This was the best title I could come up with, since it’s about folks in my life with whom I’ve shared some affinity over the years, beyond family, and to a lesser extent, friendships. This isn’t about haters or crabs-in-the-barrel mentality per se. It’s simply the observation that as I pursue dreams and push through goals in life that some whom have the choice between being supportive or actively working against my interests, how more than a few have chosen to do the latter.
That this has occurred in my life mostly as I pursued my doctorate and pressed on as a writer isn’t a coincidence. The things I’ve worked the hardest for in life, the dreams most difficult to achieve, the amount of energy and pressing through needed to overcome my own doubts in the process — all came with an audience of detractors. A bit more than twenty years ago, some of my Pitt friends started falling by the wayside as I pursued my grad degrees, which is normal, but there were some pretty weird conversations I had with them as they did. One insisted on calling me “Dr. Don” about a dozen times during a PAT Transit bus ride one day in September ’92, laughing to the point of hilarity while doing it. I thought that he was going to choke on his own spit all the while, he was laughing so hard. Or that I was going to choke him myself if he said “Dr. Don” one more time!
Another guy — who eventually committed suicide in ’98 — told me straight up that people like me were “sellouts,” that “The Man” wasn’t going to accept people like me or him “no matta how many degrees we get” or don’t get. That was six weeks before my committee approved my dissertation, in October ’96. Luckily, I learned not to bring up my education to folks unless it was for professional purposes or unless someone asked.
That these were Black acquaintances from my days as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh was a bit surprising, considering that my tendency is to always encourage folks to pursue their dreams. I’d always assumed the worst of the folks — Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino — that I grew up with in Mount Vernon, New York, precisely because their encouragement literally made me suicidal by the time I turned fourteen. By the late-90s, I realized this was more than a New-York-area-social-etiquette-disorder.
With writing and books over the past decade — especially with Boy @ The Window — I’ve experienced some of those same headwinds from folks who seemed to think they had a better idea for the direction of my life than I. When I first started working on my memoir at the end of ’06, I had a conversation with my Pitt and AED colleague Stacey, whom I’d known for sixteen years. Upon telling her about my project, she said, “You need to wait on that,” that I should “publish a few more books,” be in my fifties, before “writin’ a biography.” So I knew that she wasn’t going to buy a copy when it came out. Oh well!
Last fall, at an African American Alumni Council event at Pitt, it was one of my first opportunities to discuss the now published Boy @ The Window, which was immediately followed by public criticism. Right after I talked about the book, an older alumna walked right up to me, and got within a foot or so of my face — close enough to hug. “You’re too young to have a memoir,” she said with a smile on her face, and then walked away as if her’s was the final say on the topic.
At the least, it showed that most don’t know the difference between a memoir (on one period or aspect of one’s life, often with a look at the world beyond) and an autobiography (the story of my entire life). Boy, understand the genre before criticizing it or my role in it already!
And, yes, I know. I see my Facebook friends especially posting other people’s sayings every single day. About letting go, moving on, forgetting the past, pushing past the haters, sitting in a lotus position, meditating and praying, and then drinking a wheat-grass smoothie. I do let go, I do forgive, and I don’t let the naysayers in my life have the final say. But letting go doesn’t mean I don’t get to highlight some truth, point out hypocrisy, and that I should just be quiet for the sake of being quiet.
It hasn’t been lost on me that most of these specific, potentially dream-destroying microaggressions have come from Black folk, male and female, well-off and immersed in poverty. Do I put these people in the same category as White literary agents who’ve said things to me like, “Oh no, not another abuse story!” or “There are too many black coming-of-age stories in the market?” Of course not. Gate keepers practicing ignorance in the midst of structural racism isn’t the same as people who may have internalized racism.
Or in the latter case, it could just be that my pursuit of what I’ve wanted and finally come to know for my life brought attention to dreams deferred, delayed and denied, by others and by their own fears of failure and success. If I’d let this stand in my way, I’d still be living in Mount Vernon, undoubtedly living in grinding poverty, wondering how could I let everything I wanted out of life get away from me.