An “Acting White” Conversation

July 28, 2014

Two Oreo Cookies, February 6, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia).

Two Oreo Cookies, February 6, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia).

Two years ago, a conservative woman engaged me in what became an increasingly vitriolic conversation on “acting White,” blind loyalty and political ideology. The below only covers (for the most part) the “acting White” part of the conversation.

 Apologies for commenting here but the Star Trek one [my blog post Why Ferengi Are Jewish & The Maquis Are Latino from 2011] had comments closed. In light of your thoughts on positive or negative stereotypes, how do you feel about the cultural phenomena of “acting white” term in Black community? (in case it needs explaining, that’s a derogatory term – by Black community – for a minority child who studies hard. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acting_white)

To which I responded:

Given how my life has evolved over the past four decades, I think I understand what “acting White” means. But the fact is, African Americans have a diversity of opinions on this issue. There are some Blacks, though, who believe in the idea of an authentic Blackness, which I’ve written about as an educator, historian and from a personal perspective over the years. Part of this is generational, and part of this is socioeconomic in nature. And this issue of authenticity has been around since the days of slavery, so it’s not new. What’s new is the increasing push-back from Blacks of various backgrounds about this issue of “acting White.” Bottom line: those who use this phrase tend to be anti-intellectual, distrustful of higher education and as bigoted as any other group in American society toward “others.”

But my visitor to my blog wasn’t done, not by a long shot:

Sorry, Wasn’t too clear in my question. Do you feel that the fact of how widespread it is in the culture (both the use and the lack of disapproval) has any *material* consequences to the socioeconomic outcomes for Blacks as a group in the 1990-2020 period? It’s clear that you disapprove of it, but do you feel it is a problem that **must** be fixed for Blacks to succeed (beyond mere “bigotry is bad” angle)?

In response, I broke down the assumptions embedded in the previous comment:

Is your head in the sand?, July 28, 2014. (http://www.thelifecoach.co.nz/).

Is your head in the sand?, July 28, 2014. (http://www.thelifecoach.co.nz/).

Your assumption here is troubling, as if 40 million African Americans all think alike on this topic. Sure, there’s a slice of Blacks who have a litmus test for “authentic” Blackness, and for them, those who can’t meet this test are considered “acting White.” But no, there’s no agreed upon definition for either in African America. Your premise supposes the sociological or psychological effect of this is a lower socioeconomic status for African Americans. Keep in mind that since the 1970s, more than 50 percent of Blacks have been middle or upper middle class, while the poverty rate for Blacks has varied between 25 and 33 percent over the past 40 years. Your question ignores other factors, including de-industrialization, expanding economic inequality, and structural racism as factors that have far more effect on social mobility than a cultural litmus test that a small slice of Blacks strictly adhere to.

There’s more, much more, and the comments section under About Me from the period August 30-September 3, 2012 has the rest. The assumption that I was protecting the race under a false sense of loyalty. The idea that Blacks who were otherwise equal in intelligence and from equally impoverished backgrounds were doing better than her because of affirmative action and other forms of alleged “reverse racism” (whatever this fiction is). My response was to treat her like one of my ideologically bull-headed student for whom facts and scholarly research matter about as much as ants inside an anthill.

President Barack Obama’s recent comments about the meaning and implications of “acting White”  has made me think about this issue — again. The fact is, there may well be individuals who decide to not go to college or medical school, take certain jobs or listen to Pearl Jam because of their notions of “acting White” and “authentic Blackness.” I know there are — including a friend of mine who committed suicide sixteen years ago after deciding to not go to medical school over this whole issue. But the idea that large groups of Blacks in poverty or as practicing Afrocentrists are avoiding success and education because it may be too White for them? Absolute bullshit! Period. Anything to come up with a simple-minded excuse to cover up structural racism, residential segregation and poverty as the factors for lack of Black social mobility when compared to Whites.

“Acting White,” or at least, being “not Black enough,” comes out of the following (between my experience and thirty years of research):

1. The idea that “acting White” = not cool. That’s all. Not about intellect per se, but more about the constant expression of high intellect in casual situations, or at least, lacking the ability to switch up from high-brow to colloquial language. I’ve been in this situation many times, with neighborhood kids in Mount Vernon, New York, at MVHS, at the University of Pittsburgh and even in my own classroom.

2. “Acting White” = doing things that Blacks have only seen Whites do. In this case, beyond language, it could include forms of dress, having eclectic music tastes, or eating fried chicken with a fork and knife. Or, more seriously, taking a political position that others can easily perceive as being against the interests of African Americans. I can attest to the comments I’ve gotten for embracing “White” music as part of my overall repertoire over the years.

3. “Acting White” = not wanting to be around or like other Blacks. In my experience, this applies even more within African American families than it does to Black neighbors, classmates or friends. My Mom wanted me to go to college, but she also wasn’t comfortable with the idea that college would change the way I saw her and the rest of the world. She was especially not happy when I decided to go to graduate school, because it meant that I might no longer be able to relate to her and my brother.

I can honestly say that even with all this, I’ve never met anyone who deliberately practiced self-sabotage in their education or in any other area of their lives to avoid “acting White.” That this is a topic of conversation at all confirms that Americans love living in denial of all things connected to racial inequality. Especially the structural racism from which they draw a benefit — material and/or psychological — every single day. Calling “acting White” a theory is an insult to the scientific method and to all Blacks, including those who’ve used the term over the years.


Brother, Can You Spare Me A Job?

July 26, 2014

Screenshot from "Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime" video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

Screenshot from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

In the past five months, there’s been much debate and derision over the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and Initiative. Most of it has centered around the exclusion of girls and young women of color from the initiative, as if the problems affecting Black and Latino males aren’t the same ones affecting Black and Latino females. Poverty, a resource-poor education, lack of entry-level jobs leading to careers, woeful access to higher education, lack of access to public services. These effects may lead to different responses from boys/young men of color and girls/young women of color, but the problems that effect vulnerable populations of color are no respecter of gender.

There’s other problems with the initiative, even if President Barack Obama and the White House were to ensure the inclusion of Black and Latino females in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative tomorrow. It’s an extremely racially paternalistic initiative. On the face of things, it’s not much different from the work Booker T. Washington did a century ago via the William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt administrations and with money from White philanthropists such as Henry Huttleston Rogers (Standard Oil), Julius Rosenwald (Sears), and George Eastman (Kodak).

Sure, in the case of Washington, The Rosenwald Fund built a few thousand schools, and the philanthropists contributed money to Washington that would build an endowment for Tuskegee. Still, that money came with strings attached. Most of the schools built weren’t high schools, were geared toward what we would call low-level vocational education today, and certainly weren’t part of any agenda to end Jim Crow. For all the good Washington was able to do through these robber-baron era philanthropists — especially in reducing Black illiteracy — it took Black migration out of the South to lead to lasting changes around notions of racial progress and the idea of segregation as the norm for a representative democracy.

As for My Brother’s Keeper, I am reminded of a passage from my Boy @ The Window about my very first full-time “office” job in the summer of ’87, in between my graduation from Mount Vernon High School and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s about my working for General Foods (now Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown, New York as part of their Operation Opportunity program.

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 11.10.49 AM

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Beyond the $1,022 the program saved on my behalf — which would go toward room, board and two textbooks for my second semester at Pitt — there really wasn’t much about this program that was opportunity-inducing. Operation Opportunity seemed like it was a checkmark that General Foods could put in its “doing good” column. It provided an opportunity to observe others and do menial tasks without actually promising anything that would help me even a year later, as I went through the summer of ’88 unemployed, and the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless. Not to mention, I picked up a terrible cold in the heat of a 98-degree-July day while spending two hours in a meat-locker-of-a-trailer doing measurements on Jell-O pudding pops!

Now I have no idea what the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation or Magic Johnson Enterprises intends to do to be keepers of brothers, or brothas, for that matter. But all too frequently, these efforts turn into one-time experiments or corporate-responsibly checkmarks. As my friend and colleague Catherine Lugg has said more than once over the years (albeit, on education research, not specifically on this), social change and diversity efforts are far more than just “bringing a pet to class.” The idea that we need to learn how to work hard is yet another myth that this initiative will perpetuate, whether it’s a success or a failure.

It’s not hard to figure that poor children and young adults of color need more access to public health services, more resources in their formal education, more and better quality food to eat, and more nurturing. Whether any of these kids or young adults — male or female — can obtain these resources without racial paternalism, experimentation or other strings attached, I for one remain extremely skeptical.


Students and the Joys and Travails of College Teaching

July 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country's World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2014/).

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

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

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

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

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


Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Tyranny of the Self-Righteous “Liberal”

June 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ConAgra Foods logo, June 18, 2014. (http://innovate.unl.edu/).

ConAgra Foods logo, June 18, 2014. (http://innovate.unl.edu/).

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

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


Killing Joe Trotter

June 10, 2014

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

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

=======================

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (http://blog.batterysharks.com/).

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (http://blog.batterysharks.com/).

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

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

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

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

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (http://www.projecteve.com/).

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (http://www.projecteve.com/).

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

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


When Those Close Put Up Roadblocks

June 7, 2014

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (http://www.ideaarchitects.org).

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (http://www.ideaarchitects.org).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (http://www.virginmedia.com/).

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (http://www.virginmedia.com/).

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

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

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


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 673 other followers