Malcolm X, “Make It Plain”

February 21, 2015

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (

I’d be a terrible historian to not comment on the fact that today marks fifty years since some Nation of Islam malcontents — with support from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — murdered Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom (now the Shabazz Center) in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. I wasn’t around for the event, or any of the tumultuous events that defined “The ’60s.” All I know was I didn’t learn about Malcolm Little or Malcolm X until the summer between my undergraduate and graduate years at Pitt, the summer of ’91. Although the year before, I’d gone to a Malcolm X birthday celebration at the Homewood-Brushton branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. There, I saw poets performing their work, got to listen to some good jazz and rap, and saw the Afrocentric set out in full force.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center, with the Columbia University Medical Center's Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building in the background), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

You’d think after three years as a Hebrew-Israelite and years around children of Nation of Islam members as a kid that I would’ve heard all about Malcolm. Nope, hardly a peep about him growing up in Mount Vernon. Mostly, I got questions like, “Yo, you a “five percenter”?,” which for me translated into the chosen few living in the midst of the end times. Other than that, there was always the dichotomy trope of Martin versus Malcolm laid on us real thick through school and the newspapers. Dr. King was respectable, nonviolent, a true representative of the race. Malcolm was a street thug, a leading member of a heathen religion, a violent man who hated White people.

My Mom, who normally rejected mainstream White ways of thinking about Black folks, had bought this trope and tried to sell it to me and my older brother growing up. But as with so many things my Mom attempted to instill in me growing up, I wouldn’t make any decisions about Malcolm the person (as opposed to the icon) until I got around to reading, in this case about him and the Nation of Islam, as an adult.

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (

The one thing I realized after reading the Afrocentric, mainstream and Alex Haley interpretations of Malcolm in the early ’90s is that just like with King, we could make Malcolm X represent whatever we wanted. He could be nonviolent and a militant at the same time, or a thug and an ambassador of peace at the same time. Yes, as the late Manning Marable’s book shows, Malcolm — like most of us — was a walking, breathing contradiction of convictions (literal and figurative) and beliefs. For the purposes of my post today, though, he was a social justice activist, acting on the part of those poor, Black and discarded, plain and simple.

Which is why I think anyone who thinks Malcolm X brought murder to his own pulpit in February 1965 is an idiot. The idea that teaching others self-defense in opposition to White mobs, lynching, and blatant police brutality deserved a violent death. Really, now? So, if that’s the case, then Dr. King should have died of natural causes about three or four years ago, since his was the path of nonviolence, right? Yet, you still hear the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo de Stupido slinging this shit (and similar crap playing on such respectability politics themes) as if it were McDonald’s hash browns on sale for half-price.

Manning Marable's Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia).  Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Speaking of that lot, I don’t wonder what Malcolm X would say about our racist, plutocratic democracy these days. Anyone whose read his words would know what he’d say. That what happened with Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Rashida McBride and so many others should be resisted “by any means necessary.” That we should unmask those powerful people lurking in the shadows but pulling the strings that keep the systems of oppression working 24/7 in our world. He would’ve supported Occupy Wall Street when and where few Black leaders had in 2010 and 2011, called Islamic State or IS (that’s what they are called outside the US, where we can’t get our acronyms straight) a “chickens coming home to roost” scenario, and put Tavis Smiley and Cornel West in the same self-aggrandizing bag as Giuliani and Rivera.

I get why it took Malcolm Little so long to transform himself into Malcolm X, and still, until after his thirty-ninth birthday, for him to find himself and his purpose in the world. It’s taken me nearly four and half decades to do the same. It’s hard to “make it plain,” especially to ourselves. It’s scary to be in a constant state of disillusionment, about family and friends, about your identity, about your religion and beliefs. But it also allows you to see yourself and everyone around you fresh for the first time, to know who people really are.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and My Own Prison

February 16, 2015

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

On February 17th seventeen years ago, we opened one of the first community-based computer labs in the US at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What was once known as the Microsoft Library Fund (which later became the Gates Library Foundation, and then became part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) had provided the initial $110,000 to place this computer lab in one of the East Library branches resource rooms. I guess it could’ve been a proud moment for me. If I hadn’t earned my PhD the year before, only to face unemployment for three months during the summer of ’97 and underemployment in the five months since taking the Carnegie Library job. But this was a humiliating moment, not one of pride or, at least, taking comfort in a job done well. It was a learning moment at a time when I thought I already knew what I need to move forward with my career and life.

The dissertation process, my battles with Joe Trotter, the truth about my relationship with my Mom, had all taken a heavy toll on my heart and mind by the time Memorial Day ’97 rolled around. So much so that I lived between moments of humility (which is different from humiliation) and moments of rage in the sixteen months between May ’97 and the fall of ’98. I was living on fumes from my last Carnegie Mellon paycheck when I began working for Carnegie Library the day after Labor Day that year. I’d been conditioned, though, to think that everything happens for a reason. So I assumed that God was attempting to teach me a lesson, that I needed to give more out of the needs I had in my life in order for the things I thought I deserved to come my way.

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

There was a bit of a flaw in my logic around God’s lessons. For one, the idea that I wasn’t finding work in academia because I hadn’t been a giver was ridiculous. Between volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring high school students, tithing at church, and so many other things, it was dumb to think that not enough humility was the reason I didn’t get the job at Teachers College or had trouble finding adjunct work in the fall of ’97. Or rather, it was dumb not to think that bigger issues — like my dissertation committee abandoning me when I needed them the most — played a greater role in my not finding full-time work in my chosen profession than any inability to serve others.

The Carnegie Library job provided a part-time stop-gap for my income while I attempted to figure out how to move forward without my advisor and my committee and move on with the knowledge that my relationship with my Mom would never be the same. I figured that the job gave me the opportunity to help others and to do good, and that it was a good first foray into the nonprofit world, especially with money from the world of Microsoft.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had a co-worker who was jealous of my degree and attempted to undermine the work of putting together the lab and the class materials for teaching patrons how to use the computers at every turn. I figured out that the bosses at the central branch in Oakland had essentially pocketed some of the funding for the lab to cover the costs of new computers for their own personal use, and had underfunded both my position and my co-worker’s position as part of the grant.

Album cover for Creed's My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

Album cover for Creed’s My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

But I didn’t learn all of this until June. By February ’98, I began to realize that, more than anything else, I needed to free myself from my own prison of an idea, that I’d done anything wrong or sinful to end up running a computer lab project at twenty-eight when I had done much of this same work at nineteen years old. I had to begin to find prominent people in my field(s) to support me in finding work, even if none of them were on my dissertation committee. I still needed to apply for academic jobs, even if my status meant than some would reject me because of my issues with my advisor. I even needed to explore the idea of jobs outside academia, in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, where my degrees and my ideas about education policy and equity might still matter.

It definitely helped when Duquesne hired me in April to teach graduate-level education foundations courses in History of American Education and Multicultural Education. It helped even more, though, when I decided in August to quit the Carnegie Library job. Between the Microsoft folks and the sycophants at Carnegie Library who were willing to do almost anything for a few extra dollars — anything other than serve their neighborhoods, that is — I’d had enough of duplicitous people. Who knew that my first job with sycophants and Gates money would come back to haunt me in the seventeen years since!

Fifty Shades of White People’s Imaginations

February 15, 2015

"Take a bow, James" screen shot from Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey, Jr., September 29, 2009. (

“Take a bow, James!” screen shot from Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey, Jr., September 29, 2009. (

So far this Valentine’s Day/Presidents Day weekend, Fifty Shades of Grey is making a killing at the box office, over $30 million on its official release on Friday alone. A movie with an estimated twenty-minutes’ worth of sex scenes, coming on the heels of the most successful self-published book in history? Take a bow, E.L. James, take a bow!

Oops, I didn’t mean to go there, Ms. James! Submitting to a bow would likely conform too much to one of the big themes of your book and movie. The idea that a college-educated millennium would play the role of submissive to a business magnate and engage in an unworkable romance, is, well, a theme straight out of Hollywood producer’s ass. Or, rather, a Hollywood porn producer’s average shoot!

Really, between the book, the movie and the reviews, it seems that Fifty Shades of Grey is really about affluent White folks all over the world attempting to be comfortable with what some would call “taboo sex” in the early twenty-first century. It’s like a whole generation of British Commonwealth and American Whites haven’t taken the time to see 9½ Weeks (1985) or Body Heat (1981), or at least, like to pretend that everything that is new is actually new when it’s not. At best, the book is like eating too much cotton candy at an amusement park while drink a fifth of vodka, getting on a roller coaster, and then vomiting on your five year-old (luckily, I didn’t spend money to read it). But really, Fifty Shades of Grey is a symbol of Whiteness played out in power fantasies, hardly sexual at all.

Most Americans (and many affluent Brits and Aussies as well) celebrate books and movies that aggrandize their ability to experience orgasms and overpower each other in relationships. It’s a reflection of a world without consequences, because everyone in James’ world is already on top, and need not fear falling into the real world. Where love, sex, struggle and self-discovery are about much more that belts and chains.

Vicarious Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2015

Fringe Observer 'September,' played by Michael Cerveris, circa 2013. (John Milton via

Fringe Observer ‘September,’ played by Michael Cerveris, circa 2013. (John Milton via

A couple of alternate titles could be “A Little Ditty About ‘Jack and Diane’,” or “The Legend of Crush #1 and The Contrarian One.” Really, though, I’ve never given much thought to Valentine’s Day, even in dating and marriage, mostly because until I turned twenty-five, I never had money to waste on such an aimless, unbelievably overhyped and commercialized “holiday.”

Few understand that the Catholic holy day of St. Valentine was about a Christian martyred in the midst of a period of Roman persecution under the emperor Aurelian, outside Rome, on February 14, 273 CE. Or that when combined with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre on February 14, 1929, the only heart truly associated with the day has been one punctured by a sword or a bullet, a blood-soaked one. Plus, it’s not as if I need capitalism to tell me whom to show my romantic side, with cards and flowers and chocolate, no less. Still, as a married man, I participate, although not with Western ideals of masculinity and romance in my head, if only to ensure my wife doesn’t feel left out.

But I must rewind about three decades, because while I don’t appreciate the fakery that comes with celebrating some candy-coated version of romance without actually celebrating St. Valentine, I did learn a thing or two about watching relationships bloom from afar. It was around this time thirty years ago that I noticed that Wendy and the contrarian one were dating, whatever that term means in the context of high school. Both would tell me that their relationship only began in high school, but my own recollections dispute that somewhat, if only because they shared roughly the same level of dislike for me during seventh grade!

Bloody woodchipper scene from Fargo (1996), February 14, 2015. (

Bloody woodchipper scene from Fargo (1996), February 14, 2015. (

The main point is, while for most of my classmates, it would’ve only been obvious in our junior year that Crush #1 and JD were together, I sensed it by the middle of tenth grade. If I’d been the exact same person I’d been during seventh and eighth grade, one head-over-heels in love with Wendy, I would’ve put my heart in a woodchipper, shot it all over a field, gathered it up again, and then put it into a mortar shell to explode into the sky to rain down all over Mount Vernon.

But I wasn’t that person in 7S, and hadn’t been for quite a while. My focus for most of tenth grade had been on living a sin-free Christian life, a transactional relationship with God that consisted of making good things happen for myself by prayer, fasting, and reading my Bible everywhere I went. Between that and my routine of watching younger siblings, washing clothes, tracking down my father Jimme, surviving another year of Humanities, running to the store two or three times every day, and so many other tasks, romance and dating might as well have been in an alternate universe. Even if I did feel envious, it would’ve been over not having money or a car or good food in my belly. Pining over Wendy — or any other girl or woman, for that matter — didn’t fit with any coping strategy that I had to get out of Mount Vernon as soon as my high school diploma and a college acceptance would allow me. At least prior to Crush #2.

What was more interesting to me, and what I knew was more interesting to my classmates, was the fact that Wendy and the contrarian one were dating, and in fact, an interracial couple, one a Black female (or, as some classmates still believed, biracial), the other a White male. I was interested only as an observer of people, because by tenth grade I’d actually grown to like JD and could be around Crush #1 without being conscious of the fact that she used to be my crush. I was interested in that the reactions of the folks at MVHS varied from my own “no surprise here” to dagger-eyed intolerance or head-shaking shame expressed by students across all cliques and most racial lines.

Black and White shortbread (or what President Barack Obama coined a "Unity Cookie" in 2008), July 23, 2007. (Punkitra via Released to public domain.

Black and White shortbread (or what President Barack Obama coined a “Unity Cookie” in 2008), July 23, 2007. (Punkitra via Released to public domain.

I’ve certainly known and know plenty of other people involved in interracial relationships and marriages since the spring of ’85. Some where only racial politics and stereotypes mattered, some where love and social justice mattered much more. In the case of my class’ Juliet and Romeo, maybe my crush took advantage of some of the racial politics involved with dating someone White, while my contrarian friend obviously doesn’t prefer blondes, and hasn’t in the years since. From my observer’s perch, though, there was much more to their relationship than racial preferences.

It was the first time I’d seen or heard about any interracial coupling beyond movies like West Side Story (I still love Rita Moreno, even at eighty-three) or in others telling me about them third-hand, after it was already over. To me, it was always a good fit and fitting, despite the racial politics playing out at school, not to mention the identity issues that had to be playing out between Wendy and JD, even unconsciously. What I gleaned from two and a half years of the two of them dating, though, was that they had found a world unto themselves, one which must’ve made MVHS a much easier hellhole to navigate, if nothing else.

Pictures and Records

February 11, 2015

Me & Darren at gate to  Nathan Hale ES playground, Mount Vernon, NY, February 1975. [At 425 South Sixth, we lived just two doors down from Nathan Hale and its playground area/parking lot.]  (My Mom).

Me & Darren at gate to Nathan Hale ES playground, Mount Vernon, NY, February 1975. [At 425 South Sixth, we lived just two doors down from Nathan Hale and its playground area/parking lot.] (My Mom).

There are some things that most folks — at least most in the US — take for granted that I had very little of growing up and into adulthood. Certainly love was one of those things, but I’ve told that story as a running theme many times over the past seven years and eight months. On a more materialistic note, the things that provide pleasant memories of childhood even in the midst of suffering and sorrow, like pictures and records, were also rarities for me as well. As I said in the Preface to Boy @ The Window, photos “are among those smallest and most awesome of things. Perhaps because so few of mine survived to childhood.” This lack of evidence of my existence and importance prior to college is a story of poverty, of course. But it’s also a story of what’s important to do and feel and say, even in the midst of poverty, abuse and domestic violence.

One of the five surviving photos in my possession from my childhood is a picture of me with my older brother Darren covering my mouth as we stood at the playground gate right next to Nathan Hale Elementary School. It was February ’75, and I was in the second half of kindergarten. We took this picture on a Saturday, with both our Mom and our father Jimme there. Believe it or not, we were on our way to play on the asphalt playground and basketball court, walking around the neighborhood that was Nathan Hale and South Sixth Avenue on Mount Vernon, New York’s South Side. This was a memorable event only because it was also a very rare event. That our Mom took us somewhere that didn’t have anything to do with grocery shopping, clothes’ buying or laundry washing.  That our father was also along for the event, actually sober and not arguing with or threatening our Mom.

A better picture of Darren and me, taken in April 1975, Sears, Mount Vernon, NY, July 6, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

A better picture of Darren and me, taken in April 1975, Sears, Mount Vernon, NY, July 6, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

It was also an outing where Darren and I had been horsing around, calling each other names. Just before our Mom started snapping pictures with her old Polaroid, Darren had put me in a headlock and punched me in my forehead for calling him a “dummy.” He then covered my mouth as I kept calling him a dummy, all while our Mom snapped the first picture. “Y’all keep it up, you’re gonna get your asses whupped,” Mom said to get us to stop. And we did stop fighting just long enough to snap a better picture, although it didn’t survive very long.

As far as I can remember, this was the next to last time all four of us were out together as a family. The last time came in June ’76, when my Mom introduced me to basketball, only to tell me she would “never show me how to play basketball again” because I became frustrated with getting the ball high enough to the hoop. I was six years old at the time.

Ten years after we took the Nathan Hale playground picture, Darren and I had become enamored with music to begin consuming it. Darren had bought himself a turntable at the end of ’84, for the wonderful price of $15 (it would probably be $175 in today’s money because of today’s lopsided supply and demand for vinyl in an mp3 age). But we had zero experience buying records, and our Mom’s limited collection of Al Green, Diana Ross and The Supremes and Gladys Knight and The Pips had been destroyed long ago in the midst of her breakup with our father. Our idiot stepfather Maurice had 8-track and vinyl collections (especially The Commodores and The Ohio Players) that he had given away when he converted to the Hebrew-Israelite cult in 1980-81.

Darryl Hall & John Oates, "Method of Modern Love" 45, circa 1984-85, February 11, 2015. (

Darryl Hall & John Oates, “Method of Modern Love” 45, circa 1984-85, February 11, 2015. (

So we bought whatever we heard on WBLS-107.5 or WPLJ-95.5 FM, without the benefit of music videos or without the influence of parents and classmates. Darren bought Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash, UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. My first purchases were to support Live Aid’s anti-famine work in Ethiopia, via “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The first 45 I bought for us to play on Darren’s turntable, though, was Hall & Oates’ “Method of Modern Love,” which reached number five on Billboard’s pop charts about this time thirty years ago. It was an interesting foray into music beyond the radio, at least for me. Darren would tell me how “wack” my music was, and I’d say, “you don’t even like rap. You’re just listenin’ to it because you like girls now!”

This first effort at consuming music didn’t last long. It took money and weekly trips to the city to find vinyl to support it, and in early ’85, we simply didn’t have enough money to shop at Tower Records and Crazy Eddie’s for the stuff we wanted every week. At least not yet. Plus, we broke the turntable that spring, and with the rise of the Sony Walkman and cheap cassette tapes, we were on our way to truly getting into the ’80s before the ’90s arrived.

I no longer have that Hall & Oates single (although I do have it on my iPod). But I do have memories of my brother Darren, memories where we were still actually brothers to each other. Memories of rivalry, jealousy, fighting, even love. All in the time of choking poverty and emotional neglect.

My Washington Mission

February 6, 2015

Martin L

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, DC Public Library’s main branch, Washington, DC, November 2013 (never looked this nice in 1995). (

Twenty years ago this week I began the official phase of my doctoral thesis research. But it was much more than reading monographs and finding old papers at the Library of Congress and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. It was also a long trip, where I would spend the next two months living in Washington, DC, to do my research on multiculturalism and multicultural education, and to find evidence of both in Black Washington, DC and in the segregated DC Public Schools. It was also the first time I’d lived away from Pittsburgh or the New York City area, meaning that I had a new city to get to know.

The trip truly involved my past, present and future, all at once. I spent my first five days visiting with my friend Laurell and her family in Arlington while looking for some temporary housing of my own. I’d eventually run into two Pitt friends and two Carnegie Mellon friends while in DC, and develop at least one new friendship between February 2 and March 24. I talked with my favorite teach in Harold Meltzer during that trip, learning more than I ever wanted to know about some of my classmates and Mount Vernon High School in the process.

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

Mostly though, I split my Washington mission into three phases. Phase one was to find a cheap place to stay. After a day of dealing with Howard University professors-turned-slum-lords in LeDroit Park, I went through the Washington Post to find a series of rented rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Finally, I found a place in Shepherd Park, two blocks south of the DC-Silver Spring, Maryland border. It was a three-story house in a decent neighborhood on 12th Street, NW, with Blair Park, the Silver Spring Metro, and a corner KFC within walking distance. The landlord seemed decent enough, and my basement room came to $95/week with a $100 deposit. Those were the days, before gentrification and the housing boom sent the cost of shelter through the roof!

Phase two of my trip began Wednesday, February 8. I organized my schedule based on going to a number of archives and collecting materials first. I started with the Moorland-Spingarn Collection, which had been picked pretty clean by Henry Louis Gates (via buying collections) and by other, less reputable researchers (many who stole materials). I got to meet and talk with the archivist Esme Bhan about my research, which was wonderful. Still, I wondered how much longer Moorland-Spingarn could stay a reputable venue for scholarly research, with its lack of funding and lack of security from vultures emptying records.

The following week I split between the Columbiana Division at DC Public Library’s main branch, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library between Chinatown and downtown, and the DC Public School Archives on 17th and M. The DCPL portion of my work was an experiment in filtering out the smells and the sights of the homeless and mentally disabled. Not to mention the ability to not use the bathrooms in the building for eight hours at a time. The men’s stalls didn’t have doors, by the way. I spent only three days there, and rushed through gathering background on interviews of Black Washingtonians that the library had conducted back in the early 1980s. It didn’t help I had to deal with a peeping Tom at the old Hecht’s department store, where the bathrooms were much nicer.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

I found a gold mine of materials on formal and unofficial education policies regarding DC Public Schools during the Jim Crow period — especially between 1920 and 1950 — at the DCPS archives. But because they didn’t have a working copier, the archivist there allowed me to take original records going back seven decades to the Sir Speedy on M Street to make my own copies. This was in contrast to my three days Presidents’ Day week at the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, where security was tighter in ’95 than at most airports in 2015.

The Library of Congress part of my data gathering was intriguing. If only because their rubber chicken lunches were expensive ($7), and because I found more material on W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell there than I did at Moorland-Spingarn. Finally, I ended phase two with the Columbia Historical Society in Dupont Circle and a two-day expedition of finding nothing at the National Archives in DC and in Greenbelt, Maryland.

I spent most of March figuring out what to do with two big boxes’ worth of new materials and writing what would be parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of my dissertation. In between, I did find time to hang out. With my new friend Marya, who was from DC, but was working on her history doctorate from the University of Michigan. In addition to being plied with vegan options for my delicate gastrointestinal tract and talking about our research, we did joke a bit about the idea of my Joe Trotter and her Earl Lewis actually being friends in any real sense of the word. There was also time to go out to dinner with Laurell, take in a couple of bad movies with my Carnegie Mellon friend Tracie (like Losing Isaiah), and even have a quick lunch with Trotter during his own quick visit to DC.

Terrell Owens hauls in 'The Catch II' from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

Terrell Owens hauls in ‘The Catch II’ from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

After seven weeks of living in DC, I took the train up to New York to go visit my family in Mount Vernon for a few days. What was great about those two months was how peaceful everything was. I was three weeks away from becoming a Spencer Fellow and somehow earning the ire of my doctoral advisor. My family was a month away from becoming homeless for the next two and a half years. My borrowing to cover the costs of this first major research trip, I’m probably still paying interest on today. But without this trip, I wouldn’t have begun the process of questioning the direction of my career and life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to finish my doctorate. Being single-minded about a mission isn’t bad or good. It just means ignoring small stuff, some of which can occasionally turn into a festering cesspool.

What A Fool (Make) Believes

January 31, 2015

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling  too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (

I am a firm believer in the idea that just about everything in our lives happens for a reason, even if the reason involves multiple layers of chance adding up to a certainty. Meaning even the unexplainable, given enough time, study and webs of connections, can add up to a certain amount of truth, even if we as humans cannot except that limited truth.

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via

The beginning of ’87 put me in the middle of that scenario regarding my masculinity and my relationships with everyone in my life. I knew that at seventeen that I’d already been an adult of sorts, with everything that was going on with my family at 616. But while I might have been an overburdened high school senior with adult responsibilities and adult-level decisions to make, psychologically and emotionally, I was still a twelve-year-old. One damaged by bearing witness to my stepfather beating up my Mom on Memorial Day ’82, the abuse I’d suffered at his hands afterward, and my ostracism my first years in Humanities in seventh and eighth grade. I was “a dog that been beat too much” by my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, and I’d started wondering if I had stayed one year too long before heading off to college, because my last year of K-12 wasn’t going so well either.

I was also in the middle of my second classmate crush in five years. I was more than three years removed from my most intense feelings for Crush #1 (outed at Wendy in Boy @ The Window), only to feel stomach flutters for the young woman who’d been my Crush #2 (Phyllis) for about thirteen months. Except I was too scared to tell anyone, including myself, of how I felt about her.

Nor did I really understand why I felt the way I did when I was around her. With Wendy, I could point to personality, intellect, quirkiness, among other attributes, and the fact that prior to seventh grade, I’d never met anyone like her. Phyllis, though, I’d known for more than five years, and while she was attractive and smart, it wasn’t as if she was so unique.

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with "What A Fool Believes" on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with “What A Fool Believes” on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (

Still, even in the back of my more mature and emotionally cold part of my mind, I knew what it really was. Phyllis had made this beaten and abused dog feel better about himself in the worst of times, between seventh and tenth grade, back in his Hebrew-Israelite days. Even if that emotional altruism was more about saving me from hell in this life and the next, and less about liking me, her actions tugged my deeply bruised heart strings. Not Phyllis’ fault by any stretch. Just a reality. I was a “sentimental fool…tryin’ hard to recreate what had yet to be created,” like the fictional man in Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” (1979).

By my senior year, I thought about Phyllis from afar, just like I’d done with Wendy nearly five years earlier. With my imagination, I could almost imagine anything. Including all of the indicators of romance, from dating and joking to kissing, to getting together during holiday and summer breaks during college. Everything, except anything sexual. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how. It was because in the conscious side of my mind in which my emotional age remained at twelve, I couldn’t see any young woman my age as having a carnal side, of being anything other than a near-perfect being. Phyllis may as well have been a nymph or angel, and not a real person.

Somehow I knew I was setting myself up for a year of hurt. I knew that I had to grow up, to “be a man,” to find a way to actually say that I liked Phyllis, if only for myself to hear. And I did tell it, to myself, to her, to people I came for a time to trust. I even sent a letter to Phyllis after the fact, only to be hurt even more, just like the dumb ass Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins described in “What A Fool Believes.” “As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know…,” as the song goes. Only in my case, to crash and burn like the Hindenburg in New Jersey did in 1938.

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (

By the end of ’88, though, I realized the truth. That my crush on Crush #2 wasn’t a real crush at all. It was my crutch, my coping strategy to deal with the fact that I really hadn’t felt anything about anyone in my life since those heady Wendy days. Those were my final days of childhood, those days before I’d learn for the second time in my first twelve and a half years how little control I had over my life, how little love and affection there was to find. As the song of that phase of my life went, I “never came near what [I] wanted to say, only to realize it never really was.” I never made Crush #1 “think twice,” and made Crush #2 reject me like Patrick Ewing in his prime smacking a basketball into the fifth row of Madison Square Garden.

I suppose that this happens to all boys and girls, men and women and transgender at some point or another in their lives. At twelve, it felt glorious, while at seventeen, it was painful and embarrassing. I’m just glad that I made it through that year, 1987 — though hardly happy to go and grow through the process — and came out on the other side of it ready to grow, risk and protect my heart again.


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