Friendship, Marriage and Falsehoods

April 28, 2014

Me and Angelia at my PhD graduation, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Edward Lomax).

Me and Angelia at my PhD graduation, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Edward Lomax).

Today marks fourteen years of marriage. Statistically, we’re either a year away from divorce, or on board for a longer roller-coaster-ride of life and love, struggle and stress, revelation and renewal. Either way, it’s already been a great two decades of learning about myself and my wife, about the meaning of love (conditional and unconditional) and the limits of romance, about the real meaning of family and marriage.

Some of you may not believe this, but a marriage of any realness is hard work. We get tired of ourselves, our baggage, our bullshit. Now add another human being to the mix, the person you share most everything with. It can be a emotional meltdown of epic proportions if you’re not mature enough to have a well-honed sense of empathy, not to mention a sense of humor and a sense of when to back off.

I can say from experience that it helps to have been friends long before love, romance, marriage and parenting became part of the bargain. And not just friends, but the best of friends. Without having that, everything else is work without purpose, drudgery and painful struggles with personal and spiritual growth.

One of the many things I’ve learned in the past decade and nearly a half is that marriage itself has been loaded with context, deriving from Western ideas that have their roots in European royalty and the 19th century warping of such ideas for us ordinary folk. Including Whiteness and chivalry, of weird evangelical notions of masculinity and femininity, of patriarchy and high-born expectations. Only to realize that these ideas come out of an era of arraigned marriages, essential contracts to secure bloodlines and power for another generation of the elite classes. Romance, love, the eternal enduring bond between two soul-mates – that was never part of this bargain. But leave it to capitalism to distort a loveless process of procreation into an intense, always-falling-in-love – but without standing in love in the midst of struggle – idea of marriage.

Because of this knowledge, I know, too, that every marriage is different. And because of the unique nature of every relationship, I also know that my relationship with my wife is constantly evolving. Meaning that any ideas of marriage that I had fourteen years ago have been dead for a while. Trust me, this is a good thing. There is no singular road map to a happy and always-in-love marriage – that fairy tale is for the Anna Hathaway/Princess Bride set who remains at the mental age of eight or twelve.

No, a good marriage is about two people working toward similar goals, to a friendship that keeps changing, even if the contours of that friendship become ever more complicated. After all, it’s from that ground of friendship that our love shot up in the first place. Yay, us!


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.


Terri and Mr. Asexual

August 7, 2013

Asexual pride flag, September 18, 2010. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Asexual pride flag, September 18, 2010. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

One of my inner circle of friends during my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh was Terri. She was one of the more interesting folks I met during all my years at Pitt and in Pittsburgh. She was so smart, so intriguing, so whimsical, so troubled, so much in fear of success and so flawed. I learned so much from Terri without ever really trying, because she herself was in search of something during all the years I knew her.

I first met Terri in January ’89 at Pitt’s William Pitt Student Union, in the TV room where a bunch of us were watching Dallas (the original series on CBS that Friday night).

William Pitt Union (as viewed from Cathedral of Learning), University of Pittsburgh, July 28, 2012. (Mackensen via Wikipedia).

William Pitt Union (as viewed from Cathedral of Learning), University of Pittsburgh, July 28, 2012. (Mackensen via Wikipedia).

(From Boy @ The Window) “At five-two, she had short dark-brown hair and also wore glasses. There was something about Terri that I knew was different, that she wasn’t just “Black,” whatever that meant. She was one of the first biracial women I’d come to know. It seemed like those were the first words out of her mouth. Maybe not. But Terri did tell us she was “half-Black and half-White” before the night was over….She immediately jumped into our growing conversation once they sat down and criticized Dallas as one of many examples of lily-Whiteness on TV. That launched a whole new discussion, with everything from The Cosby Show to 227.

“After about an hour of debates, jokes and wonderful conversation, we all went out into Oakland. We started at The O, the nickname for Original’s. It had already been a mainstay for students and steelworkers in need of cheap food and beer since ’60. The Pitt football team often drank and caroused there, often getting into fights with Pitt Police. This Friday it was overcrowded and dirty, and we wanted to talk. Terri had become the leader of our pack, and took us over to Hemingway’s as an alternative. The bar and restaurant was The O’s opposite, very quiet, very reserved, with a very much older and Whiter crowd. It was also the first time I’d been carded, so I couldn’t have a drink even if I wanted to.”

Terri was the one who could truly bring out my adventurous side, as she introduced me to Pittsburgh’s night life — Black and White. She didn’t seem to care that I was still only nineteen or twenty years old. Terri could talk herself — and me — into a private over-twenty-five club in Homewood or Penn Hills, or out of trouble with police like no one I knew back then. I met all kinds of Pittsburghers as a result. Gay and straight, older and younger, college educated and working-class stiff. Hanging out with her was a constant balance between a real social life and one when being out too late may have put her or us in danger.

Apartment building at corner of North Aiken & Centre Avenue in Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA, August 7, 2013. (http://pittsburgh.olx.com).

Apartment building at corner of North Aiken & Centre Avenue in Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA, August 7, 2013. (http://pittsburgh.olx.com).

My shift to a more regulated schedule with Terri began during the summer of ’90. I came back to the ‘Burgh the first week of August after nearly two months working at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health. I wanted to find my first real apartment, not just a room in which I shared a kitchen and bathroom with six others in South Oakland (which I’d done in the two previous years). I stayed with Terri and her mother at their new place in Shadyside for a week, fairly close to all the neighborhoods in which I hoped to find a place.

At first, the late nights of talking and hanging out were fun. But by the third day, I was knee-deep in apartment listings and phone calls to landlords in Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Wilkinsburg, Bloomfield, Point Breeze, Homewood and East Liberty. Terri wasn’t exactly a happy camper, with me, her mother or her various suitors for that particular week. Terri and her mother had several arguments that week, about money, dating, even over her treatment of me. The most remarkable thing what hearing Terri call her mother a “bitch” over and over again one night, as if it was a period at the end of a sentence.

My problem, of course, was that I was “asexual” according to Terri. It wasn’t the first time someone had described me as such, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Terri had called me “asexual.” This time and week was different somehow. I guess that Terri thought that I’d look at a couple of places and then spend the rest of the week partying. But given my finances, I couldn’t just plop down money on a $400 a month one-bedroom with bay windows. I don’t think that she understood this, though, not the way Terri spent money back then.

I assumed, right or wrong, that she felt spurned by my lack of interest that week in spending my late nights out on the town with her.  For that week at least, I wasn’t into the Terri Show. As up and charming as she could be, Terri had a dark side, one in which her mother obviously faced much more than anyone else. I still considered her a friend, even a good friend. I just couldn’t be the kind of friend that could be what she wanted me to be on whim and demand. And over the next six years, I gradually also stopped being the friend that would listen to all of Terri’s gripes about life and race, identity and bad boyfriends.


Rachel Jeantel, A Real, True Beautiful Friend

June 28, 2013

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony,  George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel; http://time.com).

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony, George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel; http://time.com).

There will be months’ worth of stuff written and said about Rachel Jeantel and her performance on the witness stand during the George Zimmerman trial. Everything from her dark skin and being overweight to her lazy tongue syndrome and reluctance to take the witness stand. Between Black Twitter on Wednesday critiquing her language, shyness, and style and blond-haired, bubble-headed Whites picking apart her testimony on Thursday, it’s a wonder that anyone sees Ms. Jeantel as a human being. She’s far more than the hero, villain or ghetto girl that folks in social media have and will portray her to be.

Ms. Jeantel is beautiful to me, skin-deep and otherwise. Yes, she’s not perfect, which is one of the things that makes her a beautiful person. The most important thing to remember about Jeantel, though, is that she’s a real person and a real friend. The truest friend any human being could ever hope to have. I should know. I’ve never had more than eight people in my life at any time that I could truly call friend, and none during my preteen and teenage years before college. Of those, about half have proven themselves to be fair-weather friends, unreachable when I’ve needed them the most.

Jeantel is the ultimate friend, for she has acted in Trayvon Martin’s best interests even after his death. A friendship that gave her the strength to tell the truth, to endure ridicule and scorn and hours of cross-examination from Don West. Jeantel gave voice to Martin from beyond the grave, knowing that she was in the right.

Jeantel makes me think of a scene from Tombstone (1993), the one with Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday. Dying from the long-term effects of tuberculosis and living the life of an alcoholic gambler, Holliday continued to ride with Wyatt Earp to hunt down his youngest brother’s killers. When asked, “Why you doin’ this, Doc?,” Holliday said

“Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.”

In response, the other character said, “Friend? Hell, I got lots of friends.” To which Holliday replied, “…I don’t.”

Jeantel may well have lots of friends, but her friendship with Trayvon Martin is as real, true and beautiful as it gets. I hope that my close friends are even one-tenth as true to me after I’m dead as she was to Martin this week.


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.


Cath The Great

November 5, 2012

Catherine A. Lugg, circa 2009, November 5, 2012. (Catherine A. Lugg via Facebook).

I define serendipity as the ability of hard work to create what others would consider good luck, fortuitous chances, random opportunities for success. I’ve managed to do just that over and over again over the course of my life, particularly as a student and occasionally as a writer. But as a human being in search of real, positive, life-changing connections and friendships, serendipity has been very hard to make happen. When it does occur, at least for me, it becomes one of those moments that I seal in my mind, like a note in a time capsule.

The beginning of November ’94 was one of those weeks filled with serendipity. It started with the chair of the History Department at Carnegie Mellon, Steven Schlossman. He had decided that he couldn’t make it to the 1994 History of Education Society annual meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But because he had already booked a room and a flight, Schlossman apparently figured that he could simply transfer both the airline tickets and room to me instead (back in the pre-9/11 days when you could do such things without creating a potential terror alert). So Schlossman met with me a week before this conference and said that I should go “to represent the department” and because he thought it “a great opportunity” for me.

Carolina Inn at night (its better side), Chapel Hill, NC, 2007, November 5, 2012. (http://booked.com).

I wasn’t so sure, with the HES meeting being held in a mansion-turned-hotel, not quite on the University of North Carolina campus. Once I arrived from Pittsburgh on that first Wednesday in November, though, I felt at least free from the burdens of grad school at Carnegie Mellon. The weather was perfect, in the low eighties, and my World History sections for that Thursday and Friday were being covered by other teaching assistants. So I gave myself a tour of Chapel Hill, all the while wondering why didn’t I apply here for graduate school.

That was only the prelude to the four-day conference that began that Thursday. And since Schlossman had charged me to attend four sessions and to take notes on them on his behalf, I went to as many conference offerings as humanly possible. Back then, I had a much higher tolerance for boring academician-speak. So I was easily able to take detailed notes. I asked questions on topics in which I knew little. I even smiled and introduced myself to the mostly over-fifty White male crowd.

By Saturday, I had one mandatory session to attend. It was something about education in Japan and Germany post-World War II and how Japanese textbook makers left Japanese atrocities during World War II out of the nation’s history textbooks. During the Q & A, I asked what I thought was a pedestrian question, pedestrian because I forgot it five minutes after I asked it. Yet several people afterward told me that I’d asked a great question, as if I had some unique perspective or something. “It’s not even my subject matter,” I thought, adding in my mind that “Maybe some of these folks thought that the Black guy in the room didn’t really know anything.”

History of Education Society 1994 Annual Meeting program, November 3-6 1994, November 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Or, as it turned out, my dedication to Schlossman’s charge made me seem 1,000 times as enthused about the HES meeting as anyone else attending. For two women did in fact notice me during that session. That Saturday evening, during beer, wine and spirits time in a cramped conference/ball room space, after pleasantries with a couple of older professors, I bumped into the two women again. They immediately engaged me in conversation, because they wanted to know how I managed to remain upbeat during such a boring ass conference.

Barbara and Catherine were both grad students in the School of Education at Penn State, as it turned out. Both were also PhD candidates in the midst of doctoral theses, and because of my being only twenty-four, couldn’t believe that I was a PhD candidate also. What I thought was going to be just another one of thirty conversations with older White male professors and kiss-ass grad students turned into a nearly ninety-minute discussion of research, pop culture, the HES conversation, and the ironies of life, and all with a snarkiness that only someone like me (or Rachel Maddow) could fully appreciate.

It might’ve ended there. Except that Barbara and Catherine’s research on federal education policy and achievement gap data for Latinos (especially Mexican immigrants) dovetailed pretty well with my work on multiculturalism and Black education in Washington, DC. Plus, the three of us saw an opportunity to use next year’s HES meeting as an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the old boys’ club and their petri-dish sense of educational issues for women, for communities of color, and for immigrants. We titled it, “Educational Historiography and Diverse Populations: Why Research Isn’t ‘Bringing a Pet to Class’.” Somehow the powers who ran HES accepted our proposal, giving us a chance to present at HES in Minneapolis in October ’95.

A skunk (something a teacher shouldn’t bring to class), November 5, 2012. (http://animal.discovery.com).

By that time, though, Barbara couldn’t make it, having recently married and having moved across the pond to the UK. Catherine ended up taking her place, and ended up doing two presentations in less than twenty-four hours. She’s been there for me as a genuine friend in academia and in my aspirations as a writer ever since.

The HES meetings  were the start of an eighteen-year friendship with Catherine, one that actually survived despite the tendency of the academic life to kill more friendships than one could ever start. I think we’re friends still because we share a same sense of the world, and both are willing to snark our way through the madness of it all.


My Friend Matt

September 7, 2012

Beavis and Butt-head titlecard, May 21, 2012. (Nerd 101 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws due to image’s low resolution.

Over the past couple of years, one of my son’s favorite bedtime stories has been about a character I named Matt (see my post “Crush #1 and Other Bedtime Stories” from July ’10). Having a friend with superhuman farts or a friend who belts out ’80s pop tunes while beating up some of the other characters isn’t exactly based on my growing up experience. In the case of Matt, his character was one that always over-explained things — like why 2+2=4 — and wanted to play Canasta in the middle of a basketball game.

Buried in all the ridiculousness and hyperbole around the character was a real-life friend named Matt, whom I met twenty years ago this month. Matt was in my African American History graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of ’92. I took the course on the advice of my eventual advisor Joe Trotter, whom I had met that spring at my first academic conference at Lincoln University (see my “Meeting Joe Trotter” post from May ’12). I decided to take the course because my history grad program at Pitt didn’t have anything close to a course on Black historiography. In fact, I couldn’t find a course that would even approximate a graduate seminar in African American studies at the University of Pittsburgh in ’92.

I was one of seven students in the course, with two women (one of whom was Black and in her thirties) and three young White males, though not as young as twenty-two year-old me. And there was Matt, the first Black male I’d seen in either my own or Carnegie Mellon’s History PhD who wasn’t me. What I noticed immediately was the fact that in our Tuesday 9:30-12:30 course, Matt was the only one who spent the first two hours leafing through the one or two books and five articles we were to read every single week. Leafing, because as it turned out, Matt had already finished all of his coursework for the doctorate. He was auditing the course, and rarely read anything for the seminar in advance.

Carnegie Mellon University logo, June 27, 2012. (Abrio via Wikipedia). In public domain.

That’s what I learned when we had our first lunch together in the cafeteria of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where I could get a cheap lunch before or after shooting hoops. It was then that I also noticed something peculiar about Matt. He chewed his food with his mouth half-open, where if I looked too closely, I’d notice the mix of saliva, wild rice, green beans and chicken breast being crushed by his raptor-like teeth. I never knew anyone over twelve, much less someone approaching forty, who didn’t know how to chew with their mouth closed until I’d met Matt.

Despite my observation of some weird tendencies, I found my first conversations with Matt to be exhilarating. I simply hadn’t been around anyone in my graduate school experience aside from a professor or two who was as knowledgeable about American and African American history, politics and culture as Matt. That, and the fact that he had worked in the community development corporation world as a community organizer made him an atypical graduate student, even compared to the other older perpetual-student-graduates I’d known over the previous five years.

I learned from our eatery outings — especially after the first Boston Market in Pittsburgh opened in Squirrel Hill in mid-September — that Matt was the younger son of two prominent Black/Afro-Caribbean parents, both of whom were in the social work field, both of whom had doctorates, both of whom were prominent on Pitt’s campus. His father, of course, was also an ordained minister. I could only imagine the kind of pressure that would’ve put on Matt over the years to do something meaningful with his life.

Canasta, May 31, 2007. (Roland Scheicher via Wikipedia). Released to public domain by author.

The one political argument that Matt made during the fall presidential election cycle in ’92 was the need for serious campaign finance reform. Remember, this was a good four years before McCain-Feingold, which has since of course been shredded by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Aside from that, most of what we agreed on were issues of interpretation in African American historiography and the fact that two of our classmates, Mark and Mike, were the ultimate brown-nosers. They kissed butt at times like their lives depended on it, leading to heated arguments in our seminar every week. The fact that they thought Fogel and Engelmann’s Time on the Cross (1974) was a great work on slavery said it all on these future neo-cons.

Still, while I found Matt’s contrarian Beavis and Butt-head view of the world interesting at times, I also realized that Matt spent an amazing amount of time talking. At Hillman Library, in front of William Pitt Union, in the halls of Baker Hall, at Boston Market. And as I’d learn later on, there was a great distance between Matt’s interesting and sometimes great ideas and the hard work needed to put them on paper for a committee or to put them in action in his own life.


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