Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.


Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year.  I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.

This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.

That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.

I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.

The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.

We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.

The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.

What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.


The Importance of The Great Society, 50 Years Later

April 10, 2015

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

This weekend marks a half-century since President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first series of bills into law that signified his Great Society/War on Poverty work. We won’t hear much about this, though. Not with 2015 being a benchmark year for commemorating and celebrating so much else. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Appomattox at 150, along with President Lincoln’s assassination, Juneteenth, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ending legal slavery (except for prisoners, of course). The trench warfare of World War I, and the Battle of Gallipoli (if one’s a real war trivia buff). Even the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future and the UN Conference on Women, which gathered in Nairobi, Kenya in the fall of 1985, will likely get more air time, cyber time, and ink than the first of LBJ’s Great Society programs.

But the Great Society was supposed to be a grand experiment and experience. It was supposed to wipe out poverty, end all legal forms of discrimination and segregation, and make the opportunity to achieve the modern American Dream of a middle-class life or better a reality for almost everyone. And it would’ve worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids, um, LBJ’s pesky decisions to go escalate the Vietnam War. The war cost $269 billion in 1970 dollars, or, $1.7 trillion in 2015 money.

What $1 trillion looks like,  January 2012. (http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/ via Elsolet Joubert).

What $1 trillion looks like, January 2012. (http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/ via Elsolet Joubert).

Yet it’s not exactly true that it would’ve worked, or that it didn’t work. You see, despite the best efforts of an elitist, right-wing and ineffectual federal government corrupted by plutocrats and its military-industrial complex, the Great Society programs are still with us. For starters, there’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, the first one LBJ signed into law on April 11, fifty years ago on this date.

Without these laws, the modern era of educating millions of children whom states, colleges and universities and local school districts had shut out of K-12 and higher education wouldn’t have occurred at all. With federal government dollars and regulations, not to mention a foundation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA and HEA in its initial years provided real hope for “an equal opportunity for all.”

This wasn’t and isn’t just about Jim Crow and racial discrimination and segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto via residential segregation and redlining in cities outsider the South. This became about opening doors for whole classes of children and adults that had been steel-reinforced-concrete walls before.

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (http://aei.org).

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (http://aei.org).

Technocrats and other public education crises gurus of the likes of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Roland Fryer would have us think that the $600 billion that states and the federal government via ESEA spend on public education each year is all wasteful spending. They say that we have about the same number of students in schools today (about 50 million) as we did in 1970.

Of course, they don’t tell the whole story, leaving out a lot of truth for us. For in my lifetime, students with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional) have gone from shutout to included in public schools as part of the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1989 and 1992, and of course, ESEA. Students with language proficiency issues became part of the public education fabric under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1974, with funds provided out of ESEA. Charter schools, magnet programs, school counseling, and so many other things that have made public education more inclusive and also more expensive wouldn’t have been possible without ESEA. Meaning, technocrats, that public education was severely underfunded and exclusionary prior to 1965.

The HEA hasn’t had the same effect, primarily because we as a society tend to think of higher education as a luxury and not a right, and have fought hard to make many colleges and universities the exclusive domain of “the worthy.” Still, without HEA and the Pell Grants (named after former Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961-97), the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Direct Student Loan Program, and the Supplemental Loan Program, a whole generation of low-income and middle-income families wouldn’t have been able to send their kids to college. They were often the first in their families, as Blacks, as women, as Black and Latino women, as working-class Whites with only a steel mill or automobile plant in their future. At least back then.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master's Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. (http://smmercury.com/). In public domain.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master’s Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. (http://smmercury.com/). In public domain.

There’s also the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Head Start program, and Congress passing Medicaid and Medicare, providing health coverage for the elderly and deeply poor for the first time. And all in 1965.

What does all of this mean in 2015? That despite the mountains of books written on LBJ and the failures of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, that these programs worked and work in ameliorating poverty and expanding opportunities for all, even across racial lines. Would they have been more effective with more investment, especially in those initial years, when Vietnam became more of a priority? No doubt.

That’s just it, though. Most Americans — who despite the fears of Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani, remain White — didn’t care about poverty and racism and the structures that supported it then, and they mostly don’t care now. They want Congress to work, just not on issues that would permanently unbalance the social hierarchy that they’ve assumed as their birthright for two centuries.

Hence the constant one-two punch of a relationship they see with poverty and those with black and brown skin. Hence the constant carping about taxes and needless spending on food stamps and welfare, even though the true face of government assistance in the US has always been a haggard White one. Hence the constant media tropes about hard work and so-called self-made men worth billions making their money without holding a college degree, who somehow can tell the rest of us how to live. The Great Society, for all of LBJ’s foibles and its weaknesses, remains a great legacy of what America could be, and at times, has been, but overall, refuses to be.


Fake Booms, or a Tide That Raises a Few Yachts

April 2, 2015

"Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind" cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

“Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind” cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

It’s been a week and a half since my last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with other projects. Kind of like the American aristocracy, as they continue to distract us plebes with controversies over “religious freedom” laws and undisclosed emails while continuing to hoard trillions in wealth.

Not that these controversies are just abstract distractions, but they follow a pattern of division, deception, and misdirection. Our nation’s elite impose their views of the country and the world in such a way as the truth itself becomes a lie. Apparently for them, the First Amendment to the US Constitution’s a lie, since this first of these Bill of Rights guarantees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Establishment Clause has NEVER been absolute, especially in cases in which religious practice violates or interferes with others’ civil and constitutional rights.

Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America's Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/).

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America’s Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/).

But for the purposes of my post today, this truth-as-lie isn’t the biggest one the American plutocracy has pulled on us in the past forty years. Not even close. You see, the biggest lie they’ve sold us as truth is the idea that the US has been going through bust and boom cycles as normal for any wealthy capitalist democracy since the 1970s. That with every recession, or period of inflation, or deflation, or job stagnation, or changes in the economy, that a period of unbridled growth and social mobility has followed, keeping the American middle class the richest of the middle classes on Earth, indeed, in the history of the world!

Let’s start with the reality that median income has declined enough to show evidence of a shrinking American middle class. This decline isn’t a recent phenomenon. Since the end of World War II, there have been two lengthy patterns. One is a pattern of great economic growth, coinciding with America’s dominance of the global economy between 1945 and 1973. This growth of median income by a factor of six (from $2,379 in 1945 to $12,050 in 1973) was a reflection of the US economy’s glory years. The other is the current pattern of a slow, sometimes meandering but steady decline of economic dominance. All during a period of greater competition from Europe and Asia, job outsourcing, and a reduced industrial base, the last the heart of America’s economic growth before 1973.

Median Income Since 1945, Calculated in Actual/2013 Dollars

Year

Median Income

Median Income in 2013 $

1945

$2,379

$30,699

1963

$6,200

$46,826

1973

$12,050

$65,099

1983

$24,580

$57,824

1993

$31,241

$50,549

2003

$43,318

$55,060

2012

$51,017

$51,906

Sources: US Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-002, P60-043, P60-097 , P60-146, P60-188, P60-226, P60-245, Consumer Income (now Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage): 1948, 1964, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2004, 2013. (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/ and http://www.census.gov/prod/). Calculations based on CPI Inflation Calculator via the Bureau of Labor Statistics and DollarTimes.com, using 2013 as the most recent calendar year baseline (http://data.bls.gov/ and http://www.dollartimes.com/).

Median income in 1973 was 20.1 percent higher ($65,000) than it is today ($52,000). In the intervening years, median income never grew enough to match or exceed the growth that occurred during the peak of the middle class’ development. Not in the years after the double-dip recession of the early 1980s. Not even after the Information Revolution under the business and credit-friendly Clinton years of the 1990s.

The dot.com boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (http://www.sf-info.org/).

The dot.com boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (http://www.sf-info.org/).

Keep in mind, too, that the 400 wealthiest households in the wealthiest nation of all time hold a net worth that exceeds the net worth of the bottom fifty percent of all US households. It’s simple math, really — 400 > ~100,000,000 households or roughly 155 million people with kids and other relatives. Or, $1.5 trillion for 400 > $1.4 trillion for 155,000,000.

The best measure the US currently has for different socioeconomic classes that isn’t from a complex university study or an ideological think-tank is the experimental Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed jointly by the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The AP and dozens of other news outlets first reported the use of the SPM after the two agencies developed a report on Americans in poverty and with low-income with it in November 2011. Taking into account tax credits, non-cash benefits (e.g., SNAP or food stamps), out-of-pocket medical expenses, and other in-kind contributions, the Census and BLS constructed a Ratio of Income/Resource to Poverty matrix that accounted for both the official calculations of poverty (which the federal government originally developed in 1964) and calculations done with the SPM. The news media headlined the December 2011 results with “1 in 2 People Are Poor or Low-Income.”

As sobering as this is, it’s not the whole story, not for those Americans working under the assumption that they are middle class. According to the Census’ latest report using the SPM (November 2013), 16 percent of Americans (49.7 million) live at or below the poverty threshold of $23,000 in income/resources per year, while another 31.2 percent (97.1 million) have at most $46,000 a year in income/resources, fitting the SPM definition of low-income. Another 107.6 million Americans have incomes/resources that are between two and four times the national poverty threshold (or between $46,000 and $92,000 in total resources per year), while the top 56.6 million of Americans (18.2 percent) have annual incomes/resources above $92,000.

Large saline and silicone breast implants -- could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), dot.com boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (http://medcitynews.com).

Large saline and silicone breast implants — could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), dot.com boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (http://medcitynews.com).

There are two really simple reasons why most Americans don’t see the plutocratic lie of “prosperity for everyone” despite all evidence of the truth. One is because they believe in that dangled carrot of somehow becoming rich, through hard work, prayer, giving out of need, or sheer luck, despite the debt it takes to remain even somewhat middle class. Two is because most believe they’re prospering whenever the Dow Jones’ Industrial Average breaks 10,000 or 15,000, or because the media faithfully reports monthly declines in unemployment, or because the average White family has a net worth that’s eight times that of Black and Latino families.

And those beliefs are reinforced by the societal taboo of rarely, if ever, talking about our income, our net worth or lack thereof, by acting as if the poverty or prosperity conversation violates the US Constitution. Without this serious conversation, how can we really claim that any tide of economic prosperity has lifted any boats other than those of the yacht-owning set since 1973?


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.


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