Finding Home

August 30, 2010

Highland Building (tall) and 6007 Penn Circle South (short). Source:

A flat at 48 Adams Street in Mount Vernon, New York. Followed by one at 24 Adams Street. Then 48 Adams Street again. Then the entire second floor of the house at 425 South Sixth Avenue. After that, a 1,200-square-foot apartment on the third floor of the front building of the 616 East Lincoln Avenue

48 Adams Street, circa 2006

complex. After going to Pittsburgh for college, a dorm room at Lothrop Hall my freshman year. Five days of Howard Johnson’s and sleeping on a concrete landing on the fifth floor in a stairwell at Forbes Quadrangle (now Wesley Posvar Hall) the beginning of my sophomore year. A poorly partitioned one-room flat with a shared kitchen and bathroom in a firetrap for a row house, 25 Welsford Avenue, the rest of my sophomore and all of my junior years at Pitt.

The above is every place I’ve lived during my first twenty years on the planet. I never felt at home in any of those places, and when I’d come close, something violent or life changing would occur to remove that feeling of at least a sense of minor uneasiness. Alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, second marriage, financial pressures, religious stupidity, more domestic violence and abuse, more siblings, financial collapse, college, homelessness, lack of funds and privacy defined the spaces in which I lived between ’69 and ’90. I was mostly lonely and yet hardly alone for all of those years. I had about as much space to think and write as I would’ve had in a bathroom stall at Grand Central before the renovations there during the ’90s (a story for another post). Which is why most of my Mount Vernon classmates and friends can testify to dozens of “Donald sightings” — me walking everywhere — between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

I made the decision after my junior year to find my own place, my own space, as close to or as far away from Pitt’s campus as I could. I took a week off from my summer job at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains at the beginning of August ’90 and took the express Greyhound to the ‘Burgh. I stayed with my friend Terri and her mother — a blog post unto itself — while looking all over the city and its po’ White and Black trash suburbs for anything between $150 and $300 a month in rent, one with my own kitchen and bath.

I found a nice place in Wilkinsburg, only discouraged by the distance it was from the East Busway East Busway near East Liberty stop. Source: elected in ’64 to spend twenty years building a busway instead of a subway to connect downtown with the suburbs — talk about being cheap!) and Pitt. Not to mention feeling uneasy about a slightly older next door neighbor who looked like she caroused a bit too much. I looked at places in Shady Side, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park, North Oakland, off Braddock Road and near Frick Park, even the Manchester and Friendship neighborhoods (somewhere between middle class, affluent, and student housing). The rent was either too rich for me or the places looked a bit run down.

Finally, on my next to last day to look, I found a place at 6007 Penn Circle South in East Liberty, right

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, down the street. Source:

across from the Shady Side neighborhood. It was a one-room efficiency (calling it a “studio” would make it sound better than it was). I had a kitchenette area with a sink, counter, cabinets, a stove and oven with a ventilation fan, and a fridge. I had my own bathroom and enough closet space for my meager clothes and toiletries. I was within walking distance of Giant Eagle, the big grocery store in the area, as well as the busway. The Highland Park Zoo bus, the 71B, as well as the 71C, ran their way to Oakland and Pitt. And Pitt was within my walking distance back then — it was more than two and a half miles from Penn Circle South to the Cathedral of Learning.

It was $220 if rent for each month was paid before the first day of the month, and $245 if not. I took the 450-square-foot flat, this despite some of the riff-raff living in the building, the hole-in-the-wall bar Constantine’s within a couple of blocks, or Kelly’s Bar for the down and out across the street. The heating and cooling, the toilet and shower, the food in my fridge was all mine. My friends Kenny, Elaine, Marc all thought it was a dump. Maybe so, especially compared to the places I’ve lived since. But it was my dump. Those eight and a half years there, I learned so much about myself and life and God and women and love. I learned how to live my life while I was in apartment 204. That began twenty years ago today. The building’s now gone (at least, it was slated to be), but the memories remain.

By The Time I Get To Arizona

August 28, 2010

Immigrant Rights Rally, Los Angeles, May 2010. Photo credit Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

An old high school friend of my wife’s pulled me into a debate about the Arizona immigration law (currently under appeal in federal court) the other day. Although neither of us disagreed that the US needs better policies and enforcement around undocumented people, his approach was somewhere between the old Fugitive Slave Laws of the nineteenth century and apartheid in South Africa. He all but let corporate greed, malfeasance, and economic exploitation, the root cause of this issue, off the hook.

So, in honor of Public Enemy, I’ve named this post “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” hoping that our country hasn’t gotten all the way there yet, between Arizona’s immigration law, the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, and Glenn Beck. But in case it has, I’m posting a combination of my responses to my wife friend about how unconstitutional, racist and fear-confirming this response is.

“In the case of the Arizona law, the only way it would work is if one were to profile a particular group in order to enforce it. The idea that anyone without papers could be arrested and potentially deported means that if the law was practiced at random, someone White, Black or otherwise a likely American citizen could be caught up in a grave law enforcement error, leading to controversies and lawsuits. But if the focus is on Mexicans, Salvadorans and Latin Americans most likely to emigrate to the US, then it would work the way in which it’s intended.

The law was made with the Mexican border in mind. It wasn’t made to stop Russians or Canadians from coming into the US – we’d have more immigration enforcement at airports, ports, and the US-Canada border if that were the case. Bottom line is, laws like this don’t get made to stop groups that aren’t of color from using services or exercise what have been presumed to be their rights once on American soil.

But beyond this point is this simple reality. Whether it’s the 14th Amendment, requiring papers for undocumented people, or denying kids financial aid for college because their parents are undocumented, the fact is that a particular group of people are having all kinds of rights denied. The law granting citizenship rights to anyone born on American soil was originally used to make 4 million freed persons and 200,000 free persons — Black folks — American citizenship. It also gave the sons and daughters of European immigrants — who weren’t illegal even though millions of them came without papers (i.e., “Wop” [without papers] Italians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, etc.) citizenship rights and a simple process for naturalization.

These laws would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to denying Latin American immigrants (legal and otherwise) and Latinos born in the US what all of us expect to take for granted, especially freedom of movement. This isn’t all that different from when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, denying the Chinese immigration rights and the Chinese that were already here citizenship and ownership rights for more than sixty years, or from Fugitive Slave laws passed between 1793 and 1850, which required free Blacks to carry their freedom papers wherever they went. If this isn’t at all about racism attached to the serious issue of immigration control but minus the issue of economic exploitation, then why the need to concentrate on supply (the undocumented) rather than demand?

Until we deal with the heart of the problem — companies exploiting desperate immigrants (legal and

undocumented) for profit — we’ll continue to make bad and downright racist law around this. Since we think that corporations have no responsibilities in all this, they get off the hook for creating this situation, while poor people get labeled as if they’re roaches.”

One other thing. Glenn Beck’s in DC today dishonoring MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention progressives across the board. To quote Chuck D and his crew, Beck “to be a goner,” though not necessarily with the blood-wrenching screams in the middle of “By The Time I Get To Arizona.” Otherwise, Arizona will be the most liberal state in an increasingly fearful, repressive and policed nation.

What A Fool Believes

August 23, 2010

Wall Collapse Rattles Mount Vernon High School -, April 13, 2010

Mount Vernon really has changed, and unfortunately, not for the better. I’m talking about in the past four years, and not just since I left for college and Pittsburgh twenty-three years ago this week. As some of you may know, I was threatened the week of my sister’s death and funeral by a young thug because I stopped him from choking his girlfriend in front of me and her three-year-old daughter.

That’s not a completely accurate description. I yelled “Hey! Stop!” as I ran toward the side gate of 616. I saw a short, nappy-headed, unkempt-corn-rowed-haired, light-skinned thug. At first, he was yelling, “Get out the godd**m car you B***H” at a young woman in a blue older-modeled Toyota Camry, punching his fists on the driver’s side window at the same time. Then, when she did get out, she grabbed her three or four-year-old daughter and attempted to get toward the side gate. The fool then pushed her up against the back right side of the car and proceeded to wrap his hands around the young woman’s neck, as if no one else was around.

I was on the telephone with my father, talking to him about the rough week it had been, standing outside to get away from folks for a moment or two, staring across the gates and driveway to the five-story red-brick sister complex 630 East Lincoln when I witnessed this episode of domestic violence. After I yelled and distracted the dumb ass, the young woman ran inside with her daughter. Then the short butt attempted to run up on me, telling me to “mind your own godd**m bisness, you stupid f**k!” He tried to get in my face, but at five-foot-four, he was much too short to intimidate me with rage. I told him if he took another step, that I’d call the cops. He did, and then I dialed 911.

“Oh, you think your life’s miserable now! It just got a whole lot worse for you and your family. And for what? You willing to risk your life for her? For a b***h?,” the stupid ass said as he gradually backed out of the yard and then outside the 616 gate. Apparently he wasn’t as stupid as he looked, as he kept moving farther away while yelling “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, you stupid f**k!” Finally, I said something. “Yeah, I’m a stupid f**k. You and your homies could beat me up, kill me, put me out of my misery. But I’m not the one walking away, you are!” Mr. Thuggish Ruggish Bone then disappeared.

There were numerous other reminders that what was once my hometown would never be again. The fact that neighborhoods that were once affluent White ones were now a mixture of White, African American and Latino, and weren’t so affluent anymore. The closings of Athena’s and Baskin-Robbins and other businesses in once ritzy Fleetwood, the rundown sense that I saw in faces Black and White and Brown all during that week.

Other parts of the city had long succumbed to poverty, crime and neglect, but with the middle class regardless of race in full flight, the uphill battle for a thriving bedroom suburb was now an unorganized retreat, with carnage all along the way. The newest thing I saw in Mount Vernon during my midsummer night and day-mare was the track behind Mount Vernon High School and the construction crew working on a new wall for the southwest corner of the building.

I know that a fair number of my Mount Vernon-based or nostalgic readers will think me biased, ungrateful even for having grown up in a town that they themselves found enriching and enjoyable. If that is the case, then that’s wonderful. Your Mount Vernon wasn’t the one I experienced, and “your blues ain’t like mine” (as the late Bebe Moore Campbell would say), sorry to say.

Aside from the atypical experience of dealing with the death of my sister, the Mount Vernon I grew up with and the one I witnessed last month were one and the same. My time growing up there included unpleasant moments with young punks and thugs, far too much rage and violence and poverty for me to stick around after high school. The difference now is, the city as a whole has become a reflection of my worst experiences, and not a “city on the move.” Silver linings like Ben Gordon or Denzel Washington or not, anyone who refuses to acknowledge that this is the reality for most living in Mount Vernon should tune into a 70s station and look up Michael McDonald for advice on foolishness and wisdom.

The Writing Bug

August 19, 2010

It’s been twenty-nine years since I first saw myself as a writer and attempted to pursue writing in any form. It was the summer of ’81, the summer before Humanities and seventh grade, the year before the summer of my abuse. For me at least, this was a calm summer, like I was sitting out by a lake with only a slight breeze blowing around me. I was enjoying the peace and quiet of being near still water, of an occasional rustle of trees, of a plop or two of something dropped into the lake. This was a time for me to imagine our lives as better, better than they actually were. I was on an end-of-elementary school and Humanities-acceptance high. I couldn’t have been any higher than if I had snorted coke at one of those drug-fueled parties my mother used to drag us to hang out with her Mount Vernon Hospital buddies when I was five or six (Luckily, my mother didn’t do drugs.)

I spent most of that summer writing my first book. It was a book about the top-secret military hardware the Department of Defense didn’t want the rest of America to know about. I remained consumed with reading about war and military technology in my spare time — I wouldn’t have learned the word “fortnight” otherwise! Everything from the B-1 bomber to the M-1 Abrams tank to the Trident submarine and MX missile was to be in this scoop on the latest in military high-tech. I even wrote a letter to the Pentagon for declassified pictures of these weapons, which I received in mid-July. By the time of my brother Yiscoc’s birth (one form of Hebrew for “Isaac” and pronounced “yizz-co”) later in the month, I’d written nearly fifty pages on these weapons and why they were so cool for the US military to have. Especially in light of the Soviet military threat. Unfortunately, they didn’t declassify the fact that America’s latest tank used depleted uranium in parts of its hull or in its cannon shells. That would’ve been a real scoop at the time.

I also began to keep my own journal as I began to lose interest in America’s military hardware at the end of that summer. Little did I know what was to come at 616 and in seventh grade in Humanities. My journal was an off and on again project of dreadful tales of hunger, humiliation and heartache. By the time of Crush #1 and witnessing my stepfather’s attack of my mother on Memorial Day ’82, I could barely write at all. The last thing I wrote for my journal (which was a spiral notebook) was about my own abuse throughout July ’82. By the time that ended, I didn’t feel like writing anymore.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. My imagination, my constant talking to myself, my eventual fascination with having an eclectic variety of music and rooting for underdog teams and athletes were all part of a writing process that actually didn’t require me to write. All of these coping mechanisms and more gave me more to write about once I went off to college, and especially after my ex-stepfather broke up with my mother after my sophomore. It wasn’t an accident that within a few months of dumb ass moving out in June ’89, I had started my first journal in seven years. I guess that I always had the writing bug, even when I didn’t possess the paper necessary to write.

Gotta Have Heart — In Sports and In Life

August 16, 2010

Me on Leg Press, August 2010

I learned something watching the end of the 92nd PGA Championship at Whistling Straits yesterday. That no matter how much talent, training, conditioning and nutrition a professional golfer or athlete does, that it’s the mind and heart that matters in the end. Folks that TNT’s Ernie Johnson and CBS’ Jim Nance were ordaining as the “change of the guard” or part of the “youth movement” in international golf looked like a bunch of also-rans who were playing their first pro tournament as fifteen-year-old amateurs.

To say the least, it’s a bit premature to say that we’ve seen the last touch of greatness of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and the other over-32 golfers. Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy are all “not quite ready for prime time” players. But the media’s haste to anoint the next great one in the sport speaks volumes about them and us, and less about the Dustin Johnson’s and Nick Watney’s of the world of sports and in life.

Meanwhile, someone by the name of Tiger Woods looked like they were finding glimpses of a golfing game again. Not enough to win or be in contention this week. But encouraging nevertheless for anyone who cares about watching someone who plays the game with the intestinal and mental fortitude of a Jim Brown or a Michael Jordan. Overall, it shows that we cannot judge any player’s game based on one horrible week or even a stretch of mediocre play. At the very least, we should look for patterns, for signs of will and commitment to improve, and not just at momentary lapses in reason and a temporary case of the whatevers.

I remember well my second, third and fourth times I ever played basketball. I was nine years old, and I hadn’t picked up a basketball since my mother — a high school basketball star in Arkansas — refused to teach me after I threw a minor fit out of frustration. I played with other 616 kids, Terry, Joe S. and Joe W. All I remember hearing was “You’re terrible!,” “You throw like a girl!,” and “You’re no good!” It scarred me, left me unwilling to play basketball with kids my age for years. I really didn’t pick up the game again until I was twenty-two, in the middle of my first year of grad school at Pitt. After working at it, lo and behold, I discovered that I was actually pretty good at the game, and could play reasonably well against guys even three inches taller than me. I’ve been playing and improving my game ever since.

I say that to remind me, to remind all us, that no person or athlete can be judged by just a snapshot of their work, but by what they do over time. Tiger’s already proven three times over how he can retool his game and be a better player. Dustin Johnson’s shown brilliance, but not the mental toughness yet to close the deal. So many of us are ready to anoint, to believe the hype, without looking deeply at what it is we’re hyping. This may be why so many athletes, entertainers and politicians are able to disappoint us.

The fame and money are too easy, the temptations and pressures are too much, and the work needed to be successful too daunting for any of us to consider seriously. And we do the same things in everyday life that these folk do on the public stage. Maybe it’s time for all of us to dig deep and find some real passion and drive for making our lives and selves better.

Writer’s Start

August 13, 2010

"Afrocentricity" Piece, August 12, 1993

Seventeen years ago today, I found out that an article that I had worked on with my dear friend Marc had been published by Black Issues in Higher Education. It wasn’t the typical process in which an editor or an editorial assistant contacts you to let you know that your piece has made the cut. No, I found out from Marc, who found out from a librarian at Hillman Library at Pitt, that our 1,200-word “Afrocentricity: The Fight for Control of African American Thought” was already published by Black Issues as their central Forum article for their August 12, ’93 issue. We did so many things incorrectly in getting that article published. But in the end, it meant renewing a struggle for a sense of my own purpose in life. At twenty-three years old, I was half my lifetime removed from seeing myself as a writer, and had spent most of the previous eleven years denying that any such yearnings remained in my mind and heart.

It was an article borne out of Marc’s desire to have an impact on a ridiculous debate over what is and isn’t authentically “Black” or “African” and my need for a few extra dollars. Unfortunately, authentic Blackness – along with my need for increased income – remains after so many years. We worked for two weekends in May on this short critique of Black Studies greats such as Maulana Karenga, Molefi Asante and the latter’s cult of Afrocentric followers, including those who would claim that such things as jazz aren’t authentically Black. After we finished the draft, I left it to Marc to compile the contact information for editors and periodicals. I was too busy looking for work and making sure that I wasn’t evicted from my firetrap of an apartment in East Liberty to put much more work beyond the piece into getting it published.

Other than Marc occasionally calling me to let me know that he’d been in contact with Harper’s or had mailed the article to Emerge, I didn’t give the piece much thought until that day in August seventeen years ago. Since our piece was already published, it meant that we’d have to fight to get paid. Based on the number of words, they owed us about $100 a piece. We’d never even received an acknowledgment letter, much less an acceptance or rejection follow-up. In all, Marc contacted some seventeen different magazines about “Afrocentricity,” probably too many to keep up with and police, especially in the case of Black Issues.

We learned later that one of the editors hoped to use our article as a straw man for Molefi Asante and his students/followers to burn in effigy, with one letter after another describing us as “Uncle Toms,” “inauthentic,” and “misguided Negroes.” We were virtually everything except children of God. This went on for two months’ worth of Black Issues issues. I wanted to write a rebuttal letter, one that would at least stick it to our melanin-worshipping, authentically-seasoned-fried-chicken-eating, Afrocentric brothas and sistas. My description, not Marc’s. But Marc refused to partake in a follow-up. “We were just trying to help,” he said more than once, as if we were the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, about to be killed off by an ignorant swarm.

I learned quite a bit from those days of naiveté. One, that as a writer, that it was just as important for me to be involved in the selling of our article as it was for me to do the actual writing. Two, that mass mailings of articles for publication only work if you don’t care about making money or about how you as a writer are treated. Three, that I as a writer must stand by my work, especially when I know I’m in the right. And four, that even in the midst of my climb into all things PhD, that I was and would always remain a writer. This experience would serve to help me figure out how much of a writer I could and should be as my time pursuing an academic career came and passed.

The Rejection of All Things “All-American”

August 9, 2010

Source: Scanned panel from the cover to ''Captain America (vol. 4)'' # 6. Art by John Cassaday

About a week and a half ago, BBC News America brought in an American athlete for an interview, calling him a typical “all-American man” in the process. It’s not a term that Americans use nearly as much these days, but BBC America still felt comfortable in using it, assuming that all Americans would understand on some unconscious level what an all-American man, hero, boy or girl would mean. The phrase has a variety of implications, and whole groups of people who become excluded in the process.

There are racial — but not necessarily racist — implications to the “all-American” archetype. Of course, the term refers almost always to White men, heroes, boys or girls, especially those with blond hair and blue eyes. You know, like Captain America. Whether it’s been athletes like Roger Clemens, Mia Hamm, Tom Brady, Lindsay Vonn, Mark McGwire, Phil Michelson, or actors like Tom Cruise, Zack Efron, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Aniston, Renee Zellweger, or the Olson twins, all-Americans are essentially the White boy or girls next door. They are allegedly everyday people who’ve managed to become enormously rich, famous and successful individuals.

Somehow, their hard work and talent, like cream in tea or coffee, rose to the top, enabling these individuals to become the archetype all-American. Never mind that hard work for most of the remaining 310 million of us isn’t really an issue, and talent alone needs to be found, discovered, and connected to the powers that be in order for it to rise to the top. But let me not burst that all-American bubble of a myth. Luckily in the past fifteen years, there are a select few of color who may fit that “all-American” moniker, folks like Will Smith or Derek Jeter. Still, Will Smith broke in as a rapper who was anointed as one with great potential by Quincy Jones, while Jeter plays for the New York Yankees, not exactly an under the radar sports team.

Which leads to my other point about the “all-American” myth. No one who grows up a nerd, or a misfit of some sort, or just introverted, gets to be seen as an all-American boy or girl. No one who’s overweight or impoverished or considered unattractive is found by the media as “all-American as apple pie.” Everyone from Bill Gates to Bill Maher, Colin Powell to Whoppi Goldberg, would’ve never made it in this society if we waited for the media to anoint them as “all-American” heroes or success stories.

I must admit, I’ve only watched a few videos by the group The All-American Rejects, but their very name makes my point. Though the use of this term is on the decline, it’s not dying fast enough. We’re a multicultural society, whether those who think that only a select few are “all-American” boys and girls want to acknowledge this or not. Maybe BBC America, or for that matter, the news business in general, should catch up with the rest of our society before they look as if they’re waiting for the next eugenics movement.


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