When Those Close Put Up Roadblocks

June 7, 2014

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (http://www.ideaarchitects.org).

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (http://www.ideaarchitects.org).

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!

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with "Sellout" addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (http://forwardtimesonline.com/2013/).

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with “Sellout” addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (http://forwardtimesonline.com/2013/).

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!

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (http://www.virginmedia.com/).

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (http://www.virginmedia.com/).

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.


Where 1 PhD = A Second High School Diploma

May 14, 2014

Absurditty (or an Absurd Ditty, deliberately misspelled), where $100 = 2 quarters, May 14, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Absurditty (or an Absurd Ditty, deliberately misspelled), where $100 = 2 quarters, May 14, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

I could’ve just as easily titled this post, “Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 5: My Mother and My Doctoral Graduation.” Precisely because any chance I had of immediately getting over the psychological and emotional hump of finishing a doctorate while dealing with the betrayals of an advisor and dissertation committee was gone by the end of my graduation day, the third Sunday in ’97 (anniversary number seventeen, just four days away). That process opened me up to looking at my past, to figuring out how someone like me could go on to do a PhD, to teach, to write, to learn, all well beyond the expectations of my parents and my classmates.

The process of feeling uneasy about my relationship with my Mom, though, had begun the day after my interview at Teachers College. That Tuesday, May 13th, I left the Hotel Beacon, made my way down to the 66th Street stop, and caught the 1 train to The Bronx and Van Cortlandt Park. I then caught a Westchester Bee-Line Bus up Broadway and crossed the Yonkers-Bronx border, where I got off to walk up a one-block-long hill.

I arrived at my Mom’s temporary place on Bruce Avenue. This was where she and my younger siblings had been living since the end of ’95, as a result of an electrical fire that swept through two floors of 616. Not to mention, an incompetent Mount Vernon Fire Department that did more damage by flooding two of the three buildings on the property in the process of putting the fire out. It was a sparse place that made 616 look like a luxury high-rise by comparison. There were holes in the walls because my younger siblings Yiscoc and especially Eri had punched through the cheap plaster and nonexistent sheet rock in their teenage anger and rage.

Front door of 85 Bruce Avenue, Yonkers, NY (screen shot), taken in October 2007. (Google Maps).

Front door of 85 Bruce Avenue, Yonkers, NY (screen shot), taken in October 2007. (Google Maps).

It was in the midst of all of this that my Mom was finally graduating from Westchester Business Institute with her associate’s. I was happy for her. The only thing that concerned me was the kind of work she could find with the degree. I was willing to help her in any way I could, including coming up and spending a few days in Yonkers to attend her ceremony in White Plains that Tuesday evening. I wanted to continue to provide my Mom the emotional support that I thought she wanted.

That began to change the morning after her graduation ceremony. We were sitting down at this cafeteria bench that served as the kitchen table, with her drinking cream-infused tea from a chipped white flower mug and eating a piece of toast while I contemplated walking down the hill for some yogurt. We’d been talking about looking for work, about her moving out and finding a place in White Plains, or even moving back to a fully renovated 616. I brought up the real possibility that if I got the Teachers College job, I would move back to the New York area (though not Mount Vernon — out of the question).

This was when my Mom said, “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” It was out of the blue, and caught me completely off guard. It was quiet for a moment, with me in a deep frown, and my Mom sitting there for a few seconds. Then she forced a laugh. “It’s a joke,” she said, as if I was supposed to be oblivious to the nonverbal displays of disdain for nearly a decade’s worth of my work. And, what was the joke? My degree, or the amount of time and energy I spent in earning it?

I sort of ignored what my Mom had said at first. But really, how could I? Mom had told the lamest of jokes over the years — like about how diarrhea “was like ‘dying in the rear’,”  she’d say as if she heard the joke from someone else. But no matter how I looked at it, comparing everything I went through from August ’87 up to that point to a diploma that I earned while living in two hells — 616 and Mount Vernon High School — wasn’t a joke. Not for either of us.

My Mother's Associate's Degree Photo, Westchester Business Institute, May 12, 1997.

My Mother’s Associate’s Degree Photo, Westchester Business Institute, May 12, 1997.

My Mom disappointed me a day later, as she said, “I don’t have to tell you that I’m proud of you. I tell other folks, just not you.” It was in response to me saying that I thought her joke wasn’t one at all. But she hadn’t sealed our fates as a mother and son in a long-term strained relationship, at least not yet. That would occur a few days later.

Even under the strictest of measures, comparing a PhD to a high school diploma is ridiculous. It’s like comparing the buying power of Oprah to an ant colony. But I figured out a long time ago, long before starting my master’s program in history at Pitt, that a degree is only worth anything if you use it to enhance your life, advance your career, or pursue your calling. Even with all my qualms. About academia, about the publish-or-perish model, about the not-for-profit profit world, even about myself as a writer. It was all worth it.

One thing I did learn, though, about my Mom, maybe for the first time. I’d always wondered about the saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you.” I hadn’t really understood what that meant until the week of my doctoral graduation.


The Things I Can’t Say

October 28, 2013

U.S. Route 66 shield, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Sign, January 27, 2006. (SPUI via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

U.S. Route 66 shield, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Sign, January 27, 2006. (SPUI via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Today was my Mom’s sixty-sixth birthday. I’m just beginning to come to grips with the fact that Mom’s a senior citizen, considering that she was only twenty-two when she had me in ’69. It’s been a roller coaster ride through hell, with many downs and only a handful of ups over those years. The one casualty in those years that we haven’t overcome has been the ability to share everything that has been my life with her, especially in the last decade.

I learned the hard way sixteen years ago that the lack of distance in age between me and Mom resulted in a sort-of competition. It was one of which I hadn’t been aware until ’97. It involved higher education, finding work and finding full-time work. It involved friendships and relationships, God and church, and finding a passion for a calling. Week after week, and year after year, from ’87 to ’02, I talked on the phone or at 616 with my Mom about these situations and issues. Only to find that my triumphs and failures were only a point of comparison for her, and not a conversation involving life and lessons.

When I finally realized this in ’97, and did an intervention involving my family on this and other issues in ’02, it was the third most emotionally painful thing I’d ever been through. I had to decide how I should talk to my Mom moving forward. I made the choice to not share significant parts of my life with Mom. From that point on, I chose to not discuss any victories or struggles in my jobs, in finding work, in consulting or teaching with her. Nor have I talked about my marriage’s ups and occasional downs, my writings, my publications, my projects, my hopes, my dreams, my fears, or my struggles. Mostly, I’ve only talked about my son and his glacial journey toward adulthood, the weather, my siblings, or something in the news that may be funny or relevant.

Ginsu 9-Inch Japanese Stainless Steel Slicer, October 28, 2013. (http://www.amazon.com).

Ginsu 9-Inch Japanese Stainless Steel Slicer, October 28, 2013. (http://www.amazon.com).

This has been the case since the summer of ’02. Uncomfortable silences and frequent struggles to think about what to actually discuss that could have real meaning, have been what this has meant for the two of us. Given her response to the intervention I conducted in January ’02, I can only imagine what Mom’s response would be to Boy @ The Window. On the one hand, she would act unimpressed, as if I’d written a book about organic chemistry and nanotechnology. On the other hand, my Mom would likely be seething behind her ho-hum mask, ready to rip my throat out for airing family secrets and dirty laundry. (I actually dreamt as much the other night, being at a book talk with Mom coming over the table, slashing at me with a Ginsu knife).

I haven’t been angry with my Mom for years, and I forgave Mom for any mistakes she made regarding me growing up years ago. But I know my Mom well enough to know that our relationship could never be an adult mother-son one, where I get to be an adult and her son at the same time. Part of that means me remaining silent about a significant part of my life, including a memoir in which she’s a main character. It’s too bad, yet it’s also the way it must be. For my emotional sanity, as well as for hers.


The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1

November 12, 2011

Heinrich Himmler, ala Messiah Complex, 1938. (German Federal Archive via Wikipedia).

Today marks eight years since my former immediate supervisor Ken (see my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post from June ’11) forced me into a meeting with the head of HR and his “all-wise” boss Sandra “Driving Miss Daisy” in an effort to strip me of my Assistant Director of New Voices title at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development. All because I did my job while he was out of the office tacking on a couple of extra days after we’d attended the Independent Sector Conference in San Francisco the week before.

But this wasn’t about me or me doing my job as I’d been doing it for three years. No, this was about Ken in the middle of a period of emotional and psychological instability, and about me no longer trying to work around his moments of mania and depression. After all, I had a newborn son to worry about, a job search to keep secret, and a book I was determined to publish. Couple that with a fifteen percent cut in funding from the Ford Foundation for the New Voices program, and there was no way I’d make it through my last months with New Voices without Ken reacting irrationally.

Anglo Corned Beef, November 11, 2011. (cgi.ebay.com).

It didn’t help that Ken suddenly wanted to do a New Voices conference in Mumbai, India as part of the World Social Forum with no significant planning that August, while I was out on maternity leave. It also didn’t help that Yvonne, our center director, chose early retirement in June over being kept into “Driving Miss Daisy’s” box of highly talented and experienced but underutilized managers of color.

Most of all, it didn’t help that I was completely honest, for once, in my assessment of my performance in my annual review that October. I dutifully reported my recent publications in The Washington Post and a semi-scholarly journal, presentations, teaching of graduate courses at George Washington University, and so on. During that meeting, Ken all but told me he was jealous of the kind of year I was having professionally. He even asked me where I wanted to be in five years. “I want to be director of my own project, of something like New Voices,” I said, again being all too honest.

So, during a week in which we had zero babysitter coverage, where I’d taken the week off to take care of my three-month-old son, Ken insisted that I come into the office. All so I could listen to an hour of accusations, insinuations and wild speculations. He accused me of undermining his authority because I relayed State Department travel warnings for Mumbai to New Voices Fellows. He told me how “amusing it was” that I had titled my position Assistant Director, even though that was the title of my position when I applied for it, interviewed for it, and accepted the position three years earlier. And even though he’d been introducing me as his assistant director for three years.

He accused me of sexually harassing a New Voices Fellow and two staff members back in ’01 over two conversations that he had heard about third hand, and not from a staff member. One was about a strange site visit conversation that had nothing to do with anything approaching sexual harassment. The other conversation, it turned out, was about me and a former staff member’s gastrointestinal illnesses, something we had in common. Ken also accused me of wanting to take his job, of believing that I could do his job better than he could. Only on that last part I agreed, with a definitive nod of my head.

So when he asked me to accept having my title as Assistant Director stripped, along with the commensurate duties that went with that title (including supervisory authority), I said, “No, I think it’s time for me to move on from New Voices.” It left Ken in shock. Heck, it left me in shock, thinking about how we’d make it without my income if I couldn’t find another job over the next three months. The HR director and “Driving Miss Daisy,” though, weren’t surprised at all.

The meeting Ken had forced made my secret decision to move on an open one. Either way, it was inevitable. As I’d written in my journal after my annual review with Ken a couple of weeks before the meeting:

Mr. Magoo screen shot (and a serious lack of vision), June 23, 2011. (http://tumeke.blogspot.com).

“The most telling comment that my Director made during our fundraising effort came when I asked about his vision for our project. ‘I don’t know what the project’s vision should be,’ he said. I realized at that moment that everything we had worked for would fail, no matter how sound our ideas. My Director’s vision for the project did not extend beyond his need to feel needed, to feel as if he alone could keep our project – and by extension, himself – alive. I concluded that this was a dangerous position to find myself in professionally, and that it was beyond time to go.”


The Audacity of Low Expectations/Jealousy

September 19, 2011

Mimi and Eunice, "Low Expectations," September 19, 2011. (Source/http://mimiandeunice.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because of image's low resolution and without the intent to reproduce or distribute for profit.

It seems to me that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past three decades overcoming other people’s psychological issues. Regarding race, race and gender, race, gender and class, not to mention performance issues, success, jealousy and envy, and other psychoses that had little or nothing to do with me. It’s something that most folks who aren’t Black, male, grew up in poverty and had some success (however one defines that) really can’t understand unless they have parents who’ve told them every single day that they “weren’t good enough to live.”

Still, these issues have mostly cropped up for me when I’ve experienced what most people would recognize as success, as if the only role I was ever supposed to play in life was that of a doormat. The first time I went through this process of blowing up other people’s low expectations of me was at the beginning of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about this time twenty-five years ago. A couple of weeks into the school year, MVHS released our class rankings. Out of the 545 or so students eligible to graduate as part of the Class of ’87, I was ranked fourteenth with a 3.83 average.

My MVHS trascript, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Admissions Office, January 7, 1987. (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Note the circles from the admissions officer all over the transcript.

I understood that this was pretty good, but I was also disappointed that I hadn’t cracked the top ten. In fact, the top twelve students in our class all had GPAs above a 4.0, all because of our weighted Level 0 and Level 1 courses. Crush #1 finished just ahead of me, thirteenth in our rankings, something I saw as ironic. Despite this sign of academic success, I hoped and wished for more, and spent several late-night walks over the next few weeks second-guessing my work in tenth grade.

My classmates started to show their darker sides, some for the first time since the days of 7S. One came up to me after my AP Calculus class soon after the rankings were posted. “The only reason you’re in the top twenty’s because of history!,” implying that I was an average student in all of my other subjects. Another, much shorter and much more condescending classmate chimed in a few days later, saying that “the only thing you can do with history is play Jeopardy.” I wasn’t exactly walking around school celebrating my good fortune. I chalked it up to the stress of years of academic competition, the boiling over of senioritis and the rage associated with college preparations. The possibility that jealousy was involved didn’t cross my mind until much later. I didn’t think that anyone could be envious of my standing.

Fast-forward four years to the fall of ’90, as I prepared in earnest for grad school. Not only had I endured a short conversation at the beginning of that year with the great Sylvia Fasulo and her attempts to discourage me from pursuing grad school, law school or a career in law (see my “The Legend of Sylvia Fasulo” from September ’09). I had two professors from Pitt who told me that they weren’t sure about my chances for getting into grad school, and Reid Andrews, who flat-out told me that he didn’t think that I was “graduate school material.”

I have no doubt that if these yahoos were jealous of me at all, it was because of my age, and not my potential. They simply didn’t see how a 3.4 GPA and a 3.82 in my history major would be good enough to get me into a master’s — much less a doctoral — program. The fact that I completed my master’s degree in two semesters within twenty months of essentially being told that I was a fool left Andrews, at least, at a loss for words.

There are so many other instances in which a grad student, a professor, a supervisor, even my siblings, have expressed their low expectations and jealousy over my tiny little crumbs of success that it has left my head spinning on a broom handle. I mean, what did I really do to earn or deserve that kind of attention? I don’t own a house or have a million dollars in gold lying around. I have yet to publish an article in Rolling Stone or in The Atlantic Monthly. I don’t exactly have LeBron James or President Obama on speed dial.

So what is it about me, I’ve asked myself so many times? And then, I’ve reminded myself of something I figured out about twenty-one years ago. That the only expectations that I ultimately need to meet or exceed are my own. That what other people say about me, no matter how distasteful, really doesn’t matter, for those folks were never going to be there for me anyway.

Maybe it’s my refusal to live under someone else’s low expectations, to not allowing myself the luxury of envy, that irks those around me. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as simple as misery loving company, and not loving mine. Either way, it’s ironic that we live in a time in which we prefer to tear each other down rather than help each other get going in our lives. Which makes my relationship with the rest of humanity so bittersweet. I guess I really am a writer!


Anger Issues and Management, Inc

September 25, 2010

Rage of the Incredible Hulk. Source:http://www.ramasscreen.com

Exposure to abuse, ridicule and scorn in fairly large dosages when you’re young will leave you with anger issues to manage. I should know. Don’t believe the impressions that my classmates from Humanities and MVHS and my friends from my first two years at Pitt have of me. I may have appeared to smile, to be happy-go-lucky, to be sober and monk-like. But mostly, I was angry, not in a raging, vengeful way, but in a depressed way, a constant, gnawing, sometimes envious, sometimes ironic and sarcastic way. My anger was the kind of anger that I chewed on and swallowed, simmered at low heat for a while in the pit of my belly, then I’d regurgitate it into my mouth, and then chewed on it and swallowed it again.

But, despite what some folks in certain religious circles may say, not all anger is bad, evil or sinful. In fact, sometimes anger is necessary, even if and when it’s dangerous as an emotion or a state of mind. Why, you may ask? Because without anger, you take what life gives to you, even when most of what good you get out of life comes in a miserly and begrudging way. Everything else that comes, if indeed bad or evil for you, isn’t taken in stride or taken with difficulty. You simply don’t take it at all. You become so emotionless that whatever happens doesn’t matter at all, as if your purpose for existing is merely to exist, not to succeed, not to do good works or make yourself a better person because of or despite your circumstances.

That, by the way, is what I’ve heard over the years when some of my former classmates from Mount Vernon — and a few people who knew me in my early days at the University of Pittsburgh — describe me. It was as if I was Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Louis Armstrong or Paul Robeson singing, “I’ve got plenty of nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me.” That would and did piss me off, but I reminded myself that this was how I had to be to deal with the anger I had within. With emotion, I could’ve easily flown into a rage many

In Treatment Screen Shot. Source: http://sepinwall.blogspot.com

a day between ’81 and ’89.

At the same time, I had the wisdom to allow my anger to rise up, to channel it many more times than not into what I needed to have happen at a particular moment in time. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a sense of righteous anger and indignation, a feeling of got-to-get-it-done-or-else anger. It came at the right time, usually when I felt that my back was up against a concrete wall, with no way out except to fight my way out.

Like in February ’82, the middle of seventh grade, when I just got tired of my 7S classmates thinking that they could say and do anything to me without me getting angry, and tired of days on end at 616 without food to eat. After a fight in the boy’s locker room with one of my classmates — which I won, by the way — I channeled the energy unleashed by that rage and fight into two things. Improving my mediocre grades, and my infatuation over Crush #1. It was three months of relative bliss in the middle of the worst eighteen months of my life.

Richard Marx, 1987.

Or in January ’88, after recovering from the crash-and-burn of my first semester at Pitt. I was mad and disappointed with myself over allowing my obsession with Crush #2 hijack the final six weeks of my semester, not to mention my generally hopeful and creative imagination. After an incident with a couple of my more evil and drunken dorm mates — one in which I cracked a broom handle on the crowns of their heads (no injuries or investigation, luckily) — I summoned some discipline and theme music to get through that second semester. From Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” to Paul Carrick’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” I spent fifteen weeks turning anger into A’s and jadedness into new friendships.

I’ve had other periods in my life — in ’93, ’98, and ’03 — where the circumstances dictated that anger, with some patience and understanding, was absolutely necessary in my overcoming of them. The lesson here is that anger — like fire, electricity and nuclear fusion — can be and is often dangerous. Yet it’s also necessary, a potential evil that can be an actual good, if channeled, allowed to dissipate, if tempered by wisdom and patience. At the least, anger allows those of us under stress to know that we are very much alive.


My Post-Doctoral Life

May 18, 2008

PhD Graduation Group Photo – May 18, 1997. A great photo, except for the one (my mother) who was missing – note my mother-in-law gesturing to her. (Angelia N. Levy).

Today is the eleventh anniversary of my marching across stage to officially end the formal student phase of my life. Around 2 pm, I shook hands with the president of Carnegie Mellon University and the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences to accept my PhD in History. It could’ve and should’ve been a joyous moment, but it wasn’t. After all, I had learned that my mother was about as happy for me as some of my former fellow grad students, who threw around words like “envious” and “jealous” in the year before my official graduation.

I tell this story in Boy At The Window this way: “The proverbial someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But…even in the age of megapixels, pictures miss what words can say. Such is the case with a picture of me and my closest folk on my PhD graduation day in May ’97. On this sultry and sunny spring day, I stand in my polyester black cap and gown with my future mother-in-law dressed in a yellow-gold blazer and flower-print skirt on my right, and my longtime high school friend on my left. My friend’s one-time ‘surrogate’ son and her twenty-three-year-old sister, as well as my graduate-school friend and colleague Ed are also in this picture, from my friend’s left through the rest of the four-by-six-inch print. They all look hot and happy, as if they went through the doctoral thesis process in one afternoon. At the least, they looked ready for air conditioning or shade. I’m happy too, if only for that moment.

The Carnegie Mellon University-wide ceremony was anticlimactic. I’d finished my dissertation with approval from my committee six months before I marched across stage. Yet I had reason to smile the smile of relieved happiness. Relieved that the outdoor graduation ceremony had concluded and happy to see my then girlfriend Angelia grinning ear-to-ear as she snaps the picture of the six of us. Noticeably absent from this picture is my mother, who stood outside of our huddle (to the right of Angelia’s mother). If you look closely at the picture, you can see Ms. Levy gesturing—presumably to my mother—to get her into the picture. What you don’t see is my mother shaking her head and looking at the rest of us with discomfort as we set up for Angelia’s shot. What you also don’t and can’t see is the pride that everyone involved in the picture possessed about my accomplishment. It was an almost overwhelming experience to receive so much emotional support after so many years without it.

But pictures, no matter how well orchestrated, only capture a moment in time, a moment that could be connected to a string of events or an off-the-beaten path tangent from events already in motion. Or a picture can be a snapshot of a transition point between events. For all of us, I think, this picture symbolized major turning point in our lives, ‘the way we were,’ if you will. My relationships with my mother, my soon-to-be mother-in-law and wife, and my friends all changed or were in the process of change.

How I saw my mother had changed forever a few days before Angelia snapped the picture of me and the others. The best evidence of this is the next picture in this photo album, at the time the next picture in the roll of film from that day. It was of me angrily stomping down a spiraling flight of stairs at The Thackeray Club on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. I held my doctoral diploma for the camera as if I wanted to hit someone with it. My face looks dark, and not just because I’m Black and had been on five hours’ sleep per night for the past ten days. My face looks frozen between anger and disappointment. Anger about my mother comparing my nine and a half years of undergraduate and graduate education to being ‘in school long enough to earn another high school diploma.’ Disappointment in her later telling me, ‘I don’t have to tell you that I’m proud of you. I tell other folks, just not you.’

Angelia’s picture captures the dark mood that my concrete expression struggled to show. I privately acknowledged that my mother had never cared about my degree or other accomplishments because I somehow was ‘showing her up.’ I had worked for nearly fifteen years to make this moment in my life happen, a moment where my dreams, my ultimate make-believe fantasy life had finally begun to merge with 3-D reality.

Then my mother had decided at the last minute to catch an earlier flight. And just as my individual, Department of History celebration was about to start. To say that my reasonably close—sometimes too close—relationship with my mother hasn’t been the same since would be like saying Hiroshima was never the same after the Enola Gay unloaded her deadly payload.

She needed to go to the airport for her flight to take care of ‘the kids’—my four younger siblings. ‘The kids’ were between thirteen and eighteen years old, and had been without my mother’s supervision for two full days before her airport request. During the trip to the airport in my graduation robe, I thought about crying, yelling, even about shaking my mother to see if she could show any emotion other than a blank disdain. I chose instead the most uncomfortable silence I could summon.

When we arrived at the gate, I finally said to her that she had ‘ruined every event in my adult life’ that I had given her the opportunity to attend. And this was the first opportunity my mother had taken advantage of—she couldn’t get to my other graduations because neither of us had the money to pay for her transportation. I certainly understood that reality, because I grew up in it. This was different. This was telling me that even if money weren’t an issue, my mother wouldn’t have been able to show any sense of pride or joy in what I had done. The irony of that fateful day was that my mother’s six o’clock US Airways flight was delayed more than two hours due to thundershower activity in Pittsburgh and New York. It was after eleven by the time my mother arrived home, according to one of my brothers.

It would be a month before we talked again, and that only occurred because my seventeen-year-old brother Maurice was about to graduate from Mount Vernon High School….In the years since my graduation, I’ve learned that even a parent can be jealous of their children. Especially if a parent attempts to live the life that they would like to have through them.”

What I don’t discuss in the manuscript are other details to this week eleven years ago. Including the fact that I was living on four or five hours of sleep for a week and a half. That I started the week of my Carnegie Mellon graduate in New York interviewing for an assistant professor job at Teachers College. That my mother marched for her associate’s degree at Westchester Business Institute in White Plains five days before my graduation, and that her comment to me about my years of working on a second high school diploma came the day after her graduation ceremony. What I don’t talk about is how my mother and eventual mother-in-law, in their first-ever meeting during my mother’s time in Pittsburgh, spent three hours discussing their failed marriages and the horrible nature of Black men the day before my graduation. And finally, that for the next four days after my graduation, I had a severe gastrointestinal infection, no doubt made worse by my sleeplessness and emotion distress.

The last eleven years have been a struggle to have a career as satisfying and as successful as my post-high school academic experience, with many more positives than negatives. At the same time, my struggles in career and in my life in general are the reason that I find myself in constant self-reflection about my life. It’s this self-reflection that helped me in writing Boy At The Window in the first place.

But the most difficult aspect of the things that I do struggle with centers on trust. Between my mother and my former advisor, not to mention some of my former fellow grad students and others on my dissertation committee, I felt a sense of betrayal that I hadn’t felt since the day my stepfather had knocked my mother unconscious. It took about a year and a half for me to recover from the dissertation process and from what my mother did during my graduation weekend.

I certainly was sarcastic before, but I know that I’m jaded about trusting others these days. Especially folks in positions of authority who happen to be somewhere between flighty and absolute fakes. Some people I’ve worked with in publishing come to mind. Others I’ve worked with and for, though, are far more typical in my world of being careful with whom I divulge my information and life experiences to. Most of time, I find myself much more deliberate about the company I keep and the folks I talk to about my world beyond my job, my teaching and my writing.

I’ve had to learn a second time how to overcome betrayal and distrust. The first time, I could almost trust anyone. This time, I have much more choice as to whom I trust and for how long, which also makes it all the more difficult. As for my mother, I have long since forgiven her for the things that she did and said eleven years ago, although I have to work hard at standing in that forgiveness sometimes. But with my memory, in which I can tell you what I had to eat for dinner on May 12th of ’97, it’s hard to forget.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 705 other followers