Bearing False Witness At Work – It Can Hurt

November 16, 2013

Hannah Arendt on false witnesses, November 16, 2013. (http://izquotes.com/).

Hannah Arendt on false witnesses, November 16, 2013. (http://izquotes.com/).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the fact that this week ten years ago, I endured what was the beginning of a three-month period of a hostile work environment (one that was already not-so-optimal to begin with). It was brought on by my then immediate supervisor’s paranoia and jealousy, and intensified by his then undisclosed bipolar disorder. I’ve written about my three years of hell with Ken before on this blog, most notably in “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1″ from a couple of years ago.

What I haven’t really discussed at all was how I felt about all of this as I went through it. As a man, as a Black man, as a person who believed in social justice, including in a workplace in which we funded social justice projects. I’d only been accused of sexual harassment one other time, by a boss whose best friend had been harassing me at work for the better part of two months, in the early part of ’89. Now, fourteen years later, here was Ken, at an HR meeting he set up, accusing me of saying things that I never said, of thoughts that I never had.

I was already used to being guilty before being innocent. With police. In a public setting, like a supermarket or bookstore. But not at work, and for the most part, not while I was at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon. Why? Because I tended to be at my most guarded while at work back then. In fact, during an exit interview the year before, a former program assistant at New Voices said that I needed to be “more open” at work if a team like ours was ever to reach its full potential. She may have been right. If only I had bosses who were more open, more relaxed, less accusatory, and in Ken’s case, on his meds.

Archie Bunker from All In The Family (1971-78) screen shot, June 2013. (http://www.chicagonow.com/).

Archie Bunker from All In The Family (1971-78) screen shot, June 2013. (http://www.chicagonow.com/).

There are few things worse in one’s job or career than reckless false accusations. Even if proven completely untrue, there are some who’ll choose to look at those accused with less trust and more suspicion. And Ken, for all of his bluster about social justice, had proven himself to be as much of a bigot as former executive director at Presidential Classroom, an openly admitted bigot. He could’ve accused me of insubordination, of wanting his job, of not doing my job well enough. Instead, Ken relied on the whole hyper-sexualized Black male motif, as if my testosterone was dripping right out of my penis, like some animal in heat.

Of course, some of you will say, “He had untreated bipolar disorder. He didn’t know what he was doing. Cut him some slack.” No, I can’t and I won’t. As I’ve noted in another post regarding Ken’s condition, bipolar disorder doesn’t equal insanity or irrational behavior necessarily. I worked for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health between ’89 and ’92, and for Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic at Pitt between ’89 and ’91. I became pretty good at understanding the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. I did learn a thing or two from having Dr. Juan Mezzich as a boss while I worked at Western Psych between my junior year and first year of grad school at Pitt. 

Kingda Ka, the world's tallest roller coaster, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ (Exit 7A, NJ Turnpike), September 23, 2006. (Dusso Janladde via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Kingda Ka, the world’s tallest roller coaster, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ (Exit 7A, NJ Turnpike), September 23, 2006. (Dusso Janladde via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

One of the things I learned was that bipolar disorder generally exaggerates existing thoughts and behaviors. The psychosis can often be exasperated by stressful situations. For those with the illness, the highs are way too highthe lows so low that suicidal thoughts can become prevalent. If one tends to be paranoid, the paranoia becomes heightened, as was the case with Ken. Still, even with bipolar disorder, he was acting on his bigoted and paranoia template, there long before bipolar disorder manifested itself in him as an adult.

I understood all of this, even as I went through months of accusations and arbitrary changes to my work schedule. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a part of me that felt rage, wanted revenge, wanted to take the physically and emotional stunted twerp and stuff him in a garbage can. Or that I didn’t come to work at AED every day between November ’03 and February ’04 with thought that I should just quit, turn around, go home, watch my newborn son Noah and figure out my next step. Most of all, there were times I wanted to choke Ken until he told the truth, that he was a jealous-hearted bastard who lied about me to HR in order to put me in my place as a Black guy working under a White guy.

But I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew that I was right. I knew, somehow, that things would work out in my favor. I knew that God and the universal would vindicate me. If my life is proof of anything, it’s proof that my truth wins out in the end. Those thoughts dictated my actions and counteracted any feelings of rage or violence I had during those cloudy days. To Jonathan Martin and so many others out there, I think I know how you feel right now. Please hang in there, and hang on to the truth.


Grad School & My Most Special Summer Reading List

August 31, 2013

Just a small sample of the books I read/re-read summer before grad school in 1991, August 31, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Just a small sample of the books I read/re-read summer before grad school in 1991, August 31, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

For me, August 28 this week was significant for any number of reasons. It wasn’t just that it was fifty years to the exact day and date that the March on Washington occurred and MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Or that is was fifty-eight years to the date that White supremacists lynched Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at some flat-butt White girl. This past Wednesday was also twenty-two years to the day and date that I began my first day of graduate school as a master’s student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History.

Of course, I didn’t discuss this earlier this week (it would’ve been incredibly arrogant on my part to bring this up three days ago). My big steps for myself were infinitesimal when in measured comparison to the beginning of the two-year height of the official Civil Rights Movement. But even on an afternoon in which I attended my first course and meeting about teaching/advising assignments for the semester, it did feel like a bit of a triumph. Especially when considering what I had to do that spring and summer to get into the program with funding in the first place.

I didn’t learn that much that day. Except the low contempt Joe White and some of the other professors held toward pedagogy and teaching. “You already know more than your students,” White said as advice to us who’d be TAs that semester. I was lucky to not be among them for my first year. I was a GSA assisting in the advising of history majors, some of whom were my fellow undergrads just a few months before. But even then, I thought two minutes’ worth of advice on viewing students as empty vessels was insufficient training for learning how to lecture and facilitate conversations with upwards of 100 students spread out over several discussion sections each week.

I had other things on my mind at that moment, though, including the relief that I’d survived a summer making $5.20 per hour as a full-time employee with a Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic project in which the project investigators were far more psychotic than the patients. Aside from that, I thought about how the previous four months had served as my preparation for the White world of grad school.

I’d done a lot of reading that late spring and summer, spurned on by boredom, disappointment in my weirdly evolving friendship with Elaine, and a sense that I needed to read to fortify myself against the neo-Marxists in my eventual field. So I read. I started off with Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), believe it or not, the first time I’d ever read it. Like so many before me, it made my views of the man less black and white than it had been before. I then picked up W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk (1903), the first time I’d read that book since I wrote a book report on it for Mrs. O’Daniel’s class in fifth grade. Unsurprisingly, I got much more out of it in May ’91 than I did in May ’80.

I didn’t stop there, as my reading took me on three different tracks in June, July and August. One was the “I didn’t get to read this before” track, as I read Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved (didn’t understand it then, and still don’t get the big deal about it now). Along with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), bell hooks and several others on Black Women’s literature. Then, I decided to go back and reread some James Baldwin and Richard Wright that I’d first read for high school, and added Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) to the mix. On the non-literature track, I ended up reading Franz Fanon, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) — at least, I put a significant dent in it — Derrick Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), and other writings on Black history and culture (broadly speaking).

But the third track would end up taking me on a path toward my dissertation topic and my first book, Fear of a “Black” America (2004). It started with articles on multicultural education that took me to James Banks’ theoretic constructions of what multicultural education ought to have been, but wasn’t. I also found myself reading books like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991), Molefi Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea (1987), Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (completely indecipherable in a circular firing squad of a thesis kind of way) and Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro (1933). I was reading anything that could inform my thinking about K-12 and higher education and how it played the role as both equalizer and oppressor for so many Black folks over the years.

It was easily the most reading I’d done on my own since the year before I’d gone into seventh grade, middle school and the Humanities Program. I wanted to read all I wanted to read before spending the next few years drowning my brain in hundreds of books and articles that I’d absolutely need to read as a historian. In the process, I may’ve radicalized myself a bit for the otherwise hum-drum experience of reading mind-numbing accounts of history in which the authors didn’t seem to see their own sense of high-brow White maleness.

And with all of it, I surprised myself. I realized once again that my Black classmates and 616 neighbors were wrong about me not being Black enough. Their “Black” wasn’t my “Black,” of course. But all those books confirmed for me that there were many ways to be Black that folks who didn’t read could barely understand.


A Note From This Writer: Prelude To Tuesday’s Post

June 27, 2011

I’ve talked about some of the issues I had while working for a couple of people in my times working for Presidential Classroom and AED (soon-to-be defunct Academy for Educational Development), specifically around the sense of bigotry and arrogance I managed to put up with (see my June ’09 post “What We’ll Do for $$$”). Of all of the posts I’ve done about Mount Vernon, New York, the Humanities Program, Pittsburgh, Joe Trotter, my idiot ex-stepfather, and Hebrew-Israelites, few sparked as much negative response as the one I did about two of my former supervisors, especially the one I worked for at AED.

I lost a Facebook friend over the June ’09 post because she didn’t like that I had identified the man in question as suffering from bipolar disorder. Mind you, this person had made his condition public knowledge in February ’04, and the stories I’ve discussed regarding this man were of issues that had arisen at a time in which I suspected — but didn’t know with one hundred percent certainty — that he was afflicted with some sort of mental illness.

Having a mental illness, by the way, doesn’t fully exonerate anyone from their actions, especially when they are well aware of that illness and yet refuse treatment for such. I should know. I worked for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in Mount Vernon and White Plains, New York and Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic in Pittsburgh between 1989 and 1992. While I usually didn’t work directly with patients, I did enough work with some to recognize symptoms and witnessed patients who refused to take their medication. Plus, there are levels of severity with all mental illnesses, as people can function fairly well in society without many noticing their symptoms. My anecdotal experience is that this is definitely — but not usually — true of those suffering from bipolar disorder.

For those whom I worked with in one way or another during my days with the New Voices Fellowship Program, please know that this blog and tomorrow’s post serves a much larger role than me simply telling a story that shows another side to a man who many of you may simply see as nice. Really, this post is for so many other people who may work with a person, boss or mentor whom may well be mismanaging them, running them into the ground, even attempting to ruin their career, mental illness or not. But if I lose your friendship or respect as a result, then so be it.


Sometimes Starvation

May 12, 2011

Me (at 185 lbs) & Mark James (Cropped), Pan-African Graduate & Professional Student Association, University of Pittsburgh, February 27, 1993. Lois Nembhard.

My last semester at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad (Spring ’91), I took a one-credit Weight Training course. I wanted to learn how to use free weights and weight machines so that I could build muscle tone. I wanted a course that would be easy for me to pass, one in which I could burn up my anxieties while awaiting word about my graduate school future.

Over the course of the semester, I did build muscle. I weighed 175 pounds in January. By my last class on the twenty-third of April, I weighed 183 pounds. I was proud of the fact that the eight-pound gain was all muscle.

But with the end of the school year and undergrad at Pitt came a crisis. Even though I’d start work on the twenty-nine with the PAARC project at Western Psychiatric as a full-time employee, I wouldn’t receive a paycheck that Friday, the third of May. Instead, I’d have to work for three weeks before receiving pay. After a year of underemployment as a student (I only worked ten or twelve hours a week because I couldn’t pay the other half of my tuition via student loans and keep my work-study allotment at the same time), I thought I was finally over the hump.

It was bad enough that despite my degree, which qualified me for $8.50 an hour, Andrea Hegedus and the other PAARC  bosses only saw fit to pay me at $5.20 per hour. Now I knew that I’d have to figure out how to live on $30 for the next three weeks.

The first week went well enough. I brought lunch from home, consisting of a dried-up hamburger on wheat bread one day, leftover spaghetti the next, and a couple of days in which I didn’t eat lunch at all. That was because I saved my baked chicken and spaghetti leftovers for dinner. I also conserved money by walking the two and a half miles between my apartment on the East Liberty/Shadyside neighborhood border and the Oakland neighborhood in which Pitt and Western Psychiatric are located. Each way.

My Route To/From Work, 6007 Penn Cir S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 to Atwood St & Forbes Ave - Google Maps, May 12, 2011.

By the end of the second week, I was down to my last $5. It was the tenth of May, and I had another week before payday. It was bad enough I walked five miles to and from work every day and skipped lunch all that second week. The PAARC folks used me to do everything from going to Giant Eagle to buy half-and-half for their coffee to running across Pitt’s campus hunting for books and making 3,000 copies of X and 2,200 copies of Y. Mind you, they hired me to design databases and input data. Surprise, surprise, I had a headache at the end of every work day.

That Friday, I got a call from my old job at Westchester County Department of Federal Programs. It was my boss from the previous summer and holiday season, Joe Carbone, wanting to know if I’d come work for him another summer. Working for him had been a wonderful experience. But the reason I stayed in Pittsburgh was because I wanted to explore the option of grad school as far as possible, even if it meant getting doors slammed in my face. I couldn’t do that while working in White Plains and living at 616 all summer. So, reluctantly, I said, “No, I can’t do it this year,” knowing that I’d get an earful from Mom once I told her my decision.

The one and only time in my life I dined on these, May 12-16, 1991. Source: http://www.stevegarufi.com/ramen1.jpg

It seemed a ridiculous decision two days later. I was down to my final $2.10. I went to Giant Eagle that Sunday, bought a six-pack of ramen noodles for a dollar, and two packs of Kool-Aid for forty cents more. I had enough to by a can of soda, maybe some candy, and that was it until the seventeenth of May.

What compounded my confounding decision was that I remained sixth on the teaching assistant fellowship waiting list in Pitt’s History Department. What made that worse was the fact that no fewer than four students had passed me on the list since I’d first seen it four weeks earlier, all White and male.

Somehow, though, I had faith beyond my circumstances that things were going to work out just fine. I guess all those years of malnutrition at 616 helped me. By the week after my first paycheck for the summer, grad school at Pitt was a done deal, and I had food to eat again.

I weighed myself about five days after my starvation diet at the student athletic center. I weighed 167 pounds, which meant that my weight had dropped to nearly 160 pounds by May 17, and had only begun to recover. I could see nearly all of my ribs, front and back, not to mention my collarbone.

By the Wednesday after three weeks of little and no food, none of that ordeal mattered. For the miracle that I’d hoped in happened just days after my infamous “No” to Joe Carbone. (to be continued).


Hail To Pitt

April 27, 2011

University of Pittsburgh Logo, April 27, 2011. http://www.pitt.edu

I can be hard on people, places and things, especially the ones I like and love. That’s as true of my undergraduate alma mater as anything else. Twenty years ago this date, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I didn’t attend the cattle-call ceremony at the Civic Arena that Sunday in ’91. Almost none of my immediate circle of friends attended, either. My mother and my younger siblings, still in the midst of welfare, weren’t going to be there to see me anyway. The Penguins were on that day, in the middle of a dominant playoff run, with Lemieux scoring at will. And I had other things on my mind that day and weekend. Like, will I be able to go to grad school without taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans?

This was a time of major transition for me. Two years removed from the end of the reign of my ex-stepfather at 616, and four years after I graduated from Mount Vernon High School and my obsession

My B.A. degree, University of Pittsburgh, April 27, 2011. Note that this was Wesley Posvar's last graduation signature. The university president would retire the following month amid a $3 million golden parachute scandal.

with Crush #2. I was essentially the same person, and yet there was something inside me that had started clawing its way out over the previous year. It was a drive, a determination, a rage that I’d buried since my first year in Humanities and the summer of abuse that followed in ’82. I was going to graduate school, at least I hoped that I was. Or I was going to have to find a real job, something that made me feel like I had diarrhea.

I knew on my Pitt graduation date that the departments of history at NYU, University of Maryland and Pitt had accepted me into their masters programs. But NYU wanted me to make a signed commitment before they awarded me any financial aid. The University of Maryland conveniently lost my application packet during their graduate fellowship decision process. By the time my packet resurfaced, the department had awarded all of their fellowships, and decided to put me on provisional status. Not based on my grades, mind you, but based on how late they were in going through my application. Pitt had accepted me a couple of weeks before my graduation, but I was sixth on the alternate list for teaching fellowships that would cover my tuition and provide a stipend.

I felt a lot of anxiety about all of this uncertainty regarding my immediate future. It helped to have friends, even with my friends in the middle of their own uncertainty. My friend Marc was working at a Black newspaper, dreaming of law school but uncertain about his prospects. Three other friends, including someone I was sort of dating, were taking their last classes or unsure about grad school or law school. Even my summer job working for a project at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic was shaky. It only paid $5.20 an hour, and I could’ve easily gone back to Mount Vernon and New York making $8 an hour or more doing the same work.

But as uncertain as I felt about things, this much I was certain about. The four years I spent at Pitt were ones that cocooned me in a way that none of my time growing up in Mount Vernon, New York did. I began to heal while I was there, academically, socially, emotionally. I was far from done learning how to connect to people, but I wasn’t the twelve-year-old neophyte keeping only the most rudimentary connections to humans either. My education was a valuable part of that experience. The friendships and other bonds I forms, the lessons I learned about trust, the efforts — however limited — the university made toward creating a campus climate that embraced diversity were all appreciated.

Even at the time, I felt comfortable at Pitt because it was the first place I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. It was a place where my friends, my acquaintances and others around me didn’t look at me like I was a freak because I listened to U2, sang in high-falsetto or walked at Warp Factor 3 to get across campus.

Those are the feelings, those good feelings, that I have about my four years of undergrad and two years of grad school (more on that in May) at the University of Pittsburgh. So, “Hail to Pitt,” and to my Pitt friends and folks from the classes of ’90-’94, Happy Graduation Anniversary Day.


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