Mothers’ Meeting Day, 1997

May 17, 2014

Normally I do a post every May 18th on a topic related to my PhD graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon. They usually revolve around two subjects: Joe Trotter and my Mom, betrayal and burnout. For once, I have no intention of doing a post on the seventeenth anniversary of officially becoming “Dr. Collins” and all of the baggage that I brought/came with that. Instead, today’s post is about the day before, Saturday, May 17 ’97. It was the day that my Mom and my future mother-in-law would meet each other for the first time, during my Mom’s one-and-only visit to Pittsburgh during my twelve years there.

I covered the cost of my Mom’s round-trip flight on US Air from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh, knowing that she wouldn’t have been able — or, as it turned out, willing — to see me graduate otherwise. That Friday evening, May 16th, was my Mom’s first time on an airplane since she was pregnant with me, the summer of ’69, when she visited her family in Arkansas. She’d already missed my ceremonies at Pitt for my bachelor’s and master’s in ’91 and ’92 respectively, and, as a result, I hadn’t gone to my graduations those years either.

So I made it easy for her this time around. Or rather, me and my then girlfriend Angelia made it easy for her. I gave up my studio apartment that weekend, because my Mom wasn’t comfortable with me putting her up in a hotel. Angelia cleaned my apartment from top to bottom — including the moulding at the bottom of my apartment’s walls. The place wasn’t this clean the day I’d moved in back in ’90!

But with so many other things that week, my Mom showed little appreciation for the significance of this trip, or for what we were doing to make this trip as convenient for her as possible. I went through Friday night and Saturday at Angelia’s apartment on the edge of East Liberty, about a twelve-minute walk away, where I hadn’t done an overnight before. I spent the first half of the next day going back and forth between my Mom, Angelia, my high school friend Laurell and her sister Naomi and unofficial surrogate (who were all staying at the Downtown Marriott).  I took my Mom to both Pitt and CMU, to show her the place of my ten years’ working toward something much more important than a second high school diploma. I might as well have been taking my son to both campuses when he was a newborn!

Around 2:30 pm, I realized we needed to get to Angelia’s mother’s place in Homewood for a mid-afternoon meal. That was next on the schedule. I think we took the bus, the 71D from a block off CMU to Homewood, and walked the three blocks up a steep hill to Monticello Street. There, Angelia’s mom extended a long greeting, a hug for which my Mom hardly seemed prepared. Angelia was also there, and had bought a KFC bucket meal for the four of us to share.

After a few pleasantries, it started. How my mother and eventual mother-in-law, in their first-ever meeting, spent three hours discussing their failed marriages and the horrible nature of Black men the day before my graduation, I really don’t know. I was in a fog, worn out from a week’s worth of insomnia and from the growing realization that my Mom didn’t really care about my journey or accomplishments.

I stayed and respected my elders, maybe too much. Three hours listening to stories I already knew, between my first-hand knowledge of my father Jimme and my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice, not to mention the stories Angelia had told me about her mother’s trials (luckily, Angelia never witnessed these, because her mother’s marriage was over by the time she’d turned two). A concussion here, a bruised lip there. A broken jaw, a fractured arm. Alcoholism and abuse, and men, working or unemployed, not paying any bills. “Men are no good,” my Mom said over and over again.

Of course, I didn’t count, for as far as my Mom was concerned, I wasn’t a man, because I’d spent the previous decade as a student. But that wasn’t the worst part. My Mom did a bunch of revisionist history in telling the story of “raisin’ six kids” and her doomed two marriages, somehow writing me and Darren and the decisions she had some degree of control over out of this story.

I’d never been part of a conversation like this as an adult. As a six or ten-year-old kid on The Avenue in Mount Vernon with my Mom and her hospital friends, yes, but not since those times. I felt as if I might as well found some stoop outside, sat down with a 40, and fallen into a deep sleep.

Even Angelia’s mom wanted to change the subject by the middle of hour number three. Instead, she used her elderly-ness as a excuse to beg off more conversation on the topic of misogyny, told me that she was proud of me, said that she was excited about going to the CMU ceremony, and retired for the evening. I wish I could’ve gone upstairs with her and done the same. I instead had the distinction of dropping my Mom off at my apartment, picking up Angelia and going down to Station Square to eat dinner with Laurell, Naomi and Archie. And that was all the day before the graduation ceremony!

In Denigration of the Black and Accomplished

January 20, 2014

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

Screenshot of Richard Sherman post-game interview with Erin Andrews, NFC Championship Game, Seattle, WA, January 19, 2014. (

I plan half of my blog posts in advance. At the beginning of every year, I make up a list of topics that I intend to cover, listed by month, and then go through that list. For the other half, I take advantage of relevant news stories or sudden life experiences that also seem relevant. Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.25.25 AM

Today’s post is a combination of planning and the impromptu. I’d already planned to write about the tightrope of being Black and accomplished — actually, more like the noose of it. But thanks to @profragsdale’s tweet, aka, Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris (Houston, Texas) and a PhD candidate at Rice University, I started on this topic a day early. Her tweet was the kick-off to eight hours of tweets about the cold and often cold-shoulder reception women — and Black male and LGBT — faculty and grad students receive when bringing up, discussing or even promoting themselves and their accomplishments.

Only to see more of these tweets and thoughts confirmed in another arena. The response of the racist, George-Zimmerman-set to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews on FOX within a couple of moments after he made the play to seal the game for his Seattle Seahawks to go play in Super Bowl XLVIII. You, Black man, can’t have a flash of anger and moment of passion on TV after playing in the NFC Championship Game, for then your accomplishments will be used against you. (Sarcasm aside, Sherman’s taunting will likely result in a fine, but that’s the NFL).

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

Single Drum Rollers with Rock Crushing Drum crushing soil and rocks (similar to how Whiteness can crush Black accomplishments), January 20, 2014. (

My post is much, much closer to home. I had the blessing and the curse of having two Black males as my official advisors while in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, Larry Glasco for two years at Pitt, and Joe Trotter for four years at CMU. My gripes and complaints about their neglect, selective attentions to my development, and, in Trotter’s case, harassment and psychological torture I’ve already documented well here. What I haven’t discussed is that they were part of a cycle of academic abuse that they passed down to my generation of grad students, and likely some of my colleagues are passing on to their grad students as I write today.

My best example of how denigration in academia works was a conversation I had with Dick Oestreicher, a Pitt professor for my grad seminar in American Working-Class History in Fall ’92. I was in Trotter’s African American History seminar at CMU at the same time. Oestreicher asked me what else I was taking that semester, I guess because I’d proven resistant to the idea that social class had primacy over all forms of inequality, even in the US (a neo-Marxist to the core, I guessed).

When I told him I was in Trotter’s seminar, Oestreicher said, “Oh, I’ve heard of him,” with the disdain a fashion designer usually reserved for suits off Sears’ rack. You’ve “heard of him?” Really? Trotter, an award-winner scholar and author with a groundbreaking book on Black migration, urbanization and class formation in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985; 2007), and you’ve heard of him? A colleague only three blocks and one bridge away, and you’ve heard of him? Even now, the only word I have to that is, “Wow!”

If Oestreicher was the only one to do that, and only to Trotter, then my observations here would be suspect. But I witnessed this same kind of thing from other White history professors at Pitt and CMU toward Trotter and Glasco during my grad school years. Heck, one of the reasons I left for CMU in the first place was because I knew several of the most powerful professors in the Pitt history department didn’t respect Glasco’s work, and by extension, my own progress and work.

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite (also of grad school), April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Maybe that was part of the reason why Trotter would constantly “run interference” on my behalf, to protect my “interests” during my four years there. Because, despite all the long hours, the sweat, tears and blood, there were folks at CMU who just saw him as a mere Black man, not a colleague or scholar every bit their equal. Given the books, the articles, the grants and so many other accomplishments, Trotter was easily the most productive professor in the department.

None of this justified how Trotter treated me when I was his student. I was semi-aware of the racial politics of accomplishment denial that folks around us practiced. I often chalked it up to jealousy or stress, thinking that the quality of my work or — to use Trotter’s terminology — my scholarship would show the academic world my worth. What White disdain toward Glasco and Trotter — and Trotter’s harassment of me — taught me, though, is that I’d have to be White in order for my accomplishments to seriously matter in academia, and I wasn’t planning on being White in my lifetime. And, that intellectual Whiteness can be nurtured and grown into Black professors.

In the years since finishing my own PhD, I’ve faced my own dilemmas around my achievements. I’ve at times attempted to fit in by downplaying my publications, by not bringing up my degrees, by not talking about my fellowship awards. What have I learned? To deny myself of my own accomplishments is like making a fine wine but not even daring to take a sip. White accomplishment deniers be damned.

Muggers’ Delight and The Aftermath

December 5, 2013

Champagne popping, December 5, 2013. ( ).

Champagne popping, May 2011. (Brian Freedman via

I was mugged for the last time on this date thirty years ago, the first Monday in December ’83. I’ve talked about this before, the experience of being jumped by four teenagers, who in the end, made away with $13 and change, the dumb asses. It was the beginning of a long and emotional month for me, mostly because of how my classmates responded to finding out about it.

From Boy @ The Window:

The first person who came up to me to ask what happened was Craig. He saw me as I was leaving Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five, which completely surprised me. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school.

It wasn’t just Craig. From Phyllis and Wendy to Joe and Danny, they all seemed to care that I was all right. It was the first time in three years that I knew anyone actually cared about me even in the most basic sense. That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. Fighting off four muggers and chasing them for over a mile, Mom responding by taking me to the police and their tracking down of Corey, to my classmates’ genuine concern left me emotionally exhausted. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep.

It was the last of four muggings and robberies in four years, at ages nine and twelve, and two at thirteen. People said that Harlem was rough, and from my trips on the Subway through and times in Harlem with Jimme, it was. It didn’t mean that Mount Vernon was soft or a place for only wannabe-thugs. Within a couple of months, Corey and his gang had all gone to juvenile detention for what they had done to me.

It would also be the last straw for me as far as my identifying myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. The fifth and sixth of December had taught me a lot about the human condition. My classmates had shown me their maturity upon learning about my mugging. Mom took more initiative on my behalf in taking me to the police than I’d seen her take in years. The police actually cared about my case and didn’t play around in tracking down my assailants. It took about three weeks, but I tracked Jimme down, and, after collecting some money for the holiday season, gave Maurice his thirteen dollars.

I guess I also learned a small lesson in redemption. The fact that I had even a teaspoonful of support was very different from the way my classmates might’ve treated me if Corey and company had gone after me two years before. I must’ve done something right in middle school and in ninth grade, enough to where I redeemed myself as a decent human being in the eyes of my classmates. Despite this, I didn’t trust it, not completely. I realized that things would get back to normal in a week or two, and I’d go back to my loner role. And while I was happy that Mom came to my aid, I knew that this was a rare event. Expecting Mom to be there to support me was really too much to ask.

Behind the emotionless mask based on Itachi Uchiha, a ninja from the Village Hidden In The Leaves (Konohagure) of the anime, Naruto, January 25, 2013. (

Behind the emotionless mask based on Itachi Uchiha, a ninja from the Village Hidden In The Leaves (Konohagure) of the anime, Naruto, January 25, 2013. (JeiGoWay via

Emotionally, it was as if someone had uncorked a bottle half-filled with warm champagne. I had gotten used to my role as nerdy loner at school and blank, unemotional eldest child in resistance to my idiot stepfather’s abuse at home. My classmates’ positive expressions toward me caused a psychological systems error, one that meant I could no longer avoid a simple truth. That it had been more than two and a half years since the last time I’d felt any connections to any person in my life. I had no friends, no family with which I shared an emotional or psychological bond. I hadn’t had a hug in at least two years. At least, until the day after my mugging.

After years of being weird and odd, of being made fun of (luckily Facebook, Twitter and cyber-bullying didn’t exist in ’83) and beaten up (with the constant threat of abuse to boot), and our plunge into welfare poverty, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make it to be fourteen, much less become a full-grown adult. I was approaching a crossroads, where my previously bottled-up emotions of the period between April ’81 and the mugging were coming directly into contact with my emotionless persona. It was an explosive mix, leaving me to question my very need to exist at all.

Me The Little Runaway

August 25, 2013

Literally on this day and date, and at this time twenty-eight years ago, I was at the beginning of a twenty-three hour adventure away from 616, my idiot stepfather (no longer, of course, and recently deceased) Maurice Washington and his abuse, a trek that took me all over Mount Vernon and into both my dreams and fears. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

“We got into it over the ‘Dad’ issue again. He told me to do something, and I only said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t say ‘Okay, Dad,’ and my ‘Okay’ wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. This was the one thing about Maurice that I refused to accept – him as anything other than the leech and bully that he was. He certainly wasn’t my dad, and he gave up the right to be called “stepfather” three years before. Yet he insisted on me calling him “Dad!” I usually walked a fine line between open defiance and acquiescence with him, not referring to him by anything at all. He had no name, no title, no label. Maurice was nothing and meant nothing to me other than the reason I’d eventually have to leave 616. Our incidents had become less frequent only because he worked nights as a security guard and slept during the day. And I stayed home as little as I could when he was around.

“So on the last Sunday of August ’85, we had another round.

“I’m your father, and the Bible says to ‘honor thy father and mother’. . .”

“You’ll never be my father. My father lives at 149 South Tenth Avenue.”

“As long as you live under my roof, you’re gonna call me ‘Dad’.”

“No, I’m not,” I said shaking my head at the same time.

“I’m gonna show you how to respect me, nigga!,” he said as he balled his fists.

“Luckily I had fast feet. He tried to grab me and then hit me at the same time, not a good tactic when you’re significantly overweight and off balance. I slithered past him, got out of his grasp, and dashed down our long hallway to the front door. I ran down the stairs that led to the back dirt courtyard area of 616 and didn’t stop running into I ran into the woods nearby, Wilson Woods. It was a mostly cloudy late summer day, thank God, because I wasn’t in any shape to be bothered with anybody.

“I wound my way through Wilson Woods on its serpentine path toward the southeast side of Mount Vernon. I saw a few folks who recognized me as I walked from the woods toward East Third and South Columbus, but the walk was mostly a blur. I made my way to Jimme’s place on West Third and South Tenth, all the while thinking about the reality of my long-lost childhood and quickly evaporating time as a teenager. Jimme wasn’t home, and I didn’t feel like going on a hunt for him at one of his watering hole after a meandering three-mile walk. So I waited there for a while, maybe an hour or so.

“I made my way past downtown Mount Vernon, up Gramatan Avenue, taking on the hill on which Davis Middle School sits. From there I reached Fleetwood and walked past homes and cars that I thought me and my family deserved but would never own. I likely walked by the homes of some of my classmates without even knowing it. Tudors and townhomes, beamers and Volvos populated this neighborhood. I turned right on Birch Street and headed east, eventually meandering past Pennington-Grimes Elementary. I noted that this was the place where the remaining affluent and most assertive Humanities classmates went to as kids. It made me think for a moment about the reality that when put together, Mom, Maurice and Jimme had no clue about what it was like for me to be in a program like this, with students whose parents owned their own homes or were able to take a vacation overseas. These compadres were more sophisticated than I was, even after four years in the program. Just thinking about it made me clinch my teeth.”

I eventually made my way to Mount Vernon High School, where I spent the night sleeping on the floor in the classroom next to the Humanities coordinator’s office (Joyce Flanagan’s office at the time). I had a morning of meandering, ended up at St. Ursula Catholic Church for three hours of prayer and contemplation about my future. All before going home to my worried (for once) Mom, my dispassionate dipshit of a stepfather, and my uncivilized siblings.

There, around 3 pm that Monday, I just collapsed, in my sometimes bed and bedroom, not knowing I was literally two years away from being on my way to Pitt and Pittsburgh. But I knew for sure that I couldn’t keep running away, either.

The Walking Danger

July 12, 2013


Justice4Trayvon blackout box, July 12, 2013. (

Regardless of the verdict in the Florida v. Zimmerman (a.k.a. Justice4Trayvon) trial, there’s one sad and terrifying lesson to take away from the past seventeen months. No Black male past puberty can assume themselves to be safe once they leave their homes to do so much as to cross the street. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6’1″ and 173 pounds, like I was my senior year of high school, or 6’6″ and 300 pounds, like a good- sized high school offensive lineman. We’re not just assumed guilty. We’re assumed to have a value the equivalent of a quart of recycled cooking oil.

It amazes me that with as much walking as I did while growing up in Mount Vernon and in walking all through the city, I only faced a handful of Walking While Black incidents. From the time my Mom and my late idiot ex-stepfather Maurice moved me and my older brother Darren into 616, I was a frequent walker. At seven, my Mom sent us to the store for groceries, for soda, for cigarettes and pork rinds. Yeah, the store was a block and a half away on East Lincoln, but that block and a half led to my first mugging at nine.

By then, my walks to the store went into Pelham and Milk ‘n Things, a three-block walk, as well as stores within three blocks of the Pelham border. That led to the first weird stares from Italian store owners. At the same time, when my father Jimme came back into our lives in ’79, we’d walk to Mount Vernon’s South Side. We’d walk to East Third Street and Wino Park on Fulton and Third, to the rib shack across the street from the park, to Sanford Blvd, even into the Bronx depending on Jimme’s alcohol level. That would lead to confrontations with street folks, and even occasional stares from cops.

Wise Cheez Doodles, one of my favorites to buy as a teenager, July 12, 2013. (

Wise Cheez Doodles, one of my favorites to buy as a teenager, July 12, 2013. (

By the time I hit puberty in the spring and summer of ’82, in no small part because of the collapse of anything resembling a family at Hebrew-Israelite 616, I began to walk everywhere. Some of my walks were because my Mom’s marriage had given her more mouths to feed and no time to go to the store. So me (mostly) and Darren (on occasion) would walk from 616 to stores like C-Town in Pelham (a mile or so away), Waldbaum’s on East Prospect (a mile and a quarter away) or stores in between for food. This became part of an eventual everyday routine, one that would last until well after I began college at the University of Pittsburgh (at least, when I was home for the holidays or the summer).

We also walked to get my younger brothers and sister Sarai out of the stifling apartment, especially because it was quite literally so during the summer months. We walked from 616 to Pelham, Pelham Manor, the Bronx, Bronxville and New Rochelle in those first couple of summers after puberty. The kids helped us look less suspicious, I suppose, because two teenage Black males had no business being anywhere near the six-figure-income-set’s communities in the mid-80s (or even now) otherwise.

I also began walking to explore, escape and think. It was next to impossible to think at home, with the constant noise, threats of abuse and actual abuse and domestic violence. So by the time I’d reached tenth grade, I needed to walk, by myself and with no agenda other than to make plans for my future while clearing my head. I did get followed by Bronxville PD a couple of times. But mostly, lost Whites from out-of-state would stop and ask for directions to the Bronx River Parkway or I-87.

Hershey's Chocolate Milk (at 17, a 16oz was my favorite store-bought drink), July 12, 2013. (

Hershey’s Chocolate Milk (at 17, a 16oz was my favorite store-bought drink), July 12, 2013. (

It wasn’t until after my seventeenth birthday — when I finally began to put on a little weight (muscle, I guess) — that walking around New York, Mount Vernon and nearby environs began to feel dangerous. Or at least, others began to act as if I was the danger. I’d become a regular weekend strap-hanger on the 2 out of 241st Street headed either to the Upper West Side, Midtown or Downtown, as well as parts of the Bronx. To hunt for the latest tapes, to go to a museum or a library, to just walk around and take the city in. But I also knew to be careful, to be leery of the NYPD, to keep my hands out of my pockets whenever I went to Tower Records or Crazy Eddie’s or even Gray’s Papaya.

Still, there were incidents at Milk-N-Things and Tower Records and a general feeling that folks, older, often White but also frequently Black were genuinely afraid that I — a person who’d been mugged four times before my fourteenth birthday — would hurt them.

Walking was how I learned how different I was from a societal perspective. That though a teenage, I was the dangerous Black male, to be treated as if I just escaped the plantation, as if I hope to find a store to knock over and a White girl to knock up against her will.

I’d hoped to spare my son this lesson. Sadly, because of George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, I can’t. But at least he won’t have to learn this lesson from scratch like I did. And luckily, I knew and did enough to avoid danger — or being seen as the danger — long before I turned seventeen.

Kufi Battles

February 15, 2013

Slow-motion punch frame from Matrix Revolutions (2003), February 15, 2013. (

Slow-motion punch frame from The Matrix Revolutions (2003), February 15, 2013. (

My days as a kufi-wearing Hebrew-Israelite at school is one of those things I don’t spend much time on this blog talking about. Mostly because it involved defending myself to protect a piece of clothing and a religion in which I never fully believed, especially after early ’83. Plus, it involved fairly rare attempts in which dumb asses attempted to bully me. Compared to my now deceased idiot ex-stepfather’s abuse, no kid or wannabe thug after the summer of ’82 really stood a chance.

There were three incidents in eighth and ninth grade in which a kid got into a scuffled with me over my kufi, for whatever reason they’d invented in their head. The first was in February ’83, as one Black kid — probably about fifteen — snatched my kufi from my head and started to run up the basement hallway with it at Davis Middle School. The incident occurred as I, A and another member of A’s “Italian Club” entourage were in the middle of an errand for a teacher. I immediately ran the boy down, knocked him to the floor, dusted off my kufi, and put it back on my head. The boy got up and threatened to beat me up. It was at this point that A intervened, saying that he would “have to take us all on” if he wanted to fight me. A’s moment of support notwithstanding, I would’ve beaten the kid in the face as many times as it would’ve taken to get my kufi back.

Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison sacks Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco, AFC Division Round, January 15, 2011. (

Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison sacks Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco, AFC Division Round, January 15, 2011. (

The second incident occurred a month later, prior to the opening morning bell at Davis. Out of the blue, “Little J” picked a fight with me, calling me a “dickweed” and a “shithead” for no reason at all. I hardly knew the Jewish kid, who immediately came at me to push, shove, throw punches, and grab at my kufi. It really was crazy for Little J to think that he had a shot at doing any damage. I was already five-eight. He was lucky if he was four-eleven and one hundred pounds after a potato latkes breakfast.

This wasn’t a fight. It was a pushing and shoving match, with me doing all of the pushing and shoving and Little J landing in bushes or on his ass. For seven minutes, he kept running at me, trying to throw a punch or kick me. I caught or blocked his attempts, grabbed him, and shoved him into the bushes near the boys’ entrance to Davis. By the sixth time, Little J was crying and his cheeks were fire truck-red, I was laughing and shaking my head, and the other Black boys at Davis were asking me what was going on. When I told them, they started laughing as well.

Beyond him grabbing at me and my kufi, I never knew what Little J wanting to fight me was all about. My guess then was that Little J was playing the role of Esau (the hairy brother of Jacob from the Bible, Torah and Qur’an) and didn’t like the fact that I claimed to be a descendant of the father of ancient Israel and his people.

The Man In Black (presumably Esau; played by Titus Welliver) with Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), from TV series Lost (2009-10), February 15, 2013. (

The Man In Black (presumably Esau; played by Titus Welliver) with Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), from TV series Lost (2009-10), February 15, 2013. (

Incident Three occurred on my second day at Mount Vernon High School. After a day of assignments and learning the names of our new teachers, I went to Louis Cuglietto’s eighth-period Geometry class. It was on the first floor of the school, just to the right of the front entrance and the cafeteria. As I milled around the classroom looking to take my seat, my Latino classmate “N” came out of nowhere and snatched my kufi off my head.

“Give it back now!,” I yelled.

“Make me!,” N responded with a bit of sarcasm.

Just as he was about to throw it to another classmate. I grabbed N and knocked him to the floor. There we were, on the floor by the dark green chalkboard, me on top of N, who was struggling to hold on to my kufi. I lay on top of him, punched him in the face a couple of times, and took my kufi back from him just before Cuglietto came into the room. By this time everyone in our class had formed a circle to watch the spectacle. I don’t remember all of what Cuglietto said, but he did ask, “Do you want to get suspended?” After we dusted ourselves off, we went to our desks and got back to work.

For me, the incident marked a transition point in my life at school. This would be the last fight I’d have in school. Some people continued to try to verbally intimidate me. But they left it at that, probably because my height and my face said “Don’t mess with me” before I’d say anything.

The more immediate result was that I began to question more consciously my motives for defending myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. “Why do I care if N snatches my kufi from me?,” I said to myself on the way home from school that day. It wasn’t as if I truly believed in any of the teachings anymore. I definitely didn’t want anyone messing with me at home or in school. At the same time, I didn’t want to use up energy defending something in which I didn’t believe.

Moving (On) To Pittsburgh

August 26, 2012

241st Street-Wakefield Subway Station, Bronx, NY, August 25, 2012. (jag9889 via In public domain.

I’m now a quarter-century removed from leaving my original hometown, Mount Vernon, New York, for Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh. Wednesday, August 26, ’87 wasn’t my first day of adulthood, but it turned into my first day of freedom from the disappointment that my years in Mount Vernon and at 616 East Lincoln Avenue had turned into. It’s been a long road of triumphs and setbacks, of mistakes and sins, of excellence and miracles (see my post “Trip to the ‘Burgh” from August ’09).

But I’ve frequently wondered what would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Mount Vernon, or, at least, somewhere in or near New York City. Would I have turned out like my older brother Darren, a forty-four year-old who’s never been able to shake off the years of psychological torture he endured at 616? He was caught between my mother believing him to be retarded and being in a school for the mentally retarded as a kid with an above-average IQ for fourteen years. Darren never had a chance to build on him teaching himself to read at three and teaching me how to read at five (see post “About My Brother” from December ’07).

Outside of the upper-crust lily-Whiteness that was his Clear View School experience, Darren’s never known a middle-class adult life, a middle-class education or people he could talk to about his experience in order to move on from it. My brother lives around 233rd Street in the Bronx, as isolated now as he was at 616, trapped in our 616 past and in the warped thinking that has retarded his growth as a human being for nearly forty years.

Or would I have turned into my youngest brother Eri, a twenty-eight year-old frequently angry with the world? He’s been taking solace in a father (my ex-stepfather) who was never there for him and in his father’s twisted sense of Afrocentric Judaism? Unlike me and my older brother Darren, who at least knew what it was like to live in a time when even we experienced some sense of the old American Dream, Eri never had that chance.

Poverty, the grinding-with-millstones kind, and joblessness are really all that Eri’s seen the past three decades. Job Corp and the Army National Guard have really been his only times away from the daily anguish of 616 and Mount Vernon. And with the death of our sister Sarai two years ago, I know that he’s felt even more angst and isolation. Leading Eri to begin the process of re-upping with Uncle Sam for this fall.

Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian passing the 1895 Bryn Mawr Interlocking Control Towerat Bryn Mawr, PA, en route from New York to Pittsburgh, June 6, 2011. (Centpacrr via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-by-sa-3.0.

If I had stayed, my story would likely have ended up somewhere between Darren’s and Eri’s. I would’ve somehow gone to college, maybe Westchester Community College, Hunter or possibly Fordham. But the drama of living at 616 and the constant reminders of the worst years of my life all around me would’ve made demon-slaying a near-impossible task.

It was bad enough occasionally bumping into Crush #1, Crush #2 or one of my silent treatment classmates during the holidays and summers I was away from Pittsburgh between ’87 and ’92. Seeing them regularly and knowing that they only saw me as a twelve-year-old asshole or socially-inept seventeen-year-old? That would’ve stunted me (see my post “The Silent Treatment” from June ’10). I simply wouldn’t have felt that I had the space — geographically or psychologically — to move on from those morbid times.

Even if I somehow found the focus of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan combined to complete a bachelor’s degree, I would’ve needed to make the decision to leave the area anyway. Especially if I had any other aspirations besides helping my mother take care of my younger siblings, including going to graduate school.

All the decisions I made after August 26, ’87, in fact, wouldn’t have occurred if I had stayed at 616, in Mount Vernon, even anywhere in the New York City area. I would’ve been too close to allow my mother to be beaten by my ex-stepfather again. I would’ve been too embarrassed by my father’s increasing alcoholism. And I would’ve been too angry with myself for all of the fun I’d denied myself while my former high school classmates were living what I assumed was the equivalent of Sheila E’s “Fabulous Life.”

There would’ve been no decision to even risk being homeless my sophomore year for a degree — much less actually being homeless for nearly a week. There then wouldn’t have been a decision to change my major to history, much less rediscovering myself as a writer years later. I wouldn’t have ever seen myself as worthy of happiness, or seen myself as handsome, or seen myself through the eyes of others as funny or charming or goofy. Instead, I could’ve counted on anger, rage, disappointment and misery to be my four emotional companions, ever ready to introduce themselves to the New York City area.

We often need change to move on from the demons of our past and present. Thank God I made the decision to literally leave 616 and Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh. That decision has enabled me to remember the past without wallowing in it.


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