Defining Authenticity

October 31, 2008

At my former nonprofit job about three years ago, I came to know a younger female colleague, one whom I really grew to like in that I-can-see-her-future-through-my-past kind of way. But there was a part of me that felt uneasy about our conversations about pop culture and, invariably, about race. Admittedly, some of that had to do with me. I was and am a married man, after all, and more than a decade older at that. This wasn’t about those typical issues of attraction or temptation. For me, it was ultimately about authenticity. My understanding of authenticity, and my former colleague’s search for it.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to being around folks — male and female, Black, White, Latino, Asian, gay or straight, attracted to me or vice-versa or not — who ask questions and make comments that could be off-putting if I were, say, Ron Artest or Joe Pesci’s character in GoodFellas. I’ve spent time with acquaintances and friends who’ve questioned my Blackness or thought that I tend to overthink the things that are going on in the world. I’ve been around many a person who’s been surprised by my diction (and how it can or can’t change depending on my mood and location), my music, and my views on everything from the use of the term African American (I prefer it without the hyphen) to my disdain for Black urban romantic fiction (including Zane). It can be hard being different, following your own path instead of following the pack, especially when a part of you would like to take the easier option.

One of my first conversations with this former work colleague was about the music I played at work. I played it often and played it relatively loud — mostly to drown out the noise of my next door office mates. I also had about half of my total collection on my computer at work, which leaned disproportionately to the ’80s and early ’90s. Most people I worked with gave me weird looks, laughed with, ignored or actually stopped by to listen to my music. My colleague, who happened to be doing some work in a nearby cubicle one day, complimented me, saying that my music was “eclectic.” It took a couple of seconds for her to find that word, but once she did, she kept using it.

Eclectic. It can be like the way academicians use the word “interesting,” which can also mean “exotic,” “esoteric,” “bizarre,” “usual,” “weird,” “complicated,” “dense,” “off-center,” “eccentric,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “dumb,” or “interesting.” In my colleague’s case, I came to the conclusion that she simply didn’t know what else to say. I think that it was well beyond her experience to be working in proximity to a Black male who liked listening to U2, Journey and Phil Collins at the same time listening to Eminem, Maxwell and Luther. So I became a curiosity piece, not good or bad, I guess, but a curio nevertheless. Over the next few months, our handful of conversations covered various aspects of pop culture, particularly more recent and Black aspects of music and culture. I probed at times to find out more about why she seemed so interested, but to no avail.

At some point I decided that my former colleague’s interest in discussing these issues with me was because I was a safe person to talk to about these issues. I’m a married man with a kid, about ten years older and with a high intellectual bent. It was unlikely that I would hit on her or come on to her in some way or get pissed at her for asking me what some would consider inane questions. It was certainly much safer to talk to me three years ago than it would’ve been if I’d been in my late-twenties. Of course, if she had known me in my asexual teens, she could’ve used me as a sounding board.

But I also sensed a bit of desperation in her, one of needing to know how to relate to herself, to embrace herself and others in this world not like her. If they knew the full story, some might argue that she was merely looking for a man. I don’t think so. I’ve been there, maybe not as obviously desperate, but been there. There are times in our lives that we desire to have nothing to do with how things actually are in our lives, where we shut ourselves off to the parts of ourselves that we see as ugly, or too difficult to deal with, or want to embrace something new and different.

I did that to the Boy At The Window years of my life once the ’80s came to an end. For the better part of twelve years, I generally did not talk or think about those lonely and heartsick days except when I talked with my wife or with one of my closest friends. I certainly gave little thought to how out of sorts I felt in high school, or my steep learning curve in terms of my social skills once I started college. I might not have been desperate, but I was conflicted. I wanted to be myself, but I hadn’t figured out who I was yet. I also wanted to be part of a social circle, one that at least understood me, if not in agreement with everything I thought or believed. It took putting my misery-ridden past aside to achieve what I needed to happen while at Pitt. It was likely a key to me maintaining my sanity.

Funny thing is, I had just begun working on the Boy At The Window manuscript when I met this colleague. I was working on the second chapter, the one about my first crush, the one about our relative issues of desperation and my own issues of domestic violence at home. Maybe my getting to know this person helped me think a bit harder about what I wanted to say about my first crush and how I wanted to say it. I must admit, the chapter on my first crush and my abuse would’ve been far gushier if I hadn’t seen some similarities between her and my former colleague.

As for my former colleague, I may be overthinking things like I normally do. Maybe her interests in my music and my understanding of pop culture was just that. Maybe for a brief moment, she was interested in me. I do think, though, that she was and may still be in search for a place where she can belong, to herself, to a circle of sane, eclectic individuals, a place of peace. In the end, isn’t that what we’re all looking for, a place where we can be our authentic selves without also tearing ourselves apart in the process?

NFL Conservatism

October 30, 2008

Perhaps more than any other sport, professional American football was what excited me about sports, making me the equivalent of a tweener or teenager for the first time. I needed an acceptable and accessible escape from the daily grind of the ’81-’82 recession and our free fall into welfare poverty. Not to mention my summer of abuse. In the midst of this comes the NFL’s first strike-shortened season, emblematic of economic woes across the country. I think — no, I know — that was the reason for noticing the NFL at all.

Then the nine-game season started in earnest at the end of October, and the occasional glimpses of football I did catch peaked my interest. Other than Mean Joe Greene, Earl Campbell or Joe Montana’s “The Catch ” drive against the Cowboys, I’d not given much thought to football. But watching what I could only describe as the combination of raw, brutal power and poetic, almost ballerina grace, I started to get hooked on the game. Watching John Riggins and the Redskins’ offensive line mow down defenders on the one hand, watching James Lofton make an incredible catch and running at breathtaking speed for a touchdown on the other. In what I saw off and on over two and a half months, I began to understand why so many loved, watched and played football.

After the so-called Class of ’83 draft that included quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, and several others, and after that season, I was hooked. I tried out for and made my high school’s junior varsity football team the summer of ’84 (only to quit — more on that in a future blog). For years I dreamed of throwing or catching touchdown passes as a metaphor for what I needed to do in order to climb out of the gigantic hole that I found myself in growing up at 616 and in Mount Vernon.

For the most part, I don’t dream in NFL metaphors these days. The game has changed, and so have I. I don’t get as much satisfaction rooting for underdogs anymore, because many NFL players and almost all starters are far from Horatio Alger stories. Teams that lose twelve or thirteen games one year can use the draft and free agency to win at least that many the next season. Owners make billions of dollars and pay players multi-million dollar signing bonuses. Players without guaranteed contract who eventually tear an ACL or break their bones could be stacked up like the Persian infantry was by the Spartans in the movie 300. It’s as much a sad tale of fulfilling one’s dream only to have it snatched away in one tragic moment for many a player, including the ones who experience success in the NFL. It makes it hard for me to watch it the way in which I did when I was thirteen or twenty-three.

What has also made it harder for me to enjoy the NFL has been the not-so-subtle sense of conservatism that permeates the league’s personnel and its ownership. In the case of owners, conservative political perspectives should be expected. Affluence and the desire to maintain a status quo that protects that socioeconomic status is as old as civilization. What’s different, at least from my point of view, is that the only current and former players who tend to sound off politically or ideologically speaking are conservatives. Elway, Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck and his wife, among players I’ve rooted for in the past. Of course, these former and current players can support any political perspective they choose. The difference over the past couple of decades is that there isn’t a counterbalance. It seems that political and ideological apathy is the alternative to supporting a conservative agenda.

Why should anyone give a hoot about my perspective on this perception? After all, these players are starters who’ve become millionaires and as such would only want to protect their hard-earned dollars from so-called tax and spend liberals. But I would argue that this isn’t just about money. These players weren’t always rich, and in some cases, come from impoverished beginnings. In some cases, they embraced a politically conservative philosophy long before become millionaires with gigantic signing bonuses. For some players, like Warner I presume, it’s as much about religion and evangelical, post-millennial Christianity as it is about money (I have my mother watching the 700 Club to thank for some knowledge of Warner’s religious views). For others, I’m sure that the violence of the game can help them relate well to the typical conservative’s hawkish mentality about projecting the power of America’s military around the world.

I would also argue that it goes deeper than that. Unlike most professional American sports, golf, tennis NASCAR, and baseball included, professional football requires an unusual combination of discipline and conformity. It takes discipline to work out as many times a day or week as a good NFL player does, to play throw pain and injuries, to eat food that most of us would throw away first. It takes a mind that is trained to conform to play football, to follow the rules that make most NFL players anonymous and trained to perform a specific task a certain number of ways depending on down and distance. Years of training that allows for a high level of brutality and low levels of flexibility or rebellion relates well to being in the military. It also is consistent with a conservative agenda of unquestioning patriotism, inflexible spirituality, and status-quo-politics.

Again, reasonable people can adhere to whatever political beliefs they choose. That’s not the point here. However, having a league full of conservatives and apathetic players doesn’t lend itself well to changes that balance the needs of players, fans and owners. It’s why retired NFL players are suffering from lack of health care and insufficient pensions. It’s why there aren’t any guaranteed contracts in the NFL, even though the average player leaves the league battered physically or psychologically at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s why the NFL Players Union is as weak as it is. It’s hard to represent folks whose political philosophy makes them somewhat anti-union or apathetic toward unions.

Beyond that, the NFL is in many ways a microcosm of American society. That a sizable portion of Americans believe that the rules by which we play American football are applicable to Wall Street and our economy, to America’s foreign policy agenda and statesmanship, to climate change and energy, even to education, is disheartening. Not every problem is as simple as lining up in a three-point stance to tackle the quarterback or throwing a post-pattern to a wide open tight end because two receivers managed to pull a safety to the other side of the field. I’ve learned over the years that there are other, better metaphors than football for overcoming situations that run from challenging to nearly impossible. We need to do the same in our thinking around policies and politics.

Dear Mom

October 27, 2008

My mother turns sixty-one tomorrow. She only twenty-two years and two months older than me, so I’ve never thought of her as old, even though she’s acted older than her age for years. Still, despite all we’ve been through, her body remains a young sixty-one, and will hold up for years to come.

Now, I know that many of Boy At The Window postings tend not to show my mother in the best light. As many of you should be aware by now, there were only a handful of silver linings in the six years before I went off to college. But my mother did have moments, few and far between as they were, when she rose to the occasion as my mother. Those moments startled me. They were unexpected, like minor miracles after a long, horrible day at school or work. Or, more to the point, like my Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl last February or me finishing my master’s degree in two semesters. Those were the moments that reminded me how tough and fair my mother could be when she embraced her best inner self.

Below is a Top 5 list of those moments when my mother came to the rescue, looked out for me when I would’ve least expected it.

1. Thursday, September 6, 1984 — It was the day I came out of the spiritual closet as a Christian, forever taking off my kufi and moving on from three years as a beaten-down Hebrew-Israelite. My ex-stepfather threatened to kill me after I came home from school. My mother stood in between us and said, “You lost, Judah (my ex-stepfather’s Hebrew-Israelite name),” and told him that she would kick him out before she would allow him to throw me out of 616. That would be the last time I talked about being a Hebrew-Israelite until graduate school.

2. Tuesday, December 6, 1983 — It was the day after I’d been mugged by four of Mount Vernon’s most wonderful teenagers, including one who I knew from 616 because his older brother had gone to elementary school with me. Instead of letting it go, my mother took me to MVPD’s juvenile division to look at mug shots and press charges. I found three out of my four attackers as a result. Under normal circumstances, my one-time stepfather would’ve beaten me up and no one would’ve done anything. Going to the police was always out of the question. That was until my mother decided that I needed to do more than fight off attackers while going to the store to buy food for the family late at night. Her doing that made me feel better, at least that day.

3. April 1983 — The month we went on welfare. It was the death knell of nearly two decades as a working-class wage earner for my mother, and more than thirteen years of seeing my mother as nothing but a dietary department supervisor at Mount Vernon Hospital. She handled it much better than I thought she would. Maybe it was because she was too shell-shocked to be angry or bitter. Maybe she was depressed. But it didn’t show. She handled my embarrassment well, too. Especially after she realized that I had refused to use the food stamps in public at first (that story involves my one-time first crush and the C-Town grocery story on Prospect). Still, after years of bad decisions, she made the best of really awful situation, and made an adjustment that I knew most people couldn’t make without completely going insane.

4. August 1987 — Unbelievably, my mother decided that she wanted to go back to school to earn an associate’s degree. Even though I knew that she would never admit it, I knew that it was no coincidence that her going back to school was influenced by my acceptance to the University of Pittsburgh and my decision to take their offer. Though she didn’t handle my decision well at first, she decided at some point in the summer of ’87 to find a way to get off of welfare, to get a decent paying job, and to distance herself from her idiot second husband. It took her a decade to earn her associate’s from Westchester Business Institute, but this was the month that she started down a path of independence.

5. May 1981 — Besides buying the ’78 edition of World Book Encyclopedia for me in March ’78, this was the most important decision she made regarding my education. I had tested in the 11th and 12th grade percentiles for math and reading respectively on the SRA tests (owned by IBM in the ’70s and early ’80s — had been part of Lyle Spencer’s portfolio before he sold it to IBM before establishing the Spencer Foundation in ’68 — talk about irony). Between that and maintaining straight A’s for three years, I was a shoe-in for this Humanities Program. My sixth grade teacher Mrs. Bryant pushed me to talk to my mother about it for nearly a week. My mother seldom seemed that interested in my education, and with my stepfather back in the picture after a six-month separation, I wasn’t sure what she would say. But with very little reservation, she did say, “Go ahead,” with a low-keyness that sounded less like disinterest and more like she was worried about me being in this program with lots of White kids. Or maybe worried that I would be less like her and see her as stupid or too Southern in some way. I’m glad that she didn’t stand in the way.

There are a few other moments. These are the most important ones, the ones that let me know that my mother still loved me even in the middle of our maelstrom life. She still had hopes and dreams, for herself and for me. Even though I know that my mother’s life hasn’t turned out anywhere near as well as she would’ve wanted, and our relationship not exactly where I would like it to be, I still love her very much. I hope that her sixty-first birthday day is a good and peaceful one, with about as much drama as watching paint dry, given all the drama we’ve both lived through.

Strange Stereotypes

October 24, 2008

Earlier this fall I posted on one part of my personality, the part that loves irony. Even when irony isn’t in my favor. Besides irony, one thing that I notice a lot of are assumptions and stereotypes. Not all assumptions and stereotypes are bad, because like the guy who started a blog in January on “White People” has noted (and who’s now published a book of his blogs), there’s an element of truth in these assumptions and stereotypes. But as the saying goes, assuming so much about so many can make an “‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.”

Such is the case with two strange stereotypes in this culture, ones in which race plays a role, but not exactly the ways in which most people echoing these stereotypes would expect. Take Sen. McCain’s call a couple of weeks ago for Sen. Obama to “repudiate” Rep. John L. Lewis’ statement drawing comparisons between the McCain campaign’s rhetoric in its stump speeches and the vile reactions of some in its crowds to the late George Wallace’s fiery, hate-filled speeches and the violent acts against Blacks that resulted. Why would McCain need Obama to repudiate Lewis’ comments? If anything, McCain should be able to repudiate them himself, right?

McCain’s call on Obama to repudiate Lewis falls easily into one of the great Derrick Bell’s “Rules of Racial Standing,” where a Black leader or, as some of us would call it, a representative Negro, is called on the carpet to rebuke another Black leader for inappropriately crying over race. To be sure, Rep. Lewis’ comparison of McCain’s campaign rhetoric to Wallace’s is a bit of a stretch. McCain’s response, though, is a strange one even when Bell’s “Rules of Racial Standing” are implied. Lewis himself backtracked on his own statement, and Obama’s campaign had already responded to Lewis before McCain’s call for repudiation. Plus, if McCain’s other statements about Lewis are to be believed, then he should’ve picked up the phone and talked with Lewis directly about his statement or repudiated it himself. It makes McCain look cowardly, actually, for calling on someone else to talk with one of his “heroes” for him.

The recent rebukes from the media neocons on the issue of race in this election cycle are another example of stereotyping. The thought among folks like Bill O’Reilly, Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan is that though McCain’s campaign and his surrogates have implied that Obama is a socialist, anti-American, pro-terrorist, associates only with radical leftists, and has a questionable familial and American background, that this isn’t related to race at all. Yes, it’s going a bit too far to say that McCain and Palin have been running a racist campaign or that they are solely responsible for the violent language used by some in their crowds about Obama, like a recent New York Times editorial suggested.

Yet the response of the aforementioned neocons is as stereotypical as it is strange. Their response is stereotypical because in their minds, racist language or acts can only occur if the N-word is involved or if it’s something that someone White does to some Black. For them, the distance between the implications of the McCain campaign’s language and racist language is a thick white wall of a line, not the thin line that many of us recognize it to be. It is as much a stereotype for neocons to react to any allegations of racism as if someone had an epileptic grand mal seizure in front of them as it is stereotypical from their perspective to have so-called liberal newspapers like the New York Times to raise the issue of race at inappropriate times and in inappropriate circumstances.

All miss the main point. Race and racism is far more complex and far more nuanced than any of these people are willing to admit or understand. Even many Blacks and other Americans of color don’t always see the nuance. McCain’s campaign, regardless of intent, has likely stoked more complex feelings about Obama and race in America than folks like O’Reilly, Scarborough and Buchanan have the intellectual and rhetorical capacity to analyze or vocalize.

On a less serious but still strangely stereotypical tip, one of the things me and my wife often laugh about with TV shows is how almost all shows treat the issue of race when it’s injected into a storyline. Whether it’s CBS’ Cold Case or HBO’s The Wire, one thing’s for certain. If there’s an event in which a large number of Blacks are gathered — especially if there’s any historical context to it at all — gospel music or spirituals become the background sound for the scene. It’s uncanny how often or automatic it is to see and hear with show after show after show. It would be like watching a show based in San Francisco with the only music playing on the show coming from Journey’s Greatest Hits album, or a show in Indiana that only played John Mellencamp’s music. Or a show about Latinos only playing salsa — although the George Lopez show does have some of these elements. Although these shows are attempts at showing the great diversity that is life even among African Americans, they inadvertently reinforce other stereotypes in the process. I just wish that instead of hearing a middle-aged Black woman humming a gospel song after a homicide on a show, that I heard Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel instead.

Educational Idol

October 22, 2008

Given the recent statements of the presidential candidates and their respective candidates, it’s obvious that none of them have a clear understanding of the problems and needs of American education from K to 12 and in postsecondary education. Charter schools vs. vouchers, more student loans and tax credits, early childhood education and performance-based teacher pay, and more parental involvement. That’s it? That’s all we’re going to hear from Obama and McCain during the election cycle? Even Ralph Nader has more to say about education issues, not much more, but more.

As much as I like Obama and have been inspired to vote for him (and I will on November 4), I’m also troubled as an educator by his limited knowledge of education reform issues. Especially given the fact that he did serve as the board chair of Chicago’s Annenberg Challenge in the late-1990s — you know, the one in which Bill Ayres also served. I don’t expect McCain to know much about American public education in any form, and Gov. Palin’s suggestions for more “vo-tech options” puts her at least forty years behind our troubled times. But I would’ve expected more from Obama. Not much more, but more than he’s offered in the general election cycle or in the debates.

As part of his rising crescendo of a victory speech in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 3, Obama said, “in this global economy, the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the few, but a birthright of every American.” Strong progressive words indeed. With Obama’s affirmation, it appeared that much has happened in recent years in raising this education reform issue around increasing college access and degree completion to the national level. So much so that it would lead many—including Sen. Obama—to believe that the education revolution that folks have been waiting four decades for has finally arrived. But given his other statements, the reality may well be that a President Obama (most likely) or McCain will need to bone up on the critical issues of education reform and the distance between our current sorting system and the universal postsecondary education ideals that Obama so eloquently spoke to in June.

The nexus between secondary and postsecondary education has been a critical issue in which nonprofit organizations and private foundations have invested and engaged for the past decade or so. Educational Testing Service (ETS), the Goldman Sachs Foundation (yes, the same folks who helped bring us the financial meltdown this fall), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are among many such organizations that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create pathways so that students who otherwise are unlikely to attend college can do just that. Unfortunately, much of what they fund are small projects that help all too few underrepresented students transition to college successfully, and each has their own methods for weeding out tough cases from diamonds in the rough.

There is an inherent tension in this. The tension is between the fight for universal postsecondary education and training (including two-year degrees and technical certificate programs) and a talent search for underrepresented students who may be successful at earning a four-year degree at elite institutions. It is in understanding this tension that we can understand the truth. That all signs point to postsecondary education as the crucial element in America’s economic and cultural future. That talent search programs do little to get us there, and are more a product of post-Civil Rights era attempts to identify academically gifted students of color than they are in line with other, more universal efforts to address the race and income achievement gap.

Among numerous others, Washington Metropolitan Scholars, Quest Scholars Program’s QuestLeadership and QuestBridge, Princeton University’s Preparatory Program, the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program, and The Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University all have extensive selection processes for identifying low-income students and students of color who have the leadership and academic potential for succeeding in college. But the twenty-year-old Posse Foundation is the creme de la creme of them all. At least as evidenced by the media’s attention, numerous grant awards and the number of colleges willing to pay fees to Posse for the opportunity to provide students a free and full ride toward a four-year degree. Posse’s claim as one of the longest running and most effective programs for finding students of color who are diamonds in the rough helped earn its founder Dr. Deborah Bial a MacArthur “genius” award in 2007.

Yet there are some ironies even in Posse’s work. Only one out of every ten high school students who apply to be a Posse Scholar end up as such at the end of the selection process each year. That may not sound all that bad. But in New York City alone, this means that about 1,000 students are unsuccessful in earning one of the 110 or so slots. This is much more than a process of filling out an application, writing an essay or obtaining letters of recommendation from a teacher or principal. Posse has several points of contact with the applicants prior to the final selection. Group interviews and projects, along with conversations, tasks and tests designed to explore each student’s leadership potential, interpersonal skills and motivation for attending college, are all part of the selection process. A final meeting occurs with representatives from member colleges in attendance before the final groups of Posse Scholars are selected. Each group of 10 to 12 students is sent to a college or university as a cohort or “posse.”

It is an intense process for all of the students, yet only a handful make it to the end of the process successfully. Granted, those 110 students are guaranteed free tuition, room, board and books at elite selective colleges and universities for four years. On the other hand, 1,000 others— many of whom had never seriously thought about attending college until they had heard about Posse — are left with few options as ideal as Posse after the American Idol-like selection process.

To be fair, programs like Posse’s recognize their necessary limitations, as these are expensive programs to run and even more expensive for colleges and universities to support. Yet there are other and better alternatives to bringing opportunities for postsecondary education to underrepresented students. The idea of a single-track, college-prep curriculum from pre-kindergarten through high school, such as the one that exists in Chattanooga-Hamilton County public schools, is one promising option. Early college high schools—high schools connected to postsecondary institutions, many with funding from the Gates Foundation—provide students dual enrollment options that enable them to earn a diploma and a two-year degree at the same time.

As someone who graduated Mount Vernon High School (and it’s defunct gifted-track academic Humanities Program) in ’87 (only a couple of years before programs like Posse came along), I understand how necessary programs like these are in making the dream of better lives real for thousands of underrepresented students. But I also know how exclusionary such programs can be. As these programs highlight the reality that talent and other intangible qualities exist in young folk across socioeconomic and racial lines, they also demonstrate that this path is one that only a few disadvantaged youth can possibly take advantage of. It makes me wonder whether I would have made the cut in these competitions. And if I had been rejected, what it would have meant for my motivation to go to college?

There’s no way that anything that any of the candidates have proposed would move us significantly closer to universal postsecondary education or even significantly higher high school graduation rates. Obama can say what he wants about parents who need to “turn off the TV.” This is as much about creating systems so that community involvement and just parental involvement is high, and that can happen only when we decide that a good American education shouldn’t be up to individual decision-making alone. That’s the problem with academic competitions like Posse’s, and that’s the problem with many of the prescriptions proposed by the major candidates. As educators, politicians and social justice folks alike, we must work to make college—or some form of postsecondary education, at least—a right and the responsibility of communities, not a privilege and certainly not a zero-sum individual competition.

To Support and Endorse

October 20, 2008

It’s always amazing to me when people discount when someone — especially a big name — supports or endorses a candidate, as if the endorse is worth less than used toilet tissue. Such has been the case in the past 32 hours since General Colin Powell’s endorsement of and support for (however limited) of Obama. Rush Limbaugh showing his true colors by yelling that Powell’s support of Obama was “ALL about RACE!” Republican surrogates expressing skepticism about the impact of Powell’s endorsement on the election or any voters at all. Funny. I know full well that if Powell had endorsed McCain that folks from the Obama campaign or the Democratic Party would’ve minimized it. But they also wouldn’t have been folks yelling that this selection was all about race, as if Blacks are somehow irrational when other Blacks are running for office. If that were the case, then Lynn Swann would be governor of Pennsylvania and Michael Steele a Republican senator from Maryland. The train of thought here is disgusting, plain and simple.

Endorsements and support are always significant, for the person being supported or endorsed if nothing else. It provides a psychological boost, a sense that even in the midst of the work that one is doing that someone was inspired by it or by you. An expression of support can provide the energy necessary to redouble your efforts in fulfilling a goal, in seeing through a cause.

For me, endorsements and other expressions of support have been few and far between in my life. Most of them have come from Whites. Blacks in some position of authority have either seen me as insignificant or as their competition for a crumb of money or power or influence. That’s not to say that Whites have been remarkably supportive either. Given the circles I’ve been in most of my adult life, I have met all too few African Americans in positions of influence who’ve had the opportunity to endorse or support me in some way or another.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, most of what I’ve accomplished in the past thirty-eight years and ten months of life has been in spite of many in my life, not because of them. My guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo was one unsupportive authority figure. She asked the “Are you sure about this?” question about the courses I wanted to take at Mount Vernon High School so many times that it seemed that she thought that I was severely mentally retarded, like I had only been mainstreamed to public school last week. Even when I visited Mount Vernon High School in the middle of my junior year at Pitt in December ’89, she pulled me aside to warn me against going to law school, because “lawyers work lots of long hours, and I’m not sure you can do that.” Thanks a lot. I only graduated fourteenth in my class in high school and finished Pitt with a 3.4 QPA.

My dissertation committee was almost equally unsupportive, especially my former advisor Joe Trotter. I learned about six months into my Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship from a selection committee panelist that his letter of recommendation “didn’t exactly help me” as far as the selection process was concerned. They somehow had put aside my advisor’s weak letter and awarded me a fellowship in April ’95 anyway. In addition to Professor “Running Interference” (one of his favorite catch phrases), I had Dan Resnick, a man who once subtly accused me of plagiarism because of the quality of my writing. He also called my doctoral thesis “average” and suggested that I “should think about a career as a journalist” as his signed off on my manuscript. I guess that it was supposed to be an insult. My unofficial advisor, Bruce Anthony Jones, left Pittsburgh for Missouri and Florida right at the end of my graduate school days in ’96, cutting off all ties with me in the process. With senior professors like these on my committee, I would’ve been better off picking professors who didn’t like me.

In the world of work, I’ve worked with superiors whose competence has varied from solid but somewhat scattered to just plain lost in the cobwebs. Most of them fall in the incompetent category. In working with folks from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, I’ve learned that general incompetence and mediocrity is universal, especially in my dealings with senior staff. Most of all, I’ve learned that Black senior staff in predominantly White organizations are so afraid of any appearance of favoritism or that a younger or less experienced Black staff person might steal their thunder. Over the past decade or so, I’ve met only a handful — maybe three or four — African Americans from the nonprofit and academic worlds who’ve been willing to share experiences or expertise in helping me in my career in some way or another. It’s hard to know who to trust in these situations when it’s obvious that most workplace colleagues possess some level of distrust toward one another.

The silver lining here is that over the years, I’ve had some support from folks across various backgrounds. Most of the support has been unexpected and without any special work on my part. I wasn’t networking or looking for a mentor or in obvious need of an endorsement in these cases. I was just being my sarcastic, deep-thinking, weird and funny self with these people. From my late AP American History teacher in Harold Meltzer to the late Barbara Lazarus of Carnegie Mellon University and from my Western Civilization II TA in Paul Riggs to the now retired Catherine Lacey of the Spencer Foundation, I’ve come across a number of folks who gave me their stamp of approval. Often without me having accomplished anything to earn it. But that’s the key understanding of an endorsement. This support isn’t necessarily because of something you’ve actually done. It’s an endorsement based on faith, on the possibility or probability that you will do something great in the immediate or intermediate future.

Meltzer believed in me, not only for high school and college, but as a writer, and long before I realized I was a writer. Paul saw my intellectual curiosity as a historian years before I saw myself as a historian. Barbara Lazarus thought of me as someone whose work on multiculturalism needed to be recognized even as it was in the early stages of development, and serves as my academic protector at Carnegie Mellon even when folks like my advisor were proposing to delay my graduation by at least a year. Catherine Lacey saw promise in my work, and ambivalence about my career choices years before I fully understood why I was ambivalent.

The important thing was that they were all there for me when I needed them, even if the way others saw me didn’t change as a result of their official endorsement. Their support is why I’m the writer, teacher, historian, researcher, and worker that I am today.

The Sins of Marriage

October 15, 2008

In the midst of my zeal to blog about the latest edition of the presidential campaign fear factor, not to mention recent happenings on the job search and teaching fronts, I almost completely forgot about a major milestone yesterday. Tuesday, October 14 marked thirty years since my mother married my ex-stepfather Maurice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York. Thirty years! My wife had the nerve to suggest that I remind my mother of the forever dreaded event.

It wasn’t dreaded thirty years ago, at least for her. It was probably the happiest day of my mother’s adult life. That’s not to say that my mother was happy or joyous or in ecstasy or anything along those lines. But she was smiling, content, seemed at peace, ready for the next phase of her life. She attributed my sadness to jealousy. She thought that I thought that Maurice was cutting me off from her. In a way she was right. I was worried alright. About this guy who constantly acted like he was my father when there was my real father to turn to, inebriated or not. In the eighteen months between the time we all moved into 616 East Lincoln and the wedding day, he had assigned us chores like picking up his clothes from the cleaners and buying his cigarettes. His form of discipline for me and my older brother Darren consisted of having us stand in corners with one leg in the air and balancing books with our arms. Or what he called “whuppins.” I hadn’t been won over, and neither had Darren.

That didn’t matter in the long run. What did matter was the fact that less than three months after Jimme had finally signed off on the divorce, my mother had married the guy she had an affair was as the first marriage was circling the toilet bowl. It’s not the smartest thing to do in your love life, as many a pop psychologist has noted over the years. I’d learn later on how my mother’s friends had warned her about Maurice. His attempt to cut a womanizing swath across Mount Vernon Hospital in the nearly two years before their affair. His constant boasting about his alleged higher intellect and his penchant for unrealistic ways to make lots of “ducats,” his favorite word for money. Maurice himself came from a failed first marriage — reportedly his fault because of his joblessness, penis, and temper.

Still, on Saturday, October 14, 1978, at approximately 3:08 pm, I played the role of ring bearer and handed my mother and Maurice the rings that they would exchange to begin their nearly eleven years of disastrous marriage. They were relatively happy and more or less in love at that moment. Not knowing that they were both making the mistake of their lives.

Darren and I didn’t know all we needed to know either. That a screwed-up and possibly bipolar womanizer with serious identity issues should’ve never married a woman on the rebound from a marriage to a hostile alcoholic. That a father of at least one child who refused to pay child support for his own daughter shouldn’t become involved with a woman who tired of children after they turned two because “that’s when they learn to talk back.” That two people in search of their spiritual center shouldn’t involve their children or stepchildren in their personal quest for God. That a man who acted as if God didn’t exist shouldn’t marry a woman who called her first husband everything but a child of God, even when she herself had become a child of God.

Maybe I’m being a bit tough on my mother and stepfather. After all, it was thirty years ago. But given their respective failed marriages, and having been married for eight and a half years myself, I don’t think I would’ve jumped back into that kind of relationship so quickly, and with two kids in the mix.

Still, it was a good day. I had what would be my last professional haircut until I left for Pittsburgh that morning. We had a monster reception that my mother borrowed $3,000 to throw at the late Jeannette Martin’s house on Mount Vernon’s South Side. My mother and stepfather went on a short two-day honeymoon while we stayed with our babysitter Ida (and one of Jimme’s drinking buddies). As an eight-year-old, there was a part of me that the honeymoon atmosphere that broke out between the Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire playing on the dance floor would last forever.

Forever barely lasted seven Saturdays after the wedding. Because my stepfather had pissed me off with another one of his rules, and because I knew that my guardians had already started to argue about money, I ran away from home. I packed two days’ worth of clothing and walked out with the plan that I would get to New Rochelle, find a boat, stowaway and eventually get to Europe or France. I was found three-and-a-half hours later by the Pelham Manor Police, received the belt-whipping of my life (at least until Maurice began beating me up in the summer of ’82), and was on lockdown in our bedroom for six weeks.

It was during those six weeks of no TV and no going outside that I decided to punish my mother and stepfather by ignoring them with books. I cracked open the “A” volume of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia and began reading. And reading. And reading. Pretty soon I didn’t miss TV. I didn’t have lots of friends, so going out to play became less and less of a hardship. I noticed that my grades and test scores started going up. So I kept reading. I became a straight A student indirectly because my mother remarried and my dreaded stepfather drove me to books. Talk about irony!


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