“Southern” Poverty Tour

June 30, 2009

I’ve been everywhere, man, especially when it comes to poverty. I’ve seen more kinds of poverty than I’d ever want to know. And ’01 was a banner year to see it all. President Bill Clinton might’ve gone on some form of a Southern poverty tour in his pre-presidential campaign in ’96. But I had the chance to see American poverty in all of its various forms in June ’01, and not just in the South. Although it did start for me in the South, up close and personal.

I took off a couple of days early for my social justice fellow site visit in Jackson, Mississippi. I flew into Shreveport, Louisiana — as part of an extended layover in the days before 9/11 — to do something I’d never done before. I was on my way to visiting my grandparents on my mother’s side in Bradley, Arkansas. I was there, once, physically, as a second-trimester fetus in the summer of ’69. I found myself both excited and in dread of what I’d find going there. I knew it would be poverty like I’d never seen it. And it was, even before I reached the Gill family in Bradley.

I called for and took a cab from my Holiday Inn Express next to the beat-up airport in Shreveport and paid for a forty-mile trip. If I’d been driving, I would’ve missed it. Bradley was a yellow-flashing, one-stoplight town. There was a bar, a laundromat, a church and a store on the four corners, with one side of town White, the other Black. As we drove deeper into the Black side, the houses looked more and more run-down, with corrugated rooftops and often outhouses. The section of houses that included the Gills were all shotgun ones. They had no running water and had not turned on the plumbing in their place for the past three decades, even though they were still using the toilet. The house was dirty, and not in a typical American sort of way. It was as if they lived on a garbage dump next to a toxic waste site. When I opened up a partially broken cabinet door to get a cup, I was hit in the face and head with what seemed like dozens of roaches.

I spent one long and desperate night with the Gill family in Bradley, waking up over and over because roaches crawled across my body and flies constantly buzzed. I couldn’t get myself to use their bathroom, and their outhouse didn’t work anymore. Luckily my Uncle Charles got his broken-down Chevy Cavalier to work. As soon as I returned to my hotel room, I took one of the longest showers of my life, somewhere near an hour. I was heartbroken to have seen so much poverty, especially since my grandparents were eighty-two and seventy-three at the time.

Jackson, Mississippi’s poverty wasn’t as obvious as the quasi-Global South/ Third World poverty I saw in Bradley. Still, it was all too sad. Even with a degree — albeit a tiny degree — of residential integration, the run-down Black side of town was just that. Jackson State University looked more like a cheap comprehensive high school than a major historically-Black or any other kind of university. The community around the campus varied from block to block. One block would have a series of fairly well-kept working-class and middle class homes. The next would have a half-torn-down house next to an empty lot next to another dilapidation. For all of the progress since the end of Jim Crow, Jackson might as well have been stuck in 1961.

Tulsa, Oklahoma was next, and it wasn’t pretty. I spent most of my time in its dead downtown or on its bombed-out North side. There, poor Blacks and extremely impoverished American Indians lived. There were even more monstrosities for homes, evil-looking projects and empty lots there than in Jackson. But what made it worse was getting in a car with a social justice fellow and seeing her side of town, the South side. It’s where Tiger Woods played in the US Open the following week. It’s where I saw stately mansions and an abundance of middle class homes. It’s the home of Oral Roberts University and the University of Tulsa. The contrast was greater than seeing the difference between high-priced, high-rise condos on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and where we lived at 616. It was absolutely disgusting.

After a two-week break, I flew out to Fairbanks, Alaska for the Summer Solstice. Twenty-three and a half hours of sunlight for three straight days. About half spent fifty miles of driving and thirty miles by boat away from Fairbanks, in a Athabascan fishing village. There, I did get to use the outhouse while being eaten alive by mosquitoes during central Alaska’s short but intense growing season. The kids all thought that I was either Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Even with the lack of technology or civilization, it was the least poor place I’d visit throughout that month.

A couple of days after Alaska, I went to Durham, North Carolina, to see the kind of poverty I had grown accustomed to growing up. It was Southern Latino immigrant poverty, but it wasn’t the grinding, never-ending poverty I had seen in Alaska, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas or Mississippi. Even with that, this relatively new community faced financial and other forms discrimination that could’ve had the effect of putting them into a hard-steel poverty, one that ages someone from the outside in. The best thing about that trip was the social justice fellow I met there, the rabbit stew I ate for dinner, and the Durham Bulls memorabilia I bought for my wife.

What made the month so depressing was the impoverished thinking I encountered throughout. From social justice workers, government officials, everyday people, the poor folks I met, including my grandparent. Despite all of the difficulties between me and my mother, I appreciated the strength it took for her to move from Bradley to the Bronx in ’66. It obvious took a lot of it. I only wished that so many others I met that month could’ve done the same.

Mr. Meltzer

June 27, 2009

I plan most of my postings in advance. So there’s a bit of irony involved in this particular posting, since I had already planned to write about one of the great influences in my life to date, a man who died all too soon and with all too much bitterness in his heart and mind. Then Michael Jackson died on Thursday, a loss I can’t fully comprehend just yet. Even when accused of molestation, I kept playing his music, separating the genius from whatever issues he struggled with outside of his musical artistry. I know that I am hardly alone in saying that MJ will be sorely missed. However, another great influence — one who will remain relatively unknown — is one I also miss, for his eccentricities, his wisdom, his passion for students and teaching. One Mr. Harold I. Meltzer.

My second interview with Meltzer occurred on a typically windy fall day in November ’02. I came up to New Rochelle by Metro-North’s New Haven Line. I knew that my favorite mentor wasn’t in the greatest of shape based on his recent letters and my first attempt to interview him that August.

I rang Meltzer’s doorbell four times before he answered. His voice now labored to say the words “H.M. here?” It was a third-floor walk-up for me, but it left me in less distress than the heavy-breathing Meltzer was in just walking from his telephone in his dining room area to his front door, about thirty feet in all. I was in some shock when he answered the door. Meltzer had gained about fifty pounds in the three-and-a-half years since my ’99 visit. His broken and in constant-traction-back, not to mention his surgically-repaired knees, had left Meltzer barely able to walk with the assistance of a cane or his walker. He always had a bow in his upper back. With the extra weight, my former teacher now looked about fifteen years older than his actual age. He was shirtless, but did wear some gray sweats to cover his bottom.

His apartment, though messier than when I visited him last, still felt like a teacher or artist’s flat. Having seen Finding Forrester the year before, his apartment reminded me very much of the hermetic character Sean Connery had played in the film. It was old and musty, a place just big enough to get lost in but not big enough to feel luxurious. It was filled with books and magazines and newspapers. Not to mention blue books, essays, and other evidence of Meltzer’s long career in Mount Vernon’s public schools. Meltzer had the radio set to WQXR-FM, a New York-area classical station. The music was bittersweet, as was Meltzer’s mood. He was definitely happy to see me, but probably would’ve preferred being in better physical shape.

“So, you wanted to know what these characteristics were . . . what kind of student you were based on what I perceived. Well that’s the easiest thing in the world!,” he began after I’d gone to the store to buy him lunch. To me at least, Meltzer’s voice had immediately changed from this worn and forlorn tone to his more cheerful and hopeful one. He must’ve transported himself back to ’85.

“I had a few students, not many, just a few, you were one of the few, you would sit on the edge of your seat because you were so skinny . . . and you eyelids never blinked . . . because when you were fascinated, you know, everything fascinated you, you watched the chalkboard like a hawk. . . .” he continued. I found myself in ’85 again, reliving the memories of Meltzer and his classroom, the rhythm of his voice, the stunned silence of my classmates, the rustle of leaves from the high school courtyard tree closest to Meltzer’s window, the occasional chalk-trauma. ” . . . even though you never moved a muscle in your face, your eyes used to flash . . . I could see that. . . . no one else could see but I could see . . .”

Meltzer meandered into a discussion of my academic progress in his class. “And many times when you read the question over and tore open the blue book . . . and in the end there were maybe three or four lines written. They were gems of writing, absolute gems, but you needed to have more, you see, because they [the College Board] wanted more,” Meltzer said.

And because of Meltzer, I did give them—and him—more. So much more that I earned the coveted “5” on the AP American History exam. I guess that was why he never worried about me.

We spent the last couple of hours discussing the book idea that would become Boy At The Window. Meltzer thought that it should be a fiction novel, based on the real flesh and blood folks in my life, but with different names of course to protect me from any potential lawsuits. He did make me rethink the project from a simple research study of my high school years into narrative nonfiction and memoir. Then we hugged and said our good-byes.

“It was so good to see you, Donnie.”

“Me too.”

“Come back over soon. We should talk again.”

“Don’t worry. I will.”

Who were we kidding? We both knew that his days were numbered, and that this second interview was likely the last time we’d talked. I was honored to be able to spend the day with him, to gain some additional insight about my long-time mentor and friend. Not to mention Mount Vernon and MVHS. Those eight hours together in conversation were as precious as any moments I’ve experienced as a student and a teacher. And in making sure that Meltzer knew how much I appreciated him, I kissed his forehead and gave him a big hug as I left his place for the final time. He died on January 9 of ’03.

Crush #1 once said, “[Meltzer] really taught me how to write. . . . I know I relied on his methods heavily when I was at NYU writing all of those essays.” I just wished that she and so many of his other students had told him the same thing in his final days.

I learned so much about how to be a good teacher from Meltzer. But I also learned how much of a toll teaching and dealing with uncaring teachers, administrators, parents and other adults can take on you. I have vowed to strike a balance ever since. It’s been almost six and a half years since his death, but I know his influence on me will continue for as long as I continue. Still, I miss Meltzer very much.

Starks for 3?

June 24, 2009

Wednesday night, June 23, ’94. One of my worst nights as a Knicks fan. That night, the dream of a NBA title for my favorite team died, and it died hard. Losing 90-84 to Hakeem Olajuwon and my uncles’ Houston Rockets, I was depressed for more than a week afterwards. It was a horrible series to watch from an offensive basketball perspective. Too many missed shots, blocked shots, 24-second shot-clock violations, airballs and other misadventures on both sides and for both teams. I had no voice by the time it was all over, having dedicated the previous six weeks to every possession and every game. Watching Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks and the rest of the gang of free-agent veterans and rookies take the Knicks to a partially-blocked three-point shot away from a championship. Such bittersweet times!

Technically, the Knicks have won two championships in my lifetime, one in ’70 and the other in ’73. I vaguely remember the second one, as it happened when I was three and a half years old. The first one, I was still learning how to crawl when Willis Reed limped onto the court at Madison Square Garden in May of ’70 against the Lakers of West and Chamberlain. They barely count in my mind. For the Knicks I truly remember are the ones of declining talent in the ’70s, followed by moments of hope with Micheal Ray Richardson and Bernard King in the ’80s, and then of Ewing and Marc Jackson in the late-80s. Knicks that varied from God-awful to pretty good.

They just weren’t good enough to be tragic, at least not until the Pat Riley years. Losing a close series against the Bulls in the second round in ’92, after giving MJ and Pippen all they could handle for six and a half games. Taking their feet off the necks of the Bulls in ’93, after being up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. Especially with fellow Pitt Alum Charles Smith blowing a game-winning layup in the closing seconds of Game 5. It might as well have been me out there against Horace Grant and company.

Then came Games 6 and 7 in Houston in ’94. It was horrible and heartbreaking. With Olajuwon draped all over Ewing and with mediocre guard play from Derek Harper and Hubert Davis, John Starks became the go-to-guy for Ewing. Starks really did have a great Game 6. He shot 5-for-8 from three before his dreaded last-second shot, was the leading Knicks scorer with 27 points (including 16 in the fourth quarter), and really was the only reason the Knicks had a chance to win. The problem was, he didn’t necessarily need to launch a three to win that game. A two or a pass inside to Oakley or Ewing would likely have tied the game and sent it into overtime, especially with Olajuwon playing Starks straight up. On the other hand, thinking about it as a shooter, as streaky as Starks was back then, the shot probably would’ve gone in if Hakeem hadn’t partially blocked it.

But instead of following it up with a good performance in Game 7, Starks had one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, going 2-for-18, including 0-for-11 in three-point attempts. That included at least three airballs by my own count. It was like the team had eaten some form of poison before the game, that’s how awful they played. Starks, though, played worse than anyone, taking ill-advised shots and ignoring Riley’s frowns and screams.

It wasn’t so much that he didn’t perform well under pressure. It was more the fact that Starks refused to pass out of double-teams or throw the ball inside or across court to a teammate with a wide-open shot at the hoop. Starks needed help, and refused to seek it or to anticipate it. He tried to take over a sloppy offensive series singlehandedly. As a result, Ewing faced more pressure, and the game — even as close as it was at 90-84 — was a constant uphill battle for my Knicks.

I was pissed to the point of tears when that game ended fifteen years ago. I’ve long since forgiven Starks for his performance. Those kinds of things can happen to the best of us. Still, there’s an important lesson to learn about teamwork and help from Games 6 and 7 of the ’94 NBA Finals. Sometimes it’s up to you to knock down a shot, and sometimes, you give it up to a wide-open teammate so that we can all win, in basketball and in life.

Strange Days

June 24, 2009

Cover for the album Strange Days by The Doors, September 1967, scanned June 27, 2008. (Father McKenzie via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use because of low resolution of scanned album cover.

Being on campus at Princeton teaching for a few weeks and working with college-ready high school students sometimes takes me back into my past. It’s funny really, realizing that the “best and the brightest” were hardly the best and weren’t quite so bright, even at the time I went to school with them. That’s not to say that the students I’ve had or have now at Princeton or the classmates I graduated with didn’t or don’t have loads of potential. They did and do. It’s more about what can happen when teachers, administrators and parents fill our heads full with delusions of grandeur, with ideas of intellectual greatness based on signs of academic excellence. It’s what can happen when students spend more time trying to keep up with the image of high academic achievement that others have created for them rather than finding their own path, one that allows them to be themselves and to tap into their potential.

I know, I know, some students strive and thrive even with the pressures from their parents, the doting of teachers, and the turning-the-other-way of administrators. I could also be accused of playa hatin’, I suppose. After all, I was far from popular in my glory days of high school, and only found myself in the last two and a half years of college. But that’s just it. Even I had to come to grips with my family’s expectations — especially the lack of them — in high school and college. I needed to find myself in order to be all that I could be in college and in grad school. I needed to make a clean break from the doubters in my life — including of course, my teachers and administrators.

That’s the unfortunate truth I faced in my last two years at Mount Vernon High School. Especially when the class rankings came out a month into our senior year. Out of 545 potential graduates, I was ranked fourteenth. I was a little disappointed because I didn’t crack the top ten, mostly because I knew I needed scholarship money and a good financial aid package to help pay for college, wherever I went. I had already learned that my performance wasn’t good enough for my teachers in eleventh grade. They kept reminding me that I was doing nothing in comparison to the salutatorian in our class, an involved-in-everything Black male. I guess I could’ve argued that they should’ve been comparing me to our Class of ’87 valedictorian, but my teachers saw the second in our class as a much more well-rounded student. At the very least, I knew from the comparisons that the person I was supposed to be more like had a charming way with our teachers.

I saw this particular classmate as more of an enigma than many of the other ones I had done time with in Humanities. I genuinely felt both in awe of and disheartened by his presence in my life during the Humanities years. I thought it was amazing that he was able to do as much as he did. The high school band. The mock trial team. The school newspaper. Our yearbook. An appearance on Phil Donahue! At least he wasn’t a star basketball player too, especially in Mount Vernon.

Yet I saw the results of all of that involvement on his part, and not just in terms of how teachers saw me. As far as teachers were concerned, it was as if I was this classmate’s younger, underachieving brother. But I also saw how the young man occasionally worked his reputation to his advantage, cashing in on his built-up academic capital to give himself more time to work on assignments no one else got a second of overtime to do. I don’t think I ever wanted to be him or become close friends with him, though. Something about his need to be well-liked by our peers and teachers bothered me. So I was happy in more ways than one to see our salutatorian gallop into the sunset with his diploma, a law firm job in Manhattan, and his ticket to Harvard punched some twenty-two years ago.

Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett in Strange Days (1995), screen shot, November 12, 2009. (http://ugo.com via Fox Entertainment). Qualifies as fair use because of low resolution of screen shot, not meant for redistribution.

Something strange happened in the days after the final fight between my mother and ex-stepfather in June ’89 (see my “The Miracle of Divorce” post from earlier this month). It was a week after idiot Maurice had moved out for the last time. Me and my older brother Darren were on our way to my father Jimme’s for money and because Darren was in the process of moving out of 616 — God knows he needed to. Along the way, we bumped into Crush #1, which is a story unto itself, a good one that is. Ten minutes later we bumped into salutatorian off The Avenue and West First, still trekking toward Jimme’s. This surprise meeting trumped my Crush #1 conversation and made a lasting impression on my understanding of myself as a Black male. So much so that I had a long conversation with my late teacher Harold Meltzer about it years later.

When I bumped into the man en route to Jimme’s with Darren, he’d just gotten off work at his summer law firm job in the city, his third summer working there. He was wearing a hideous green-and-white-checkered dress shirt with dark green suspenders and even darker green slacks. Why hideous? Because on a hot and hazy day in late-June ’89, a day in which batting an eyelash required some degree of sweat, the guy was dressed like it was the middle of March. The color scheme didn’t blend at all with his dark chocolate skin, and his face was both greasy and sweaty from a long, hard day. But the biggest shock was his hair. It was conked — or fried as some folks say — ala Miles Davis or Malcolm Little before he became Malcolm X. This was the first thing I noticed, even before the Green Giant getup. Since I was already in a pissy mood, one only mildly moderated by my Crush #1 sighting and conversation, I didn’t outwardly react to it.

I realized as I stood there with Darren talking to my former classmate what had bothered me about him

Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota, May 20, 2006. (Jonathunder via Wikipedia). Released into public domain via CC and & GFDL.

during all of our years together in Humanities. I had called him an “Oreo Cookie “—Black on the outside, White in the middle — in my head and under my breath on a few occasions during our Humanities years. Yet this sighting and conversation let me know that I was wrong. Sadly, I realized that our salutatorian didn’t have any identity at all. He made himself into whomever others wanted him to be. To his family, he was the mild-mannered and religiously faithful kid who just happened to be smart. To our teachers, he was super-intelligent, an overstretched overachiever whom teachers gave the benefit of the doubt if his assignment was late and he needed an extra day. To many of us, he was the polar opposite of our eventual valedictorian, a talented competitor who was far more worthy of our school’s number one status. I’m sure to a fair number of his Harvard classmates saw him as a marvel, either not “Black” enough or too much of a “credit to his race.”

The person I saw that day wasn’t the confident, take-on-the-world with a-smile-on-his-face person I’d seen in action for six years in Humanities. He was confident enough to attempt to act that way toward me, though. I got the story about how life at Harvard was good, that he was succeeding academically and that he’d found a way to fit in with his mostly White, six-figure and two-comma classmates. He also still intended to go to law school. And though his job at the law firm was difficult, he said that he enjoyed that also. My former classmate must’ve thought that he was talking to the uncultured twelve-year-old I once had been. His utter lack of details about classes, people, majors or professors let me know right away that life for his at America’s preeminent university was somewhere between rocky and a living hell.

My conversation with the person folks thought I should be much more like was a major revelation. It explained why it took until I was a sophomore in college to find my footing. We all had significant identity issues, exaggerated by our competitive conditioning as Humanities students. These weren’t typical teenage struggles over being cool or not. Especially when being cool meant being “Black” or “Italian” or “anti-intellectual” or a “brainiac,” not just “cool” in general. You could say that our grades and ranks—or shunning them as the case might’ve been—were as much a part of our individual identities as being affluent or Jewish or Black. Our salutatorian may well have been an extreme example of this, but he was hardly alone. Everyone in Humanities, even the “cool” cliques within had their share of identity issues to reconcile or struggle with.

My own identity issues were many and varied. In my case, though, I’d been working on reconciling mine since the middle of seventh grade. I realized that the battle I’d been waging for so long came out of my identity crisis, one that started as a spiritual disconnect between being a Hebrew-Israelite and watching my stepfather break every rule in the Talmud while attempting to break me and my mother. That battle didn’t even begin to subside until I decided to embrace myself for who I was, good, bad and ugly. Once I took that proactive step, shooting for the best person I could be and small miracles like real friendships were only a matter of time. It’s a lesson that I hope the high-potential students I’ve taught the past couple of years learn, and learn well.

Summer Camp

June 20, 2009

I’ve had more than a few friends ask me, “Are you sure your doctorate’s not in psychology?” over the years. I usually laughed it off, saying that well-heeled historians are ones that can look at the human condition through a variety of disciplines. But that’s hardly the whole truth. I have a lifetime of experiences that have enabled me to play the role of pop psychologist and psychiatrist, mostly because of Darren and issues related to him.

For example, if this were any summer between ‘77 and ‘83, these would’ve been years I could’ve gone with my older brother to his summer day camps at The Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry, upper Westchester County. For four summers I did go with Darren to his private school for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, between ‘77 and ‘80. It was a strange experience, but I learned a lot about diversity, the human psyche, and perceptions of intelligence. I hardly realized how much until much later, in my years in the workforce and in grad school.

The first two summers at Clear View were a blur for me. I remember a few things. Like going to see Star Wars for the first time. Or going swimming, learning how to ride a bike, bowling, and lots of other fun activities. In that sense, Clear View was a fun place to be. I picked up a bunch of things there that I would’ve never learned at 616.

It wasn’t until my third summer there, the summer of ‘79, that I noticed the distinct differences between myself and Darren’s friends and classmates. Not to mention between Darren and them. It came as a bit of a shock to realize that Darren simply didn’t belong at a school for the mentally retarded — he was acting out at times in order to get whatever he wanted. As for me, I seldom had any lengthy conversations with the other kids. Not for lack of trying, though. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade for me, and I’d already become used to talking politics and pop culture with a few kids my age.

I ended up talking mostly with staff, summer staff or regular staff. It didn’t matter. Even as socially awkward some of the teachers were, it was far better than forcing a conversation with a kid who might’ve had the equivalent abilities of Noah at two and a half or three years old. I had nothing against the kids at Clear View. They obviously suffered from Down’s syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, severe brain injuries and so on. But at nine years old, I recognized the differences, and they were in stark contrast to anything I’d ever seen from Darren. I knew by the middle of that summer that my older brother wasn’t mentally retarded. I also knew, deep down, that staying at Clear View would do permanent damage to his psyche and destroy his best chances at living a normal life.

A visit to Mrs. Holtslag’s (Darren’s psychiatrist’s) Hastings-on-the-Hudson home in ’79, in which the front sat on a hill, the back on stilts, all overlooking a pale sandy-rock beach and the Hudson River below, was further evidence of both his relative normal-ness and of what bothered me about Clear View. This was my first experience of visiting anyone from an affluent or upper-middle class background, and certainly anyone White. A bunch of kids were there, including Darren. My older brother’s well-practiced autistic behavior — similar to at least three of his friends — was what bothered me about the visit. That, and being in a house I’d only seen before in a Hollywood movie. Wow, I remember thinking. Psychiatrists must make a ton of money.

I learned about other things affluent and White through my summers at Clear View in ‘79 and ‘80. That Darren’s initial diagnosis had changed, from “mildly mentally retarded” to “emotional mentally retarded.” That Clear View’s tuition was $33,000 a year – about $55,000 in today’s dollars. That New York State was paying for all of the tuition. That our group of healthy-eating White counselors thought that a cottage cheese and cucumber sandwich on whole wheat was a normal lunch. And that they were moving in ‘81 to a lush private campus in Briarcliff Manor.

I did get something out of that summer. Another layer of eclectic-ness to add to my already eclectic music tastes. Donna Summer, meet Kool & The Gang. Billy Joel, meet Barbra Streisand. I did get to see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. But I also saw affluent White parents who’d occasionally visit, sometimes with their “normal” kids in tow. It made me realize that despite all of the hardships of life, many of these mentally retarded and developmental disabled kids had it better financially than anything I would see for more than twenty years. That’s hardly to say that this wasn’t a hardship, either for the parents or the kids in question. It was something I noticed, an ironic twist between the psychology of race and class and the psychiatry involved in working with both.

I provoked my mother into at least thinking about getting Darren out of Clear View after my last summer there in ‘80, six years after my father Jimme had him placed there because of Darren’s shyness. Darren at twelve had been institutionalized long enough to become more comfortable around the mentally retarded than in mainstream settings. He threw a temper-tantrum, kicking and screaming on the floor of our neighborhood laundromat when my mother suggested that she should send him to our local public school. My mother gave up, saying that “Darren only listens to White people,” and Darren stayed at Clear View for another seven years. This was typical Mom, taking the path of least resistance when the best option was often the more difficult one. It’s sad, but I still haven’t given up, on Darren or my mother.

The O.J. Effect

June 17, 2009

For those of you who haven’t checked in yet, today’s the fifteenth anniversary of the bizarre police chase of NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco with friend Al Cowlings on I-405 in the Los Angeles area. In the process, he took all of us — the media, the sports world, and anyone who cared about race and justice — on a ride that folks are still talking about a decade and a half later. It had an impact on me in terms of how I saw Blacks and White sand race. It’s amazing to think that so many would become so emotionally caught up in a double-homicide case involving what at one time was one of the world’s most recognizable faces.

I guess that my slight sarcasm was unnecessary. Except that I was a bit surprised at the time. I was surprised when I first heard the news that Monday, June 13 in ’94, about the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and that O.J. was wanted for questioning. I was surprised to learn that his divorce from the woman was far from amicable, especially from a financial perspective. Most of all, I was shocked when I heard that Simpson was going to be charged for the murders, and that he had agree to turn himself in on that fateful Friday, June 17. With so many other terrible things that happened in my life up to that point, I tended to think, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”

That week was my absolute commitment to two events. The NBA Finals between my New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. And a church retreat for the male members of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. It was to be a week of watching my Knicks play at home and three days in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania at a retreat lodge, in a spirit of learning how to be godly men and of adult male bonding. The first full day of the retreat was June 17. After a day of workshops, prayer, praise, and singing (at least for me and the rest of the men’s choir), we all piled into the rec room to watch Game 5 of the Final. Only to see an overhead shot of a slow-moving white Bronco being trailed by an escort of L.A.’s finest instead of Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Doc Rivers, Charles Oakley, and the rest of the cast of characters from my favorite team.

The Knicks won, which was great, but I barely saw the game. They were up 3-2, but would lose the last two games in the next six days in Houston, turning Choke City into Clutch City overnight. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about when it first happen. I hoped that the police wouldn’t shoot Simpson before he had a chance to go to trial. The L.A. riots were just two years before. I feared that the issue of race would be front and center, with Simpson’s issues with his now dead White ex-wife. I knew that with the intense coverage that had been a part of this week, that this would all go away.

On that point I was more than wrong. I was naive, thinking that our world of ’94 would simply attempt to determine if Simpson was guilty or innocent. Instead what I saw within ten days of the Bronco chase was an artificially darkened Simpson on the cover of Time. I watched as the media condemned Simpson well before the trial. As Blacks were becoming angrier about the coverage. As Whites grew more confident about Simpson being convicted, losing his fortune and fame, and possibly getting the death penalty (or at least, life imprisonment). It was amazing how quickly folks took sides on the issue. My mother proclaimed that O.J. was innocent long before the prosecution botched the trial. Some of my grad school colleagues — all White, mind you — made all kinds of assumptions about where I stood on O.J. They didn’t like the fact that I was willing to wait until the trial to make up my mind.

When the verdict came down some sixteen months later, in October ’95, it was stunning to watch ecstatic Blacks and angry, dejected Whites react to the “Not Guilty” verdict. And not just on TV. A friend of mine from my Pitt grad school days spent his lunch break in my apartment gritting his teeth in anger as the verdict was read. I was more shocked than anything else. I smiled, but it wasn’t a smile of joy. It was of wry bewilderment watching the reactions.

That smile disappeared the following day when I went to Carnegie Mellon to drop off a draft of a couple of chapters of my doctoral thesis. A colleague of mine, one who I had called a friend up to this point, immediately started in on me about the verdict, as if I was on the jury. He kept spouting the media’s line about an all-Black jury, about jury nullification, and so on. I politely pointed out that the jury was mostly, but not all Black (three members were White or Latino, if I remember correctly), and that the prosecution lead by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden left the door wide open for an acquittal. He assumed — wrongly — that I wanted O.J. free regardless of his “obvious guilt.” I told my colleague that what else could the jury do, given the compelling defense put together by the late Jimmie Cochran, the mistakes with forensics, with the glove, with putting Mark Fuhrman on the stand? I also said that “I don’t represent all thirty million African Americans in this country,” and that our conversation was over.

That reminded me how irrational the issue of race can make even the most sound-minded and allegedly progressive of us all. I found that conversation unsettling because this colleague was one of the few folks at Carnegie Mellon who had earned my trust. It reminded me that if I were to ever date or marry someone White, that there would be hell to pay.

But many have benefitted from the O.J. Simpon effect over the last fifteen years. From lawyers to journalists, TV stations and authors, many have reaped benefits and have built careers from the O.J Simpson trial and verdict. Greta Van Susteren, Dan Abrams, Nancy Grace, Court TV (now truTV), the late Jimmie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro, among so many others. Even Mark Fuhrman got a book and a radio talk show (at least for a while) out of the trial. One could argue that Kim Kardashian, daughter of Simpson defense “Dream Team” lawyer Robert Kardashian, has benefited, albeit indirectly (it’s not as if her father’s a regular on her family’s reality show, right?).

You could even so far as to suggest that conservative media in general received the greatest indirect residuals of all from the murders, trial, and acquittal involving Simpson. The events between June 17 ’94 and October 3 ’95 helped intensify an atmophere of conservatism, a sense that our nation was out of control. With the acquittal, it made sense for cable and talk radio to increase its coverage of news, especially news with a more “fair and balanced” slant.

But of all of the people who have reaped the rewards of “If It Bleeds, It Leads,” most of us have little to show for our overblown anger or joy over the verdict, and have long since recovered from the initial shock of those days in June ’94. I know that I haven’t seen any benefit from O.J.’s fall from grace, other than the warning that the public is very fickle and will turn on you as soon as you screw up. And O.J. screwed up royally. Add to it all his years of stumbling and bumbling through life and his narcissistic need for the spotlight. He’s now serving time in prison because he wanted a few more moments in the public eye, this time as an obvious criminal. It’s “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say.

The Miracle of Divorce

June 15, 2009

Twenty years ago on this date, the last days of my mother’s marriage to my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Eugene Washington/Judah ben Israel began. This story is as much about faith and miracles as it is about my bizarre life at 616 and in Mount Vernon.

They were arguing in the living room, sounding like they could kill each other with a steak knife. My mother was “sick an’ tired” of my father’s constant abuse, not physical mind you, but just as disabling. One of the things my mother had vowed to do during May and June was to quit smoking. It wasn’t exactly the first time she tried. Only this time she’d been successful, so much so that Maurice had taken to blowing his Benson & Hedges smoke into her face when she sat in the living room watching TV and jonesin’ for some nicotine. It was that, Maurice’s garbage job and his inability to pay any bills or put any food in the house, his obvious signs of cheating, and his eternal threats of physical violence to her and my siblings she went after him about. Maurice just complained that she didn’t “love” him anymore. When my mother said, “I stopped lovin’ your heathen ass a long time ago!” I snickered and fell asleep.

I was somewhere in dreamland when I heard this loud crack hit against the wall of our room. “Oh my God!,” I yelled and jumped out of bed. I ran into the living room to see my mother’s heavy crystal ashtray on the floor, five feet to her right, and my stepfather on the other side of the living room, with a combination of rage and bafflement on his face. The wall itself had multiple fractures and a dent about a foot and a half in diameter.

“Are you okay?,” I asked my mother.

“Yeah, Donald, I’m fine. This between me and him.”

I didn’t move, figuring I either needed to take on Maurice myself or run to the back and actually call the police.

“Get the fuck out of here!,” Maurice yelled, seemingly ready to get up and attack me.

“Go on Donald. I’ll take care of this,” my mother said with a strange combination of calmness and confidence. I’d never heard my mother sound so sure about anything. Despite thoughts of Memorial Day ’82 going through my head—not mention my better judgment—I slowly backed out of the living room and into the hallway. All the while Maurice started to rise up off of the sofa to threaten and possibly attack me.

I went into the back and got into bed, thinking about what I knew I needed to do if he actually attacked my mother again. I waited for what I thought would be the grand finale. Nothing. Nothing else happened. It was like they were both in shock. My stepfather left the living room, rumbled through the hallway and punched open the door to our room before slamming the door to the master bedroom. Darren jumped out of bed and yelled this piercing yelp, like he was being tortured. I was mad at him too at that moment. I closed the door and went to sleep.

By the time I got up the next morning, my stepfather was packing up his clothes in one of my mother’s suitcases. He soon left, as if he were scared. When I asked what had happened the night before, my mother said, “A miracle.” In the heat of their argument, Maurice had picked up the crystal ashtray and thrown it at my mother. She said that it bounced off her right cheek and jaw, plowed into the wall three feet to where she’d been sitting, and then hit the floor to her right. If it had hit her as she said, my mother should’ve been unconscious with multiple facial fractures. But other than a minor scrape on her cheek and a headache, she was fine. The wall behind her wasn’t. My choices were to somehow believe that my stepfather missed her at point-blank range and took out part of the wall. Or to believe that a major miracle had occurred, leaving my mother with almost no physical damage.

Considering how Maurice left, it was much easier to believe that a miracle had occurred. What else would explain the silence, the sudden turn away from my mother and to the master bedroom, the sense of fear that my stepfather had the next day? The only other explanation would’ve been that he was afraid that we’d call the police. I was still willing to, but it wouldn’t have done me any good if my mother didn’t press charges. All I knew was that for the second time in nine years, Maurice had packed his things and left without any indication of where he was going. It turned out that he moved in with one of his women, and within three months, asked for a divorce so that he could get married again. My mother, true to form, said, “If he wants a divorce, he can paid for it his damn self.”

Two decades later, and I still don’t know what to believe. Even if I accept the probability of a miracle here — at least in terms of my mother coming out of a fight unscathed — then I also have to accept something else. That my mother needed another miracle, one from within. The one that allows her to see herself as having worth. To have taken enough charge over her life to have moved out, moved on, or to have gone to the police over what was happening at 616. To at least have the courage to have dropped the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing at the first sign of trouble, for herself if not for her kids. Of course, that’s not a miracle. It’s a transformation, one that took seven years and sixteen days to accomplish.

For most of us, a divorce can be anywhere from sad to abysmally devastating. Even if necessary, divorcees can take as long as two years to recover from their marriage’s dissolution. For their children, despite their resiliency, it could take even longer. In my mother’s case, the separation and divorce was the beginning of her recovery, and hardly the worst thing that could’ve happened to her. As far as I was concerned, it never was a marriage to begin with. It was an eleven-year odyssey of servitude, sexism and stupidity, and I couldn’t have been happier to see my ex-stepfather walking out of our lives for the last time.


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