This Is Why I Write…I Think

November 9, 2010

 

A Younger Me, Thinking, Central Park, New York, NY, December 23, 2002. Angelia N. Levy

In the course of the past half-decade of struggle over a now 360-page manuscript, even I’ve asked myself, why? What am I doing? Why in the world would I want to dredge up and relive twenty-three, twenty-five and thirty-year-old memories? Of all the books I think I have left in me, why a memoir about the years of my life I’ve tried hardest to forget, to not even discuss? Wouldn’t it be easier to write fiction, a novel that includes elements of that life without a detailed account of it? Why take the risk of offending my first hometown, my former classmates and teachers, my family? Why, dummy, why?

 

Well, it’s not because I get some perverse pleasure out of describing myself as a loser, or torturing myself with unfulfilled love, or because I’m trying to hurt other people’s feelings about Mount Vernon, New York or the Humanities Program. There are lots of reasons. Some of them start with my seven-year-old son. At the very least, I want him to understand his old man as he grows up better than I understood myself

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book Cover Picture, November 9, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

growing up.

 

But it’s more than that, much more. I’m tired of sitting in interviews and in on staff meetings (when I worked full-time and had more consulting work) and hearing about the tiny number of highly educated Black males in the pipeline for high-level professional jobs. I’m tired of the narrative that says that Black males — and other males of color, for that matter — have to fuck up their lives in order to find the right path. It makes me groan — in my mind and out of my mouth — when I hear over and over again how few males of color even consider college, much less graduate or go on to advanced degrees.

But that’s not all. It’s disheartening to see these narratives play themselves out in African America, in America writ large, and in the publishing world. Like with my growing-up hometown. For the most part, entertainers and athletes — from the Williams and McCray brothers of the NBA past to Ben Gordon, from Denzel Washington to Al B. Sure — are the only ones with cred. Basketball, music, and occasionally, acting and dance are the ways other Blacks are inspired to have aspirations. Intellectual abilities, especially the ability to retain and then critique knowledge, are discounted. People like me growing up were nerds, or worse, just plain weird.

I write what I write because I know that in communities and in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, the constant ridicule and the stifling of creative thinking and intellectual development can easily lead to stunted lives. I was lucky in a lot of ways, because I was deliberately naive, because of Humanities, because some of my classmates were almost as weird as me, because we had some wonderful teachers. But that doesn’t represent the Mount Vernon educational experience, not by a long shot.

I’m tired of students of color — especially males of color — falling through the cracks of horrible K-12 education because of bad policies, racial and economic politics, and principals as prison wardens. Not only in Mount Vernon. Pittsburgh. DC. PG County, Maryland. Baltimore, Sacramento, Oakland, New York City, Cleveland, Jackson, Mississippi, Jacksonville, Florida, Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia and so many other schools and school districts I’ve visited for work or research purposes over the years.

The narrative that a Black male can only find their way out of poverty through committing criminal errors that lead to prison time and enlightenment goes all the way back to Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy. The one about Black males finding a niche in the world of entertainment — as athletes, musicians, rap artists, actors and comedians — has its roots in original Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. The narrative that involves Black males who used education and their intellectual talents to overcome their circumstances and these stereotypical narratives is seldom heard from in the publishing world.

 

616 Living Room Window Screen Shot, November 23, 2006. Donald Earl Collins

That’s likely because some folks think that this story’s been overdone. Even though anyone can count those memoirs and novels on their fingers and thumbs. Maybe it’s not entertaining enough to describe a life full of violence and psychological torture, but with no crimes committed by the main character, no veins injected with heroin, no women knocked up with kids. I write my manuscript because I lived long enough to have learned that there are tens of thousands of Black boys and other boys of color — not to mention their teachers, parents, principals — who languish in the struggle to succeed because they’re not scoring touchdowns, spittin’ rhymes or dunking on rims. Or trying to live the thug life, for that matter. These are the kids that need to be saved, as much as the kids who are already on the brink of prison life.

 

For all these reasons, I write Boy @ The Window. For all of these reasons, I post on this blog as much as I do. To say what I’ve thought, but often haven’t said. And to do it without sounding as serious as an academician. Nor as entertaining as a stoned Baby Boomer trying to make the 70s sound cool. It’s a balance, and I’ve made many mistakes along the way. And will likely make more. But in all of this, I’ve found so much more of my humanity than I thought possible. I just hope that it’s really worth it.


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