That’s The Way of The World

May 31, 2010

We’ve come together on this special day
To sing our message loud and clear

Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days
Future, past, they disappear — Earth, Wind & Fire, 1975

Today’s day and date marks twenty-eight years exactly since my stepfather beat my mother unconscious not more than twelve feet from my bedroom (’82 calendar = ’10 calendar). It was a traumatic experience, something like witnessing a nuclear explosion but somehow surviving to tell the story, with my vision fully intact. I talked about this before, on this blog, in a number of posts over the past three years. It’s unfortunate that Memorial Day for me is more about this event than it is about patriotism or brave soldiers long gone. Especially since I embarked on this Boy @ The Window project of mine five years ago.

The worst thing about this day and date for me is that it reminds me of loss, sorrow, my past hate, my renewal of forgiveness for myself and for my family. For at 3:30 in the afternoon twenty-eight years ago, my childhood ended. It didn’t matter how much of a child I was, how goofy or weird I may’ve acted afterward, or how much child-like wonder and joy has remained over the years. I can never go back to being the purposefully naive twelve-year-old I was back then. Not at 3:32 pm on May 31, ’82, and certainly not now.

That’s the way of the world
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart so cold

It’s too bad iPods didn’t exist in ’82, because I could’ve used a moment or two to give my last rites to my youth through one of my all-time favorites, Earth, Wind & Fire. That is, after helping my mother regain consciousness, feeding my younger siblings, making my older brother help me with my mother and generally being upset with myself that I didn’t call the police. Unfortunately, my idiot stepfather loved Earth, Wind & Fire as well (at least their earlier funk and later disco hits, nothing of substance, thank goodness). Still, the lyrics to “That’s The Way Of The World” fit the emotions of that day as far as my life was concerned. That’s The Way Of The World

My mother swears to this day that she doesn’t remember the incident. Good for her, I guess. My ex-stepfather, now almost sixty, is a Type-2 diabetic whose kidney functions have been non-existent for seventeen years, and as of a year ago, lost a leg to a disease of his own overeating making. There are times, I must admit, that I’m all right with the fact that this man’s life has become a nightmare over the past two decades. That I get a sense of reckoning out of his downward spiral. But those thoughts are quickly followed up by the urge to forgive, and certainly not for his sake. Strictly for my own. I wouldn’t want his health situation, for myself or for anyone else.

You will find peace of mind
If you look way down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate ‘cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart…

So I’ve come to on this special day to say my message loud and clear. That the ways of this world will choke the youth and life out of us if we allow it. The only reason that I’m still able to feel child-like most of the time is because of my hopes, dreams and vivid imagination, as well as God’s grace over the years. With Noah these past seven years, I’ve stayed young at heart (and, for the most part, in body as well). “‘Cause you’re never, never, never old at heart.”


When I See Me Smile

May 30, 2010

Sometimes people say the most brilliant of things, so much so that they make you stand at attention. On Thursday, former MTV Real World star, Vibe magazine writer and editor, author and political activist Kevin Powell (not to mention a 2010 candidate for Congress from Brooklyn) wrote the following on Facebook:

“Often people put you in a box, relate to a you that no longer exists, a you they may have met, seen, or heard about, rightly or wrongly, years back, a you that was trying to figure out who you are. But if those kinds of people insist on not seeing you now, smile, be polite, and keep it moving as far from them as you can. They are imprisoned by their own minds. Do not become an inmate in their prison.”

Powell’s pearl of wisdom said as much in eighty-two words as I’ve been saying off and on for the past three years on this blog. That despite all we may have accomplished in our lives, many folks tend to see us only in the ways in which they decide to see us. That’s too bad, more for those folk than for us, but too bad anyway.

In my case, the past five years of working on Boy @ The Window have revealed much of what Powell expressed in his short yet wonderfully well-written statement. During one of my interviews for the book, a former classmate said that one of her first images of me after we’d reconnected was my “great smile.” A good number of my former teachers and classmates, in fact, remembered me as someone who smiled a lot, as if I had much to smile about. I don’t recall smiling very much during the Humanities years.

I was deliberate with my facial expressions, like Rob Brown’s character Jamal Wallace in the movie Finding Forrester. I was so deliberate that they were second nature by the time I reached Mount Vernon High School. I had a sarcastic “No shit!” look when I sniffed bullshit. I cracked a smile when others were in a cheerful or unhappy mood, either in admiration or to help them smile as well. If anyone had cared to notice, the only times I truly smiled were the times I laughed out loud, or the times I couldn’t help but act goofy, or when something I had heard on radio had momentarily put me in a good mood. Otherwise, the “smile” I had on my face was an almost perpetual facial expression, a smirk really by the time we’d reached eleventh grade.

I needed to express as little emotion as possible back then, between my classmates — who I saw as self-absorbed and uncaring — and my family — where a flash of my anger could lead to a fist connecting with my face. So I wore a permanent weak smile on my face. I wanted no questions about my home life, no arguments or strife, no incidents with my now ex-stepfather to run away from. My true smiles were rare, and were reserved for private moments, for me and only me.

That may well be my loss as much as anyone’s. After all, it’s not as if anyone outside of myself would’ve known the difference between my moments of true emotional expression and my blank slate face, right? Well, my late teacher Harold Meltzer did notice. He told me once, whenever his lessons had caught my full attention, that I was fascinated, that “even though [I] never moved a muscle in [my] face, [my] eyes used to flash.”  “I could see that, ” Meltzer continued, “no one else could see but I could see . . . .”  He was right, as usual, that when I smiled, I smiled on the inside.

Now when I smile or express any other emotion, I think I’m pretty obvious about it. That much has changed. But in looking at myself through the eyes of others, especially others from my growing-up years, I see so much that they couldn’t see, and some who still can’t see me, the past or present me. It may be easier to remember me smiling above anything else, if only because my smiles were so rare, for them and for me.


First Impressions and Brandie

May 27, 2010

Half-Sleep Mug Shot

A year and a half before me and Brandie were together in Humanities and 7S, my father Jimme took me and my older brother Darren to his “girlfriend’s” two-bedroom apartment on Mount Vernon’s South Side. The place felt bigger to me than it actually was. Maybe it was because of the day we made this visit. It was a Saturday in May ’80, when May used to mean early spring, and not May showers, October winds, and August heat and humidity, like it does now. It was sunny, and that sunshine found its way into that apartment that day, highlighting heavily polished wood and making the yellow walls brighter. Even though Brandie’s mother and Jimme were having drinks and paid me and Darren little mind, it was nice getting out of our sparse space at 616. It was good that Jimme actually showed up this time.

About an hour into the visit, Brandie walked into the apartment door. She held several bags in her hands from shopping. All I noticed was that Brandie was taller than me, and wider too. I saw her as a woman of massive girth, somewhere nearing six feet in height, the stereotypical Black woman whom people like my mother had spent the previous decade of my life making fun of. I couldn’t resist. Like a mindless idiot, I said “Wow, she’s fat!” with glee in my eyes and a welcoming smile all over my face. For me, it was as if I had said, “Wow, you’re gorgeous, and your skin has a wonderful glow!”

Brandie’s reaction was one of stone-faced, speechless shock. Jimme gave me a semi-chuckled “Donald!” to let me know that I had said something inappropriate, but other than that, nothing. Brandie didn’t scream or holler, Brandie’s mother said nothing about it, and everyone — including Brandie — carried on with conversations until we left for home. I learned that Brandie attended Grimes and about Humanities for the first time. I didn’t know that I’d be a classmate of hers sixteen months later.

We ended up fighting inside of six weeks of being together in 7S. I thought I was the “smartest kid in the whole world,” while Brandie thought I was a “dumb ass.” After punching her in the breast, I was also a “pervert” — and pathetic me didn’t even know what “pervert” meant — for the rest of the year. Boy, I really was a dumb ass back then!

It took me until the end of high school for Brandie to see me any other way other than the idiot ten-year-old that I’d been. By then, she had changed as well, and mostly no longer cared for Mount Vernon or most of us as her classmates. But, she didn’t hate me anymore, at least. Brandie and I hugged at our high school graduation in ’87, but not before saying, “You’ve changed a lot over the years. You used to be an asshole you know!”

She was right, of course. Unfortunately, she’s not here for me to say that. Or to say that I’m sorry. Not just for calling her fat. Not just for my prejudice toward people with obesity. But for not revealing my truer self, my better self to her, not in ’80 or ’81 or ’87. Despite all evidence to the contrary, sometimes we really only get one chance to make a good impression on others.


Teacher Ignorance

May 25, 2010

I’m confronted with the fact that not all teachers are competent or considerate when dealing with their students. In the past week, my son Noah has had two incidents with his first-grade teacher that have involved a complete lack of communication skills. On one, I ended up sitting with Noah in detention for something Noah shouldn’t have been in detention for in the first place. On the other, Noah was accused of cheating — yes, a six-year-old was accused of cheating — on a math quiz because he didn’t put his pencil down immediately after time was up.

We contacted Noah teacher and one of his principals, because the teacher overreacted on both occasions. But now, I feel as if Noah is dealing with a problem that I had the pleasure of dealing with in second grade, ignorant teachers. By ignorant, I don’t mean stupid or dumb. I mean teachers who are ignorant of context, whose level of world knowledge is limited, who understand the letter of the law only slightly, and the spirit of it even less.

The first teacher I had who was like this was my second-grade teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary (now Cecil Parker) in Mount Vernon, Mrs. Hirsch. One of only two White teachers I had in all of elementary school, Mrs. Hirsch was extremely impatient with all of us. She snapped at us for violating any rules at all. “No talking,” she’d yell, and very loudly at that, for any whispering whatsoever. Our single-file lines in the hallway were the straightest in the school in all likelihood. I thought that Mrs. Hirsch was mean.

And she proved it one day during a spelling test. I was already upset that day, as my mother and father were divorcing, and the stress of it had landed my mother in the hospital. I wasn’t feeling well, and was a bit stressed myself. We started the test, and I, with my usually disgusting self, dug a booger out of my left nostril, which landed right on my paper. I wiped the rest on there as well. Another student said, “Ill, Donald!,” and I said something back, something like, “I couldn’t help it.” Mrs. Hirsch came over, looked at my paper, and gave me a zero on the spot. “Shame on you, young man,” she said.

My crime was cheating. At least according to Mrs. Hirsch. But what I’d really done was disgusted her with my booger, nothing more, nothing less. That was it for me as far as Mrs. Hirsch was concerned. I hoped that she would melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

Noah’s issues of late are even more innocent than me digging up my nose during a test. He talked too much to his friends last week, so he and I got to spend ten minutes in his teacher’s classroom during the Dine with Dads event last Friday while she’s eating lunch in the teachers lounge? Or going overtime on a math quiz constitutes cheating? That’s ignorance, plain and simple, unacceptable and unbecoming of a teacher dealing with students as young as Noah.


Kiss From A Rose (or [sigh] “Hi” )

May 20, 2010

Fifteen years ago on this date, I re-met the woman who’s now my wife of ten years, Angelia on a PAT-Transit bus in Pittsburgh, the old 71B-Highland Park into Oakland. It was an eighty-five degree Saturday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. I decided to treat myself to a movie, Batman Forever, mostly because I knew Val Kilmer was in it. After seeing him act as well as he did in Tombstone, I figured I needed to give it a try. I needed a break, between the euphoria of the Spencer Fellowship and the depression from the fire at 616 that had rendered my family homeless.

So here it was, 3:15 in the afternoon, with me dressed in a blue t-shirt with blue basketball shorts and sneaks. I was standing at the corner of Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, across from my apartment building, waiting for a bus. The 71B showed up first. I jumped on, sat down on the right-hand side in a front-facing seat. As soon as I sat down, I saw her, sitting right in front of me. It was “Angela with an ‘i’,” Angelia, like that Richard Marx song from ’90.

The thing was, I had a dream that she showed up in the Saturday before this one. I hadn’t seen Angelia in more than two years, hadn’t given her any thought. But it seemed weird that she would just show up a week later in the flesh.

So I said, “Hi Angelia!,” excitedly, wondering what she was doing on the bus. She paused, said “Hi” with the heaviest, stop-bothering-me sigh I’d heard since my high school days. That didn’t deter me. I coaxed out of her the fact that she was pissed off with Carnegie Library because a book she was looking for at the East Liberty branch wasn’t there, even though the catalog said it was. It was a conversation that was one-sided, with Angelia doing most of the complaining.

I listened, and thought, “Yep, same Angelia, same weird Angelia.” But since I was weird also, I kept listening. Finally, she asked me what I was up to. I told her about school, my Spencer Fellowship, my family’s homelessness situation. I kept it brief. I mean, I hadn’t seen her in two years.

By the time we reached Oakland — me to catch one of the 61s to Squirrel Hill to catch the movie, Angelia to walk over to the main branch of Carnegie Library — we exchanged numbers, with Angelia saying, “It was really good talking to you.” I wasn’t so sure about that myself, but at least, she didn’t seem as weird as the woman she was five years earlier.

I went to see the movie, and it sucked, just like Angelia said it would. I walked home, got together some grub, and through all preconceptions out the window. I gave her a call to tell her that she was right about the film. We ended up talking for more than three hours! It was the first time in a long time I had talked to a woman who wanted to hear what I thought about, well, anything, at least anything outside of sex. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.


Outrage, Maybe

May 18, 2010

Today’s date makes it thirteen years since I marched in my polyester cap and gown in a hot and humid tent on Carnegie Mellon’s campus to receive my doctorate. It should’ve been a great day, but it was a bittersweet one. For it revealed far more about my mother’s imperfections and jealousies than I ever wanted to know (see “My Post-Doctoral Life” post from May 18, ’08). That was sad, and remains one of the worst times in my life. Not just because of my relationship with my mother since then. Because, as a result of her actions, I never did get the chance to properly accept my degree in an individual department ceremony, in front of my closest peers, my former professors, and especially my dreaded advisor, Joe Trotter.

Outrage Poster (HBO, 2009)

About two months ago, I saw the documentary (finally) Outrage on HBO. Outrage, for those of you who haven’t watched, is the story about powerful Washington politicians and operatives, ones who’ve used their power to discriminate against gays and lesbians, really the whole LGBT community. Ones whom themselves are gay, deep in the closet, but gay. Ones whom folks like Michael Rogers have made a point of exposing their hypocrisy by outing them. Everyone from Ed Koch — which explained a lot to me, seeing as I found the former mayor of New York from ’77 to ’89 an enigma while I was growing up — to Larry Craig and Florida Governor Charlie Crist was in the film.

It was a good film, and a revelation to me. The lengths to which people in powerful position and places will go to protect their secrets, their power, by destroying others if necessary. It’s safe to say that this is how I see my former advisor as well. I’m not suggesting that Joe Trotter is gay or in the closet, for I have no evidence of this (or of his heterosexuality, for that matter!). But, the film helped me realize that a person doesn’t have to have a secret of the magnitude of being gay in a homophobic society to be a hypocrite. Being Black on a historically anti-Black campus like Carnegie Mellon could just as easily do the trick.

It may be impossible for my former advisor to hide his skin color, but boy did he try to get me to hide my Blackness by doing what he called “running interference” on me on multiple occasions. He tried to forbid me from doing conference presentations, at AERA and on the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the University of Georgia. From sending drafts of articles to the Journal of American History and other scholarly publications. Trotter practically blew his shiny-headed top when he found out

Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr. (circa 2008)

about my feature piece (done with my friend Marc) in Black Issues in Higher Education back in ’93. There was something there with Trotter that I didn’t take the time to piece together when I was his student, as I was too busy trying to get out of there as fast as I could.

Yet, there are signs that Trotter was “in the closet” about something, be it race, jealousy, sexual orientation, maybe even a rough upbringing. At least two other male students, one who graduated a year ahead of me, the other who never finished his dissertation, who had problems with Trotter, personality conflicts, confounding issues that went unexplained. Even when each of us took into account Trotter wanting his “proletarianization hypothesis” in our doctoral dissertations.

Whatever it was, it was enough where he all but refused to help any of us — male or female — find work or  get postdoctoral fellowships, even after finishing our doctorates. What a hypocrite! His thirty years of scholarship have been all about recognizing the active role ordinary Blacks played in shaping their lives and communities, despite racism and violence. His role with me and other students was in opposition to his own research, at least during my time there.

If I’d had the chance to speak at the individual ceremony thirteen years ago, especially after watching something like Outrage, I’d have said the following. That as much as liked working with my advisor at the beginning of our four years of working together, that I always felt uneasy about his guidance. That there was always a sense that I hadn’t fulfilled my end of the bargain, that I hadn’t met my half of the quid pro quo. And that because I was a late-bloomer in many respects, sex included, I couldn’t fully understand what he really expected of me beyond my academic work. It’s too bad he didn’t come out and say whatever it was he wanted from me, it would’ve made both of our times working with each other easier. Too bad, for in the end, it was his loss, of a friend and potential colleague, not mine.


Hatin’ the Player Over the Game

May 17, 2010

Lawrence Taylor

Let’s see now. Big Ben Roethlisberger, the great LT and Brian Cushing have all found themselves in trouble in recent weeks. With the law, with the NFL and with fans from all over Football Land. The Fourth Estate and the 4.5 Estate (bloggers) have gone on, and on, and on about how these guys lack discipline, are entitled whiners and complainers, and believe that they can get away with anything. These pop-psychology ruminations are much more pop than social psychology, with some being down-right idiotic. The bottom line is, at the bottom of their tax returns, where the IRS asks for your profession, these players (or their tax preparers) write or type “Football Player” in that spot. And that’s all the explanation you need when it comes to criminal behavior, criminal-esque behavior, and just plain bad behavior.

To be sure, many of these players — and not just in the NFL — are spoiled, entitled, whiny, and do think that they can get away with more than an ordinary American. Sure, some of our reaction to think is colored by race, as the majority of players of two of the three major team sports in this country are Black. But while race is a factor in perception and entitlement a factor in general, the real problem with professional football players is the nature of the game itself, especially in terms of violent crimes.

We somehow expect people who’ve spent a significant amount of their time playing a sport like football to somehow turn off all of the intensity, adrenaline and violence that comes with playing the game and then act like normal everyday people. Most players in the NFL have been playing the sport at least since the age of thirteen or fourteen, with many starting as early as six or eight. Then, with college and the pros, tack on at least eight years of play with hits that would put the average person in the ICU. Yet, once their career is over, or at least, during the off-season, these same players must then become model citizens. Are you kidding me?

For most Americans, few things in our lives are more violent than watching a football game. Police officers, soldiers in combat, and boxers are the only ones who may well experience more violence. And all available research shows how difficult it is for a human being to constantly engage in violent acts and then adjust to a normal life setting (whatever that means). So it should be obvious that a professional football player would have the same kind of troubles, as say, a retired boxer or an undercover detective in

Donte' Stallworth Hit

transitioning between his world and ours.

In many ways, the most popular sport in our country gives us as much of a fix as it does for the players engaged in the sport. In this sense, there isn’t much of a difference between being an NFL player or being a gladiator during the times of the Roman Empire. Both celebrated, both reviled, both part of our societal hypocrisy over their criminal acts (alleged and actual). Ben will be forgiven once the Steelers start living again, while Cushing’s use of HCG will be forgotten by training camp. LT will at least be defended by many until actual proof is provided of guilt or innocent.

Brian Cushing (Houston Texans)

I’m hardly condoning anyone’s actions, on or off the field of play. But, as long as we keep buying the tickets, jerseys, cable packages, and the beer, all we’ll be doing is supporting the violent and sometimes bloody business of professional football. We can’t have our cake and then eat it too, especially in these cases, even though we’re trying to.


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