The Road to My Memoir, Part 1: Welfare

May 7, 2013

Adrian LeBlanc's Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams' The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams’ The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

This isn’t a straight-forward post or series of posts. I didn’t come to Boy @ The Window quickly or easily. I didn’t intend it to be a memoir, even though I’d left myself bread crumbs to turn it into a memoir years ago.

The first time I’d thought about writing a book related to my experiences was at the beginning of my junior year of college, in September and October ’89. Not even three months after my idiot stepfather had left 616 for good, and I was thinking about writing up something about the experience? A bit ambitious I was!

What I did do, though, was somehow find my old scraps of journals about what happened to me when I was twelve before I came back to Pittsburgh and Pitt for the school year. I wrote up additional experiences, about running away from 616 in August ’85, about my Mom’s experience at the feet and fists of my now ex-stepfather, about my time on a drafty Pitt stairwell the year before.

That was painful to write about, so soon after finally being rid of Maurice, too soon, really, for me to fully process it without re-living the experience. So I wrote or rewrote four of these experiences in all, and put them away in one of my Pitt notebooks.

But there was one other experience I wanted to write about, to move from a personal story to one of academic scholarship. It was the experience of my being on welfare from ’83 to ’87, covering on-the-ground perspectives from people like me and my Mom, as well as those of case workers. I thought that it would fill a void in both media coverage and in historical scholarship about the topic of welfare, particularly how it became a racial stereotype and slur.

I thought that by juxtaposing (and that’s the word I used for this back in ’89) the plight of welfare recipients and case workers, that I could show some sense of irony. That so many of the case workers and managers were only a paycheck or two away from being on welfare — and that some of them had been on welfare themselves, at least based on my limited experience — would make for an interesting story. What I hoped to show, ultimately, was the inhumanity of the welfare system itself, pitting people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds against each other because of the mix of welfare as racial and as a form of the undeserving getting their government handouts, of crumbs from America’s table being turned into a political football.

I didn’t say this exactly when I had a conversation about this topic with my former TA Paul Riggs in October ’89. The ideas and many of the sentiments, particularly about “juxtaposing,” “irony,” and “inhumanity,” though, were all part of the conversation. Riggs told me I needed to slow down, that even if I somehow were able to make this topic historical, that I’d need to much more reading on the topic, to divorce myself from my emotions around this topic.

In some ways, my late-twenties mentor was right. It’s hard to do scholarly work on a topic in which you are heavily emotionally invested. The topic wasn’t historical, given that I had just lived it and my Mom and younger siblings were still living it. And I was nineteen after all, and after seven years of seldom writing for any purpose outside of the classroom except letters to former high school classmates and college friends, a book would’ve been a daunting, almost immeasurable task.

That started me on the path to learn how to write like an academic historian, instead of writing out of emotion and irony. One that would delay my writing on anything like Boy @ The Window for the better part of a decade, even as the academic process enabled me to do the interviews and research necessary to put the memoir together.

Luckily, there are three authors whose work over the past decade has covered this topic of welfare, racial stereotypes, inhumanity, criminality and irony. Mostly in ways I would’ve covered it had I had the words and research skills to do this work twenty-four years ago. Adrian LeBlanc‘s Random Family (2002), though a sensational accounting of a Latino family in the Bronx between ’88 and ’01, does provide a glimpse (still MacArthur “genius” Award winner). Rhonda Y. WilliamsThe Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (2005) is her excellent collection of research and personal vignettes about public housing, welfare, Black women and empowerment despite the odds covering the period between the 1940s and the early 1980s (with a bit on the early 1990s). All just before crack cocaine, TANF and the gentrification of previously off-limit poor neighborhoods in a city like Baltimore became bigger themes.

And now there’s Kaaryn Gustafson‘s Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty (2012). She covers in so many ways what I’d once hoped to capture in emotion and storytelling about the stain of welfare as illustrated in policies and politics. Kaaryn’s (I know her from my New Voices days) written a great book, one that I wished I could’ve read or written when I was nineteen.

Kaaryn Gustafson's Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

Kaaryn Gustafson’s Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

That wasn’t my path, though I had interests that would include welfare. No, my path was about race, diversity, education and self-discovery, not just about my Mom and family.

The Emotional, The Personal and Black History

February 1, 2013

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (

Black History Month 2013 electronic poster, February 1, 2013. (

After all of these years — and thirty-seven years’ worth of Black History Months — I sometimes forget how emotionally charged Black history can be. After all, I’m an academically trained historian, one whose emotional range varies from sarcastic to ironic with most things US, World and African American history. But ever so often, I’m reminded by my students about the sadness and pain involved in learning history. I surprise myself sometimes at how passionate or angry I can become in revisiting a piece of history that I otherwise would show no emotion for on most days.

Black history, though, can bring out both the water works and the daggered eyes. My African American history students at Carnegie Mellon University surprised me one day in October ’96 during a discussion I tried to have about lynching and the KKK. It was based on the Indiana PBS documentary, A Lynching in Marion, Indiana, about the lynching of two Black men and the almost lynching of a young Black male for allegedly killing and robbing a White male and raping a young White female in 1930.

The forty-five minute documentary showed clips of defaced and emasculated Black men hung from trees, beaten beyond recognition and even burned postmortem. It also showed films of KKK rallies in the 1920s and early 1930s Indianapolis and other towns in the state, as well as pictures from the Marion lynching itself. The young Black man in Marion, one James Cameron, was only saved from lynching because a member of White mob actually protected him. It turned out, per usual, that the alleged murder and rape was a false accusation, but Cameron still had to spend four years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched in Marion, IN, August 7, 1930. (Lawrence H. Beitler via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as It is the only image known to depict this hanging, and is used here to illustrate the event.

My students could barely speak to me or each other after the film, much less be part of a dispassionate discussion of the film. My Black students were tearful and angry, and my White students were pale and scared. I let them express their emotions for about ten minutes, but waited until the next class to draw out a more comprehensive discussion. As this was the first standalone class I’d taught as an adjunct professor, I was a bit unprepared for the how emotional my students became, how personally they took the film and its content.

But I should’ve been better prepared, especially given my own emotions about Black and other histories over the years. I remember the first time I watched Roots, along with millions of other Americans, in February ’77. I cried or was stunned that whole week. Twelve years later, in my undergraduate readings seminar for History majors at Pitt, I found myself angry with my classmates. My eventual first graduate advisor Larry Glasco was leading a discussion on slavery and the Middle Passage. I didn’t know why, but I was angry that whole class. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk anger. It was a low-heat rage, beyond anything my idiotic classmates were saying about slavery in the eventual US not being as brutal as slavery in the Caribbean or Brazil.

The following semester, I took my first graduate course as a Pitt junior, Comparative Slavery with Sy Drescher. We got into a discussion of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), a study in which the authors tried to show scientifically that slavery wasn’t as bad for Africans in the US as it was for Africans in the Caribbean and Brazil. Using records from one plantation, Fogel and Engerman tried to show that since few slaves were whipped, that therefore slavery wasn’t brutal for my African ancestors. I was pissed when some of the grad students in my class defended Time on the Cross  idea that 1,800 calories a day was sufficient for the average slave. It pissed me off so much that I had to leave the seminar room for five minutes to make sure I didn’t punch someone.

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

Me really pissed, at CMU PhD graduation, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

I see some of this in my UMUC students sometimes. Students who turn every issue in US history into a referendum on race. “Immigrants exploited? Well, not compared to African Americans as sharecroppers!” Or “Jim Crow was really a second slavery,” some of my students have said emphatically, as if Blacks did nothing during Reconstruction or Jim Crow to make their lives better. They feel, and rightfully so for the most part, that Blacks have gotten a raw deal throughout American history, and that it is my job to expose the hypocrisy of racism in every lecture and discussion.

It’s emotional and it’s personal. But it’s also historical, which means not so much putting emotions or personal investment aside as much as it does putting these emotions and personal investments in perspective. I’ve never been dispassionate about history – I’ve just learned how to use my New York-style sarcasm to hide my passion pretty well.

Pre-Prom Paradoxes

May 26, 2012

“Stop Defacing Signs,” a stop sign ironically defaced, June 24, 2011. (Scheinwerfermann via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

This week a quarter-century ago was my Class of ’87 senior prom. Though I may tell some of the more boring and significant stories from this prom one year, this won’t be the case this year. Especially since the days before presented themselves with a theme that has remained a constant in my life for more than three decades — irony. If irony were a food, I could feed all of the Global South with it, and still have enough left to keep me in protein and P90X recovery drinks until I turn seventy.

And irony was a full-blown buffet the week before the prom. What told me that maybe my prom date “J” wanted more out of this arrangement than I did was an incident at our Humanities Program honors convocation that Tuesday evening (see my post “Prom-Ethos” from earlier this month). Mrs. Flanagan (then the Humanities Program coordinator for Mount Vernon High School) and the Mount Vernon Board of Education wanted to honor us collectively for making Humanities a grand success.

We had a keynote speaker, one who was a recent college grad and MVHS alum who had started her own business and wanted to talk to us about the value of the education we were about to pursue. It was an opportunity for our parents to share in our success.

My Mom decided to come to this event, only the second time she’d been to MVHS in four years. We got there, with Mom dressed in her best business dress, with high heels, hair done, light-brown makeup powder and black cherry-red lipstick on. I was somewhat dressed up, with a collared shirt, cheap black shoes and the polyester black pants my mother mail-ordered for me at the beginning of the year. The event was in the school cafeteria, where we were to have punch and snacks before the festivities began.

The first person I introduced my Mom to was J, whose mouth fell open like I’d slapped her in the face. She looked at Mom as if I’d been cheating on her with Lisa Lisa.  “J, this is my mother,” I said a second time. J just stood there, angry. Then she walked away in a huff.

“What’s wrong with her?,” my mother said in complete disbelief herself, with the “her” part lingering in my ear.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Clio [Muse of History] reading a scroll, (Attic red-figure lekythos, Boeotia c. 435–425 BCE), The Louvre, March 17, 2008 (Jastrow via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Crush #1 must’ve seen the whole thing unfold, because she came over right on cue, gave me a hug, and then politely introduced herself to my mother.

“Thanks,” I whispered as I walked over to talk to J while Crush #1 had a conversation with my Mom, something I’d hoped my prom date would do.

“That’s not your Mom,” J said when I reached her table. As if I would lie about something as serious as that.

“Yeah, J, she is,” I said, pissed that she’d assume that quiet me would suddenly become bold enough to bring an older women to a Humanities.

I knew Mom looked young, but she still had twenty-two years on me. Since she didn’t want to talk about it, I just walked away and joined in the conversation between my former crush and the woman who was the reason Crush #1 was my former crush.

That Crush #1 came to my rescue was ironic and poetic, given the ways in which my muse has come to my rescue over the years. That one of my nicest classmates acted a bit like an ass that evening contradicted everything I’d seen her do and say over the previous six years. That anyone would think that low-confidence me could walk into a ceremony with a thirty-nine year-old woman was both idiotic and ironic. Yeah, even in the land of friendships and emotions, irony walked with me, hand-in-hand and stride-for-stride.

Great Northern Beans and Rice

June 25, 2010

Great Northern Beans (they never looked this good growing up)

It’s been twenty-eight years since I unwittingly carried a $10 bill halfway hanging out of my right hand for a hoodlum named “Pookie” to steal at Wilson Woods Pool in Mount Vernon, leading to so many evil things occurring in my life. But I’ve talked about this already. I’ve talked about my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington and his equally idiotic attempt at making me a man in his own decrepit image. I’ve even talked about the domestic violence that I was exposed to first and second-hand by him. What I talk about now is a variation on a theme, and a story that won’t be in Boy @ The Window — it would disrupt the flow of the period of time in question.

It all started with the usual at 616. It was the end of January ’86, and we were short on money. It was the middle of the week, so it wasn’t as if I could track down my father Jimme for a couple of extra bucks. So my mother, out of a rare sense of desperation — since there wasn’t any food to eat at 616 — turned to my then stepfather for help. As par for the course since ’83, his response was to call me over. “Boy, go get some Great Northern Beans and rice,” he said. It was the eighth occasion in five years that he had paid for a meal for the family — which only happened to include four of his kids, and he chose the cheapest thing he could think of.

“That’s it? That’s all we get?,” I said in response to his wonderful act of generosity. “Boy, I feed my family,” the lipid-laden idiot said. Being an idiot myself for a moment, I said back, “Oh, all you’ve ever done is just buy a couple of meals!,” as I turned around to go to the store.

Maurice jumped me from behind, knocking me head-first into the kitchen wall, and just kept punching me. He got me twice in the mouth. I obliged by covering up and then biting down on his knuckles on the second mouth punch, which caused some cuts and bleeding. My mother walked in and got between us. For once, the dumb ass had nothing else to say. He was angry and breathing hard, as if he’d been in a three-rounder with Mike Tyson. I was stunned, but I stood my ground, with my fists balled up. After scowling at the fool for a few seconds, I left for the store.

The damage that this last incident of physical abuse caused is with me to this day. My stepfather chipped my upper front tooth on my right in two places, and caused enough damage to one of my lower front teeth that I would eventually need a root canal done on in seven years later. So yeah,  I should’ve kept my mouth shut — literally — when it came to issues with my abuser.

On the other hand, given our unhealthy obesity times today, Great Northern Beans and rice isn’t such a bad meal, right? For vegans, I’d imagine that this is a very good meal. But not when the person you despised most in your world when you were a teenager’s buying it, and buying it in a begrudging and miserly way.  Of course, now beans and rice are actually expensive and considered healthy food by the arugula-eating sector of our society. Go figure.


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