Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (

This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year.  I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.

This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.

That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (

So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.

I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.

The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.

We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (

Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.

The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.

What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.

Easter Seder 1995

April 8, 2015

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (

Like most of my posts, this is a story of irony, sarcasm and identity. It may be a bit out of time, since the first night of Passover and Easter already occurred last weekend. But it’s still Passover week for those who do more than eat matzos and chicken liver paste with a glass of Manischewitz on the first night.

In all, I have been present, prayed, dined, wined and whined at four Passover Seders. Three of them were during the Hebrew-Israelite years, 1982, 1983, and 1984. All of them involved a roasted leg of lamb, bitter herbs, and chewing down raw horseradish while chugging super-sweet wine to chase away the five-alarm-fire in my mouth, throat and stomach. Endless praises to Yahweh, too many exhortations of Moses, and awkward snorts toward being strangers among strangers in a strange and oppressive land. That was my Passover experience in a lifetime and timeline determined by my Mom and idiot stepfather Maurice, before I turned to Christianity, before I gave up on the idea that I could be from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.

My fourth Seder, though, came eleven years later, in mid-April 1995. I’d been a Christian for as long as I hadn’t commemorated Passover as part of my religious birthright. I wasn’t sure about the idea of attending this celebration, as it wasn’t even at sundown on that year’s first day of Passover, Saturday, April 15. My friend Carl and his/our respective Carnegie Mellon history grad school mates Alan, Jeff, and Susannah were holding their little Seder on Easter Sunday, April 16, as the first two rented a house together in the Point Breeze (really, the White end of Homewood-Brushton, which asked for a race-based divorce in 1961) neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or "Clayton", located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or “Clayton”, located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

They had invited me a week earlier, a few days before my Spencer Foundation Fellowship application went from no-go to a go. I thought about saying no, but generally, I didn’t do anything on Easter Sundays, anyway. Even as a member of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, the one Sunday I didn’t attend church was Easter Sunday. It the holiest of days, like Passover, and for so many people, the only day all year they attended church. For so many, it was show-off-my-new-spring-clothes day, not Jesus’ Resurrection Day. I didn’t like the overcrowded-ness that came with an Easter Sunday or Christmas service. It smacked of hypocrisy, my own included.

So I decided for one Sunday to attend a Seder prepared by folks who’d only known themselves as Jews both ethnically and religion-wise their whole lives. Except the stern, orthodox, full of bitterness and tears, joy and triumph that were the Seders of my Hebrew-Israelite days was a lighthearted affair. It was as unorthodox a Seder as could’ve expected, with lots of conversation about grad school, about my dissertation fellowship, about life and sports and music in general. No raw horseradish, but lots of chicken liver paste. No Manischewitz, but some Mogen David, along with more traditional red and white wines, and an empty seat for Elijah.

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (

Carl and Alan, of course, expressed surprise when I did ask questions or make comments. Like about the kosher-ness of eating mashed-up chicken livers, or the differences in taste between the traditional Pesach beverages, or how peanut butter and jelly went well with matzo crackers. Alan, about to be a one-year-and-done CMU history doctoral student, did ask me, “Where did you learn about Passover?” I said, “This is my fourth Seder.”

I knew better than to fully unlock everything I knew about Pesach, Judaism, Jewish history, the Ten Lost Tribes, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and the racial privileging that I had observed growing up in Mount Vernon between “real” Jews and us “weird” (read “not White”) Jews. For a few hours, though, I had to confront a part of my past that I’d all but locked away by the beginning of ’90. Not just locked away. I’d taken everything from between April 13, ’81 and July 23, ’89, wrapped it in Saran Wrap, put that in a Ziploc bag, thrown it in a safe, locked it, and then built a force field to keep out intruders.

I was relieved when I finally left Carl and Alan’s Easter Sunday/Passover Seder and walked back to my apartment in East Liberty. I wasn’t ready yet to take a look back at what I lived through during the Reagan Years. I was all about moving forward, and the previous days and weeks of dissertation research followed by a major-league dissertation fellowship made me feel like the completely different person that I believed I actually was. At least ninety-five percent of the time.

Running Interference

April 4, 2011


Joe Trotter, circa 2008.

Today is the forty-third anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. But for the past fifteen years, April 4th has also had the dubious distinction of reminding me of a big argument between me and Joe Trotter. He was my doctoral thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon and, until that day, someone I considered a mentor in my becoming an academic historian.


Below is an excerpt from my book Fear of a “Black” America (with some minor additions) in which I recount what happened that day:

“‘I’m looking out for your best interests’ was what my dissertation advisor typically said in discussing my future with me. As far as Trotter was concerned, he was in charge of the rest of my academic career, determining everything from whether I would finish my doctorate to where I would live and work after I graduated. But as I’d already discovered in the months leading to this moment, he was not nurturing my career at all. Virtually all of my achievements as a graduate student occurred despite my advisor rather than because of him.

This was because my advisor discouraged my attempts to publish, to obtain grants for my research, to participate in major conferences, and to apply for jobs when it was apparent I had nearly completed my doctoral thesis. My advisor would frequently say ‘You’re not ready’ to take on a particular project or to apply for a grant or job to hinder my efforts. Yet Trotter never pointed out what he thought I needed to do to be “ready.”

One of our last official meetings as advisor and student covered this particular issue. Six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation, I was still being told that I was ‘not ready’ to apply for jobs or to attend major conferences. Trotter had in fact contradicted some of what he had said about my work in a previous meeting. So when he declared for the eighteenth time in this particular meeting that he was not giving me his support because he was ‘looking out for my best interests,’ I sarcastically replied ‘Yeah, right!’ I decided that I could not abide the hypocrisy of an advisor who cared little for my future while at the same time professing to care very deeply.”

There was an eerie silence. Trotter actually didn’t know what to say. Neither did I. Mostly because I wanted to strangle him with his own blue neck tie. So I did something less dramatic far more legal. I said, “I don’t have anything else to say to you,” picked up my stuff, walked out his heavy dark wood door, and slammed it as hard as I could. “Stupid ass,” I said under my breath as I walked out of Baker Hall that day. I was talking about myself as much as I was talking about Trotter.

For any academic scholar who reads this, they’ll likely conclude that I committed academic suicide by exhibiting such defiance to my advisor that day. Not true — I have a doctorate and years teaching in academia to prove otherwise. Not having the support of an advisor — whether that support’s official or in the reality of a friendship or a mentorship — does make building a career harder. But given what I’d learned about Trotter’s lack of support for a Spencer Fellowship that I ended up receiving as an award anyway, despite him, I knew that even if everything had been okay, it wouldn’t have been after graduation.

The reality is that my former advisor and thousands like him commit a form of academic suicide every day by refusing to promote at least one student’s career development. Besides having one’s work published and obtaining grants, developing new talent is key to creating a legacy as a successful professor. It’s why I can go to any history conference and hear stories about David Montgomery, or to an education conference and hear folks discuss their wonderful mentoring relationships with Michael Nettles. Or why so many responded across all of the social networks after learning that Manning Marable had passed away on Friday, April 1st.

I’m not holding these examples up because these professors were saints. Hardly. Just pointing out the fact that when a professor maliciously and deliberately attempts to hold back students otherwise deserving of moving on out of jealousy or some other reason, it puts a pox on their house as well.

Golden State Spencer Fellows

February 12, 2011

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. Donald Earl Collins (psst - I'm the young and cute Black guy in the white turtleneck in the back row)

Fifteen years ago this week I went on my first trip to the West Coast. It was for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows retreat in some villa of a conference center just off UC Berkeley’s campus. It was our second meeting as a cohort, presenting some of our doctoral thesis work in front of a group of professors from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and other places. It was also a chance for the thirty-three of us to meet the selection committee that had made it possible for us to be Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows in the first place. We spent so much time in Berkeley and in Oakland that most of us didn’t bother to take the BART into San Francisco, so the trip was a failure in that area — not really.

But it was very important in one aspect above all else. I learned during our three days of meetings how I wasn’t alone in the world of academia. That I wasn’t the only misfit was the first revelation. There were other Fellows whose departments and classmates had shunned them and their work because it touched on the “soft” field of education. Or because it wasn’t hardcore quantitative analysis. Or because they weren’t thirty years old yet. Or even because of the age-old academic issues of looking at educational issues through the trifocal lens of race, gender and class.

Some of us talked about our dissertation advisors and their lack of support for us and our work. We were individuals who had won a prestigious individual award and a $15,000 grant to research and write a doctoral thesis, but somehow had managed to do this without the support of tenured faculty at major, even elite, universities! I found that fascinating. I also would’ve found that unbelievable if my advisor hadn’t been Joe Trotter. We didn’t have any obvious solutions to the problem of asshole advisors who may well not have supported us on the job market. Nor did we have a solution to their midlife crises or male pattern baldness. Yet it was good to spend significant time talking about this.

I also discovered through this retreat that I wasn’t the only one of us ambivalent about having a career as a professor. It didn’t help that we had a freshly minted associate professor from U Chicago talking to us about her average work week. Not because a forty to forty-five hour work week seemed anywhere close to arduous. At least to me. The half of the Fellows who really did want academic careers moaned quite loudly at the prospect of teaching, research, writing and serving on committees for so many hours. I, among others, looked at the list and found it rather mundane and restricting.

Many of us were concerned about becoming institutionalized, kind of like the way Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” talked about it in Shawshank Redemption. My own fear was that I could make myself a successful academician, molding my imagination and writing more fully into the forms of academic prose. Meaning that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone outside of my subfield or field, and certainly not with the general reading public, who usually wouldn’t use words like fait accompli unless they were French speakers. There were a few other Fellows who didn’t want to write or do research at all. They wanted to teach, to change the world of K-16 education somehow.

Catherine Lacey, the director of the Dissertation Fellowship program at the time, concluded with a lofty and philosophical speech about our bright futures. It was a good speech. It made me begin to think about what to do with my life if I didn’t get a full-time gig as faculty at an elite university. For many of us, though, this would also be the last time we could be this honest about our hopes, fears, and warts when it came to our doctoral theses and post-doctoral careers. If only I had known about the Ford Foundation’s associate program officer program when it existed back in ’96.


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