First Day and Last Day of School This Week

September 3, 2014

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY,  November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve written about parts of this before, back in my first days of blogging about my life and times as a student. But this week is especially poignant. Yesterday (September 2) marked twenty years since I sat through and passed my PhD dissertation overview defense at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, making me ABD (All But Dissertation, an official PhD candidate). Tomorrow (September 4) will be forty years since my first day of school, attending kindergarten at the Nathan Hale Elementary School (now Cecil Parker ES) in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a school two buildings and an asphalt playground down from our second-floor flat, 425 South Sixth Avenue. In between was nineteen years and 363 days of time as a formal student, going from learning how to read “Dick and Jane went to the store” to writing a “book” about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

I’m sure most of us don’t remember so much of what occurred in between day one and day 7,303 of student-hood. I remember plenty, though. I remember the morning being unusually cold and having to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat (according to a weather website, the high that day was only 69F, and it actually rained at some point during the day). Kindergarten was only a half-day endeavor back then, so I remember getting released to come home for lunch and spending the rest of the day playing with my Tonka toys and watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Contrast that with a warm first Friday in September ’94, at a time when I’d met some new first-year PhD students in the History program, Carl, Jeff, Susannah and a few others, who all seemed surprisingly interested in my dissertation work. I think it was just that I was one of their first points of contact, going through something they themselves hoped to do within a few years. Either way, I’d been preparing to defend my eighty-page dissertation overview for the previous six weeks, in between working on a migration studies research project for Joe Trotter and keeping an eye out for dissertation grants that I firmly believed were necessary for me to get out of grad school with my sanity intact.

As I walked up the sloped, dark, factory-mimicking hallway on the second floor of Baker Hall to what would be two hours of interrogation from Trotter, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones and Department Chair Steve Schlossman (among others in the conference room that morning) with my “entourage,” I had this two-decade juxtaposition in mind. I actually started thinking about the long path from kindergarten to PhD, and all the bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. About how on a September 2nd morning six years before, I’d been homeless and came within days of dropping out of college. About how none of this would have been possible without my older brother Darren, who taught me how to read on Christmas Day ’74. Or, for that matter, without my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon encouraging my Mom to buy the entire set of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, which led to me reading through that set between December ’78 and April ’79.

Even J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) was in my head as I laid out my papers and dissertation overview as references for my overview defense. I’d only read the book in the previous year. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book for nonfiction lived up to the award it earned Lukas, as he went to excruciating lengths to make the process of desegregation by busing, White fears, and Boston’s racism and racial divide come alive.

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

In reading about what the White parents did to stop busing in September ’74, it forced up a memory of watching the evening news my first two days of school about Boston’s White community rioting over busing and desegregation. The picket signs, the bottles and rocks. I remembered asking my Mom about it then, but I don’t think she gave me a direct answer. Lukas, though, did, twenty years later.

Finally, I thought about my Humanities classmates as I sat down and had gone through all of the pleasantries with my dissertation committee and other professors and grad students in the room. I thought about how classmates like Josh and Danny ridiculed me as a savant, who told me that history essentially was only trivia, that I couldn’t do anything with it other than “go on Jeopardy.” In some ways, they were right. They just weren’t correct on September 2, ’94.

All of this gave me a place to start. So when Trotter asked me, “What in your life has prepared you for this moment?,” I knew from which parts of my life’s journey to pick. Only to realize that in starting at the beginning, I was nowhere near full circle.


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 (in ’81, in ’97, in ’13)…

May 18, 2013

Noah with me, January 3, 2004 [he was five months old]. (Angelia N. Levy).

Noah with me, February 28, 2004 [he was seven months old]. (Angelia N. Levy).

What I didn’t know across the past thirty-two years could be another book for me. I assume that would be the case for anyone would could look back across their life and second-guess themselves over that long a period of time. For me, though, the significance of today comes out of my mathematics background. You see, today’s my sixteenth PhD graduation anniversary. Not all that significant, I suppose. Except that I’m as far away from the end of my graduate school days at Carnegie Mellon today as I was from the first days of being a Hebrew-Israelite and watching my family fall into welfare poverty when I graduated in ’97.

100th Commencement Ceremony program, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).

100th Commencement Ceremony program, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).

Two things will hurt your success in this life. One is not acting on the things you know you should or must do. I learned that hard lesson from watching my mother make the decision to not make any decisions until it was too late, all while growing up at 616. Two is the enormous danger of not knowing, and therefore, not being able to act or respond to new or damaging situations as they arise. I’ve learned that lesson pretty well, too. Sometimes the hard way, through really bad experiences or decisions I didn’t play out like a game of eleventh-dimension chess. Sometimes through insight, foresight, even divine inspiration, anticipating what I didn’t know ahead of time.

And even with anticipation, you still might not be able to do anything about what you do and don’t know, simply because you’re not in any position to change things. That was especially true in ’81. I knew that my now deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington was no good. But when my Mom decided to end her six months’ separation from him, there was nothing I could really do about it. I knew that with inflation rates of 14.5 percent in ’79 and 11.8 percent in ’80 (thank you, Scholastic Weekly Reader) and my Mom income of roughly $15,000 per year that we had less and less to work with at home. Again, not much I could do about that, either. Even paper boy jobs were drying up by the time I turned twelve!

O'Jays Back Stabbers (1972) album cover, November 10, 2011. (Dan56 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use as low-resolution illustration of subject matter.

O’Jays Back Stabbers (1972) album cover, November 10, 2011. (Dan56 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use as low-resolution illustration of subject matter.

What I didn’t know was how quick and violent the shift into poverty would be. What I didn’t know was that Maurice would use his/our conversion as Hebrew-Israelites as justification for abusing my Mom and me. What I didn’t know was that my Mom would have three more kids by this man between July ’81 and May ’84. What I didn’t know was that I would feel so low about the loss of my best friend and my sense of self that I’d attempt to take my own life on my fourteenth birthday, at the end of ’83.

But when I looked back on this in ’97, I mostly thought about the good things that had occurred in the fifteen years between the domestic violence my Mom endured on Memorial Day ’82 and my doctoral graduation ceremony. My independent conversion to Christianity in ’84. Knocking out a 5 on my AP US History exam without ever cracking open Morison and Commager. Overcoming poverty and my lack of self-esteem to build a life at Pitt and in Pittsburgh between ’88 and ’97.

Still, I’d already been wounded, badly. By the things I knew but did nothing about. By those things I could’ve anticipated but my efforts to counteract were insufficient. By those things I couldn’t have known at all. I knew I’d have problems with my “running interference” advisor Joe Trotter coming down the dissertation stretch. Yet because of departmental politics and my need to be done sooner rather than later, I did nothing about this until I was six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation. I knew my mentor and committee member Bruce Anthony Jones could sometimes be unreliable. Yet I had no idea that he would completely abandon me and his other doctoral students the moment he signed his name to my and their dissertations.

My dissertation's signature page, May 18, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins),

My dissertation’s signature page, May 18, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins),

Most of all, I never anticipated that my Mom would actually be jealous of me, and would spend a whole week with me at 616 and in Pittsburgh doing and saying things to completely disparage what I’d worked so hard for. For me, for her, for my family. That was hard to get over. There are times I’m not sure if I’m entirely over this yet.

What I’m sure of in ’13, though, is what I do know, don’t know, and can only anticipate with the wisdom of experience and wisdom beyond my experience. I know that I love my wife, that there’s a lot in common between her and Crush #1 (for those of you who’ve read Boy @ The Window so far, the implications should be obvious), real and from my own imagination. I didn’t know that I’d have a kid, a son who at nearly ten is both wonderful and perplexing, and hopefully, off to a much better start in life than I ever got. I suspect that one of my references for jobs and consulting gigs has been undermining my efforts over the past five years, and have thus removed her as a reference.

What I don’t know — but can only hope and work like a dog toward — is whether Boy @ The Window will be a success. I’m not sure if quantifying it would help. I sold a thousand copies of Fear of a “Black” America between August ’04 and January ’07, without the benefit of this blog, Twitter, Facebook or the e-book platforms. How long before I sell my first hundred, thousand, 5,000 or more? I have no idea. But as they say, I “must walk the path, not just know it.”


December Doctoral Decisions

December 13, 2012

Saint Wolfgang and The Devil [Faustian Bargain], by Michael Pacher, ca. 1471-1475, Munich, Germany, February 19, 2009. (The Yorck Project via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Saint Wolfgang and The Devil [Faustian Bargain], by Michael Pacher, ca. 1471-1475, Munich, Germany, February 19, 2009. (The Yorck Project via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It was this time twenty years ago that I decided to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh to Carnegie Mellon to complete my PhD in history. It was a solid tactical decision on many levels. The strategy, however, was a bust, although the reasons for this failure wouldn’t become apparent for several years.

I made the decision to leave Pitt based on at least three deficiencies. One, I was a doctoral student who’s dissertation research would be about multiculturalism, education, and a Black urban community (I hadn’t decided on Washington, DC yet). The only person in the history department with expertise in African American history was Larry Glasco, my advisor, and it had become obvious by the beginning of the 1992-93 school year that his interests had shifted to Afro-Caribbean studies, specifically Afro-Cuban history (see my post “Larry Glasco and the Suzy-Q Hypothesis” from August ’11). Larry’s understanding of such things as Black migration studies, Black education and Black intellectual developments pretty much stopped with the year he took his job at Pitt, 1969 (the year I was born).

Two for moving on from Pitt came out of my interactions with other professors and grad students in the department and in the School of Education. It was obvious during the fall of ’92 that most of my professors found me an enigma, from Dick Oestriecher’s “exceptional Black man” allowances in class (see my post “Dairy Queens, Dick Oestriecher and Race” from February ’11) to some colleagues’ comments about how easy I made grad school look (especially since I had time to talk and go up the hill to shoot hoops).

Hammer & Sickle & Pitt Flag [symbolic of Pitt's history department], December 13, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Hammer & Sickle & Pitt Flag [symbolic of Pitt's history department], December 13, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

I realized that in a department that placed a premium on American working-class studies, on the supremacy of class warfare and neo-Marxism above any other historical field, that my chances for graduating anytime before the year 2000 were slim. And forget about picking up a fellowship or grant to do my dissertation research or finding a job if and when I did graduate! There were still professors at Pitt — like Reid Andrews (now department chair) and the former department chair Richard Smethurst — who didn’t even think I was “grad school material,” and they said as much. I was an anomaly in an anomalous department (see my “Letter of Recommendation (or Wreck-o-mendation)” post from September ’10).

I did consider doing a PhD in education at Pitt, with possibly Bruce Anthony Jones as my advisor, or someone more senior like Bill Thomas. Bruce, though, discouraged me from that idea, as he was only an assistant professor at the time. It was obvious that Bill Thomas was a popular professor, so much in demand that I’d be lucky to meet with him three times in a semester to discuss his work, much less my own.

And I already had that kind of relationship with Larry. My third reason that led to my decision to transfer to Carnegie Mellon involved a very angry Larry at the end of November ’92. You see, one of the requirements for getting to the end of coursework status was the completion of a quantitative methodology course or the completion of a project in which quantitative methods drove said project.

I decided on the latter, but told Larry that between teaching four sections of US Since 1877 with over 100 students and taking three grad seminars with 1,500 pages of reading per week, that I wouldn’t be doing an independent study with him that fall. I said that I’d carve out time “on my own” to get started this fall, but wouldn’t be prepared to complete the quantitative methods project until the spring semester.

Cartoon on data points & regression analysis involving drug trials, December 13, 2012. (http://www.landers.co.uk).

Cartoon on data points & regression analysis involving drug trials, December 13, 2012. (http://www.landers.co.uk).

So after I presented some of my early findings regarding 1910 census data and infant mortality rates among Black women in Pittsburgh to Larry’s History of Black Pittsburgh class, we met to discuss how far I’d gotten in my regression analysis. I hadn’t done much with the variables yet, simply because I hadn’t had the time in November to do any off-time work. Larry became furious, said that he was “disappointed in me,” and wondered aloud if I’d make it through this year as a grad student. When I pointed out for a second time that I was doing this work in my spare time — not as an independent study course, not for a grade — he finally remember what we had discussed in August.

Larry did apologize, profusely. But I was pissed. “You’re only advising one active student, and you can’t remember what I’m working on,” I thought. With Joe Trotter at Carnegie Mellon attempting to woo me into their program, with me already taking his grad seminar in African American history, and with the writing on the wall at Pitt (where I’d already earned my B.A. and M.A. in history), I set up a meeting with Joe in mid-December to explore the possibility of transferring.

Although it would’ve been a worse decision to stay at Pitt, leaving for Joe Trotter and Carnegie Mellon was just about the worst decision I’d made as an adult (see my post “The Audacity of Youth, Grad School Style” from August ’11). For it set up so many of my other career decisions and choices I’ve made in the two decades since.

A school of education would’ve made more sense for me and the research I wanted to pursue, after all. But I would’ve had to think beyond Western Pennsylvania, taken a year off, and then pointed at Stanford, Harvard, UPenn or Teachers College as possibly better choices, better situations. Chris Rock is right. “Life is long, when you make the wrong decisions.”


Walking In New Orleans

April 12, 2012

My AERA 1994 annual meeting program for New Orleans, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Only in the past two decades have I done any travel worth mentioning (see “My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included” post from March ’12). When I have traveled, it’s mostly been for work or for career.

Some of my most significant career-related trips have been as a result of presentations at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meetings, which will be in Vancouver, British Columbia (I won’t be in attendance this year — too expensive, and other reasons beyond that). It is just about the largest gathering of academic professionals that I know of in the US/Canada, with 15,000-20,000 attendees and presenters.

Over the years, I’ve attendance five AERA conferences, and presented at three (in ’94, ’96 and ’07). The first one, though, was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. For one, I actually spent my first two days of this nine-day trip in Houston, as I managed to arrange a layover before heading out to New Orleans to visit the Gill side of my lineage for the first time (see my “We Are Family” post from April ’09). That was strange, mostly in a good way, as I could see my mother reflected in the eyes and accents of my uncles and cousins.

Holiday Inn, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2012. (Google Maps), where folks stayed for AERA 1994.

But New Orleans was a unique experience beyond my two days with my extended family in Houston. The night I arrived, there were five homicides, including at least two in the French Quarter. About an hour after I check in at the rundown Holiday Inn in which I roomed with my professor Bruce Anthony Jones, another professor, and a doctoral student from Pitt’s School of Education, we went for a walk on Bourbon Street. It was a nice, warm and breezy night for the walk, at least until I saw two people doing ballistic vomiting on a corner about two blocks from our hotel.

The next day, that Monday afternoon, was our presentation on multicultural education. We went and met up with another Pitt education doctoral student at some restaurant a couple of blocks away for lunch, all dressed up and ramped up for our presentations. It was sunny and warm at midday, the perfect day to eat outdoors. When we ordered, I hadn’t really noticed the fact that all of the drinks on the menu were alcoholic ones. I asked Bruce about the Citron Lemonade, and he said, “That’s a good choice.” Despite years around my alcohol dad, I didn’t know that the Citron part was Absolut Vodka with a lemon twist.

Apparently, neither did my fellow grad students. I was on my second one when I felt a serious buzz, before I

1-liter bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

slowed down to savor the taste of lemons, sugar and vodka on my tongue. The other two students seemed similarly relaxed. I said to Bruce, “[y]ou didn’t tell me that this drink had vodka in it!”  Bruce said to all of us in response, “but you’re all relaxed now, right?,” in reference to our presentation. His comment reminded me to look at my watch, which showed that our presentation was in fifteen minutes. We hurried to pay our bill, walked quickly to the Marriott, and did what turned out to be a solid presentation.

The business part of the week was over, but the rest of the week in New Orleans became a learning experience. I did an informational interview with two professors from Illinois State University, who told me to finish my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara (one of the two Pitt doctoral students) and me checked out the blues and jazz bars in the Quarter, and went to Armstrong Park for an Afrocentric event that Saturday. I took the trolley out of downtown to the Tulane district and then back to experience more of the city. And I bought pralines on behalf of Kate Lynch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who apparently loved the stuff.

But the most disturbing part of the trip occurred between that Friday morning and Sunday morning. The other Pitt grad student had been acting a bit strange during the week, spending less time at AERA, sleeping in late at our hotel, and not interested in hanging out with the rest of us. Then, he just disappeared. He packed up and left without a note and without paying his share of the hotel bill. We didn’t know until the following Tuesday that he had spent the weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, allegedly hanging out on the beach.

I said to Bruce, “[m]aybe there was just too much testosterone in the room for him.” Bruce didn’t say anything, as he looked completely confused. I knew that at least one of the professors with which we roomed was gay, and that Bruce was in the closet as well. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that my grad student roommate bugged out because he needed a release from the tension he felt being around these professors. Me being heterosexual and spending the week at AERA and on the town, I didn’t notice that my grad student was gay until after he’d disappeared himself.

It was a sad way to end such a wonderfully strange trip. New Orleans was a great city with a diverse culture and history, and despite Katrina and the city’s Whitening, maybe it still is.  I just have no desire to return, as once was enough for me, good and bad.


The Audacity of Youth, Grad School Style

August 6, 2011

Me as Naruto, the ultimate hollerer, Noah's 7th birthday, July 30, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

This weekend should be of significance to me. Actually it should be of more significance than anything else I’ve done professionally in the fifteen years since. For this was the weekend that I decided I was “Dr. Collins,” three and a half months before actually becoming Dr. Collins.

I was in the middle of a tumultuous time, caught between Joe Trotter and five years of graduate school, the last three of which had been at Carnegie Mellon. I had just finished revising my first draft of my dissertation, adding thirty pages to an already hefty 475-page manuscript. Me and Trotter hadn’t been getting along for four months, and after two months with my first draft, I’d received a response in mid-July that was disheartening.

Most of my dissertation, examining how multiculturalism was lived intellectually, educationally and culturally in Black Washington, DC, received no comment whatsoever. The chapters on the development of

Trotter comments, back of page 43 of first dissertation draft, July 15, 1996. Pic taken August 6, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

the Black community in DC, particularly in the period immediately before the 1930-1960 period, had received lots of snarky comments. Like “I told you to change this already,” or “This is the third time I commented on this section,” or “Make these suggested revisions on…already,” handwritten in pencil, big, bold and rushed, as if he wanted to stab me in the neck with the pencil. Comments on writing, evidence, to sharpen analysis of my multiculturalism argument, I expected. What I, naive little me, didn’t expect was a series of comments about data and information that, quite frankly, was irrelevant.

After talking with a couple of professors who weren’t on my dissertation committee — including one whom himself had been Trotter’s advisor back in the ’70s — I finally figured out what had been eating at the man ever since I began handing him chapters. It wasn’t as if Trotter’s comments were transparent in what he wanted me to revise. He wanted me to put together a proletarianization argument for DC. Bottom line was, he was pissed with me because I had written that the Great Migration period (1910-1930) of Blacks leaving the rural South for the industrial, urban North had little effect on DC, a truly Southern city at the time.

I was incensed when I finally figured out why Trotter had been giving me a hard time since last fall and especially since April. It made me think that maybe earning a doctorate in history — especially with him as the head of my committee, along with Dan Resnick and an increasingly distant Bruce Anthony Jones — wasn’t worth it. I thought that if I had to go through another year of this, that I’d drop out of the program.

But I’d only do that after giving the revisions one more shot. I addressed every — and I mean every — comment I had from Trotter by email or written out across a page, and then documented every change in a six-page memo of my revisions. I even went so far as to rhetorically fudge the Great Migration period data, just to see how Trotter would respond. On page 100 of my dissertation, I wrote, “For Washington, a slight acceleration in black migration occurred between 1915 and 1930.” That was an obfuscation, for Blacks migration didn’t “accelerate” until the 1930s, after a twenty-year period of limited migration that only added 20,000 to a Black population of more than a 100,000. Trotter actually praised this revision.

I made a deal with myself to quit after another year if this revision didn’t work out. After receiving a response that only required four minor revisions, Trotter made an attempt to remove the one professor I did have in my corner from my committee in Bruce Jones, using Jones’ recent acceptance of a position at the University of Missouri as an excuse. From that weekend in August ’96 until the week before Thanksgiving, everything about my doctorate became a battle with Trotter.

In a way, I guess I was lucky it did work out. But now, as I did then, I wonder if it was really worth it, to fight as hard as I did for that degree. Would I be a better writer, a better educator, if I had dropped out of the program, gone back to school, and become a high school history or social studies teacher? At least my employment status would’ve been much more stable between ’96 and ’99 if I had, and I’d have an additional career option now.

PhD Graduation - CMU Diploma, May 21, 1997. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Even now, thinking about what happened a decade and a half ago makes me clench my teeth, not with anger, but more with a sense of dread and latent rage. What I and at least two other male students went through (as I’d learn later on) was patently unfair. Still, I realize that while I’ve long since forgiven Trotter for his misdeeds, I can’t help but think that professionally, he aged me in my last year in graduate school. The sense of security I felt about my professional future back then was gone, and I don’t think I’ve felt that certain, that youthful, since.

I do know this. That that youthful, if somewhat naive, twenty-six year-old still resides in me. But with the mind of a forty-one year-old man, I can use both wisdom and experience to say that I wouldn’t go through that again. I’d either would’ve gone to law school or a school of education, maybe even with a focus on ed foundations and ed policy. As it is, between Boy @ The Window and my recent articles, that’s really what I’m most intellectually passionate about these days anyway.

I may be Dr. Collins or  Professor Collins, maybe for the rest of my life. But really, I’d be happiest as Donald Earl Collins, the author, educator and troublemaker I believe with all my heart I am and I will always be.


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