Afrocentricity and the Writing Bug

May 15, 2013

A ladybug, often a symbol for the writing “bug,” May 15, 2013. (http://flickr.com). In public domain.

This time two decades ago, I was already a bit desperate for work. In transferring from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon, I’d left myself without any financial coverage for the summer of ’93 (see my post “The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style” from June ’12). I had applied for several fellowships, summer teaching gigs, even some nonprofit work. But as of the middle of that May, nothing had come through. I’d already spent $200 on a root canal that occurred on the same day as my written PhD comps at CMU (see my post “Facing the Tooth” from May ’12).

Even before my comps and my surprise root canal, I had talked with my friend Marc about writing a joint article about the false litmus test of Blackness that Afrocentricity had come to represent in our minds. Between Molefi Asante’s students at Temple — not to mention the overtly Afrocentric turn of both the Black Action Society and the Black Studies department (which had changed its name to Africana Studies) in the previous eighteen months — both of us felt we needed to provide an alternate perspective.

On that third Saturday in May (and the day after my comps and root canal surgery), we worked for five hours in putting together what amounted to a 1,200-word opinion piece against the belief system and authenticity test that Afrocentricity (and Afrocentric education) had become. By some folks’ definition, we realized that jazz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane would fail the authentically Black test of a Molefi Asante’s wonderful Afrocentric Idea (1987) and of Maulana Karenga as well.

Frances Cress Welsing's The Isis Papers (1991), [about as authentic as auto-tunes], May 15, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Frances Cress Welsing’s The Isis Papers (1991), [about as authentic as auto-tunes], May 15, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Now I’m pretty sure why Marc had problems with Afrocentricity. As a Christian and a jazz aficionado, Marc likely saw Afrocentricity as something somewhere between a misguided way of thinking about Blackness and complete and utter bull crap. His goal was to “add to the debate” and “educate” those who weren’t Asante or Karenga apostles and disciples. A laudable — if somewhat naive about the politics of academia and race — goal.

As for me, beyond the academic superficiality of having a litmus test on what is and isn’t Black, I had at least two unconscious reasons for writing my first crossover piece. One had to do with my sense that too many young folks were all too interested in doing the cool thing and not the right thing. Afrocentricity was cool, just like all rap and hip-hop was cool, just like giving libations to ancestors was cool.

Being cool had always meant following a crowd and seldom saying anything that would dig more than a nanometer beyond the surface. Or saying a critical thing about the cool thing that everyone in the same crowd otherwise takes in without a critical thought. I went to a high school full of people like that, and loathed being around people like that when I’d been a part of the Black Action Society at Pitt.

Unconscious reason number two had something to do with my Hebrew-Israelite days. Again, I gave this zero direct thought during my grad school days. But the given the trauma I’d suffered through during my three years of kufi-dom, it had to affect my thinking about Afrocentricity. The Black folk I knew who were part of the Hebrew-Israelite religion were much more obvious about what they did and didn’t consider Black or kosher. Yet, it was so obvious that they constantly contradicted themselves, in terms of food or music, how they treated their wives or children. Most important for me, though, was the fact that they tried to live separate and apart from other Blacks, yet seemed no more different beyond the kufis, veils and kosher meats from other Blacks (or Jews, for that matter).

I saw Afrocentricity as bullshit, and still see the fact that so many folks who get caught up in this sense of authenticity around Blackness as folks falling for bullshit. If I hadn’t lived as a Hebrew-Israelite between the ages of eleven and fifteen, perhaps I wouldn’t see Afrocentricity this way. If I hadn’t been around the “Party All The Time” folks in high school and the “Black Panther Party” posers at Pitt, maybe Afrocentricity would’ve been more appealing to me.

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

But at twenty-three years old, I was already tired of the pursuit of coolness and authenticity. That hasn’t changed in the past two decades. I’m sure the letters that called Marc and I “Uncle Toms” after our piece was published in Black Issues in Higher Education were from folks who thought we weren’t cool, and thought they had the answers to life itself.

I wonder how those folks back then would see the academics who believe that hip-hop can explain everything in the social sciences and humanities who are prominent today. Perhaps some of these people today were the Afrocentric followers of twenty years ago. Perhaps not. All I know is, I haven’t stopped writing since that cloudy day in mid-May.


A Question of My Blackness, Sexuality and Masculinity

September 1, 2011

Boyz N The Hood (1991) Screen Shot, September 1, 2011. (Source/http://freeinfosociety.com). 20 years since this movie, and we still inquisition Black males about their masculinity. By the way, I was NEVER this cool growing up.

About this time a quarter-century ago, I received regular reminders from the people in my life as family and classmates that I didn’t fit their definition of how a heterosexual Black male should behave. At least in Mount Vernon, New York. You see, I didn’t have to be a young Barack Obama or Lenny Kravitz to learn at an early age that I wasn’t Black enough, man enough or heterosexual enough for many folks in my life. The fact that I didn’t run around with the other boys skipping school and sniffing skirts was evidence enough of how different I was.

One of the more subtle forms of interrogation I experienced occurred at the end of eleventh grade, going into the summer of ’86. That day I walked into English class, and Crush #2 asked me about that song of the day, which happened to be Level 42’s “Something About You” Something About You. When I told her who it was, she started snapping her fingers to it. LJ, an on-and-off again classmate since third grade at William H. Holmes Elementary, walked by as we were talked. “Are they Black?,” she asked. When I said “No,” LJ shook her head and walked away. The group was White and from the Isle of Wight, no less, a bunch of off-shore British White guys. Somehow I’d violated some kind of code in LJ’s eyes. It was the last conversation we had before we graduated a year later.

South 10th Avenue, Mount Vernon, New York, November 19, 2006. (Source/http://weichert.com). The egg-shell white house in the center of the photo is where my father Jimme lived in ’86, an attic room. Looks better now than it did then.

I received a far less subtle hint that made LJ’s disgust look like romance by comparison. It was an incident just a week before the start of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, something I’ve posted about before. By the time I’d gotten a crush on Crush #2, my sexuality was no longer in question, although I’d never seriously questioned it before. My father, though, still had his doubts. I’d hardly seen Jimme most of the summer of ’86, only coming over occasionally to see how he was doing or to bum a few bucks off of him. I found Jimme that last Saturday morning in August, hanging out on the street around the corner from his place, having already drunk his fill.

His mood was especially foul that day, like his body odor. He refused to give me any money. “I don’ give my money to no faggats!” Jimme yelled at me as he came walking and stumbling down his block toward me. He’d seen me come out of the front yard of the house in which he rented a room. I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “I’m not a faggot and I’m not gay,” I yelled back. When he got closer, I could see that he’d been out too long already. Jimme’s clothes were a mess, and his face was in a twisted rage. He grabbed me by my arm.

“Did you get yo’ dict wet?,” he asked as usual.

“Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” I said.

“YOU’RE A FAGGAT,” he yelled again.  (see my “In the Closet, On the Down Low” from June 1, 2009 for the full conversation and incident)

As I saw it then, I was a year away from college, and I was still in the streets dealing with my drunk ass father, my jealous and institutionalized older brother, a sham of a marriage at 616 and four younger siblings who were high on sugar all of the time. I’d done so much to change my life and yet almost everything in my life was the same. Up to this point the only things that had kept my head from exploding were God and school. As my senior year approached, I wondered how much longer I could maintain emotional control before I finally just lost myself in years of growing pain, like a volcano about to super-erupt.

As I see it now, it remains a shame that we as Black males have to run a gauntlet in our communities in order

A Question of Freedom (2009) Hardcover Cover, September 1, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins).

to become Black men, at least in the eyes of others. We can talk about the K-12-to-prison system that is public education in many a community of color. Or the drug trade. Or the sheer lack of quality public services and interventions in our communities or lives, other than police forces. Or even the daily images that tell so many of us that aspiring to be a rapper, football or basketball player, or just to be cool is so much better than knowing anything. The latest good memoir on this is R. Dwayne BettsA Question of Freedom (2009).

But we must also admit that the people who attempted to raise us — our families, relatives, neighbors and classmates — are just as often at fault for turning out Black males who aren’t ready to be Black men, human adult males with ideas and aspirations outside of the box. Until we get serious about the fact that those closest to us have put such idiotic notions of masculinity, heterosexuality and Black coolness in many a Black male’s head, we get nowhere in helping to transform the lives of people like me when I was a teenager.

For we can’t depend on people like me becoming homeless, embracing solitude, and leaving my community as the best way to learn how to be a man, an adult, a really serious yet compassionate (and goofy) human being.


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.


The Silent Treatment

June 21, 2010

Source: Screen Shot from The Roots, “Silent Treatment” Music Video, Geffen, 1995

Right after the MVHS graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in June ’87, it started. I’d walk down the street to the store, and bump into one of my suddenly former classmates, say “Hi,” and get no response at all. The few times I bumped into a certain Ms. Red Bone, she’d stare straight at me, then straight through me, all as I said “Hi.” She just kept on walking, as if I had phased out of our space-time continuum into a parallel universe. By the beginning of August, I honestly thought that these people, my classmates for so long, were showing their true colors. They just didn’t like me, not me because I’d been a Hebrew-Israelite or me because I was poor or me because I listened to Mr. Mister. It was all about me, something within me that they detested.

“You can’t pay any attention to that. They’re all just jealous,” my new friend E (see “The Power of E” posting from August ’08) said when I told her about the ghost treatment over lunch one day. She and I worked for General Foods in Tarrytown that summer.

“Of what? Of me?,” I asked in disbelief.

“It’s because you’re not trying to be anybody except yourself,” she said.

“That’s a good theory,” I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. E was fully in my corner, and much more obvious about it than anyone else.

This pattern of treatment had only occurred two other times. Once was in sixth grade, after I came to Holmes with my kufi for the first time. My best friend Starling stopped talking to me, and refused to even acknowledge my presence for nearly two weeks before our second and last fight. The other was earlier in my senior year, in the weeks after the final class rankings were posted. Some in the Class of ’87 were upset with me because I was ranked fourteenth in our class. Three of them responded by not talking to me at all. They’d walk by me in the hallways, looked at and through me, and kept going without so much as a nod. That went on from mid-December through the beginning of March.

The Black “Party All The Time” folks in my class, the popular and dapper folks, snickered whenever they saw me. So I guess that they decided that to acknowledge me after graduation would me contaminating themselves with the knowledge that I was still alive, still figuring things out, still not cool enough to be bothered with.

Three years later, I bumped into one of these folks on my way home from my summer job with Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains. I was walking home to 616 on East Lincoln, having just gotten off the 41 Beeline Express. It was after 6:30, and I was beat from another day of database work and my research preparations for my senior year at Pitt. Coming in the opposite direction toward North Columbus was a party-all-the-timer, a popular, slightly light-skinned dude named J. Since I assumed that he would walk by me as if I were thin air, I started to walk by him as if he weren’t there.

Surprisingly, J stopped me and said, “Hi, Donald.” He said that he needed to talk to me, to tell me that the path that I walked in high school, while weird, was a better path than the one that he was on. He told me about his mind-bending experiences at Howard, about his dropping out and need to take care of some serious emotional and mental health issues. After a year of work at Pitt and in Westchester County, I could tell, too.

At first, I was taken aback. I mean, this was a guy who laughed at me for nearly six years, who’d never lowered himself to so much as to give me a thumbs-up while in school. Now J was sharing the most intimate of details about his life with me? I asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” Among the other things he said, the thing that stuck with me was, “Because you’re true to yourself.” I gave him a handshake, and wished him well.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I guess that J and others were under a lot of pressure — peer pressure, girl pressure, family pressures — to be cool, to be successful, to be something other than themselves. None of this justified how they treated me back then. Nor does it justify how any of them may see me now. I’m just glad the only silent treatment I get now is from my wife when I’ve taken a joke too far. At least I know that she’ll talk to me again, eventually.


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