Shalom Milhama, Where Do My Sympathies Lie?

July 21, 2014

"Israel-Palestine peace," July 29, 2013. (Wickey-nl - Own work via Wikipedia). Licensed under CC-SA- 3.0 (converted from .svg to .jpg file).

“Israel-Palestine peace,” July 29, 2013. (Wickey-nl – Own work via Wikipedia). Licensed under CC-SA- 3.0 (converted from .svg to .jpg file).

As a Hebrew-Israelite between ’81 and ’84, I was taught in temple that we as the members of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel shared a spiritual and physical bond with the descendants of the tribes of Judah and Levi. As a Hebrew-Israelite, I was also taught that Arab, African and Black Muslims were my spiritual cousins, due respect because of the whole Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael story from the Torah. We, Black Jews, Arab Muslims and European-Jewish-Israelis, were related by blood, history, and Yahweh, and so should support each other.

There were to be no contradictions in supporting the right of Israel to exist as a nation-state, this despite the fact that the Arab states of Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan had fought “to push Israel into the Mediterranean Sea” in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Israel had a Jehovah-given right to the land between the cedar forests of Lebanon and the Sinai Desert, between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, at least, that’s what the Torah said. It was a covenant right that couldn’t be undone by anyone or anything except by El Shaddai himself.

So naturally, despite my growing knowledge of history, I supported Israel in everything it did in defense of itself. So if Mossad or an Israeli commando unit assassinated a foreign minister, it was fine. When Israel launched an air strike and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in June ’81, I was all for it. Golda Meir was among my group of female heroes as a preteen and teenager. Somehow in those three years as a Hebrew-Israelite, my political perspective on Israel merged with my religious perspective on Judaism and my understanding of the oppression that Blacks, Africans and Jews have all faced in recent centuries.

My understanding of all this, though, began to change even before I converted to Christianity in ’84. It started with an exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in ’84 and ’85, during the government-imposed famine that killed nearly half a million Ethiopians. Unlike the claims of Hebrew-Israelites in the US, the claims of Ethiopian Jews could be clearly traced back to 1000 BCE, the time of King Solomon. Yet for months, Israel held up the immigration process, and then created policies that would make it even more difficult for this groups and the country’s other 120,000 Ethiopian Jews to assimilate. No doubt the fact that it took Israel until ’75 to officially recognize these Ethiopian Jews as Jews has played a role in their somewhat segregated existence in the country.

Faris Odeh throws a stone at an Israeli tank near the Israel-Gaza border, October 29, 2000, during the 2nd Palestinian Intifada (ten days before the IDF gunned him down in Gaza). (

Faris Odeh throws a stone at an Israeli tank near the Israel-Gaza border, October 29, 2000, during the 2nd Palestinian Intifada (ten days before the IDF gunned him down in Gaza). (

Then came the First Palestinian Intifada of ’87 that ran well into the ’90s, when the setting up of Palestinian self-governance zones in Gaza, the West Bank and Jericho gradually began to take shape, leading ultimately to the current state of invasion and chaos between Israel and Gaza. The Intifada began just as I was beginning to understand the full nature of oppression beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. For years, it seemed like I saw the same images of Palestinian youth throwing rocks and marching in the streets while the Israeli Defense Forces responded with tanks, machine guns, tear gas and bulldozers, taking land to build new Israeli settlements in the process.

By that point, I’d become interested in South African history, or apartheid in another part of the world. Comparing and contrasting student movements against Jim Crow in the US and against apartheid in South Africa led me to one simple conclusion beyond that undergraduate research paper. That settlement for one group of people was removal, segregation and loss of rights and lands for another group. This was a process that was particularly horrible in South Africa. It led to protests nonviolent and violent, terrorist activities, extreme and ruthless counter-terrorist activities, and international outrage, protests and divestment before the Afrikaner leadership in South Africa finally moved to dismantle their ugly system.

It made me realize that what was going on in Israel wasn’t all that different from what had been going on in South Africa for nearly a century. Only, it involved a population of Palestinians only slightly larger that the population of European-born Israeli Jews and their descendants, not a nine-to-one advantage in favor of Black South Africans. Only the form of nationalism in Israel grew out of a mix of Torah-based birthright, European-based ethnocentrism (the first two otherwise known as Zionism) and post-World War I imperialism the British imposed on the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and not out of Boer nationalism and anti-Black African racism.

A Palestinian boy rests on a mattress next to the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, July 9, 2014. (Reuters;

A Palestinian boy rests on a mattress next to the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, July 9, 2014. (Reuters;

Aside from these unique features, the theme was the same. A democracy for a select and easily identifiable us (read race and religion here, or at least, skin color and not obviously Muslim). A refugee existence and well-policed apartheid state for those who aren’t us, an assumed group of radical terrorists, even from birth.

It’s a bit too late to be on any side that supports the dissolution of Israel as a nation-state. But to support this Israeli government, a right-wing one that responses to any act of violence toward Israelis — whether random or deliberately terrorist in nature — as if Egypt, Jordan and Syria are invading again. It strains my almost boundless imagination. To say that it’s okay to respond to homemade rockets with a military airstrike and ground invasion in an area as densely population as the island of Manhattan is ridiculous. To suggest that the demolition of Gaza isn’t about resources or is a both-sides-are-equally-guilty scenario is to either live in denial or to see Palestinians as less human than Israelis. Last I checked, Hamas doesn’t have an air force or Russian T-72 tanks.

So here’s what I see. A one-state solution, forcing Israelis and Palestinians to live together, forcing Israel to end its version of an apartheid system, and forcing both groups regardless of politics to come up with a path to full citizenship rights for Palestinians. Period. The two-state solution is a mirage, and some Israelis seem to only want one state, for Israelis only. Of course, this means that those Palestinians who support an armed struggle will eventually have to follow the path that Nelson Mandela and the ANC and Yasser Arafat and the PLO followed decades ago. Just not today, not while the IDF is destroying a city. At least not until the world and especially the US divests from the state of Israel and embargoes all arms shipments.

I wish sometimes that I could go back to that simpler time, when Israel seemed to represent what was right in this world, and the US in supporting them. But I can’t. Those Hebrew-Israelite days were my most oppressed ones as well.

My Sister’s Death, Four Years Later

July 11, 2014

Sarai, Yonkers Apartment, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

Sarai at 12, Yonkers Apartment, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My sister Sarai Adar Washington died on this date four years ago, Sunday morning, July 11, ’10. If she had lived, she would be 31 years, five months and two days today. I miss her, of course. I know she’s better off in the sweet by-and-by, that living with such a permanent, unyielding and relentless terminal disease like sickle-cell anemia wasn’t a real alternative in the intermediate run.

Screen shot 2014-07-11 at 9.45.51 AM

Still, I do wonder what life could’ve been like for Sarai if she hadn’t had to live with this dreadful genetic illness. Things like whether she had experienced the joys of sex and relationships, of falling in love and having a person with which to share her love and life. Or if Sarai would’ve gone on to college after high school, as there would’ve been a reason for her to do so, to keep living her life as fully as she could. Maybe, once she did decide to move out and live with a group of friends in Alabama, she would’ve stayed there working, dating, having the best of times on her own.

There’s really nothing more to say. Sarai’s gone, and though I wish we’d been closer in age and thus closer as brother and sister, and she’d been a healthy person, it was what it was. So, for one moment on this day, let me say, once again. Sarai, I love you, and miss you very much.

Poverty, Violence and PTSD – But What About Racism?

July 7, 2014

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (

Over the past two weeks, thanks to Chris Hayes’ reporting on the state of Chicago for MSNBC, not to mention a horrific July 4th weekend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lie of declining violent crime in the metropolis has been thoroughly exposed. In the past eighty-four hours, dozens of shootings in Chicago injured at least sixty people, with between nine and eleven killed. Six of these shootings involved the Chicago PD, as they killed two teenagers over the weekend. But if we leave it to the mainstream media and the moralist Black elite to explain, the Blacks on Chicago’s South Side are just immersed in a “culture of violence.” Black youth simply live careless, nihilistic lives, that “gang, drug, [and] gun violence” is the root of the problem

For those White, bright, and bi-racially White, though, there’s the knee-jerk reaction of media and caring adults that comes with it. For mass shooters apparently with much better aim than folks in Chicago, like Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, mental health and mental illness, along with gun control, is the mainstream media’s topic of the day. Even their explicit racism and misogyny can become the media’s evidence for their mental illness. White and Black moral leaders don’t then speak of cultural deficiencies or of an enjoyment of crime and violence as reasons for their shootings.

It’s terrible that we afford one group of young men every benefit of the doubt because they were/are affluent or White, and the deny humanity of another because they were/are poor and Black or Brown. Yet recent sociological and psychological studies indicate what anyone who has lived in poverty and with violence has at least sensed throughout their lives. That many (if not most) growing up in these conditions experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leading to more poverty and violence in adulthood.

I know this better than most. Below is a short sample of the violence I witnessed or experienced from birth through adulthood:

September ’70 – my father, drunk and jealous, attempted to attack my mother with a knife. My Mom with me and my brother Darren in tow, picked up a heavy quartz crystal ashtray and threw it at my father as he charged her in the kitchen. He was apparently struck in the head and knocked unconscious. The ashtray had detached the retina in his left eye, which he never had repaired. Nine years later, my father had to have his left eye removed. I don’t remember this attack or my Mom defending herself — I was all of ten months old. I do remember my father’s eye being removed, and the headache and vertigo he had prior to the surgery in the summer of ’79 The research indicates, though, that there would have been a psychological impact on me and my nearly three-year-old brother nevertheless, and not a good one at that.

July ’75 –  from Boy @ The Window

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 1.08.28 PM

December ’76 – when my father stomped in a brand-new glass coffee table and had to go to the hospital with several serious bloody cuts in his legs.

April ’77 - when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father after his months of psychological and abuse toward my Mom had landed her in Mount Vernon Hospital with kidney problems.

April ’82, May ’82, July-August ’82 – my then stepfather beating me up in a Karate studio in front of a group of men because I refused to call him “Dad,” beating up my Mom for not “lovin’ him,” and beating me up for the first six weeks of my summer between seventh and eighth grade for me defending my Mom.

January ’86 – the last time my stepfather actually laid a fist on me, damaging or chipping three of my front teeth and busting my lip in the process.

June ’89 – the last fight between my Mom and my stepfather, where the same crystal ashtray my Mom used in ’70 easily could’ve fractured her jaw and left cheekbone. Thankfully, my then stepfather had terrible aim.

If it were just a matter of domestic violence and child abuse for me alone, that would be tragic, but not necessarily relevant. The violence of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, sadly, wasn’t contained to A32. Domestic violence was the way of the A-building at 616, starting with our adjacent next-door neighbors. In the two-bedroom department immediately below us, the husband and wife had a violent, alcoholic relationship, so bad that it was a rare weekend in the years between ’77 and ’87 where a plate or wine glass didn’t break or the police weren’t called. Their son once pointed a gun at me on my walk up the front steps of 616 when I was a senior in high school and claimed he’d secretly pointed a gun at me in the past. Muggings and robberies, including the four that I experienced, were as common as the common cold

At the near-door apartment building, 630 East Lincoln, the drug trade had been alive and well years before the arrival of crack cocaine. Fights involving knives and baseball bats were normal, often involved a crowd of kids as spectators. Sometimes these fights would spill onto the front lawn of 616′s A-building, where I could witness it first-hand.

That violence was a frequent companion in my life wasn’t surprising. I never lived anywhere where the majority of the people around me weren’t welfare-poor, working-poor or working-class Blacks, where the heating oil came in time for winter, and where maintaining mental health was a topic of conversation. To act as if employment practices, education policy, public health access, police neglect or brutality or housing policies had nothing to do with the sheer concentration of poverty and violence around me would be at the least naive. Fundamentally, it was the benign neglect in the chain between individual racial assumptions, the soft bigotry of mainstream media, and the hard concrete of structural racism in play.

What was my constant companion growing up in Mount Vernon, New York has remained the story of poverty, race and violence in Chicago’s South Side for a century. Don’t feel sorry, for me or for all of those shot up in Chicago this past July 4th weekend. Do something, say something, or don’t. But feeling sorrow without saying or doing something about shouldn’t be an option.

Open Letter: My Knicks Have Sucked For Four Decades

June 27, 2014


We (NY Knicks) Suck (logo off t-shirt), May 26, 2014. (

I wish that I could be much more positive than this. But to think that the New York Knicks, once one of the NBA’s great franchises, haven’t won a title in forty-one years! They used to be a great franchise because of their two NBA championships (1969-70, 1972-73), or at least, because they regularly competed with the LA Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the Milwaukee Bucks for a title. The only reason people who follow NBA basketball still see my Knicks as a great franchise is because they’re in New York, or more specifically, Manhattan (since the Nets are in Brooklyn now). But the simple fact is, my Knicks have sucked for forty-one of the forty-four years and six months I’ve been alive.

You can talk about Micheal Ray Richardson, Bernard King, Marc Jackson, and the great Patrick Ewing. You can bring up our ’94 run to the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, or our miracle run to the finals in ’99 against the San Antonio Spurs. You can even consider the coaching chops of Hubie Brown (overrated), Rick Pitino (overrated), Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy (unbelievably overrated) and so many has-beens and never-weres over the past four decades. Diehard fan as I’ve been and am, my Knicks, my childhood franchise, has sucked more than the oldest running oil well in Texas. Period.

Even the New York Rangers have won a Stanley Cup since the last time the Knicks have won a title. Matter of fact, the Philadelphia ’76ers, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Bullets (now Wizards), Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder), Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat have all won at least one title since the Knicks with Red Holzman as coach and Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, et al. as players won their second. The Watergate scandal was still in its infancy, and the last American troops had withdrawn from Vietnam just months before we’d beaten the Lakers (again) in the ’73 NBA Finals.

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Our best teams were essentially a bunch of bruisers, a team of low-percentage shooters ringed around Patrick Ewing in the ’90s. The Knicks were so anemic offensively that we had to foul and beat up the other team in order to hold them under ninety points if we were going to win consistently. Still, after have a 3-2 lead in the ’94 Finals, we choked at the end of Game Six in Houston, and barely had a chance in Game Seven (thank you, John Starks!). The following year, we made the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller an even bigger star in Game One of the second round (eight points in 8.9 seconds – ridiculous)! Two years later, we brawled our way out of the playoffs in the middle of the first round against the Heat. A good team for its time — yes. A championship-caliber team — absolutely not. We overachieved, riding the rickety knees of Ewing and Starks’ streak shooting.

From the moment Ewing fully ruptured his right Achilles tendon in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals in June ’99, we have been in full-on suck mode. A few playoff appearances, a win or two in fifteen years? When we’ve drafted talented players, we didn’t keep them or they end up cutting their careers short with big-time injuries. When we’ve gotten great talent as free agents, our coaches and front office have driven them away, as was most recently the case with Carmelo Anthony. Most of the past forty-one years, though, we’ve drafted like a gambling addict on a binge in Las Vegas. And we’ve picked up free agents the way an ignorant and inebriated gold prospector hunts for fool’s gold.

"Drainage! I drink your milkshake...I drank it up..." scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day Lewis and Pano Dano. (

“Drainage! I drink your milkshake…I drank it up…” scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day-Lewis and Pano Dano. (

Reggie Miller was absolutely right in June ’94 when he gave my Knicks and Spike Lee the choke sign. But he should’ve directed the choke sign at ownership, at the front office, and at a presumptive, arrogant fan base. Whether Gulf+Western or James Dolan, or Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld, Isiah Thomas or Donnie Walsh, all have assumed and still assume that because we’re the New York Knickerbockers, that players would want to play for the franchise. We’re New York, we’re a great city, and so the Knicks should always be great. So wrong, so wrong we’ve been!

I will now and always be a Knicks fan. But that doesn’t mean that I have to watch bad basketball year after year after year. And bad drafts, and free agent pickups like J.R. Smith. For the foreseeable future, I’ll watch basketball played by teams who know how to score, pass and/or defend. Teams with front offices smart enough to draft at least two quality players and surround them with a solid supporting cast. Wake me up the day the Knicks can manage to do what the best franchises in the NBA consistently do.

The Meaning of Chicken McNuggets

June 23, 2014

McDonald's Chicken McNuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce, November 17, 2006. (The Food Pornographer via Flickr). In public domain.

McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce, November 17, 2006. (The Food Pornographer via Flickr). In public domain.

I’ve found it amazing over the years how much my diet and palate has changed, and how my cooking has changed with it. Once upon a time, I thought that Burger King, Arthur Treacher’s, and (to go more local) Mount Vernon’s Papa Wong’s and Clover Donuts had the best food in the world. I knew no other way of preparing fish other than frying it in oil and coating it with a combination of flour and corn meal. And any meal that cost more than $10 — whether eating out or in buying the ingredients to make a meal for my 616 party-of-eight — was a real luxury.

By the summer of ’87 — the summer between the end of high school and the beginning of my college journey at Pitt — I was working for General Foods (now Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown, New York as part of the minority access program Operation Opportunity (the details are all in Boy @ The Window). After work, I often stopped in White Plains at or near The Galleria to switch buses, since it took two buses and a three-quarters-of-a-mile walk to get from 616 and Mount Vernon to the company’s testing facilities down the road from the Tappan Zee Bridge. I also stopped at The Galleria to avoid the hum-drum grind of poverty and chaos at home, to get something substantial to eat, to check out and/or buy the latest tune. And, to feel like a normal seventeen-year-old, and not the boy-man who always felt as if he was part of some epic struggle.

As I described it in Boy @ The Window:

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 7.32.17 AM

And it was a heaven, a haven, a distraction, if only temporarily, from all of my terrors and fears. Of being permanently alone, of not being able to establish real, lasting friendships, of not being able to love, of only being able to evaluate myself through the eyes of women who saw me as a boring automaton. Not to mention, of having yet another incident with my idiot stepfather Maurice over my refusal to submit to him as “Dad.”

It was also really my first time on my own for more than a few hours without the crutch of high school and Humanities, without the constant noise of my younger siblings tearing up the apartment like it was the Daytona 500. So with every bite of those six orange-yellow McNuggets and every slurp of that fake vanilla milkshake, I savored my quieter mind. I may have looked to others as if I was woofing down the food faster than Scooby Doo and Shaggy in the middle of a food orgy. But for me, those five or six minutes lasted more like twenty, as if I was in deep meditation or watching a bird flap its wings in slow-motion.

Mechanically processed chicken, the key ingredient in McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, pouring out into small tubs, October 5, 2010. (

Mechanically processed chicken, the key ingredient in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, pouring out into small tubs, October 5, 2010. (

Twenty seven years later, and I can barely stand the sight or smell of anything McDonald’s — or any fast food in general. Thank you, by the way, Eric Schlosser and your Fast Food Nation (2002) book for making my stomach churn with every fast-food smell my nose can detect! I even make my own pizzas most of the time now! I buy my son Noah and my wife (on occasion) Mickey D’s, mostly McNuggets, and lately, with milkshakes that apparently now contain some dairy-like substances. As for me, I do sometimes eat a couple of fries, but my near-middle-aged tongue and stomach limits my ability to push down the food.

My palate after thirty years of cooking and progressing from $5 spaghetti meals for eight to broiling sockeye salmon in olive oil with a from-scratch fettuccine dish is far more sophisticated now. I no longer can lose myself in food in order to de-stress from carrying the weight of my world. Cooking, however, has been my one of my cathartic exercises for the past twenty years. It’s sometimes even more of a remedy than writing. Too bad there was never any hemp in those McNuggets, though!

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. (

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

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. (

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

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. (

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (

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. (

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. (

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. (

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (

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.


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