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.


First Day and Last Day of School This Week

September 3, 2014

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY,  November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve written about parts of this before, back in my first days of blogging about my life and times as a student. But this week is especially poignant. Yesterday (September 2) marked twenty years since I sat through and passed my PhD dissertation overview defense at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, making me ABD (All But Dissertation, an official PhD candidate). Tomorrow (September 4) will be forty years since my first day of school, attending kindergarten at the Nathan Hale Elementary School (now Cecil Parker ES) in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a school two buildings and an asphalt playground down from our second-floor flat, 425 South Sixth Avenue. In between was nineteen years and 363 days of time as a formal student, going from learning how to read “Dick and Jane went to the store” to writing a “book” about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

I’m sure most of us don’t remember so much of what occurred in between day one and day 7,303 of student-hood. I remember plenty, though. I remember the morning being unusually cold and having to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat (according to a weather website, the high that day was only 69F, and it actually rained at some point during the day). Kindergarten was only a half-day endeavor back then, so I remember getting released to come home for lunch and spending the rest of the day playing with my Tonka toys and watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Contrast that with a warm first Friday in September ’94, at a time when I’d met some new first-year PhD students in the History program, Carl, Jeff, Susannah and a few others, who all seemed surprisingly interested in my dissertation work. I think it was just that I was one of their first points of contact, going through something they themselves hoped to do within a few years. Either way, I’d been preparing to defend my eighty-page dissertation overview for the previous six weeks, in between working on a migration studies research project for Joe Trotter and keeping an eye out for dissertation grants that I firmly believed were necessary for me to get out of grad school with my sanity intact.

As I walked up the sloped, dark, factory-mimicking hallway on the second floor of Baker Hall to what would be two hours of interrogation from Trotter, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones and Department Chair Steve Schlossman (among others in the conference room that morning) with my “entourage,” I had this two-decade juxtaposition in mind. I actually started thinking about the long path from kindergarten to PhD, and all the bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. About how on a September 2nd morning six years before, I’d been homeless and came within days of dropping out of college. About how none of this would have been possible without my older brother Darren, who taught me how to read on Christmas Day ’74. Or, for that matter, without my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon encouraging my Mom to buy the entire set of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, which led to me reading through that set between December ’78 and April ’79.

Even J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) was in my head as I laid out my papers and dissertation overview as references for my overview defense. I’d only read the book in the previous year. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book for nonfiction lived up to the award it earned Lukas, as he went to excruciating lengths to make the process of desegregation by busing, White fears, and Boston’s racism and racial divide come alive.

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

In reading about what the White parents did to stop busing in September ’74, it forced up a memory of watching the evening news my first two days of school about Boston’s White community rioting over busing and desegregation. The picket signs, the bottles and rocks. I remembered asking my Mom about it then, but I don’t think she gave me a direct answer. Lukas, though, did, twenty years later.

Finally, I thought about my Humanities classmates as I sat down and had gone through all of the pleasantries with my dissertation committee and other professors and grad students in the room. I thought about how classmates like Josh and Danny ridiculed me as a savant, who told me that history essentially was only trivia, that I couldn’t do anything with it other than “go on Jeopardy.” In some ways, they were right. They just weren’t correct on September 2, ’94.

All of this gave me a place to start. So when Trotter asked me, “What in your life has prepared you for this moment?,” I knew from which parts of my life’s journey to pick. Only to realize that in starting at the beginning, I was nowhere near full circle.


There’s Know Place Like Home…

August 29, 2014

Dorothy's heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws - low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Dorothy’s heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws – low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Yes, the title’s a deliberate play on words. In no small part because of Facebook and Boy @ The Window, I am reminded every day of where I grew up, Mount Vernon, New York. But all too frequently, those who think they know me either assume that Mount Vernon’s so far from New York City that I seldom spent time there. Or, more recently, some have assumed that my experience of The Big Apple is a recent phenomenon, as if I only started spending time in the five boroughs when I hit my mid-thirties.

Neither is true, of course. In many ways, I’m as much of a child of The Bronx and Manhattan as I am of Mount Vernon. I spent countless hours catching the 2, 3, 5 and 6 trains between 241st, Dyre Avenue, 180th, Pelham Parkway, 149th, 110th, 125th, 72nd, 86th and so many other stops. I used to know where to get the best brownies in the area, in Wakefield, at a bakery near some taxi stands and between the 238th and 241st Street stops. I could tell you which bars my father Jimme frequented, which bars he didn’t, what pizza shops had slices to die for, and what places to avoid near Times Square. I’d been to Mets games, Ice Capades, the Bronx Zoo, a Puerto Rican Day and a Pulaski Day parade, concerts at Van Cortlandt Park, even MOMA before I graduated high school.

One of the reasons I could do all of this by the time I was fifteen was because of all the times Jimme had taken me and Darren down to the Bronx and Manhattan. Mostly to watch him pick up his paycheck from the Levi brothers at their cleaners on 20 West 64th or on East 59th. But between ’82 and ’85, I learned where nearly all of my father’s watering holes were, and on the most desperate of weekends, could track him to one of them in order to get money for myself and to help out my Mom at 616. While my classmates would occasionally take the Metro-North into the city to take in a Broadway play or go to a Knicks game, I was learning about the city in all of its varying inequalities and nuances by looking for and working for my father.

Screen shot 2014-08-29 at 6.28.50 AM

Fast-forward to the end of August ’93, just a few days before I began the Carnegie Mellon University phase of my grad school and doctoral journey. I had been short on money that whole summer, unemployed for six weeks after transferring from Pitt, working as an “intern” for six dollars and hour, and nearly $600 behind on rent at one point in late June. I’d survived the eviction notice and a summer in which I learned who my truest, closest friends were. I took a few days from my personal drama to visit my Mom and my siblings at 616, and in the process, decided to track down my father for a few extra dollars, as well as to see him for the first time in over a year. It had been that long because Jimme had accused me of faking my master’s degree when I lasted visited him.

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown's West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown’s West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

But I wasn’t fifteen anymore. Instead of a long walk and the Subway, I took the Metro-North down from Pelham to Grand Central, took the S (Shuttle) over to Times Square, and the 1 train to 66th, and walked over to the Levi’s cleaners on West 64th. Only to find out Jimme wasn’t in that day. I then remembered that the other Levi brother had a dry cleaner on East 59th. I walked the ten blocks over there and found the other Levi brother in the midst of arguing with clients and barking orders to his Latino and Afro-Caribbean underlings. My father was doing a cleaning job for him at some high-rises down near Gramercy Park.

I rode the 4 train down to 23rd Street, got my east-west bearings, and walked toward a set of high-rises near FDR Drive. Though I’d forgotten the address, I knew somehow that Jimme would be in the most expensive-looking high-rise or set of high-rises in the bunch. I found a guard, who sent me to the floor where Jimme and his co-worker John were working.

As soon as Jimme saw me come off the elevator, he said, “Bo’ watcha doin’ up here? How the hell yo’ find me?”

“You’re not the only one who knows The City, you know” I said.

It’s no wonder I feel a bit insulted when people either tell me I’m from upstate New York or that I’m not a New Yorker. I know the city better than at least a third of the people who live and work there every day.


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