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!

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.

Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.

In Finally Seeing Selma

January 24, 2015

Selma movie poster, January 2015. (

Selma movie poster, January 2015. (

My son had an extra day off from school this week, the day after MLK Day. To give him a break from his daily dose of manga and anime, I took him to the downtown Silver Spring cineplex to see Selma. I hadn’t planned to see it until after Selma had come out on DVD or streaming via Netflix or Comcast, because I knew my son would have questions. And he did — lots of them!

But I was also curious. Not about the history. As the historian I am, I really didn’t need to see Selma to confirm the brutality of Jim Crow racism and violence, that I’d in fact seen and lived much worse. I wanted to see how Ava DuVernay’s treatment of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and so many others would stack up against years of research, writings, lectures and discussions (some of which are my own) on the period. I wanted to know if the staunchest critics of the film were in any way accurate in their criticisms, or if they were just holding DuVernay and Selma to a double-standard.

Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (1987), falling to his fictitious death at Elliott Ness' hands in 1931 (he actually died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1943). (

Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (1987), falling to his fictitious death at Elliott Ness’ hands in 1931 (he actually died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1943). (

In light of so many other films, from Mississippi Burning (1988) to Remember the Titans (2000), from The Untouchables (1987) to The Hurricane (1999), it’s obvious the art of film-making isn’t as exact as a scalpel. This may well be sacrilege, but I as a historian and educator do not expect movies to be 100 percent accurate depictions of historical events. A great film can educate as well as entertain, but education is far more than getting all the facts correct because some folks want to hold a “Black” film to a higher standard than Zero Dark Thirty (2012) or Schindler’s List (1993). Making a very good movie requires the right context for facts, whether the accuracy level is 50 percent or 98 percent. It requires the right language and words, the right intonations and inflections, the correct mood and emotions, not just accuracy levels only a scholar with 800 endnotes and 1,200 sources could meet.

Knowing this, I dismiss nearly all the critics who’ve been pissed that LBJ was portrayed as a racist. Well, he was! He grew up in rural Texas, ran as part of an anti-Black Democratic machine for Congress and the Senate. Still, he also cared about people, about eliminating poverty, and even about providing federal civil rights protections for Blacks. This may be a contradiction, but what else is new in human nature? We’re not simply black or white, evil or good. We’re gray and mercurial, obsequious and hypocritical. So yes, LBJ was a racist and a progressive and a warmonger, and as far as I am concerned, the best president since FDR.

The idea that we should completely discount Selma because DuVernay didn’t make rabbis obvious in the film is ridiculous. That argument has been based on the exclusion of one Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was front and center in the third Selma march on March 19, 1965, from the images in the film. As one person who actually saw the film, however, it seemed no single actor portrayed Heschel or any other yarmulke and robe-wearing rabbi. There were at least two scenes, though, in which David Oyelowo (who played Dr. King) appeared to interact with men of Jewish faith. They were rabbis, but not dressed obviously so.

Co-Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Nominee David Oyelowo, and Director Ava DuVernay at AFI Fest premiere for Selma, November 12, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, via

Co-Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Nominee David Oyelowo, and Director Ava DuVernay at AFI Fest premiere for Selma, November 12, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, via

So let’s put Selma right up there with Howard the Duck (1986)! Except that this outrage over historical accuracy is as false as American Sniper‘s (2014) depiction of Arab Muslims as blood-thirsty caricatures of real human beings. Long-ago released tapes (now at the Johnson Presidential Library) indicate that LBJ regularly used the n-word, and that he wanted to wait on the Voting Rights Act, with it coming so soon after the Civil Rights Act.

To complain about the lack of religious Jewish garb in Selma, though, would be like Blacks complaining about film directors not portraying them as liberators in holocaust films. And yes, there are at least two confirmed instances in which segregated Black Army units did in fact help liberate concentration camps in western Germany in the final weeks of World War II. When that film comes out about the segregated 761st Tank Battalion’s exploits and participation in liberating camps, then I will take much more seriously complaints about the lack of yarmulkes and tzitzits in Selma. As in, not seriously at all.

The only complaints about Selma that have made sense to me have come from Bill Moyers, press secretary under LBJ from 1965 to 1967. Moyers recently refuted the idea that President Johnson gave the go-ahead to J. Edgar Hoover to release the so-called sex tape to Coretta Scott King during the Selma march period, contrary to how this DuVernay portrayed this segment in Selma. Wow! Two minutes out of a two-hour movie! (The interplay between Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Dr. and Mrs. King over the tape was as engrossing as it was gut-wrenching).

Preview clip screen shot of American Sniper (2014) with lead actor Bradley Cooper, January 23, 2014. (

Preview clip screen shot of American Sniper (2014) with lead actor Bradley Cooper, January 23, 2014. (

I did enjoy the movie, found Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King Oscar-worthy (if not as perfect as some believe), and actually found nearly all the characters real and truly representative of the times. It should be said, though, that excuses of inaccuracy are always made by those who really have no excuses for snubbing really well done films. Especially ones that aren’t White clichés. Like American Sniper. No question that the Academy Awards committee should’ve nominated Ava DuVernay for best director, but for their faux liberal racial sensibilities.

Where’s the Historical Documentary on W. E. B. Du Bois?

January 18, 2015

Or, "Sal, how come you ain't got no brothers up on the wall here?," Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin' Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (

Or, “Sal, how come you ain’t got no
brothers up on the wall here?,” Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (

Or for that matter, where’s the documentary on Alain Locke, Anna Julia Cooper, John Hope Franklin, Horace Mann Bond, Richard Wright, Mary Church Terrell, and so many other Black intellectuals, writers and educators? If your answer is, “check out California Newsreel,” or PBS for a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, then you obviously don’t watch TV for knowledge. Yes, California Newsreel and other independents have made documentaries on many of these important figures in American and African American history. But other than a handful of PBS documentaries done under the American Masters series, a few here and there on Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey, and a 1993 documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, there isn’t much in the land of historical documentaries if you’re outside academia.

Still, I began with Du Bois for a reason. Given his influence on African American studies, American studies, American history, African American history, sociology, psychology, higher education, poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, Whiteness studies, Transatlantic studies, civil rights activism, and the NAACP, it would seem a documentary for a broad audience is a bit overdue. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-five, and February 23 marks 147 years since his original year of birth (1868). Most of us, though, can’t even pronounce his name correctly, assume that he’s French (read “White” here) or stereotype him as an egghead when we find out that his PhD in history’s from Harvard.

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), a "reformed" Nazi, American citizen, and father of US space program (or WWIII, TBD). (

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), a “reformed” Nazi, American citizen, and father of US space program (or WWIII, TBD). (

Yet, year in and year out, TV season after TV season, films and documentaries are made about White moguls and intellectuals, as if the only people with brains have been White males. Just in the past year alone, there have been at least three miniseries/documentaries on the great White male in history: Ancient Impossible: Ancient Einsteins, How We Got Here, and The Men Who Built America. Apparently the only smart ancients were Greeks who just happened to live in Egypt and master-race true believers like Henry Ford and Wernher von Braun built our modern world with their bare hands. Even ordinary White males ought to be insulted, no? Especially since Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller apparently built the country without their forefathers’ muscle, sweat and blood.

But that’s just it, according to Du Bois (via Black Reconstruction, 1935). Even though many of these documentaries all but wipe ordinary people out of existence, ordinary Whites can glean a psychological wage from Whiteness just from seeing someone who looks like them represented in pixels, especially White males. Even if they can in no way become that person. That level of analysis alone would make Du Bois worthy of a well-financed documentary. That is, of course, if he were White and if we pronounced his name as ” Doo-Bwah.”

Why I am bringing this up on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday holiday? Isn’t Black History Month and Du Bois’ birthday next month? Precisely because we need to reflect on what we want to see on screen and in other places in our lives. Every day, every month, every time. Selma‘s doing gangbusters, is well-written, and got great acting. What more can you ask for? Yet the Oscar committee all but shunned it because it’s a “Black film” that took a smidgen of poetic license.  And, because Selma showed what everyone knows from listening to the LBJ tapes — that one of the great presidents who pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act was also a racist — the awards folks have snubbed it.

W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife Nina with their son, Burghardt, 1897. (

W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife Nina with their son, Burghardt, 1897. (

Seriously, how many times do we need to hear how great it was for men who weren’t self-made and who benefited from government subsidies to become billionaires at a time when a $500 a year salary made the average American man affluent (1880, by the way)? Or how much more to I need to hear to know that Einstein spent far more time pondering the cosmos than he did working on his marriage or being there for his two kids?

Too often we put great people on a pedestal as if they never had diarrhea or had days where their best efforts just weren’t good enough. Even Du Bois wasn’t an exception in this regard. He lost his only son when the latter was only eighteen months old, cheated repeatedly on his wife, and almost singlehandedly got Marcus Garvey arrested. But, then again, shouldn’t this make Du Bois documentary-worthy, too? Du Bois was a quintessential American, after all.

The Comedy of a Tragic Upbringing

January 10, 2015

John Leguizamo playing 'Abuelo' in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (

John Leguizamo playing ‘Abuelo’ in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (

Over New Year’s weekend, I watched John Leguizamo’s HBO comedy special Ghetto Klown (2014), based on one of his one-man autobiographical Broadway shows. I don’t think of Leguizamo as funny in the same way I think of Lewis Black or Dave Chappelle or Eddie Murphy. The sweet spot for me in terms of what is funny or not funny is a routine that makes me think for a second or two, not just laugh out of sheer expectations for a funny delivery or line. Otherwise, I’d think of D.L. Hughley as a great comedian, instead of as a vile one with equally vile opinions on race and culture.

Leguizamo’s hardly the funniest comedian. But then again, he’s always been more than one thing. He’s essentially a playwright, an actor, and comedian, which means Leguizamo’s a very elaborate storyteller. In most of his work, a nonfiction storyteller. I’ve seen some of his other one-man work before. With Ghetto Klown, though, I saw and felt the sense of tragedy and regret that I hadn’t seen in his other plays and specials. Especially when it came to his family — specifically his father — and his closest friends.

When Leguizamo went through his routine about how his mother and father were upset with him about he had portrayed them in his plays as somewhat selfish and oftentimes neglectful and abusive, I understood. I’ve only written one book about my life, and my Mom and dad have both been offended by the idea that I could write about them without their permission or blessings. Leguizamo used them as bits for his comedy and Broadway stage routines for years. That’s a lot of courage, and it’s a lot of tragedy to expose, too.

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (

I’ve thought about it a few times over the past fifteen years. What if I decided to do a stand-up routine that included elements of my upbringing? How would I do that? How would I make domestic violence and child abuse and poverty funny?

I’d start with my father, who I’d call Jimme and my father interchangeably, since that’s been the nature of our relationship for forty-five years. I’ve been able to imitate his language, his drunken stupor, his evil meanness and off-kilter mannerisms since I was fifteen. It would be easy enough to do all of his “po’ ass muddafucka…” insults in bar scenes, all while getting robbed and beaten up by other alcoholics.

I could also do my now deceased ex-stepfather Maurice, especially his constant threats to put me in the hospital or kill me. “Watch dat base in yo’ voice, boy, ‘fore I cave yo’ chest in!,” he started saying to me once my voice changed with puberty. I could imitate Maurice when he weighed over 400 pounds and wore size-54 Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs around 616, with enough fat and dinginess to make me wanna puke.

I could even imitate my Mom, at least on the threatening front. If I argued with her too long about something important that she didn’t want to talk about (like paying bills, for instance), she’d tell me, “Shut up o’ I’ma gonna cut the piss out of you.” Or I could run around a stage singing at the top of my lungs to evangelical Christian music while also acting like my younger brothers, who’d get into knockdown fights in the living room while my Mom was in her spiritual zone.

The fact is, some of the best comedy grows out of tragedy. It may not be funny to the respectable middle class types or the respectability politics types. They both would prefer people “forget about” their pasts and “just move on,” as if these issues are taboo. But you can’t be a very good comedian or writer without confronting your upbringing in some way.

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (

I attempted at times in Boy @ The Window to inject some sarcasm or comedy in many of the tragic scenes in the book. Because they reflecting my thinking in the moments in which they occurred, whether in ’82 or ’88. The few people who commented on this aspect of the memoir didn’t like the comedy or the language. It was because they couldn’t reconcile the mild-mannered version of myself that I presented to the world in high school or in academia with the way in which I grew up.

Watching Leguizamo in Ghetto Klown reminded me of what I learned in watching Rodney Dangerfield (who himself was sexually abused and neglected by his parents growing up) and Richard Pryor (the son of an active and neglectful prostitute) over the years. We all have baggage and demons to deal with every day of our lives. We ignore that past and those evils at risk to ourselves and every person we’ve ever loved. We must turn the tragedy of our upbringing into something that isn’t just a cancer of pain. Be it through storytelling, autobiography, even the kind of comedy that those whose lives were much more stable growing up can appreciate but can never fully understand.


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