A Weak Legacy: The Acts of the Civil Rights Apostles at 50

October 24, 2014

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

Yesterday evening, I attended the eleventh annual Brown lecture hosted by the American Educational Research Association at the Ronald Reagan Building here in DC. The great scholar James Anderson talked for about an hour about the connections between voter disenfranchisement and state policies that created systems of educational inequality for Blacks as part of the Jim Crow era. Anderson wondered aloud that with the recent efforts to restrict voting and with the Supreme striking down Section 4(b) (and essentially Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if this meant a return of gross educational inequality on the basis of race and class in 2014. As if the trends of inequality only rise and fall with well protected or unprotected voting rights. Voting rights enforcement is a good barometer, but hardly the only one. The last twenty years of high-stakes testing and corporate education reform provide evidence of a trend of educational inequality that has occurred despite and (in many cases) precisely because of voter participation across all racial lines.

The following, though, is my full response, to Anderson, AERA and all of those in legacy-celebration mode with the Brown decision and the Acts in 2014 and 2015. What was true in 1964 and 1965 remains true fifty years later. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have been much more lightbulbs on a symbol of real progress — the Civil Rights Movement — than it has been an actual marker of progress. At least for those poor, Black and of color. For Whites, though, the Acts have been the sign of a post-racial America without having to work at it or talk about it. But for the adults I grew up around in Mount Vernon, New York in the 1970’s, there was a lingering hopefulness about race relations and racial equality in America that is absent these days. I don’t know if I felt it because of Archie Bunker and All In The Family or because of all those reproductions I saw of the late Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy together in the same painting over so many living-room mantles when I was six years old. Yet no matter how down or how out, so many poorer Blacks I knew back then had hope for a brighter present and future.

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag -- three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag — three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

It wasn’t as if they contemplated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act at the disco house parties my mother would take me and my older brother to, playing with other kids while the adults danced away their troubles. No, it was the idea that finally, Blacks who looked like us could pry open a door and get an opportunity to succeed in America. Or, to quote The Jeffersons‘ theme song, to “gettin’ our turn at bat.” It didn’t matter to them that the Civil Rights Act, even with all its enforcement teeth, would benefit White women and those lucky enough to be part of Black middle class more than us poor Black folk. Or if the Voting Rights Act could be thwarted by gerrymandering and state decisions to make voting harder for us. The Acts crystallized hope, symbolized a chance, however small, for a better education, a better job, and a better life, for themselves and their families.

The adults in my life were putting on a good face, though, as I came to realize when I was a preteen. My mother had once held the hope that me and my older brother would “make it” by going to college and finding “good-paying jobs.” But by the start of the Reagan Revolution, she no longer spoke in such lofty terms. My mother was hardly alone. By 1979, Blacks like Florence Grier in Bob Blauner’s oral history book Black Lives, White Lives (1989) were saying, to “tell you the truth, I’m not hopeful that we’re going to progress in the eighties as fast as we progressed from the sixties to the seventies.”

Polling back then also reflected this sense of frustration about race and over racial discrimination among Blacks, in contrast to the White sentiment that America had move beyond its racist past. In March 1981, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted their first combined poll on the state of race relations in the US. While 73 percent of Blacks in the poll saw “deep rooted continuing racial problems and blame them on discrimination…only 46 percent of the Whites agreed.”

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

The hopes and aspirations that the Civil Rights Act symbolized have eroded with the Act itself, and are all but absent for younger generations of Americans. An MTV and David Binder Research poll from early 2014 found that 48 percent of White millennials believe anti-White discrimination is as significant as discrimination against people of color, while 65 percent of the people of color they polled believe that Whites have more opportunities for success. Even my own eleven-year-old son reflects this trend. “People were more stupid back then,” my son said to me recently while we talked about the Civil Rights Movement and White resistance to integration, as if racial inequality ended with the movement.Thanks in no small part to the success of the neoconservative movement in declaring the death of racism in the 1980s and 1990s, the generation born after 1981 does not see the federal government as the catalyst for a better life or as a leveler of any playing field.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s lyrics from their hit “The Way It Is” summed up the weaknesses of the Civil Rights Act and its legacy well, for us in 1986 as well as today:

Well, they passed a law in ’64

To give those who ain’t got a little more

But it only goes so far

Cause the law don’t change another’s mind…

Nor, apparently, does it create a lasting legacy of racial equality and social mobility.


Can Family and Friends Ever Understand The Why Behind a Memoir?

October 20, 2014

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

I started reading New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones two weeks ago. Like many who have read it, I have found it a good read, a revealing read, even a powerful read at times. I have been able to put it down, though. Mostly because as someone who’s recently written a memoir about my own painful and trying experiences with abuse and neglect, about confusion, distrust and occasional rage, Blow’s book has been a reminder of how difficult it was for me to relive those experiences enough to write them down in words and revise them into a book of my own.

Still, as I do intend to finish Fire before the holidays, I do have a couple of questions. One is really basic. Had Blow ever heard of the Kinsey Report (1948), the first one about the sexual experiences and habits of men, particularly gay and bisexual men, prior to turning thirty? The one thing I learned from reading this report twenty years ago is that there’s a lot of gray between heterosexual, gay and bisexual. That you can be heterosexual, and still have a small level of attraction to those of your same gender simultaneously.

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

But this is a minor question, more about his curious road to understanding his sexuality — not to mention my own road — than it is about Fire itself. My second question is a much more important one. How have Blow’s family and friends received his book since he decided to write it? How have they received Fire in the months since he announced it was coming out in September? How have they received him and Fire since it officially hit the shelves last month?

If his immediate and extended family was/is anything like mine (and from reading Fire so far, it is), then my best guess is their reaction’s been mixed at best. In the year since I released Boy @ The Window in paperback, my siblings have liked the book, but my mother and father haven’t exactly been happy about me writing it. My mother hasn’t said one word about Boy @ The Window since I put it out last year. Nor did she ask any questions about the book in the six and half years that I toiled in writing and rewriting it.

My father, meanwhile, showed interest in the book right from the moment I told him I planned to write Boy @ The Window. That was, until the paperback edition came out during the holidays last year. At that point, he said, “I don’t wanna talk to you no more.” We’ve talked several times since, but he’s still pissed with me about including him in my memoir, even though I never hid this from him at any point in the process.

Among my friends, most of my core group has bought and read Boy @ The Window. Most have given me positive feedback, some very extensive. Yet I found myself mildly surprised how few friends outside of this core group have bought or read the book. I take that back. Actually, I’m surprised by the negative feedback I’ve gotten from folks who’ve claimed to be friends of mine, who’ve never read a word of Boy @ The Window. But this feedback hasn’t been about the memoir. It’s really about their wanting to deny facts about me or about them that they’ve assumed are in Boy @ The Window, as if my job in this instance was to only be truthful when it felt good for them.

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

My platform is tiny when compared with Blow’s, so I imagine that the reaction to Fire in terms of both praise and condemnation has been more extreme, even as the praise has been much more public. I suppose if I was the perpetrator whom sexually assaulted Blow, I’d likely want to shut him up. I’m not so sure that anyone in his family, proud of him as they may be, wants what they’d likely consider “dirty laundry” out there for anyone to read. You don’t grow up in a family as traditional as Blow’s and expect everyone to be alright with their character’s characterization in a bestseller.

This I do know, and I suspect Blow has known for a while, too. That writing a memoir like Fire isn’t about seeking revenge or outing family secrets per se. Bottom line — it ain’t about the proverbial you! In some respects, as cathartic as writing a memoir like my Boy @ The Window or Blow’s Fire may be, it not so much about the authors,’ really, at least after the tenth edit.

There are so many stories that never see the light of day, because the fire for telling them burned out a long time ago. Or the window became a rubber room or a jail cell. It’s about telling a story that needs to be told, regardless of whether family’s happy about it, or whether some of your friends can relate to it or not. Because there’s always, always, an audience who needs to read it, hear it, see it and learn from it themselves.

 

 


Teaching Migration, In Song

October 17, 2014

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of "Living For The City," circa 1974.  (http://youtube.com).

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of “Living For The City,” circa 1974. (http://youtube.com).

If I ever had the chance to teach a course specifically on the history of Black migration in America, I already know what books I’d use. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010); Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991); James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989); Mary Patillo’s Black Picket Fences (1999); even Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). All have moved beyond the statistics of some seven or eight million Blacks moving from the rural Jim Crow South to America’s cities, North, Midwest, West and South for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

But that wouldn’t be near enough to communicate the range of emotions, the psychological states and the pressures that these people faced in leaving their homes for the not-so-bright lights of America’s big cities, not to mention what they faced in the days and years after they arrived. I should know. I’m the nearly forty-five year-old son of a mother originally from Bradley, Arkansas (population 500) and a father from Harrison, Georgia. They moved to New York City in the ’60s (specifically, the Tremont section of the Bronx), then to the South Side of Mount Vernon, New York (just outside the Bronx), hooked up, and sired me and my older brother Darren between December 1967 and January 1970.

That short summary is hardly the story, though. For me — like with so many other things in my life — music tells the story, emotions and psychology beyond what words on a page alone can approximate, but not fully duplicate. Music communicates the stories, emotions and psychology of those who migrated and stayed (or didn’t) in cities across the US better than Census data or a hypothesis on proletarianization. I wanted music from my own lifetime (or at least, within a few years of it) — not just folk songs or Blind Willie Johnson or Duke Ellington — music that fit my family’s transition from migration to our current times of racism and urban poverty.

Easily the top two songs on my list to play in class would be:

Trade ad for Otis Redding's single "Try a Little Tenderness," January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

Trade ad for Otis Redding’s single “Try a Little Tenderness,” January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

1. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” (1968), released after Redding’s death in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin; and

2. Stevie Wonder, “Living For The City,” (1973).

Both songs run the full emotional and psychological gamut. From hopefulness to oblivion, from delusion to despair, from rage and anger to resignation. The melancholy of Redding’s “It’s two thousand miles I roamed/Just to make this dock my home” (in reference to the distance from Georgia to San Francisco Bay) juxtaposed with Wonder’s bitterness and anger:

“His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution…”

It communicates so much beyond the lyrics and liner notes, a reminder for those of us who find America and its cities unforgiving today just how relentless it must’ve been for our parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents forty or more years ago.

There are other songs that I’d put on this playlist. Some are directly related to Black migration, some try to bridge the gap between the abundance of music on “the ghetto” and urban poverty and chaos and the lack of music from my own lifetime on migration.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973).
4. Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971).
5. Gil Scott-Heron, “95 South (All of The Places We’ve Been)” (1977).
6. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1987).
7. Nas (featuring Olu Dara, his father), “Bridging the Gap” (2004).

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s "urban renewal" project was built, but  failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s “urban renewal” project was built, but failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

That most of these songs come from the period between 1967 and 1974 isn’t an accident. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, combined with the Black Power Movement and the “Black is Beautiful” campaign, the beginning of the White backlash against civil rights — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — and the Anti-War Movement was in full swing. It was a good time to take a look at the present and recent past to reconnect with hopes and dreams in the midst of the nightmare of urban poverty.

After ’73 was the beginning of the dance and disco era, as well as a focus on the urban, on crime, on drugs, on poverty  — but not in a “let’s try to solve it” kind of way. This was where rap, hip-hop, some R&B and early forms of what we now call neo-soul picked up, with little reflection on this once prominent past.

Still, there would be some honorable mentions for this migration course, music that could evoke some aspect of the Black migration, of the hope that took a downward turn, of the poverty and joblessness that have permeated America, Black and White and Brown, since the ’70s.

8.  Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (1992).
9. Tina and Ike Turner (and Credence Clearwater Revival), “Proud Mary” (1970).
10. Nina Simone, “The Backlash Blues” (1967).
11. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).
12. Tupac, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (1994).
13. John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983).
14. Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A..” (1984). [the song's release was thirty years ago this month, by the way]
15. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” (1986)

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Through music, I’d hope to have a course and discussion about Black migration that reaches beyond the words origin and destination, that migration has merely been a physical manifestation of a difficult and seemingly unending cultural and spiritual journey in the US. That Black migration can also easily include the parallel journeys of those of the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora, not to mention those from Latin America.

For me, though, a course like this would be a personal foray into all the things that have made me who I’ve been for nearly four and a half decades — a person better than the sum of America’s parts and racist, sexist, homophobic and evangelical assumptions.


Whiteness, Where “That’s So Raven” Meets “Real Time”

October 11, 2014

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (http://kennyali.com/).

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (http://kennyali.com/).

Why we ever give voice to the vapid and vain I still don’t fully understand. In the past week, we’ve allowed Raven-Symoné (of The Cosby Show and That’s So Raven fame) and Bill Maher (host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and a mediocre stand-up political comedian) to determine our discourse on race, racism, Islam, atheism and terrorism. Proving once again the power of Whiteness in our racially narcissistic nation.

Raven-Symoné certainly isn’t the first Black celebrity or entertainer to declare herself “not African-American” or Black, to Oprah or to the rest of the world. Morgan Freeman’s been making statements rejecting labels like “Black actor,” the term “African American,” and even Black History Month, going as far back as interviews in support of Glory (1989) and Shawshank Redemption (1994) (of course, he also was making the point that he’s an American first). Raven-Symoné isn’t even the first Black entertainer to say they’re “not Black” or “not African American” in 2014. Pharrell Williams holds this distinction, as he allegedly represents the “New Black,” whatever colorblind racist nonsense this is.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah's Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. (http://www.billboard.com). Qualifies as fair use - picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah’s Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. (http://www.billboard.com). Qualifies as fair use – picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

It all points to a phenomenon I’ve been calling the “unspecial American” over the past twelve years. The idea that we can discard labels, histories and cultures in an effort to make ourselves unique or special individuals. All of this is born out of a racial narcissism, one which afflicts the most vulnerable to this psychosis — the famous and the wannabe famous. Maybe there’s a bit of internalized racism to this, too — that’s clearly speculation to be sure. But that obsession to be unique, to declare oneself above constructs and labels, but then to latch on to the term “American” as if the world might forget? It reflects on some level stereotype threat, not to mention the defensive posture of someone like Raven-Symoné attempting to preserve their income and elite social status.

Maher’s take on religion, especially Islam, isn’t unique. The idea that he can claim this his Islamophobia has nothing to do with race — his own Whiteness/Jewishness or that of his brown-skinned Semitic cousins — is what makes Maher’s xenophobic argument a specious one. Maher’s is a culture of violence argument, one that attempts to combine the foundational tenets of Islam with the actions of terroristic jihadists in a sweeping indictment of at least half a billion people. HBO and Maher’s friends and fans have let him get away with this ridiculous line of thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia for years. Yet if Maher made the same kind of argument about Blacks, poverty and crime — the culture of poverty hypothesis proposed by the likes of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s — he’d probably lose his show.

"Violence is not our culture," 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://http://www.ips.org/).

“Violence is not our culture,” 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://http://www.ips.org/).

That Maher has no sense of history or understanding of human nature isn’t surprising. He’s a stinking comedian, not a historian, political scientist, religious studies professor or philosopher. At this stage of his career, I’d make a better stand-up comic than Maher would a critic of any culture or religion. That Maher has found himself in arguments with Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan is telling. Maher in his late-fifties has become Ronald Reagan — an arrogant White male who firmly believes in the primacy of his brand of White culture above all others.

Both Maher and Raven-Symoné should take a long look at history and learn from it. Raven-Symoné should learn that Black celebrities who deny the existence of racial constructs tend to crash into a few barriers during their lifelong journeys. Maher should look at violent examples of atheism — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism, among others — and ask if these were the product of narcissism and violent repression or the product of a culture of violence based too heavily on the reliance on the scientific method for ultimate truths. And we should continue to ask ourselves why we ever take people like Raven-Symoné and Maher seriously at all.


“Stupid Atheist” Meets Truly Stupid Christian

October 6, 2014

Screenshot from HBO show The Leftovers title sequence, September 5, 2014. ( yU+co via http://news.creativecow.net). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws -- low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Screenshot from HBO show The Leftovers title sequence, September 5, 2014. ( yU+co via http://news.creativecow.net). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws — low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

I’ve written about Mary Zini and our classroom incidents before, here and in Boy @ The Window. It’s been thirty years since was my tenth-grade World History teacher. Yet most of what remember from this class has little to do with Plato, NATO, or anything in between. It’s mostly Zini’s condescending personality, my new Christian arrogance, and that people’s personalities and actions are often walking and talking contradictions.

It was the beginning of October ’84 when we had our first incident. It occurred after what was the first of an endless cycle of fill-in-the-bubble Scan-Tron exams.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 5.59.18 PM

Honestly, I had no idea at that moment why I said what I said. I supposed that a summer of Jay Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice, all via Pat Robertson and The 700 Club had done the trick in making me a one-time prayer-in-public-schools advocate. I knew that Zini was raised a Catholic, so on some level, didn’t that make me a stupid Christian for calling her a stupid “atheist?”

That incident was also the beginning of seven months of starting to figure out how to be me and be a follower of Christ at the same time. I approached it the same way I approached how to be me in my first few months of seventh grade and Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in the fall of ’81. With the naiveté of a child, the hubris of a teenager, and the callousness of a human with alien superpowers.

Jay Sekulow lecturing, Regent University, December 15, 2006. (Juda Engelmayer via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GFDL.

Jay Sekulow lecturing, Regent University, December 15, 2006. (Juda Engelmayer via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GFDL.

It was evident in my outward actions. I packed my red-pleather-covered King James Bible every day. For school. For Subway trips down into Midtown Manhattan when me and my older brother Darren worked for our father Jimme. For when we washed clothes every Saturday or Sunday at the laundromat on the Mount Vernon-Pelham border (it’s a yoga studio now). The Bible was my constant companion, my shield protecting me from this mad world of almost bottomless sin.

In the process, I read everything from Genesis to Revelations at least twice. (some books, like the Gospels, as many as four times). I learned a lot from  reading all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. That the Israelite God Yahweh was stern and pretty unforgiving. That Jesus was a radical, not just spiritually, but politically as well. And that Paul was not exactly the most enlightened of the apostles when it came to women, children and slaves.

Mostly what I learned was that readings and understanding The Bible wasn’t like living out my beliefs at all. I was still a teenager, a fifteen-year-old living in the midst of welfare poverty, at 616 with an abusive womanizer, a wounded mother and a gaggle of siblings between the ages of eight months and five-and-a-half years. Not to mention my alcoholic cuss-factory of a father that I had to hunt down for money nearly every weekend. What all that meant was feeling lust for a young woman one minute, hate toward my idiot stepfather Maurice the next, and imitating Jimme’s slurred language and mannerisms the minute after that.

This new walk was very confusing, so much so that I often hid my emotions in much the same way I’d already been doing to protect myself from yet another abuse episode with Maurice. My emotions couldn’t stay bottled up, though. I frequently humped my way to sleep once our living room at 616 had become my bedroom during and after the months in which Balkis Makeda had lived with us.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 6.06.59 PM

By the spring of ’85, when Zini granted me her full support in getting me into AP US History for eleventh grade (this despite my 84 average in her class at the time), I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t stand being in the same room with Zini much of the time. Yet she did for me what few in my life had done — she opened up a door for me to walk through, albeit a relatively small one.

Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

What did it all mean? That devoutness is meaningless without action, without giving and receiving, without trust, without taking risks. That even supposed atheists can act and give in ways that should shame many arrogant Christians. That Christianity isn’t a transactional relationship or process, but a journey with many pitfalls and lots of contradictions along the way. That who I/we say God is, well, at best an infinitesimal guess, because God and this universe is so much more that I as a human male living in the context of Western culture can only begin to understand.

Most of all, I had just begun to learn that spiritual liberation wasn’t supposed to be a yoke, but an opening to see the world and myself stripped bare of narrative and pretense. A strict adherence to the principles of Pat Robertson would bring me no closer to enlightenment and no further out of poverty than wishing on a star or avoiding cracks on Mount Vernon’s blue-slate sidewalks. Work, trust, opportunities, and not just Romans 8:28, was the beginning of the key for me.


Contingent Faculty and the Cold Case of Rollo Turner

October 2, 2014

Clarence "Rollo" Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (http://news.google.com).

Clarence “Rollo” Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (http://news.google.com).

Two months ago, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign rescinded a job offer they had made to Steven Salaita (then an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech) for a tenured position in American Indian Studies over a bunch of his allegedly anti-Israel tweets. Between mainstream media and social media, the response against this attack on academic freedom and traditional hiring protocols has been tremendous. Thousands of academicians have signed petitions, penned articles and canceled speeches and events at UIUC over Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Illinois board of trustees’ decision to take back their offer of employment. While the American Association of University Professors, the American Studies Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and so many others have argued that Professor Salaita should be in the classroom teaching his courses this fall, this issue is about more than academic freedom and UIUC following job offer guidelines.

The fact is, non-tenure-stream faculty lack the protections and supportive outrage that academia has poured out for those in tenure-track and tenured positions like Professor Salaita. So many contingent faculty lose their jobs over far less than an impolite tweet or an excited utterance. Yet it doesn’t become a story in The New York Times or a petition letter with over 2,000 signatures. No, most contingent faculty, when they lose their jobs, often do so in obscurity, often over doing their jobs with the idea that they were free to teach as they saw fit.

The sadder fact, though, is that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Take the case of Clarence Rollo Turner, who passed away twenty-one years ago last month at the age of 50. He was once a veteran senior lecturer in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as my one-time professor for his History of Blacks in Sports course during the spring semester of 1990. I took Turner’s course in my junior year for an easy-A in the midst of taking a bunch of upper-level undergraduate (and one graduate) history courses that semester. Turner’s was a fun course, and he was a knowledgeable professor beyond its contents. Who knew that in three and a half years the politics of academia would cut short the life of a pioneer? It points to the reality that with half of all higher education instructors serving as contingent faculty, academic freedom is an oxymoron and job protections have become secondary to academic politics and fundraising efforts.

Rollo Turner’s Contingent Teaching Story:

If you’ve never heard of Rollo Turner, it’s mostly because he didn’t have the opportunity to turn himself into a household name in or out of academia, even in Pittsburgh. And, of course, because most non-tenured and non-tenure-stream faculty are seldom central figures at their universities or in their fields just because they’re very good instructors. Turner, though, was a founding member of the Black Studies Program-turned-department (now of Africana Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh. The university had hired Turner in the wake of a game-changing sit-in of Black undergraduate and graduate students in their takeover of an entire floor of the university’s central computer systems on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 1969. It was a protest over the lack of student and faculty diversity at the University of Pittsburgh in general. But it was also a protest to demand a Black Studies program that would represent the research and experiences of Blacks on Blacks on an otherwise lily-White Campus, one engaged exclusively in research that almost always excluded Blacks.

In the process of starting this program, the university hired faculty who had yet to earn their doctorates, in some cases with barely a bachelor’s degree. This was 1969, though, when not having a PhD didn’t automatically disqualify candidates from a full-time academic position. Turner was one of several beneficiaries from this change of climate at the University of Pittsburgh, as he was finishing up a master’s degrees in Sociology at Indiana University when the University of Pittsburgh hired him (Turner, incidentally, had helped lead protests for more Black inclusion and a Black Studies program at Indiana in 1968).

Turner took on a joint appointment with the Department of Sociology and with the new Black Studies Program, teaching courses like the Sociology of the Black Family, Introduction to Black Studies and his History of Blacks in Sports along the way. Although the standard courseload for a full-time faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh was five over two semesters per year, Turner had been on a 2-2 schedule from September 1969 through December 1991. For more than twenty-two years, Turner had only taught four courses per year.

When the then-new department chair Brenda Berrian demanded that Turner take on a third course in January 1992, he refused, citing his twenty-two year history with the Black Studies Department and the last-minute nature of the request as reasons. Berrian then moved to terminate Turner. She and two Pitt police officers arrived in Turner’s classroom on the first Friday of the spring semester and had him removed from his classroom and escorted out of the building. Berrian fired him in the middle of his lecture, in front of a room full of students. This was how The Pitt News first reported the incident, and it was corroborated by everything that Rollo Turner told me a few weeks later.

The Politics of Academia:

But though it was that heavy-handed, it was hardly that simple. Turner had gotten himself caught up in a battle that involved his contingent employment status, degree completion, departmental reputation and petty ideological politics. More than twenty-two years as a non-tenured senior lecturer with only a master’s degree and a few publications that included two book-length bibliographies had caught up with Turner. As a contingent faculty member, even with over two decades put in, Turner lacked the protections afforded tenure-stream and tenured faculty members. Granted, at $37,000 a year and living in Pittsburgh at the time in 1992, Turner was a very well-paid senior lecturer. At least, that’s what many would argue today. This was also Berrian’s position as Turner’s termination turned into a $60,000 lawsuit.

Beyond the issue of compensation, contracts and contingent status was what Berrian and the other tenured faculty of the Department of Black Studies wanted for the department’s future. They wanted to bolster the department’s reputation within and outside the University of Pittsburgh. They wanted to be a full-fledged department in which students could major in Black Studies (students could only earn a minor in the subject until 1993), and perhaps, even offer a master’s degree in the field. Two things stood in the way of this progression. One was the fact that half of the department’s faculty didn’t have doctorates, now a much bigger deal in 1992 than it had ever been in 1969.

Two was that not everyone wanted to go in the ideological direction that Berrian had chosen for the Department of Black Studies. She wanted to move toward an Afrocentric approach in teaching and conducting research, something Turner openly rejected as “nonsense.” The idea of a litmus test for what was and wasn’t authentically “Black” or “African” was too extreme for Turner. As a tenured faculty member, Turner’s objections may well have cost him political clout within the department, but it wouldn’t have cost him his job.

Turner’s Final Months:

Turner sued Berrian and the University of Pittsburgh for wrongful termination – stemming in no small part from a hostile work environment – and breach of contract (his was a three-year contract with a year and a half left on it). The suit dragged on in the Civil Court division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court well into 1993 as Turner – with two daughters in college and a son in the middle of high school – went over a year and a half without a paycheck. As late as August 1993, the month before he died, Turner told me that things on the lawsuit front had taken a turn for the better. Despite the stress of the situation, he hadn’t let Berrian or the University of Pittsburgh “steal his inner peace,” Turner said.

Yet even with years of Buddhism and meditation under his belt and a lifestyle that included biking through all parts of Pittsburgh, Turner died in late-September 1993. No doubt that between the stress of his lawsuit, the sense of betrayal, and the financial upheaval, it all caught up with him. Rollo Turner may well have become a mentor of mine because of the stand that he took, minus the strength of a union or support from a substantial number of tenured faculty. None of this was possible in the end. Precisely because contingent faculty seldom have rights that tenured faculty and university administrators are bound to respect.

Lessons, If Any:

There are so many lessons to be learned here, lessons that resonate with me more now as an adjunct professor than they did when I was a graduate student or when I worked in the nonprofit world. Contingent faculty shouldn’t rock the boat, take a controversial stance, or involve themselves in hot-button issues within their field or department. Or that anyone serving as non-tenured faculty without a doctorate should endeavor to write their dissertation at break-neck speed. Or really, if given the choice, why would anyone who could possibly do anything else with their lives in academia, especially anything that could provide more security and protection, choose a job as a contingent faculty member, whether in 1992 or 2014?

Mostly, it points to the reality that university leaders tend to see much of the talent in academia – non-tenured faculty among others – as expendable. That, and the fact that this expendability has grown with the rapid increase in contingent faculty (and graduate students, for that matter) teaching courses once reserved for tenure and tenure-stream instructors. Until contingent faculty, graduate student teaching assistants and tenured/tenure-stream professors unionize and take a collective stand on working conditions and job protections, cases like Turner’s will continue to go cold and remain tragic ones, with no end in sight.


The Poverty of One Toilet Bowl For Eight

September 20, 2014

A post-1994 environmental friendly toilet, September 20, 2014. (http://greeleygov.com).

A post-1994 environmental friendly toilet, September 20, 2014. (http://greeleygov.com).

It was during the Balkis Makeda phase at 616 thirty years ago where I realized not only that we were in serious poverty, but that we as a family, as part of 616 and part of Mount Vernon, New York lived with a poverty of ideas. Not just ideas about changing the world or other grand concerns. I’m talking about simple stuff, about how to get from Point A to Point B, about how to fix things, about the idea that help can always be found when things go wrong.

It started and ended with our one toilet the third weekend in September ’84. That Friday evening, during my standard early weekend search for my father Jimme and at least $50 after school, my three-year-old brother Yiscoc managed to drop a toy into the toilet and then attempted to flush it and his waste down it at the same time. The result by the time I returned home was a stopped up toilet.

With the Hebrew-Israelite matriarch living with us, eight out of the nine humans in the apartment would need to use the one toilet at some point. Early Saturday morning, Makeda left, presumably for temple, but didn’t return to resume her occupation of my Mom and Maurice’s master bedroom until Tuesday afternoon. So much for the power of prayer!

I must’ve gone down to the bowels of 616 to search out our alcoholic Latino super a half-dozen times between Saturday morning and Sunday evening, in between all of my other more typical weekend chores. Not only wasn’t he around the entire weekend. The stench back in the apartment got worse as the weekend progressed, as my Mom, Maurice, and my younger siblings Maurice and Yiscoc continued to try to use a toilet that went from fifty-percent clogged to eighty-percent backed up.

Ancient Greek child seat and chamber pot, early 6th century BCE, Agora Museum, Athens, March 14, 2009. (Sharon Mollerus via Flickr/Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Ancient Greek child seat and chamber pot, early 6th century BCE, Agora Museum, Athens, March 14, 2009. (Sharon Mollerus via Flickr/Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

My Mom even tried to have me plunger out this nearly overflowing cesspool Saturday evening, after another walk over to Jimme’s place for money and relief. “What, you never touch shit in a toilet before?” my Mom asked after seeing my face turn toward absolute disgust. I managed to get the sewage water down temporarily, found a way to scoop out a turd without gloves and without throwing up, and pledged to not go in the bathroom again until after the super came to fix the problem. Maurice, my idiot stepfather, left 616 that evening, most likely to carouse and for a working toilet, also not to return until Tuesday afternoon.

There weren’t any good options for toilet use beyond home. That was the Mount Vernon and New York area in which I grew up. Pelham Library and Mount Vernon Public Library were the only decent options where the public restrooms worked and the homeless and careless hadn’t ruined the toilets. Everything else required me buying food or was closed. I used Mount Vernon Public Library before it closed Saturday afternoon, back when stayed open until 5 pm on Saturdays, at least (I think it only stays open until 1 pm on Saturdays now).

I split that Sunday between washing clothes with the little bit of money we had left from my Jimme-run the previous weekend and then searching for Jimme that afternoon. I couldn’t be at 616 for another round of virtual typhoid and dysentery while splashing around in deadly toilet water and using a cleaning bucket as a chamber pot.

We reached Jimme’s, my older brother Darren and me, by 2 pm that Sunday afternoon. He was home, hung over from another weekend of gettin’ to’ up, moaning as usual about how he “cain’ do dis no mo’. Nex’ week. Gotta stop drinkin’ nex’ week.” I didn’t care what my father had left of his money that Sunday. We stayed there until after 7 pm, watched the Jets beat up on the then sucky post-Ken Anderson Cincinnati Bengals, ate a few snacks and some golden delicious apples and pears, and used the functioning attic toilet to our bowels’ content.

Electric drain cleaner with a 100-foot snake, aka, Roto-Rooter, February 7, 2010. (Pgdp123 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC.SA.3.0.

Electric drain cleaner with a 100-foot snake, aka, Roto-Rooter, February 7, 2010. (Pgdp123 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC.SA.3.0.

I did manage to get $30 out of Jimme, with promises of more by that Tuesday. It came with the caveat that we’d start earning our money by working for him down in the City again. But that wasn’t a big concern.

Me and Darren went to MVHS and Clear View School school that Monday morning with a still stopped up toilet and no sign of the super. So, before I came back to the apartment after school, I tracked down the man, yelled at him for not being available all weekend, and then asked politely for him to bring up his snake machine. Which he immediately did.

It took between forty-five minutes and an hour for him to clear the pipe and pull out the toy truck that Yiscoc had somehow managed to get down in the toilet on Friday. The super laughed through his mask, said something about kids in his combination of broken English and Dominican Spanish, and left us with a working toilet once again. I still didn’t sit on it to take a dump for nearly a week after the whole ordeal, though.


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