The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 4: Fear of a “Black” America

September 26, 2013

FearBookCover3copy

Given that Fear of a “Black” America was my first book, but one based on my doctoral dissertation, and that Boy @ The Window is a memoir, the road from one to the other may not be that obvious with an initial glance. But despite the intellectual, semi-scholarly nature of my book on Blacks and multiculturalism, there are parallel themes that run between Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window. Perhaps none are more important, though, than the challenge of authenticity, of fitting in, of being able to mesh the complicated onion that I’ve found myself to be over the years.

I think that was why I decided in November ’98 to turn my dissertation “A Substance of Things Hoped For” into a more readable book. Yes, after all that work to write a 505-page thesis, it would’ve been a shame to just let it sit on my then girlfriend’s coffee table, to be used either as a door stop or a base for her doing her nails. Yes, I still had something to prove to academia. That my scholarship as a historian and educator on the issue of multiculturalism was sound. That the conventional academic wisdom around Blacks, people of color and multiculturalism was paternalistic fear-mongering.

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

And in thinking that last part through, I came up with my Public Enemy-inspired title and thread for the first book. It was about fear in many forms. Elite White fears of a majority-people-of-color US within their own lifetimes. Conservative fears of a K-16 education system that included the cultural and historical perspectives of peoples of color, of the poor, of women, of the LGBT, of so many others they’d rather discard. General American skepticism that any Blacks had ever given any thought at all to cultural pluralism, intercultural education, or multiculturalism/multicultural education, at least before White theorists had thought through these ideas first.

Afrocentrists and nationalists who thought of multiculturalism as soft and utterly unrepresentative of the Black experience — or, at least, what they considered an authentic version thereof? That was as difficult a challenge as any I faced in writing both my dissertation and Fear of a “Black” America. So much so that I made a few interesting decisions along the way. I sought out an agent — yes, a literary agent — for the first book, and found one, too (things were so much easier in ’99). I wanted the book to have an impact beyond academia.

In the writing process, I decided to weave the theme of fear, skepticism, willful and inadvertent misunderstandings throughout the 200-page book. All while covering Black intellectual thought about what we now call Afrocentricity and multiculturalism, Black activism and activities around education and Negro History Week, and the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. All to show that multiculturalism was/is a part of America’s evolution, even if some folks are gnashing their teeth and wearing sackcloth and ashes along the way.

One thing was missing, though, from my six chapters. Me, in a word. Yes, my argument was crystal clear, my evidence was sound, my notes and analysis lined up well enough by the summer of ’00. Yet, as my one-time agent noted, “there’s not enough of you in this manuscript.”  Bottom line: folks weren’t going to buy the book unless I made it more compelling, which meant putting something of me or about me in it.

So I did. I wrote mostly about my experiences in academia and how they paralleled with some of the critical issues in Fear of a “Black” America. I talked about my Duquesne University students in the College of Education in ’98 and ’99, most of whom were cultural conservatives. I brought up conversations I had with professors skeptical about my scholarship, like Richard Altenbaugh in March ’98 or my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter in April ’96. I also wrote about my conversation with Estelle Abel over my lack of authenticity as a young Black man in June ’87, having thought about it for the first time in thirteen years. I wasn’t sure if that made Fear of a “Black” America any better, but it made me feel better about my first book.

By the time I’d given my agent the final draft of Fear of a “Black” America in October ’00, I was ready — maybe for the first time in years — to take a look at my life before Pitt, grad school, Spencer Fellowship and becoming Dr. Collins. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up the emotional side of that Pandora’s box just yet. But in some ways, I really needed to, precisely because of my experiences with people in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. And precisely because of my occasional moments of rage and overreaction, if only because Fear of a Black “America” helped me tap into emotions I didn’t know I had.


Milk-N-Things

April 21, 2012

Major fire Sunday evening at F&Y Store (formerly Milk-n-Things), Grand Cleaners, Pelham, New York, March 9, 2008. (PelhamWeekly.com). Qualifies as fair use because of low resolution of picture and subject of this blog post.

As most folks who aren’t Black males have learned in the past couple of months, part of our collective coming-of-age story involves this sordid and cruel rite of passage to manhood. One in which people we’ve known since childhood suddenly start to treat us as if we’ve committed a crime or an unpardonable sin. No matter how smart, how tall or short, how athletic or waif-like, this ritual has continued unabated in American culture for as long as there have been free Black males living their lives.

My whole year between my seventeenth and eighteenth birthday in ’87 was like that. Between a crossing guard I’d know since third grade, some of my classmates, my idiot Mount Vernon High School principal, the late Richard Capozzola (see post “Capo, Mi Capo” from September ’09) and Tower Records (see my post “Why Black Men Carry A Public Anger” from March ’12). I was constantly shown through their eyes how my man-sized Black body was a threat to them.

One of the bigger kickers that year was an incident at the former Pelham, New York mini-mart Milk-n-Things. It was in a strip mall across the street from a Mobil gas station, off a Hutchinson River Parkway exit, just across the bridge on East Lincoln connecting Mount Vernon to Pelham. The store was two doors down from the laundromat in which we washed our clothes every week (or just about) between ’78 and ’87, and next to Hutchinson Elementary School and Pelham Library.

I’d been shopping there on my own since ’77, before I’d started third grade. Over the years, I’d gotten used to the smell of cheap cologne, the noise of broken Italian and Brooklyn-ese as spoken by the Hair Club for Couples, the people who owned Milk-n-Things. Not to mention their love of all things from the ’50s, especially with a gigantic picture of Frank Sinatra on the wall that greeted customers upon entrance. By the time I was fourteen, it dawned on me that these folks may have been mobbed up, but what did that matter to me?

Then one day in April ’87, the Italian folks who owned Milk-n-Things reacted to me as if they’d never seen me before. As usual, I went there to buy a few groceries late in the evening, somewhere around 9 pm, when C-Town had already closed. Milk, eggs and butter were among the things I planned to buy. When I got to the counter, the old Italian lady said, “I got you on camera.”

“On camera doing what?,” I asked without thinking.

“You know whatcha been up to. I got you stealing, thief,” she said as if she had another word in mind.

“There’s no way you could have me on camera. You might have someone else on camera, but I know I haven’t stolen a thing,” I said, as I felt both hurt and rage coming out of me.

“Get out of my store now before I call the cops!,” the woman yelled.

I left the groceries and took back my money, feeling persecuted. This was a store I’d been shopping at for ten years. Now this Frank Sinatra-worshiping bitch has the nerve to accuse me of stealing right out of the blue? “Fine,” I thought. “You’re not getting another dime of my money.” That was the last time I shopped there.

I actually didn’t step foot into the space again until ’06, during a Thanksgiving visit with family. By that time, it was no longer Milk-n-Things, and the Italians who owned the place had long since moved away. I went in, realized they had nothing I wanted, and left. No one walked up to me to check my pockets as I walked out. I was mildly surprised.


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