June 10, 2012

“Murder of Cain by Abel,” Ghent Altarpiece painting (1432), Jan van Eyck, January 6, 2007. (Paunaro via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve written about the infamous Estelle Abel in my blog on this date (or at least, this time of year) for each of the previous five years (see “My Last Day,” “The Last Class,” “AP Exam Blues,” “Honors Coronation,” and “Twenty Years in a Week” for the full scoop). She was the chair of Mount Vernon High School’s Science Department while I was a student there, and remain so for years afterward.

As anyone should be able to tell from my previous posts on Abel, I have a bit of an ax to grind. More like a samurai sword, actually. The woman and her ten or fifteen minutes of berating me as both a student and as an un-Black young adult Black male ruined my last day of high school. Forgive me, then, for not being completely objective when it comes to the subject of Estelle Abel and her methods of teaching, motivation, and guidance on issues of academic achievement and race.

Though I’ve also forgiven her, I’m not God, and with my memory, I can hardly forget. But if there had been any chance at forgetting, I lost that opportunity in a conversation I had with my late AP US History teacher Harold Meltzer back in the ’89-’90 school year. Estelle Abel came up as a topic because of something that had occurred with one of his AP students. Apparently, this particular student, a female basketball player, had made the decision to apply to some predominantly White institutions, and had left HBCUs off her application plate. And apparently, Abel had gone after this student for doing so, all but calling her a traitor to her race by taking the route that a majority of traditional African American students have been taking since the ’70s.

Two Oreo Cookies, February 7, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia). In public domain.

In all, it took Meltzer about twenty minutes to tell what would’ve been a five or seven-minute-story for the long-winded. That’s how much he could meander in the forests of his stories sometimes. Then I told Meltzer my Estelle Abel story from my last day of school. It sparked a conversation that I wasn’t quite prepared to have. One not only about Estelle Abel, but about the African American faculty at Mount Vernon High School in general.

For most of the rest of the conversation, Meltzer was in full gossip mode, telling me things about individual teachers that I shouldn’t have known, and mostly have forgotten, thankfully. But I did say to him early on in this part of the conversation that I really didn’t know much about the Black teachers at MVHS. The reason was simple. I didn’t have a single Black teacher as my teacher in four years of high school. Humanities classes — particularly the Level 0 and Level 1 classes — had few, if any, Black teachers, much less any teachers of color.

I didn’t say that exactly, but it was the essence of what I said and thought about while Meltzer yammered on about the disunity among MVHS teachers. To think that from Ms. Simmons’ math class in seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School until my history and Black Studies classes my junior year at Pitt, I’d gone without a single African American teacher or professor. I knew that some of the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, Humanities coordinators, MVHS’ leadership and the Italian Civic Association.

But how much of this was my fault, being so myopically focused on grades, college and getting away from 616 and Mount Vernon, I didn’t know. After all, I learned in the middle of my senior year that Dr. Spruill taught a Black history class, that there had been efforts to bring in more Black teachers and other teachers of color at Mount Vernon High School dating back at least four years.

Uncle Ruckus screenshot, from Aaron McGruder’s animated TV series The Boondocks, July 4, 2011. (Grapesoda22 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture’s low resolution.

Still, none of that really mattered to me that year. I had already and unsuccessfully attempted to thread the needle between a cushy senior year and a year that prepared me for the rigors of college. Anything else, whether it was Black history, a trip to West Africa or a visit to some HBCU campuses, was hardly on my radar.

Whatever my lack of focus could be construed as in ’86-’87, it wasn’t because I wasn’t Black enough, or ashamed of being Black, as folks like Estelle Abel implied or accused me of in their thoughts and words, and with their eyeballs that year. Sure, I was weird, and readily admit to being weird, aloof, and emotionless in my MVHS days. But given the hell that I lived with at home and in that community in my last years in Mount Vernon, weirdness and a focus on getting out through college should’ve been applauded, or at least tolerated, without teachers like Abel staring at me as if I was demon-possessed.

That it wasn’t tolerated was the real shame. It took me years to get over it, that uncomfortability of being judged by other Blacks as too smart, too weird, too un-Black in their eyes for my own good.

Occupy Wall Street (and the Fed, and Capitol Hill…)

October 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protests, Day 14, October 1, 2011. (Source/Mrwho00tm). Permission granted via Creative Commons v. 3.0.

Folks like me have been saying for years that we need a mass movement of people to stem the tide of economic and racial inequality that this country, the Land of the Thief, um, Free, has been experiencing for more than four decades now. Finally, it’s happening, albeit in a relatively small way, around Wall Street and other cities around the country. This is great, I certainly wish I could be there, but this can only be the start of something. Because if it ends here, I don’t want to wait until I’m in my sixties to see grassroots protests cut across racial, socioeconomic (again, relatively speaking) and other lines that tend to divide us as a nation.

We need to not just occupy Wall Street, or do more than this one-day march that’s suppose to happen in New York today. Or attend rallies hosted by Van Jones. We need to occupy the Fed, Capitol Hill, every Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, AIG, JP Morgan Chase, CitiGroup, SAG, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP

Michael Moore at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, September 6, 2009. (Source/Nicholas Genin via Permission granted via Creative Commons v. 3.0.

corporate office in this country. We need to say to these folks, and the corrupt, greedy, soul-destroying interests they represent that were mad and we’re not gonna take it any more.

I just want two other things to come out of this, even if the evil capitalists manage to bash every protester and faceless writers like me in the head to stop what’s been happening over the past few weeks. One is that I want the folks from my youngest sibling’s generation to get credit where credit is due, to not hear from the idiot Baby Boomer crowd about how what they’re doing is just like what they (and by they, about 1 in 50 Baby Boomers, really) did back in the ’60s. It’s not. People born in the ’80s and ’90s grew up in a nation of diminishing resources, increasing economic inequalities, increased acceptance of bigoted, xenophobic, me-first-and-always behavior and a willingness to squander trillions of dollars to go to war in our name.

If anything, these protesters are more like the factory workers at GM in 1937, who sat-in for forty-four days amid violence and threats of violence for their labor union rights in Flint, Michigan. Or like the African

Michael Moore as Pillow Pet Penguin, October 5, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins).

Americans who desegregated lunch counters, boycotted stores that refused to hire them, and staged work stoppages at military ports during the Depression and in the middle of World War II. It’s relatively easy to protest a war like Vietnam from a position of strength, as already enrolled-in-college students. It’s not so easy when your future truly hangs in the balance.

A few months ago, I was playing with my son and one of his stuffed animals, a penguin Pillow Pet. I realized one evening that this Pillow Pet had many of Michael Moore’s facial features. So I began to talk like Michael Moore about the need to stop the greedy folks on Wall Street from eating all of our cake. My son said, “I do not understand what you are saying. But that doesn’t sound nice.” In response, I said, “It’s not suppose to be nice. But then again, neither are the people who’ve put people out of work.” It provoked my eight-year-old, if only for a moment, to think about inequality. The other thing I hope is that this protest provides more thought-inducing moments, for both of us.


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