Contingent Faculty and the Cold Case of Rollo Turner

October 2, 2014

Clarence "Rollo" Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (http://news.google.com).

Clarence “Rollo” Turner, in Obituaries section, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 1993. (http://news.google.com).

Two months ago, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign rescinded a job offer they had made to Steven Salaita (then an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech) for a tenured position in American Indian Studies over a bunch of his allegedly anti-Israel tweets. Between mainstream media and social media, the response against this attack on academic freedom and traditional hiring protocols has been tremendous. Thousands of academicians have signed petitions, penned articles and canceled speeches and events at UIUC over Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Illinois board of trustees’ decision to take back their offer of employment. While the American Association of University Professors, the American Studies Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and so many others have argued that Professor Salaita should be in the classroom teaching his courses this fall, this issue is about more than academic freedom and UIUC following job offer guidelines.

The fact is, non-tenure-stream faculty lack the protections and supportive outrage that academia has poured out for those in tenure-track and tenured positions like Professor Salaita. So many contingent faculty lose their jobs over far less than an impolite tweet or an excited utterance. Yet it doesn’t become a story in The New York Times or a petition letter with over 2,000 signatures. No, most contingent faculty, when they lose their jobs, often do so in obscurity, often over doing their jobs with the idea that they were free to teach as they saw fit.

The sadder fact, though, is that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Take the case of Clarence Rollo Turner, who passed away twenty-one years ago last month at the age of 50. He was once a veteran senior lecturer in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as my one-time professor for his History of Blacks in Sports course during the spring semester of 1990. I took Turner’s course in my junior year for an easy-A in the midst of taking a bunch of upper-level undergraduate (and one graduate) history courses that semester. Turner’s was a fun course, and he was a knowledgeable professor beyond its contents. Who knew that in three and a half years the politics of academia would cut short the life of a pioneer? It points to the reality that with half of all higher education instructors serving as contingent faculty, academic freedom is an oxymoron and job protections have become secondary to academic politics and fundraising efforts.

Rollo Turner’s Contingent Teaching Story:

If you’ve never heard of Rollo Turner, it’s mostly because he didn’t have the opportunity to turn himself into a household name in or out of academia, even in Pittsburgh. And, of course, because most non-tenured and non-tenure-stream faculty are seldom central figures at their universities or in their fields just because they’re very good instructors. Turner, though, was a founding member of the Black Studies Program-turned-department (now of Africana Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh. The university had hired Turner in the wake of a game-changing sit-in of Black undergraduate and graduate students in their takeover of an entire floor of the university’s central computer systems on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 1969. It was a protest over the lack of student and faculty diversity at the University of Pittsburgh in general. But it was also a protest to demand a Black Studies program that would represent the research and experiences of Blacks on Blacks on an otherwise lily-White Campus, one engaged exclusively in research that almost always excluded Blacks.

In the process of starting this program, the university hired faculty who had yet to earn their doctorates, in some cases with barely a bachelor’s degree. This was 1969, though, when not having a PhD didn’t automatically disqualify candidates from a full-time academic position. Turner was one of several beneficiaries from this change of climate at the University of Pittsburgh, as he was finishing up a master’s degrees in Sociology at Indiana University when the University of Pittsburgh hired him (Turner, incidentally, had helped lead protests for more Black inclusion and a Black Studies program at Indiana in 1968).

Turner took on a joint appointment with the Department of Sociology and with the new Black Studies Program, teaching courses like the Sociology of the Black Family, Introduction to Black Studies and his History of Blacks in Sports along the way. Although the standard courseload for a full-time faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh was five over two semesters per year, Turner had been on a 2-2 schedule from September 1969 through December 1991. For more than twenty-two years, Turner had only taught four courses per year.

When the then-new department chair Brenda Berrian demanded that Turner take on a third course in January 1992, he refused, citing his twenty-two year history with the Black Studies Department and the last-minute nature of the request as reasons. Berrian then moved to terminate Turner. She and two Pitt police officers arrived in Turner’s classroom on the first Friday of the spring semester and had him removed from his classroom and escorted out of the building. Berrian fired him in the middle of his lecture, in front of a room full of students. This was how The Pitt News first reported the incident, and it was corroborated by everything that Rollo Turner told me a few weeks later.

The Politics of Academia:

But though it was that heavy-handed, it was hardly that simple. Turner had gotten himself caught up in a battle that involved his contingent employment status, degree completion, departmental reputation and petty ideological politics. More than twenty-two years as a non-tenured senior lecturer with only a master’s degree and a few publications that included two book-length bibliographies had caught up with Turner. As a contingent faculty member, even with over two decades put in, Turner lacked the protections afforded tenure-stream and tenured faculty members. Granted, at $37,000 a year and living in Pittsburgh at the time in 1992, Turner was a very well-paid senior lecturer. At least, that’s what many would argue today. This was also Berrian’s position as Turner’s termination turned into a $60,000 lawsuit.

Beyond the issue of compensation, contracts and contingent status was what Berrian and the other tenured faculty of the Department of Black Studies wanted for the department’s future. They wanted to bolster the department’s reputation within and outside the University of Pittsburgh. They wanted to be a full-fledged department in which students could major in Black Studies (students could only earn a minor in the subject until 1993), and perhaps, even offer a master’s degree in the field. Two things stood in the way of this progression. One was the fact that half of the department’s faculty didn’t have doctorates, now a much bigger deal in 1992 than it had ever been in 1969.

Two was that not everyone wanted to go in the ideological direction that Berrian had chosen for the Department of Black Studies. She wanted to move toward an Afrocentric approach in teaching and conducting research, something Turner openly rejected as “nonsense.” The idea of a litmus test for what was and wasn’t authentically “Black” or “African” was too extreme for Turner. As a tenured faculty member, Turner’s objections may well have cost him political clout within the department, but it wouldn’t have cost him his job.

Turner’s Final Months:

Turner sued Berrian and the University of Pittsburgh for wrongful termination – stemming in no small part from a hostile work environment – and breach of contract (his was a three-year contract with a year and a half left on it). The suit dragged on in the Civil Court division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court well into 1993 as Turner – with two daughters in college and a son in the middle of high school – went over a year and a half without a paycheck. As late as August 1993, the month before he died, Turner told me that things on the lawsuit front had taken a turn for the better. Despite the stress of the situation, he hadn’t let Berrian or the University of Pittsburgh “steal his inner peace,” Turner said.

Yet even with years of Buddhism and meditation under his belt and a lifestyle that included biking through all parts of Pittsburgh, Turner died in late-September 1993. No doubt that between the stress of his lawsuit, the sense of betrayal, and the financial upheaval, it all caught up with him. Rollo Turner may well have become a mentor of mine because of the stand that he took, minus the strength of a union or support from a substantial number of tenured faculty. None of this was possible in the end. Precisely because contingent faculty seldom have rights that tenured faculty and university administrators are bound to respect.

Lessons, If Any:

There are so many lessons to be learned here, lessons that resonate with me more now as an adjunct professor than they did when I was a graduate student or when I worked in the nonprofit world. Contingent faculty shouldn’t rock the boat, take a controversial stance, or involve themselves in hot-button issues within their field or department. Or that anyone serving as non-tenured faculty without a doctorate should endeavor to write their dissertation at break-neck speed. Or really, if given the choice, why would anyone who could possibly do anything else with their lives in academia, especially anything that could provide more security and protection, choose a job as a contingent faculty member, whether in 1992 or 2014?

Mostly, it points to the reality that university leaders tend to see much of the talent in academia – non-tenured faculty among others – as expendable. That, and the fact that this expendability has grown with the rapid increase in contingent faculty (and graduate students, for that matter) teaching courses once reserved for tenure and tenure-stream instructors. Until contingent faculty, graduate student teaching assistants and tenured/tenure-stream professors unionize and take a collective stand on working conditions and job protections, cases like Turner’s will continue to go cold and remain tragic ones, with no end in sight.


The Lazarus Woman

August 22, 2013

Barbara B. Lazarus, obituary picture, July 17, 2003. (http://cmu.edu).

Barbara B. Lazarus, obituary picture, July 17, 2003. (http://cmu.edu).

Now that my book’s been out for a couple of months (between two and four months, depending on the e-book platform, actually), I’ve found that my thoughts sometimes drift toward those that are no longer around to read it.

Not so much my family or nemeses, though. Sarai, my only sister, who died in July ’10, would likely have never read a word of Boy @ The Window — it would be too honest an assessment of life at 616 for her. My late idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington was already unhappy with my numerous posts about his borderline personality issues and constant psychological and physical abuse of me and family when I picked up the phone one day that same week my sister passed.

As for my former classmate Brandie Weston — to whom I’ve dedicated my memoir (actually, a co-dedication that includes my son) — maybe, if she had been well enough. My favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer, though, would’ve begun reading  Boy @ The Window five minutes after it had gone live on Amazon.com!

But of all of those folks who are no longer a part of this corporeal world (or who have gone into some state of seclusion from it), one other person stands out today. My dear friend and mentor from my Carnegie Mellon years (and the six years after I finished), Barbara Lazarus. I’ve discussed her here before, but not lately. Probably because I do tear up sometimes when thinking about her support of me specifically and her work at CMU in general. Barbara helped make my otherwise rough and dehumanizing experience at CMU manageable and even career-affirming.

As I wrote about Barbara for the memorial service at CMU in September ’03:

I want to communicate to you that I am in complete solidarity with everyone who attends the gathering at CMU on October 17.  For me, Barbara’s work was more than about women’s equity in the engineering and science fields.  She was about ensuring that all (regardless of gender or race, and regardless of the degree) who attempted the grand enterprise of competing for a degree actually made it through the process … Barbara was a dear friend and mentor who truly believed in me, even in spite of myself.  I loved her, and I will surely miss her, as I am sure you will also.

That only approximated how much she meant to me during and after my four years of doctoral success and failures at CMU. The months immediately before my advisor Joe Trotter and my committee approved my dissertation were the worst, as is well documented on this blog. Barbara convinced me to not become hot-headed and drop-out of the program with a completed first-draft of my dissertation under my belt. She also managed to keep me from requesting a change of advisors so close to the finish line. She did offer to “step in” as her duties as Associate Provost would’ve allowed, but warned me that this political solution would delay my graduation. My connection with Barbara kept me from meeting Trotter in one of CMU’s parking lots late at night wearing a ski mask and dark leather gloves!

She became my best reference professionally and otherwise after those dark days ended with the end of ’96. She read my articles and my first book before they went to print. We swapped stories about family and life and religion. We stayed in touch even after I moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in ’99. Barbara died on July 14, ’03, just sixteen days before my son Noah was born. It’s been a decade, a month and eight days since she passed, nearly as long as I actually knew Barbara (roughly between October ’92 and July ’03). Boy, I wish I could’ve shared my first photos of my son with her!

There were a few people like Barbara at CMU during those years. Susan McElroy (now at UT-Dallas), John Hinshaw (at least prior to my Spencer Fellowship), Carl Zimring (before the O.J. verdict), the Gants and the other Black doctoral students I’d met there (all fourteen of us) were my CMU lifeline beyond multiculturalism and Trotter tired sense of migration studies.

But Barbara Lazarus and I had a friendship that went well beyond academia and career, and went undamaged by petty jealousies or sudden bursts of outrage from jury verdicts. I’d been to her home, met her husband and her kids, learned something about her as a person, and in the process, managed to be my better self even in the worst of circumstances. That is being a good mentor, friend and person. I just hope that I was the same to her, and that Boy @ The Window proves to be the same to others.


Sarai, 30 Years Old Today

February 9, 2013

Sarai (with Maurice) at 12 years old, Yonkers, NY, November 21, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My sister Sarai (with Maurice) at 12 years old, Yonkers, NY, November 21, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

It’s another February 9, more than two and a half years since my sister Sarai Washington passed away from complications due to sickle-cell anemia at the age of twenty-seven. Today would mark her thirtieth birthday. But given how Sarai’s life began, given her disease and the average life expectancy of people with it, it’s just as well that she isn’t here to become thirty. Sarai would likely be in pain, with skin bruises and lesions, laying on a hospital bed, in the middle of yet another blood transfusion.

My sister’s life and death is a constant reminder to forgive. It especially reminds me that forgiveness for us simple, linear humans is a constant process. It’s one in which we overcome our own feelings with the determination to love and to seek wisdom and grace. That Sarai had to endure sickle-cell anemia for twenty-seven years, five months and two days — or 10,015 total days — could feel me with enough anger so that I’d spend the rest of my life in hatred and contempt.

Not so much toward God. Even in eighth grade, I knew enough to know that people often cause their own calamities, and yet choose to blame God for the perditious decisions they made. No, there was a time I blamed my mom, from the time I learned that she was pregnant with Sarai and for years afterward. Why? Because I also knew about sickle-cell anemia, how it was a genetic disorder, and how two people with the trait had a one-in-four chance of passing on the full-blown disease to one of their progeny. And I knew this because my mom explained the basics of it to me when I was eight years old.

My mother worked at Mount Vernon Hospital, where they very well could’ve run a genetic test for the disease at the prenatal stage. Of course, that would’ve given my mother a rather difficult decision to make about my eventual sister’s viability. But then again, she knew before the birth of my other siblings Maurice and Yiscoc that my now deceased idiot stepfather also possessed the sickle-cell trait. That she didn’t have any of them tested was, well, lazy and shameful.

I could’ve easily blamed my now dead ex-stepfather Maurice. He was a walking disaster area, as everything he touched turned into crap. Maurice never did anything in his life that didn’t hurt someone at some point. He never once cared enough about Sarai (or any of his other kids, for that matter) to make sure they were born healthy and whole. Forget about what happened to them after they were born. Maurice’s only real interest was telling guys standing on corners about his latest sperm injection. He also liked to buy cigars after the women had to endure the pregnancy and labor, abandoned by him in most meaningful respects in the process.

And there’s the grudge I’ve held against myself. As I’ve said in Boy @ The Window and in various blog posts (including “Pregnant Pauses” from November ’12), I never wanted Sarai here in the first place. Not because I hated kids or her. I knew what her birth would mean, especially after a year in which we were without food at 616 one-third of the time and three-weeks behind on rent every single month. With my mother’s hours cut at Mount Vernon Hospital, we were on the verge of going on welfare, and I’d been taught by my mom to hate that. We were about to become a racial cliché, living and breathing racial stereotypes, and that went against everything my mother and nearly two years of living as a Hebrew-Israelite had taught me.

So how do I forgive? It’s simple, really (well, maybe not so simple). Forgiveness for me is a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) moment. Jesus said on the cross, just before he died, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” I realize that even when we think we know what we’re doing, we don’t really know — we’re not omniscient, after all. We’re never fully aware of the effects of our decisions and actions, of all the intricacies and long-term implications.

That’s why and how I forgave and forgive — my mom, Maurice and myself. It’s the one thing I can honestly say I learned from Sarai, especially today, on her thirtieth birthday.


Remembering Harold Meltzer

January 9, 2013

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (Westchester Journal News).

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (The Journal News).

Harold Meltzer, my favorite and best teacher of all, died on January 2, 2003 at the age of sixty-six, ten years ago last week. He was all too young and all too bitter about his years as a history teacher at Mount Vernon High School. But then, dealing with entitled parents and unrepentant administrators in Mount Vernon, New York for thirty-five years would do that to most people. Despite that, Meltzer was a rock, the first teacher since my elementary school years that I genuinely trusted with my family secrets and my inner self. He was the first and maybe only teacher I had in my six years of Humanities who actually seemed like he wanted to teach us (see my post “No Good Teaching Deed Goes Unpunished” from May ’11).

I met Meltzer on our last day of tenth grade, after three days of finals and Regents exams, on June 21, ’85. He had summoned fourteen of us to “Room 275 of Mount Vernon High School,” as the invitation read. We had all registered to take Meltzer’s AP American History class in eleventh grade, our first opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.

Meltzer started off talking to us about Morison and Commager — who I now know as the great consensus historians of the ’50s, until the social history revolution made their textbooks irrelevant by the ’80s — as we sat in this classroom of old history books and even older dust and chalk. Meltzer himself looked to be in his late-fifties (he was actually a day away from his forty-ninth birthday), tall and lanky except for the protruding pouch in the tummy section. His hair was a mutt-like mixture of silver, white and dull gray, and his beard was a long, tangled mess.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

The way he spoke, and the way his eyes looked when he spoke made me see him as a yarmulke-wearing preteen on his way to temple. The force with which his words would leave his mouth hit me immediately. As much as I noticed how frequently spit would spew out of Meltzer’s mouth, the rhythm of his speech was slow and sing-song, like an elder or grandfather taking you on a long, winding, roller-coaster-ride of a story. Most of all, I knew that he cared — about history, about teaching, about us learning, about each of us as people. Maybe, just maybe, for some of us, he cared too much.

But for at least for me, Meltzer’s eccentric space in which he told Metropolitan Opera House stories and talked about egalitarianism extended beyond the historical. He was the first teacher I had since before Humanities who’d ask me if things at home were all right, and knew intuitively that things weren’t. He was the first to ask me about how poor my family was and about hunger. And he was the first teacher ever to ask if I had a girlfriend. Needless to say, these questions were unexpected. Yet through these questions, Meltzer had begun to crack my thin, hard wall of separation between school and family.

Because Meltzer cared deeply about reaching students — about reaching me — our student-teacher relationship because a friendship after high school and a mentoring one as well. I wasn’t looking for a mentor, and Meltzer was only being Meltzer. Still, his stories about his battles with MVHS administrators, Board of Education folk, and with upper-crust parents who believed their kids were entitled to A’s just for showing up, were filled with lessons of perseverance, patience, and looking beyond everyday headaches in order to reach people. While this wasn’t a factor in my going to graduate school and spending a significant part of my life as a history professor and educator, these stories have helped me over the years.

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to '74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (http://www.fotosdecarros.com).

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to ’74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (http://www.fotosdecarros.com).

But unfortunately, it was a factor in why Meltzer became embittered and took early retirement in June ’93. The end of the Humanities Program, the intolerance of some administrators toward Meltzer as a “confirmed bachelor,” the lack of decency — forget about gratitude — from many of his most successful students. Those changes, these things, all would take a toll on any teacher who’d stay after school day after day to run Mock Trial, to facilitate study groups, to work on letters of recommendation for students. But no, most of my former classmates who had Meltzer between ’85 and ’87, all they could say was that “Meltzer was weird” or that “I didn’t understand” his lessons.

I’m thankful that I did have Meltzer as a teacher, friend and mentor between ’85 and ’02. I’m thankful that I had a chance to interview him for what is now my Boy @ The Window manuscript in August and November ’02, just a couple of months before he passed (see my post “Mr. Meltzer” from June ’09). I’m glad that despite his physical and psychological pain, Meltzer welcomed me with open arms and answered my questions about his life and his career. I just wish that my former classmates and some of Meltzer’s more cut-throat colleagues had taken the time to really know the man.


Post-Mortem Post

November 12, 2012

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt, November 12, 2012. In public domain.

My idiot ex-stepfather died over the weekend, sometime Saturday evening, November 10. He was three months past his sixty-second birthday. I learned of his death early Sunday morning, as two of my younger siblings (technically half-brothers, I suppose) had posted on Facebook their grief over their father’s death overnight. As I read their posts, I realized that I myself felt no particular emotion over the final physical demise of Maurice Eugene Washington.

For the longest time while I was in my teens and early twenties, the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz (1939) would come to mind when I thought about how I’d feel if the man collapsed from his own obesity and died. As far as I was concerned, my ex-stepfather could die a horrible death every day for eternity, and it still wouldn’t have been enough. A steamroller crushing him one day, a stabbing the next, getting smashed into by a semi-tractor trailer doing eighty miles an hour the day after that. Thoughts like that in the ’80s and early ’90s were a regular part of my mindset on Maurice Washington, not to mention a part of my dreams once every six weeks.

But, as I learned to forgive him — for my sake, certainly not for his — I found myself still frequently angry, but also feeling sorry for such a lost person. Whether in exacting abuse on me or my mother, eating himself into kidney failure and Type 2 diabetes, having affairs and producing kids out of those affairs, or in his bouncing back and forth between a Christian and a Hebrew-Israelite life, he was in search of love and stability. None of which, though, he could find from within. A life with only kids from at least three women and damaged lives to show for it. Not to mention a two-decades-long physical decline, in which the man lost both of his legs.

The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939), November 12, 2012. (http://time.com).

They say living your life to the fullest is the best revenge for survivors of abuse like myself. I suppose that’s true. But what they don’t say is that eight years’ of living in fear for yourself and your family leaves scars, physical, emotional, psychological, even spiritual. I’ve spent nearly a quarter-century recovering from those years, making sure to make myself a better person, and hoping that I don’t pass my scars on to my nine-year-old son in the process.

Two of my more popular posts over the past year have been “Ex-Stepfather’s Balance Sheet” (August ’10) and “Whipped and Beaten” (July ’12). I don’t think that this is random. There are millions of us who’ve grown up with physical, sexual and psychological abuse, and most of us have no one to talk to about these hellish experiences. And nearly as often as not, there are folks who will say, “It wasn’t really that bad, right?” Or, in the case of the very first comment I received on my blog back in July ’07, “you should be grateful, he was just trying to make you a man. Obviously he didn’t do enough.”

So, though I’m not gleeful that Maurice Washington is dead, I’m not exactly in mourning either. I had to kill him as an abuser in my heart and mind a long time ago in order to move on. I feel for my younger siblings, but they didn’t really know their father either. I did, mostly for the worse. May he — and a part of me — now rest in peace.


Sarai’s Death, One Year Later

July 11, 2011

Sarai Washington, February 9, 1983-July 11, 2010

This was the eulogy I wrote for my sister Sarai’s funeral 360 days ago:

“On Sunday, July 11, 2010, Ms. Sarai Ador Washington passed away at the age of twenty-seven from complications from sickle-cell anemia. It was the battle of Sarai’s life from the moment she was born. Yet Sarai fought that battle with dignity and a sense that her life was worth living. For those of us who knew her, and knew her well, most of the time, Sarai lived as if her disease didn’t exist, or at least, didn’t matter.

Even in those first few months after Sarai was born, she was obviously in trouble. She hardly gained any weight, all of her food had to be fortified with iron, and she only had “three strands of hair,” as our mother put it. It was more like a few dozen in three spots on Sarai’s scalp. She always needed help. Sarai was in and out of the hospital, in need of the occasional blood transfusion, and at times in excruciating pain. Between the disease and the hardships what we were going through as a family during the early years of her life, it’s amazing to know that Sarai managed to survive in the worst of those worst times.

Despite all of this, Sarai managed to grow up and eventually find herself. She almost immediately gained a love of music, whether it was listening to her mother’s singing of hymnals or her older brother Donald’s horrible rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.” She sang in choirs with her brothers Maurice and Yiscoc while growing up. Sarai attended Mount Vernon’s public schools, where she made friends along the way. Though delayed by her bouts with sickle-cell anemia, she eventually graduated from Mount Vernon High School, in 2003.

Later that year she spent some in Silver Spring, Maryland helping to care for her nephew, Noah Collins before returning to Mount Vernon. In 2005 Sarai moved to Huntsville, Alabama to live on her own for the first time. In addition to working for Western Corporation as a customer care professional, Sarai found her voice, making a whole new group of friends, touching others lives in the process. Sarai’s wonderful sense of humor and sense of kindness were assets that her friends in New York and Alabama truly appreciated.

When her disease became more difficult to manage, Sarai moved back to Mount Vernon in the spring of 2009 to live with our mother. Though her illness had gotten worse, she still had dreams for the future. She was hoping to go back to school to earn a cosmetology license.

Sarai’s sickle-cell anemia complications got worse, so bad that she had no choice but to quit her job. Although Sarai in her final months was not always feeling her best, she still found the time and energy to spend with her nephew, Roshad Washington. Despite it all, Sarai lived her life her way. Along the way, she enriched the lives of her family and her many friends.”

There isn’t much that I’d change about what I wrote last July, other than the two or three minor grammatical errors that I didn’t catch because I was working on less than five consecutive hours of sleep per night. But I do wish that I’d been able to do more for Sarai while she was alive. I think about her almost every day, wishing that she’d stayed with me in Silver Spring long enough to look into Howard University Hospital’s work on sickle cell anemia.

Mostly, I think about how I wish the quality of Sarai’s twenty-seven years, four months and two days had been better, that her parents had been better, that my life could’ve somehow made her’s better. It just wasn’t to be.


Sarai, A Poet In My Heart

February 9, 2011

Sarai, circa 2009. Unknown.

Today, if she were still alive, my sister Sarai would’ve turned twenty-eight years old. To think that I was only six weeks past my thirteenth birthday when she was born. Sarai was the one sibling I didn’t want because she was born in the middle of our plunge into welfare, my ex-stepfather’s abuse, and my mother’s inability to make any good decisions for herself and for the family.

But her life was a miracle in and of itself. Sarai was born a sickly sickle-cell anemia child, another sign of my mother’s indecisiveness and the collective stupidity of adults in my life. None of that really mattered after the first few months, though. From the time she was six months old until I went off to the University of Pittsburgh four years later, I made a point of looking after her, of getting her extra food, of making sure that everything she ate was fortified with iron.

Sarai was my little princess, the only girl I could relate to, the one I could dress and attempt to comb hair for (I say “attempt” because she didn’t have much hair before she became a teenage and my hair-doing skills were mediocre most days). I didn’t want to love her, but I did anyway.

As she grew older, her status as my little baby changed too. But only in a few ways. Whenever I came home

Sarai, Yonkers Apartment, December 23, 1995. Donald Earl Collins

to 616 for the holidays or visits, Sarai would say “hi,” give me a hug, and hold out her right hand for some money. Sometimes I gave her some walking around money, other times I didn’t — I was a poor student for most of the ’90s. It took awhile, but the little girl who was my sister grew up enough to live on her own a few short years before she died. That’s part of how I’d like to remember Sarai.

The first song I ever sang to her outside of lullabies was Starship’s “Sara.” It was the winter of ’86, a quarter-century ago, and Sarai didn’t care too much for my rendition of the song, with my high-falsetto flourishes and adjustments of “Sara” to “Sarai” throughout. (By the way, for those of you who aren’t practicing religious Jews or Judeo-Christian scholars, Sarai was the name of Abram’s wife before God ordained that their names would become Sarah and Abraham.) Of course, I usually sang it to her when she became petulant or when she was teasing her older brothers.

But what I should’ve been singing to her was Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara.” I should’ve been singing “wait a minute baby, stay a little while…” It would’ve been so much more appropriate. Sarai was a “poet in my heart.” She never really changed, and luckily, she never stopped living her life. And now she’s gone, and has been gone for more than seven months now. My life seems more empty, my family even less of a family, than it was before. Hopefully, I’ll see her again, whenever I’m finally called home.


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