The Women In My Brain

April 28, 2012

Angelia & me on honeymoon, Seattle's Space Needle, May 20, 2001. (Donald Earl Collins)

Today’s my twelfth wedding anniversary. It means that I already have one woman in my brain almost all of the time, mostly around the mundane tasks of running a place of residence, other domestic duties, and watching over/nurturing the midsized human that is our eight-year-old.

Gaius Baltar & Caprica Six, Battlestar Galactica image (2004), June 25, 2009. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws due to low resolution of picture.

But the reality is, there have always been women in my brain, with images that inspire, voices that encourage, and actions that embolden. This post isn’t about undressing a woman in my mind’s eye every six seconds. Nor is it about putting women on some pedestal so that I can mentally kneel and worship in an empty space. Trust me, I’ve done both and more over the years. No, this is about who gets into my head and how they stay there.

Of course, no one has had more air time on my mind’s screen over the past forty-two years and change than my mother. She did give birth to me, after all, and for better and worse, helped me make it to my preteen years before things in our lives fell apart at 616. For years, I’ve lived with the lessons learned at my mother’s hip, lessons about race, trust, religion and relationships. Many of which I’ve had to revise in order to make better choices in my own life. Still, I can hear my mother’s voice, bad jokes and all, in the things I do with my son, in the mistakes I hope to avoid as a writer and as an educator, in the bills that constantly have to be paid.

I hear my wife’s voice every time I go the grocery store. Or when I’m dealing with my son. Or when I think about our travels over the years. Literal and figurative. I think about all of things we’ve made happen, and all of the things that are still works-in-progress for us, as individuals and as a family. I hear her doubt, her most critical of voices, her scalpel sense of editing in what I write, in how I speak and in the diplomacy I show the folks in my life who otherwise don’t deserve it. Though our marriage is as complicated as astrophysics shows the universe to be when accounting for dark matter, my wife’s voice bounces around my 100 trillion nerve ending almost as much as my own.

Then there’s Crush #1. She’s more insidious than my mother or my wife. The tenacious ballerina of a

Inception (2010), Paris dream construct screen shot, April 27, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of poor resolution of shot, not intended for distribution.

tomboy who one represented my personification of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman often will show up when I least expect. Often enough in my dreams, and usually when I’m writing in my head. I hear her giggles and see her smiles under the strangest of circumstances. A pirouette here, a punch to the jaw there, an encouraging word and a thoughtful look will surprise me in my dreams as much as it would’ve in real life thirty years ago.

Are these women anything like the folks I’ve known and learned to know again over the past three decades? Yes and no. They likely represent the many sides of me as much as they each represent themselves. Loving or not, caring or not, forever elusive, and yet always there for me to grasp, love and even despise. They all represent the best and worst in me, the best and worst I’ve seen, endured and overcome in this life. Hard, tough, blood-from-a-turnip love. Unrequited, one-sided love. And deep, conditional, familiar love. They’re all there. They seem to always be there.

Jennifer Lopez in dream sequence in The Cell (2000), April 27, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screen shot's low resolution.

God, my own thoughts — however deep or shallow —  the billions of images of sports and men and women in my head from every walk of life and every song made in the past four centuries also remain constant in my brain. But mother, wife and first love can’t be shut off or out either. I could use some endorphins for the headache I have now.

Thanks to All of My Readers

April 27, 2012

Front view of $10,000 bill with Salmon P. Chase picture, Series: 1928, 1934, 1934A & 1934, US Mint (Wikipedia). In public domain.

This month’s the first that my blog “Notes from a Boy @ The Window” has broken the 10,000 viewer mark in a single calendar month. Thanks to each and every single one of you for reading, comments, liking, and even disliking my myriad of posts! This has been a great time for my blog, and I hope to keep putting up posts that are worthy of your reading eyes!

Diversity Isn’t As Simple As Reaching Out To HBCUs

April 25, 2012

Founders Library, Howard University, Washington, DC, April 9, 2006. (David Monack via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

There were many things that made me want to holler during my graduate school days two decades ago. One of them was constantly hearing that there were no students or faculty of color to be found because no one Black or Brown was qualified, or “in the pipeline,” or interested in this field or that field. I’d hear this at meetings on Pitt’s campus, at meetings on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, at conferences like the American Education Research Association’s annual meeting, at other academic conferences and settings.

Thank goodness those days are over. Now most of us realize there’s a few folks Black and Latino to find in almost every career option. But a new excuse for lack of diversity in higher education and on the job front has come up in meetings, at conferences, and in conversations, at least in terms of solutions. In job interviews, at local meetings regarding Montgomery County Public Schools, at Center for American Progress conferences on K-12 reform, at my previous jobs with the Academy for Educational Development and in other settings. The way to solve the diversity problem seems to come down to one prescriptive. “We need to reach out to HBCUs.”

So, it all comes down to the 110 or so Historically Black Colleges and Universities to solve the lack of diversity problem facing K-12 education, higher education, STEM careers, social justice nonprofits, public service, civic education, journalism, international development and foreign service, among other sectors? Really? Statistics over the past twenty years have shown that about twenty percent of all African American undergraduate students attend HBCUs. Statistics also show that about eleven percent of all Blacks who complete a four-year degree do so at a HBCU. According to the latest data from the US Department of Education (in conjunction with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities), nearly 30,000 Blacks graduated with either a two-year or four-year degree from an HBCU in 2011.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it has existed in some form or another since President Jimmy Carter signed the original executive order creating it in 1980, with every president contributing to it or strengthening it since then. This White House initiative has always been about helping HBCUs build their capacities for admitting, enrolling and graduating more African American students. Yet there’s a huge snag around the capacity of HBCUs to meet the goal to bring the number of undergraduate degrees produced on par with the overall 2020 goal of making the US the number one producer of college graduates again. It would mean that HBCUs would be responsible for graduating 166,713 students a year by 2020.

Besides the reality that this is a near-impossible goal for most HBCUs– most lack the resources necessary

Old New York City Subway token, phased out (like notion of token Black ought to be), May 30, 2005. (Jessamyn West via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

to admit and enroll so many students — there’s a couple of trends being ignored by the worlds of work and academia. HBCUs aren’t some untapped resource that folks at predominantly White institutions and in various fields suddenly discovered in the late-1990s and the ’00s. HBCU graduates have been working in all of these fields that have lacked diversity in terms of demographics and ideas for years.

With only eleven percent of all Black graduates, few, if any, fields will benefit from the one-shot solution they hope HBCUs will provide. Unless the goal of a school district, a social justice organization or a business is only to hire one, a ’70s-era goal in the 2010s that’s hardly worth a sentence of my time.

The other trend is the overall trend of the kinds of higher institutions African Americans attend. About half of all Black undergraduates — traditional students, adult learners and first-generation students — enroll at two-year schools, community colleges and for-profit institutions (the last a black hole if one’s expecting students to actually graduate). Which means that about thirty percent of all African American students — about 600,000 in all — attend predominantly White four-year institutions.

It’s not as if folks in leading positions propose that to increase the number of Latinos in certain fields, the answer would somehow lie in the couple of dozen Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), right? Or that to bring more women into the STEM fields, that a singular strategy would involve outreach to Sarah Lawrence, Spelman, Bryn Mawr, and Vassar? At least one would hope not.

It seems that a multi-pronged approach to addressing diversity issues for a school district, a technical field, the nonprofit sector or academia needs to be in order. One that starts much earlier, like in elementary school. One that doesn’t treat Black students at predominantly White institutions as a foregone conclusion, and HBCUs as a panacea.

But somehow, I’ll find myself at another meeting in the near future, hearing from some leader or official about their efforts to address diversity by contacting HBCUs as their one and only solution. A conversation that I find myself dreading more and more.


April 21, 2012

Major fire Sunday evening at F&Y Store (formerly Milk-n-Things), Grand Cleaners, Pelham, New York, March 9, 2008. ( Qualifies as fair use because of low resolution of picture and subject of this blog post.

As most folks who aren’t Black males have learned in the past couple of months, part of our collective coming-of-age story involves this sordid and cruel rite of passage to manhood. One in which people we’ve known since childhood suddenly start to treat us as if we’ve committed a crime or an unpardonable sin. No matter how smart, how tall or short, how athletic or waif-like, this ritual has continued unabated in American culture for as long as there have been free Black males living their lives.

My whole year between my seventeenth and eighteenth birthday in ’87 was like that. Between a crossing guard I’d know since third grade, some of my classmates, my idiot Mount Vernon High School principal, the late Richard Capozzola (see post “Capo, Mi Capo” from September ’09) and Tower Records (see my post “Why Black Men Carry A Public Anger” from March ’12). I was constantly shown through their eyes how my man-sized Black body was a threat to them.

One of the bigger kickers that year was an incident at the former Pelham, New York mini-mart Milk-n-Things. It was in a strip mall across the street from a Mobil gas station, off a Hutchinson River Parkway exit, just across the bridge on East Lincoln connecting Mount Vernon to Pelham. The store was two doors down from the laundromat in which we washed our clothes every week (or just about) between ’78 and ’87, and next to Hutchinson Elementary School and Pelham Library.

I’d been shopping there on my own since ’77, before I’d started third grade. Over the years, I’d gotten used to the smell of cheap cologne, the noise of broken Italian and Brooklyn-ese as spoken by the Hair Club for Couples, the people who owned Milk-n-Things. Not to mention their love of all things from the ’50s, especially with a gigantic picture of Frank Sinatra on the wall that greeted customers upon entrance. By the time I was fourteen, it dawned on me that these folks may have been mobbed up, but what did that matter to me?

Then one day in April ’87, the Italian folks who owned Milk-n-Things reacted to me as if they’d never seen me before. As usual, I went there to buy a few groceries late in the evening, somewhere around 9 pm, when C-Town had already closed. Milk, eggs and butter were among the things I planned to buy. When I got to the counter, the old Italian lady said, “I got you on camera.”

“On camera doing what?,” I asked without thinking.

“You know whatcha been up to. I got you stealing, thief,” she said as if she had another word in mind.

“There’s no way you could have me on camera. You might have someone else on camera, but I know I haven’t stolen a thing,” I said, as I felt both hurt and rage coming out of me.

“Get out of my store now before I call the cops!,” the woman yelled.

I left the groceries and took back my money, feeling persecuted. This was a store I’d been shopping at for ten years. Now this Frank Sinatra-worshiping bitch has the nerve to accuse me of stealing right out of the blue? “Fine,” I thought. “You’re not getting another dime of my money.” That was the last time I shopped there.

I actually didn’t step foot into the space again until ’06, during a Thanksgiving visit with family. By that time, it was no longer Milk-n-Things, and the Italians who owned the place had long since moved away. I went in, realized they had nothing I wanted, and left. No one walked up to me to check my pockets as I walked out. I was mildly surprised.

How Our Politicians See Us

April 18, 2012

Uruguay slaughterhouse with hanging cow carcasses, April 2, 2012. (

A slightly left-of-center friend of mine from my grad school days at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon has gone off the rails in the past couple of years. At least once a week, he posts on Facebook and The Washington Post his views of the “nice guy…to have at a barbecue,” the “dangerous man” he consistently describes President Barack Obama to be.

Every parsed word, every decision, every breath President Obama takes my friend construes as evidence of the president’s link to the Antichrist and the Apocalypse. My friend has become an unlikely crackpot, willing to see everything President Obama does in the most negative light. To the point where he doesn’t give the president credit for decisions in which few could find fault.

But there’s one thing in which my friend from the ’90s is certain and correct. That if we the people only hold the conservative, reactionary and fascist oligarchs — the GOP and their neocon supporters — accountable, the centrist, not-so-progressive and Wall-Street-beholden oligarchs — the Democratic Party — will be able to get away with demolishing what remains of a sense of progression and fairness in American culture and politics. The two-party system has been broken for a while, rusted out from citizen apathy, a military-industrial complex, and the corruption of money, power and religious absolutism mixed with our nation’s other -isms.

It does beg the question, how do our politicians see us? I already discussed this in my post from last August, “When Politicians Say, ‘The American People…'” But I think moving pictures and good old-fashioned pixels might tell us more about the likes of Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers think of us on a collective scale, courtesy of The Matrix and the meatpacking industry.

Ultimately, we are packets of employment and consumerism, meant to be exploited to the fullest extent that capitalism and our politicians will allow. And if we don’t hold those who may well have our best interests at heart accountable, like President Obama, they too could easily fall prey to those who only see us as carcasses, cash cows or batteries to power their oligarchic lives. Even if my grad school days’ friend is a crackpot.

The Master’s – Too Young, Too Soon

April 14, 2012

The Masters 2011, 13th fairway and green, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, GA, April 6, 2011. (Ed-supergolfdude via In public domain.

Twenty years ago today, I took my master’s oral exam and passed, and my committee recommended me into Pitt’s history doctoral program. It should’ve been a day of celebration, as I had knocked out a second degree two weeks shy of two semesters, in just seven and a half months. But, as with many euphoric events in my life, the other shoe dropped, one that led me down a road to a degree and betrayal from my eventual dissertation committee.

The two-hour comprehensive exam was easy enough. My advisor Larry Glasco (see my “Larry Glasco and the Suzy-Q Hypothesis” post from August ’11), along with Paula Baker (see my “Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath” post from February ’12) and Van Beck Hall (department chair) made up my oral examination committee. Most of the questions weren’t about my research and coursework during the 1991-92 school year. They were about my potential dissertation topic and how I’d approach it from a coursework and research perspective. The first question was, in fact, “If we recommend you into the PhD program here, what would your research topic be?”

Needless to say, those questions put me at ease for finishing my master’s and moving forward into the world of the doctoral student. I waited anxiously for ten minutes before my committee came out of the conference room within the department to congratulate me on my performance. I managed to hide my smile as Paula and Hall shook my hand, knowing how easy it would be for professors to misinterpret relief and happiness for cocky arrogance.

NY Knicks' Jeremy Lin double-teamed by Dallas Mavericks, MSG, New York, February 19, 2012. (Trendsetter via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of limited reproduction/distribution value.

It didn’t take long for Larry to burst my bubble, though. “You passed, but we’re going to have to slow you down,” he said. I was, according to at least one member of the committee, “moving way too fast,” at least that was what Larry followed up with. I was stunned. It was as if I’d done something wrong, as if I’d broken some golden rule around what age I should’ve been and how long I should’ve taken to do my master’s work.

I went home that Tuesday evening and tried not to think about what Larry had said. But that was all I could think about. How was it that I was to blame for knocking out a thirty-credit master’s program — including language proficiency requirement, master’s research and reading papers, and five graduate seminars — in two semesters? Or that I was only twenty-two when I did all of this? It didn’t seem fair that a history program as difficult as Pitt’s had professors who intended to make the path toward a PhD even more difficult for me.

I think that despite my DC trip and Georgetown University visit that March, that the night after my master’s oral exam was the first time I knew that it was time to leave Pitt for greener doctoral pastures. I liked Larry, and I generally trusted him. But given my history with the department (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), it seemed suicidal to try to complete a PhD there. I already knew that there were grad students there who had reached the dissertation stage in the early-70s — before I was in kindergarten — and had yet to finish. I also knew that Larry had about as much influence on departmental politics as I did.

Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I was too young. Maybe Larry was attempting to look out for my best interests. What I did know, though, flew in the face of all three of those assumptions. It really was time to move on.

Walking In New Orleans

April 12, 2012

My AERA 1994 annual meeting program for New Orleans, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Only in the past two decades have I done any travel worth mentioning (see “My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included” post from March ’12). When I have traveled, it’s mostly been for work or for career.

Some of my most significant career-related trips have been as a result of presentations at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meetings, which will be in Vancouver, British Columbia (I won’t be in attendance this year — too expensive, and other reasons beyond that). It is just about the largest gathering of academic professionals that I know of in the US/Canada, with 15,000-20,000 attendees and presenters.

Over the years, I’ve attendance five AERA conferences, and presented at three (in ’94, ’96 and ’07). The first one, though, was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. For one, I actually spent my first two days of this nine-day trip in Houston, as I managed to arrange a layover before heading out to New Orleans to visit the Gill side of my lineage for the first time (see my “We Are Family” post from April ’09). That was strange, mostly in a good way, as I could see my mother reflected in the eyes and accents of my uncles and cousins.

Holiday Inn, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2012. (Google Maps), where folks stayed for AERA 1994.

But New Orleans was a unique experience beyond my two days with my extended family in Houston. The night I arrived, there were five homicides, including at least two in the French Quarter. About an hour after I check in at the rundown Holiday Inn in which I roomed with my professor Bruce Anthony Jones, another professor, and a doctoral student from Pitt’s School of Education, we went for a walk on Bourbon Street. It was a nice, warm and breezy night for the walk, at least until I saw two people doing ballistic vomiting on a corner about two blocks from our hotel.

The next day, that Monday afternoon, was our presentation on multicultural education. We went and met up with another Pitt education doctoral student at some restaurant a couple of blocks away for lunch, all dressed up and ramped up for our presentations. It was sunny and warm at midday, the perfect day to eat outdoors. When we ordered, I hadn’t really noticed the fact that all of the drinks on the menu were alcoholic ones. I asked Bruce about the Citron Lemonade, and he said, “That’s a good choice.” Despite years around my alcohol dad, I didn’t know that the Citron part was Absolut Vodka with a lemon twist.

Apparently, neither did my fellow grad students. I was on my second one when I felt a serious buzz, before I

1-liter bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

slowed down to savor the taste of lemons, sugar and vodka on my tongue. The other two students seemed similarly relaxed. I said to Bruce, “[y]ou didn’t tell me that this drink had vodka in it!”  Bruce said to all of us in response, “but you’re all relaxed now, right?,” in reference to our presentation. His comment reminded me to look at my watch, which showed that our presentation was in fifteen minutes. We hurried to pay our bill, walked quickly to the Marriott, and did what turned out to be a solid presentation.

The business part of the week was over, but the rest of the week in New Orleans became a learning experience. I did an informational interview with two professors from Illinois State University, who told me to finish my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara (one of the two Pitt doctoral students) and me checked out the blues and jazz bars in the Quarter, and went to Armstrong Park for an Afrocentric event that Saturday. I took the trolley out of downtown to the Tulane district and then back to experience more of the city. And I bought pralines on behalf of Kate Lynch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who apparently loved the stuff.

But the most disturbing part of the trip occurred between that Friday morning and Sunday morning. The other Pitt grad student had been acting a bit strange during the week, spending less time at AERA, sleeping in late at our hotel, and not interested in hanging out with the rest of us. Then, he just disappeared. He packed up and left without a note and without paying his share of the hotel bill. We didn’t know until the following Tuesday that he had spent the weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, allegedly hanging out on the beach.

I said to Bruce, “[m]aybe there was just too much testosterone in the room for him.” Bruce didn’t say anything, as he looked completely confused. I knew that at least one of the professors with which we roomed was gay, and that Bruce was in the closet as well. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that my grad student roommate bugged out because he needed a release from the tension he felt being around these professors. Me being heterosexual and spending the week at AERA and on the town, I didn’t notice that my grad student was gay until after he’d disappeared himself.

It was a sad way to end such a wonderfully strange trip. New Orleans was a great city with a diverse culture and history, and despite Katrina and the city’s Whitening, maybe it still is.  I just have no desire to return, as once was enough for me, good and bad.


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