End of An Era

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Coach John Thompson, John Thompson Show, ESPN 980 AM, Washington, DC, February 29, 2012. (http://espn980.com).

It’s Leap Year Day, so in light of having the first February 29 in four years, I want to take a different tack today. For it just so happens that today is John Thompson’s last day on the air on ESPN 980 AM in Washington, DC. The legendary former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach will air his final radio show this afternoon.

Thompson has had this show for about thirteen years, and I’ve listened off and on now for seven of them. What has made him interesting to listen to over the years has been his ability to be ornery, light-hearted, downright goofy and insightful, and all at the same time — whether I agreed with him or not. That the seventy-year-old Thompson has managed to maintain a solid audience across all demographics has been a sign of his ability to be a man with an old-school philosophy without become an old man. It’s a fine balance that Thompson maintained show after show, regardless of the outrageous calls he responded to time and again.

I’ve been a fan of Coach Thompson’s since I was in high school. Back then, he had Patrick Ewing and later Alonzo Mourning as part of his vaunted Hoya Paranoia defense. They won it all in ’84, only to be done in by Villanova’s raining of shots from all angles in the NCAA Championship Game in ’85. Despite his normally gruff demeanor, Thompson handled the loss with the graciousness and sportsmanship that was rare even then, and almost impossible to find now.

I came to like Thompson even more when he was an analyst on TNT’s NBA games in the early ’00s. I used to call him “Sugar Bear” because of the way in which he delivered his take on players and coaches. It was through that context that I learned of The John Thompson Show, and began listening nearly seven years ago.

More than anything else, I appreciated the fact that many segments of his show had little or nothing to do with sports. Even as uncomfortable as he may have been about the topic, he discussed race, poverty, crime, relationship, the Black church, public education and higher education. I think that this diversity of ideas and topics is what I’ll miss the most. That Thompson used his show to educate his listeners — as well as educate himself — about much more than sports speaks to him as the educator he has been for most of his adult life.

I don’t know if I could’ve ever played for Thompson — between my relative lack of talent and my ears being burned from his yelling at me on every possession. But I have enjoyed listening to him and his show.

About That Time at Van Cortlandt Park, and Other Bricks in the Wall…

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Van Cortlandt Park screen shot (parade grounds, cropped), June 4, 2020. (https://www.thisisthebronx.info/a-van-cortlandt-park-living-room-picnic/).

I don’t consider myself to be a seer. Not exactly. I might have gotten a thing or 1,000 predictions correct in my life. But since I usually prefer to expect good outcomes, I do not indulge the dreams I have of destruction, or the muses who conjure the possibilities of apocalypse, whether for me, my family, or at larger scales.

But the last half of 1980 was different for me. I’d come into my own as a kid. I finally had a posse of classmates and friends, between the two Joes, Starling, Chris, Ronald, Vanessa, Eric, Ray Ray, Sean, Lajuan, and Dahlia, among others. I was kicking ass academically, and was on the verge of discovering other talents, including writing. After my last summer camp with Darren at Clear View, and rereading the late Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, I understood my Blackness, really and truly, for the first time.

But I chose to see the glass as half full, both for myself and for Black folk in the US. Why wouldn’t I have? Somehow, in the middle of what I call “deep summer,” when the previous school year and the start of the first day of the next school year are about equally far away, it happened. My stepfather Maurice got a call from his music-obsessed friend Dennis (who was also a professional musician, by the way) in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in mid-August about going to some concert in the park in the Bronx. There was no mention of who the headliners were. I just remember playing Peanuts Land with my Matchbox cars and driving down along the shoppes in the nightlife district of the city underneath my bed when Maurice came in and rushed us to get dressed.

Mom, Maurice, Darren, little Maurice, and me. We piled into a cab over to Van Cortlandt Park, where we met Maurice’s friend Dennis. He knew a couple of the headlining people who were playing. I don’t recall tickets, but I do remember flyers everywhere. It seemed like this was a spontaneous gathering, where people somehow knew where to go and where to gather. I remember it being sometime around 7 or 8 pm when the jamming began, with all the music of the late-1970s and 1980. It was mostly an MC mixing a string a songs together, between Chic and “Good Times”, The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On,” and Michael’s “Off The Wall.”

But maybe 45 minutes in, three guys got on the stage to do their performance, Sugar Hill Gang, and the crowd of hundreds erupted into a roar as they rapped to “Rapper’s Delight.” They did a bunch of songs beyond the “a hip, hop/the hippie, the hippie/To the hip hip hop/a you don’t stop…” I was into it like everyone else, doing my terrible version of a Michael Jackson dance routine while clapping my hands to the beat. Sometime between 10 and 11, we left, I think, between a cab and Dennis giving Maurice and Mom and little Maurice a ride home. Even Mom looked like she had a good time. It would be just about the last good time we would have as a sort-of-family.

But the music didn’t stop with Van Cortlandt Park or the Sugar Hill Gang. The spring and summer of 1980 was the transition to a new decade of music, as homophobes from New York to Detroit and L.A. had spent the past year killing disco by smashing vinyl and smashing in Toyota Corollas and Datsun Zs. (By the way, for those who are still kicking and screaming over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” go on YouTube and listen to the late Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby“. It’ll probably make you question the meaning of your false sense of morality.)

Kool and The Gang had crossed over with “Ladies Night,” and were about to walk the fine line between success and selling out with “Celebration.” All summer on the bus back and forth from Clear View with Darren, SOS Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” was on at least once a day. There was also Teddy Pendergrass, the one, the only, and emerging, Luther Vandross’ “Searching” (yes, not his official solo debut, but), and of course Stephanie Mills with “Never Knew Love Like This Before”. And all that because my father had introduced us to Toni, a new drinking budding of his, herself a professional singer. Not to mention, a couple of bartenders in Mount Vernon and in the Bronx who didn’t mind a 12 and a 10-year-old sitting around on off nights in July and August.

On the AM side of things with 770 AM WABC radio, there was still Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand and her collabs with The Bee Gees, “Guilty” and “Woman In Love.” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was the second half of the summer of 1980, old and yet new, at least to me.

But as that summer moved into fall and 6th grade, I sensed something was changing, and not for the better. I sensed it in music, more than I did with Jimme’s alcohol abuse and fewer visits, more that even in Mom’s inability to keep food in our stomachs or in her failing marriage with Maurice. The music seemed more sinister, less hopeful, darker somehow. Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” somehow conjured “No mas! No mas!” and Roberto Duran giving up against Sugar Ray Leonard that November, the same month Reagan beat a beat down, haggard Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. The beginning of four decades’ worth of hollow promises to White Americans, millions willing to sell the rest of us to Hell for their macabre pleasure and some tax breaks.

But no song signified the transition of the US for me in 1980 more than Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. It was likely the first true music video I ever saw, courtesy of my 616 friend Tré, who lived on the second floor. I spent a lot of time hanging with Tré, his older sister Renee, and her friend Stephanie (who I had the tiniest of crushes on, but I digress). It was during the months after Maurice and Mom had separated, with him taking the TV and a month’s supply of mail-ordered meats out of our two freezers. Tré, Renee, and their mother made me feel welcome between that first Saturday in October and when the Hebrew-Israelite bullshit began six months later.

“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control…” It was about much more than strict teachers and social control over students. It was a prediction of a future, my future, our collective futures. That’s what I thought about this time 40 years ago. I had conversations with my classmates about this, about Reagan, about double-digit inflation and unemployment, about the Iran hostage crisis, about the rumors that the US had given Israel nukes, and Israel had, in turn given nukes to apartheid South Africa. “You’re so weird!” they’d say. Or, more often, “You worry too much, Donald!” Only Starling understood. But he expected me to “become one with Jesus,” as if Jesus alone could stop me from worrying about the future.

In short order, the Reagan Years came and gutted the relative economic security of the US, disrupting the shaky gains Blacks had made in the years between 1946 and 1980. Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon to ring in the holidays, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry badly rapped her way through their January 1981 hit “Rapture” while Mom began to talk about being raptured up for the first time. My family was at the edge of an abyss, a mini-apocalypse that would ultimately transform all of us. It would certainly sidetrack me from my calling as a writer for years to come.

But the world didn’t stop spinning. Nor did life stop handing me days of happiness, of contentment, of miracles and even some joy. It just meant that I would be more cautious, anxious, depressed, worried, on edge. Because America believes itself above reproach, even as it deals in shit and blood, and drags the rest of us into the burgundy-soaked muck with it. The distance between 1980 and 2020 might be 40 years, but with Trump and his army of minions, I might as well be in the same moment. Only, I’m 50 now, and I know much better about listening to my inner voice and my muses.

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad P(Vagina)y? Men, in a Word

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Layered anatomy of the anatomical male and anatomical female body, June 5, 2016. (https://naturopathicdoctorwizangwira.wordpress.com/).

The first time I became self-aware of myself as a male with male parts was when I was five. At our second-floor flat on South Sixth in South Side Mount Vernon, New York, sometime in the summer of 1975, I walked in on my mother in the bathroom. She had just finished peeing and was wiping herself. All I could do was stare at her vagina area, seeing mostly what wasn’t there. “Maywa,” I said (a mash of my mother’s name Mary with Mom) “what happened to your pee-pee?” My mother explained that she didn’t “have a pee-pee” — without explaining why she didn’t have one. “When I get some money, I’m gonna go to the pee-pee store and buy you one,” I responded.

There are maybe 20 stories growing up where it seems me and my mother both share and end up smiling, with a sense of real warmth and affection, and not just base-level love, and without irony or a hidden sense of jealousy or disdain. The pee-pee story is one of them.

But this is more than just about the time before sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, and a massive slide into poverty changed my sense of the world. It’s about how men learn to fear all things vagina and vagina-related, and how that fear so easily turns us into misogynists and misogynoirists. It’s about how we as men fail to educate ourselves about women, about patriarchy, and ultimately, about who we are and who we need to be to end patriarchy.

A few years after discovering the differences between the anatomically male and the anatomically female, I knew a bit more, in both an intellectual and social sense. I no longer accidentally danced under my mother’s and other older women’s dresses at the parties my mother took us to when I was five and six years old. I guess if you get slapped upside the head enough times, you recognize why acting like you’re playing hide-and-seek with your mother’s dress as a prop might be socially inappropriate.

But that’s not all. By 1978 and 1979, we had World Book Encyclopedia at 616. Once I began plowing through it to learn all I could — and not just as a way to punish my mother for punishing me — I learned even more about the body than any eight or nine-year-old ought to learn on their own. The “Human Body” section contained celluloid slices of the male and female body, which would layer together to form a full body. From bones to muscles, from muscles to blood vessels, from blood vessels to nerves and organs and systems, and then to derma and coverings for orifices.

I remember the reproductive system either being the last or among the last of the sectional celluloids to form a male or female body. I learned about ovaries, testes, scrota, urethras, and vaginas long before I could say these words correctly. This also meant that I understood where babies come from, without fully understanding the drive that led to human reproduction.

A year later, near the end of fifth grade at William H. Holmes ES (I think it was the third week of May 1980), me and my classmate Joe were on our way home (we both lived in the A section of 616). We were talking shit about girls, about boys, about life in general, maybe with a few “yo’ mama” jokes thrown in. Suddenly, Joe hits me with the question, “Have you ever seen a pussy before?” “No!,” I lied, and loudly too. Joe teased me about it, saying, “You can’t even say ‘pussy,’ can you?” I just laughed it off, not knowing what to say, really. Even at ten, I knew enough to know I couldn’t reveal I’d seen my mother’s vagina at five or that I had seen the encyclopedia’s White female rendering of one.

I didn’t use the word at all until June 1988. It was after I escaped yet another attempt by my idiot stepfather Maurice to make me see him as my father through the use of his fists. He ended up falling into a tub of bathwater meant for my youngest siblings Sarai and Eri. What made this even more ridiculous? This was after my first year at Pitt, a year where I knew more than enough about the world, about the predicament at 616, and about myself to recognize I didn’t have to put up with this bullshit. But I slid back into my old role as teenaged man-child anyway.

This was what happened afterward, via Boy @ The Window

All I kept muttering to myself was, ‘I’m a pussy,’ because I still could’ve gone to the cops for his attempted assault. After a couple of minutes, he said, ‘Get this through your head, boy. Me and your mother are happy together, and we’re gonna be together long after you leave here and go out in the world. The world’s a dangerous place, and we’re just gettin’ you ready for it.’
Huh? What? I knew not to laugh right then, but I was laughing at him on the inside. I knew right then that him and Mom would be over sooner rather than later.

Even in that moment, it felt weird to call myself “a pussy.” I never saw myself as weak, or women in general as weak. It didn’t occur to me that I was afraid, not of getting beat up or of being weak. I was afraid that I would never become the person I wanted to become. I was afraid that mfs like Maurice would continue to come at me because they saw the version of me that I presented at 616, the shell that seemed weak, just like how they saw women, just like how they saw anyone with a vagina.

This is the fear of all boys and men unknowingly or fully conscious of the patriarchy, masculinity, and the world, of folks on the verge of misogyny, misogynoir, and hypermasculinity. The fear of being seen by other men and women-as-patriarchy’s-footsoldiers as pussies, weak in body, mind, and spirit, and therefore as exploitable to the point of being used as a punching bag.

This was why there was such a ludicrous outcry over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” last month. The responses weren’t about Christianity and morality. Not really. They were about the need to keep women from freeing themselves and their vaginas from the clutches of patriarchy. The angry gasbags on Instagram and Twitter venting their spleens were expressing their need to keep women and their pussies in a locked box, fully under the control of men and women-as-patriarchy’s-footsoldiers, for use only in case of wanting to make a sanctified baby (especially White ones). Anything short of this total control weakens men, weakens patriarchy, and makes us vulnerable to questioning ourselves.

The truth is, heterosexual men especially are scared because we as a group cannot be as strong as women, queer/transgender women included. None of us can be strong when we refuse ourselves the right of vulnerability, the need to feel feelings aside from anger, rage, and bravado, the courage of solidarity and love, and the humanity of affection with and for others — including for the men in our lives. This isn’t just about men needing to cry when in each other’s presence (although I am more than sure that would be helpful for millions). It’s about the need to connect with the parts of ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge. For most men, it’s as if we are all M1 Abrams tanks, ready to kill and destroy at a moment’s notice.

But as so many Black feminists in my life have reminded me over the years, the vagina is a really strong muscle. After all, the vast majority of humanity has passed through one on the way to being born. It is a muscle that can be strengthened, stretched, and even repaired, something we as a species and world so desperately need. Try as men might, there are no dick exercises in which any anatomical male can do reps with his penis and build strength. At least not yet.

Constantine’s, No Longer Around, Missed Anyway

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The East Liberty CVS on Penn Avenue (where Constantine’s once stood), August 2017. (Itay Gabay via Google Maps).

“Last call for the alcohol!,” the half-bartender, half-bouncer would yell about 20 minutes before the two o’clock closing of the hole-in-the-wall joint that spend a few too many Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in between the summer of 1991 and January 1995. It was my time “bein’ around my peeps,” sitting around to nurse two or three drinks, dance, people-watch, and occasionally go back home with a patron. It was my time to not think about what I feared, especially God and graduate school. It was my time to forget that I was the second of six kids who had the triple responsibility of father figure, oldest brother, and caregiver. Mostly, it was just a place to allow my horny and bored-with-the-world ass hang out and not be so intellectual and weird all the time.

Constantine’s was where the East Liberty CVS on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh now sits. It was less than two blocks from where I lived on Penn Circle South, my first on-my-own flat that I didn’t have to share with no one. I have no idea what was there in that rickety and beaten up old one-floor building before Constantine’s. Maybe it had always been a bar or a club, one that had seen better days in the decade or two before I was born. Maybe it was once a hardware store or a dry cleaners. Who knows?

All I knew was, in the month or two after I moved into my Penn Circle South studio apartment, I stumbled onto the place. It would’ve been October 1990, just cool enough for Pittsburghers to start wearing winter gear, Steelers jerseys, and enough Steelers and Pirates pleather and leather to scare a herd of charging bulls. A group of 20-somethings were packing their way through Constantine’s front door. There was a bouncer, I guess, checking IDs to make sure everyone was over 21. Judging by the way some of the youngest women were made up, though, I didn’t think the bouncer was consistently checking folks.

I didn’t go in that day. Too many bills, not enough money, and too many thoughts about What would Mom think? and What temptations would harm my soul? So I forgot about the place for the remainder of my senior year at Pitt.

It wasn’t until I started having problems with my friend E during my first full summer living in the ‘Burgh in ’91 that I started carving out me-time at Constantine’s. I went in on a sweltering mid-June Wednesday, and as would become ritual over the next 3.5 years, the so-called bouncer didn’t check me for ID. The joint was tacky as hell. The tables and chairs on the left were either plastic or plywood, Kelly green or harsh white.

Ving Rhames in Dave (1993), Screen Shot, August 17, 2020. (https://MovieActors.com).

The barstools on the right were of better quality, up against a bar with a prickly middle-aged-looking Black dude who maintained his fresh Ving Rhames-in-Dave (1993) haircut under any and all circumstances serving drinks. He was so mercurial. He could be, “Wassup man? How you be?” one Saturday, and “We don’t serve your kind!” another. One Friday, I ordered a screwdriver (Vodka and O.J.) without any pushback. The next Friday, he was all like, “Muthafucka, just call it a vodka and orange juice! I don’t mix screwdrivers here!”

There was a well-proportioned Black woman who always, always, always, sat in the middle of seven barstools, just to the right of the cash register. She was maybe about five-two, skin the color of mahogany, her hair in a ’90s-style perm or in ruffles. She either wore skin-tight dresses or jeans with a revealing blouse, never danced, and rarely greeted anyone. I figured she was either the gruff bartender’s girlfriend or that Constantine’s was her favorite watering hole. Whatever. She probably could drink the entire group of men (and sometimes women) who hit on her every night under the table and under the concrete foundation, too.

Much of what remember from my Constantine’s outings were the fights. There were so many fights. Fights between two guys over a woman would break out in the middle of the dance floor one Friday or Saturday after another. I once saw a guy beaten until there was a pool of blood in the center of the floor, with a trail of blood leading into the alleyway that led to the side entrance of my apartment building. It wasn’t unusual for women to throw down either, knocking each other out somewhere between PE’s “Can’t Truss It” and Daddy Freddy’s “We Are The Champions.”

Speaking of the music, it was the early ’90s, so the vibe went from New Jack Swing, Babyface and Tony! Toni! Toné! to Jodeci, MJB, and PE, with bits of Kriss Kross, Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, TLC, Dre, MC Lyte, and LL Cool J thrown in. But it was reggae — specifically dancehall — and gansta rap that was mostly in our ears at Constantine’s for most of my time attending. Shabba Ranks was so big at Constantine’s. So was Patra and Buju Banton and fake raggamuffin Shaggy. Outside of Pitt, I didn’t know African Caribbeans lived in Pittsburgh until I started sipping drinks at Constantine’s.

I also didn’t really know how to dance until I started hanging out at this smoked-filled and slick-floored destination. I went on the floor maybe once every three trips. Sometimes I was more interested in observing than in participating. Sometimes I was too stressed and horny to do anything else but stare at faces, breasts, hips, and asses for a few hours. But I did dance, at least, as best as I could. I used my halfway decent post-up moves from the basketball court as the basis for decent footwork. But, as I began realizing that some of the women wanted to grind, I learned how to do that too.

I had some awkward moments. Like the time my Swahili instructor and I found ourselves at Constantine’s one really warm Wednesday night in the fall of ’91. He had a woman on each arm. All three of them were from Tanzania, not the typical group of Constantine attendees. We greeted each other, and proceeded to ignore each other the rest of the night. Class the next afternoon was pretty much about my and his after-hours habits.

Sometimes I almost got into it with a guy here or a woman there because I looked at them the wrong way, said the wrong thing, sounded too educated or “White,” or because someone’s conversation with me ran on too long. In 1992, one woman laughed at me and kicked me in my rear on my way out the door after I revealed that I was “also working on my master’s” — she obviously didn’t believe me. Until she saw me on campus a week later. After that, I lied, and told folks who asked that I was a “part-time college student.”

I was too young, stressed about grad school and life, and excited and aroused to be scared. I should’ve been. On two occasions, someone threw a large liquor bottle in my direction when I was on my way out of Constantine’s. One other time, I swear, a bullet whizzed past me and into the window of a parked car.

The last time I went to Constantine’s was the beginning of February ’95. I kid you not, they were running the place with a portable electric generator plugged into an outdoor outlet — someone hadn’t paid their Duquesne Light bill. It kept the lights even dimmer than normal. There was no heat. This is a bar in Pittsburgh, before climate change made American winters into the wet season in Guyana. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit that day, and it felt like it at Constantine’s that night, even with nearly 30 dumbasses like me in the bar that night. I left after 45 minutes.

Three days later, I was in Washington, DC, working on my dissertation project. When I returned at the end of March, Constantine’s was gone, bulldozed to make way for East Liberty’s first CVS.

Truly, if my field had been sociology, cultural anthropology, or social psychology, creative nonfiction writing, my times at Constantine’s would’ve made a great project, with me as subject, too. The misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and hypermasculinity on display, side-by-side with intersectionality, feminism, sexuality, all in the midst of the beginning of this neighborhood’s gradual shift toward gentrification. It was, well, fascinating. Thankful, though, to not feel that awkward at this stage of life.

Having a Fake Ass ‘Mick Hucknall’ as a TA

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Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, circa 1989. (https://pinterest.com via Rolling Stone)

I have talked quite extensively about the nature and evolution of my own teaching, about the best and worst teachers I remember from K-12, about my profs and their teaching (or lack thereof) more than a little bit while on this blog. But, outside of Paul Riggs, I have not written much about TAs and the good, bad, and ugly there. I haven’t really discussed my own times as a TA, except to point out the pushback I’d sometimes had to deal with from students, the emasculation I had to deal with from my professors who “supervised” me.

Trying to learn how to teach and evaluate students while taking grad-level courses and preparing for oral exams, writing dissertation proposals, doing conference presentations, writing the occasional publication, and serving as a gofer for professors working on their own projects is overwhelming. Add the personal and familial to it, and it’s a wonder than anyone who isn’t from a family with a net worth of at least half-a-mil still decides to earn an advanced degree and teaches along the way. And all for less than peanuts, not even close to a living wage.

All of this is context for my one-time TA from my Existential Philosophy course from Spring 1989 at the University of Pittsburgh. You see, he was the polar opposite of the professor who taught this course. The newly-minted PhD and assistant professor for Existential Philosophy (and soon to jump ship for Georgetown that year) was a dynamic, exciting, and insightful thinker in his mid-30s, one who could take the thickest philosophical text and break it down for even students who didn’t care about the philosophical at all. The sandy-blonde version of the lead singer for Simply Red, by comparison, was boring beyond belief, and could make even the most obvious interpretations of Nietzche, Kierkegaard, and Camus sound like some theoretical mathematics he barely understood and could hardly articulate. It made our required discussion sections on Thursday afternoons a form of torture.

Mr. Australian version of Mick Hucknall, though, also had an agenda, the kind that most progressives would call problematic in 2020. He reined it in somewhat most Thursdays, but on at least two of our days, he couldn’t control himself. It didn’t really matter what the topic was, but frequently the TA would turn the discussion toward anti-theism. This was more than just atheism. One can certainly not believe in God for themselves and still respect those who do. But anti-theism is more along the lines of a Christopher Hitchens or a Bill Maher, people who love to loathe higher-power worshippers, with bits of Islamophobia and racism thrown in.

An example of fake-ass Simply Red’s behavior, courtesy of Boy @ The Window

He spent discussion after discussion railing on Christians as “people who refuse to believe that God doesn’t exist.” One of our discussions was so anti-anything other than atheism that I found it just as bigoted as anything I’d heard from Hebrew-Israelites or out of a televangelist’s mouth, and said as much. I was ignored.

But it wasn’t just the ideological bent that was obvious in this discussion section. It was the racial component. Me and the other three Black students in the section — all three were Black women — were usually quiet when sandy blonde Mick Hucknall described religion as “nonsense.” But the White students who were anti-theists chimed in like they had been suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition for the past 500 years.

One class in March was really awful. It was after the professor had lectured about Kierkegaard and the “teleological suspension of the ethical” in his consideration of Abraham’s moment of decision between obeying Yahweh and killing his five-year-old son Isaac or not. Right from the start of our 50 minutes, the TA went after religion like he literally hated worshippers. He referred to monotheists as “fools” and “crazy.” The White students talked about “not putting up with religious oppressors anymore” and being “tired of [us] flaunting our Christianity in their faces.” If it had been even a year later in my education, I probably would have gone directly to the professor or the Philosophy department about this very biased form of education occurring in this classroom.

I was so glad when I didn’t have to be in sandy-blonde-Simply-Red’s discussion section anymore. But that wasn’t the last time I saw him. For at least two years afterward, I’d see him on campus, usually outside Hillman Library or the Cathedral of Learning taking a drag on a cigarette, and he recognized me, but never said hello (thank God). But, after I began grad school at Pitt, the aging fake Mick Hucknall didn’t seem to recognize me at all.

It was interesting that as I got older and made more steps to my PhD, his run toward his own must’ve stalled. The last time I saw him at Pitt was in 1998. I overheard him complaining to another grad student about his committee still not ready to declare him done with his dissertation. As burned out as I was from my own dissertation process, at least I was already done.

At that moment, I thought about saying, Ain’t karma a bitch? But I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t see the point. The golden rule of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” applies to the just and the unjust, the believers, the non-believers, and even the anti-believers. Or, to quote Simply Red, “I, oh I, oh I, I’m gonna do the right thing.” Still, a bemused smile did make its way on my face, because he was such a terrible instructor, and likely one who had traumatized hundreds of students over the years.

Death and Debt

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Sarai & Noah, November 2003. (Donald Earl Collins).

My post today will be short. Today marks a full decade since the Sunday morning my youngest brother Eri called me, waking me up with the news that my only sister Sarai had died overnight at Mount Vernon Hospital. It was due to complications from sickle cell anemia, the disease that denies the body sufficient oxygen for carrying out it functions, ever debilitating and ever more painful as one grows older with it, as anyone with the disease can attest. Too many blood transfusions, too many invasive procedures, not enough healing. Sarai Adar Washington, who did live, and did try her damnedest to live her life her way, died at 27 years young.

Yes, I love her, and miss her still. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t think about her and the life that she didn’t get to have, the life that she did live, and how my life was affected by her existing. It causes me, Sarai’s older brother — one 13-plus-years older than her when my mother gave birth to her, one at one point argued for abortion to save us and her the anguish of the disease — to let out the occasional tear or feel a sense of loss. I can only imagine how much deeper the loss is for my mom, of course, and for my three younger brothers, who truly grew up with her. My only solace today is that Sarai isn’t here to try to survive the pandemic, because she most surely would not have made it if she had contracted COVID-19.

On the other end is the week that reminds me of one of the worst best decisions I have ever made. To take out the first $2,625 of what would be over $41,000 in loans between July 1987 and October 1996. I paid out the principal of my loans at least three years ago. But Sallie Mae (and PHEAA and Marine Midland Bank before that) set the interest rates back when those rates were much higher. Eight percent on a series of loans taken out between 24 and 33 years ago would be incalculable to a 17-year-old in July 1987. But as a 50-year-old, it translates to debt peonage, more than double the actual loans themselves. Except that I know that one way or another, this debt will go away, if only because I will stop living this life, eventually.

The proverbial “they” say the only two constants in life are death and taxes. No, there are at least three constants — death, debt, and taxes. Maybe in my death I can finally see my sister again, and see my debt and taxes burn in the fiery pit in the event horizon of a black hole.

When the Black Rapture-Seeker in Your Life is a #45 Fan…

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Depiction of the Rapture, Evangelical-style, n.d. (Benjamin Hass via https://shutterstock.com).

What does anyone do when a loved one reveals themselves as a #45 fanboy or fangirl? This sounds like a question only White people have to answer, or one in which only a handful of Black folks must deal. Otherwise, the short answer is to kick them to the curb. “These people aren’t your friends,” after all, at least, that’s what your friends will tell you if and when this situation occurs. But one cannot simply drag family and cut them off when they do the American equivalent of “Sieg Heil!” in support of Donald J. Trump. 

I discovered that one family member has done exactly that. They didn’t vote in 2016, because they could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary. They supported the Muslim Ban in 2017, saw nothing wrong with another round of tax cuts for the wealthy and for trillion-dollar corporations, and favored closing the southern border to keep out “them Spanish people.” Of course, this loved one also calls those who are LGBTQIA+ “faggots,” “dykes,” and “things” like they’re the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009 edition).

Of the last seven times we’ve talked on the phone, six times we have argued. The arguments have varied from disagreements over the meaning of a particular piece of scripture to rifts over televangelists and their misogynistic, homophobic, and Apocalyptic messages. Recently, this person has gone after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others for their uneven responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has refused to lay any blame Trump’s way. Another relative confirmed that this person had planned to vote for 45 in November. What a shame and a pitiful!

I honestly do not understand how anyone American Black in 2020 could think well enough of Trump to defend his three years’ worth of wannabe autocratic rule and mini-calamities. It makes no sense for any Black man, Black woman, or transgender Black person to spend time and effort voting for this disaster of a human being. Except if one is committed fully to patriarchy, to vanity, and to seeing the end of the world Revelations-style. Wanting the Rapture to come so badly as to ignore blatant systemic racism, misogynoir, and rampant discrimination against anyone not rich, hetero-, White, and male. As much as I love this family member, I do not like their politics and their worldview. By comparison, I might as well be Pollyanna.

In the post-Western world to come, millennialism should be among the first things its leaders should ban from public debate and discussion. Too many people believing in and attempting to bring on the Apocalypse because they think their God or gods will usher in a more perfect world with a more perfect humanity. As a Christian myself, it was always weird to see people so desirous of a new world order that they were willing to see billions of others die in order to see it through. Now, with a family member who has committed themselves ever increasingly to this future, I could stop talking with them. But what good would that do? This is more than a hearts-and-minds issue. This is about hearts and minds pushing policies that will bring the world the self-fulfilling prophecy of Revelations.

So, hell yeah, banning millennialism and end-of-the-world prophecies meant to spur others to push humanity and all life on the planet into actual doom would be a good thing. Because so many of us are the descendants of people who had to live through the Apocalypse, their version anyway. Indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere, in the Arctic, in Oceania, and in Australia who died at rates up to 90 percent upon first contact with disease-carrying Europeans between 1492 and 1900. The 12 million Africans kidnapped into Western-Hemispheric-slavery between 1503 and 1888. The European Jews the Nazis murdered between 1933 and 1945. For these groups and in those times, this was the end of the world, the world that they knew, the lives they hoped to have. If one has already survived an Apocalypse (small “a” or big “A”), or has known so many who haven’t, why would a prediction of a larger Apocalypse coming from people who couldn’t care less about your ass ever matter?

For those who are in the Apocalypse-as-self-fulfilling-prophecy business, their goal is to reshape the world in their own fascist, patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, nationalistic, and capitalistic image. It’s certainly not about God’s image or the vision of anyone’s gods.

As for this family member, all I can do now is limit my already limited conversations with them. They’ve had their bags packed for the Rapture since the 1980s. I love them, but I definitely do not like them. I can only hope that they recognize that the Apocalypse in any form is never something someone should wish for themselves, or something to wish upon the world. In what remains of their time in this life, or perhaps, in their next life.

A List of the Unwritten Rules I Wish I Had Known, in 1990, 2000, and 2010

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Me, 23 years after my PhD graduation, May 18, 2020. (Donald Earl Collins).

As a confessed educated fool, I readily admit that there are a ton of things I understood but did not act on. But I also know that there are solar system loads of unwritten rules that I didn’t and couldn’t possibly have known going into my professional future toward the end of my undergrad days at the University of Pittsburgh. And, there’s the stuff that falls in between. The rules that are not hard rules, ones that can be bent, twisted into pretzels, and/or broken or even shattered. The things that I didn’t know I knew, the ideas and principles that are ingrained or splinters in my mind, but not quite accessible until the moment I needed them, or, even worse, right after I really could’ve used that extra bit of knowledge and wisdom.

This list is merely the beginning of the most important rules I could impart to my younger self, at 20, 30, and yes, 40 years old. Donald’s 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, and 2.5 all believed that his mind, his imagination, his hard work and achievements would all carry the day, would win him a slice of prosperity, a sliver of intellectual respectability, a piece of popularity, even. All to have moments and flashes of all three, but not usually at the same time, and all to realize that talent and hard work for Black folx in a Whiteness world matter not. Not even among most Black elites. I could list 1,000 unwritten rules and other ideas that I wish I had known or — if I did somehow already know — taken advantage of. But the real theme here is that the meritocracy is a lie. Whether in the form of rugged individualism or a belief in K-16 education as a social mobility equalizer, merit through talent and hard work is an American mythology like Abraham Lincoln “freeing the slaves” and America as always good and righteous.

1. You are a writer. Whatever the job, whatever the career path, whatever the familial and relationship and marital responsibilities, you are a writer. Yes, despite it all, your calling is to write about it all. Period. It does not matter if you think most of your writing is crap. All writers think their writing is crap. It does not matter if you’re really good at organizing conferences, retreats, and learning institutes. Or, if you are excellent at curriculum design, a tough but caring history and education professor, a science nerd and a talented computer science geek. Nearly every writer has another set of jobs and careers besides writing. Just because your co-workers, colleagues, and even family might not see you as a writer first, does not mean that you are not a writer.

And, here’s the real deal. Not everyone needs to know that you are a writer. Some dumb muthafuckas will use your expressed calling against you, especially if and when they do find out about your creative side and your one troy ounce of success. Some of your enemies, nemeses, and family members and friends will literally laugh in your face when you discuss your aspirations with them. You have to know whom to trust and not trust with this truth about yourself. You will learn, in time, to keep your own counsel, to not let everyone in your world in on your not-so-secret secret.

And you will learn that to write is not just putting pen to paper or fingers and thumbs to a MacBook keyboard. It’s reading, beyond the academic tome, beyond the occasional novel or Walter Mosley detective mystery. It’s reading folx who’ve struggled with writing just like you. It’s people-watching on trains and the Metro. It’s listening in Univision or Telemundo programs while folding clothes at a laundromat with a mostly Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Nuyorican or Dominicanyorka audience. It’s thinking of an idea while cleaning chicken thighs for dinner or on the occasions you end up jacking off for lack of sleep. It’s all the vivid dreams and nightmares — really, visions — that you’ve had of present, future, past, past-future, future-present, and ever-present, about escape, about overcoming, about being trapped. That’s all a part of the process.

2. Degrees matter, and yet, degrees don’t matter for shit. I cannot believe that your dumb-ass self believed for years that getting the “PhD would be a passport for doing what [you] wanted to do in [your] life.” You must have said this to 50 of your closest friends, acquaintances, and even a couple of folks who you eventually realized were your enemies back between 1990 and 1997. At your most stressed times, those sudden, bolting-upright-in-the-bed-at-3am moments, with your heart thumping like you were Bugs Bunny ogling Lola Bunny, you believed the doctorate was the ticket. You kept telling yourself this, even as you had doubts about what the degree meant as you finished your coursework in 1994. You cast yourself atop this hill, especially after becoming a Spencer Dissertation Fellow in 1995, even though you and many in your cohort were all obvious misfits in the grad school system.

Yes, in the narrow sense of job qualifications, degrees matter. But, you earned your master’s degrees in History in April 1992. At 22 years old! You were all-but-dissertation at 24. 24! You could’ve taken time off, earned a teaching certificate in a year, gone on to teach at public, private, or parochial school, or even earned a degree in a more practical field, like psychology, social work, education, journalism, creative nonfiction, or sociology. So admit it, damn you! You were attracted to some aspects of the tenured faculty lifestyle. Not most of it, to be sure. Yet the idea of having a schedule where you spent lots of time doing research and writing. You secretly craved being paid to write whatever you wanted to write. Even though you already knew that you could only do this if you willing to write like a cold, dispassionate White guy well-off enough to not care about reaching an audience outside of his extremely narrow field.

So you convinced yourself for nearly two decades that you could do and be both. A writer for mainstream organs and readers and a writer for academe. You weren’t wrong. Your eclectic writing style can accommodate complex scholarly ideas and personal tales and dramas, even creative techniques to transition between them. But the world of the privileged rarely allows for the crossover-dribble equivalent for writers. With a doctorate, you are an egg-headed scholar to the average editor, and cannot possibly write in any other way. For journal editors, your style was never gonna be scholarly enough. For newspaper and magazine editors, your style was always too cerebral. And, despite your degree, you had a hard time convincing others of your expertise. You only earned a PhD in History from Carnegie Mellon University, okay? Not from UCLA or Berkeley or Stanford, or certainly not from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, or even UPenn, Georgetown, or Columbia. Your years of published works and a couple of self-published books would be barely enough to convince Ebony to take a look at your work when you hit your mid-40s. Forget about trying to bifurcate and make your degrees work for you. Get a good job, and just find more and more ways to keep writing, and hopefully, you won’t be dead before people start reading your stuff.

3. Academia, the nonprofit world, and the writing world only make room for Blacks and other people of color when then either completely conform to its -isms (tokens), or when we prove ourselves to at least be moderately successful mavericks. There is no in between, there is no best-of-both-worlds, or straddling the fence, or finding yourself as the Emissary that can cross between worlds. You are not Avatar Aang, the Last Airbender or Captain Benjamin Sisko of DS9. Even among other Black folks, like when I was offered a tenure-stream position in the Department of Africana Studies (née Afro-American Studies) at Howard University in 2000, it came with the implicit stipulation that I needed to conform, to always respect my elders — no matter how elitist and exclusionary I thought they were. At nearly every job I have held since 1996, I have been hired as a token toward diversity with the added benefit of my degree and/or specific expertise, or because I went against the grain to do or write something counterintuitively.

But if that were all, you may have figured some aspect of this out during the Reagan years. The layers of intersectional elitism, from whole institutions like lily-White, College Republican, and two-comma-kid Carnegie Mellon, to department-level beliefs of assuming that you as someone who grew up with poverty would somehow survive summer after summer without financial support. There were also the professors, who to a person assumed that “a few years of hazing will be good for you,” as if you grew up without a material care in the world. After all, how could a Black guy from Mount Vernon, New York with your familial and socioeconomic background find themselves in the hallowed halls of major universities?

Yeah, man. There are almost as many layers of elitism in the working world as there are folds in the gray matter of an alleged Mensa genius. Racial paternalistic elitism, neo-Marxist elitism, misogynist elitism, Marxist elitism, socialist elitism, misogynoir elitism, White feminist elitism, Afrocentric elitism, corporate elitism, technocratic elitism. There’s also Ivy League elitism, HBCU elitism, country-club elitism, affluent Black elitism, African Black elitism, Afro-Caribbean elitism, Puerto Rican elitism, and biracial elitism. And lest I forget, there’s that from-the-5-boroughs-New Yorker elitism, served-in-the-Peace-Corps elitism, revolutionary elitism, anti-revolutionary elitism, and even contrarian elitism. Cutting through all these layers over several decades might leave you in a rage, ready to holler at a moment’s notice, and with some bouts of exhaustion and high blood pressure. But the truth is, none of these dumb asses know how deep in The Matrix they are, putting on enough airs to crush entire cities into oblivion.

4. You will have moments of serious doubt. You will have days, weeks, months where you will be depressed. You will have “waiting for the other shoe to drop” emotions, even when everything is going well professionally. You will feel that you do not belong. Not in academia. Not in the nonprofit world. Not as a writer. Not as an American. Sometimes, not even as a Black American. You will have bouts with what we call imposter syndrome. And yes, you do not fit in easily anywhere, because you have spent so much of your life trying to learn how to cope in places and spaces that never wanted you. Your experiences with millennialist religions, with poverty, with Blackness, with growing up in Mount Vernon/New York City, will help you cope. But you will never be a fit in any place you inhabit in this lifetime.

And, you need to know that this will be perfectly fine. Fitting in never brings you the material and psychological benefits you will seek for yourself and your loved ones. Fitting in only brings you headaches on the regular, endless cycles of diarrhea and constipation, a nearly permanent insomnia. Fitting in makes you almost forget your training as an African American historian and your expertise in understanding the human condition. Fitting in nearly kills the writer you so desperately need to become before you even fully acknowledge that you are one.

So, do not ever fit in. Do not even try. Be you. Be your best you. If that isn’t enough, that’s the problem of a world full of bullies, Head-Negro-in-Charge micromanagers, White moderates, paternalistic White women, and other who would prefer brown-nosers to free thinkers. Not to mention, the armies of sycophants these assholes tend to hire.

So, the meritocracy is a neoliberal lie, and a debt-ridden deadly one. You might never break through as a writer in all the ways that matter to you. Or you just might. Or, you may fully break through, only to find out that you are so much more than the writer you will eventually become. But do not look for approval. Especially not from the US academic and literati set. Let them continue to eat their shitty cake.