Given that Fear of a “Black” America was my first book, but one based on my doctoral dissertation, and that Boy @ The Window is a memoir, the road from one to the other may not be that obvious with an initial glance. But despite the intellectual, semi-scholarly nature of my book on Blacks and multiculturalism, there are parallel themes that run between Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window. Perhaps none are more important, though, than the challenge of authenticity, of fitting in, of being able to mesh the complicated onion that I’ve found myself to be over the years.
I think that was why I decided in November ’98 to turn my dissertation “A Substance of Things Hoped For” into a more readable book. Yes, after all that work to write a 505-page thesis, it would’ve been a shame to just let it sit on my then girlfriend’s coffee table, to be used either as a door stop or a base for her doing her nails. Yes, I still had something to prove to academia. That my scholarship as a historian and educator on the issue of multiculturalism was sound. That the conventional academic wisdom around Blacks, people of color and multiculturalism was paternalistic fear-mongering.
And in thinking that last part through, I came up with my Public Enemy-inspired title and thread for the first book. It was about fear in many forms. Elite White fears of a majority-people-of-color US within their own lifetimes. Conservative fears of a K-16 education system that included the cultural and historical perspectives of peoples of color, of the poor, of women, of the LGBT, of so many others they’d rather discard. General American skepticism that any Blacks had ever given any thought at all to cultural pluralism, intercultural education, or multiculturalism/multicultural education, at least before White theorists had thought through these ideas first.
Afrocentrists and nationalists who thought of multiculturalism as soft and utterly unrepresentative of the Black experience — or, at least, what they considered an authentic version thereof? That was as difficult a challenge as any I faced in writing both my dissertation and Fear of a “Black” America. So much so that I made a few interesting decisions along the way. I sought out an agent — yes, a literary agent — for the first book, and found one, too (things were so much easier in ’99). I wanted the book to have an impact beyond academia.
In the writing process, I decided to weave the theme of fear, skepticism, willful and inadvertent misunderstandings throughout the 200-page book. All while covering Black intellectual thought about what we now call Afrocentricity and multiculturalism, Black activism and activities around education and Negro History Week, and the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. All to show that multiculturalism was/is a part of America’s evolution, even if some folks are gnashing their teeth and wearing sackcloth and ashes along the way.
One thing was missing, though, from my six chapters. Me, in a word. Yes, my argument was crystal clear, my evidence was sound, my notes and analysis lined up well enough by the summer of ’00. Yet, as my one-time agent noted, “there’s not enough of you in this manuscript.” Bottom line: folks weren’t going to buy the book unless I made it more compelling, which meant putting something of me or about me in it.
So I did. I wrote mostly about my experiences in academia and how they paralleled with some of the critical issues in Fear of a “Black” America. I talked about my Duquesne University students in the College of Education in ’98 and ’99, most of whom were cultural conservatives. I brought up conversations I had with professors skeptical about my scholarship, like Richard Altenbaugh in March ’98 or my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter in April ’96. I also wrote about my conversation with Estelle Abel over my lack of authenticity as a young Black man in June ’87, having thought about it for the first time in thirteen years. I wasn’t sure if that made Fear of a “Black” America any better, but it made me feel better about my first book.
By the time I’d given my agent the final draft of Fear of a “Black” America in October ’00, I was ready — maybe for the first time in years — to take a look at my life before Pitt, grad school, Spencer Fellowship and becoming Dr. Collins. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up the emotional side of that Pandora’s box just yet. But in some ways, I really needed to, precisely because of my experiences with people in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. And precisely because of my occasional moments of rage and overreaction, if only because Fear of a Black “America” helped me tap into emotions I didn’t know I had.