For those of you who can’t stand Amazon.com or Jeff Bezos, the paperback version of Boy @ The Window‘s now available at/on Barnes & Noble website (it’s also supposed to be at stores, but that’s at store’s individual discretion — can still order it from store if not on shelf, though). The link is here: http://bit.ly/1coNsp5. It’s the holidays — please check it out and buy here or elsewhere, read and give your feedback! Season’s Greetings!
My brother Darren turns forty-six years old today. With all that’s happened in our lives, it would be easy for me to forget that Darren’s my older brother, that he learned how to read on his own at three years old, that he taught me how to read right around my fifth birthday. Yet if I go back in time far enough, I can still see the Darren that was before his fourteen years at a school for the mentally retarded in Clear View at Briarcliff Manor had permanently screwed him up.
Between the ages of ten and sixteen (or, between late ’77 and early ’84, my brother worked on his own personal comic strip series, one he called Dwayne and Cindy. I guess he got the character names from two of his favorite shows, What’s Happening!! and The Brady Bunch. Darren started slowly at first, figuring out how to draw his characters. They were both Black, kids that were about the same age as we were. They were best friends who went outside to play, went on walks or otherwise hung out at Dwayne’s place playing or watching TV.
So when Darren added his bubble captions to tell his stories, they were simple strips about life in the suburbs, about going for walks to the store, about school and homework and how their parents were always too hard on them. As with all things that required creativity, Darren drew from what he knew from living in Mount Vernon and going to school at Clear View, which back in the late-’70s was in Dobby Ferry, and not so Bruce Wayne-stately-manor-looking as it is today.
As Darren got older, he fleshed out Dwayne and Cindy some more. They had similar personalities, where they used each other to escape what seemed to be a harsh world outside of their bubble. But Darren would never draw nor talk about this harsh world in his strips. He wanted them to be funny and goofy, after all, not just a reflection of everything that was going on at 616 and with our parents/idiot stepfather.
At the same time, though, Darren as a comic strip writer hadn’t grown to the point where he could capture more complex issues in his form. I said as much when he asked me to look at a more mature version of Dwayne and Cindy in ’82. “Why do Dwayne and Cindy say the same thing all the time? Don’t they grow up or think about other stuff?,” I asked with some impatience, hoping that Darren would want to talk about race, or growing up, or make Dwayne and Cindy into teenagers.
And on this one, Darren didn’t immediately give up. For two more years, until the beginning of the summer of ’84, he did try to make Dwayne and Cindy more mature. But between the loss of our bedroom to younger siblings and then the whole Balkis Makeda affair in ’84, combined with the completion of the institutionalization process at Clear View, Darren no longer had the creative spirit. His psychological reserves to see himself as normal, as a whole human being, as a young Black man, were all but gone, and have never returned.
I sometimes think that Darren had a window of opportunity to pull himself out of the psychological hole that my Mom, my father and Clear View put him in between ’74 and ’88. And he did. Through me and through that Dwayne and Cindy comic strip of his. In so many ways, his was a genius with the potential of an Aaron McGruder, some of which did rub off on me.
But being around the severely mentally retarded and a group of teachers and psychologists who coddled and infantilized the toughness out of him, the toughness Darren needed to succeed as well as survive our ordeal at 616. That, more than anything, extinguished Dwayne and Cindy and his chances at a rich life before he was old enough to vote. Which is why on every ninth of December, I’m so sad, for him and for me. Yes, I feel guilty, and yes, I know it’s not my fault, but I still miss the promising version of my older brother. I wish that Darren could’ve published Dwayne and Cindy, even the simple versions he began to draw and write thirty six years ago.
December is both my most and least favorite month of the year. I was born at the end of this month, but only two days after Christmas. I’ve run away from home and been mugged, suicidal and inspired this month. Not to mention burned out and homesick and heartbroken. But I’ve found myself and experienced renewal on this least sunlit of months as well.
Twenty-eight years ago today was the day my crush on Phyllis, a.k.a. “Crush #2” began. It wasn’t a crush of epic love, but it would affect how I viewed myself and the young women in my life for the next two and a half years. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:
It was the third of December, a cold and frosty Tuesday that would make someone think twice about going outside. It was after school, and I happened to be on my way to the library. I stopped home first to grab a bite to eat, to see if Mom wanted anything from the store after my time at the library, and to listen to some music. The last song I heard before walking out the door was Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” their third major hit in the US in ’85. The hard tones of their synthesized piano were hypnotic for me. “Head Over Heels” reminded me of my own failed attempts to get past myself when it came to saying more than “Hi” to any woman or girl whom I thought interesting. Besides having a family that I saw as an embarrassment, I simply didn’t have the tools of “cool” necessary to break through with any female. My voice usually cracked under the stress of not knowing what to say, and when it didn’t crack, the slow catch in my voice made everything I said sound like it was deliberately at half-speed. My ineptitude also included my automatically taking anything a girl did say about liking me as if it were a sick and twisted joke.
That’s what “Head Over Heels” had conjured up in my mind as I walked down East Lincoln toward Lorraine. For whatever reason my thoughts turned to Phyllis. I thought about her smile, her always-wearing-a-skirt style, her standing as a popular student at MVHS. She was always nice to me, always friendly, to the point of being coy about it. The brief flash of Phyllis’ face and smile put a smile on my own as I started singing to “Head Over Heels” out loud. “I wanted to be with you alone, and talk about the weather . . .” was coming out of my mouth in high falsetto as snow started to fall. My thoughts had turned to the cold, the snow flakes and the stark bareness of the wintry landscape as I reached the corner of East Lincoln and Darwood. I was singing “something happens and I’m head over heels . . . don’t break my heart, don’t take my heart, don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away.” Just as was I was about to cross the street, a black two-door Mercury Topaz, circa ’84 or ’85, pulled up, with Phyllis’ mother driving and Phyllis in the front passenger seat. Phyllis’ sister Claudia was in the back. Phyllis mouthed a “Hi” and waved at the same time as the light turned green for their car. What I remember as they pulled away was the smile that she flashed me. It didn’t seem fake. It looked like an I-really-like-you kind of smile to me. I was caught completely off guard!
I spent the rest of the walk to the library debating whether the smile was genuine or a nicety, what the smile meant for her, and how I felt about it. By the time I got to the library, I could only reach one conclusion. I liked Phyllis, and not in an “I like her but only as a friend way.” I liked the girl, simple as that. Those lips and that smile were worth at least a thousand kisses a day!
As I’ve noted in the book and here in the blog, my instincts about Phyllis’ smile turned about to be correct on both counts. Too bad I wasn’t listening to Alexander O’Neal’s “Fake” or Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” when I walked out the door to our 616 apartment at 4:30 that afternoon. Still, for that moment, at least, all seemed possible in my little world.
From September 6, ’88 through the beginning of Thanksgiving week twelve weeks later, I had a grand total of $335 to work with. That included money for food, rent and washing clothes. It included the $75 I made over three weeks and six sessions with Sera-Tec donating plasma. It wasn’t the first time I’d tortured dollars into submission, and it’s hardly been the last. But it was the first time in my life I reached out for help beyond myself and family.
From Boy @ The Window:
Despite these acts of generosity and my acts of desperation, I knew that I’d probably starve before the semester was over. I had less than ten dollars to work with after the first week in November. I went to Thackeray Hall to register for classes for next semester. While there, it occurred to me to go upstairs to see one of the financial aid counselors, an older Black woman named Beverly who’d been really nice to me while working through my bill issues earlier in the semester. I told her in detail what was going on. “You need to talk to Ron,” she said, referring to Ron Slater, the university ombudsman, the person who normally resided over tuition payment issues. So there I was the next day, explaining to the ombudsman my situation.
“We’ll take care of this, we’ll find you some extra money. Just hang in there for a few days,” he said. Slater actually offered me money right out of his wallet.
“No thanks, I’ll be all right,” I said, my voice starting to crack because I was so grateful that anyone cared enough to help me through my dire straits. I somehow found a way not to cry right there on the spot.
The week before Thanksgiving, I went to check in with Beverly. “I’ve got good news for you, but you’ll have to wait a few days.” Through the ombudsman, the university had recalculated my financial aid package, increasing my Pell to the maximum amount allowed, and added the federal SEOG grant (Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants) to my aid menu. Both gave me an extra $800 to work with. After that weekend, one where Regis’ potatoes became a part of my diet, I bummed five dollars off of one of my classmates from General Writing. The next day I got my check from the ombudsman. “I’m so glad to have been of help. It’s part of my job. I just wish you’d come to me earlier,” Slater said. Hearing that did make me tear up. I was in the spirit of the season already. It was two days before Thanksgiving. I spent that holiday at Melissa’s house with her and her father, an ailing contractor in his early-sixties.
Slater’s wasn’t the only act of generosity I was thankful for that semester. Between my friends Regis and Marc and Melissa, I didn’t starve in those last couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. But Slater’s job, his work had made it so that I could graduate, not just eat peanut butter crackers, horrible tuna sandwiches and pork neck bones and rice into that December.That was a quarter-century ago.
Fast-forward nine years. My then girlfriend and now wife also ended up seeking help from Slater, as she could not finish her degree because she owed several thousand dollars to Pitt in tuition. I encouraged her to write and meet with Slater. He deferred her tuition payments for the upcoming spring semester so that she could graduate in April ’98.
It’s not every day that I get to thank someone for not only helping me, but others in my life as well. I don’t know where Ron Slater is now, but I am truly, truly thankful that our paths crossed in the fall of ’88.
Back in April, I managed to get myself into a Twitter argument with @BlkLibraryGirl over Rick Ross and Lil Wayne’s releases and the misogynistic, gang-rape-advocating lyrics that came with them. The problem was, she was in the midst of a long rant (which I didn’t realize at the time), and you should never interject into someone else’s Twitter rant unless you’re nodding your head in agreement. At least without going through their entire Twitter timeline first.
In response to another luminary on Twitter, @BlkLibraryGirl tweeted
But it’s not just Rick Ross’s rape lyrics. The entire Hip Hop genre is rape culture. Is somebody going to talk about that?:)
I specifically said that this strain of rape as/is okay is one that has deep roots in American culture, and in African American notions of masculinity specifically, which led to a barrage of tweets from @BlkLibraryGirl about how Rick Ross’ lyrics + ten-year-old Black boys = Black boys thinking that raping Black women is perfectly okay. And that I was okay with these lyrics, too.
She obviously not only missed my point. She didn’t care what my point was in the first place. But that’s an issue of the limits of being able to communicate complex ideas and emotions on Twitter, not to mention the larger issue of etiquette. @BlkLibraryGirl is but one example of the steady and growing criticism of rap/hip-hip as the source of all our cultural ills, -isms and -phobias. It’s the idea that a kid will watch a video and listen to lyrics, and with zombie-like reactions, act out the lyrics and the video as if they don’t have a mind and guidance systems in their lives to stop them from being Rick Ross’ and Lil Wayne’s puppets.
For those of you who know me or this blog, the one thing that should be obvious is that while my music tastes are eclectic, my rap music list in particular is a small one. I didn’t like much of the little bit of rap I heard growing up, got into it a bit in the ’87-’97 years, and have liked almost none of it over the past decade. I’ve never liked Jay Z, found 50 Cent to be about a notch and a half above Biz Markie, and still think Eminem is the best lyricist in the game today, despite the fact he is as homophobic and (at times) misogynistic as they come.
So while these fools will never win the Social Justice Music Awards, they do have the right to put out their schlock, to write lyrics filled with hate and angst, to play with tired stereotypes and archetypes in their music and videos. And we have the right to critique, to not buy, to provide ourselves and our kids with the wisdom necessary to see through the smokescreen of big business making big bucks off of rap/hip-hop “artists” who present themselves as little more than stereotypical Bucks themselves.
But let’s also not get carried away here, either. Last I checked, didn’t the rap I listened to in college contain some similar themes? Geto Boys “Gotta Let A Ho Be A Ho” and PE’s “the parts don’t fit” line from one of their raps on their Fear of a Black Planet album (both from ’90) come to mind. What about “running the train” lyrics from the late Notorious BIG or Tupac’s (perhaps the greatest poet/rap lyricist ever) works? How come critics of today’s rap and hip-hop game don’t go after the moguls and producers that make Rick Ross and Lil Wayne possible, folks like Sean “Whatever his nickname is now” Combs, Jay-Z, Sony Music Group or BMI?
Or, given my eclectic tastes, why limit this strain of cultural ugliness to rap and hip-hop? Why not be historical for a moment and go after Prince’s and Rick James’ sexist lyrics of the early-’80s, or the Ohio Players and The Jammers of the ’70s? Or, for that matter, R. Kelly in the ’90s and early ’00s? Why should we even limit this to R&B or hip-hop, as music is a universal — and not a neatly separated — language? What about Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” or the White male angst and violence embedded in honky-tonk, hard-core heavy metal and grunge?
Oh, I get it. Hip-hop’s a globally-dominant cultural and musical phenomenon, which means it could bring tens of millions more folks outside the US into our -isms and -gynys. But, has there ever been an individual in the musical world more culturally transcendent than Michael Jackson? You know, the guy who faced two trials in the ’90s and ’00s over child molestation charges? The man who struggled with identity issues — racial ones included — for the bulk of his adult life before dying in June ’09? What do we do about the couple of billion people Jackson influenced beyond his lyrics, especially since child molestation must be as common as the common cold?
We should critique and advocate as much as we can over the sexism and misogyny, homophobia and racism, colorism and ignorance contained in the lyrics and videos of artists from Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Nelly and DMX and so many others. But let’s not act as if this is a new thing, a strictly hip-hop and rap thing. This is an American thing. So why act surprised when it shows up in rap music videos and in lyrics?
As for me, I chose to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music and PE’s other lyrics even in the face of the contradictions between their lyrics and behaviors. I think that most hip-hop lovers — even those impressionable ten-year-old Black boys — will do the same. If I’m wrong, then the Apocalypse has truly arrived.