Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.


The Comedy of a Tragic Upbringing

January 10, 2015

John Leguizamo playing 'Abuelo' in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (http://www.pbs.org).

John Leguizamo playing ‘Abuelo’ in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (http://www.pbs.org).

Over New Year’s weekend, I watched John Leguizamo’s HBO comedy special Ghetto Klown (2014), based on one of his one-man autobiographical Broadway shows. I don’t think of Leguizamo as funny in the same way I think of Lewis Black or Dave Chappelle or Eddie Murphy. The sweet spot for me in terms of what is funny or not funny is a routine that makes me think for a second or two, not just laugh out of sheer expectations for a funny delivery or line. Otherwise, I’d think of D.L. Hughley as a great comedian, instead of as a vile one with equally vile opinions on race and culture.

Leguizamo’s hardly the funniest comedian. But then again, he’s always been more than one thing. He’s essentially a playwright, an actor, and comedian, which means Leguizamo’s a very elaborate storyteller. In most of his work, a nonfiction storyteller. I’ve seen some of his other one-man work before. With Ghetto Klown, though, I saw and felt the sense of tragedy and regret that I hadn’t seen in his other plays and specials. Especially when it came to his family — specifically his father — and his closest friends.

When Leguizamo went through his routine about how his mother and father were upset with him about he had portrayed them in his plays as somewhat selfish and oftentimes neglectful and abusive, I understood. I’ve only written one book about my life, and my Mom and dad have both been offended by the idea that I could write about them without their permission or blessings. Leguizamo used them as bits for his comedy and Broadway stage routines for years. That’s a lot of courage, and it’s a lot of tragedy to expose, too.

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (http://quazoo.com).

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (http://quazoo.com).

I’ve thought about it a few times over the past fifteen years. What if I decided to do a stand-up routine that included elements of my upbringing? How would I do that? How would I make domestic violence and child abuse and poverty funny?

I’d start with my father, who I’d call Jimme and my father interchangeably, since that’s been the nature of our relationship for forty-five years. I’ve been able to imitate his language, his drunken stupor, his evil meanness and off-kilter mannerisms since I was fifteen. It would be easy enough to do all of his “po’ ass muddafucka…” insults in bar scenes, all while getting robbed and beaten up by other alcoholics.

I could also do my now deceased ex-stepfather Maurice, especially his constant threats to put me in the hospital or kill me. “Watch dat base in yo’ voice, boy, ‘fore I cave yo’ chest in!,” he started saying to me once my voice changed with puberty. I could imitate Maurice when he weighed over 400 pounds and wore size-54 Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs around 616, with enough fat and dinginess to make me wanna puke.

I could even imitate my Mom, at least on the threatening front. If I argued with her too long about something important that she didn’t want to talk about (like paying bills, for instance), she’d tell me, “Shut up o’ I’ma gonna cut the piss out of you.” Or I could run around a stage singing at the top of my lungs to evangelical Christian music while also acting like my younger brothers, who’d get into knockdown fights in the living room while my Mom was in her spiritual zone.

The fact is, some of the best comedy grows out of tragedy. It may not be funny to the respectable middle class types or the respectability politics types. They both would prefer people “forget about” their pasts and “just move on,” as if these issues are taboo. But you can’t be a very good comedian or writer without confronting your upbringing in some way.

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (http://deadline.com).

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (http://deadline.com).

I attempted at times in Boy @ The Window to inject some sarcasm or comedy in many of the tragic scenes in the book. Because they reflecting my thinking in the moments in which they occurred, whether in ’82 or ’88. The few people who commented on this aspect of the memoir didn’t like the comedy or the language. It was because they couldn’t reconcile the mild-mannered version of myself that I presented to the world in high school or in academia with the way in which I grew up.

Watching Leguizamo in Ghetto Klown reminded me of what I learned in watching Rodney Dangerfield (who himself was sexually abused and neglected by his parents growing up) and Richard Pryor (the son of an active and neglectful prostitute) over the years. We all have baggage and demons to deal with every day of our lives. We ignore that past and those evils at risk to ourselves and every person we’ve ever loved. We must turn the tragedy of our upbringing into something that isn’t just a cancer of pain. Be it through storytelling, autobiography, even the kind of comedy that those whose lives were much more stable growing up can appreciate but can never fully understand.


A Weak Legacy: The Acts of the Civil Rights Apostles at 50

October 24, 2014

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

Yesterday evening, I attended the eleventh annual Brown lecture hosted by the American Educational Research Association at the Ronald Reagan Building here in DC. The great scholar James Anderson talked for about an hour about the connections between voter disenfranchisement and state policies that created systems of educational inequality for Blacks as part of the Jim Crow era. Anderson wondered aloud that with the recent efforts to restrict voting and with the Supreme striking down Section 4(b) (and essentially Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if this meant a return of gross educational inequality on the basis of race and class in 2014. As if the trends of inequality only rise and fall with well protected or unprotected voting rights. Voting rights enforcement is a good barometer, but hardly the only one. The last twenty years of high-stakes testing and corporate education reform provide evidence of a trend of educational inequality that has occurred despite and (in many cases) precisely because of voter participation across all racial lines.

The following, though, is my full response, to Anderson, AERA and all of those in legacy-celebration mode with the Brown decision and the Acts in 2014 and 2015. What was true in 1964 and 1965 remains true fifty years later. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have been much more lightbulbs on a symbol of real progress — the Civil Rights Movement — than it has been an actual marker of progress. At least for those poor, Black and of color. For Whites, though, the Acts have been the sign of a post-racial America without having to work at it or talk about it. But for the adults I grew up around in Mount Vernon, New York in the 1970’s, there was a lingering hopefulness about race relations and racial equality in America that is absent these days. I don’t know if I felt it because of Archie Bunker and All In The Family or because of all those reproductions I saw of the late Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy together in the same painting over so many living-room mantles when I was six years old. Yet no matter how down or how out, so many poorer Blacks I knew back then had hope for a brighter present and future.

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag -- three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag — three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

It wasn’t as if they contemplated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act at the disco house parties my mother would take me and my older brother to, playing with other kids while the adults danced away their troubles. No, it was the idea that finally, Blacks who looked like us could pry open a door and get an opportunity to succeed in America. Or, to quote The Jeffersons‘ theme song, to “gettin’ our turn at bat.” It didn’t matter to them that the Civil Rights Act, even with all its enforcement teeth, would benefit White women and those lucky enough to be part of Black middle class more than us poor Black folk. Or if the Voting Rights Act could be thwarted by gerrymandering and state decisions to make voting harder for us. The Acts crystallized hope, symbolized a chance, however small, for a better education, a better job, and a better life, for themselves and their families.

The adults in my life were putting on a good face, though, as I came to realize when I was a preteen. My mother had once held the hope that me and my older brother would “make it” by going to college and finding “good-paying jobs.” But by the start of the Reagan Revolution, she no longer spoke in such lofty terms. My mother was hardly alone. By 1979, Blacks like Florence Grier in Bob Blauner’s oral history book Black Lives, White Lives (1989) were saying, to “tell you the truth, I’m not hopeful that we’re going to progress in the eighties as fast as we progressed from the sixties to the seventies.”

Polling back then also reflected this sense of frustration about race and over racial discrimination among Blacks, in contrast to the White sentiment that America had move beyond its racist past. In March 1981, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted their first combined poll on the state of race relations in the US. While 73 percent of Blacks in the poll saw “deep rooted continuing racial problems and blame them on discrimination…only 46 percent of the Whites agreed.”

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

The hopes and aspirations that the Civil Rights Act symbolized have eroded with the Act itself, and are all but absent for younger generations of Americans. An MTV and David Binder Research poll from early 2014 found that 48 percent of White millennials believe anti-White discrimination is as significant as discrimination against people of color, while 65 percent of the people of color they polled believe that Whites have more opportunities for success. Even my own eleven-year-old son reflects this trend. “People were more stupid back then,” my son said to me recently while we talked about the Civil Rights Movement and White resistance to integration, as if racial inequality ended with the movement.Thanks in no small part to the success of the neoconservative movement in declaring the death of racism in the 1980s and 1990s, the generation born after 1981 does not see the federal government as the catalyst for a better life or as a leveler of any playing field.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s lyrics from their hit “The Way It Is” summed up the weaknesses of the Civil Rights Act and its legacy well, for us in 1986 as well as today:

Well, they passed a law in ’64

To give those who ain’t got a little more

But it only goes so far

Cause the law don’t change another’s mind…

Nor, apparently, does it create a lasting legacy of racial equality and social mobility.


Can Family and Friends Ever Understand The Why Behind a Memoir?

October 20, 2014

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow, September 23, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

I started reading New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones two weeks ago. Like many who have read it, I have found it a good read, a revealing read, even a powerful read at times. I have been able to put it down, though. Mostly because as someone who’s recently written a memoir about my own painful and trying experiences with abuse and neglect, about confusion, distrust and occasional rage, Blow’s book has been a reminder of how difficult it was for me to relive those experiences enough to write them down in words and revise them into a book of my own.

Still, as I do intend to finish Fire before the holidays, I do have a couple of questions. One is really basic. Had Blow ever heard of the Kinsey Report (1948), the first one about the sexual experiences and habits of men, particularly gay and bisexual men, prior to turning thirty? The one thing I learned from reading this report twenty years ago is that there’s a lot of gray between heterosexual, gay and bisexual. That you can be heterosexual, and still have a small level of attraction to those of your same gender simultaneously.

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

256 shades of gray (cropped), October 20, 2014. (http://cs.dartmouth.edu).

But this is a minor question, more about his curious road to understanding his sexuality — not to mention my own road — than it is about Fire itself. My second question is a much more important one. How have Blow’s family and friends received his book since he decided to write it? How have they received Fire in the months since he announced it was coming out in September? How have they received him and Fire since it officially hit the shelves last month?

If his immediate and extended family was/is anything like mine (and from reading Fire so far, it is), then my best guess is their reaction’s been mixed at best. In the year since I released Boy @ The Window in paperback, my siblings have liked the book, but my mother and father haven’t exactly been happy about me writing it. My mother hasn’t said one word about Boy @ The Window since I put it out last year. Nor did she ask any questions about the book in the six and half years that I toiled in writing and rewriting it.

My father, meanwhile, showed interest in the book right from the moment I told him I planned to write Boy @ The Window. That was, until the paperback edition came out during the holidays last year. At that point, he said, “I don’t wanna talk to you no more.” We’ve talked several times since, but he’s still pissed with me about including him in my memoir, even though I never hid this from him at any point in the process.

Among my friends, most of my core group has bought and read Boy @ The Window. Most have given me positive feedback, some very extensive. Yet I found myself mildly surprised how few friends outside of this core group have bought or read the book. I take that back. Actually, I’m surprised by the negative feedback I’ve gotten from folks who’ve claimed to be friends of mine, who’ve never read a word of Boy @ The Window. But this feedback hasn’t been about the memoir. It’s really about their wanting to deny facts about me or about them that they’ve assumed are in Boy @ The Window, as if my job in this instance was to only be truthful when it felt good for them.

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

Dirty laundry in a basket, October 20, 2014. (http://plus.google.com).

My platform is tiny when compared with Blow’s, so I imagine that the reaction to Fire in terms of both praise and condemnation has been more extreme, even as the praise has been much more public. I suppose if I was the perpetrator whom sexually assaulted Blow, I’d likely want to shut him up. I’m not so sure that anyone in his family, proud of him as they may be, wants what they’d likely consider “dirty laundry” out there for anyone to read. You don’t grow up in a family as traditional as Blow’s and expect everyone to be alright with their character’s characterization in a bestseller.

This I do know, and I suspect Blow has known for a while, too. That writing a memoir like Fire isn’t about seeking revenge or outing family secrets per se. Bottom line — it ain’t about the proverbial you! In some respects, as cathartic as writing a memoir like my Boy @ The Window or Blow’s Fire may be, it not so much about the authors,’ really, at least after the tenth edit.

There are so many stories that never see the light of day, because the fire for telling them burned out a long time ago. Or the window became a rubber room or a jail cell. It’s about telling a story that needs to be told, regardless of whether family’s happy about it, or whether some of your friends can relate to it or not. Because there’s always, always, an audience who needs to read it, hear it, see it and learn from it themselves.

 

 


Teaching Migration, In Song

October 17, 2014

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of "Living For The City," circa 1974.  (http://youtube.com).

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of “Living For The City,” circa 1974. (http://youtube.com).

If I ever had the chance to teach a course specifically on the history of Black migration in America, I already know what books I’d use. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010); Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991); James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989); Mary Patillo’s Black Picket Fences (1999); even Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). All have moved beyond the statistics of some seven or eight million Blacks moving from the rural Jim Crow South to America’s cities, North, Midwest, West and South for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

But that wouldn’t be near enough to communicate the range of emotions, the psychological states and the pressures that these people faced in leaving their homes for the not-so-bright lights of America’s big cities, not to mention what they faced in the days and years after they arrived. I should know. I’m the nearly forty-five year-old son of a mother originally from Bradley, Arkansas (population 500) and a father from Harrison, Georgia. They moved to New York City in the ’60s (specifically, the Tremont section of the Bronx), then to the South Side of Mount Vernon, New York (just outside the Bronx), hooked up, and sired me and my older brother Darren between December 1967 and January 1970.

That short summary is hardly the story, though. For me — like with so many other things in my life — music tells the story, emotions and psychology beyond what words on a page alone can approximate, but not fully duplicate. Music communicates the stories, emotions and psychology of those who migrated and stayed (or didn’t) in cities across the US better than Census data or a hypothesis on proletarianization. I wanted music from my own lifetime (or at least, within a few years of it) — not just folk songs or Blind Willie Johnson or Duke Ellington — music that fit my family’s transition from migration to our current times of racism and urban poverty.

Easily the top two songs on my list to play in class would be:

Trade ad for Otis Redding's single "Try a Little Tenderness," January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

Trade ad for Otis Redding’s single “Try a Little Tenderness,” January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

1. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” (1968), released after Redding’s death in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin; and

2. Stevie Wonder, “Living For The City,” (1973).

Both songs run the full emotional and psychological gamut. From hopefulness to oblivion, from delusion to despair, from rage and anger to resignation. The melancholy of Redding’s “It’s two thousand miles I roamed/Just to make this dock my home” (in reference to the distance from Georgia to San Francisco Bay) juxtaposed with Wonder’s bitterness and anger:

“His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution…”

It communicates so much beyond the lyrics and liner notes, a reminder for those of us who find America and its cities unforgiving today just how relentless it must’ve been for our parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents forty or more years ago.

There are other songs that I’d put on this playlist. Some are directly related to Black migration, some try to bridge the gap between the abundance of music on “the ghetto” and urban poverty and chaos and the lack of music from my own lifetime on migration.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973).
4. Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971).
5. Gil Scott-Heron, “95 South (All of The Places We’ve Been)” (1977).
6. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1987).
7. Nas (featuring Olu Dara, his father), “Bridging the Gap” (2004).

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s "urban renewal" project was built, but  failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s “urban renewal” project was built, but failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

That most of these songs come from the period between 1967 and 1974 isn’t an accident. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, combined with the Black Power Movement and the “Black is Beautiful” campaign, the beginning of the White backlash against civil rights — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — and the Anti-War Movement was in full swing. It was a good time to take a look at the present and recent past to reconnect with hopes and dreams in the midst of the nightmare of urban poverty.

After ’73 was the beginning of the dance and disco era, as well as a focus on the urban, on crime, on drugs, on poverty  — but not in a “let’s try to solve it” kind of way. This was where rap, hip-hop, some R&B and early forms of what we now call neo-soul picked up, with little reflection on this once prominent past.

Still, there would be some honorable mentions for this migration course, music that could evoke some aspect of the Black migration, of the hope that took a downward turn, of the poverty and joblessness that have permeated America, Black and White and Brown, since the ’70s.

8.  Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (1992).
9. Tina and Ike Turner (and Credence Clearwater Revival), “Proud Mary” (1970).
10. Nina Simone, “The Backlash Blues” (1967).
11. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).
12. Tupac, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (1994).
13. John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983).
14. Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A..” (1984). [the song’s release was thirty years ago this month, by the way]
15. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” (1986)

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Through music, I’d hope to have a course and discussion about Black migration that reaches beyond the words origin and destination, that migration has merely been a physical manifestation of a difficult and seemingly unending cultural and spiritual journey in the US. That Black migration can also easily include the parallel journeys of those of the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora, not to mention those from Latin America.

For me, though, a course like this would be a personal foray into all the things that have made me who I’ve been for nearly four and a half decades — a person better than the sum of America’s parts and racist, sexist, homophobic and evangelical assumptions.


The Poverty of One Toilet Bowl For Eight

September 20, 2014

A post-1994 environmental friendly toilet, September 20, 2014. (http://greeleygov.com).

A post-1994 environmental friendly toilet, September 20, 2014. (http://greeleygov.com).

It was during the Balkis Makeda phase at 616 thirty years ago where I realized not only that we were in serious poverty, but that we as a family, as part of 616 and part of Mount Vernon, New York lived with a poverty of ideas. Not just ideas about changing the world or other grand concerns. I’m talking about simple stuff, about how to get from Point A to Point B, about how to fix things, about the idea that help can always be found when things go wrong.

It started and ended with our one toilet the third weekend in September ’84. That Friday evening, during my standard early weekend search for my father Jimme and at least $50 after school, my three-year-old brother Yiscoc managed to drop a toy into the toilet and then attempted to flush it and his waste down it at the same time. The result by the time I returned home was a stopped up toilet.

With the Hebrew-Israelite matriarch living with us, eight out of the nine humans in the apartment would need to use the one toilet at some point. Early Saturday morning, Makeda left, presumably for temple, but didn’t return to resume her occupation of my Mom and Maurice’s master bedroom until Tuesday afternoon. So much for the power of prayer!

I must’ve gone down to the bowels of 616 to search out our alcoholic Latino super a half-dozen times between Saturday morning and Sunday evening, in between all of my other more typical weekend chores. Not only wasn’t he around the entire weekend. The stench back in the apartment got worse as the weekend progressed, as my Mom, Maurice, and my younger siblings Maurice and Yiscoc continued to try to use a toilet that went from fifty-percent clogged to eighty-percent backed up.

Ancient Greek child seat and chamber pot, early 6th century BCE, Agora Museum, Athens, March 14, 2009. (Sharon Mollerus via Flickr/Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Ancient Greek child seat and chamber pot, early 6th century BCE, Agora Museum, Athens, March 14, 2009. (Sharon Mollerus via Flickr/Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

My Mom even tried to have me plunger out this nearly overflowing cesspool Saturday evening, after another walk over to Jimme’s place for money and relief. “What, you never touch shit in a toilet before?” my Mom asked after seeing my face turn toward absolute disgust. I managed to get the sewage water down temporarily, found a way to scoop out a turd without gloves and without throwing up, and pledged to not go in the bathroom again until after the super came to fix the problem. Maurice, my idiot stepfather, left 616 that evening, most likely to carouse and for a working toilet, also not to return until Tuesday afternoon.

There weren’t any good options for toilet use beyond home. That was the Mount Vernon and New York area in which I grew up. Pelham Library and Mount Vernon Public Library were the only decent options where the public restrooms worked and the homeless and careless hadn’t ruined the toilets. Everything else required me buying food or was closed. I used Mount Vernon Public Library before it closed Saturday afternoon, back when stayed open until 5 pm on Saturdays, at least (I think it only stays open until 1 pm on Saturdays now).

I split that Sunday between washing clothes with the little bit of money we had left from my Jimme-run the previous weekend and then searching for Jimme that afternoon. I couldn’t be at 616 for another round of virtual typhoid and dysentery while splashing around in deadly toilet water and using a cleaning bucket as a chamber pot.

We reached Jimme’s, my older brother Darren and me, by 2 pm that Sunday afternoon. He was home, hung over from another weekend of gettin’ to’ up, moaning as usual about how he “cain’ do dis no mo’. Nex’ week. Gotta stop drinkin’ nex’ week.” I didn’t care what my father had left of his money that Sunday. We stayed there until after 7 pm, watched the Jets beat up on the then sucky post-Ken Anderson Cincinnati Bengals, ate a few snacks and some golden delicious apples and pears, and used the functioning attic toilet to our bowels’ content.

Electric drain cleaner with a 100-foot snake, aka, Roto-Rooter, February 7, 2010. (Pgdp123 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC.SA.3.0.

Electric drain cleaner with a 100-foot snake, aka, Roto-Rooter, February 7, 2010. (Pgdp123 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC.SA.3.0.

I did manage to get $30 out of Jimme, with promises of more by that Tuesday. It came with the caveat that we’d start earning our money by working for him down in the City again. But that wasn’t a big concern.

Me and Darren went to MVHS and Clear View School school that Monday morning with a still stopped up toilet and no sign of the super. So, before I came back to the apartment after school, I tracked down the man, yelled at him for not being available all weekend, and then asked politely for him to bring up his snake machine. Which he immediately did.

It took between forty-five minutes and an hour for him to clear the pipe and pull out the toy truck that Yiscoc had somehow managed to get down in the toilet on Friday. The super laughed through his mask, said something about kids in his combination of broken English and Dominican Spanish, and left us with a working toilet once again. I still didn’t sit on it to take a dump for nearly a week after the whole ordeal, though.


Brother, Can You Spare Me A Job?

July 26, 2014

Screenshot from "Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime" video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

Screenshot from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

In the past five months, there’s been much debate and derision over the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and Initiative. Most of it has centered around the exclusion of girls and young women of color from the initiative, as if the problems affecting Black and Latino males aren’t the same ones affecting Black and Latino females. Poverty, a resource-poor education, lack of entry-level jobs leading to careers, woeful access to higher education, lack of access to public services. These effects may lead to different responses from boys/young men of color and girls/young women of color, but the problems that effect vulnerable populations of color are no respecter of gender.

There’s other problems with the initiative, even if President Barack Obama and the White House were to ensure the inclusion of Black and Latino females in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative tomorrow. It’s an extremely racially paternalistic initiative. On the face of things, it’s not much different from the work Booker T. Washington did a century ago via the William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt administrations and with money from White philanthropists such as Henry Huttleston Rogers (Standard Oil), Julius Rosenwald (Sears), and George Eastman (Kodak).

Sure, in the case of Washington, The Rosenwald Fund built a few thousand schools, and the philanthropists contributed money to Washington that would build an endowment for Tuskegee. Still, that money came with strings attached. Most of the schools built weren’t high schools, were geared toward what we would call low-level vocational education today, and certainly weren’t part of any agenda to end Jim Crow. For all the good Washington was able to do through these robber-baron era philanthropists — especially in reducing Black illiteracy — it took Black migration out of the South to lead to lasting changes around notions of racial progress and the idea of segregation as the norm for a representative democracy.

As for My Brother’s Keeper, I am reminded of a passage from my Boy @ The Window about my very first full-time “office” job in the summer of ’87, in between my graduation from Mount Vernon High School and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s about my working for General Foods (now Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown, New York as part of their Operation Opportunity program.

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 11.10.49 AM

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Beyond the $1,022 the program saved on my behalf — which would go toward room, board and two textbooks for my second semester at Pitt — there really wasn’t much about this program that was opportunity-inducing. Operation Opportunity seemed like it was a checkmark that General Foods could put in its “doing good” column. It provided an opportunity to observe others and do menial tasks without actually promising anything that would help me even a year later, as I went through the summer of ’88 unemployed, and the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless. Not to mention, I picked up a terrible cold in the heat of a 98-degree-July day while spending two hours in a meat-locker-of-a-trailer doing measurements on Jell-O pudding pops!

Now I have no idea what the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation or Magic Johnson Enterprises intends to do to be keepers of brothers, or brothas, for that matter. But all too frequently, these efforts turn into one-time experiments or corporate-responsibly checkmarks. As my friend and colleague Catherine Lugg has said more than once over the years (albeit, on education research, not specifically on this), social change and diversity efforts are far more than just “bringing a pet to class.” The idea that we need to learn how to work hard is yet another myth that this initiative will perpetuate, whether it’s a success or a failure.

It’s not hard to figure that poor children and young adults of color need more access to public health services, more resources in their formal education, more and better quality food to eat, and more nurturing. Whether any of these kids or young adults — male or female — can obtain these resources without racial paternalism, experimentation or other strings attached, I for one remain extremely skeptical.


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