Donald’s Sense of Something

May 15, 2010

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Washington, DC

It felt like my heart had finally made its way home. I found myself in a place where the world seemed far away. For a moment, I thought I was in heaven, far above the concerns of my past. I was in a place filed with the imaginations of my mind. But I was hearing voices, many other voices, contributing their wisdom to my words and images. I was in a big room, in a concert hall or cathedral. I wasn’t entirely sure.

The walls of this huge hall were buttercream-colored, with the brightest, whitest vaulted ceiling and pillars I’d ever seen. The seats in the hall were burgundy in color, on a dark cherry-wood floor so shiny with lacquer that I could see my face reflecting from it.  It was a room that smelled of tulips and roses, of honeysuckle and other sweet scents I’ve only smelled in my mind. Flower shops never smelled this exquisite, women never so intoxicating.

At first, I thought that I was in the balcony, a dark place with another set of chairs, these painted black. I looked over there. No people inhabited this space. Just distance whispers, tiny sounds of fear and doubt that would come out of there. Only to be canceled out by my thoughts, my ideas, my images.

A bright light shone through from a glass dome that I somehow hadn’t noticed before, The light was directly on me as slowly began to move from the back of the hall toward the stage and the cream-colored curtains that dressed its sides and top. I realized that I wasn’t walking, that I was somehow flying, but not. It was more like I was walking on air, dressed like I was a scholar, or pastor, or Roman senator. But that wasn’t it, not quite. As I started toward the stage, slowly at first, I heard this soft yet pressing music mingle with my thoughts. It wasn’t religious music, though. It was a cross between classical music and new age, something like Bach combined with Enya. I had no idea what was going on at the other end of the hall. I just knew I had to get there.

Suddenly I could see my thoughts in the light combine with the musical notes that I’d been hearing throughout my air walking across the hall. The thoughts and music came down to me as words on pages. I found myself writing about everything I could imagine. I wrote papers for all of my classes. I scribbled down thoughts and notes for my thesis. I typed out tremendous volumes of materials, some for the world in which I thought I was a part of, many more for another world, another place. I wrote and thought so much that the paper rained down on the audience below, a light and paper shower that would’ve rivaled a torrential rainstorm.

I wrote as if time was running out, for I couldn’t be in this hall forever. And I was right. My pace had picked up, so much so that I was not longer walking on air, I was flying! I looked at myself and saw that I was wearing the slightly off-white robe of an angel, floating about and changing lives with my light and paper shower. The people below had picked my pages up, and were speaking the words that were on them. It was a swirling chant of many, many words and ideas, so many that I was dizzied by them.

Yet the music wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t stop. I kept writing. I kept going, even as friends would disappear below from my view, even as time seemed to march on at light-speed. I found myself above the stage of the hall, giving it one last look as I flew away, writing all the while. I rose above the ceiling, past the stage, out of the clear glass dome and into the light that had been my companion the whole time.

It was the greatest vision I ever had of myself and of my life. Best of all, it happened while I was sound asleep, with none of the distractions of my life in the way. For once, I hadn’t allowed my fear of heights or flying scare me awake. I was completely baffled at first, though. Most of my visions were simple affairs. If my classmates didn’t like me, I knew that they had issues of their own. If I had a fight with my ex-stepfather, I knew how to escape or found a way to beat him up. If my crush from seventh grade showed up, I’d stare at her or maybe give her a short smooch of a kiss.

This one was so complicated that I didn’t quite figure it out. Not on that October day in ‘91, and not in the two decades since. But in my first-year graduate student mind, I first interpreted it this way. I saw myself as someone who would have to write more than I’d ever written in my life to earn my master’s degree, and, if I chose to go on, my doctorate in history. That there would be many people watching my every move, with some of my friends falling by the wayside along the way. That there would be some hoping and praying that I didn’t finish. That my own feelings and fears were the things that I needed to overcome. And that no matter what, God was there with me, shining truth and wisdom on me so that I could write and finish school successfully.

Although that was a fine interpretation to pump me up for finishing my master’s in two semesters and my history doctorate in five years, it was far from an accurate one. I missed so much of the wisdom in that vision twenty years ago. A wisdom based not in the academic, but based on the practical and supernatural. A kind of wisdom that can only visit us from the past and future. Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized that there was a twelve-year-old with a grand vision talking to me while in deep sleep that morning in mid-October ‘91. A boy who knew, somehow, that my destiny was to write about my life, my dreams, my nightmares and my hard-learned wisdom, supernatural and experiential. That boy had a window into a life that I’m only beginning to understand. I must defer to the voice of that boy, for it is he who has a better understanding of visions and how they can change the world, and not I.


On Lena Horne

May 12, 2010

Maybe this isn’t the right time or place to be bringing this up. I’ll probably be vilified by my slightly older-than-me readers who’ll claim that since I didn’t grow up when Ms. Horne was in her prime, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me before, and won’t stop me now. But two things have to be said about the late Lena Horne that most reporters and commentators on her life have either overemphasized or glossed over completely. One, that there’s a huge difference between breaking down barriers and commenting on injustice and full-fledged civil rights activism. Two, that Horne represented the issue of double-consciousness in Hollywood and entertainment in ways that few want to discuss now that she’s no longer with us.

Yes, I have seen Horne on the silver and small screen, even in my limited years on the planet. Yes, I know what she did on behalf of Black soldiers during World War II, the ground she broke in film and music, the use of her position in entertainment to speak truth about discrimination, exclusion and harassment in Hollywood. That makes her a groundbreaking icon. It makes her a bit of a civil rights activist. But it doesn’t put her in the same sentence as Dorothy Height, Paul Robeson, or Ella Baker. Maybe that’s unfair and unrealistic, but the journalists and commentators have exaggerated Horne’s impact in this area.

I’ve always found the stories of the mesmerizing Ms. Horne interesting. Not that I didn’t understand, between the beauty and all of that talent, evident as late as her appearance on, of all things, The Cosby Show in ’89 or ’90. But a radio commentator recently suggested that the late Horne could’ve passed for White, but decided to be one of the rare ones to stand up for her race instead. Really? Really? Mostly light, bright and almost-White Blacks didn’t pass for White, even when it would’ve been convenient for them to do so. Although Horne was light, I don’t think it would’ve been easy for her to pass, for a whole variety of cultural, familial, and other reasons. She deserves credit for this, I suppose, but no more credit than the likes of Walter White, Nella Larsen or Mary Church Terrell.

Which brings up the one unspoken, complicated fact that has gone unmentioned, especially among Black pundits and writers. That Horne benefited from her looks — her light, bright and almost-Whiteness — as much as she had to fight discrimination because of them. Her beauty and her skin served as the embodiment of double-consciousness, in Hollywood and in mid-twentieth century African America. She was Black and yet not Black in the eyes of MGM and its execs. Yet she was also a Black icon who represented the ideal in terms of her lightness, at least as far as the times themselves dictated in African America. I’m not suggesting that the late Ms. Horne took full advantage of this reality — far from it. But I do believe that she gained advantages that didn’t fall so easily toward others, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Was Lena Horne one of the great Black female  — heck, American — performers of the twentieth century? Of course! Did she entertain like few others could? Absolutely! Was her impact on race relations, African American civil rights, and our understanding of race and skin tone far more complicated that is being portrayed in commentaries and obituaries? You betcha!


My Apologies, “M”

May 11, 2010

M Line, Q-Brooklyn, Nassau Line

I have a confession to make (as if I haven’t confessed enough the past four years, right?). I owe a few of my former Humanities classmates apologies, though not the kind of apology some of you may expect. For these apologies have nothing to do with what I’ve written on my blogs since June ’07. nor are they about anything I’ve written (or rewritten) to date in the Boy @ The Window manuscript. These apologies are more about my trust and truthfulness, or lack thereof, to specific people at specific moments of time, during my six years of semi-solitude, somewhat self-imposed, I might add.

This particular apology is to a classmate who sat in front of me for most of my classes between 7S and AP US History with Meltzer. For the purposes of this post, let’s call her “M” (I know that some of you will likely figure out who “M” is, but play along anyway, please). M was one of the most curious people I went to school with during those years, which by definition, also made her extremely intelligent. She was part of the Italian crew that seemed to overwhelm me in 7S especially, yet not part of it at the same time.

But I didn’t even know that about M on my first day of seventh grade in ’81. I showed up, white kufi and all, with smiles and a sense of myself that was a combination of naiveté and sheer arrogance that morning. I no sooner sat at my assigned and alphabetically-arranged seat than both Mrs. Sesay and my new classmates of 7S began to ask me questions about my background. M, who sat two seats in front of me, asked, “Have you ever been to Israel?” “Yes, once. I’ve been to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” I lied. I’d only traveled outside of New York four times, including my fetus travels in ’69. I lied so quickly that I spent the next several minutes thinking about why.

It was the first of my several Christmas Story moments. I was like the character Ralphie, who was forced by his adoring mother to wear a pink bunny suit made by his aunt. Except that he was never made to parade his social suicide clothing all over town and school so that he could bring even more ridicule and scorn his way than his mouth could earn all by itself. There was no one in my circle who could’ve saved me from the ostracism that would follow me because of my kufi.

M’s question let me know immediately that I was in trouble with these Humanities kids. My elementary school classmates would’ve never asked me if I’ve ever been to Israel. M’s question gave me my first indication that I was poor. It made me think, if this whole Hebrew-Israelite thing was so wonderful, then why in five months hadn’t we gone to Israel? Why had we only been to temple once? Why, then, didn’t I have an allowance? M wasn’t the only one who had questions.

I was mad at M, but more angry and disappointed with myself for lying to her. Over the years, I grew bitter and angry with my family as well, about the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, about kufis and other things. I think that M was the only White person in my classes other than our eventual valedictorian who may have sensed any of this during our Davis years. M, despite the big ’80s hair, Sergio Valente jeans, and constant gum chewing, was not only inquisitive. She had a talent for language that no one I knew in Humanities possessed. I’m sure she worked at it a bit, but still, Italian or not, M picked up the nuances of language faster than any of us, including the kids whose parents and grandparents spoke the language at home.

Unfortunately, she had her own issues in the social pecking order that was Humanities and in the diversity that was Davis and MVHS. She was Italian after all, and as a Humanities student, a nerd by definition. Yet she was attractive and by definition, also needed to be cool. M became this interesting contrast of pop cultural fashion, teenage cool and mostly subtle intellectual prowess, not much different from the main character played by Rob Brown in Finding Forrester. My Italian nemesis A tried, and tried, and tried again with her in those early years of Humanities, only to get shut down time and time again. I loved hearing her  tell A to “Shut up!” in her Brooklyn-esque accent on so many occasions.

I thought that M found me both fascinating and puzzling at times, as if I were a science experiment that yielded some surprising results. I was interesting because in many ways I represented the anti-stereotype, a Black kid who wasn’t cool and cared about grades, a Hebrew-Israelite who actually wanted to learn Italian and learn more about Italian culture. This made me an enigma because I was Black, part of a race that many Italians in Mount Vernon distrusted in the early ’80s. The politics of the town around City Hall, the police and fire departments and the Board of Education certainly helped make it so.

We did get into it once after school, about what I don’t remember. I remember calling her a “slut” for something she had said to me. I was picking fights a lot during my months of infatuation with Crush #1, so I didn’t keep a complete scorecard of every argument and every idiotic thing I said. In any case, I apologize. My bad.

But that’s not what I’m apologizing about.  Sometime in the middle of eleventh grade in Mrs. Warns English class, we were discussing travels to different parts of the world. M had missed the first three weeks of tenth grade, I think, to spend time in Italy, and was interested in traveling to places like Spain and Mexico, as she was quickly learning Spanish to go with her virtually fluent Italian. When the class conversation turned to me, I admitted that I hadn’t been out of New York State since ’78, and had never left the country. M’s mouth dropped open, as if I’d admitted that my father had tried to get a prostitute for me (which he did the following school year — see my “Secrets and Truths” post, January 2009). Her eyes glared at me, letting me know that she remembered. I stared blankly back at M, not even so much as shrugging my shoulders in response.

So, M, I apologize, and not just for lying. You’re one of only a handful of folks who showed genuine interest in me because of and beyond my kufi during the Humanities years. Yet I didn’t trust that interest at all. I took it as more a passing curiosity than anything else. I never gave either of us a chance to become acquaintances, much less friends. For that, and for calling you a “slut” in seventh grade, I am truly sorry.


Our Flat-Butt Society

May 8, 2010

Flat-Butt Truck

Picture a world in which the only ingredient needed to achieve beauty was a flat butt. Imagine that this flat butt would guarantee more than an easier time in dating, marriage, and beauty pageants. A flat butt makes it easier to do well in school, to find comfortable fitting jeans, and to gain access to higher education, quality health care, better homes, and steady employment. Now imagine that those who have oblong butts, round butts, bubble butts, or some other combination of butt shapes have limited access to education, employment, medical care, housing, well-fitting clothes, and beauty pageants. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But, despite the numerous exceptions, we live in a flat-butt society.

We assume that flatter is better because some dead person created it as our ideal vision of beauty centuries ago. But this dead person created this standard without the benefit of interacting with people with other kinds of butts. Today we find ourselves in two worlds: the make-believe world of flat butts, and the real world of multiple kinds of butts. Hundreds of years of conditioning have left most in our society with the impression that a flat butt is a good butt and that other butts—especially round and bubbly ones—are unhealthy and symbolize low intellectual stamina. We need to dig up this dead person and ask him a few questions about his flat-butt vision.

Take the symbols of beauty for our culture. Whether male or female, they usually have flat butts with big chests. Round, shapely butts equal obesity as far as most of us are concerned. The ideal flat butt is one that is firm and muscular, an extension of a firm and muscular back. It’s one that a rubber band would boomerang off of. Has anyone ever seen a Miss America or Mr. Universe with anything other than a flat, muscular butt? Between so-called supermodels like Heidi Klum and Gisele, Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, and the constant fawning over Hollywood actors, the women and especially men that are with them should feel extremely lucky. At least, that’s what we’re told by advertisers, journalists, reporters and commentators nearly every minute of every day.

There are of course exceptions to the flat-butt rule. These anomalies are often exotic and rarer than gold, but not the flat-butt norm. The popular press and hip-hop videos tend to cover these unusual people as ones who have exceptional derrieres. This only reinforces the idea that flat butts are normal and within everyone’s reach, and that anyone who doesn’t have a flat butt and isn’t exotic simply isn’t attractive. It’s no wonder that non-flat-bottomed men, women, and girls are spending millions for doctors to suck the fat out of their butts.

Another dead expert decided that a flat-butt person, as the international symbol of beauty, also was more athletic and intelligent. Because those with flat butts already were in the top positions of our society, it was self-evident that anyone without a flat butt lacked intellect or leadership ability. This expert assumed by scientific observation that people with non-flat butts couldn’t lead in science, society, or sports because their butts would get in the way. Over time, those with non-flat butts became leaders in the athletic field, but only in areas where intelligence seemed unnecessary. It’s likely that this deceased expert had a non-flat butt and spent much of his life obsessed with flattening it, wanting to become part of the flat-butt elite.

We can even see the penetration of our culture’s flat-butt philosophy in clothing and in our public spaces. Go to any clothing store in the country, and one will find it almost impossible to find trousers, slacks, jeans, pants, skirts, shorts, and underwear made for people with oblong, round, bubble, or mixed butts. The closest approximation to bottoms for the non-flat-bottomed male or female are ones made for the overweight, another population that fails to meet our society’s beauty standards.

We design our public spaces with flatness in mind. Take a look at the interior, exterior, and posterior of any public transit system in the country. A flat butt fits better in the molded seat of a bus or train than a round one. Public transit vehicles themselves have flat features, especially their rears. Public restrooms have toilet seats with flat butts in mind, as any non-flat-butted person can attest. And only someone with a flat butt would design slides in public parks for children with flat butts. Kids without flat butts tend to get stuck on these slides because the slides aren’t built with enough flexibility to accommodate other kinds of butts.

Sexual relations is one area in which the divide between flat butts and bubble butts (at least) has softened in recent years. It appears that some flat butt people are actually attracted to people with round, even jiggly butt cheeks. Yet this attraction only goes so far. Despite the mixing of flat and round and the recently discovered coolness of the non-flat, thinking in this area for most flat butts remains flat. For them, flat is phat-in beauty, culture, intelligence, and in some cases, athletics. The round, oblong, bubble, and mixed butts still have a long way to go.

What those with round butts need are pioneers to prove that like the world, the ideal for butts is variety and balance, not flat as the ideal. Proving this may require studies that show that a round butt provides long-term health benefits or has no genetic connection to intelligence. Chiropractors could show that those with non-flat butts have a greater chance of avoiding spinal degeneration than those with flat butts. Geneticists with round and flat butts may need to show that the round butt gene is the dominant one while flat-butt genes are recessive. Engineers can prove that rounding off buses and trains will make them more aerodynamic and energy-efficient, and deeper seat moldings will save millions in caring for our backs. Whatever the innovation or discovery, it’s up to the round butts of our nation to make this flat-butt society more round.


My AP US History Story

May 6, 2010

In honor of all the students I’ve taught who are in the midst of AP exams the next two weeks — especially the ones who are due to take the AP US History or APUSH exam Friday — the following is my APUSH story. It’s about the weeks and days from early April to May 13 of ’86. Unlike my other mediocre and bittersweet stories of AP crash-and-burn, this one’s about academic triumph. But, it’s from a kid-like perspective, so buckle up.

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In the weeks before the APUSH exam, Meltzer practically locked us in his classroom, sweeping through nearly a century of American history. We covered Reconstruction, industrialization and Woodrow Wilson, both World Wars, FDR and the Great Depression as if we were in a time machine with a warp drive engine. The last week before the exam was critical for everyone in the class, except for me of course. God had created a mind and imagination such as mine for this moment, where analysis was as important as knowledge for this kind of exam. After school that week was one of Meltzer ordering pizza and buying sodas for us so that we could grasp how to tackle the AP exam using his methods. I stayed because I loved Meltzer’s stories and because of five days of free food.

Watching my classmates sweat it out while asking Meltzer every conceivable question on American history, especially the parts he didn’t cover, was the most entertaining part of the week. They grilled him to the point where Meltzer had walked them through the exam point-by-point. All while telling us “Not to worry, kiddos! You’re all gonna do just fine!” Our soon-to-be-valedictorian and one other classmate were probably the most anxious and most diligent in their inquisition of Meltzer. They had all but outlined our textbook Morison and Commager page by page to get answers to issues and events they didn’t understand. We covered the women’s suffrage movement, immigration, the Great Depression and the New Deal, the League of Nations, the Cold War and McCarthyism, and so many other events that I was tired just listening to them ask. All this time with Meltzer and they still didn’t fully comprehend Meltzer’s master plan for preparing us for the exam.

Even in my calmness, I knew that this was the most significant exam I’d take going into college, one certainly more reflective of my skills than New York State Regents exams or the SAT. Of all things, my only concern was making sure I had a good breakfast before taking the exam. The weekend before, I scored over a hundred dollars off my father Jimme, and after distributing the spoils to Darren and my mother, I still had fifty left. The night before the exam, I went to the store and deli and bought all my little morning snacks, yogurt included. I slept well that night, dreaming about the exam and how well I thought I’d do.

Tapes prepared and Walkman somewhat in working order, I walked to school the next morning fully charged and as well-fed as my boney butt could be. It was the thirteenth of May, a brisk and overcast Tuesday that felt more like early November. I made sure not to go into MVHS’ library, our exam room for the morning, until about a minute before we were going to start. If I learned anything from being around my classmates, it was to be as calm and cool as a cup of ice. They still generally ran around acting all nervous and stressed out before a major test, turning colors and breaking out in hives, which sometimes drove me nuts. Why couldn’t they just chill? So my solution was to avoid their stress for as long as I could before coming into the room.

Once I sat down, I didn’t even remember what the proctor or Meltzer had said. Once they said “Go,” I hit the multiple choice section and just blew through it. The only problem I had during the exam was understanding what the word “pluralism” meant. And when I saw the term “cultural pluralism,” I felt slightly more baffled. What I did in response was read the questions and answers to form context, which seemed to me to be around American society having groups of people from different races and parts of the world living in the same country. About fifteen or twenty of my one hundred bubble questions was on pluralism or cultural pluralism.

Then we began the essay portion of the exam. Two essays to write and we had forty-five minutes to write each one. The first one was also on the topic of pluralism. “This must be the word of the day,” I thought. It dawned on me that there might’ve been a relationship between these pluralism questions and the century anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s opening on Liberty Island. I don’t know, I think that this may have been my document-based essay question. The other essay, by comparison, was a piece of cake. By the time we finished they exam, I was tired but pretty happy with my performance. It was basketball season, and I felt like I’d been knocking down jumpers left and right in going after these questions, like Isiah Thomas or Bernard King wouldn’t know by how much until sometime in July.

I looked at my classmates. They all seemed tired and bent out of shape by the exam. Some looked a little frustrated and angry. I was a bit surprised. I knew that most of them had done well, and I assumed that valedictorian and salutatorian had done at least as well as me. Yet they weren’t at all happy. Their moods varied from relieved to downright surly after the exam was over. Meltzer was happy for us all.

My AP score arrived in the mail just after the fourth of July. I scored my coveted 5, meaning that I had earned six college credits before choosing my school. I expected this score, but what I didn’t expect was how perfectly I performed. The College Board’s breakdown showed that I’d gotten ninety-four out of one hundred multiple choice questions correct and that two of my three essays had received the highest possible score — I scored a 4 on one of the free-response essays. I wasn’t just happy. It was like winning the lottery. I was in another world the rest of the day.

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What makes this story interesting is that I took the approach that as long as I stayed calm, away from my classmates and well fed, everything would work the way I wanted them to. All too often, we make big moments even bigger in our heads and hearts than necessary, causing ourselves more stress, and, ironically, guaranteeing ourselves poor or mediocre performances. I don’t want to hear the all-too-often-used-phrase, “I work well under pressure.” We think we do, but twenty years of teaching and even more as a student have proven to me otherwise. So, please folks, eat a good meal, take a chill pill and a deep breath before sitting down and cutting open your test booklets over the next week or so. Sixteen’s too young to have ulcers.


Where Grace and Rhodes Meet

May 4, 2010

In the past couple of weeks, two incidents have occurred that have brought attention to race and intelligence in America — again. One really is an incident, though, while the other is a continuing conversation about the head-scratching that goes on when someone personifies the idea of the anti-stereotype in a world full of them. Both make me cringe, even as I know that people like me can’t allow others to define us.

Over the past week, there’s been a minor firestorm blowing over comments from the soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduate, the amazing Stephanie Grace. She inserted foot-in-mouth — or, rather, fingers up her butt — regarding her wanting to keep open the option of the possibility that African Americans may be predisposed to being intellectually inferior to Whites. The fact that she sent this out to the Black Law Student Association at Harvard as an email was somewhere between foolish and obnoxiously audacious. The contents of her email, a display of the thoughts of someone about to begin a federal clerkship in the next few months is disturbing. It’s not just because Grace has spent the past three years at Harvard Law. It’s also because she spent that time there in a school with the likes of Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier, and Randall Kennedy — all Black or Biracial — teaching there.

There will be no rationale refuting Grace’s idiotic email here, because my own very existence as a writer, professor and educator — not to mention the millions of highly educated people of color like me — should be enough. But for folks whose minds remain mesmerized by the eugenics movement and Nazi experiments in the first half of the twentieth century, no amount of evidence against their racist views would be enough.

Just ask Myron Rolle. He was the last person drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft that occurred a little more than a week ago. All because he took a year off from playing football at the end of his college experience at Florida State University to — of all things — go to Oxford University in the UK to study medical anthropology for a year as a Rhodes Scholar! Rolle became the 207th overall pick because NFL geniuses in the front office suspected that the future neurosurgeon had a mixed set of priorities, that he couldn’t both play football and be interested in another demanding and rewarding career that would require raw intellectual talent. Teams passed on him because he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship and decided to postpone playing in the NFL for a year.

A scholarship that only former NBA players like Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen, and former NFL quarterback Pat Haden were able to obtain. Not to mention such luminaries as former POTUS Bill Clinton, Susan Rice (high-level official in the State Department under the Obama Administration), Newark mayor Cory Booker, and MSNBC commentator and host Rachel Maddow. But, I guess African American male athletes are only supposed to eat a bag full of oats and then run a 4.3-40-yard-dash, rather than explore the neurology of the human brain.

Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick insinuated that NFL players can’t be thinkers, at least intellectual ones, because that would mean they would get clobbered playing the game. Other coaches and GMs simply questioned Rolle’s commitment. I question their faulty and bigoted logic. It’s not every day that a Black athlete at a NCAA Division I football school can flex his intellectual muscles as easily as he can bench press 400 or 500 pounds. Maybe that’s what was so scary about Rolle.

Except that it shouldn’t have been scary at all. Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning stayed an extra year at the University of Tennessee, and not just to use up his last year of eligibility. Having finished his bachelor’s degree in four years (he was red-shirted his freshman year), Manning spent his fifth year working on a master’s degree. Hall of Famer Steve Young worked on a law degree at Stanford while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, during a stretch that included a Super Bowl win. But Rolle isn’t any of those guys. They’re White, and quarterbacks at that. They need to be smart. Cornerbacks in the NFL, on the other hand, don’t need to use their brains to read the difference between a screen pass, an out route, a go route or a skinny post, right?

What both cases show is that there’s an alarming portion of our population who find it easier to believe that African Americans have low intellectual potential. What’s even more significant, though, is that many of these same folks become agitated, even fearful, of educated Blacks, particularly Blacks who are their intellectual superiors. It’s an agitation I’ve been all too familiar with for nearly twenty years. With White professors who’ve allowed students to speak racial stereotypes to and about me in their classrooms, who’ve accused me of plagiarism, and refused to help me find a job because they thought I would just get one because I’m Black. With White supervisors who’ve accused me of being everything but a child of God because they thought I was after their job, or used me as part of a dog-and-pony show to get money from corporate funders. It’s something that I don’t expect to go away anytime in the immediate future.

Which is why I found it astounding to read a comment on another blog about the Stephanie Grace issue last week. A recent law school graduate talking about his experience as a young African American male lawyer, in which he felt he had to constantly disprove stereotypes while proving himself at some New York law firm. He advised folks thinking about becoming lawyers to not pursue the profession, which is about as sane as saying that melanin, genetics and intelligence are inextricably linked.

Even in the absence of racism, we all have to compete, to prove ourselves, to overcome in order to be successful in this world. It’s not about others bigotry and their attempts to stifle your success or career. It’s about proving to yourself how good you are, about how successful you can be, in law or any other field. Not to mention giving yourself financial security, finding work that you can be passionate about (even when it doesn’t bring riches), taking care of your family and yourself, helping other cope and be successful in an insane world. You can’t avoid idiots. I learned that ages ago, the hard way, with my former advisor Joe Trotter at Carnegie Mellon, who, by the way, is African American. We have to keep walking our path, to get beyond the corner of Grace and Rhodes, in order to be to Colossus we hope we are.


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