“Stupid Atheist” Meets Truly Stupid Christian

October 6, 2014

Screenshot from HBO show The Leftovers title sequence, September 5, 2014. ( yU+co via http://news.creativecow.net). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws -- low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Screenshot from HBO show The Leftovers title sequence, September 5, 2014. ( yU+co via http://news.creativecow.net). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws — low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

I’ve written about Mary Zini and our classroom incidents before, here and in Boy @ The Window. It’s been thirty years since was my tenth-grade World History teacher. Yet most of what remember from this class has little to do with Plato, NATO, or anything in between. It’s mostly Zini’s condescending personality, my new Christian arrogance, and that people’s personalities and actions are often walking and talking contradictions.

It was the beginning of October ’84 when we had our first incident. It occurred after what was the first of an endless cycle of fill-in-the-bubble Scan-Tron exams.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 5.59.18 PM

Honestly, I had no idea at that moment why I said what I said. I supposed that a summer of Jay Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice, all via Pat Robertson and The 700 Club had done the trick in making me a one-time prayer-in-public-schools advocate. I knew that Zini was raised a Catholic, so on some level, didn’t that make me a stupid Christian for calling her a stupid “atheist?”

That incident was also the beginning of seven months of starting to figure out how to be me and be a follower of Christ at the same time. I approached it the same way I approached how to be me in my first few months of seventh grade and Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in the fall of ’81. With the naiveté of a child, the hubris of a teenager, and the callousness of a human with alien superpowers.

Jay Sekulow lecturing, Regent University, December 15, 2006. (Juda Engelmayer via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GFDL.

Jay Sekulow lecturing, Regent University, December 15, 2006. (Juda Engelmayer via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GFDL.

It was evident in my outward actions. I packed my red-pleather-covered King James Bible every day. For school. For Subway trips down into Midtown Manhattan when me and my older brother Darren worked for our father Jimme. For when we washed clothes every Saturday or Sunday at the laundromat on the Mount Vernon-Pelham border (it’s a yoga studio now). The Bible was my constant companion, my shield protecting me from this mad world of almost bottomless sin.

In the process, I read everything from Genesis to Revelations at least twice. (some books, like the Gospels, as many as four times). I learned a lot from  reading all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. That the Israelite God Yahweh was stern and pretty unforgiving. That Jesus was a radical, not just spiritually, but politically as well. And that Paul was not exactly the most enlightened of the apostles when it came to women, children and slaves.

Mostly what I learned was that readings and understanding The Bible wasn’t like living out my beliefs at all. I was still a teenager, a fifteen-year-old living in the midst of welfare poverty, at 616 with an abusive womanizer, a wounded mother and a gaggle of siblings between the ages of eight months and five-and-a-half years. Not to mention my alcoholic cuss-factory of a father that I had to hunt down for money nearly every weekend. What all that meant was feeling lust for a young woman one minute, hate toward my idiot stepfather Maurice the next, and imitating Jimme’s slurred language and mannerisms the minute after that.

This new walk was very confusing, so much so that I often hid my emotions in much the same way I’d already been doing to protect myself from yet another abuse episode with Maurice. My emotions couldn’t stay bottled up, though. I frequently humped my way to sleep once our living room at 616 had become my bedroom during and after the months in which Balkis Makeda had lived with us.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 6.06.59 PM

By the spring of ’85, when Zini granted me her full support in getting me into AP US History for eleventh grade (this despite my 84 average in her class at the time), I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t stand being in the same room with Zini much of the time. Yet she did for me what few in my life had done — she opened up a door for me to walk through, albeit a relatively small one.

Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Hands of God & Adam, fingers about to touch, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (via Wikipedia). In public domain.

What did it all mean? That devoutness is meaningless without action, without giving and receiving, without trust, without taking risks. That even supposed atheists can act and give in ways that should shame many arrogant Christians. That Christianity isn’t a transactional relationship or process, but a journey with many pitfalls and lots of contradictions along the way. That who I/we say God is, well, at best an infinitesimal guess, because God and this universe is so much more that I as a human male living in the context of Western culture can only begin to understand.

Most of all, I had just begun to learn that spiritual liberation wasn’t supposed to be a yoke, but an opening to see the world and myself stripped bare of narrative and pretense. A strict adherence to the principles of Pat Robertson would bring me no closer to enlightenment and no further out of poverty than wishing on a star or avoiding cracks on Mount Vernon’s blue-slate sidewalks. Work, trust, opportunities, and not just Romans 8:28, was the beginning of the key for me.

Caught Between Rage and a Working Faith

August 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Christianity at 30

April 8, 2014

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

No, today’s not my thirtieth birthday — I’m still forty-four and twenty months away from entering middle age. But, it has been thirty years since I converted to Christianity, two weeks before Easter Sunday ’84, sometime between 8:55 and 9 am. You could say — and many would — that this marks three full decades since my spiritual rebirth, a milestone as significant as my birthday on the final Saturday of the ’60s at Mount Vernon Hospital.

In many ways, it was a renewal, a reboot, a beginning of sorts. To claim control over my life and my destiny, at least, as much control as I could muster. In the past thirty years, the issues of control and perfection, faith, knowledge and wisdom, and the expectations I have of myself, my God and those who either don’t see God as real or as real to me have remained constants in my life.

Perhaps this has been because of how I became a Christian in the first place, a bit more than three months after an aborted suicide attempt on my fourteenth birthday. With my abusive stepfather Maurice and his insistence that we were Hebrew-Israelites, I couldn’t be open about my conversion or the thought and faith process that led me to Christianity. At least, I didn’t feel strong enough back then to be open about it. I remained a clandestine Christian for five months before I stood up to the idiot after my first day of tenth grade — my first time not wearing my kufi since sixth grade — and dared him to kill me. He didn’t, and it was my first full victory against my stepfather.

As for my classmates, the splits between the denominational Christian, agnostic, atheist and Nation of Islam sets were ones I’d become aware of long before my conversion. And, by tenth grade, it was obvious that many of my immediate Humanities classmates were about as accepting of the spiritual as Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens. Maybe not openly so, but the barrier of intolerance and disdain was there.

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (http://www.flrministry.com).

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (http://www.flrministry.com).

Over the years, my walk with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has grown more complicated, with euphoric highs, quiet lows, and periods of almost evangelical revival along the way. Still, I remain faithful, even as I remain disillusioned, about my life, humanity, the universe and the afterlife. I still pray, and believe that God listens to my prayers, but understand that prayer without action is tantamount to talking to myself. “Faith without works is dead,” is what the good book actually says. Unfortunately, there are way too many alleged Christians in exalted places and in positions of power who practice neither faith nor the works of Jesus. All they do is talk about their Christianity while acting like pagan Roman emperors.

I no longer welcome debate about what and in whom I believe. I find those who smirk and call my walk the equivalent of someone with a mental illness or an imaginary friend about as bigoted as a Christian who believes that all atheists are the sons and daughters of Satan. There’s a certain hubris in claiming the nonexistence of the spiritual because the people whom are representatives of the religious are themselves flawed and full of crap. Then, I guess, there’s a certain hypocrisy in the universe, in evolution, in all life, and I don’t think any of us have enough knowledge to be that cynical and nihilistic.

I no longer regularly attend church. I’ve been to at least a dozen churches in the DC area over the past decade and a half, and combined, I’ve gotten less out of all of those services than in one service I attended at my mother-in-law’s church in Pittsburgh last September. Heck, I’ve found more wisdom and compassion and realness in some of the courses I’ve taught than at most of these churches. Church is a place for fellowship with other Christians, but I have a hard time with my own contradictions, much less those of others.

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (http://izquotes.com).

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (http://izquotes.com).

For my son Noah’s sake, though, I want to find a place or two where we can feel comfortable exposing him to Christianity. Places where the hypocrisy quotient isn’t so high, and with the understanding that this is a long spiritual walk, not a magical carpet ride of infinite miracles and treasure chests full of gold. I’m tired of the megachurches, the Gospel of Prosperity, the overly emotional, the attempts to strangle human behaviors, and the endless predictions of apocalypse based on homophobia, misogyny, Whiteness, and a terrible understanding of history.

But I do have a one-on-one spiritual walk that’s mine, that no one — atheist or evangelical — can take away from me. It’s a walk that has taken me far from the despair and abuse of my youth, warts and all.

Observation and Action, Before and Now

January 1, 2014

Michael Cerveris as The Observer, code name September, via Fringe (2008-13), January 1, 2014. (http://fringepedia.net/wiki/The_Observer).

Michael Cerveris as The Observer, code name “September,” via Fringe (2008-13), January 1, 2014. (http://fringepedia.net/wiki/The_Observer).

Believe it or not, I’m a naturally shy person. I realize that this sounds like a contradiction, especially since so much of my life is out there for the world to read and see. But shyness doesn’t necessarily mean introverted and scared of people and the world. That came later, my preteen and teenage years. The crush of cliques and ostracism that forced me into becoming a loner helped shape the way I saw people.

On the one hand, I’ve always found our tremendous capacity for love and hate, compassion and coldness, creation and destruction fascinating. On the other, I have a well-developed sense of disdain for the great human capacity for willful ignorance, bigotry and shallow thinking. It means that there are times that I love being around family, friends and people in general, and there are times I could put a good portion of humanity in a sack and drop them over Niagara Falls.

For both sides of my love-disdain relationship with my fellow humans, I developed a coping strategy more than thirty years ago that I’ve come to recognize as my “observation mode.” It was especially helpful to be an observer during my Boy @ The Window years at Davis Middle School and Mount Vernon High School. I saw so many things occur that aren’t in my memoir, but informed my thinking about people and life and myself. Things like young women yanking out hair and earrings and nails over some idiot guy. Or a Class of ’87 student giving birth near the Cosmetology Department. Or teachers driving out of the parking lot at warp factor nine within fifteen seconds of that end-of-the-school-day, 2:50 pm bell.

USS Enterprise at warp screen shot, Star Trek (2009 - alt reality), January 1, 2014. (http://static3.wikia.nocookie.net/).

USS Enterprise at warp screen shot, Star Trek (2009 – alt reality), January 1, 2014. (http://static3.wikia.nocookie.net/).

Most of all, I observed that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how smart I showed myself to be, that I would never be one of them, at home or at school. At 616, I was a brother, the usurper eldest brother who was also a bit of a father, uncle, worker, husband, and resistance leader, but not part of a functioning family. In Humanities — at Davis and MVHS — I was an underachieving smart guy who never said anything and too uncool to be around, even though I said plenty — and attempted to do plenty — while I was there.

I understood back then that my observations and my actions in response to my observations didn’t and couldn’t match up. I had very little control over my life prior to the University of Pittsburgh. I had precious little access to money, time and the physical and mental space necessary to act upon my observations. So much so that I could easily stay in observation mode in my own life for months at a time, turning one of my key coping strategies into a ball and chain, allowing opportunities to change how I saw myself and others go by in the process.

There were a few areas in which I acted beyond observation. My efforts to get into college, my constant resistance to my then idiot stepfather Maurice, taking care of my younger siblings, trying out for football and baseball, and tracking down my father Jimme for money. And though this was hardly enough for a growing young man to live on, it was enough for me to survive Mount Vernon before moving to Pittsburgh.

Artist rendering of supernova SN 2006gy, May 7, 2007. (http://science.nasa.gov).

Artist rendering of SN 2006gy, the brightest supernova observed to date, May 7, 2007. (http://science.nasa.gov).

But it would take my five days as a homeless student before I decided to be the actor I needed to be in my own life, and not just an observer. I found my way because the only other alternative I had was to go back to Mount Vernon and 616 and wait around for something to happen, and I’d long grown tired of waiting, even on God. It was beyond time for me to help myself, to come out of the bleachers and get on the playing field as the quarterback in my own life. That bout with homelessness was the supernova I needed and used to shoot myself forward to three degrees, a career as a historian, educator, nonprofit manager and writer, to dating and marriage and fatherhood.

I still have an observation mode, though. At conferences, particularly academic conferences, and especially ones in which I am not a presenter. At literary festivals and other gatherings in which I feel the brown-nosing bullshit quotient is just too high. But with Boy @ The Window now out in paperback after more than seven years of interviewing, writing and rewriting, with my son more than halfway toward adulthood, and with me within two years of the middle ages, I need to be done with observation for now.

JFK & Innocence Never Lost, RFK & Real History

November 21, 2013

President John F. Kennedy, presidential portrait (1961-63). (Wikipedia via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston)

President John F. Kennedy, presidential portrait (February 20, 1961). (Wikipedia via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston). In public domain.

I’ve heard about the JFK assassination in Dallas my whole life. Only the Civil Rights Movement, World War II and the Holocaust outrank JFK’s murder at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald (or numerous other candidates) as subjects more often discussed in pop history circles of which I’ve been a part. But with the fiftieth anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s upon us tomorrow (fifty years to both the day and date), the mythology of his presidency and the state of the nation’s soul since November 22, 1963 is well into high gear.

But of all the myths and legends — including this ridiculousness about Camelot and the Kennedys in the White House — there’s one that bothers me more than any other. The common refrain that “America lost its innocence” the day President Kennedy took three bullets to his back and head in Daley Plaza in Dallas. Really? What about Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley? What about slavery, the Civil War, the eradication and forced relocation of American Indians, nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Heck, what about the Cuban Missile Crisis, where JFK came within hours of jeopardizing the lives of eighty million Americans thirteen months before his murder?

Bloom off the rose, November 21, 2013. ( ).

Bloom is off the rose, November 21, 2013. (http://www.marctomarket.com).

The fact is, America has always been a violent nation, especially for those not in charge of running things here. But this bald-faced lie of a myth has been one built by those who were young when Oswald took out JFK. Teenager Baby Boomers and those only a few years older, big fans of President Kennedy, and those who loved him and lamented what could’ve been. Those are the folks that claim that the nation was young and innocent, but somehow deflowered on that dark, dark day. 

I call poppycock and balderdash on this one. Like Malcolm X in the days after the JFK assassination, I say that this was an example of America’s violent chickens coming home to kill. Luckily it’s forty-nine years and 364 days later, so I won’t be setting up my own assassination at the hands of former friends and real foes. Yet there’s some truth to Malcolm X’s statement. In a country as violent as ours, where Presidents like Kennedy endure death threats day after day, where arguments and oppression lead to mass shootings, should we ever be surprised? Ever? I say that there was no innocence lost here.

No, what we should really be discussing this week in terms of what could’ve been is RFK’s assassination in June ’68 in California. For all the sorrow over JFK’s murder, one good thing came out of it. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ took the best parts of JFK’s potential legacy — civil rights, the spreading of prosperity and Vietnam — and doubled down on it. Given LBJ’s scope of influence when compared with JFK’s, it was doubtful if the slain president could’ve pushed through half of what LBJ did get done. LBJ revealed himself to be to the left of JFK, a real Cold War liberal (for better and for worse), and not a borderline centrist.

Robert Francis Kennedy, Life Magazine Cover, November 1966. ( )

Robert Francis Kennedy, Life Magazine Cover, November 1966. (http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/)

Of course, RFK likely wouldn’t have had the chance to run in ’68 but for his brother’s assassination. Keep in mind, too, that LBJ’s successes, failures and decision to not run for re-election also made Robert F. Kennedy’s run possible. But bottom line: RFK’s assassination affected America political and culturally in ways that have been deeper and longer lasting than even JFK’s. For starters, Americans likely do not elect Richard Nixon president in ’68 if RFK’s steadying influence is present at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That would’ve set up some real opposition to the neo-conservative movement and the ’70s and ’80s backlash against Blacks, women, gays and labor that had been brewing since JFK’s assassination in ’63.

I know that many of you will vehemently disagree, shake your heads, or deliberately ignore the ideas of this post. What else is new in the land of the Baby Boomers, where a few so-called activists get to tell the rest of us how to see the 77 million of them and their growing up years? I say that this narrative is worn out, and neglects the reality that neither JFK nor America were innocent, but RFK’s evolving left-of-center integrity was a much bigger loss.

WWMLKD (What Would Martin Luther King Do) – and Say Now?

August 5, 2013

"Return of the King" screenshot, Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture's low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

“Return of the King” screenshot, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture’s low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

Perhaps the most famous episode of Aaron’s McGruder’s award-winning series The Boondocks was his “Return of the King,” which originally aired on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in ’06. In it, King survived his ’68 assassination and came out of a coma into an early twenty-first century America and Black America in which his style of activism was no longer in vogue.

Instead, in McGruder’s vision, King came to realize how generations of younger Blacks have become lost in their overt materialism, as symbolized by ass-shaking, hip-hop and rap culture, the constant use of “nigga” in public, and the self-aggrandizement of Black televangelists and other purveyors of the cult of prosperity. In response, McGruder’s King said, “I’ve seen what’s around the corner, I’ve seen what’s over the horizon, and I promise you, you niggas have nothing to celebrate! And no, I won’t get there with you. I’m going to Canada!”

McGruder’s attempt to address the generational and socioeconomic divide between the Civil Rights generation and the post-civil rights generations that have followed is a limited one. It certainly represents well the views of a Black elite nurtured at the altar of the Civil Rights Movement. But despite the hilarity and the double-meanings, I don’t think that The Boondocks‘ “Return of the King” episode is even close to a decent representative of what King would’ve been like had he lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Extrapolating from King’s last years:

The best and easiest guess in thinking about what King would’ve said or done in the years between that dreaded first Thursday in April ’68 and today would be to look at was King was doing in the last months of his life. Openly protesting the Vietnam War and the oppression of the poor and of color in the US and abroad. Breaking with other civil rights leaders on the Vietnam War and issue of addressing the collusion between institutional racism, income inequality and anti-union efforts in Memphis, in Chicago and in other places in the US.

Memphis sanitation workers' strike/march under "I Am A Man" picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via http://workers.org).

Memphis sanitation workers’ strike/march under “I Am A Man” picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via http://workers.org).

Alienating a president in Lyndon Baines Johnson — the most radical support of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts of any president ever — was what King did in expanding his words and deeds beyond “I Have A Dream” and “We Shall Overcome” mobilizations to end segregation and overt racial discrimination. Moving beyond the grassroots movement paradigm of respectable Negroes (i.e., traditional church-going, middle and some working-class Blacks) to include Black men and women who weren’t relatively well-educated and in good jobs — like the sanitation workers in Memphis — was where King had already moved himself.

This is the King that would’ve evolved over the previous forty-five or so years had he lived. Based on this actual King, it would be a bit mystifying to hear him give speeches on, grant interviews for or write op-eds in which his main theme would be to eviscerate the American poor, Blacks and Latinos for buying into a material capitalistic hip-hop culture. Or to spend all of his waning moments lamenting the perpetual stereotype of teenage welfare mothers looking for a handout instead of a hand up. Or to devote his remaining energies to blaming Black males for their inability to wear waist-fitting pants and then connecting hip-hop to a criminal culture, a drug culture and general thuggery (That’s Bill Cosby’s and Don Lemon’s jobs, apparently).

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (http://cnn.com).

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (http://cnn.com).

King would’ve probably withdrawn from public life by now, maybe even to Canada, as McGruder’s version suggests. But not before an additional two or three decades in which he would’ve boldly gone after the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, government corruption, the War on Drugs and insufficient investment in America’s public school and infrastructure. King would’ve seen all of them as factors that would have a negative impact on the life chances of the poor, especially poor African Americans.

Assessing blame – or not:

No doubt that King would’ve also found aspects of how Blacks have expressed themselves in pop culture and in the public sphere over the past four and half decades problematic. Yet based on the last years of his life, I think that he would’ve saved much of his ire for the aging Civil Rights generation for resting on their laurels and standing in judgment of younger Blacks, poor Blacks, or anyone else who didn’t follow directly in their now elitist footsteps. As King evolved in the four years, seven months and one week between the March on Washington and his assassination, so had his views of civil rights leadership. Well-meaning but pretentious, with the assumption that fixing the South would clear the way for Blacks of every socioeconomic strip everywhere.

What’s most important to realize, though, is that King, had he lived, would’ve seen what most Americans regardless of race have seen in their own lives. Decline in wealth and income, a gulf of a wealth between them and the top one-percent of income earners, a significant decline of well-paying union jobs replaced by minimum-wage non-union ones, rising unemployment, and expensive housing and healthcare. These are among so many other things that 240 to 270 million of us face on various levels that didn’t exist at the end of King’s life, things that disproportionately affect the poor, especially the poor and of color.

King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement:

The movement never evolved to address such issues, King would’ve said. Individuals did. Jesse Jackson, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, did. But the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole didn’t. They assumed that eliminating all forms of deliberate and overt discrimination in public institutions would bring down barriers for all African Americans. King would’ve said they were incorrect, and knew as much by the time of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in February and March ’68.

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both of which have obviously been weakened by the Reagan Years and this year’s Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision), the life chances for any Black person born into poverty haven’t improve much at all. They remain in segregated communities, despite the movement toward mixed housing. They send their kids to underfunded and overcrowded schools, despite the paternalistic efforts of the so-called education reform movement. Jobs that pay a living wage are few, and conditions that promote neighborhood stability are better but still rare.

To assume that Blacks a half-century removed from the March on Washington and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would be eternally grateful for the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of subtle yet pervasive discrimination on the basis of both race and socioeconomic status is ludicrous. It would smack of the elitism in which those who benefited most from the movement have displayed over the years. I think King would’ve realized the same, certainly well before the turn of the twenty-first century.

That anyone poor and of color in particular can overcome such barriers to, say, earn a doctorate or write a book is something akin to a miracle. Or to become a professional athlete or a music artist, a bit more common, if stereotypical, for that matter. King would’ve seen this and brought an analysis to the legacy of civil rights that didn’t put the movement and its leaders on a pedestal or proclaim victory where defeat was obvious.

What King would’ve (maybe) done:

King wouldn’t have given speeches in the years after the height of the movement to Black Gen Xers where he would’ve said, “I’ve got mine. Now it’s time to get yours,” or blamed hip-hop culture for Black-on-Black crime. Instead, King would’ve listened, learned, facilitated and spoken without accusing those most vulnerable to discrimination of being the only ones at fault, if he would’ve faulted them at all. In terms of what he would’ve done beyond the attempt to form multiracial coalitions to fight for better conditions, it’s unclear. It would’ve been better than chest-thumping and belly aching, though.

James and the PAGPSA

November 29, 2012

James and the Giant Peach photo art (1996), November 29, 2012. (http://disneymania.com.br).

About this time twenty years ago, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself around like-minded individuals, folks who seemed to understand me on an intellectual level. The fact that these were fellow graduate students, all at Pitt and all willing to form an association that would enable us to develop real connections across the campus, was inspiring to me. After four years of off-and-on involvement in the Black Action Society, not to mention my first year in the History grad program, I’d almost given up on the idea that I could form good friendships and acquaintance-ships through any formal gatherings.

But this was especially true regarding my thinking about my fellow Black students and other students of color. For the most part, I’d been around two kinds of students of color during my first five years at the University of Pittsburgh. One group was the semi-nerdy set, folks who cared deeply about their academic performance, but were also late-bloomers socially — people like me in more than a few ways. They tended to care little, though, about campus activism around diversity, retention or campus climate issues.

The other group was the Afrocentric set, people who often reminded me of my one-time Hebrew-Israelite brethren, whose views of Blackness were so limiting that I would’ve been a traitor just for listening to Chicago or Phil Collins. Those folks had virtually taken over the Black Action Society by my senior year. Forget mentioning popular folks, like sorors, frat guys, football, basketball and track guys and gals, or those fully invested in Pitt’s Honors College. I mingled with them all, and found little in common with them, intellectually or economically.

Me with Mark James, PAGPSA meeting, GSPH building, University of Pittsburgh, February 26, 1993 (Lois Nembhard).

That changed a bit my first year of grad school. Often in my walking and running across campus, I’d bump into a Black grad student here or there. At Hillman Library, the Cathedral of Learning, William Pitt Union, the SLIS building or other places. We’d recognize each other, we said hello, we even exchanged our names. Two of them in particular — Ed and Hayley — reached out to me at the end of the Spring ’92 semester, because they wanted to put together an organization that would represent our interests as grad students of color.

In mid-August, the emails began to go back and forth in earnest to establish what we’d end up calling the Pan African Graduate and Professional Student Association (PAGPSA) that fall. Through Jack Daniel’s office (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), we obtained the start-up funds necessary to make the new association go.

At our founding meeting that September, there were eight of us, all highly motivated to be as inclusive as possible, all feeling suddenly less isolated than we had felt a week, month or semester earlier. We decided on the “Pan African” part of the association’s name because we wanted to welcome as many graduate students of color as possible, particularly African and Afro-Caribbean students. The terms “Black” and “African American,” we agreed, wouldn’t be inclusive enough.

We also decided that despite the political implications of our new name, that this association would primarily be about bringing students together for social gatherings, for additional information and education beyond their course work and dissertations, but not to be campus activists. So many of the Black, African and Afro-Caribbean grad students at Pitt were in fact working on master’s or other professional degrees, and wouldn’t be on campus long enough to make lasting changes through activism, strictly speaking. Plus, there was the risk that activism would be so all-consuming — especially on issues like campus climate, long-term support for research and retention rates — that folks would fail to complete the work they came to Pitt to do in the first place.

CMU-Pitt mug, from joint PAGPSA/BGSO meeting on diversity and grad school, October 1992, November 29, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

By the time that first meeting broke up, I was content to have met folks like Mark, Hayley, Lois, Errol, Ed, and a couple of others, to find us all on the same page about something as serious as starting a new association of a significant cross-section of Pitt’s graduate students of color. But in the process, I’d made a new friend that fall through our meetings and our joint gatherings with Carnegie Mellon’s Black Graduate Student Organization (BGSO).

James came along and challenged PAGPSA in October and November regarding our campus activism stance, arguing that being a part of any organization of students of color meant being active. Of course the leadership disagreed, but that’s how I met the man. He was a charismatic Black Iowan preacher’s son, and more politically active than anyone I’d known under the age of thirty. James had ideas about everything, from the future of hip-hop to the implications of my research on multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

Though he was a GSPIA (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) master’s student and ultimately finished his degree in ’94, we would remain friends through the rest of the ’90s. Between him and Matt (see my post “My Friend Matt” from September) and PAGPSA, I remained grounded even as I became buried in the minutia of US, African American and educational policy historiography over the next half-decade. Thankfully, I no longer felt like a lone wolf. Thankfully, I knew that I wasn’t alone in a sea of graduate school and faculty White maleness after that fall.


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