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.


Poverty, Violence and PTSD – But What About Racism?

July 7, 2014

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (http://nbcchicago.com).

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (http://nbcchicago.com).

Over the past two weeks, thanks to Chris Hayes’ reporting on the state of Chicago for MSNBC, not to mention a horrific July 4th weekend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lie of declining violent crime in the metropolis has been thoroughly exposed. In the past eighty-four hours, dozens of shootings in Chicago injured at least sixty people, with between nine and eleven killed. Six of these shootings involved the Chicago PD, as they killed two teenagers over the weekend. But if we leave it to the mainstream media and the moralist Black elite to explain, the Blacks on Chicago’s South Side are just immersed in a “culture of violence.” Black youth simply live careless, nihilistic lives, that “gang, drug, [and] gun violence” is the root of the problem

For those White, bright, and bi-racially White, though, there’s the knee-jerk reaction of media and caring adults that comes with it. For mass shooters apparently with much better aim than folks in Chicago, like Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, mental health and mental illness, along with gun control, is the mainstream media’s topic of the day. Even their explicit racism and misogyny can become the media’s evidence for their mental illness. White and Black moral leaders don’t then speak of cultural deficiencies or of an enjoyment of crime and violence as reasons for their shootings.

It’s terrible that we afford one group of young men every benefit of the doubt because they were/are affluent or White, and the deny humanity of another because they were/are poor and Black or Brown. Yet recent sociological and psychological studies indicate what anyone who has lived in poverty and with violence has at least sensed throughout their lives. That many (if not most) growing up in these conditions experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leading to more poverty and violence in adulthood.

I know this better than most. Below is a short sample of the violence I witnessed or experienced from birth through adulthood:

September ’70 – my father, drunk and jealous, attempted to attack my mother with a knife. My Mom with me and my brother Darren in tow, picked up a heavy quartz crystal ashtray and threw it at my father as he charged her in the kitchen. He was apparently struck in the head and knocked unconscious. The ashtray had detached the retina in his left eye, which he never had repaired. Nine years later, my father had to have his left eye removed. I don’t remember this attack or my Mom defending herself — I was all of ten months old. I do remember my father’s eye being removed, and the headache and vertigo he had prior to the surgery in the summer of ’79 The research indicates, though, that there would have been a psychological impact on me and my nearly three-year-old brother nevertheless, and not a good one at that.

July ’75 –  from Boy @ The Window

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 1.08.28 PM

December ’76 – when my father stomped in a brand-new glass coffee table and had to go to the hospital with several serious bloody cuts in his legs.

April ’77 – when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father after his months of psychological and abuse toward my Mom had landed her in Mount Vernon Hospital with kidney problems.

April ’82, May ’82, July-August ’82 – my then stepfather beating me up in a Karate studio in front of a group of men because I refused to call him “Dad,” beating up my Mom for not “lovin’ him,” and beating me up for the first six weeks of my summer between seventh and eighth grade for me defending my Mom.

January ’86 – the last time my stepfather actually laid a fist on me, damaging or chipping three of my front teeth and busting my lip in the process.

June ’89 – the last fight between my Mom and my stepfather, where the same crystal ashtray my Mom used in ’70 easily could’ve fractured her jaw and left cheekbone. Thankfully, my then stepfather had terrible aim.

If it were just a matter of domestic violence and child abuse for me alone, that would be tragic, but not necessarily relevant. The violence of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, sadly, wasn’t contained to A32. Domestic violence was the way of the A-building at 616, starting with our adjacent next-door neighbors. In the two-bedroom department immediately below us, the husband and wife had a violent, alcoholic relationship, so bad that it was a rare weekend in the years between ’77 and ’87 where a plate or wine glass didn’t break or the police weren’t called. Their son once pointed a gun at me on my walk up the front steps of 616 when I was a senior in high school and claimed he’d secretly pointed a gun at me in the past. Muggings and robberies, including the four that I experienced, were as common as the common cold

At the near-door apartment building, 630 East Lincoln, the drug trade had been alive and well years before the arrival of crack cocaine. Fights involving knives and baseball bats were normal, often involved a crowd of kids as spectators. Sometimes these fights would spill onto the front lawn of 616’s A-building, where I could witness it first-hand.

That violence was a frequent companion in my life wasn’t surprising. I never lived anywhere where the majority of the people around me weren’t welfare-poor, working-poor or working-class Blacks, where the heating oil came in time for winter, and where maintaining mental health was a topic of conversation. To act as if employment practices, education policy, public health access, police neglect or brutality or housing policies had nothing to do with the sheer concentration of poverty and violence around me would be at the least naive. Fundamentally, it was the benign neglect in the chain between individual racial assumptions, the soft bigotry of mainstream media, and the hard concrete of structural racism in play.

What was my constant companion growing up in Mount Vernon, New York has remained the story of poverty, race and violence in Chicago’s South Side for a century. Don’t feel sorry, for me or for all of those shot up in Chicago this past July 4th weekend. Do something, say something, or don’t. But feeling sorrow without saying or doing something about shouldn’t be an option.


Stinking Up The Joint

April 15, 2014

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture's low resolution and related subject matter.

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture’s low resolution and related subject matter.

Puberty is often a confusing and scatterbrained time even for the most well-adjusted of folks. Changes in body chemistry, hair growth, body parts, height, weight and sleep patterns are all part of this excruciating rite of passage. When thrown in with the realities of poverty and the cruelty of Humanities and Mount Vernon High School, puberty was also a long march of embarrassing moments.

One of my last embarrassing moment strictly thanks to puberty came around this time three decades ago. It was an unusually warm early April Tuesday in ’84, one in which I was hardly prepared. I’d just started using deodorant the year before, once spring had sprung in ’83, with basketball and softball as a regular part of gym class. In gym for ninth grade, we were in the swimming pool for March and April.

We just happened to be out of deodorant at 616 while I was in the midst of this class. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem, except for the fact that the cool weather of early spring had given way to a sudden heatwave, bringing temps into the upper seventies the second week in April. On that fateful Tuesday, I tried one of my Mom’s home remedies, and put a baking soda paste on my armpits, hoping to conceal my still new manly smell.

Well, it actually did work, at least from periods one through six. Then it was time for gym. I didn’t count on the fact that the high level of chlorine in the pool would completely wash away my makeshift deodorant. Nor did I consider that the swimming pool area would be about ten degrees warmer than it was outdoors. Nor did I think about the fact that we ordinary students weren’t allowed to shower after swimming or any other gym activity, for that matter. That was reserved for the school’s athletes — equipment must be protected from the “animals,” as some administrators and parents saw fit to describe us.

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

So, no deodorant, in a hot area of an already warm school with the air conditioning turned off, and with no opportunity to rinse off — what do you think happened eighth period? I went to Geometry class, completely unable to conceal my underarm stench. From about the second minute on, my equally sweaty classmates complained about “the smell” and “the stink,” all the while, fanning themselves with manila folders. Even with Mr. Louis Cuglietto’s windows open, it didn’t help — there was no wind to speak of.

But of all the sweat and smells, mine was the one that stood out most. Why? Because, despite it all, I remained an engaged student, and raised my right hand to answer questions. Which meant that I raised my right arm, and anyone within a six-foot radius could smell me. After ten minutes of complaints, I put my arms down, and held them close to my body for the remainder of class, looking forward to the end of the school day.

After class, Cuglietto pulled me aside to tell me, “You’re a man now. You need to get some deodorant,” as if he was offering sage advice or tough love. This wasn’t the first time Cuglietto played his version of poor assumptions about race, class and gender, and it wouldn’t be his last. I ignored him, and went on my way home.

But I didn’t stop there. I went over to Jimme’s on South 10th that evening. It was the middle of the week, a time of hungover sobriety for my father, which meant he would be home early from work. I bummed $20 off him while taking a stick of his surplus Speed Stick with me.

Is there a lesson here? Remember to keep deodorant in stock no matter what? Don’t swim with baking-soda-for-deodorant under your arms? That some teachers and classmates wouldn’t understand a moment of my life even if I passed it onto them like Brandon Lee’s character from the movie The Crow (1994)? That I was poor and in puberty, and things like this sometimes happen? Yeah, sure, I guess. The real lesson here is to remember, not for revenge or retribution, but so that younger others like me know that they’re not alone, so that the story can be told, later and better.


On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.


My First Mugging

April 3, 2014

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

This is another story not in Boy @ The Window, though it could’ve been. It was thirty-five years ago this week that a group of my preteen neighbors from the Pearsall Drive projects (now the Vernon Woods co-op community) jumped me on my way home from the store, beat me up and stole a grand total of four dollars. It seems like such a small thing now, getting mugged for the first time, a block from 616 East Lincoln, our apartment building on the eastern edge of Mount Vernon, New York. Still, I learned a few things on that first Saturday in April ’79 about myself, my older brother, my mother and humans in general, things that haven’t changed in the three and a half decades since.

That particular day was definitely a crisp early spring one, windy, partly sunny and cloudy, just warm enough not to need a winter coat. I’d barely been out the house at all since attempting to run away from home some four months earlier. In the months in between, I’d been engrossed in reading everything I could, especially World Book Encyclopedia, not to mention what I hadn’t already read in Charles Schulz’ Peanuts series.

I hadn’t been out the apartment to do much of anything other than go to school or to the store. So little was my time outside that when I had to do a full food shop, I’d forgotten a few basic rules about protecting myself. Like making sure that a group of nine-to-fourteen-year-olds weren’t following us home from the local grocery store. And making sure to take the most direct route home when I could, or a circuitous route home when necessary. Going west on the north side of East Lincoln, making a left on Station Place, then a left on Lafayette Avenue, then a final left on Bradley, walking four short blocks that would’ve left us in front of 616.

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

On this day, the circuitous route would’ve been better. But that would’ve meant me being better, too. I was already not feeling well when I left with Darren for the grocery store. I had a stomach ache, and the diarrhea that came with it. So my best bet was to go to the store at 671 East Lincoln with Darren, cross over to the south side of East Lincoln, and walk as quickly as we could back to 616.

Only, the half-dozen boys trailing me and Darren back home had crossed with us, and immediately tried to surround us near East Lincoln and Pearsall. Darren, to his credit, ran off for home, leaving me alone and holding two paper bags of groceries. Somewhere between “nigga” and “muthafucka” and “giv’ me the money,” I struggled and ran away with the groceries, where after a minute or two, I ended up in the bottom floor of one of the project buildings.

I was jumped again, punched in the face and the mouth until one of the wannabe thugs had busted my lip and left me bleeding down the side of my face. I somehow crapped on myself during the run, but hadn’t noticed because I was too busy trying to not get mugged. After they took the four dollars’ worth of change I had in my right pant pocket, another wannabe said, “Oh shit, the punk dukeyed on hisself!” They laughed and left me there, in this abandoned, junky apartment, garbage and groceries and two ripped grocery bags all over the room, bloodied and soiled.

I picked up all I could from what remained of the groceries and began the long one-block walk home. By the time I walked through the front door, there was my Mom, angry with me about the groceries. “What I’m gonna do with this!” she said. It was afterward that she noticed my condition. “You let them kids scare the shit out of you!,” she gasped with what seemed like a bit of laughter in her voice. I said, very angrily, “I told you before I left that I had diarrhea!,” then went into the bathroom and cried.

Oscar de la Hoya's face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

Oscar de la Hoya’s face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

My Mom came in later to help me wash myself down. In the meantime, I had a bruised left cheek, a busted lip, feces all over my lower body, and soreness all over my ribs and stomach. It took about twenty minutes in all, but by the time I was done and washed, I went into mine and Darren’s bedroom and fell asleep.

It was April 7, ’79, and I already knew that I couldn’t count on my older brother to help whenever there would be a crisis. I knew that my Mom cared about me, but apparently not enough to keep me protected. I knew that the assholes that lived around me wouldn’t have minded it if I’d been run over by a Mack truck, as long as they could get a dollar out of me. I knew, most of all, that I needed to look out for myself as much as I could, since there weren’t any cousins or other family around to look out for me.

So when at the end of ’83, the city had sold the projects at Pearsall Drive to a real estate developer, though I was sad for a few individuals, I wasn’t sad in general. Those wannabes had helped make one relatively small aspect of my life — going to the store, going outside and going to Wilson’s Woods — miserable. And with so much misery in my life already, I was glad to see many of those kids move away.


My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


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