one where I’ve made major decisions, seen many not-so-good things happen, had to salvage something good out of something bad. It’s also the month of Passover, which between my Hebrew-Israelite years and some Jewish friends from my grad school days, I’ve been a participant in for four Aprils. Passover is a reminder of Jehovah’s great grace for those who believe in Him (or Her) and of divine intervention, fighting for the freedom and lives of the oppressed. Passover, Easter, and April all serve as symbols of that aspect of my life, that reality in which I see myself as an underdog overcoming the worst of circumstances.

This April is a bit different. In four short months, my son Noah begins kindergarten. We have an orientation to get ready for in a couple of weeks. It’s almost time for him to begin to create his own memories, his own stories of triumph and struggle. For him it will likely be another month and other signposts that suggest that his life is going in the right direction. I just hope that he has many more up days and significantly fewer down days than I have had, while still learning the importance of symbols as motivational tools in life.

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