Can Family and Friends Ever Understand The Why Behind a Memoir?

October 20, 2014

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

I started reading New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones two weeks ago. Like many who have read it, I have found it a good read, a revealing read, even a powerful read at times. I have been able to put it down, though. Mostly because as someone who’s recently written a memoir about my own painful and trying experiences with abuse and neglect, about confusion, distrust and occasional rage, Blow’s book has been a reminder of how difficult it was for me to relive those experiences enough to write them down in words and revise them into a book of my own.

Still, as I do intend to finish Fire before the holidays, I do have a couple of questions. One is really basic. Had Blow ever heard of the Kinsey Report (1948), the first one about the sexual experiences and habits of men, particularly gay and bisexual men, prior to turning thirty? The one thing I learned from reading this report twenty years ago is that there’s a lot of gray between heterosexual, gay and bisexual. That you can be heterosexual, and still have a small level of attraction to those of your same gender simultaneously.

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

But this is a minor question, more about his curious road to understanding his sexuality — not to mention my own road — than it is about Fire itself. My second question is a much more important one. How have Blow’s family and friends received his book since he decided to write it? How have they received Fire in the months since he announced it was coming out in September? How have they received him and Fire since it officially hit the shelves last month?

If his immediate and extended family was/is anything like mine (and from reading Fire so far, it is), then my best guess is their reaction’s been mixed at best. In the year since I released Boy @ The Window in paperback, my siblings have liked the book, but my mother and father haven’t exactly been happy about me writing it. My mother hasn’t said one word about Boy @ The Window since I put it out last year. Nor did she ask any questions about the book in the six and half years that I toiled in writing and rewriting it.

My father, meanwhile, showed interest in the book right from the moment I told him I planned to write Boy @ The Window. That was, until the paperback edition came out during the holidays last year. At that point, he said, “I don’t wanna talk to you no more.” We’ve talked several times since, but he’s still pissed with me about including him in my memoir, even though I never hid this from him at any point in the process.

Among my friends, most of my core group has bought and read Boy @ The Window. Most have given me positive feedback, some very extensive. Yet I found myself mildly surprised how few friends outside of this core group have bought or read the book. I take that back. Actually, I’m surprised by the negative feedback I’ve gotten from folks who’ve claimed to be friends of mine, who’ve never read a word of Boy @ The Window. But this feedback hasn’t been about the memoir. It’s really about their wanting to deny facts about me or about them that they’ve assumed are in Boy @ The Window, as if my job in this instance was to only be truthful when it felt good for them.

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

My platform is tiny when compared with Blow’s, so I imagine that the reaction to Fire in terms of both praise and condemnation has been more extreme, even as the praise has been much more public. I suppose if I was the perpetrator whom sexually assaulted Blow, I’d likely want to shut him up. I’m not so sure that anyone in his family, proud of him as they may be, wants what they’d likely consider “dirty laundry” out there for anyone to read. You don’t grow up in a family as traditional as Blow’s and expect everyone to be alright with their character’s characterization in a bestseller.

This I do know, and I suspect Blow has known for a while, too. That writing a memoir like Fire isn’t about seeking revenge or outing family secrets per se. Bottom line — it ain’t about the proverbial you! In some respects, as cathartic as writing a memoir like my Boy @ The Window or Blow’s Fire may be, it not so much about the authors,’ really, at least after the tenth edit.

There are so many stories that never see the light of day, because the fire for telling them burned out a long time ago. Or the window became a rubber room or a jail cell. It’s about telling a story that needs to be told, regardless of whether family’s happy about it, or whether some of your friends can relate to it or not. Because there’s always, always, an audience who needs to read it, hear it, see it and learn from it themselves.

 

 


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.


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.


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.


Caught Between Rage and a Working Faith

August 21, 2014

"Officer Go Fuck Yourself" aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/).

“Officer Go Fuck Yourself” aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/).

After the events of the past month — between Eric Garner and the NYPD, Michael Brown and the Ferguson, Missouri PD — I find myself of two minds. My primal mind says, “Fuck the fucking police!” Resist with rocks, with bricks, with bombs and grenades. Go buy a composite bow with composite arrows. Go buy a rifle with a scope, and take out as many of these motherfuckers as I can. Maybe they’ll think twice about putting someone like me in a choke-hold or shooting us with our hands up if they knew we could organize ourselves into vigilante groups, well armed and well adept at escape and stealth, ready to put the likes of Sunil Dutta out of their racist-ass misery!

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD's finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured)  and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (http://www.thegrio.com).

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD’s finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured) and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (http://www.thegrio.com).

The mind I live in and with every day, though, puts the kibosh on such evil yet well deserved plans of action. Because in light of so much police harassment, brutality and state-sanctioned murders, to say that this shouldn’t be a response belies everything all of us know about human nature. Yet my mind says, “No. This isn’t the way to fight. You’re a writer. You’re a teacher. You’re a believer. Use your tools!” So I pray, I always pray, for people to seek and find the light, to forgive and be forgiven, for peace.

But as the New Testament in James says, “Faith without works is dead” (look that one up, evangelical Christians committed to White privilege!). None of us can hope to change our own lives — much less something as intractable as structural and institutional racism — on prayer and faith in God, the federal government and/or science alone. We have to do, too. In my case, writing and teaching is what I do. Posting to my blog about the palpable rage that I know exists within me and many others who have faced brutality because of racism, misogyny, poverty, homophobia, Whiteness and fear. Teaching about “the physical and psychological wages of Whiteness” (thanks, W.E.B. Du Bois via Black Reconstruction [1935]). Being part of the social media crowd demanding humanity and justice for Michael Brown. This is who I am and what I do.

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Is it enough to assuage my rage, my guilt for not being able to do more? Yes, most of the time. But I have to remind the perfectionist that remains within me, I can’t do much, but I can do something. And, that this isn’t about me, even with as much as I’ve experienced in racial profiling and abuse of power, at home and with police. It’s about all of us. So, if I do buy a composite bow with arrows, I will train to use it well. Just not on other humans, no matter how reprehensible.


Big Feet and Football Tryouts

August 20, 2014

Aerial view of refurbished fields (for track and field, football, softball and tennis) across from MVHS (and the Cross County Parkway), Mount Vernon, NY, circa 2012. (Google Maps)

Aerial view of refurbished fields (for track and field, football, softball and tennis) across from MVHS (and the Cross County Parkway), Mount Vernon, NY, circa 2012. (Google Maps)

Three decades ago this week, I tried out for Mount Vernon High School’s junior varsity football team and made the team. Only to immediately quit. Mostly because I realized that there was too much going on at 616 for me to be a Humanities student, a blocking wide receiver (the coaches had an unimaginative view of offense) and a jack-of-all-adult-responsibilities at home.

What made the decision easier was something my Mom did that made my tryouts harder. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 9.55.52 PM

I ended up making the team, but they wanted me to sit on the bench for a year while I bulked up to at least 175 pounds. The most I’ve ever weighed was 238 pounds at six-foot-three, and I weigh 228 now. It took me until ’10 before I wore my first pair of size-fifteen sneakers that actually fit (I wear size sixteens now). The idea of me as an offensive lineman simply because my sneakers were two sizes too big was and remains ridiculous. Thanks Mom, and thanks, coaches!

The one lesson I took with me from the process of trying out was that I couldn’t rely on my Mom to help me do the things I wanted to do with my life. Nor could I rely on her encouragement (or lack thereof) in that process. It wasn’t an assessment based on anger or disappointment. I’d only begun to figure out that my life was my life, and the decisions I needed to make needed to be my own.


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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 705 other followers