And Now, A Plagiarism Moment

September 13, 2010

Professor Emeritus Daniel P. Resnick. Source: http://www.cmu.edu

I was sitting in the office of the only professor in Carnegie Mellon’s History Department with expertise in the area of history of education one mid-September day in ’93. It was my first semester in the doctoral program there, after transferring from Pitt to finish my PhD. I had already begun to question my decision to do my remaining studies there. My advisor Joe Trotter was “upset” that I’d taken and passed my doctoral written exams the spring before, when I was still technically a Pitt grad student, and had “run interference” to forbid me from publishing any new articles during the ’93-’94 school years. That was after my piece with my friend Marc had come out in Black Issues in Higher Education.

Steve Schlossman, the chair of the history department, was also upset, because I had decided not to take the American history proseminar, a course for first semester grad students. Apparently, even though I had taken the same course at Pitt two years before — and Carnegie Mellon had accepted all of my credits from my master’s program and first year as a doctoral student at Pitt — I had to take this course. I was read the riot act and told that I needed Carnegie Mellon’s “stamp of approval” before becoming a doctoral candidate. I was incensed, because this wasn’t what I’d been promised by my esteemed advisor and the graduate advisor, John Modell.

All this happened before I met Daniel P. Resnick in his office on Tuesday on a cool, but not too cool, and sunny late-summer day. His office was neat, relatively speaking, but spare and spartan in some ways, with books stacked in orderly fashion, and papers in numerous labeled folders. What I noticed the most was the smell, an old person’s not-fully-washed smell, of bagels and lox with some onion cream cheese.

Professor Resnick had gone to the restroom and left the door open for me to sit at a table next to his desk. He had already laid out my writing samples, the ones I’d put in his mailbox the week before. They included the Black Issues in Higher Education piece. After our exchange of greetings, Resnick sat down and said, “Considering your background, your writing is remarkable!” in a way that showed real surprise.

Before I could respond with a defense or process the obvious bigotry in that statement, Resnick then said, “There’s no way you could’ve written all this.” I responded, “Well, I did, and have the grades and degrees to prove it,” preferring not to accuse the only professor in the department with a specialty in the history of education of racism. “What-what I meant was, your papers are well-written…compared to most young scholars,” Resnick stammered. I accepted that response at face value, but kept what he had said before it in mind as I worked with him over the next three years.

Resnick, as it turned out, had lived for a year with his wife, the great Lauren Resnick, on the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border in 1960-61 (one of them was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I think), so after finding out where I grew up, he had put two and two together and come up with sixteen. I found him patronizing, and about as knowledgeable in the recent developments of educational history as I would be of underground house music in Chelsea right now. Resnick himself had plagiarized, not in terms of his own work, but from the race relations rule book. He had plagiarized in stereotypes, far worse than anything of which he’d accused me.

Was it worth having this man on my dissertation committee? Yes, because I graduated. But, in the final analysis, it would’ve made more sense to transfer to NYU or Stanford School of Education than to spend three minutes, much less three years, working with a man whose belief in my work was minimal at best.


Maybe They’ve Won After All

September 10, 2010

There's a Hole in the Bucket (Still) at Ground Zero. Source: http://unambig.com

I wrote this four days after 9-11, after spending three days stuck in Atlanta and a day on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to DC, after defending a Sikh man against a hostile White male and Black guy because he looked like one of “them.”

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With much of this week’s focus on the atrocities at the former World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the airline crash south of Pittsburgh, there is a disturbing and growing backlash against Americans of Arab descent throughout the nation.  The nation should be outraged because of the wanton destruction of property and life at the hands of suicidal terrorists.  But this in no way should justify the fire bombings of mosques in Texas and marching against Arab communities in Chicago.  This, of course, is among other incidents of hatred and revenge directed at folks who in some cases have been in America for several generations.  And like many Americans, Americans of Arab descent migrated to our multicultural society to escape religious extremism, government persecution, and yes, terrorism.  The backlash against Arab Americans since the attacks on Tuesday sicken me as much as the frightening attacks themselves.

I am a African American male, and I have thought about what the nation’s response might have been if a suicidal group of African American terrorists had done this horrible thing.  Would we be in the midst of race riots in America’s major cities, in which groups of Whites armed with American flags and poles, rocks, guns and whatever else they could find to beat and possibly kill Blacks just because they’re Black?  Would law enforcement agencies search every allegedly suspicious-looking brown-skinned person with kinky hair because they might connect them to an African American terrorist group?

Or what if an Irish terrorist group had hijacked the planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?  Would non-Irish Americans then be so quick to lash out at any “Mic” they could find? Would they intimidate Americans of Irish descent to the point where they would be scared out of going to school or attending a prayer vigil with their fellow Americans?  Would we be so willing to engage in the language of bloodlust toward a group of Irish Americans as we have done to our Arab American brothers and sisters?

We can say that the majority of Americans have not engaged in this bigoted and racist behavior.  But our silence is not good enough.  Mainstream journalism acts as if a few prominent Arab Americans denouncing both the terrorist attack and the expected backlash against Arabs by other Americans ends their responsibility.  It does not.  The press must do a better job of discussing this smouldering problem with all Americans, including representatives of the Arab American community.  It also must do better in explaining the differences between the tenets of Islam and the unspeakable acts of terrorists clinging to a warped version of Islam.  It’s not at all much different from the barbaric actions of the Ku Klux Klan, who claim that they act in defense of White Christians.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah?  If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred.  If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.

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Needless to say, The Washington Post was engaged in blind, raging patriotism for the next couple of years, so my two cents was ignored. Unfortunately, between the racism and religious hatred directed at the proposed Islamic Center near, but not on, Ground Zero in New York City, and the idiot Terry Jones wanting to burn Qur’ans in Florida, it looks like the nineteen suicidal morons from Saudi Arabia have won after all. We still have a big hole in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. So much for standing together on the platform of America the brave and the free.


Shopping at C-Town

September 9, 2010

C-Town Sign, Plainfield, NJ. Source: Plainfield Today, http://ptoday.blogspot.com/2010/07/c-town-supermarket-touches-nerve.html

I’ve spent very little time walking down memory lane regarding Crush #1 this year. Partly because I’m sure some of my readers are sick of hearing about my love for her, and partly because I’m sure she’s sick of hearing about herself. But this short story is more about me than her.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, I experienced my first — and nearly my last — embarrassment around food stamps at the one-time C-Town grocery store near the corner of Park Avenue and East Prospect Avenue in Mount Vernon. I was shopping after 7 pm for groceries after a quick stop at Mount Vernon Public Library early on in my freshman year at Mount Vernon High School. It was right around the last Rosh Hashanah I’d recognize as a Hebrew-Israelite, a Wednesday or Thursday night. I was buying some pinto beans, Carolina Long Grain Rice, beef neck bones and other healthy yet cheap things to eat for the next few days.

It’d always been a struggle to shop for my family during the Hebrew-Israelite years, to find kosher food, to buy strange things like matzohs or kosher salt. But it had become stranger for me earlier that year, when we ended up on welfare and using food stamps after April ’83. By that fateful evening, I’d maybe used my

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

mother’s food stamps a half-dozen times. Other times, I’d used my father Jimme’s money to pay for the groceries, the indignity of using food stamps was so great. And when I shopped in Mount Vernon, I was acutely aware of the possibility that I could bump into one of my better-off classmates while paying for groceries with my stereotypical food stamps. As far as I was concerned, they already had too many things they could make fun of me about as it was.

So as I finished combing the slender and short aisles of C-Town for kosher bargains, I began my trek to the cash registers at the front, relieved that I hadn’t bumped into any folks I knew. Only to run into Crush #1, having beaten me to the cashier that was open at the time.” Damn,” I thought, one of the few times before the age of twenty-one that the word damn ever invaded my thoughts. She was polite enough to say “Hey, Donald,” to engage me in a short conversation about the start of high school.

Although I was usually grateful to be in my first love’s presence, all I wanted to do at that moment was run away, get out of the store as fast as I could. Instead, I went through the motions, answering her questions and asking a couple of ones about the teachers we had in common that year, like Cuglietto and Murphy. Luckily for me, she didn’t linger after she paid the cashier, and said her laters while I was still being rung up. I quickly handed the cashier my $20 in food stamps, told them to keep the Monopoly money change, and walked around the corner and down Prospect to 616 at Warp Factor 3.

The funny thing about getting older — not old, but older — is that it would take a lot more than food stamps to embarrass me these days. Especially now that you can get welfare checks and food stamps through direct deposit and EBT cards. I’m sure that Crush #1 thought nothing of our short conversation that evening, and neither did I, other than feeling awkward about the reminder that I was completely out of my league, not only from a relationship standpoint, but in terms of my lot in life overall. Boy, I’m glad that things have changed — that I’ve grown — so much in past twenty-seven years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a blog to remind me of my ridiculous past.


Opposite World

September 6, 2010

Ignorance and Apathy. Source: http://iftheshoefitz.com

I know that I don’t fit very well in this world. My way of speaking, my walk, my music tastes. They and so much more make me an oddball in a land full of narcissistic conformists who all believe that they’re special. It’s opposite world for me, and has become more so over the past thirty years. No longer is it that “the customer’s always right.” It’s acceptable that people refuse to give up space in public, step on your shoes and toes and dare you to make them say “excuse me.” Folks refuse to say “thank you” for simple and well-meaning gestures, as if a courtesy would force them to acknowledge your existence. Blind loyalty is how we define patriotism, and becomes a quick path of career advancement. It’s a world that’s full of crap, and makes me wish I owned a societal sewage treatment or compost plant to deal with it all. But none of it is more disappointing that our world’s embracing of stupidity.

As any serious scholar knows, there’s a long history of anti-intellectualism in American culture. It’s existed since the days of Woodrow Wilson, and likely at least a generation longer than that. Yet that’s not what I’m concerned with here. These days, we have a people absolutely proud of their lack of knowledge, choosing to avoid knowing anything for fear of rejection by friends, colleagues, voters and leaders. Our pride in ignorance and stupidity knows no bounds. We have folks like Maureen Dowd and Kathleen Parker, as well

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (should include women as well). Source: http://www.michaelmoore.com

as Faux News, of course, critical of President Obama, mostly because of his biracial Black and elite education background. That includes criticisms over his being “overly patient” and “too deliberate” in addressing complex foreign policy issues. We have NFL coaches laughing on HBO’s Hard Knocks because they couldn’t figure out that two yardsticks and one twelve-inch ruler equals seven feet in length, something that any fifth-grader supposedly should be able to do.

Sarah Palin’s still a popular candidate — perhaps for president, but more likely as a conservative lightning rod — in no small part because she’s refused to embrace knowledge and “those so-called experts” of such. Apparently it’s okay to not listen to what the opposition has to say because they attended Harvard or graduated from Princeton. At least she’s not as stupid as she appears, having made $13 million since the beginning of ’09 off of selling ignorance to her fans.

We have policy wonks, politicians and bigoted Tea Baggers willing to dismiss any and all evidence — not opinion, but objective, painstakingly gathered evidence — that doesn’t fit their White is right and the Right is right view of the world. We have progressives and liberals — from assisted suicide advocates to vegans — who deny others’ points of view or overall context, leaping into full-throated arguments without looking or without imparting their opinions or their knowledge.

Anyone who disagrees with any side based on evidence, knowledge, and of course, wisdom, can expect to see their knowledge shoved to the side. If it were a book, they’d all burn it. If it were a person, they’d jail it. That’s how much our nation hates knowledge and those who possess it. It’s what makes this world so uncomfortable to live in.


The Eclectic, Authentic Donald

September 4, 2010

Maxwell's Embrya (1997) Album Art

I am, and will always remain, a goofy oddball. I’ve known that for at least twenty-five years, probably closer to thirty. For it was this week in ’85 that we finally got cable at 616. More than four years after MTV, and a few months into VH1, we finally no longer needed antennas to watch TV. My fat, greasy slob of a stepfather hogged the gigantic wood-framed hand-me-down of a nineteen-inch Zenith, along with the living room, most of the time. But I came home from the beginning of the school year — my junior year of Meltzer and AP US History at MVHS — at the end of the first week, with no one home.

I turned on the TV, found MTV, and boom, I was in the heart of the ’80s. As soon as I hit the channel, a new video began, heavily synthesized and very much over the top. It turned out to be Heart’s “What About Love,” the first release off of their new album. I liked the song immediately. But more importantly, I liked

Heart, 1985. (Look at that hair!?!)

the fact that I could now also put faces and styles to voices and lyrics. I was late, four years too late in understanding the jokes, the fashion motifs and consumerism concerns of my more socioeconomically- blessed classmates. As the saying goes, though, better late than never.

That afternoon, I ended up seeing videos from Sade, Tears for Fears, Dire

Mr. Mister (1985) Welcome To The Real World

Straits, Sting, and Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.” The last one was a weird video, but very heartfelt, and one that has stayed with as long as any song I’ve heard or video I’ve seen since (more on that in December). I eventually checked out some boring Alexander O’Neal videos on BET before my mother and younger siblings came home from school and grocery shopping.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t listened to music before September ’85. I was already well aware of the fact that my music tastes weren’t stereotypically Black, weren’t all that White, and certainly weren’t all that old and mature. Having played the trombone in fifth grade, the fife for Hebrew-Israelite stuff all through ’82, and sang in school choirs sixth, seventh and eighth grade (until my voice started cracking), it wasn’t as if I didn’t know when someone was off key or timing their drum sequences.

Still, I found music that didn’t have the voice of Luther (Vandross) or Patti (Austin or LaBelle) or the beats of Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash or Run-D.M.C. appealing. It reached me because I had moments I needed to be reached, to be serious, to focus on the pain that was my life in the mid-80s, a pain that few artists sang or wrote about in any direct way. I could relate to the lyrics of rejection, redemption and

The Best of Sade (1992) Album Art

resolution more than I could relate to someone stepping on my brand new sneakers and getting attitude. Songs that could reach me because I had moments I needed to feel and be goofy, to laugh at myself for feeling as pathetic as I did back then. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in the R&B and early hip-hop repertoire of ’85 did that for me.

So I branched out, almost immediately after that MTV afternoon in early-fall early-September. I became even more interested in what some of my classmates called “that White music,” even deliberately listening to WPLJ and Z-100, adding that to WBLS. I also took the occasional turn to WCBS-101 (oldies station of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin), had a brief foray into Phillip Glass and ’80s new age, a rare stumble into jazz, and yes, for those who believe I embody the rejection of all things “Black,” found my need for R&B and some rap in my eyes and ears.That first week in September ’85 pretty much sealed my fate as an eclectic music listener. Many who know me and my Mount Vernon past would say that Humanities and being around all those White kids had something to do with this. Some, including my mother, would say that my education has led to some sense of racial self-loathing, that I deliberately gave up my heritage to chase some false sense of Whiteness — or,

Seal (1994) Album Art

that I’m “acting White.”

I’d say that I was a goofy and serious late-bloomer, who listened to music and lyrics for meaning, for a kernel of wisdom and hope. Some or all of those things can be found in any genre of music, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstance. Music, like people, can’t be separated into races unless people choose to be separate, a truth I understand now and guessed at intuitively then.


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