Of all the tangents I took related to writing Boy @ The Window, the most direct path that got me to write a memoir about the most painful period in my life was through several conversations with my dear teacher, friend and mentor in the late Harold Meltzer. I’ve discussed bits and pieces of some of those conversations here and in longer form in Boy @ The Window. It’s still worth rehashing some of those conversations, at least in terms of what was and wasn’t good advice, as well as in explaining how some of the main themes of the memoir developed over time.
As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, though my “first interview with him was in August ’02,” the first time “we discussed the possibility of me doing Boy @ The Window went back to February ’95.” Meltzer had been retired from teaching about a year and a half, while I was beginning the heavy lifting phase of my doctoral thesis, “living in DC for a couple of months while hitting the archives and libraries up for dusty information. In need of a writing break, I gave him a call on one cold and boring Saturday afternoon.”
It was in response to a letter he sent congratulating me. I’d recently published an op-ed in my hometown and county newspaper, “Solving African American Identity Crisis.” I was writing about issues like using the n-word, hypermasculinity, and internalized racism in the short and, for me at least, dummied down piece. Somehow our discussion of that piece led to a discussion of my classmate Sam. Did I really want to spend an hour and a half talking with Meltzer about Sam and some of my other Humanities classmates and their possible identity issues, considering some of my own serious growing pains — the Hebrew-Israelite years, my suicide attempt, my Black masculinity and manhood issues? Absolutely not!
But I learned quite a bit about how I might want to approach writing Boy @ The Window through that phone call. Not because Meltzer had given me any sage advice, which he didn’t, or because he revealed things to me that I shouldn’t have come to learn during our conversation, which he definitely did.
No, it was the idea that a lot of the things that I had pursued as a historian and researcher were things that came out of my experiences growing up. Multiculturalism as a historical phenomenon (at least if one linked it to cultural pluralism)? Can anyone say Humanities Program, or, what I used to call “Benetton Group” when we were at A.B. Davis Middle School? Writing about African American identity issues? Obviously related to living in Mount Vernon, the land where any hint of weakness translated into me being called a “faggot” or a “pussy.”
And what about any scholarly concerns with racial and socioeconomic inequality and Black migration? Anyone ever meet my Mom and my father Jimme, 1960s-era migrants from Arkansas and Georgia/Florida respectively? An examination of the Black Washingtonian elite and their looking down upon ordinary Blacks because of their own colorism or the latter’s lack of education? Come on down, Estelle Abel and any number of well-established Black Mount Vernon-ites who never gave me the time of day! As much as academia had been an escape for me, into a world of rationalism and logic, a place of dispassionate scholarship, it was all personal for me, without realizing it until that phone conversation with Meltzer.
Fast-forward to November ’02, the last interview I did with Meltzer before his death two months later. We spent the last couple of hours on that brisk fall Thursday discussing the book idea that would become Boy @ The Window. Meltzer thought that it should be a work of fiction, “based on the real flesh and blood folks in my life, but with different names of course to protect me from any potential lawsuits. He did make me rethink the project from a simple research study of my high school years into narrative nonfiction or a memoir.”
Was Meltzer correct? Should I have done a Harper Stewart — played by actor Taye Diggs in The Best Man (1999)? Should I have fictionalized all of my experiences and those of my family, teachers, administrators and classmates? I’m not sure if it would’ve made a difference. Stories of fiction tend to have a tight symmetry to them. Or, the theme of “what goes around comes around” is usually a big one in any novel. You can’t leave too many loose threads or unresolved issues, even if the novel is part of a series. For my purposes, since my life remains a work in progress, a story of relative — not obvious or absolute — success, telling it as fiction would hardly ring true to me, much less to any group of readers.
Whatever else anyone wants to say about the late Harold Meltzer, the dude got me to think about difficult things until I was no longer comfortable in leaving my uncomfortable experiences and assumptions unchallenged. The very definition of a mentor, the very purpose of Boy @ The Window.