The Art of Interviewing Killer Cops and Other Whites on the Prowl

December 4, 2014

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (http://abcnews.go.com).

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (http://abcnews.go.com).

I think it would be interesting if I applied my qualitative research skills and did a sociohistorical study of the killer cops and White vigilantes who’ve gotten away or almost gotten away with murdering African Americans over the past few years. We know so much about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Jonathan Ferrell, including their arrest records, their blood-alcohol levels, their drug use, even their family members’ criminal records, if any. The media always performs a pseudo-social science-y qualitative research study on Black and Latino victims and their families and friends, in search for the perfect victim, someone to justify the outrage and anguish over state-sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.

It’s time to flip the script. I’d conduct a group interview process, bringing in the cabal of murderers, alleged and convicted, for a two-hour-long sit down. I’d ask questions about their upbringing, about the influence of popular culture in their lives, about facing down dangerous criminals carrying cigarettes, Skittles and broken toy guns. Only, my overeducated Black ass wouldn’t make it to my first question. I’d get choke-held or shot the moment I’d reach in my book bag for my digital tape recorder, even if we were conducting the interview in a public place, like the Children’s Room at New York Public Library on West 41st and Fifth Avenue. So I’d have to find one of my privileged White colleagues to interview these men on my behalf.

———————————————–

Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (http://nydailynews.com).

Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (http://nydailynews.com).

Narrator: Today we have George Zimmerman, Daniel Pantaleo, Darren Wilson, Theodore Wafer, Michael Dunn, Tim Loehmann, David Darkow, Sean Williams and Randall Kerrick here to talk about what it takes to be a White man fighting hard to protect the world from unarmed African Americans.

Pantaleo: Shut da [expletive] up, dumb ass! Where’d ya earn that PhD, Harlem?

Dunn: Yeah, that’s telling him! I respect the law, too. Even if it has me in chains.

Narrator: Okay, everyone. We’re taping here, so wait for me to ask my questions, please.

Loehmann: I’ll give you two seconds to ask your questions. After that, I’m not promising you anything.

Narrator: My first question is about your backgrounds. Can any of you tell me how your background impacted your decision to become either a police officer or vigilante?

Wafer: I’m deeply offended by the idea that you’re calling me a vigilante. I was defending myself. I live in a bad neighborhood. I mean, who bangs on my [expletive] door at three in the morning? You come to my door that late at night, I put you in a body bag!

Zimmerman: Dude, I couldn’t agree with you more. But I wouldn’t wait. I’d hunt these assholes down first!

(Laughter rises up from group)

Darkow: I’m feeling you there, dude!

Wilson: You asked about our background. I grew up as part of a hunting and fishing family. My old man took us out to take down elk and deer every year. It made me a good shot. I could shoot a doe in the head from fifty yards away.

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: So, Mr. Wilson, are you saying that when you shot at Michael Brown, you saw him the same way you see a young female deer?

Wilson: Uh, absolutely not. As I said in my report, the perp was like Donkey Kong, like Hulk Hogan, angry, unresponsive and dangerous, more like a giant bear than a doe.

Pantaleo: Man, it’s all right to say it, because I’m thinking it, too. These [expletive] n—-s are dangerous — they all need to be put down!

Narrator: Why’s that, Mr. Pantaleo? Would you say–

Williams: Will you listen to this egghead? Questioning how we do our jobs. Like that guy in Godfather said, n—-s are animals! We have to control them, so that they only destroy themselves!

(Dunn and Wafer raise their hands to show their handcuffs)

Zimmerman (to Dunn and Wafer): Y’all were just stupid enough to get caught snorting and drinking after you defended yourselves!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: Mr. Pantaleo, what about your background?

Pantaleo: The best training I had for the NYPD was from Tarzan and Wild Kingdom. I learned my hand-to-hand fighting skills from them. Also, WWE prepared me good, too.

Narrator: So, when you put Eric Garner in a choke-hold—

Pantaleo: It was like taking down a bull or buffalo! My heart was pumping so hard, I could feel the blood flowing inside my head! That fool should had just fallen to the ground so I could cuff his Black ass!

Wilson: And that’s what these suspects don’t get. When they see us coming, don’t walk, don’t run, don’t grab for anything, don’t hold your hands up. Lay down like you’re dead, and we won’t have to put you down.

Narrator: Mr. Kerrick, you haven’t joined the conversation yet. Do you have anything to add?

Kerrick: Just that my case is still pending. I can’t talk about it much.

Narrator: You shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, correct?

Kerrick: I can’t talk about that. I–

Zimmerman: Dude, you got a raw deal!

Pantaleo: You should work for the NYPD. Police never get indicted for going hunting here!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

————————————————–

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, "I am the danger!" (not the only White as danger, either). (http://www.giphy.com).

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, “I am the danger!” (not the only White as danger, either). (http://www.giphy.com).

On second thought, maybe we don’t need to apply social science thinking to these White men (in thought, if not entirely in genetics). We have a century’s worth of studies of White supremacy and systemic racism already, showing that vile men grow out of a vile system.


Biting Off Too Much, And Almost Choking On It

December 3, 2014

"Bush Gag" cartoon, Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune, November 5, 2008. (http://dailykos.com). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution picture.

“Bush Gag” cartoon, Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune, November 5, 2008. (http://dailykos.com). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution picture.

I’m someone who’s in a state of constant learning, constantly wanting to challenge myself and others to be better, to do more and better. I don’t apologize for this. But I do need to acknowledge that too often, I exert so much pressure on myself to excel that I take on a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of challenges. More times than not, I come through on the other side, but frequently in need of the Heimlich maneuver to keep from suffocating on it all.

For those of you who are still in undergrad or have recently finished, or at least, still remember clearly the details of this part of your academic journey, this story is most poignant for you. After years of relying mostly on my great memory and very good writing skills to be the very good student I’d been over the previous decade, I wanted to do better, to not have to scramble in the last three weeks of a sixteen-week semester and look like a dog with a serious constipation problem trying to void, like almost two-thirds of the sickly, underdressed, raccoon-eyed students I’d seen on campus during my first two years at the University of Pittsburgh.

As I wrote at the end of my coming-of-age memoir Boy @ The Window:

reasoned that I needed to have balance to my semesters so that I wouldn’t spend the last two or three weeks of them playing catch up. Starting with the fall of ’89, I took all my syllabi from all of my classes, grabbed a calendar, and crafted a table where I knew exactly what to read, when to study, and when to begin my research and writing projects for each class I had in a semester. That way, I could know when to slack off or party, when to buckle down and study, and when to just shift into academic cruise control.

Hall-of-Fame QB Warren Moon with Houston Oilers, throwing from within pocket on his 527-yd passing day against the Kansas City Chiefs, December 16, 1990. (http://spokeo.com).

Hall-of-Fame QB Warren Moon with Houston Oilers, throwing from within pocket on his 527-yd passing day against the Kansas City Chiefs, December 16, 1990. (http://spokeo.com).

Those were literally my words and thoughts from a quarter-century ago. I also decided to become more organized because, thinking back, I knew that I couldn’t be a scrambling student in grad school. At least one who could be consistent and successful, who could sit and step up in the pocket and deliver academic darts for touchdowns — to use one of the many football analogies I would’ve said in ’89 (and probably now, too). All I knew was that after the spring semester — with thirty-six-hour workweeks and five courses — that I wanted more time to hang out with friends, to even maybe date.

Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses. But at the time, I had my very good reasons. I was only one course shy of a minor in mathematics, which I figured would look good on my academic resume when I did apply to grad schools. I wanted to learn the basics about differential equations, because I was just that kind of guy. I wanted, most of all, to challenge myself, because that part of my Humanities indoctrination had stayed with me well beyond my high school graduation.

That course was a struggle, mostly because my attention was split between writing papers and reading thick history texts, constitutional law books and African American literature on the one hand, and math equations on the other. Fourteen months away from derivates and integrals and volumes was too long for me. I couldn’t really adjust to being in a lecture hall with nearly 400 students, being in memorization mode, no longer with much in common with this huge group of STEM-inclined classmates. By the middle of October, I was miserable whenever it was time to march up that hill to Benedum Hall.

A simple first-order linear differential equation (nothing "simple" about it), December 2, 2014. (http://revisionworld.com/).

A simple first-order linear differential equation (nothing “simple” about it), December 2, 2014. (http://revisionworld.com/).

But it did get worse. About a month before the end of that semester, my friend Terri looped me into unwittingly setting up my friend Marc with our mutual friend Michele. And it worked! All too well, as I realized that I had a bit of a crush on Michele myself, but only after they’d started dating. It was a rocky last three weeks of ’89. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. I missed a C- in that class by two-tenths of a point. Terrible by my own standards.

Lessons here, if any? Don’t bite off more than you can chew, maybe? I know that three admissions committees used that D+ against me in either rejecting me outright or in not offering me fellowship money to cover tuition when I applied to grad schools a year later. So, one other lesson could be to not take unnecessary risks, to not challenge myself. That would be the wrong lesson, though.

The real lesson would be to know our limitations, that we can’t be all things to ourselves and others and do well at all things all the time, that we have a finite amount of time and choices, in school and in life. With so much going on in my life these days, it’s still a lesson of which I have to keep reminding myself, practically every single day.


Neoliberals, Neocons, and Other Useless Labels

November 4, 2014

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (http://comic.com).

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (http://comicvine.com).

I’ve never really had much patience for technical academic jargon, even in my wide-eyed grad school days twenty years ago. And my patience for terms like post-structuralism, post-modern, neo-Marxist and eschatological has grown government-paper-stock-thin as I’ve approached middle-age. Lately, terms like neoliberal and neoconservative have found their way into my sniper sights, especially with the ’14 midterm elections upon us. These terms may have meant something very separate and distinctive fifty or sixty years ago, but they darn sure don’t now. Except, maybe, to academicians and the elite literati, people who somehow believe that these terms are as useful as food, drink and water.

It wasn’t until grad school at the University of Pittsburgh when I became aware of these terms. Back then, I saw neoliberal or neoliberalism in everything I read about race and economic concerns. Whether it was about Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s ridiculous statistical depiction of slavery in Time on the Cross (1974), or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s work on twentieth-century political shifts in his Cycles of American History (1986), they and the reviewers of their books used the term neoliberal like it was parsley for making pesto.

Neoconservative hasn’t been around as long, a term about a decade younger than it’s post-World War II counterpart. It’s definition has evaded most academicians and the vast majority of lay-folk over the last half-century. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably with conservative or politically conservative, sometimes it’s used in the same sentence as right-wing or the religious right or evangelicals.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. (http://jpl.nasa.gov). In public domain.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. (http://jpl.nasa.gov). In public domain.

Though it’s definition is elusive, it’s history isn’t. Barry Goldwater’s gigantic loss to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the ’64 Presidential Election led to a host of disaffected Democrats, old-money Republicans and other political misfits getting together and hatching a plan to dismantle the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. They took advantage of the racism and roiling, boiling resentment of Southern Democrats — Dixiecrats, really — toward their party, the federal government and its growing support for Blacks and civil rights. They also took advantage of wealthy Republicans and the ages-old cry of corporations desperate for lower taxes and ever-higher profit margins. All of this came together in Richard Nixon’s ’68 presidential campaign with the Southern Strategy, turning Southern voters from Democrat to Republican. Not to mention with LBJ and Vietnam, the so-called Silent Majority, and their resentment toward rebellious, privileged college students and protestors.

We know it all worked, because fifty years later, to talk of the South as a Democratic bloc today is almost as ludicrous as it was to talk about the South as being ripe for a Republican takeover in ’64. Beyond that, though, with the inclusion of evangelical Christians and other religious and social conservatives came the inclusion of traditional conservatism, neoconservatism, and neoliberalism in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and in the US’ cultural mainstream by the late-1980s.

By then, these terms neoliberal and neoconservative had lost their original meaning, if they were really that different in meaning to begin with. The Republicans had married the terms and allowed the coupling to have kids and then grandkids with names like smaller governmentderegulationlower taxes for the wealthy (so-called “job creators”) and for corporationsprison-industrial complexending abortion, welfare reformeducation reform, and voter disenfranchisement. This combination of war hawks, an unfettered version of free-market capitalism, with low government regulation and taxes on the rich and corporation, combined with high government regulation of nonconformist activities and peoples (people of color, LGBT marriage rights, women’s reproductive rights, everyone who isn’t Christian or Christian-sounding)? I don’t understand why we don’t call it what it really is.

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the nited States, 1944. (http://meetville.com).

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the United States, 1944. (http://meetville.com).

Ladies and gentlemen and transgender, what we have in the US today — and have had in increasing measure for more than four decades — is a mild form of fascism, plain and simple. Yes, you can still vote, but the process is rigged from start to finish by greed and corruption and legal barriers to benefit the rich, the greedy and the corrupt. Yes, we have representation, through gerrymandered districts and hundreds of candidates with lined pockets running unopposed. Yes, we still have a Congress, a group who has done nothing to support ordinary Americans without also benefiting the top 1% in more than thirty years. A group who, in recent years, has done next to nothing at all other than raise more money to run for reelection in the past four years. As for the presidency, despite Congress’ control of the purse strings, every president since FDR’s third term has found a way to increase their political power, even as their influence on the legislative branch has decreased.

With all this, I have no use for the terms neoliberal and neoconservative. Not when all roads have led us to oligarchy, plutocracy and fascism.


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.


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.


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.


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