Seven Years of Fatherhood

July 30, 2010

Noah and Daddy, May 29, 2006

Noah’s seven today. Seven! I should be happy. Noah’s healthy, done well in school so far, is curious about himself and his world, and despite it all, has remained sheltered in ways that I never experienced. Even with all of my vivid and weird imaginations I used to protect myself from the world, Noah is much more well-adjusted than I was at any time growing up.

But I’m not happy. It’s not Noah’s fault. I want so much more for him as he begins to form a continual, day-to-day memory cycle. Like not to see his father as a struggling author whose memoir may never be published. It’s a possibility, not one I dwell on too often, but a possibility anyway. Or worse, be seen as a lousy father because Boy @ The Window and my other writings would make it hard for him to have the close relationship we have now. Or worst, he sees me as nothing but a strange and eccentric old fool because of the contents of my second book and because of all the weird things I care about.

I do feel sometimes as though I have failed my son. I haven’t been able to generate as much income for our present and future as I would’ve liked, given my choices for work and career so far. Who was I kidding? A nonprofit manager, a consultant, an adjunct associate professor? Those aren’t jobs that are easy for Noah to explain to his friends. A father who can’t reach into his bank account and pay for a vacation or something like acting classes at the drop of a hat? Really, what good am I?

More than that. I feel like I haven’t completely overcome my past, that the psychological and emotional scars of my growing-up years do manifest themselves in my fathering and in my son. It’s nothing obvious. Subtle reminders, like Noah asking, “When are we going to buy a house?,” a question I used to ask my mother until I turned nine. Or when I see Noah struggling to assert himself in his first friendships, where some of his so-called friends make dumb jokes about his name. Or when Noah waits for others in his cohort to call him into a huddle to play before he’ll actually play with them.

I have to remind myself that shyness isn’t hereditary, nor the signs of sins visited upon anyone from

Noah and Daddy, December 27, 2009

central Georgia with the last name “Collins.” That I can’t try to force him into becoming an uber-extrovert, the way my father, ex-stepfather and mother tried to do with me and my older brother Darren. That worked so well that Darren has never had a meaningful relationship in his adult life, and it took the first five years of my adult life to recover from the damage.

Still, I don’t want to pass on to Noah any of the damage that remains. At the same time, I want him to become the well-rounded person and young man whom I became by my early twenties. I feel the time slipping and ticking away to make the right choices, and to have all the necessary resources to do so.

I know that I’m being way too hard on myself. But I can’t help it. I want my son to have the ability to take on the world, if necessary, in ways that I couldn’t when I was his age, or really any age growing up. I had to leave 616, leave Mount Vernon, to declare the past dead in my mind for fifteen years to do that. I don’t want Noah to need that amount of determination and suffering in order to just make it in this world.

I want him to maintain some sense of innocence and confidence earlier and longer than I did. I want him to find himself and then make sure that I don’t beat it out of him with my emotional and psychological baggage, and keep the world from doing the same. This is my prayer, for today and for the next eleven years. Amen.

More Than a Jealous-y Problem

July 28, 2010

I have yet to weigh in directly on the Ben Jealous-NAACP-FOX News-Tea Party episode. Between the recent death of my sister Sarai, the week I spent in New York helping to plan her funeral, the end of a summer course, looking for additional work, and working on other writing projects, not to mention the incompetence of PEPCO and Comcast in Montgomery County, I haven’t exactly been in the mood.

This post, though, will not be a kvetching session about the foibles of a highly educated, if somewhat enigmatic man. Nor will this be about the illegitimacy of a news organization that offers an irradiated-hamburger-meat kind of news. And really, I already spent too much time playing race psychologist for the Tea Party and all of its discontents in the past week. Instead, I want to focus on the dead organization that is the NAACP, which, by the way, should change its name to the National Organization for the Advancement of People of Color (NAAPC).

Within that sentence is a simple lesson, that progressive organizations working on behalf of groups of color must agitate, collaborate and develop programs to address everyday issues of their constituents as part of a broad-based coalition. This is the future of Black leadership and the social justice movement in a multicultural America. This isn’t a problem unique to the NAACP. Even for the more forward thinking organizations such as National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, and the National Congress of American Indians, new programs, movements and coalitions are difficult to sustain, financially and otherwise.

So the following proposal is for the NAACP and for identity-based social justice organizations. Because of the current funding environment and overall conservative climate, it will work in the NAACP’s favor to form coalitions with other progressive organizations. Key issues loom for all groups of color in American society, including educational reform, workforce training and development, affordable housing, small business development, and adequate health care access. These are all issues in which the NAACP, NUL, NCLR, and NCAI all share an affinity.

This isn’t a new suggestion. It certainly isn’t an adequate one by itself. These organizations should go further by approaching the foundation community, the business community, state and federal officials, and their members as a coalition. This would provide strength in numbers (i.e., dollars and constituents) and free these organizations from reinventing programs or developing programs from scratch.

If the main hindrances are around pride, turf violations, or who gets credit for the work, it need not be. Working in coalition on specific civil rights-related issues would enable the NAACP, NUL, NCLR, NCAI and other organizations to build a broader multiracial constituency. There is more than enough work to go around in addressing issues that affect many of the 110 million persons of color in the United States today. Addressing educational reform directly in African American, Latino, and Native American communities, for instance, is a task too big for the federal government to take on, much less one organization.

It isn’t sexy work, but confronting the single greatest need of persons of color between the ages of twelve and 24 – by creating the academic, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions necessary for high school and college completion would guarantee a future purpose for the NAACP. Not to mention the NUL, NCLR, NCAI, and the social justice movement. This would also give the NAACP and these other organizations the broad-based constituency necessary for political influence, something that they could all use in more sufficient quantities.

This proposal is better than the current state of affairs at the NAACP. One in which everything is about the eight-second-soundbite, about Hollywood giving Black actors more work, or complaining that leaders in the Tea Party have refused to rein in their most bigoted speakers. That’s a waste of breath and time, something anyone with a title can do.

For this to work, the NAACP must get over its Brown v. Board of Education and Civil Rights Movement hangover. The organization can and should continue its role as an agitator for the civil rights of African Americans and continue to be part of the fray with the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to redress civil rights violations. Yet we must recognize that we are forty-five years removed from the height of the Civil Rights Movement. If many White progressives are sober enough to have learned that the 1960s are over, it’s not too late for the NAACP’s leadership to recognize that activism and membership dues alone are insufficient to address civil rights needs of African Americans today (as well as other “colored people”).

An Honest & Open Conversation on Race?

July 26, 2010

"The Chase" Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Source: Donald Earl Collins

A few days ago, in the midst of the NAACP-Tea Party-FOX News-Shirley Sherrod-USDA-White House-Obama Administration scandals, one of my Facebook friends asked the question, “Can’t we ever have an open and honest conversation about race?” I didn’t give her a direct reply, mostly because I spent the better part of a decade attempting to answer that question through my first book Fear of a “Black” America.

But I also didn’t feel like being bothered. Though I remain hopeful, my level of optimism is nowhere near where it was in ’94, when I started work on the doctoral thesis that turned into my first book six years ago. Still, it’s an important question, to which the answer’s generally “No!,” mostly because that level of honesty is hard to come by in a nation like ours, so full of itself, so rich and imperialistic, “smiling, crying insularity,” as U2 would say.

About thirteen years ago, former President Bill Clinton attempted to open up an open and honest and

Staff of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, June 1997.

bipartisan discussion of race. President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, which started with widespread media coverage of the President’s speech at the University of California, San Diego commencement on June 14, 1997, ended with a report buried in Monicagate obscurity on September 18, 1998. President Clinton stated that the Initiative on Race was about making out “of our many different strands one America — a nation at peace with itself bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.”

The seven-member Advisory Board included the late trailblazing Black historian John Hope Franklin, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, former Mississippi governor William Winter, former CEO of Nissan Motor U.S.A. Robert Thomas, lawyer Angela Oh, Linda Chavez-Thompson, and Bronx, New York minister Suzan Johnson Cook. Three White men, one African American man, one African American woman, one Hispanic woman, and one Asian American woman, all born between 1915 and 1957, made up the Advisory Board that would give America the blueprint for beginning a sincere dialogue on race.

To say the least, the Advisory Board was not entirely representative of late-twentieth-century America. Despite each individual member’s prior accomplishments, there were a host of other scholars, ministers, CEOs, lawyers, union organizers, and former governors who should’ve been considered for this task. Beyond that, the Advisory Board’s lack of ideological (six liberals and one moderate) and age balance (the youngest person on the board was 41 in 1997) would make anyone wonder if they possessed broad enough perspectives to address race issues in 1968, much less during their 1997-98 tour on race.

The late John Hope Franklin, circa 2006.

The Advisory Board on Race – led by John Hope Franklin – traveled the nation in search of consensus but instead found controversy throughout their fifteen-month tenure. For example, Franklin refused to invite anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly to an Advisory Board meeting regarding racial diversity on college campuses on November 20, 1997, which violated the spirit of the President’s Initiative. Franklin stated that Connerly had “nothing to contribute” to the discussion on cultural differences. Connerly, as many of you already know, was a University of California regent who campaigned in 1996 for the passage of Proposition 209, which led directly to the repeal of all affirmative action programs for the state of California.

Regardless of what people like me think of Connerly, Clinton had created this mandate “so that we can better understand the causes of racial tension” — not to increase them. Not only

Ward Connerly, circa 2006.

that. It proved that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom Generation couldn’t find a way to do what South Africa, Chile, Spain, Australia, Liberia and so many other countries have been able to do in the past half-century. Have an open and honest dialogue — a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — on issues like apartheid, political repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war. Maybe it rests with our generations — Gens X and Y — to make this so, to “make it plain,” as Malcolm X would’ve said.

The Advisory Board asserted in its final report that in crisscrossing the country, they had “engage[d] the American people in a focused examination of how racial differences have affected our society and how to meet the racial challenges that face us.” That was a bald-faced lie, and not just obfuscation. The Commission instead reflected in subtle ways the previous three decades of racial divisive and political exploitation thereof. Not much has changed since ’97 and ’98, and as long as Whites feel they have something to lose — and Blacks merely four centuries of things to get off their chests — I’m afraid not much will either.

On Abusers and White Anxieties

July 22, 2010

I realized it early on in the five years between my ex-stepfather’s beating up of my mother, my summer of abuse, and my departing for the greener pastures of the University of Pittsburgh in August ’87. It wasn’t just about being whipped with a belt so that it would leave welts. Nor was it merely about the kicks, the punches, the constant threats to take me “out of this world.”

No, my ex-stepfather wanted something more, even more than me calling him “Dad.” It was about shutting me up, about keeping me from ever speaking the truth of our calamity and of his monstrosity. It was all about making sure that I never resisted, protested, questioned or stood up to him. Fortunately for me, I did. I have the scars and chipped tooth to prove it, too.

For people like Atlantic Monthly editor and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, neo-con and true- believer Roger Ailes of FOX News, as well as entities like FOX (or Faux, or Fix) News and the so-called Tea Party, it isn’t much different. They claim reverse racism by Blacks against Whites at every turn. Come up with cockamamie versions of the truth with regard to anything involving race. And refuse to believe that any person of color experiences any instance of racial discrimination, a racial epithet or any bigotry whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if there’s an audio recording, a video stream or an affidavit, racism died with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at least according to these folk.

The embodiment of all that ails America today, for FOX News and Tea Baggers alike, is President Barack Obama. His very name, his father’s nationality, his birth certificate, all have come under more scrutiny than the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. Somehow, POTUS 44 is a socialist, communist, biracial man who sometimes hates Whites, too thoughtful, not commanding enough, scared of the military, too hasty in his decision-making, a Hitler-mustache-wearing-Nazi, a foreigner who has usurped the presidency, among the myriad of inconsistent insults these folks have hurled, and with pride.

That’s what has made the news around the so-called New Black Panther Party on FOX News over the past week disturbing. That’s what has made the news about the response to the NAACP’s tired but accurate claim that the Tea Party supports bigoted rhetoric so unnerving. This is what’s made the news the past three days about Shirley Sherrod being fired and then re-offered a job at the USDA over something that wasn’t racial so ludicrous. All of these are efforts by racial conservatives — people who refuse to accept a multicultural society in which all things White aren’t necessarily the things that determine who is and isn’t a winner — to put White progressives, people of color and other deviants in their place.

All in the Family Screen Shot

Douthat, Ailes, FOX News and the Tea Party all want to turn back the clock, to somewhere between 1945 and 1954. To a time when few cared what anyone who wasn’t a middle-class WASP male thought about anything. To a place in which “girls were girls and men were men,” as Archie Bunker would’ve sang on All in the Family. To a world in which race, bigotry and racism didn’t exist at all, or at least, could easily be swept under the rug, and the N-word an acceptable part of the American lexicon.

That’s what they want. Let’s make sure that they never get it.

The Five Senses of Poverty

July 20, 2010

Abandoned Building, November 2006

Being poor isn’t just a relative thing or simply a state of material lack. It can be measured by far more than the amount of money in someone’s savings account or by the gut-wrenching feeling at the bottom of one’s stomach when it’s time to choose between the telephone bill and the electric bill. Beyond the material and the emotional, the relative state between a lack of money and a lack of a spiritual center isn’t completely measurable. But, poverty, in its most general, community, and familial sense, can be experienced through all five of our physical senses.

1. Smell — This is perhaps the most powerful sense of poverty for any of us. Stairwell in project high-rises full of garbage. The tell-tale scent of overused cooking grease in an apartment or other impoverished living space. The odor of rotting animal flesh, of expelled farts, of roach spray and borax and cheap pine oil. The smell of clothes that have been exposed to all of these smells. Or,

better still, a smell of lingering cooking oil from frying chicken the night before, combined with the body odor and sweat of numerous people, combined with basura and excrement. Not to mention the release of flatulence and the drawing in of exhaust fumes from the outside world by fans running on high because of the lack of air conditioning.  There isn’t enough Febreeze in the world to cover up the smell of poverty.

2. Sight — We can all be fooled by what we see with our own eyes. At least by all but the poorest of the poor in the world and in the US. But children and their faces tell the truth of their lot in life more than any pair of Jordans or dress clothes can hide. The tired, almost dead looks of children, whether in the Bronx or in Burkina Faso. Their eyes detail a sense of hopelessness, a momentary glance that gives away their suspicion that there is no future for which they should be ready for. Of course, there are more commonplace signs around us. Homeless folk in their old, wrinkled, tattered, oily, soiled clothes, with aluminum cans and liter soda bottles in beat-up shopping carts. Women and children looking a bit older than the few years they’ve spent in this world. Unkempt hair, chipped and worn fingernails, dirty faces in public places, can all be signs. But the eyes are the key window into someone else’s poverty.

3. Hearing — The sound of poverty is deafening. It cannot be hidden by clothes, nor covered up by an aerosol can. Take any urban community in which poverty has taken a firm grip. The sounds of living have been disrupted. Adults are out and about, conversing and cursing, foaming and fighting in the middle of the day, the time in which they should be hard at work, in an office or factory or somewhere else. The cries of children out with their mothers at all hours of the night. The constant beeping of cars, the sirens of ambulances and police cars, the screams of mothers, fathers and siblings at hours well past club-closing times. Poverty disables the need for a schedule, the need for a bedtime and a wake-up time, for a rhythm that requires sleep and renewal.

4. Taste & Touch — Though underappreciated, these senses can also be used to deduce poverty, or at least, the lack of things. Taste and smell go together, so many of the smells of poverty find their way to the taste buds on our tongues. The taste of bile, of acid reflux, even of blood usually come with the violent smells of being in an impoverished environment. The rough touch of clothes unwashed, or at least, washed in hard water and without fabric softener, is another indication.

But there’s also the lack of variety that’s typical of being poor that are told to us by taste and touch. Eating almost nothing but processed foods, fast food, or aid food, and the tongue becomes as a dull knife, unable to appreciate the subtle differences between onion and garlic, or the more distinctive flavors of paprika, nutmeg or cinnamon. Wearing nothing but hand-me-downs or hip-hop gear makes one’s sense of touch as rough as a jagged boulder, as unfeeling as stainless steel. Even a close hug in this kind of environment can be jolting and disconcerting.

Through our five senses, it becomes easier to understand why fighting our way out of poverty is so difficult, why being poor can disable and debilitate so many. That so many don’t have to breathe, taste, hear or touch it is the very reason why so many of us don’t understand it.

My Father Jimme — Happy Birthday!

July 17, 2010

My Father, August 2007

On Monday, my father Jimme turns seventy years old. Seventy, 70, 7-oh! Amazing! Given the years of alcohol abuse, so much loss, so much pain, so much rage, and to recover and make it to the age of seventy? That’s a big-M miracle, the kind that you can only attribute to sheer strength of will and the grace of God.

I must admit, after the summer of ’92, I had my doubts about my father’s future. The few times I saw him that summer, he was drinking like he had never drank before. The first time I saw him, he accused me of lying about having my master’s degree. “No college gonna giv’ you a degree afta a year,” he said. Only when his Jewish bosses told him it was possible for someone to finish a master’s in a year did he believe me.

The second time I went to see him, his landlord Mrs. Smalls was about to evict him. But my father wasn’t there. Or, I guess he was, in a way. He had made plops of defecation, from the front gate and blue slate walk up to the front steps and porch, into the entrance way and foyer, up the gloomy carpeted steps, all the way to the attic bathroom next to his room. They’d been cleaning for hours, according to Mrs. Smalls, but it sure didn’t smell like it.

Fast-forward two years to Christmas Eve ’94. My mother and my younger siblings and I went on a bus trip to Cross County Mall and Toys ‘R Us in Yonkers. Jimme showed up at the last minute to join us and to regale us with his “po’ ass muddafuccas” and his other favorite Jimme-isms. We were on the 7 bus to Yonkers, packed with parents who were shopping late for toys and Christmas trees. Jimme was so drunk that he fell over on some people on the bus once, and fell into the rear stairwell one other time. I wasn’t embarrassed as much as I was disappointed and saddened.

So by the time I finished my doctorate at the end of ’96, I’d all but given up on my father turning things

Three Generations, May 2006

around. A few months later, my father, unemployed and no longer enabled by his former bosses, finally left New York for the family home in Georgia at the invitation of one of his sisters. By the end of ’97, I heard that he had cleaned up his act and moved to Jacksonville. Throughout ’98 and into ’99, I began to get calls from Jimme about how he was finally sober, had found God, and was getting married, to another woman named Mary.

I thought long and hard about blowing him off. All my life, and certainly all of my older brother Darren’s, Jimme had been an evil drunk, verbally abusive and incapable of staying sober for more than three weeks at a time. But he had also been there for me growing up during my Humanities and Hebrew-Israelite years. He helped keep Darren and me from starving or walking around barefoot in ’82 and ’83. He kept the example of hard work in front of us even as the other parent figures in our lives went on dreaded welfare and laid around as if our lives were over. His money was the reason I was able to stay in school after five days of homelessness my sophomore year at Pitt.

So I called him, deciding to give him a second chance. That was February ’99, a two-hour conversation about how he managed to become a recovering alcoholic, a church-goer, and a married man. He admitted that he had made many mistakes, that he was an alcoholic, that he loved me and my brother. It was a conversation, a real conversation, an unbelievable change of relationship. After twenty-nine years and two months, I finally had a father that I really could call father.

That was eleven and a half years ago. I’m still amazed that I’m able to talk to my father as my father, and not as the person I used to have to drag out of bars on 241st Street or in Midtown Manhattan growing up. But most of all, I’m amazed how much I love him and care about him. Happy Birthday…Dad!

My Sister Sarai (Partial Repost)

July 13, 2010

Sarai & Noah, November 2003

Yesterday, my only sister Sarai passed away at twenty-seven from complications from sickle-cell anemia. It’s a disease that can often claim one’s life before they reach adulthood. Even with our advanced medicine, the average life expectancy of someone with sickle-cell anemia is forty-five years. Not to mention the pain and infections involved in having such a body-draining disease.

As much as I love her, the fact is that Sarai probably shouldn’t have been here. Between the disease and what we were going through as a family in ’82, it’s hard to believe that Sarai managed to survive in the worst of our worst times. I had just gone through my summer of abuse at the hands of her father, my mother had struggled through picket lines because she didn’t want to lose her job (only to get her hours cut in half anyway), and we were eating as if there was a global famine crisis. By the time I found out that my mother was pregnant with Sarai, with my mother working part-time, I knew we were up crap’s creek without a lifeline. My cold and adult-like argument with my mother about aborting my future sister left me even more in search of escape than I had been (see February 9, ’09 post “Sister Sarai”).

For some reason my mother didn’t listen to me, giving birth to my only sister, Sarai Adar Washington on the ninth of February ’83, born in the middle of a snowstorm. I refused to visit my mother in the hospital in New Rochelle. I didn’t want Sarai, and was tired of watching my mother make incredibly bad decisions.

Sarai came home a couple of days later, obviously stricken with the disease, as she looked like she was in pain then. I was so mad whenever I was home in Sarai’s first days. Not mad at her. Mad with my mother. Even at part-time, she could’ve seen a doctor about her sickle-cell trait, and screened to see if her idiot husband had the trait also.

Even in ’82, even without his participation, through my brothers Maurice and Yiscoc, my mother could’ve learned early on whether both her and my then stepfather Maurice had the sickle-cell trait. She long knew that she had it, and I’d known about my trait since I was seven. I’d learn about a year later, in ninth grade Biology with Mr. Graviano, that with two parents, there was a one-in-four-chance with every pregnancy that full-blown sickle-cell anemia would be passed to a child. For the first time in my life, I saw my mother as an idiot.

By the middle of the summer of ’83, Sarai was obviously in trouble. She hardly gained any weight, all of her food had to be fortified with iron, and she only had “three strands of hair,”as my mother put it. It was more like a few dozen in three spots on Sarai’s scalp. She always needed help. Sarai even then was in and out of the hospital, in need of the occasional blood transfusion, and at time in excruciating pain.

With all of this, my mother would say to me, “See, that why you shouldn’t wish for an abortion,” as if I was supposed to feel guilty about what I said to her the year before because Sarai was sick. As if I had anything to do with her being here. I just gave my mother a weak smile whenever she’d say something like that, trying not to reveal my disdain for her path-of-least-resistance decision-making.

Despite all of this, I grew to love my sister, if only because there was nothing else to do. It wasn’t her fault that her parents had about as much common sense as a wino on South Fulton Avenue in Mount Vernon on a hot day in August. Sarai wasn’t to blame for her own condition. And me suggesting that my mother get an abortion — it was obviously too late to get one by the time I yelled the idea at my mother — didn’t make Sarai one sickle-cell sicker than she already was.

Over the years, Sarai did get better, then worse, then better again. I stopped babying her by the time she was a teenager, but my mother didn’t know how to stop treating her like she was a toddler. By the time of the family intervention in ’02, Sarai was obviously ready to leave 616. She moved to Alabama for three and a half years, between ’05 and ’09, to live with her high school friends and to live a slower life away from my mother and the rest of us. Even though she still had many days with pain, and more in the hospital during those years, Sarai lived her life her way. I’m happy for her that she had those years away from 616, from Mount Vernon.

Of course, the story didn’t end there. Sarai’s sickle-cell anemia complications got worse, so bad that she ended up quitting her job and moving back to Mount Vernon from Alabama, where the medical facilities were allegedly better. The last week or two before her death, while far from pleasant, and somewhat expected, was still a shock to the family. For me, most of the shock occurred months before Sarai was born.

I only hope that someone somewhere finds a cure or at least a way to help people like my sister experience less pain and a richer, more vibrant life because of this disease. The good news was, that for most of her last years, Sarai carried on as if she didn’t have a disease.


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