Visiting My Uncle Paul in Georgia

May 31, 2014

Stone Mountain Park, lake side view/photo (was within visual range on the road side view of Confederate-ana back in '94), Stone Mtn, GA, May 31, 2014. (http://new.gwinnetteconomicdevelopment.com/).

Stone Mountain Park, lake side view/photo (was within visual range on the road side view of Confederate-ana back in ’94), Stone Mtn, GA, May 31, 2014. (http://new.gwinnetteconomicdevelopment.com/).

The second leg of what would eventually be five visits with my extended Gill and Collins families as an adult occurred the month after meeting much of my extended Gill family in Houston in April ’94. This second visit was very different from the first. It was part of a three-city trip, between research for my dissertation in DC (and a visit with my friend Laurell in the process) and going up to Mount Vernon to visit my Mom and siblings. Plus, like the Houston-New Orleans trip, I’d come to the Atlanta area to present at a conference, one at the University of Georgia on the 40th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

I’d been invited to talk about multiculturalism as it related to desegregation in terms of curriculum by Layli Phillips, then an Assistant Professor in African American Studies and Psychology at the Athens campus, about sixty miles from my uncle’s place in Gwinnett County. It was an invite and acceptance my advisor Joe Trotter wasn’t happy about, as it was “too soon” for me to discuss my topic “in front of strangers.” But Phillips had already bought the round-trip tickets for me to fly from DC to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to LaGuardia, per my request. Oh well!

I came to Hartsfield all tired and stuffed up from hay-fever-heavy DC that Saturday afternoon in mid-May, a couple of days before my UGA presentation. There, I met my Uncle Paul right at the gate, along with his seventeen-year-old son. Like my Uncles Sam and Robert, Uncle Paul was taller than me, a still wiry six-five at thirty-eight, still fit enough to stop, pop and hit a J despite his swollen knees. His son was built just like him, and a star basketball player at his high school in Gwinnett County.

They didn’t give me any time to rest. I was immediately taken to their two-bedroom apartment in some off-the-main route beaten path, a gated community with stucco walls and plastic pink flamingos to boot. There, I’d also meet one of my uncle’s girlfriends, an older woman who apparently understood that my Uncle Paul wasn’t exactly ready to settle down.

My Uncle Paul’s playing days in Houston (college and NBA) and overseas had ended long before I’d learn how to shoot a J myself. He’d gone back to school — specifically ITT Technical Institute — in the mid-1980s and become an A/V expert who specialized in special effects, including laser lights, smoke and other technologies meant to enhance the concert-going experience. He’d worked before on tours, with Earth, Wind + Fire (when Maurice White was still healthy enough to tour) and New Edition. That’s how our family learned that Johnny Gill was a distant cousin, as his great-grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters, one staying in the Texas-Arkansas area, the other moving to Seattle for some reason or other.

Panoramic pic of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA (where was on the left of the field back in '94), August 30, 2008. (Latics via Wikipedia). Released to  public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Panoramic pic of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA (where was on the left of the field back in ’94), August 30, 2008. (Latics via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

There was a jazz and blues extravaganza going on at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta that evening, and so within hours of landing, we were back in the heart of the city, setting up equipment on what normally was the playing field for the Atlanta Falcons. I was so mesmerized thinking about losing a football in the lights of the Georgia Dome that my uncle yelled at me to “get my ass in gear,” because he needed help unloading some heavy equipment. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the quality of music, but having a backstage view of the whole thing, and to see what my uncle Paul did for a living, I was truly, truly impressed.

That Sunday I spent in my uncle’s home, hearing about his playing days, his knee issues, his knowledge of basketball as a game, his travels to play in Europe, and indirectly, his sexual conquests. That last part I could’ve done without — I’d spent two days hearing the same thing from my other uncles the month before. Then he grilled me with questions about Mount Vernon, about New York, about why I didn’t play sports, about “the chicks in college.” My Uncle Paul assumed, incorrectly, that living in New York was heaven compared to being tenant farmers in southwestern Arkansas, and that I was in grad school for the sex. “I wouldn’t have made it to where I am if that was what it was all about,” I said in shocked response.

Waffle House, off UGA's main campus (and across street from seedy motel I stay in night before conference), Athens, GA, June 1, 2011. (http://www.123rf.com).

Waffle House, off UGA’s main campus (and across street from seedy motel I stay in night before conference), Athens, GA, June 1, 2011. (http://www.123rf.com).

He made a jambalaya dinner for us and his lady friend, all the while talking about each other’s work. My uncle’s son was bored to tears. Then, after dinner, and after his girlfriend had left and his son had gone to hang out with friends, my uncle took me out in his vintage Porsche 911 (it had been covered in the parking lot up to that point) to some high-class, late-night, members-only club somewhere in Gwinnett. Between him doing somewhere around eighty in a fifty-five and taking me to this place to “meet a girl,” I was in more shock. “I like looking for women on my own, thank you very much,” I yelled through the Mary J. Blige at one point.

I went off that Monday morning to Athens for the Brown Decision conference, and was gone for thirty hours. I did get a ride back from a presenter, and then a ride back my uncle’s place. That’s when I walked into the place to see my cousin on the black-leather living room couch, stripped down and on top of a young woman. He only stopped when I yelled for a second time, “I’m back!” Then, the proverbial scattering of two youngins’ caught up in lust occurred. They left, presumably to finish what they had started.

I left for New York that Wednesday morning, having enjoyed my time with my Uncle Paul, but also seeing some downside to a lifestyle that left him busy and his son without supervision. That some dumb thug killed my cousin four years later was still very much a surprise, as he wasn’t a violent person, at least the person I met in ’94. I felt so horrible for him and for my Uncle Paul, as I couldn’t imagine the totality of the pain of such a tragedy.

But good, bad or otherwise, it felt good to get to know my people, my family. I’d grown up with a family that was one in name only. Poverty, religion, abuse had all rendered the meaning of family useless for me growing up, and seeing more examples of the same thing in my time in Mount Vernon didn’t help. I knew that my Uncle Paul wasn’t perfect. Nor were my uncles in Houston. But I knew they loved each other, had dreams and plans for their lives, and had acted on many of these things in living their lives. I knew that I needed to keep doing the same.


Bernard King and The Knicks of ’84

May 26, 2014

Bernard King, one of the all-time greats, 1984 NBA Playoffs. (http://www.totalprosports.com/).

Bernard King, one of the all-time greats, 1984 NBA Playoffs. (http://www.totalprosports.com/).

I usually keep it kind of heavy on Memorial Day. Between what Memorial Day is really about — America’s fallen soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots — and the abuse and domestic violence I’ve seen and experienced on Memorial Day ’82, I consider any Memorial Day that’s incident-free a good one.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe driving for a layup, May 26, 2014. (http://i.cdn.turner.com/).

Earl “The Pearl” Monroe driving for a lay up, May 26, 2014. (http://i.cdn.turner.com/).

But in light of the running theme of this year — that being a look back at the world in which I lived in’84 — I wouldn’t be providing a complete account if I didn’t talk about my Knicks at least once. To think that it’s been forty-one years since they last won a title is just, well, atrociously pathetic. It’s like being a New York Rangers fan in ’94 — oh yeah, that was me, too! I actually do have a few memories of the Knicks of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (my Mom and Uncle Sam gave me “Earl” as a middle name because of him back in ’69), but they’re very vague memories, almost snapshots. I was three and change, after all, hardly old enough to appreciate great defense, the midrange J, the turnaround J, or setting up defenders off the dribble to beat them to the hoop like these guys did.

I came into my own with basketball in ’83, just after the Knicks and Micheal Ray Richardson parted ways (that’s an understatement!). At that point, my Knicks had only sucked for the better part of a decade, but now with Bernard King as their superstar, and the coke-snorting Richardson gone, things were going to allegedly get better for the team. At least, according to the New York Post and New York Daily News. With disciplinarian Hubie Brown as head coach, we’d have a serious chance to compete with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and the rest of the hated Boston Celtics.

I loved watching King play. He could nail a J from anywhere. Off the dribble, double-teamed, facing the basket, off a screen, top of the key, with his back to the basket. He could also drive to the hole with ease. King could score at will, and back in ’84, probably in his sleep, too. He wasn’t by any stretch a great defender, the big knock on King throughout most of his career. Between Reggie Jackson and Dwight Gooden, though, there was King for me.

New York Knicks favorite and Mont Vernon great Ray Williams, circa 1983 (died March 23, 2013). (Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images via http://espn.go.com/).

New York Knicks favorite and Mont Vernon great Ray Williams, circa 1983 (died March 23, 2013). (Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images via http://espn.go.com/).

Not only did we have the Brooklyn native as the Knicks centerpiece for ending the Celtics’ dominance of the East. We had Louis Orr. We had Rory Sparrow. We had Bill Cartwright. We had Trent Tucker. We had Mount Vernon, New York’s own Ray Williams (may he RIP). We had just drafted Darrell Walker, known to defend with ferociousness. We even had Ernie Grunfeld — once the all-time leading scorer in the University of Tennessee’s Men’s Basketball history — coming off the bench. Yeah, it was going to be playoffs and contending for championships for the foreseeable future.

Really, who was I kidding? What was the New York sports media snorting and injecting? Outside of Williams, Cartwright and Walker, no one on the team defended consistently enough to stop Mike Gminski on the Nets, much less Bird, Parish or McHale. But boy did they entertain! King scoring 50 or more in games on WOR-Channel 9 (before MSG got their own channel and broadcast all of the games themselves) was such a treat! I actually enjoyed it when Walker and Danny Ainge got into a fight during the second round of the NBA playoffs in ’84. Those were pretty good teams with King as a scoring machine. Pretty good, but hardly good enough.

I actually cried after the Celtics slaughtered my Knicks at the Boston Garden in Game Seven of that May ’84 Conference Semifinal series, 121-104. I cried even more, though, after King tore up his right knee’s ACL in a game against the then Kansas City Kings in March ’85, in the middle of an already miserable season. It lead to the Knicks in the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery, them getting the #1 pick, and Patrick Ewing in the process. But King and Ewing would never play a game together, both with injuries throughout the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. It would be nearly another decade before my Knicks were strong enough to be part of any serious championship conversation.

Failure is a part of life, but so is hope. And back in May ’84, all I could do as a naive fourteen-year-old growing up in basketball’s mecca was hope. As I hope that someone will end the insanity that has been James Dolan and the Knicks on 33rd and Madison soon.


On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.


What I Didn’t Know Growing Up – It Still Hurts

February 27, 2014

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

“My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” it seems, is something that anyone can find in almost any religion’s texts anywhere. Heck, depending on perspective, even atheists in general can agree with this statement (of course, the issue would be what constitutes “knowledge”). I read this verse (it’s in Hosea and Isaiah, and versions of it as well as in Jewish texts and the Qur’an) for the first time when I was fifteen in ’85, less than a year after I converted to Christianity. Boy, I had no idea how little I knew about myself, my family and my history when I first read that verse twenty-nine years ago.

In light of the end of Black History Month, I wouldn’t be me without noting how little any of us know about our families, our lineages and our ancestors. But it’s not just true of the millions of us descended from West and Central Africans kidnapped, bound, abused, raped and nearly worked to death to provide Europeans (and Arabs) wealth and comfort. Most of us don’t even know what we think we know about much more recent history and events than surviving the Middle Passage or overcoming Jim Crow.

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

For me and my family, I knew so little about us that my Mom could’ve told me that Satan had thrown us out of Hell for being too brown to burn and I would’ve accepted it as an appropriate answer. All I really knew of my mother’s side of my family was that they were from Arkansas, that my Uncle Sam (I chuckled sometimes thinking of the irony) was my Mom’s closest sibling, and that they grew up as dirt poor as anyone could get without living in a thatched root hut on less than $1 a day.

I asked for more during those rare moments when my focus wasn’t on high school, getting into college and getting as far away from 616 and Mount Vernon, New York as possible. I ended up finding out about how my Mom’s mother once beat her with the back of a wooden brush for not being ready on time for church, that there were years where her father made only $200 total from cotton farming, and that she was the oldest of twelve kids. She had done some form of work either taking care of her siblings, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and hoeing and picking cotton, since she was five or six. Oh yeah, and she played basketball in high school.

On my father’s side, I knew a bit more, if only because Darren and me went with my father to visit the Collins farm in Harrison, Georgia in August ’75. I was five and a half then, but I do remember the fresh smoked ham and bacon, the smell of my grandfather’s Maxwell House coffee, me being too scared to ride a horse, so they put me on a sow (my brother did ride the horse, though). But what people did, how a Black family owned their own land going back to the turn of the twentieth century, I wouldn’t have known to even ask about at not quite six years old.

What I didn’t know until after high school, college, even after earning a Ph.D. in knowing (that’s what a history degree ultimately is) was so much worse than I imagined. To find out at twenty-three that my Mom was a star basketball player in high school. She played center, and led her team to Arkansas’ segregated state quarterfinals in ’65. My Uncle Sam played four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track and field) and was offered college scholarships, but didn’t have the grades to move forward. I learned a year later that my Uncle Paul followed in their footsteps, and played three years at the University of Houston, left early and played for the Houston Rockets in ’82-’83 (not a good year for them, or for me, for that matter) before blowing out a knee and moving into entertainment work.

My father’s family — at least the women of the family — boasted at least three college degrees. Two of my aunts became school teachers. My uncles started businesses in Atlanta and in parts of rural Georgia, working their way well beyond the farm to the work they wanted to do.

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

I learned all of this by the time I turned thirty-two, just a year and a half before my own son was born. How many different decisions I would’ve made about my life if I had known that one half of my family was full of athletes, and the other half was full of business owners, not to mention three aunts with a college education? I would’ve known to try out for any sport in high school — particularly basketball — and to not be afraid to fail. I would’ve known that I was only the first person in my immediate family to take a go at college beyond a certificate in dietary science (my Mom earned that in the summer of ’75), and not the first one on either side as I once thought.

Most of all, I would’ve known that though I was lonely and played the role of a loner my last years growing up, that I wasn’t alone. There were a whole bunch of people in my lineage, some of whom were alive and well, from whom I could’ve drawn strength, found kinship, felt pride and confidence in, where I wouldn’t have seen myself as an abandoned and abused underdog anymore.

If I’d known all this growing up, I wouldn’t have felt and sometimes feel robbed now, by poverty and parenting, abuse and alcoholism. This is why having knowledge to draw from is so important.


Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


Black Male Id-entity & the F-Bomb

May 26, 2011

Gay Rights Month isn’t for another six days, as it’s still May. But in light of Joakim Noah’s unfortunate anti-gay slur outburst, “Fuck you, faggot!,” it makes sense to start this year’s conversation a week early.

This is more than about the NBA, gay athletes in the closet or what professional athletes should and shouldn’t say to fans and to each other. The behind-the-curtain issue here could just as well be about Black male identity (whether heterosexual or gay) and how Black males express themselves to each other and to the rest of the world.

My first memories playing with a group of Black males in Mount Vernon, New York are all negative. When I was six in ’76, a group of preteens on the neighborhood playground near Nathan Hale Elementary on South 6th Avenue tried to force me into sucking one of their dicks, practically sticking it in my face to do so. I got away before being truly scarred for life. After we moved to 616 East Lincoln Avenue in April ’77, our first time playing outside was spent running away from the other kids, who greeted us by throwing rocks at us and calling me and my brother Darren “faggots.” (see my June 1, 2009 post, “In the Closet, On the Down Low” for more).

When I was nine, I played basketball on a court near 616 for the first time with a group of kids from my building. After throwing up an awkward brick and an air ball, I got five minutes of “You terrible!,” “You need to sit down!,” “You’re never gonna be an athlete!,” “You need to get back to reading them books of yours!,” and “You shoot like a faggot!”

Even though I eventually learned how to dribble with both hands, shoot a j, make layups, block shots, and on rare occasions, dunk a basketball, I’ve been leery being around other Black males on the basketball court. One would think after playing pickup with former Pitt basketball players while in grad school that I’d completely forgotten what happened to me back in the spring of ’79. But I hadn’t, at least on an unconscious level. I often watched what I said, I mean, down to every single word. Not to mention how I walked, where my arms were, and how I held my head. Still, I sometimes felt inadequate on the court, whether I went 8-for-9 or 2-for-7, blocked a shot, stole a ball, or got knocked down guarding someone six-foot-six and 260 pounds.

But I figured out something in those years of playing pickup at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and other places in Pittsburgh and DC over the years. That blending in doesn’t matter. Fools — even ones with momentary lapses in judgment like Joakim Noah — will be fools because on the playground or court, it makes them cool in the minds of their peers.

Yes, this isn’t just a Black male issue. Sean Miller, currently coach of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team — not to mention an all-time Pitt basketball great — once played a prank on me our freshmen year. He called me up in my Lothrop Hall dorm room late one night, offered me a blow job, and called me a “faggot” in the process.  So being called a “faggot” or saying that something or someone is “gay” is part of our culture on and off the basketball court, for Black and White males to be sure.

But unlike Michael Wilbon, I can’t excuse it because it’s commonplace and therefore it may be difficult for some young men to immediately stop themselves from saying “faggot.” Nor can I rationalize this like Touré (a.k.a. TouréX on Twitter) attempted to do in a Twitter exchange with me a couple of days ago. He compared the use of “faggot” to “nigga,” with the idea that both words have more than one meaning and that the meaning can sometimes be positive, depending on context.

I can see the argument for “nigga,” even though I don’t like it when younger men use it to affirm each other and especially me. But “faggot” meaning “less than a man?” Or “stupid” or “dumb?” So is Noah or Kobe more of a man for telling someone else they’re not a man? Even in context, this isn’t positive — it’s potentially soul-destroying, and not just for someone being called a faggot.

Of the preteens and young boys who called me “faggot” growing up, at least three have served hard time. Is there a direct connection? Of course not. Still, it seems that a culture steeped in the requirement of being cool, finding quick and easy success and putting down others while doing so lends itself well to a crash-and-burn mentality that so many of us have about our lives.


We Are Family

April 4, 2009

Skyline of downtown Houston from Sabine Park, Houston, Texas, July 15, 2010. (Jujutacular via Wikipedia). Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

This weekend marks fifteen years since visited my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta (believe it or not, Atlanta is technically farther west than Pittsburgh) or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

I was really on my way to New Orleans for the first time. A conference presentation proposal I put together with my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, my professor, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April.
The only reasonable flight I could book was with Continental, flying me into Houston first, then a crop duster connection to Nawleans. Since I knew I had family in Houston, I managed to get something that is very hard to do in the post-9/11 age — an extended layover. Because my mother only had infrequent contact with her brothers, I had to do some pre-Google detective work. I went to Hillman Library and pull out old phone books to look up numbers for my uncles Paul, George, Hobart, Darryl and Robert.
It turned out that my Uncle Paul was no longer in Houston, that my uncles George, Hobart and Darryl constantly moved — their numbers weren’t always up to date — but my mother did have my Uncle Robert’s number. But him and his wife had fought over a telephone bill in ’89. And because my Uncle Robert refused to pay the bill, their phone service had been cut off for nearly five years. So I wrote my Uncle Robert about a month before to let him know I was coming. I also lucked out, finding a recent number for my Uncle George, which linked me to his new number. Between the letter and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.
It was a 6 am flight that my Carnegie Mellon colleague Marilyn Zoidis dutifully dropped me off for, picking me up around 4:30. It was still in the 40s, with the high that cloudy day 53 degrees. I barely went through security and boarded my flight at the barely two-year-old Pittsburgh International Airport when I just fell asleep. I was on my first flight to somewhere other than New York or Pittsburgh, and I slept through it as if I took this flight all of the time. I remember being more excited about meeting them than about the AERA annual meeting. Yet the only thing I thought of for two and a half hours was something in the middle of dreamland.
We landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H. W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they knew me a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.
We got in George’s car, but about five minutes in, I had to ask them to open up the windows. It was 78 degrees in Houston, and it was just after 10 am by the time I had taken off my Georgetown sweatshirt. We stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the third ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.
My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.
Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions that I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my mother] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.
It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of slightly younger brother at forty-three or forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.
Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.
I found out that someone on the Gill side besides me and my mother had made it to college, that my Uncle Paul used basketball to make it to the University of Houston, as part of Phi Slamma Jamma in the early ’80s with Clyde Drexler, among others. He left a year early to play in the NBA for the 14-68 Houston Rockets in the ’82-’83.  My Uncle Paul played 28 games that year, before his knee problems and relative lack of talent (he’d likely be a starter on one of today’s weaker teams) left him without a basketball career after that season. But he also pulled himself up, went to ITT Technical Institute to learn about using laser technologies and lighting for entertainment purposes, and broke into the world of entertainment as a freelance laser light and lighting technician. As I’d learn more about the following month when I visited my Uncle Paul in Atlanta, he had worked with Earth, Wind and Fire and New Edition on their tours in the late ’80s, and was living as if he were playing in the NBA.
I learned a lot that weekend, had a lot of fun with family, and learned more about my mother’s side of my family in two days than I had in my twenty-four years on planet Earth. That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. Although they did follow my mother’s example by playing sports, getting their high school diplomas, and leaving Bradley, Arkansas and cotton country for a better future somewhere else. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.

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