Malcolm X, “Make It Plain”

February 21, 2015

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (http://www.ethical-treats.co.uk/).

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (http://www.ethical-treats.co.uk/).

I’d be a terrible historian to not comment on the fact that today marks fifty years since some Nation of Islam malcontents — with support from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — murdered Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom (now the Shabazz Center) in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. I wasn’t around for the event, or any of the tumultuous events that defined “The ’60s.” All I know was I didn’t learn about Malcolm Little or Malcolm X until the summer between my undergraduate and graduate years at Pitt, the summer of ’91. Although the year before, I’d gone to a Malcolm X birthday celebration at the Homewood-Brushton branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. There, I saw poets performing their work, got to listen to some good jazz and rap, and saw the Afrocentric set out in full force.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center, with the Columbia University Medical Center's Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building in the background), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

You’d think after three years as a Hebrew-Israelite and years around children of Nation of Islam members as a kid that I would’ve heard all about Malcolm. Nope, hardly a peep about him growing up in Mount Vernon. Mostly, I got questions like, “Yo, you a “five percenter”?,” which for me translated into the chosen few living in the midst of the end times. Other than that, there was always the dichotomy trope of Martin versus Malcolm laid on us real thick through school and the newspapers. Dr. King was respectable, nonviolent, a true representative of the race. Malcolm was a street thug, a leading member of a heathen religion, a violent man who hated White people.

My Mom, who normally rejected mainstream White ways of thinking about Black folks, had bought this trope and tried to sell it to me and my older brother growing up. But as with so many things my Mom attempted to instill in me growing up, I wouldn’t make any decisions about Malcolm the person (as opposed to the icon) until I got around to reading, in this case about him and the Nation of Islam, as an adult.

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (http://assets.vice.com)

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (http://assets.vice.com)

The one thing I realized after reading the Afrocentric, mainstream and Alex Haley interpretations of Malcolm in the early ’90s is that just like with King, we could make Malcolm X represent whatever we wanted. He could be nonviolent and a militant at the same time, or a thug and an ambassador of peace at the same time. Yes, as the late Manning Marable’s book shows, Malcolm — like most of us — was a walking, breathing contradiction of convictions (literal and figurative) and beliefs. For the purposes of my post today, though, he was a social justice activist, acting on the part of those poor, Black and discarded, plain and simple.

Which is why I think anyone who thinks Malcolm X brought murder to his own pulpit in February 1965 is an idiot. The idea that teaching others self-defense in opposition to White mobs, lynching, and blatant police brutality deserved a violent death. Really, now? So, if that’s the case, then Dr. King should have died of natural causes about three or four years ago, since his was the path of nonviolence, right? Yet, you still hear the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo de Stupido slinging this shit (and similar crap playing on such respectability politics themes) as if it were McDonald’s hash browns on sale for half-price.

Manning Marable's Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia).  Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Speaking of that lot, I don’t wonder what Malcolm X would say about our racist, plutocratic democracy these days. Anyone whose read his words would know what he’d say. That what happened with Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Rashida McBride and so many others should be resisted “by any means necessary.” That we should unmask those powerful people lurking in the shadows but pulling the strings that keep the systems of oppression working 24/7 in our world. He would’ve supported Occupy Wall Street when and where few Black leaders had in 2010 and 2011, called Islamic State or IS (that’s what they are called outside the US, where we can’t get our acronyms straight) a “chickens coming home to roost” scenario, and put Tavis Smiley and Cornel West in the same self-aggrandizing bag as Giuliani and Rivera.

I get why it took Malcolm Little so long to transform himself into Malcolm X, and still, until after his thirty-ninth birthday, for him to find himself and his purpose in the world. It’s taken me nearly four and half decades to do the same. It’s hard to “make it plain,” especially to ourselves. It’s scary to be in a constant state of disillusionment, about family and friends, about your identity, about your religion and beliefs. But it also allows you to see yourself and everyone around you fresh for the first time, to know who people really are.


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and My Own Prison

February 16, 2015

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. (http://popcitymedia.com and http://eastliberty.org).

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. (http://popcitymedia.com and http://eastliberty.org).

On February 17th seventeen years ago, we opened one of the first community-based computer labs in the US at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What was once known as the Microsoft Library Fund (which later became the Gates Library Foundation, and then became part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) had provided the initial $110,000 to place this computer lab in one of the East Library branches resource rooms. I guess it could’ve been a proud moment for me. If I hadn’t earned my PhD the year before, only to face unemployment for three months during the summer of ’97 and underemployment in the five months since taking the Carnegie Library job. But this was a humiliating moment, not one of pride or, at least, taking comfort in a job done well. It was a learning moment at a time when I thought I already knew what I need to move forward with my career and life.

The dissertation process, my battles with Joe Trotter, the truth about my relationship with my Mom, had all taken a heavy toll on my heart and mind by the time Memorial Day ’97 rolled around. So much so that I lived between moments of humility (which is different from humiliation) and moments of rage in the sixteen months between May ’97 and the fall of ’98. I was living on fumes from my last Carnegie Mellon paycheck when I began working for Carnegie Library the day after Labor Day that year. I’d been conditioned, though, to think that everything happens for a reason. So I assumed that God was attempting to teach me a lesson, that I needed to give more out of the needs I had in my life in order for the things I thought I deserved to come my way.

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (https://pbs.twimg.com).

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (https://pbs.twimg.com).

There was a bit of a flaw in my logic around God’s lessons. For one, the idea that I wasn’t finding work in academia because I hadn’t been a giver was ridiculous. Between volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring high school students, tithing at church, and so many other things, it was dumb to think that not enough humility was the reason I didn’t get the job at Teachers College or had trouble finding adjunct work in the fall of ’97. Or rather, it was dumb not to think that bigger issues — like my dissertation committee abandoning me when I needed them the most — played a greater role in my not finding full-time work in my chosen profession than any inability to serve others.

The Carnegie Library job provided a part-time stop-gap for my income while I attempted to figure out how to move forward without my advisor and my committee and move on with the knowledge that my relationship with my Mom would never be the same. I figured that the job gave me the opportunity to help others and to do good, and that it was a good first foray into the nonprofit world, especially with money from the world of Microsoft.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had a co-worker who was jealous of my degree and attempted to undermine the work of putting together the lab and the class materials for teaching patrons how to use the computers at every turn. I figured out that the bosses at the central branch in Oakland had essentially pocketed some of the funding for the lab to cover the costs of new computers for their own personal use, and had underfunded both my position and my co-worker’s position as part of the grant.

Album cover for Creed's My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

Album cover for Creed’s My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

But I didn’t learn all of this until June. By February ’98, I began to realize that, more than anything else, I needed to free myself from my own prison of an idea, that I’d done anything wrong or sinful to end up running a computer lab project at twenty-eight when I had done much of this same work at nineteen years old. I had to begin to find prominent people in my field(s) to support me in finding work, even if none of them were on my dissertation committee. I still needed to apply for academic jobs, even if my status meant than some would reject me because of my issues with my advisor. I even needed to explore the idea of jobs outside academia, in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, where my degrees and my ideas about education policy and equity might still matter.

It definitely helped when Duquesne hired me in April to teach graduate-level education foundations courses in History of American Education and Multicultural Education. It helped even more, though, when I decided in August to quit the Carnegie Library job. Between the Microsoft folks and the sycophants at Carnegie Library who were willing to do almost anything for a few extra dollars — anything other than serve their neighborhoods, that is — I’d had enough of duplicitous people. Who knew that my first job with sycophants and Gates money would come back to haunt me in the seventeen years since!


My Washington Mission

February 6, 2015

Martin L

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, DC Public Library’s main branch, Washington, DC, November 2013 (never looked this nice in 1995). (http://popville.com).

Twenty years ago this week I began the official phase of my doctoral thesis research. But it was much more than reading monographs and finding old papers at the Library of Congress and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. It was also a long trip, where I would spend the next two months living in Washington, DC, to do my research on multiculturalism and multicultural education, and to find evidence of both in Black Washington, DC and in the segregated DC Public Schools. It was also the first time I’d lived away from Pittsburgh or the New York City area, meaning that I had a new city to get to know.

The trip truly involved my past, present and future, all at once. I spent my first five days visiting with my friend Laurell and her family in Arlington while looking for some temporary housing of my own. I’d eventually run into two Pitt friends and two Carnegie Mellon friends while in DC, and develop at least one new friendship between February 2 and March 24. I talked with my favorite teach in Harold Meltzer during that trip, learning more than I ever wanted to know about some of my classmates and Mount Vernon High School in the process.

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (http://maps.google.com).

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (http://maps.google.com).

Mostly though, I split my Washington mission into three phases. Phase one was to find a cheap place to stay. After a day of dealing with Howard University professors-turned-slum-lords in LeDroit Park, I went through the Washington Post to find a series of rented rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Finally, I found a place in Shepherd Park, two blocks south of the DC-Silver Spring, Maryland border. It was a three-story house in a decent neighborhood on 12th Street, NW, with Blair Park, the Silver Spring Metro, and a corner KFC within walking distance. The landlord seemed decent enough, and my basement room came to $95/week with a $100 deposit. Those were the days, before gentrification and the housing boom sent the cost of shelter through the roof!

Phase two of my trip began Wednesday, February 8. I organized my schedule based on going to a number of archives and collecting materials first. I started with the Moorland-Spingarn Collection, which had been picked pretty clean by Henry Louis Gates (via buying collections) and by other, less reputable researchers (many who stole materials). I got to meet and talk with the archivist Esme Bhan about my research, which was wonderful. Still, I wondered how much longer Moorland-Spingarn could stay a reputable venue for scholarly research, with its lack of funding and lack of security from vultures emptying records.

The following week I split between the Columbiana Division at DC Public Library’s main branch, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library between Chinatown and downtown, and the DC Public School Archives on 17th and M. The DCPL portion of my work was an experiment in filtering out the smells and the sights of the homeless and mentally disabled. Not to mention the ability to not use the bathrooms in the building for eight hours at a time. The men’s stalls didn’t have doors, by the way. I spent only three days there, and rushed through gathering background on interviews of Black Washingtonians that the library had conducted back in the early 1980s. It didn’t help I had to deal with a peeping Tom at the old Hecht’s department store, where the bathrooms were much nicer.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (http://dc.about.com).

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (http://dc.about.com).

I found a gold mine of materials on formal and unofficial education policies regarding DC Public Schools during the Jim Crow period — especially between 1920 and 1950 — at the DCPS archives. But because they didn’t have a working copier, the archivist there allowed me to take original records going back seven decades to the Sir Speedy on M Street to make my own copies. This was in contrast to my three days Presidents’ Day week at the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, where security was tighter in ’95 than at most airports in 2015.

The Library of Congress part of my data gathering was intriguing. If only because their rubber chicken lunches were expensive ($7), and because I found more material on W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell there than I did at Moorland-Spingarn. Finally, I ended phase two with the Columbia Historical Society in Dupont Circle and a two-day expedition of finding nothing at the National Archives in DC and in Greenbelt, Maryland.

I spent most of March figuring out what to do with two big boxes’ worth of new materials and writing what would be parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of my dissertation. In between, I did find time to hang out. With my new friend Marya, who was from DC, but was working on her history doctorate from the University of Michigan. In addition to being plied with vegan options for my delicate gastrointestinal tract and talking about our research, we did joke a bit about the idea of my Joe Trotter and her Earl Lewis actually being friends in any real sense of the word. There was also time to go out to dinner with Laurell, take in a couple of bad movies with my Carnegie Mellon friend Tracie (like Losing Isaiah), and even have a quick lunch with Trotter during his own quick visit to DC.

Terrell Owens hauls in 'The Catch II' from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

Terrell Owens hauls in ‘The Catch II’ from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

After seven weeks of living in DC, I took the train up to New York to go visit my family in Mount Vernon for a few days. What was great about those two months was how peaceful everything was. I was three weeks away from becoming a Spencer Fellow and somehow earning the ire of my doctoral advisor. My family was a month away from becoming homeless for the next two and a half years. My borrowing to cover the costs of this first major research trip, I’m probably still paying interest on today. But without this trip, I wouldn’t have begun the process of questioning the direction of my career and life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to finish my doctorate. Being single-minded about a mission isn’t bad or good. It just means ignoring small stuff, some of which can occasionally turn into a festering cesspool.


Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

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

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

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

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

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

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.


Where’s the Historical Documentary on W. E. B. Du Bois?

January 18, 2015

Or, "Sal, how come you ain't got no brothers up on the wall here?," Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin' Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (http://www.theroot.com/).

Or, “Sal, how come you ain’t got no
brothers up on the wall here?,” Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (http://www.theroot.com/).

Or for that matter, where’s the documentary on Alain Locke, Anna Julia Cooper, John Hope Franklin, Horace Mann Bond, Richard Wright, Mary Church Terrell, and so many other Black intellectuals, writers and educators? If your answer is, “check out California Newsreel,” or PBS for a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, then you obviously don’t watch TV for knowledge. Yes, California Newsreel and other independents have made documentaries on many of these important figures in American and African American history. But other than a handful of PBS documentaries done under the American Masters series, a few here and there on Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey, and a 1993 documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, there isn’t much in the land of historical documentaries if you’re outside academia.

Still, I began with Du Bois for a reason. Given his influence on African American studies, American studies, American history, African American history, sociology, psychology, higher education, poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, Whiteness studies, Transatlantic studies, civil rights activism, and the NAACP, it would seem a documentary for a broad audience is a bit overdue. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-five, and February 23 marks 147 years since his original year of birth (1868). Most of us, though, can’t even pronounce his name correctly, assume that he’s French (read “White” here) or stereotype him as an egghead when we find out that his PhD in history’s from Harvard.

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

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

Yet, year in and year out, TV season after TV season, films and documentaries are made about White moguls and intellectuals, as if the only people with brains have been White males. Just in the past year alone, there have been at least three miniseries/documentaries on the great White male in history: Ancient Impossible: Ancient Einsteins, How We Got Here, and The Men Who Built America. Apparently the only smart ancients were Greeks who just happened to live in Egypt and master-race true believers like Henry Ford and Wernher von Braun built our modern world with their bare hands. Even ordinary White males ought to be insulted, no? Especially since Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller apparently built the country without their forefathers’ muscle, sweat and blood.

But that’s just it, according to Du Bois (via Black Reconstruction, 1935). Even though many of these documentaries all but wipe ordinary people out of existence, ordinary Whites can glean a psychological wage from Whiteness just from seeing someone who looks like them represented in pixels, especially White males. Even if they can in no way become that person. That level of analysis alone would make Du Bois worthy of a well-financed documentary. That is, of course, if he were White and if we pronounced his name as ” Doo-Bwah.”

Why I am bringing this up on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday holiday? Isn’t Black History Month and Du Bois’ birthday next month? Precisely because we need to reflect on what we want to see on screen and in other places in our lives. Every day, every month, every time. Selma‘s doing gangbusters, is well-written, and got great acting. What more can you ask for? Yet the Oscar committee all but shunned it because it’s a “Black film” that took a smidgen of poetic license.  And, because Selma showed what everyone knows from listening to the LBJ tapes — that one of the great presidents who pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act was also a racist — the awards folks have snubbed it.

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

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

Seriously, how many times do we need to hear how great it was for men who weren’t self-made and who benefited from government subsidies to become billionaires at a time when a $500 a year salary made the average American man affluent (1880, by the way)? Or how much more to I need to hear to know that Einstein spent far more time pondering the cosmos than he did working on his marriage or being there for his two kids?

Too often we put great people on a pedestal as if they never had diarrhea or had days where their best efforts just weren’t good enough. Even Du Bois wasn’t an exception in this regard. He lost his only son when the latter was only eighteen months old, cheated repeatedly on his wife, and almost singlehandedly got Marcus Garvey arrested. But, then again, shouldn’t this make Du Bois documentary-worthy, too? Du Bois was a quintessential American, after all.


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

January 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back to My Future, Forward to the Past

January 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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