Marriage in the Un-marriage Age

April 29, 2010

DNA Marriage, April 28, 2000

Yesterday made it ten full years since me and my wife Angelia exchanged marriage vows. Even though this is a great thing, this marriage and love of ours, it ain’t been a crystal stair either. Meshing our ways, our likes and dislikes, our approaches to life, and our baggage can still cause me and Angelia more gray hairs, not to mention ulcers. Noah has taken up much of our lives and time over the past seven years, leaving precious little time to work on our relationship. None of this takes into account the ups and downs of job security, financial stability, going back to school, and taking chances with our careers that can take their toll on any marriage, no matter how much spouses love each other.

The average long-term marriage lasts about fifteen years, so if I or one of you were to take a cynical perspective, you could say that our marriage has already reached the zenith, due to decline into a slow, painful cycle before the big D occurs. After all, we all have our issues, me in particular. With my socioeconomic background, I still find it amazing sometimes that anyone would fall in love with me, much less marry me. Prior to 2000, I never made more than $21,000 in a year, and the most I’ve made in any year in our ten-year marriage is $80,000 (although, that number represents most of our years together). With the financial problems we’ve had the past three years, including the feast and famine of consulting work — not to mention my work to publish Boy @ The Window — most women would’ve moved on for that reason alone. That’s the nature of marriage in an age in which money justifies almost everything people in our world do.

But there’s more, much more. I’ve discovered through a decade of marriage how truly imperfect and human I am. The high level of emotional control that I demonstrate in the workplace or in the classroom can be missing at times in my marriage. I care so much about making all of our lives better that I sound like I don’t care at all. I’ve been tempted — although not seriously so — about three or four times by other women over the years. Nothing approaching adultery has ever actually taken place. But temptation in one’s mind is still a challenge, one that all of us adult humans face. I’ve felt a number of times that a week away by myself on South Beach would be a good thing for both of us. And all of these things have been expressed in so many ways by Angelia over the past ten years as well.

So how does this thing work, this marriage, when our lives are so unbalanced, when we’re still growing and maturing as individuals, when dramatic changes occur in our lives, when there are children involved? I don’t have any major words of wisdom. All I know is, that after ten years, I still enjoying talking to my wife about everything. God, social justice, education, teaching, sports, music, sex, politics. I don’t tell Angelia every thought I have at every moment of every day the way I used to. But I do prefer to share things with her first before approaching any of my friends or current and former co-workers. I really can’t imagine having this kind of relationship with anyone else.

If I had to do this over again, would I get married again? Probably not. I’ve learned that when it comes right down to it, any serious relationship, in order for it to be a successful one, requires commitment, communications, and a rooted and grounded love. Having a piece of paper in the form of a marriage certificate, or even exchanging vows before God does not guarantee much but heartache and debt if the marriage doesn’t work out after the honeymoon. Marriage as we know it today is a two-century-or-so institution that sells us the dreams of harmonious, monogamous heterosexual relationships that are nominally sanctioned by God, but more directly, sanctioned by our government and economic system.

Knowing this, knowing all of the hard work that’s involved in maintaining a marriage, requires the ability to separate a relationship from the junk that has accumulated in our minds about how a marriage ought to be. Whoever thinks about their marriage in this way has ignored the human factor, the fact that we married another human being, not a robot that can only express unconditional love. Ultimately, for a real marriage to work, it means rejecting most of what we’ve learned about marriage from poets, priests and politicians (as Sting and The Police would say). It means having a marriage based only on who you are and who your spouse is, not one on societal, religious or others expectations. Which is why I would have the nerve to suggest that, looking back, I might not have gotten married to Angelia, at least in the way we define it these days.

Oh, I can hear it now. The voices of my more godly acquaintances, of men and (mostly) women complaining about what I’ve suggested. That I should feel lucky that I’m with a woman who understands me and would be willing to allow me to post this sacrilegious document. And how dare I go against the dictates of my God and Christianity. Fine. Believe what you will about me. I actually don’t care. But understand this. Any real commitment to another human being that involves supporting each other’s growth and maturing, the development and raising of another child, a love that endures through hardship and suffering as well as the good times, doesn’t need marriage as justification.

And yes, I’m a lucky man. To have the love and support of a wonderfully weird woman who understands me in ways few people in this world, including my mother, have even attempted to. To have been able to spend almost fifteen years in love with my best friend, with ten of those in marriage. If it somehow doesn’t last, if the worst occurs somehow, I still believe that I will always cherish the years we’ve had together, and the future that we will continue to strive for and in.

Driving as a Metaphor

April 26, 2010

I’ve spent the last few months talking about our individual and collective narcissism in this country, about Whites and Blacks and people of color and women and academics who all demonstrate our national psychosis. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that nothing illustrates our American narcissism more than what takes place on our roads and highways, in our parking lots and intersections, more than what we do as drivers and pedestrians. We are petty, nervous, angry, unyielding, selfish, oblivious and unthinking assholes when it comes to what we do to get from point A to points B and beyond every single day.

It took me a while to get to this point. I’m a late-blooming driver. I didn’t get my license until a month after my twenty-second birthday, during the morning of a minor snowstorm that had left six inches of snow on the ground at the testing center on Washington Blvd. in Pittsburgh. After that, I drove sporadically, renting a Ford Escort in Yonkers to get to a conference at Lincoln University in the hinterlands of southeastern Pennsylvania in May ’92. House-sitting for professors with car access in August ’92. Renting a car in July ’95 and April ’96 to go places. Borrowing my eventual mother-in-law’s car for errands and job interviews in July ’97, November ’97, November ’99 and November ’01. And more rentals of cars and a moving truck in May, June, July and August ’03, and July ’04. We didn’t buy our Honda Element until the end of September ’04, our first car, and definitely my first car. I was almost thirty-five years old.

But I’ve learned a lot in the past six years and 50,000 miles of driving. I’ve learned that there are only two kinds of narcissistic drivers: neurotic ones and psychotic ones. The neurotic ones tend to drive as if they’re about to be ambushed by an armed gang with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher driving in front, behind and beside them. They often drive five or ten miles below the speed limit, slow down for no reason, and make sure that everyone behind them become neurotic for fear of bumping into them. Neurotic drivers describe about thirty percent of the narcissistic people I encounter on the road.

Why narcissistic? Because — and I can attest to this feeling during my on-and-off again driving experiences between ’92 and ’04 — they’re driving scared, as if out of the 220 million people on the road, someone’s out to get them. That we as drivers have no margin for error, even though people may be beeping on us to speed up, jumping in front of us because of the five-car-long gap in front of us. These drivers drive as if it were an early Sunday morning in rural Georgia, and they were on their way to Macon for some Krispy Kremes before heading to church. Mind you, it’s usually the height of rush hour when this occurs.

But psychotic drivers are even more narcissistic. While neurotic drivers do what they do out of a combination of a need for self-preservation and their belief that the way they drive is the only way anyone should drive, psychotic drivers tend not to care much at all. They run stop signs and red lights, cut you off from making a turn, drive past you when you’re already ten miles over the speed limit themselves, honking and giving you the finger all the while. They don’t use turn signals to let you know they’re turning or changing lanes. They refuse to turn their lights on at night, even when you’ve given them the signal that their lights are off. They will brush the clothes of any pedestrian in a crosswalk, because no matter what, they have the right-of-way. They make u-turns that turn into three- and five-point turns in the middle of traffic, with no hint of an apology of any kind. They act as if other drivers are clairvoyant, and get angry if you don’t know what their next unpredictable move is.

These are the same people we work with, or used to go to school with, every day of the week. They go to church, temple, mosque and synagogue, attend PTA meetings, see plays and go to music concerts and sporting events. They go to the gas stations and supermarkets and strip malls. They are unpredictable people, the kind that are constantly on the phone or texting while they drive, as if bluetooth earpieces and headsets and hands-free technology haven’t been invented yet. They are us, the seventy percent of us out on the roads these days.

In many respects, driving with the psychotic is like being in high school for me all over again. In my case, of course, Mount Vernon High School might as well have been four years of time between gen pop and my neurotic grade-obsessed, cool-obsessed classmates. But I digress, again. I remember being in line at the cafeteria for lunch on about a hundred occasions with guys constantly trying to cut in because they didn’t want to wait. When I’d say, “No!,” often loudly, I’d get called “m____f____” and the f-word. It’s the same thing in rush hour traffic. All of sudden, some dumb butt comes up beside you, practically sticking the front end of his or her car in the way to get into my lane. I usually refuse, especially if they didn’t have their turn signal on or look as if they really are psychotic. That refusal usually draws a middle finger and some cuss words, racial epithets and other idiotic statements. Just like high school.

Even in parking lots or other areas where drivers have to stop, pull to the side or at least slow down, you see the high school stuff. The other day, at a Metro Rail station parking and pickup area near Silver Spring, a guy in a white Isuzu SUV stopped in the driving lane to wait for his girl, I guess, to walk out of the tunnel, walk through half the parking area, and put her bag in the back of the car. The skinny stick-of a-woman then took her time buckling her seat belt before they slowly got out of our way so that we could pick up our loved ones. I’ve seen people block my car for no reason, or worse still, people get out of their car to talk and snack on the hood of my car, I guess because it was too clean for them.

Pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists aren’t immune from this psychotic, narcissistic behavior. All attempt to have their cake and eat it too. While the law protects pedestrians in crosswalks, it doesn’t mean you can cross the street whenever you feel like it. If the light is green, don’t cross the street. If the crosswalk signal is orange or red and not blinking, and the light directly in front of you is about to turn red, that’s a pretty good sign that the traffic you’re about to cross into is about to start moving, right? And if you are jaywalking, walking the slow version equivalent of crossing patterns in football, you may want to, say, hurry it up by walking faster or running, instead of acting as if my insurance will cover your hospital bill.

Bicyclists and motorcyclists, when on the road, act as if we should watch out for them as they weave in and out of traffic, run stop signs and stop lights, and ride two and three across a lane. A bicycle weighs at most thirty pounds. A motorcycle, maybe 800. A car weighs anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 pounds. It might be a good idea to make a note of this when you flip a psychotic driver the bird when you’ve cut them off from making a turn.

I think that there should be a change in law, one that requires a person to have an education at least the equivalent of two years of college, and at least 500 hours of training as a driver, before they can obtain a driver’s license. And, that license should cost at least $600 (as much as two iPods), and really, between $1,000 and $1,500, renewable every ten years after a brief test. That would take most of the high-school-esque, narcissistic and psychotic drivers on the road today off of it, possibly including me (because I didn’t have 500 hours of driving to my credit before ’04). Given the stress that comes with driving, though, I would welcome the break.

Banning the Term “Legislate Morality”

April 23, 2010

I love Michael Wilbon’s work as a sports journalist, columnist with The Washington Post, as a commentator on the NBA on ESPN/ABC, and as co-host of Pardon the Interruption (PTI) on ESPN with Tony Kornheiser. I’ve loved his work for a bit more than two decades, certainly in comparison to Pope Lupica and the other holier-than-thou sports reporters and columnists out there these days. I find him refreshing as a journalist and writer, and an unabashed and unafraid host when it comes to how sports and American society intersect.

But I found myself bitterly disappointed in Wilbon’s “can’t legislate morality” comment on PTI on Wednesday, April 21. Wilbon said this in response to the NFL’s six-game suspension of two-time-Super Bowl-winning-quarterback and Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger for the latter’s violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. The NFL “shouldn’t legislate morality,” Wilbon said, as Roethlisberger “hadn’t committed a crime.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league, and the Steelers ownership were all “overreacting,” according to Wilbon. Well, Wilbon has certainly earned the right to be entitled to his opinion. But, as my wife has said to me on countless occasions, Wilbon’s also entitled to be wrong.

Societies, governments, employers and families “legislate morality” every single day, and have been doing so for as long as there has been a human civilization on this planet. Murder, stealing, banking regulations, adultery, and certainly sexual assault and rape are all examples of us “legislating morality” over the past five millenia. Now, I’m not totally naive — I know what Wilbon was attempting to say (I think). That because Roethlisberger wasn’t arrested, indicted or convicted, that the issue of his alleged encounter with a twenty-year-old White college student whom he helped become incredibly intoxicated is now a moral one, not a criminal one. Yes, this is true. But what would ESPN do to someone like Wilbon in the same situation? What would the University of Maryland system do to me in that situation? Would ESPN let Wilbon continue to show up for work without a reprimand, a suspension, or a quiet termination? Would I continue to teach classes, or would my employer consider not renewing my teaching contract?

We as a people legislate morality in ways that none of us really think about. Like Wilbon, most of us think that crimes are crimes and morals are morals, as if passed down from Moses or Hammurabi completely unchanged for the past 3,800 years. But moral issues have led to things that once were not crimes becoming crimes. The whole notion of illegal drugs or illegal immigrants didn’t exist in this country a century ago. Someone could’ve been a pot-smoking Polish immigrant “without papers” in 1910, and that immigrant wouldn’t have gone to jail. The folks in favor of making marijuana illegal or shutting off immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe didn’t end their crusades (however misguided) by saying, “Well, we can’t legislate morality!”

Or, to use much more recent examples, those White supremacists who said, “you can’t legislate morality” after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For nearly twenty years, those opposed to Black civil rights argued that the issue of Black equality was a moral issue, not a legal or human rights one. Or those from the Religious Right who said, “you can’t legislate morality” when the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973 or in the wake of the growing Gay Rights Movement in the late-1970s. Of course, in both cases, those in leadership who were influenced by what we now call the evangelical movement have engaged in legislating morality since the early ’90s, attempting to roll back Roe v. Wade and putting laws on books defining marriage as only between a heterosexual adult male and a heterosexual adult female.

On the issue of civil rights, desegregation, reproductive rights and gay rights, what is and isn’t moral isn’t just a matter of perspective. It’s also a matter of power and bias and the people who are wielding that power in order to reflect their bias. I’m not saying that Roethlisberger actually committed a crime, or that he didn’t commit a crime. Yet we cannot say that what Roethlisberger engaged in was simply a violation of the generally accepted morals of American society either. Even if seen in the most optimistic light, Roethlisberger brought significant embarrassment to himself, his team and teammates and the NFL. An executive at a Fortune 500 company could no more get away with going on a bender and attempting to have sex in a public bathroom — an incident that somehow becomes public — than Roethlisberger could. So for Wilbon or anyone else to rally around the “can’t legislate morality” flag is somewhere between idiotic and shameful.

The issue with Roethlisberger isn’t that the NFL’s engaged in legislating morality. Nor is it that the district attorney in Georgia wanted to bring a case to trial but couldn’t because of insufficient evidence. The real issue here is that we as a society have made a thick distinction between what is and isn’t moral behavior and what is and isn’t criminal behavior, because they aren’t mutually exclusive. For progressives and libertarians, the distinction is whether one’s behavior is detrimental to the health and lives of other people. Black civil rights, gay rights, and smoking weed are among the things that most would assume would not harm the lives of other citizens, at least in 2010. Having an encounter in a bathroom that leads to another person going to the hospital with bruising and bleeding, however minor, is detrimental to that other person.

In light of this being Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, maybe folks like Wilbon should be more careful when choosing words like “can’t legislate morality.” Not only do we legislate morality, societies will engage in this kind of activity as long as there is such a thing as a society. So I ask that everyone with a microphone and a camera pointed at them to stop talking about legislating morality as if moral values are as set in stone as the Earth orbiting the Sun. You’re merely reflecting your own bias, against women, gays, Blacks, drugs, science. Or in Wilbon’s case, a need to stay out of the judgment fray that moves us from one scandal to the next, a need to get to the day when Roethlisberger throws three, four or five touchdown passes in a game. On that part I fully agree. But say that, Wilbon, because that’s what you’re good at. Don’t say you can’t legislate morality, because last I checked, this isn’t your area of journalistic expertise.

First Contact

April 22, 2010

I met my wife Angelia (pronounced Angela, or, as she would say, “it’s ‘Angela’ with an ‘i'”) twenty years ago today. It was an early spring Saturday evening, one that’s typically crispy-cold in Pittsburgh. Our mutual friend Bryan was throwing himself an apartment-warming party. Bryan has recently moved into an apartment building in the Bloomfield/Friendship section of the ‘Burgh. I vaguely remember Bryan complaining that his one-bedroom apartment was $420/month, which, in Pittsburgh even now, could get you a one-bedroom apartment bigger than our first place in Silver Spring. Still, he was happy to have his own place, to not living at home or with roommates.

I was in a rare place of peace at the time of Bryan’s party. I had found my stride in my social life, with real friends, a solid group of acquaintances, and wonderful times. I was doing well academically without it being an obsession. And I was working, but only fifteen hours a week, leaving time to do so many other things like going to clubs and hanging out all hours. Bryan had become one of the folks in my circle that I could talk to about school, work, social issues, and music. Even though has was also the only person I knew who truly liked the late Barbara Sizemore, a professor in the Black Studies department at Pitt who had served as superintendent of DC Public Schools in the mid-1970s. To say that Sizemore was abrasive would be an insult to Brillo Pads mixed with pumice. But Bryan loved her, and though I had figured out that Bryan was gay, I assumed that he also wanted to marry her.

I was a bit surprised to have been invited to one of Bryan’s parties, which were sophisticated compared to the college-scene parties I’d been to before my junior year at Pitt. Now I’d see something like that and say that Bryan was trying too hard for an Iberian/Bohemian effect, minus the weed and the crystal meth. But back then, it would’ve been like being a working-class character on Kelsey Grammer’s show Frasier, all awe-struck by the expanse of space that I saw when I first walked in his place on April 22 two decades ago.

It was a place that I would’ve never, ever complained about back then, with a small foyer, a kitchen with more counter space than we have even now, and a bedroom larger than my one-room firetrap of an efficiency in South Oakland. Bryan had turned his living room into a meet-and-greet-and-dance space, with red-colored light bulbs and red candles lit. The beverage of choice was Bryan’s own margarita concoction, blended just right. Blended so well that I was on my third before I realized that there was a ton of alcohol in it.

That was when I met my future wife for the first time. It was the first time we had met, but not the first time I’d ever seen here. Six weeks before, on an eighty-plus degree March day just before Spring Break, me, my friend Kenny and a couple of others sat on the corner of Forbes and Bigelow. We were across the street from the Cathedral of Learning, outside of the William Pitt Union, rating the young women as they walked by. It was fun of course, and some of the women knew what we were doing, so we did catch hell at times. Then this tall woman with a middling skirt walked by, her head held up high, her cheeks as puffy as a bird’s, her hair and makeup done really well. Kenny said, “She looks thirteen!,” and we all burst out laughing as she walked by. She didn’t notice, oblivious to the humor we were having at her expense.

Angelia was Bryan’s boss at his part-time interviewer job with Campos Market Research. Bryan was such a connector/networker (as Malcolm Gladwell would describe him if her knew Bryan back then) that he could become friends with almost anyone in those days. Bryan had apparently invited the two of us to the party to meet, to set up his two over-six-foot-tall Black friends, as if height alone would bring us together. Angelia was already in an on-and-off again relationship with a third-string Pitt football player, one whom I’d met before. A man with a head bigger than Donovan McNabb’s, but whose athletic skills were average at best. Angelia had recently become a part-time student at Pitt while working full-time hours at Campos in downtown Pittsburgh, so she probably wasn’t in the mood to meet a young man about sixteen months away from graduate school.

So Bryan introduced us. She was just over six-feet tall, with her hair permed and teased. Angelia was wearing a pink-and-white checkered blouse, with the front-fringe tied into a knot. She wore a long, flared dark-denim skirt with sheet pantyhose and short heels. She was attractive. Until I started talking to her. Angelia’s voice, with that Pittsburgh accent, reminded me of listening to a duck as it bit another one in a pond in a fight over pieces of floating bread. She sounded weird, and she seemed bored. Then, when Angelia asked me about school, and I told her that “it’s going well. I have a chance to get a 4.o this semester,” I might as well have said that “I’m doing much better than you.” At least according to her. Bryan apparently asked Angelia, “What do you think?” “He’s arrogant!,” she apparently blurted out in response. When Bryan asked me what I thought of Angelia, I said, “She’s weird!” Given what I was like back then, me calling someone weird was saying something.

Needless to say, we didn’t exactly hit it off. But I kept bumping into her in the weeks after the night at Bryan’s margarita-ville. During my two weeks working for Campos, thanks to Bryan. During the summer on Pitt’s campus. The following fall, where we inadvertently ended up seeing a movie together and going out to eat afterward. It would take nearly six years to get beyond “arrogant” and “weird” to significant others. And another four before our marriage. I guess this disproves the idea that you have only one chance to make a first impression.

Comparative Slavery

April 20, 2010

This time twenty years ago, I was finishing up what would turn out to be my first 4.0 semester at Pitt as an undergrad. I’m not bragging, even though my wife once thought I was (more on that in a few days). Key to the way that semester turned out — academically, at least — was a graduate course I talked myself into my junior year, Comparative Slavery. I found a loophole in the University of Pittsburgh handbook that allowed an undergrad to take a graduate school if that course would eventually be used as credit toward a master’s degree in that student’s fifth year. Somehow, I convinced my advisor and an administrator to let me take the course. Groveling and highlighting of obscure rules in the Pitt handbook were involved, though.

It was a good course, taught by Sy Drescher, whose scholarly research we in the history field would now consider part of Transatlantic Studies, as he looked at slavery from the standpoint of its impact on European notions of freedom, as much as he looked at the slave trade itself. As an aside, my nutty Carnegie Mellon University professor Dan Resnick once wrote a letter of recommendation for me to the Spencer Foundation discussing how huge an impact Drescher had on me as a student, which helped me become the great grad student I was. It was a bigoted, paternalistic letter, and I don’t think Drescher would’ve appreciated it if he had known about it. Drescher was one of my best professors at Pitt, undergrad and grad, but his student Paul Riggs was the one who had made a big impression on me in terms of my decision to pursue history as a degree, and to a large extent a profession.

But I digress, once again. This was my second course with Drescher as my professor. My freshman year, I had taken his Western Civilization II course (about how Europe came to dominate the world, 1492-present). It was a great course, and when I saw that he was teaching this one, I sought advice from Paul about the course and about his advisor, all of which convinced me to take it. I learned so much in that semester from that course, and not just the academic content. The fact that American slavery wasn’t the worst in the Western Hemisphere, the fact that the slave trade continued because the average life expectancy of slaves in places like Brazil and Haiti was about seven years, the fact that slavery and the slave trade made money for everyone involved, including West Africans. It was an eye-opening course.

I also learned a few important life and academic socialization lessons. I was in a class of seven people, including about three veteran grad students, a grad student who was the son of a famous civil rights leader, and a nineteen-year old first-year grad student who had gone off to college at the age of fifteen. Listening to these folks debate serious historical issues week after week was fun at first. Until I realized that some of them didn’t know what they were talking about. That at least two were classic yet sophisticated brown-nosers, attempting to sell arguments that would most likely impress Drescher (luckily, our professor didn’t like brown-nosers). And that there were many moments when all seven of us would sit in our grad seminar stumped by a question Drescher asked us about our readings for that week. I learned that students with master’s degrees or working on master’s degrees weren’t any more intelligent than I was as a college junior, or for that matter, when I was a high school junior. They simply read more on a given set of topics, much more in some cases than ninety-five percent of the educated public.

We had a primary source research paper on comparative slavery to do that semester, one that was supposed to be between twenty-five and thirty-five pages long. I decided to do mine on slavery in South Africa versus slavery in the US. It was a continuation of my undergraduate interest in South Africa that had developed my sophomore year. It turned out that with the other paper assignments and readings, Drescher realized that no one in the class would have their papers ready in time to submit by the end of April. So a week before the papers were due, he assigned us all “I” grades (incomplete) and told us to get our papers done as soon as possible.

It put me in a weird position, because I wasn’t a grad student. My semester Work-Study job was up, and I had made plans to be in Mount Vernon that summer working for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health again. So it meant that I needed a job and some money in May and possibly June, I needed to extend my one-room efficiency lease, and I needed to turn a seventeen-page draft into a workable document of at least twenty-five pages. The last part was the easiest, since I had access to British parliamentary document and documents from the colonial government in South Africa about the conditions of slaves and the laws about slavery in that part of the world, all on microfiche. I just needed time to work on it.

Plus, I needed to get over the fact that I had earned A’s in my other four courses that semester: Latin American Revolutions, History of Africa to 1800, History of Blacks in Sports, and American Working-Class History. I had learned that semester how to be a cool nerd, to be diligent, to be social, to hang out when I made the time, and to study when I made the time as well. I had found balance in my life and broken free from six years of Humanities thinking. I no longer obsessed about A’s, which I believed was why I was doing nothing but earning them that semester.

So I did nothing on the comparative slavery paper in the first seventeen days of May. I worked my idiot job at Campos Market Research, where one of my friends and my eventual wife worked (again, more about that in a couple of days). I hung out with E (see “The Power of Another E” post from April 2009) and my other folks, took some driving lessons, went to see the Pirates play, cried about my Knicks again, and watched the Detroit Pistons clothesline players on their way to the hoop. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time, and learned that life really is ironic as a result of reading his story.

Then I got a call from my eventual boss with Westchester County, telling me I had until June 19 to start my job if I still wanted it for the summer. That, and Drescher about to go on vacation after Memorial Day sent me into overdrive. It took a week, but I wrote, cut, wrote and revised my paper until it was thirty-four pages long and had enough endnotes to take up another six pages. It was by far the best academic writing I’d done up to that point in school. I think that Drescher was so happy that any of us turned in a paper that made any sense at all that he graded me on a curve and gave me an A. Honestly, I was just happy to have it out of the way.

I knew by the end of May that I was ready for grad school. It would take until I was done with my doctorate to prove to people like Dan Resnick, though, that I was truly grad school material. Either way, I think of that semester and this course and realize that while I would always care about my grades, I stopped worrying about them after that. And that really is a kind of freedom that can’t be underestimated, especially going into my senior year and in those six years of grad school that came after. I think that this experience helped me to become a better and more confident me.

My Father and Conservatives

April 13, 2010

This particular post may be a bit much for some of you. So this is a warning. There are some verbal bombs in this posting. It’s a “What-If?” post about a hypothetical interview between me and my father. My father, though, at the height of his alcoholism, when even on his best days, Miller Beer wasn’t far from his mind. This pseudo-interview would be me as if I was Ernie Johnson as anchor for the NBA on TNT with Charles Barkley, being played by my drunken father from the second half of the ’80s. The topic? The last couple of years of the Conservative Movement, specifically its response to the presidency of Barack Obama and its obsession with spreading fear and fomenting violence, as if Armageddon were on our very doorstep. Remember: you’ve been forewarned.

So I asked, “Do you think the changing conservative movement has been a positive influence on Americans in the past two years?”

My father: “That Reagan a good man dere, but most of those dum muddafuckin’ conservatives don’t know shit. Reagan think you dumb asses too, and he dead! I’m tired of yo’ muddafuckin’ asses sayin’ a bunch of stupid shit all the time! You tea baggers need to go bag some the fuck else where! You dum muddafuckas, and I’m tired of yo’ shit! I beat yo’ ass and keep beatin’ yo’ ass, you dum muddafuckas!” Father Files 1.April 2010

Me: “Wow! I mean, are you in the camp of those progressives and other folks who’ve been using the text messaging acronym STFU in their comments about the Tea Party and other reactionary conservatives? Do you really think that they deserve this kind of language and response?”

My father: “I’m a big shot muddafucka. I make fitty million dollas a week. Look at dis dum lookin’ muddafucka conservative — dat dum muddafucka cain’t do shit fo’ me! Muddafucka! Got thoughts nobody want! I buy an’ sell muddafuckas ’round here! I kick yo’ muddafuckin’ stupid ass! And I’m da boss of the bosses. No conservative tell me what ta do. You conservatives don’t know shit!” Father Files 2.April 2010

Me: “Well, okay. Do you have any final words for the folks who have become part of the post-Obama conservative movement, or do you really care about this at all?”

My father: “You dum muddafuckin’ conservatives — su my dict! You dum muddafuckas. I don’ giv’ no money to no dum muddafuckin’ conservative. If you a conservative, I don’ want you ’round me. You betta get the fuck outta here!” Father Files 3.April 2010

Hopefully most of you laughed and weren’t too offended. Still, I have a few points to make regarding this. Our language toward each other has become so coarse and rough that we sound like my father when he was in his mid-forties, drinking many more days than not, and angry at the world. We’ve reached the point where most of us — me included — refuse to take the high road. In our language or actions. The Tea Party or other conservatives who’ve become like rabid dogs really don’t have anything to say. Which is why President Obama is a Nazi/Communist/Socialist tyrant (by the way, all educated Blacks who are too uppity are Communists, going all the way back to World War I ). Or why health care reform is a form of terrorism, alternative energy the downfall of American civilization, and talking with the world the road to Hell itself.  Many of these folks are — dare I say it — closeted bigots who were crushed by Obama’s election in ’08. But we live in an era in which racism should never be mentioned, especially by people who look like me. So I’m saying it anyway.

But for progressives to respond with STFU across Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere? Conservatives, even bigoted ones who are tea-baggers and part of the birther movement, have the right to spout their idiotic ideology. I have a bit of experience with the bizarre form of Afrocentric Judaism that I grew up with or listening to folks spew their venom toward Whites in the form of Melanin Theory in the ’90s. We gain little to nothing with verbal bombs the equivalent of being in a bar with your blitzed father on East 241st Street in the Bronx in ’84 or ’85.

I must admit, though, that this hypothetical conversation (based on far too many real ones between ’82 and ’97) made me laugh a few sheepish laughs. Not of approval, but of understanding. Understanding that not everyone can maintain civility at all times. Certainly not me, and certainly not the likes of Tiger Woods. But try we must, even if the other side’s foaming at the mouth. Others, hopefully, will see that those who are foaming are in need of a rabies shot.

Raised on Hip-Hop?

April 10, 2010

About seven years ago, I had lunch with a young woman and my former boss (see “What We’ll Do for $$$” post, July ’09) at some overpriced Dupont Circle restaurant specializing in Russian cuisine. It was just before the birth of my son Noah. There was so much wrong in that lunch, in that conversation, in the dynamics of that conversation. But in between the idiotic moments of conversation, there was something completely unrelated to it mentioned that topped everything else. In describing her background in the arts and humanities, the young woman said, “I grew up on hip-hop…”

“Huh?,” I thought. Where did that come from? At the time, I was thirty-three, and she was twenty-seven. That would’ve meant that the young woman was born in ’75 or ’76. Hip-hop was barely an embryo the day she was born, and hadn’t become a truly national phenomenon until the end of ’86. Even then, it would take until the ’90s for hip-hop to dominate the music scene. And, given that this individual had grown up in the mid-Atlantic region and in the Midwest — not exactly hotbeds for the development of hip-hop — I found her statement somewhere between ridiculous and as true as a hollow bell.

It did get me thinking, though, about how circumscribed lives in this country of ours can be when we believe that everyone should see the world the way we see it. As if everyone else’s experience can be encompassed in our little life story. “I was raised on hip-hop” sounded to me like this young woman’s family, friends, community and education was completely immersed in the development and growth of hip-hop. Short of her being best friends with Russell Simmons, Sean Coombs and MC Lyte, the statement’s unbelievable on its face. But it’s also a refusal to recognize that the idealized way in which we describe our lives and world doesn’t really add up to what our world was, is, or the way in which we would like it to be.

Now, there are a whole generation of folks who’ve grown up listening to nothing but hip-hop, dancing in nothing but hip-hop rhythms, reading hip-hop-based novels and watching movies with hip-hop themes. Those folk, born after ’82, have the right to say that they were “raised on hip-hop.” But what does that mean, really? That they see the world through the lens of hip-hop culture? That American politics, globalization, social justice, education, popular culture, sports and entertainment can all be seen by folks simply and completely through the lens of hip-hop culture? If it does mean that, then I guess that’s a’ight. After all, that’s how some of these people in the hip-hop era have grown up.

I suspect, however, that this isn’t what folks like the young woman I described earlier mean when they say that they were “raised on hip-hop.” They’re asserting a sense of Blackness, an essence of an understanding of being Black or African American that they assume cannot be distilled as easily through their parents’ R&B, Jazz or pop music, through dance or art that’s more consistent with more culturally integrative times. For them, hip-hop is being Black — or “keepin’ it real” — a step beyond The Lost Poets, a phase past Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, a grittiness that can’t be expressed through Diana Ross, Michael Jackson or Quincy Jones. Hip-hop is being Black in an urban and impoverished context — or being real and cool, I suppose — even when the people growing up on it aren’t impoverished or aren’t even Black.

And I have problems with this assessment of what being “raised on hip-hop” means for so many who have embraced it without understanding the eclectic origins of hip-hop. Or without acknowledging that too much drink from this well can be as isolating as only embracing neo-conservative ideology or only believing that one denomination of a religion — much less an entire religious ideology — can provide all of the answers we will ever need in this life.

The rhythms of my voice, my ability to speak and write in standard English, my eclectic music collection and my understanding of math and science, all illuminate the fact that I have lived a life of many textures. Yet I am still a Black man whose life was shaped by poverty, racism, community, education, music, sports and so many other things that other African Americans of similar backgrounds face and often embrace. I would never claim that I was “raised on hip-hop” any more than I’d say that I was “raised on physical abuse.” I heard Sugar Hill Gang, Doug E. Fresh and Run D.M.C. between ’80 and ’86, and I experienced physical abuse, but I wasn’t “raised” by either. My experiences are a part of me, but they don’t define me, and I certainly wouldn’t allow myself as an African American be defined by them.

To misquote Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus from The Matrix (1999), I’ll say this: “What is Black? How do you define, Black? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘Black’ is simply a social construct interpreted by our brains.” Being Black isn’t all that’s hip-hop, and hip-hop isn’t all that makes or defines anyone as Black. It’s the totality of our experiences and actions that do so. Even if we were “raised” on country music, lima beans and Ex-lax.


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