Outrage, Maybe

May 18, 2010

Today’s date makes it thirteen years since I marched in my polyester cap and gown in a hot and humid tent on Carnegie Mellon’s campus to receive my doctorate. It should’ve been a great day, but it was a bittersweet one. For it revealed far more about my mother’s imperfections and jealousies than I ever wanted to know (see “My Post-Doctoral Life” post from May 18, ’08). That was sad, and remains one of the worst times in my life. Not just because of my relationship with my mother since then. Because, as a result of her actions, I never did get the chance to properly accept my degree in an individual department ceremony, in front of my closest peers, my former professors, and especially my dreaded advisor, Joe Trotter.

Outrage Poster (HBO, 2009)

About two months ago, I saw the documentary (finally) Outrage on HBO. Outrage, for those of you who haven’t watched, is the story about powerful Washington politicians and operatives, ones who’ve used their power to discriminate against gays and lesbians, really the whole LGBT community. Ones whom themselves are gay, deep in the closet, but gay. Ones whom folks like Michael Rogers have made a point of exposing their hypocrisy by outing them. Everyone from Ed Koch — which explained a lot to me, seeing as I found the former mayor of New York from ’77 to ’89 an enigma while I was growing up — to Larry Craig and Florida Governor Charlie Crist was in the film.

It was a good film, and a revelation to me. The lengths to which people in powerful position and places will go to protect their secrets, their power, by destroying others if necessary. It’s safe to say that this is how I see my former advisor as well. I’m not suggesting that Joe Trotter is gay or in the closet, for I have no evidence of this (or of his heterosexuality, for that matter!). But, the film helped me realize that a person doesn’t have to have a secret of the magnitude of being gay in a homophobic society to be a hypocrite. Being Black on a historically anti-Black campus like Carnegie Mellon could just as easily do the trick.

It may be impossible for my former advisor to hide his skin color, but boy did he try to get me to hide my Blackness by doing what he called “running interference” on me on multiple occasions. He tried to forbid me from doing conference presentations, at AERA and on the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the University of Georgia. From sending drafts of articles to the Journal of American History and other scholarly publications. Trotter practically blew his shiny-headed top when he found out

Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr. (circa 2008)

about my feature piece (done with my friend Marc) in Black Issues in Higher Education back in ’93. There was something there with Trotter that I didn’t take the time to piece together when I was his student, as I was too busy trying to get out of there as fast as I could.

Yet, there are signs that Trotter was “in the closet” about something, be it race, jealousy, sexual orientation, maybe even a rough upbringing. At least two other male students, one who graduated a year ahead of me, the other who never finished his dissertation, who had problems with Trotter, personality conflicts, confounding issues that went unexplained. Even when each of us took into account Trotter wanting his “proletarianization hypothesis” in our doctoral dissertations.

Whatever it was, it was enough where he all but refused to help any of us — male or female — find work or  get postdoctoral fellowships, even after finishing our doctorates. What a hypocrite! His thirty years of scholarship have been all about recognizing the active role ordinary Blacks played in shaping their lives and communities, despite racism and violence. His role with me and other students was in opposition to his own research, at least during my time there.

If I’d had the chance to speak at the individual ceremony thirteen years ago, especially after watching something like Outrage, I’d have said the following. That as much as liked working with my advisor at the beginning of our four years of working together, that I always felt uneasy about his guidance. That there was always a sense that I hadn’t fulfilled my end of the bargain, that I hadn’t met my half of the quid pro quo. And that because I was a late-bloomer in many respects, sex included, I couldn’t fully understand what he really expected of me beyond my academic work. It’s too bad he didn’t come out and say whatever it was he wanted from me, it would’ve made both of our times working with each other easier. Too bad, for in the end, it was his loss, of a friend and potential colleague, not mine.


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