Writing For The First Time, Almost The Last Time

July 14, 2011

I spent most of the summer of ’81, my summer before seventh grade, A. B. Davis Middle School and Humanities writing my first book. I’d been inspired by my second-place finish in Mount Vernon’s city-wide, K-12 writing contest, which came with a $15 check. It wasn’t really a book in any adult sense of the word, but for eleven-year-old me with all my interests in war and weapons back then, it was a magnum opus. It was a book about the top-secret military hardware the Department of Defense didn’t want the rest of America to know about. I remained consumed with reading about war and military technology in my spare time — I wouldn’t have learned the word “fortnight” otherwise! Everything from the B-1 bomber to the M-1 Abrams tank to the Trident submarine and MX missile was to be in this scoop on the latest in military high-tech.

M-1 Abrams with 105 mm cannon, circa 1980. (Source/www.cj-jeep.com)

I even wrote a letter to the Pentagon for declassified pictures of these weapons, which I received in mid-July. It would be another two years before the M-1 Abrams with the 120mm cannon went beyond the prototype stage, so I knew even then that someone at the Department of the Defense had made a mistake in sending me these photos.

By the time of my brother Yiscoc’s birth (one form of Hebrew for “Isaac” and pronounced “yizz-co”) later in the month, I’d written nearly fifty pages on these weapons and why they were so cool for the US military to have. Especially in light of the Soviet military threat. Unfortunately, they didn’t declassify the fact that America’s latest tank used depleted uranium in parts of its hull or in its cannon shells. That would’ve been a real scoop at the time.

Three weeks after Yiscoc came into the world, all of us spent the afternoon at White Plains Public Library. I did some more research for my military book. But I deferred on this book, not really sure that this was what I was meant to do and be. Not only would it be the last time I worked on my military hardware book. It would be the last time I’d write anything that I’d hope to publish for a decade.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I stopped writing, except for school or to journal about getting beat up by my

Peacekeeper (MX) Missile test launch, November 26, 2002, Vandenberg AFB, California. (US Air Force). In public domain.

stepfather Maurice. Maybe it was because of the cares of this world, the steady drop into poverty and welfare, the very nature of being a Hebrew-Israelite for three years, or having a stepfather who terrorized us for so long. Or maybe it was going from one to two, then three by ’83, and four by ’84, younger siblings in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Maybe I just looked at myself through the eyes of my Humanities peers and saw someone who could only play Jeopardy! and sing high-falsetto, not a person with a gift for the written word.

As I’ve thought about those lost years — an eight-year writer’s block, really — three things come to mind. One is that my father Jimme was completely absent from my life for more than a year between April ’81 and August ’82, mostly because of a baseball bat (more on that next week). Two is the reality that I grew to hate, actually, literally, hate, my stepfather, who saw himself as a writer (he was an okay writer, never published, but not really the point). I dare say that I couldn’t hate him as passionately as I did and then turn around and embrace myself as a writer at the same time.

But the third thing involved answering the question, what kind of life would it be for me to pursue writing as a passion, a career and calling? The only people who ever asked me that question were my teachers. My eighth-grade and twelfth grade English teachers Mrs. Caracchio and Ms. Martino and my Western Civ II TA Paul Riggs. They at least made me realize that my biggest fear was being as impoverished at forty or fifty as I was at seventeen or eighteen.

Luckily, once I left Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh and Pitt in ’87, I became interested in writing again. And then once my stepfather became my ex-stepfather two years later, I found myself writing for me in volume for the first time in seven years. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d have writer’s block. Still, the longest I’ve had writer’s block since ’89 has been a day or two.

Yes, I’m still a struggling, though published writer. But I’m not Edgar Allen Poe, like I thought I’d be in pursuing this calling.

Patriotism, Post-Racialism and Prima Donnas

July 4, 2011

US Flag and Lower 48, July 3, 2011. Source: http://mapsof.net

It’s yet another 4th of July, number 235, and I find myself tired of how the prima donnas in this country think it their right to define for me what patriotism is and isn’t. Last I checked, carrying an M-16 rifle and wearing a uniform overseas isn’t the alpha and omega of patriotism here or anywhere, and saying that it is doesn’t make it so. By that definition, it would mean that Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony weren’t patriots, while Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad were. Those who serve in combat are obvious American patriots. But hiding behind our military in defining patriotism allows us as a nation to ignore so many things that contradict our sense of nationalism and patriotism.

Call of Duty Screen Shot, July 3, 2011. Source: http://independent.co.uk

Patriotism is about much more than guns, battles, taking flanking positions or making perfect speeches wholly incompatible with the imperfections of our society and people. As anyone in the education field knows, Americans in general know about as much history as my son knows right now, and he just finished second grade.

Our aversion to history is especially noticeable when it comes to race. We’ve declared ourselves post-racial when we haven’t even been pre-racial. Meaning that in order to get beyond race, we actually have to deal with it directly, head-on, without holding back, the ugly history of race and racism that is as American as apple pie. I’m afraid that it’ll take a national tragedy, though, for more Americans to dare be that brave, that honest, that, well, patriotic.

It’s sad, because most of us are prima donnas, or rather, imperial narcissists who talk about patriotism without understanding that being a patriot often means using one’s brain and vociferously resisting the status quo. We’re more concerned about winning Mega Millions and Powerball or the price of gas than we really are about troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan or making US foreign and economic policies more equitable abroad and at home. We somehow assume that “America is #1!” is our birthright, even as many of us haven’t the socioeconomic capacity to partake in America’s remaining riches.

Alexandra Pelosi (a documentarian and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter) has been doing the media circuit talking about her latest film, Citizen U.S.A., the story of immigrants becoming naturalized

Citizen U.S.A. Poster, June 2011. Source: http://www.jfklibrary.org

American citizens and their appreciation of what they believe America is about. Her message has essentially been “shame on you” to native-born Americans for not seeing our nation the way these immigrants can and do.

But even Pelosi’s perspective is limited in its prima-donna-ness. There are millions of us who see the direction of the nation and work not to illuminate its already over-hyped greatness — a classic sign of imperialism, by the way — but to make the nation a better one, a nation that lives up to its ideals. Isn’t this another example of one’s patriotism, one that’s forward-thinking enough to work for the long-term success of a nation, rather than chest-thumping about greatness in the present?

It seems to me that we should illuminate the fact that we expend so much energy making millions of Americans who are not with the prima-donna program into unpatriotic outcasts. So much so that most of us have never had an independent thought on this topic in our entire lives. And if the 4th of July is to be about more than guns, speeches, guns and denigration, we need more people to think for and beyond themselves about patriotism, even if some of us are incapable of accepting independent thought and criticism from them.

Patriot Days

July 3, 2010

Source: Donald Earl Collins, Fear of a "Black" America Cover

Few things are more annoying or more confusing than my understanding of patriotism and how others — mostly White — perceive my patriotism and the patriotism of people of color more broadly. It’s something that I’ve struggled to grasp for more than thirty years. For those of you whose patriotism is akin to breathing, that’s your prerogative. I’ve found that something like one’s love for their country, like one’s belief in God (or not), shouldn’t be one that comes without thought or without any doubts at all. For without giving it any serious or critical thought or without any questioning or lingering doubts, most American patriotism is like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan. Patriotism in that sense is simply rooting for a team that can do no wrong, one that is expected to win in any contest simply because that’s all they’ve ever done.

My sense of patriotism began in ’79, when I started to devour history books and volumes of World Book Encyclopedia. I wasn’t completely naive, because I had also read Lerone Bennett’s/Ebony’s three-volume Black America set while learning about World War II. But I did believe that America ultimately stood for goodness and prosperity, for freedom and democracy all over the world. I fervently saluted the flag at pledge of allegiance time in school in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade.

Snoopy & Charlie Brown. Source: Charles Schulz, Peanuts

At one point between fourth and sixth grade, I even created a pretend nation-state in our bedroom at 616, where I played out domestic and foreign policy issues through make-believe characters, from, of all things, the Peanuts comic strip. I saw the Cold War with the Soviet Union as one we absolutely had to win in order to keep the totalitarian communists at bay. Several of my Humanities classmates can attest to my defense of American foreign policy as late as ninth grade.

But even as I generally saw the US as the country the Scholastic Weekly Reader described it to be, I had my doubts as to America the always right and beautiful. It started at the end of fifth grade, when I hit the chapter in our social studies book about how we ended World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud or the fire-bleached skulls before then. It scared me, but more importantly, it made me think about how cruel it was to wipe out a city the size of Mount Vernon but with three times as many people in the same space.

Then, with the Reagan Years and the almost complete refusal to acknowledge racism and poverty in the ’80s got me to the point where I refused to recite the pledge by my junior year of high school. One of the reasons I never saw the military as an option for escaping the abuse and poverty I’d grown up with was because I saw American foreign policy as one that was at least as imperialistic as that of the Soviets. Iran-Contra, Vietnam, El Salvador and Grenada were examples of us over-stepping our role as the leader of the free world.

It got worse for me before it got better. The Gulf War (’90-’91) and my growing knowledge of American history and atrocities at home and abroad made me feel as if this country was never meant for me, never meant to be mine.

Luckily I had other people from which to draw inspiration about how to approach a nation that generally takes people like me for granted, as if my life and death doesn’t matter at all. People as varied as Derrick Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison — not to mention my Army ROTC friends who served — served to inspire another sense of patriotism.

Their writings and speeches, their acts on behalf of civil rights, human rights and social justice did teach me two things. One, that even folks who serve in the military deserve credit for understanding that their projection of American power means little without clear objectives and a clear sense that this use of power is necessary, justifiable and can actually matter to and gain the support of the rest of the world. Two, that holding my country’s feet to the fire around racism, poverty, imperialism and other forms of injustice is a form of patriotism. Without the socially conscious, this country’s ideals, its flag and other symbols of power, are meaningless beyond the imperial. So, for better and for worse, happy birthday America.


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