Students and the Joys and Travails of College Teaching

July 16, 2014

Argentina's Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via

Argentina’s Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via

Maybe not to that extreme, but there are circumstances where teaching a college course can be a joy or torture or even sometimes both at the same time. Some of this has to do with the actual nature of the course, some of it with my disposition, some of this with the types of students that walk through the door. But, in teaching somewhere around sixty courses since ’91, working with a civic education nonprofit and consulting with another one, I’ve found two large categories of students who have made teaching more enjoyable over the years, though not always an actual joy. One group has been graduate students, the other high school students aspiring for college.

There are a number of reasons why, of course. Some are pretty easy to understand. High school students aspiring to go to college or taking college-level courses are often ambitious and motivated, students who are amenable to learning. Graduate students often aspire to be better at their specific profession of study, which in my experience, has this group of students essentially aspiring to be some version of me. Even the brown-nosers in both groups tend to have the motivation necessary to be better students, or at least, to look like they’re better students.

It also has helped over the years that the several hundred high school and graduate students who’ve been in my classrooms have actually wanted to be there. Doing a week in Washington to learn how Capitol Hill really works, or a summer course at Princeton on AP US History or taking one of my undergraduate course over the years at the University of Pittsburgh, UDC and UMUC, those students (and their parents) made the choice to take those steps. Those students wanted to get into a college of their choice, to be well prepared, to make themselves better students, and perhaps even, better people.

History graduate students have choices, for the most part, in terms of which graduate seminars they take and in their specific cultural, geographic area and time period focus. In my experience teaching school of education courses, though, at Duquesne and George Washington University (courses like History of American Education, Multicultural Education or History of American Education Reform), the students I’ve taught in those courses chose to be there. They chose to read as many as eight books in eight weeks, to write term papers and research papers and do original research. Those students wanted to become better as teachers, as researchers, and in a few cases, to become college professors themselves.

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country's World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country’s World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via

So what’s different teaching undergraduate courses with undergraduate students? Well, they’ve tended to complain the most about general education requirements, ones that require them to take a course in US or World History (my African American History students are generally happier about taking the course). But that’s not all. A fair number have treated me as their enemy, not as their professor or a teacher invested in their learning. Of course these students were in school to complete a degree. But college was no longer an aspiration. It was now a reality, with all of the responsibilities and complications that come with the five-year march toward a four-year degree. For traditional college-aged students, there have always been competing interests, the need to organize a life that involves working 15-20 hours per week and some semblance of a social life, and attempting to figure out a major (often not history).

With my adult learners, those pressures come from at least three directions. The personal pressure to perform academically, the workplace, familial and parental pressures, and the pressure of learning how to be a college student on the fly. Add to this mix the general lack of academic preparation for college for those over twenty-five. All of this has frequently led to a combination of insufficient motivation to learn — even when I’ve explained the “what’s-in-it-for-them” piece — and a quiet hostility toward the process of college matriculation. For this group as a whole — traditional college students and adult learners — aspirations can frequently turn into Being and Nothingness, or rather, a state of being and meaninglessness.

This mindset has been the most difficult aspect of my job as a teaching professor over the years. It’s somewhere between extremely hard and absolutely impossible to teach students whose minds have been closed to learning or self-improvement, whose idea of an education is a piece of paper and a rubber stamp. That most of those students who’ve made my work most difficult are undergraduates isn’t surprising, though. That’s part of the job.

Still, there are times where I miss those days when I taught or worked with high school students fully motivated to get into college, who already had a sense of where they wanted their lives to go. There are times when I miss a grad student angling for a higher grade or with a real interest in my writing and research. For better and sometimes for worse, at least they’re interested in the learning enterprise.

Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.

Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 -- there's always Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 – there’s always Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (

Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.

Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.

On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.

"World's Highest Standard of Living" poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by  Margaret Bourke White, February 15, 1937. (ThunderPeel2001 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution.

“World’s Highest Standard of Living” poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by Margaret Bourke-White, February 15, 1937. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution.

And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.


Tyranny of the Self-Righteous “Liberal”

June 18, 2014

Toni Collette as Fiona, "Ms. Granola Suicide," in movie About A Boy (2002), screen shot, June 18, 2014. ( via Universal). Qualifies as fair use - low resolution picture is personification of topic (self-righteous liberal).

Toni Collette as Fiona, “Ms. Granola Suicide,” in movie About A Boy (2002), screen shot, June 18, 2014. ( via Universal). Qualifies as fair use – low resolution picture is personification of topic (self-righteous liberal).

More and more, I’ve tired of folks who proclaim that because they’ve finally “seen the light” on a particular niche or chic liberal issue, that their view is not only the right and only one. Anyone who doesn’t fall in line with their perspective is the enemy, a sap in support of the destructive forces of capitalism, a person whose individual actions will destroy the world.

That most — but not all, of course — of these people are White liberals isn’t exactly a surprise. This first occurred to me a quarter-century ago, when, as a Pitt undergrad, students active in environmentalism were going around campus asking us to donate time, money and signatures to stop Brazil from tearing down their Amazonian rain forests. Though I understood that we needed to process as much oxygen as our bodies would allow (and pull as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as possible), I also thought, “where the heck do we get off telling Brazil what to do?”

Brazil was and still is a leader in Global South economic development, with massive inequalities to boot. After two and a half centuries of virtually unchecked economic and industrial growth at the expense of the environment, though, where did we as Americans have the right to tell people in other countries to slow or halt their economic development? After exploiting the riches, resources and peoples of the world, where did these do-gooders get off telling other countries that they ‘d have to find a slower way to deal with poverty, or to not exploit their own resources?

An aerial picture of an area of the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil, September 9, 2009. (Felipe Menegaz via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0/GNU.

An aerial picture of an area of the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil, September 9, 2009. (Felipe Menegaz via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0/GNU.

I would get into the occasional argument about this very White, very un-liberal liberal way of thinking. One where we’d get to keep our modern development while countries like Brazil were supposed to languish in the Third World box we and Europe built for them. Of course, the do-gooders would argue back at me, telling me that I wanted to destroy the environment and make the air unhealthy for our future kids and grandkids to breathe. As far as they were concerned, keeping the Global South poor and exploitable was our only chance at beating back global warming and species destruction.

It’s not any different today with issues like food justice, gun control and safety, and drug policy (and for some, religion). I have a Facebook friend who has become more belligerent about promoting veganism and condemning us so-called meat-eaters (technically, humans are omnivores) over the past half-decade. The issue for him couldn’t just be about agribusinesses and their gross abuse of the land, of crops and of domesticated animals, their control and degradation of much of the world’s food supply. No, it’s about individuals making choices that empower these massive corporations instead of going to an organic farm or farmers market or choosing to turn away from all animal proteins for the sake of their bodies or to curtail climate change.

I have no problems with vegans or veganism (I’ve tried it myself on occasion) or with fighting Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and ConAgra. I do have a problem with the myopic thinking that people like my Facebook friend have in attacking individuals. It’s such a ’70s liberal way of confronting a huge issue. Not to mention a very White and elitist perspective. Fact is, a truly healthy and well-rounded vegan diet is an expensive one, as the federal government doesn’t subsidize vegan products like it does agribusiness. In a nation like the US, with a shrinking middle class and growing inequality, to expect every individual to stop shopping at Walmart and eating Big Macs in exchange for the organic farm and lentils is arrogant and wholly unrealistic.

There’s no way I’d tell my Facebook friend all this. I’d get argued down as if I were attempting to spread a superflu across the planet. And it wouldn’t be a rational argument either. But then again, it’s okay for White liberals to be irrational in their arguments, especially when it’s in defense of the planet!

ConAgra Foods logo, June 18, 2014. (

ConAgra Foods logo, June 18, 2014. (

There’s also irony around gun control and safety and drug policy. When it’s so-called Black-on-Black crime, or a drive-by in New York or Chicago, those meet White liberal expectations. When it’s Columbine or Newtown or Santa Barbara, involving White-on-White crime, then it becomes time for more mental health screenings and more gun control. When heroin and crack cocaine found their way into poor Black and Latino communities in the ’70s and ’80s, we needed tougher drug laws to lock away “the animals” and “thugs.” Now that crystal meth and heroin have made their ways into White-middle-class suburbia, it’s now time to decriminalize some drug possessions and legalize marijuana. But no contradictions there!

A big part of the problem with everyday White liberalism is the idea that individuals and their individual decisions will add up to a groundswell of societal change. Yet how can you change the world if you’re not willing to sacrifice the structures that exploit others who aren’t White and middle class, who don’t live in America or in some suburban cul-de-sac? But go ahead, keep on keeping on with your non-GMO, organic vegan tuna salads made of soybeans and carrots while yelling at the rest of us impoverished shlubs to get with the program!

Killing Joe Trotter

June 10, 2014

Yeah, I did it. I killed the man who kinged himself mentor over me. I took some piano wire, tightened it around my hands while listening to him yammer on an on about “running interference” to protect “my interests.

As the pointy-headed, smoothly bald and mahogany man gazed at my thesis, myopically gazing into nowhere, I pounced. I quickly jumped out of my seat and took Trotter from behind. He clutched at the wire with his elderly left hand as I pulled and tugged, hoping to prolong the bloody agony for as long as I could. Trotter choked for air, then choked for real, as spit, bile, blood and tongue all became his substitute for oxygen. Then, with one bicep curl and pull, I garroted his throat, and watched as his already dead eyes turned lifeless. All as his burgundy blood poured down his white shirt and gray suit. It collected into a small pond, where his pants crotch and his mahogany office chair met. Trotter’s was a chair that was now fully endowed all right. Thanks to my righteous stand.


Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

First, a disclaimer. I am in no way advocating killing Joe Trotter, or any other professor, whether they’re a great advisor or a terrible one (except perhaps in the case of literal self-defense). This was how I imagined what I could do to Trotter in the spring and summer of ’96, as our battles over my dissertation and my future turned from typical to ugly. By mid-July ’96, after his handwritten all-caps comments telling me to disregard my evidence on Black migration to DC during the Great Migration period (1915-30) — or really, the lack of evidence — I was mentally drained. I went back to our first big arguments over my future, the “you’re not ready” meetings from November ’95 and April ’96, and thought about what I could’ve done if I’d stayed in his office five minutes longer. That’s when I imagined killing my advisor for the first time.

By the time Trotter and my dissertation committee had approved my magnum opus, the week before Thanksgiving in ’96, I’d played that scenario in my head at least a dozen times. That’s when I knew I was burned out from the whole process. I may have become Dr. Collins, but I might as well have been my younger and abused self, the one who had to wade through five years of suffering at 616 and in Mount Vernon just to get to college.

Four months ago, I actually dreamed about killing Joe Trotter, exactly as described above, in his office, on a warm spring day like I imagined eighteen years ago. Keep in mind, I don’t think about Trotter much these days, other than when I write a blog post or am in a discussion of worst dissertation advisors ever. So when I woke up from this old-imagination-turned-dream, I had a Boy @ The Window moment and revelation. Did my struggles with Trotter open up old wounds, unearth my deliberately buried past? Did I see my fight with Trotter over my dissertation in the same light as my guerrilla warfare with my abusive and manipulative ex-stepfather?

I obviously brought baggage into my doctoral process that I’d hidden from everyone, including myself, and hadn’t fully resolved. The fact that Trotter was at times tyrannical, deceitful and paternalistic didn’t help matters. In some ways, then, Trotter must’ve morphed into Maurice Washington during the dissertation process, with me only half-realizing it once I was freshly minted.

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

I actually went to Trotter’s office a few weeks after I graduated, to apologize for how our relationship devolved, and to grant him my forgiveness as well. Arrogant as my act was, I needed to make the gesture, to at least begin my healing process. I knew Trotter was beyond surprised, but he shook my hand anyway. I also knew, as I walked away from his Baker Hall office, that other than a letter of recommendation, Trotter no longer had anything to offer me. At least, anything that would help me resolve some deep, underlying issues.

It’s safe to say that of all the reasons that led to me writing Boy @ The Window, my problems with Trotter in ’95 and ’96 were near the top of the list. Still, I needed to kill the idea that Trotter was an indispensable part of my present and future, if I were to ever resolve the issues from my growing-up past.

When Those Close Put Up Roadblocks

June 7, 2014

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (

This was the best title I could come up with, since it’s about folks in my life with whom I’ve shared some affinity over the years, beyond family, and to a lesser extent, friendships. This isn’t about haters or crabs-in-the-barrel mentality per se. It’s simply the observation that as I pursue dreams and push through goals in life that some whom have the choice between being supportive or actively working against my interests, how more than a few have chosen to do the latter.

That this has occurred in my life mostly as I pursued my doctorate and pressed on as a writer isn’t a coincidence. The things I’ve worked the hardest for in life, the dreams most difficult to achieve, the amount of energy and pressing through needed to overcome my own doubts in the process — all came with an audience of detractors. A bit more than twenty years ago, some of my Pitt friends started falling by the wayside as I pursued my grad degrees, which is normal, but there were some pretty weird conversations I had with them as they did. One insisted on calling me “Dr. Don” about a dozen times during a PAT Transit bus ride one day in September ’92, laughing to the point of hilarity while doing it. I thought that he was going to choke on his own spit all the while, he was laughing so hard. Or that I was going to choke him myself if he said “Dr. Don” one more time!

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with "Sellout" addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with “Sellout” addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (

Another guy — who eventually committed suicide in ’98 — told me straight up that people like me were “sellouts,” that “The Man” wasn’t going to accept people like me or him “no matta how many degrees we get” or don’t get. That was six weeks before my committee approved my dissertation, in October ’96. Luckily, I learned not to bring up my education to folks unless it was for professional purposes or unless someone asked.

That these were Black acquaintances from my days as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh was a bit surprising, considering that my tendency is to always encourage folks to pursue their dreams. I’d always assumed the worst of the folks — Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino — that I grew up with in Mount Vernon, New York, precisely because their encouragement literally made me suicidal by the time I turned fourteen. By the late-90s, I realized this was more than a New-York-area-social-etiquette-disorder.

With writing and books over the past decade — especially with Boy @ The Window — I’ve experienced some of those same headwinds from folks who seemed to think they had a better idea for the direction of my life than I. When I first started working on my memoir at the end of ’06, I had a conversation with my Pitt and AED colleague Stacey, whom I’d known for sixteen years. Upon telling her about my project, she said, “You need to wait on that,” that I should “publish a few more books,” be in my fifties, before “writin’ a biography.” So I knew that she wasn’t going to buy a copy when it came out. Oh well!

Last fall, at an African American Alumni Council event at Pitt, it was one of my first opportunities to discuss the now published Boy @ The Window, which was immediately followed by public criticism. Right after I talked about the book, an older alumna walked right up to me, and got within a foot or so of my face — close enough to hug. “You’re too young to have a memoir,” she said with a smile on her face, and then walked away as if her’s was the final say on the topic.

At the least, it showed that most don’t know the difference between a memoir (on one period or aspect of one’s life, often with a look at the world beyond) and an autobiography (the story of my entire life). Boy, understand the genre before criticizing it or my role in it already!

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (

And, yes, I know. I see my Facebook friends especially posting other people’s sayings every single day. About letting go, moving on, forgetting the past, pushing past the haters, sitting in a lotus position, meditating and praying, and then drinking a wheat-grass smoothie. I do let go, I do forgive, and I don’t let the naysayers in my life have the final say. But letting go doesn’t mean I don’t get to highlight some truth, point out hypocrisy, and that I should just be quiet for the sake of being quiet.

It hasn’t been lost on me that most of these specific, potentially dream-destroying microaggressions have come from Black folk, male and female, well-off and immersed in poverty. Do I put these people in the same category as White literary agents who’ve said things to me like, “Oh no, not another abuse story!” or “There are too many black coming-of-age stories in the market?” Of course not. Gate keepers practicing ignorance in the midst of structural racism isn’t the same as people who may have internalized racism.

Or in the latter case, it could just be that my pursuit of what I’ve wanted and finally come to know for my life brought attention to dreams deferred, delayed and denied, by others and by their own fears of failure and success. If I’d let this stand in my way, I’d still be living in Mount Vernon, undoubtedly living in grinding poverty, wondering how could I let everything I wanted out of life get away from me.

Visiting My Uncle Paul in Georgia

May 31, 2014

Stone Mountain Park, lake side view/photo (was within visual range on the road side view of Confederate-ana back in '94), Stone Mtn, GA, May 31, 2014. (

Stone Mountain Park, lake side view/photo (was within visual range on the road side view of Confederate-ana back in ’94), Stone Mtn, GA, May 31, 2014. (

The second leg of what would eventually be five visits with my extended Gill and Collins families as an adult occurred the month after meeting much of my extended Gill family in Houston in April ’94. This second visit was very different from the first. It was part of a three-city trip, between research for my dissertation in DC (and a visit with my friend Laurell in the process) and going up to Mount Vernon to visit my Mom and siblings. Plus, like the Houston-New Orleans trip, I’d come to the Atlanta area to present at a conference, one at the University of Georgia on the 40th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

I’d been invited to talk about multiculturalism as it related to desegregation in terms of curriculum by Layli Phillips, then an Assistant Professor in African American Studies and Psychology at the Athens campus, about sixty miles from my uncle’s place in Gwinnett County. It was an invite and acceptance my advisor Joe Trotter wasn’t happy about, as it was “too soon” for me to discuss my topic “in front of strangers.” But Phillips had already bought the round-trip tickets for me to fly from DC to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to LaGuardia, per my request. Oh well!

I came to Hartsfield all tired and stuffed up from hay-fever-heavy DC that Saturday afternoon in mid-May, a couple of days before my UGA presentation. There, I met my Uncle Paul right at the gate, along with his seventeen-year-old son. Like my Uncles Sam and Robert, Uncle Paul was taller than me, a still wiry six-five at thirty-eight, still fit enough to stop, pop and hit a J despite his swollen knees. His son was built just like him, and a star basketball player at his high school in Gwinnett County.

They didn’t give me any time to rest. I was immediately taken to their two-bedroom apartment in some off-the-main route beaten path, a gated community with stucco walls and plastic pink flamingos to boot. There, I’d also meet one of my uncle’s girlfriends, an older woman who apparently understood that my Uncle Paul wasn’t exactly ready to settle down.

My Uncle Paul’s playing days in Houston (college and NBA) and overseas had ended long before I’d learn how to shoot a J myself. He’d gone back to school — specifically ITT Technical Institute — in the mid-1980s and become an A/V expert who specialized in special effects, including laser lights, smoke and other technologies meant to enhance the concert-going experience. He’d worked before on tours, with Earth, Wind + Fire (when Maurice White was still healthy enough to tour) and New Edition. That’s how our family learned that Johnny Gill was a distant cousin, as his great-grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters, one staying in the Texas-Arkansas area, the other moving to Seattle for some reason or other.

Panoramic pic of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA (where was on the left of the field back in '94), August 30, 2008. (Latics via Wikipedia). Released to  public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Panoramic pic of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA (where was on the left of the field back in ’94), August 30, 2008. (Latics via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

There was a jazz and blues extravaganza going on at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta that evening, and so within hours of landing, we were back in the heart of the city, setting up equipment on what normally was the playing field for the Atlanta Falcons. I was so mesmerized thinking about losing a football in the lights of the Georgia Dome that my uncle yelled at me to “get my ass in gear,” because he needed help unloading some heavy equipment. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the quality of music, but having a backstage view of the whole thing, and to see what my uncle Paul did for a living, I was truly, truly impressed.

That Sunday I spent in my uncle’s home, hearing about his playing days, his knee issues, his knowledge of basketball as a game, his travels to play in Europe, and indirectly, his sexual conquests. That last part I could’ve done without — I’d spent two days hearing the same thing from my other uncles the month before. Then he grilled me with questions about Mount Vernon, about New York, about why I didn’t play sports, about “the chicks in college.” My Uncle Paul assumed, incorrectly, that living in New York was heaven compared to being tenant farmers in southwestern Arkansas, and that I was in grad school for the sex. “I wouldn’t have made it to where I am if that was what it was all about,” I said in shocked response.

Waffle House, off UGA's main campus (and across street from seedy motel I stay in night before conference), Athens, GA, June 1, 2011. (

Waffle House, off UGA’s main campus (and across street from seedy motel I stay in night before conference), Athens, GA, June 1, 2011. (

He made a jambalaya dinner for us and his lady friend, all the while talking about each other’s work. My uncle’s son was bored to tears. Then, after dinner, and after his girlfriend had left and his son had gone to hang out with friends, my uncle took me out in his vintage Porsche 911 (it had been covered in the parking lot up to that point) to some high-class, late-night, members-only club somewhere in Gwinnett. Between him doing somewhere around eighty in a fifty-five and taking me to this place to “meet a girl,” I was in more shock. “I like looking for women on my own, thank you very much,” I yelled through the Mary J. Blige at one point.

I went off that Monday morning to Athens for the Brown Decision conference, and was gone for thirty hours. I did get a ride back from a presenter, and then a ride back my uncle’s place. That’s when I walked into the place to see my cousin on the black-leather living room couch, stripped down and on top of a young woman. He only stopped when I yelled for a second time, “I’m back!” Then, the proverbial scattering of two youngins’ caught up in lust occurred. They left, presumably to finish what they had started.

I left for New York that Wednesday morning, having enjoyed my time with my Uncle Paul, but also seeing some downside to a lifestyle that left him busy and his son without supervision. That some dumb thug killed my cousin four years later was still very much a surprise, as he wasn’t a violent person, at least the person I met in ’94. I felt so horrible for him and for my Uncle Paul, as I couldn’t imagine the totality of the pain of such a tragedy.

But good, bad or otherwise, it felt good to get to know my people, my family. I’d grown up with a family that was one in name only. Poverty, religion, abuse had all rendered the meaning of family useless for me growing up, and seeing more examples of the same thing in my time in Mount Vernon didn’t help. I knew that my Uncle Paul wasn’t perfect. Nor were my uncles in Houston. But I knew they loved each other, had dreams and plans for their lives, and had acted on many of these things in living their lives. I knew that I needed to keep doing the same.

Mothers’ Meeting Day, 1997

May 17, 2014

Normally I do a post every May 18th on a topic related to my PhD graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon. They usually revolve around two subjects: Joe Trotter and my Mom, betrayal and burnout. For once, I have no intention of doing a post on the seventeenth anniversary of officially becoming “Dr. Collins” and all of the baggage that I brought/came with that. Instead, today’s post is about the day before, Saturday, May 17 ’97. It was the day that my Mom and my future mother-in-law would meet each other for the first time, during my Mom’s one-and-only visit to Pittsburgh during my twelve years there.

I covered the cost of my Mom’s round-trip flight on US Air from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh, knowing that she wouldn’t have been able — or, as it turned out, willing — to see me graduate otherwise. That Friday evening, May 16th, was my Mom’s first time on an airplane since she was pregnant with me, the summer of ’69, when she visited her family in Arkansas. She’d already missed my ceremonies at Pitt for my bachelor’s and master’s in ’91 and ’92 respectively, and, as a result, I hadn’t gone to my graduations those years either.

So I made it easy for her this time around. Or rather, me and my then girlfriend Angelia made it easy for her. I gave up my studio apartment that weekend, because my Mom wasn’t comfortable with me putting her up in a hotel. Angelia cleaned my apartment from top to bottom — including the moulding at the bottom of my apartment’s walls. The place wasn’t this clean the day I’d moved in back in ’90!

But with so many other things that week, my Mom showed little appreciation for the significance of this trip, or for what we were doing to make this trip as convenient for her as possible. I went through Friday night and Saturday at Angelia’s apartment on the edge of East Liberty, about a twelve-minute walk away, where I hadn’t done an overnight before. I spent the first half of the next day going back and forth between my Mom, Angelia, my high school friend Laurell and her sister Naomi and unofficial surrogate (who were all staying at the Downtown Marriott).  I took my Mom to both Pitt and CMU, to show her the place of my ten years’ working toward something much more important than a second high school diploma. I might as well have been taking my son to both campuses when he was a newborn!

Around 2:30 pm, I realized we needed to get to Angelia’s mother’s place in Homewood for a mid-afternoon meal. That was next on the schedule. I think we took the bus, the 71D from a block off CMU to Homewood, and walked the three blocks up a steep hill to Monticello Street. There, Angelia’s mom extended a long greeting, a hug for which my Mom hardly seemed prepared. Angelia was also there, and had bought a KFC bucket meal for the four of us to share.

After a few pleasantries, it started. How my mother and eventual mother-in-law, in their first-ever meeting, spent three hours discussing their failed marriages and the horrible nature of Black men the day before my graduation, I really don’t know. I was in a fog, worn out from a week’s worth of insomnia and from the growing realization that my Mom didn’t really care about my journey or accomplishments.

I stayed and respected my elders, maybe too much. Three hours listening to stories I already knew, between my first-hand knowledge of my father Jimme and my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice, not to mention the stories Angelia had told me about her mother’s trials (luckily, Angelia never witnessed these, because her mother’s marriage was over by the time she’d turned two). A concussion here, a bruised lip there. A broken jaw, a fractured arm. Alcoholism and abuse, and men, working or unemployed, not paying any bills. “Men are no good,” my Mom said over and over again.

Of course, I didn’t count, for as far as my Mom was concerned, I wasn’t a man, because I’d spent the previous decade as a student. But that wasn’t the worst part. My Mom did a bunch of revisionist history in telling the story of “raisin’ six kids” and her doomed two marriages, somehow writing me and Darren and the decisions she had some degree of control over out of this story.

I’d never been part of a conversation like this as an adult. As a six or ten-year-old kid on The Avenue in Mount Vernon with my Mom and her hospital friends, yes, but not since those times. I felt as if I might as well found some stoop outside, sat down with a 40, and fallen into a deep sleep.

Even Angelia’s mom wanted to change the subject by the middle of hour number three. Instead, she used her elderly-ness as a excuse to beg off more conversation on the topic of misogyny, told me that she was proud of me, said that she was excited about going to the CMU ceremony, and retired for the evening. I wish I could’ve gone upstairs with her and done the same. I instead had the distinction of dropping my Mom off at my apartment, picking up Angelia and going down to Station Square to eat dinner with Laurell, Naomi and Archie. And that was all the day before the graduation ceremony!


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