Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

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. (http://galleryhip.com).

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

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. (http://www.freakinawesomenetwork.com).

Selma movie poster, January 2015. (http://www.freakinawesomenetwork.com).

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). (http://youtube.com).

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). (http://youtube.com).

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 http://variety.com).

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 http://variety.com).

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. (http://huffingtonpost.com).

Preview clip screen shot of American Sniper (2014) with lead actor Bradley Cooper, January 23, 2014. (http://huffingtonpost.com).

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). (http://www.theroot.com/).

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). (http://www.theroot.com/).

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). (http://biography.com).

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

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. (http://scua.library.umass.edu).

W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife Nina with their son, Burghardt, 1897. (http://scua.library.umass.edu).

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. (http://www.pbs.org).

John Leguizamo playing ‘Abuelo’ in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (http://www.pbs.org).

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. (http://quazoo.com).

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (http://quazoo.com).

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. (http://deadline.com).

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (http://deadline.com).

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.


Can There Ever Be Too Much Race In A US History Course?

January 5, 2015

ODing on chocolate via a hypodermic needle, January 5, 2015. (http://buzzfeed.com).

ODing on chocolate via a hypodermic needle, January 5, 2015. (http://buzzfeed.com).

For nearly every semester in which I have taught a US history course — and I’ve been teaching them on and off since ’92 — one or two students have complained in their course evaluations that we “spent too much time on race.” Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, George Washington, UMUC, the refrain from this small but vocal minority has been the same. It was no different this past semester, as two students complained that there was too much about race in the course. But over the years, I’ve never seen any of these students ask themselves the question, “How do you define ‘too much race’ in a US history course?”

I guess I could look at it this way. That a small minority of my students like their US history the way most Americans like their churches — segregated and unequal. US history for them is supposed to be about the building of the greatest nation on Earth/in the history of humanity, preordained by God to dominate the world with its military, its capitalism and its brand of democracy. US history for them is the history of how Europeans escaped political persecution and religious oppression for the pristine wilderness of the New World, broke free of the chains of absolute monarchy and tyranny, and built this great country from the basement up.

John Gast's Spirit of the Frontier (aka American Progress), with American personified by Columbia in a toga, 1872. (Jeff G. via Wikipedia). In public domain.

John Gast’s Spirit of the Frontier (aka American Progress), with American personified by Columbia in a toga, 1872. (Jeff G. via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I guess I could teach a US history like this. A course that completely ignores the existence of Native Americans, numbering in the neighborhood of 10-15 million in what would become British North America (now the US and Canada) at the time of Jamestown settlement in 1607. A class that could gloss over the diseases, wars, starvation and constant encroachments that reduced this population by ninety percent within a century of the real British invasion. I could skip over the economic imperatives — really greed — that led to the use of White indentured servants and West Africans as indentured servants and slaves to make the colonies profitable through growing tobacco, rice and indigo. I could obfuscate the eventual creation of an institution that made permanent the connections between African skin and slavery in what would become the US, codified in law and in the US Constitution (albeit indirectly).

I guess this US history course could focus mostly on the genius of the great White men that made this a great nation, slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. I could then focus less on the crucial reliance of the US economy on the profits and products of slavery that made industrialization possible. A system that supplied the US and the UK with the cotton that would make modern capitalism — with its multinational banks, international commerce and movements of large numbers of people to cities for work — a reality. A system that so contradicted American ideals that it led to a civil war that killed and maimed nearly 1.2 million people.

Original Trivial Pursuit, Master Game, Genus Edition, 1981, January 5, 2015.  (http://epicrapbattlesofhistory.wikia.com/).

Original Trivial Pursuit, Master Game, Genus Edition, 1981, January 5, 2015. (http://epicrapbattlesofhistory.wikia.com/).

And all this only gets us to 1865. There’s also Indian removal, Mexican-turned-Americans in the Southwest, Southern and Eastern European immigrants and Social Darwinism, Jim Crow segregation and lynchings, race riots, Black migration, Mexican migration, Whiteness and the assimilation of White ethnics, the early Civil Rights Movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the post-Civil Rights era. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the topics that are key ones in any US history course.

So short of deciding to only teach a US history that only focuses on great, rich White males, I have to discuss race. If only to teach this history properly and well enough to give all of my students food for thought and thought for food. Otherwise, I might as well be teaching Trivial Pursuit or change my name to Alex Trebek.


Back to My Future, Forward to the Past

January 1, 2015

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s 2015, and the fictional year from Back To The Future (1985) has become reality. Yeah, right! There are no hoverboards — at least, ones that actually work, anyway — we still drive with internal combustion engines, and Whites still only vote for folks of color when they are truly desperate for some elusive change.

For me, though, 2015 confirms the reality that time really is an illusion, as I’ve spent time over the past thirty years imagining what life would be like in 2015. That imagining started in ’85. At fifteen, I could barely wrap my head around the idea that I could live to thirty years of age, much less that I could make it to forty-five.

Truly, that’s what growing up poverty and with abuse did for me. It created the impression that life was cheap and short. Dating, marriage, a kid, being a father, working on a third career? Heck, I spent so much of my life at fifteen constructing a sound track and a reality beyond my everyday circumstances, just to get by! I lived vicariously through my Mets and Giants especially. My conscious mind provided little space for constructing a reality based on my circumstances or the natural progression of a modern American life.

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Gradually, I had to let go of most of my coping strategies in order to at least live for a better future, not just imagine it full of new technologies. I had to begin to place myself there as a whole person. It helped that I spent most of the 1990s in grad school and as a freshly minted professor teaching graduate courses in education foundations. Both helped me in looking at the past in order to understand my present and push for the future I wanted. Despite the betrayals and my mistakes along the way, I made it to thirty, mostly as the person I wanted to be.

Still, like most people, I have baggage. I have the kind of baggage that’s actually easy to ignore, and even easier to bury so deep into one’s mind and spirit that it would take the power of a flux capacitor to unearth. In writing about portions of my past over the years, I’ve dug up all of those haunts and demons, some of which I wish I hadn’t known existed in the first place. Writing about myself has been painful. But having a clear and complete understanding of every layer of onion from my past going back to 1969, and 1974, and 1976? It clears the air, even as it has induced five-alarm-fire headaches.

Beyond me, myself, and I, it has been absolutely necessary to live in the present, to find joy in both small and big moments, especially around the people in my life so near and dear to me. From my son’s first steps to his discovery of sarcasm, from watching my wife’s labor to receiving my first royalty check for Fear of a “Black” America. All of it was more significant than a new car, a better cut of steak, a fragrant glass of wine, or the latest version of the iPhone.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Speaking of our devolving material culture, I can’t help but make this observation now that we’re in 2015. We spend so much time and effort exalting ourselves over the latest technological innovations, the next version of some new piece of gadgetry. Seriously, when was the last time a new invention came around that truly transformed our lives writ large for the better, that was transformative in every way possible? The iPhone? Please! Phones have been around since the 1870s, and mobile phones since the 1970s. And, I don’t think the tens of thousands of Chinese factory workers really enjoy making these gadgets for our benefit. Flat-screen HD TVs? Gimme a break! The TV’s been here since the 1920s, and adding clarity with hundreds of channels has just make the size of its “vast wasteland” that much bigger.

Face it folks. There hasn’t been a major technological breakthrough since the inventions of the MRI machine and the microchip in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Personal computers, Google Chromebooks, Fitbit trackers, electronic fuel injectors, the Internet and those millions of apps? They are all derivatives of technologies that are as old as I am.

Let’s credit Apple and Microsoft and Google for new innovations. But we haven’t had any major breakthroughs worthy of Back To The Future. Hydrogen-fuel-cell and nuclear fusion technologies? They remain somewhere between a limited experiment and a pipe dream. A matter-energy converter so that we can stop growing and killing our food? We’ve barely discovered 3D-printing, and that’s still years away from everyday usage. Technology that can scrub the air of greenhouse gases without killing every living thing on the planet at the same time? Someone’s buried it somewhere.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Perhaps that’s what has happened in my lifetime. That with the killing of millions from war, disease, settler colonialism, out-and-out racism practiced on a societal level, unbridled capitalism and the constant quest for the immediate big profit, we’ve killed those people. A Black kid who could’ve created a faster-than-light drive. A Palestinian girl who may have developed a food replicator. An affluent White boy steered toward Wall Street who may have once thought through the idea of carbon capture from the upper atmosphere. Apparently we have none of this, because we don’t want that future. We only want to imagine that future while wallowing in the -isms of our pasts and presents, minus any wisdom or understanding.


The “Are You Sure’s” and Doubting Sylvias

December 30, 2014

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

We all have doubters in our lives. Even if the only doubters turn out to be ourselves. As someone without much of a roadmap for any success, doubt has been a constant companion, one that I often had to ignore to experience any victories in my life. To have those with influence pretend to be on my side but add to those doubts, though. As a twenty-year-old, it was somewhere between bewildering and rage inducing. As a forty-five year-old who regularly advises students, love ones, friends and others about their futures, looking back at those doubters, it’s almost unforgivable the seeds they attempted to plant.

Of all the non-relatives in positions to advise me, few were worse than my high school guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. For four years, Fasulo forced me to listen to her “Are you sure…?” questions about difficult classes, the colleges I wanted to attend, the career paths I thought about taking. Her patrician Vassar arrogance toward me as the poor Black kid drove me up a wall every time I walked into her cigarette-filled office.

"Raleigh's First Pipe in England," an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt's Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England,” an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt’s Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I hated having Fasulo as my counselor especially once it was time for me to apply for college. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.

Despite and not because of Fasulo, things worked out for me in the end. Going to Pitt, meeting the people and the professors I’d become friends and colleagues with, was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Still, I had one parting shot from her in the middle of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the holiday season in ’89, and I took time while home in Mount Vernon to visit my favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer. I had just missed him, but bumped into Fasulo. It was about as fortuitous as having diarrhea and being nowhere near a toilet with toilet paper.

She asked me where I was in school, and I told her about my considerations for graduate school, law school and the world of work. It was a toss-off sentence, my attempt to end a conversation, not begin one. “Being a lawyer’s hard work,” Fasulo said in response. She then went on to tell me about 70-hour work weeks and billable hours and the bar exam, as if any of this was supposed to be surprising or would somehow scare me. I cut her off, saying “You know, you’re not my counselor anymore, so thanks but no thanks for your advice,” and left her office while she tried to explain her idiotic perspective.

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

A quarter-century later, and though I am more than content with the fact that I opted for a PhD over a JD thirteen out of every fourteen days (people with law degrees do make more money on average), I sometimes question if the PhD in history was worth it. After all, a JD is far more portable. A JD would’ve served me better in my nonprofit and consulting careers than having to explain a doctorate. I wouldn’t want to think that I went in the direction of a graduate program for five and a half years simply because I had a conversation with a racial elitist.

It’s probably more likely that I didn’t go to medical school to earn an MD because my Mom and my idiot late-ex-stepfather both told me I couldn’t be a surgeon because I had “ten thumbs.” By more likely, I mean highly unlikely on both counts. I ultimately did what I wanted to do educationally speaking, despite own my doubts, despite the doubts of those who believed it was their job to advise me. But constantly asking, “Are you sure, Donald…?” isn’t exactly the best way to advise or mentor anyone, especially someone in their teens or a literal twenty-year-old. You lay out options, you ascertain what’s going on in their heart as well as their mind. You introduce them to other people who could provide better advice, based on direct expertise or experiences. Otherwise, you’re a doubter, not an advisor or a mentor.


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