Separating The Musical Wheat From The -ism/-phobic Chaff

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Separating chaff (left hand) from wheat (right hand), November 25, 2013. (http://www.colourbox.com/preview/).

Separating chaff (left hand) from wheat (right hand), November 25, 2013. (http://www.colourbox.com/preview/).

Back in April, I managed to get myself into a Twitter argument with @BlkLibraryGirl over Rick Ross and Lil Wayne’s releases and the misogynistic, gang-rape-advocating lyrics that came with them. The problem was, she was in the midst of a long rant (which I didn’t realize at the time), and you should never interject into someone else’s Twitter rant unless you’re nodding your head in agreement. At least without going through their entire Twitter timeline first.

In response to another luminary on Twitter, @BlkLibraryGirl tweeted

But it’s not just Rick Ross’s rape lyrics. The entire Hip Hop genre is rape culture. Is somebody going to talk about that?:)

I specifically said that this strain of rape as/is okay is one that has deep roots in American culture, and in African American notions of masculinity specifically, which led to a barrage of tweets from @BlkLibraryGirl about how Rick Ross’ lyrics + ten-year-old Black boys = Black boys thinking that raping Black women is perfectly okay. And that I was okay with these lyrics, too.

Rick Ross, absolutely disgusting, September 30, 2013. (http://cdn.stupiddope.com).

Rick Ross, absolutely disgusting, September 30, 2013. (http://cdn.stupiddope.com).

She obviously not only missed my point. She didn’t care what my point was in the first place. But that’s an issue of the limits of being able to communicate complex ideas and emotions on Twitter, not to mention the larger issue of etiquette. @BlkLibraryGirl is but one example of the steady and growing criticism of rap/hip-hip as the source of all our cultural ills, -isms and -phobias. It’s the idea that a kid will watch a video and listen to lyrics, and with zombie-like reactions, act out the lyrics and the video as if they don’t have a mind and guidance systems in their lives to stop them from being Rick Ross’ and Lil Wayne’s puppets.

For those of you who know me or this blog, the one thing that should be obvious is that while my music tastes are eclectic, my rap music list in particular is a small one. I didn’t like much of the little bit of rap I heard growing up, got into it a bit in the ’87-’97 years, and have liked almost none of it over the past decade. I’ve never liked Jay Z, found 50 Cent to be about a notch and a half above Biz Markie, and still think Eminem is the best lyricist in the game today, despite the fact he is as homophobic and (at times) misogynistic as they come.

So while these fools will never win the Social Justice Music Awards, they do have the right to put out their schlock, to write lyrics filled with hate and angst, to play with tired stereotypes and archetypes in their music and videos. And we have the right to critique, to not buy, to provide ourselves and our kids with the wisdom necessary to see through the smokescreen of big business making big bucks off of rap/hip-hop “artists” who present themselves as little more than stereotypical Bucks themselves.

But let’s also not get carried away here, either. Last I checked, didn’t the rap I listened to in college contain some similar themes? Geto Boys “Gotta Let A Ho Be A Ho” and PE’s “the parts don’t fit” line from one of their raps on their Fear of a Black Planet album (both from ’90) come to mind. What about “running the train” lyrics from the late Notorious BIG or Tupac’s (perhaps the greatest poet/rap lyricist ever) works? How come critics of today’s rap and hip-hop game don’t go after the moguls and producers that make Rick Ross and Lil Wayne possible, folks like Sean “Whatever his nickname is now” Combs, Jay-Z, Sony Music Group or BMI?

Or, given my eclectic tastes, why limit this strain of cultural ugliness to rap and hip-hop? Why not be historical for a moment and go after Prince’s and Rick James’ sexist lyrics of the early-’80s, or the Ohio Players and The Jammers of the ’70s? Or, for that matter, R. Kelly in the ’90s and early ’00s? Why should we even limit this to R&B or hip-hop, as music is a universal — and not a neatly separated — language? What about Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” or the White male angst and violence embedded in honky-tonk, hard-core heavy metal and grunge?

Fans protest Michael Jackson's innocence in the child molestation scandal, Paris, France, December 17, 2003. (Rafael Rozendaal via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

Fans protest Michael Jackson’s innocence in the child molestation scandal, Paris, France, December 17, 2003. (Rafael Rozendaal via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

Oh, I get it. Hip-hop’s a globally-dominant cultural and musical phenomenon, which means it could bring tens of millions more folks outside the US into our -isms and -gynys. But, has there ever been an individual in the musical world more culturally transcendent than Michael Jackson? You know, the guy who faced two trials in the ’90s and ’00s over child molestation charges? The man who struggled with identity issues — racial ones  included — for the bulk of his adult life before dying in June ’09? What do we do about the couple of billion people Jackson influenced beyond his lyrics, especially since child molestation must be as common as the common cold?

We should critique and advocate as much as we can over the sexism and misogyny, homophobia and racism, colorism and ignorance contained in the lyrics and videos of artists from Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Nelly and DMX and so many others. But let’s not act as if this is a new thing, a strictly hip-hop and rap thing. This is an American thing. So why act surprised when it shows up in rap music videos and in lyrics?

As for me, I chose to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music and PE’s other lyrics even in the face of the contradictions between their lyrics and behaviors. I think that most hip-hop lovers — even those impressionable ten-year-old Black boys — will do the same. If I’m wrong, then the Apocalypse has truly arrived.

Shawn of the Dead (2004) pic, as used in Philadelphia Daily News, June 4, 2012. (John Baer).

Shawn of the Dead (2004) pic, as used in Philadelphia Daily News, June 4, 2012. (John Baer).

My Mom’s Migration Story, 50 Years Later

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I would be a pretty terrible son and historian to not discuss the fact that this July and August marks fifty years since my mother moved to New York from little ol’ Bradley, Arkansas. For those who think fifty years on anything revolving around race and class is “a long time ago” or “ancient history,” consider the following. At the time Mom moved across the country to Gotham, the Civil Rights Movement had entered its northern, splintered phase, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was barely a year old, and the very first episode of Star Trek with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would air that September.

Bus route my mother took from Bradley, Arkansas to New York City in late-July 1966, August 23, 2016. (http://maps.google.com).

Bus route my mother took from Bradley, Arkansas to New York City in late-July 1966 (highlighted in blue with yellow dots), August 23, 2016. (http://maps.google.com).

On balance, with any neutral but fair eye at all, I’d have to say that Mom’s transition has been more failure than success. Five decades of crisis after crisis, of having a handful of fleeting moments of peace and progress followed by years of abuse, misery, poverty, and sorrow. That could be the summary I’d write about Mom’s fifty years of post-migration experiences in New York and in Mount Vernon.

But, let’s start from the top, through Boy @ The Window:

After drifting a bit after her high school graduation, one of Mom’s first cousins came for a visit to Arkansas in the summer of ’66 and told her that there was good-paying work in New York City. Her cousin lived in the [170s, the Tremont section of the] Bronx, a hotbed of Black migration and West Indian immigration in those years. Without much thought, Mom took a four-day bus trip from Texarkana to New York to what she hoped would be a new life. Given the alternative of tenant farming and generational poverty, New York must’ve seemed like going to heaven.

Mom had it rough long before my father and my older brother Darren and I had come along to be a burden. She lived with her cousin for nearly a year in the Bronx, paying $15 a week for a one-bedroom flat, before good luck turned to bad and then back to wonderful. They had both lost jobs at some factory, but had heard through the other late Black arrivals in the Bronx and Mount Vernon about good paying jobs at Mount Vernon Hospital. When Mount Vernon Hospital hired Mom to be a cook in their dietary department, she and her first cousin went their separate ways living-together-wise. They’d stay in touch until ’78, when Mom’s first cousin moved to Virginia, presumably for work with the Navy.

In the interim, Mom met my father at a juke joint on Mount Vernon’s South Side. It was a place where only Southern Black migrants would be comfortable. They didn’t have to pretend to like the grime, the hustle, the noise, and the taunts that New York and New Yawkers threw at them every day. They could be themselves. They could be shy, apprehensive, even, about their time in a place where everyone joked about their Southern accents and their slow ways. I think that’s what made my father attractive to Mom. Here was someone who made Mom sound much less Southern by comparison. At the same time, my father worked in the city, had a job as a janitor with the Federal Reserve Bank, and knew the Subway better than she knew the route from her one-room flat on Adams Street to Mount Vernon Hospital.

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

Within a year of meeting, Mom gave birth to my older brother Darren. Mom often said that she “wasn’t a teenager” when Darren was born in December ’67, as she had turned twenty six weeks earlier. Yet as I finally pointed out during the intervention fourteen years ago, “But you got pregnant when you were nineteen,” all to let Mom know that the stigma of teenage pregnancy was more about her and her insecurities than it was about what White folks thought, especially back then.

I came along two years later, Mom married my father in ’70, and things started falling apart soon after. Mom never gave herself a chance to live the city, and not just work in it. Mom never gave herself time to grow beyond her insecurities and her vanity about her looks. She never really tried to make her aspirations for joining the Navy or going to college happen. The latter, at least until after I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in ’87.

As I wrote about Mom’s/our family’s fall into welfare poverty by ’83 in Boy @ The Window,

Sixteen years, a dead-end job and two abusive husbands later, Mom must’ve been thinking that Mount Vernon was a hellish pit that got hotter every time she tried to make her and our lives better. With a fourteen-year-old kid in a school for the retarded, a twelve-year-old getting beat up by the second husband, a three-year-old who all but refused to speak because of his abuse, a one-year-old and another one on its way, it was little wonder that she showed about as much affection as an NYPD police officer. The ‘I love you, Donald’ faucet, which was an occasional drip prior to the summer of ’82, was pretty much turned off after that.

Yes, this is all truly sad. There was way too much too soon for Mom. Family, marriage, abuse, poverty, and internalized issues around race, sexism, misogyny, Black masculinity, evangelical Christianity (and the whole Hebrew-Israelite debacle), and all in New York. It would’ve been overwhelming for anyone whose income never saw $20,000 in any year prior to temp work in ’99, and $30,000 until working for Westchester County Medical Center in 2003.

There are so many mistakes Mom made, with me, my siblings older and younger, in choosing mates, and with work. I’ve written about roughly half of them. But, awful or awesome, without Mom’s momentary hope and courage — often the very definition of Black migration, especially to New York — I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

America Denies For Others What It Demands For Itself

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Excerpt from Frank Deford, “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer For The Home Team,” Sports Illustrated, August 13, 1984, p. 38. (http://www.si.com/vault/1984/08/13/620469/cheer-cheer-cheer-for-the-home-team).

The famous and often loopy sports writer Frank Deford wrote this about America’s narcissistic display of celebration in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Despite the changes in location, the change in networks, and the shifts in coverage over the years, the ability of the US to celebrate its greatness as if the nation was an underdog every four years knows no bounds. Americans moralize, spin stories of wholesome athletes, and frame the games as if the rest of the world is a bunch of losers. Chuck a few words like “The Soviets,” “2.5 billion,” and “Rick Carey,” and substitute “The Chinese,” “5 billion,” and “Lilly King” or “Michael Phelps.” That, and the locale being Rio de Janeiro, are the main differences.

The late Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver in Leave It To Beaver, October 17, 2010. (http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/299042).

The late Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver in Leave It To Beaver, October 17, 2010. (http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/299042).

NBC’s coverage has been narcissistic jingoism to the extreme. If you want to see Olympians from other countries who competed but didn’t win gold — or Olympians who won gold but don’t speak English — you can pretty much forget about seeing them on NBC. BBC News has provided more of this global coverage, even in the midst of its British/British Commonwealth bias. NBC can say that it’s giving Americans what they want. Really? Primetime coverage on the mothership and spotty and often tape-delayed coverage on its other channels, with a few clips online? Wow, Americans must only care about America so much that they are willing to miss hours of inspirational stories and exemplary athletic performances. Yet apparently Americans do want the dozens of mentions of Maya DiRado’s recent marriage and new house in Atlanta, where she’ll apparently settle down like June Cleaver after The Games. That, and that most Americans expect to win, like the way L.A. Lakers fans have been at home games assuming twenty-point blowouts night after night for the better part of 60 years.

This isn’t to say that Americans haven’t achieved greatness during the Rio Games. Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Lilly King, Maya DiRado, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Laurie Hernandez, Michelle Carter, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Allyson Felix, among so many others, have had great, even historic, times. Yet Americans celebrated Ledecky’s 11-second win in the 800m final as if it was preordained magic and proof of American imperial superiority at the same time. Swimming is a resources-dependent sport, requiring Olympic-sized pools, investments in coaching, and thousands of hours of training. That Ledecky won by such a huge margin isn’t just an indication of superior athletic talent and training. It’s a reflection of a serious financial commitment by parents and public/private funds from the richest nation in the world to making gold medals in swimming a priority. It’s an example of haves versus have-nots, an unfairness baked into the cake of the Social Darwinist modern Olympics from the time they began in 1896.

Rich vs. Poor cartoon, John Darkow, September 18, 2011. (http://www.columbiatribune.com).

Rich vs. Poor cartoon, John Darkow, September 18, 2011. (http://www.columbiatribune.com).

Lilly King and others have moralized about their achievements being done without the enhancements of PEDs. As if American athletes are always clean. As if American Olympians haven’t been caught doping in the recent past. As if the advantages of living in a wealthy nation committed to winning above all else doesn’t translate into maximizing athletic talents in every Olympic sport. King’s bravado might have been seen as cute or wonderful by some, especially over her Russian competitor Yuliya Efimova. But it’s no different from Donald Trump bragging about how much money he has to a room full of ex-cons who served time for shop lifting or stealing a few dollars.

There’s a racial component to all of this as well. It’s okay for wholesome folks like Phelps to make Chad Le Clos look stupid, or for King to moralize about doping. Not so much in the Black-dominated track and field, or in men’s basketball, or for Blacks in swimming and gymnastics. There, Americans not only expect their Olympians to win. They expect them to know their place, not discuss race, and have their hand over their heart when the National Anthem’s playing.

U2 in “Crumbs From Your Table” (2004) asked the question — in regard to rich countries like the US — “Would you deny for others what you demand for yourself?” In the case of the US, the answer is, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!,” or “Y-E-S! Y-E-S! Y-E-S!” Americans already do it to each other, through racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and plutocracy. Why would it be different for the US regarding the rest of the world?

When Your Music Turns 30

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Well, some of my music, anyway. About a third of all the music I own, like, or have access to was produced at least thirty years ago, as of this month. I guess I shouldn’t be bothered with the fact that everything from Johann Sebastian Bach, Blind Willie Johnson, and John Coltrane to Anita Baker, Steve Winwood, and Pet Shop Boys are all ancient in the mind of my teenage son. In a way, though, I am. Not so much that my music collection is an indication that I am no longer physically young. That happens to all of us. But whether this is a sign that my mind is no longer plastic enough to absorb new music, new styles, new ways of delivering a form of entertainment and escapism.

The fact that I’m still catching up with music released between 2011 and 2014 is troubling. I mean, it’s only been a year and a half since I picked up Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, MAAD City (2012). I have Nneka and Maverick Sabre on my playlists only because my wife keeps up with music through YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora. I still haven’t heard or seen the video for Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” have yet to hear a Nicki Minaj or Rihanna song that I truly like, and think that Drake and Meek Mill are pretty weak. Am I getting so old that I don’t understand what is or isn’t good music anymore? Or, did I ever have a handle on what was and is good music when I was sixteen, and am more discerning or snobbish now? Or, am I just a goofball who wouldn’t know good music if it bit me in the ass?

Maybe it’s all of the above. Below is a sample of my list of song that I described as theme music for Boy @ The Window. This is all music that came out in ’86.

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There are some amazing songs on this list. Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love.” Simply Red’s “Holding Back The Years.” Sade’s “Never As Good As The First Time.” Who could argue with these? If anyone does, they just hate the whole genre of ’80 pop and R&B, and refuse to appreciate the music on any level.

Now there are other where I will concede the quality is questionable, but I like anyway. Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls,” Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom,” and Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” all fit into all kinds of questionable tastes here. But compare “Sweet Freedom” to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” and its syrupy goofiness. Or, really, Michael McDonald’s super-popular duet with Patti LaBelle in “On My Own.” I hated that song as much as I could hate any music, but I was apparently in a small minority three decades ago. Baby Boomers – gotta love ’em!

There’s also Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” with Chaka Khan doing background vocals. You take Chaka Khan out of this song, and it’s an ’80s display of synthesizer prowess with pretty decent lyrics. Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s “The Way It Is” was and remains a simplistic “hearts and minds” analysis of American racism, but it was at least a self-consciously effort to address a social issue. Even when folks fall short, I can appreciate their music.

There are plenty of songs from thirty years ago that I either thought were silly, didn’t represent my mood from that time, or were a reflection of my need to escape my life. Anything by Chicago or Starship from ’86 would fit. I heard Starship’s “Nothing’s Going To Stop Us” at the local Trader Joe’s, a few days ago, and my stomach started cramping up. I actually got nauseous over a song! Grace Slick’s voice remains scary, I guess.

The thread between the music I listened to three decades ago and the music I have on my iPod, iPhone, and computers is clear, to me, if no one else. With the exception of country music as Whiteness affirming, I generally don’t care what genre it’s from. The lyrics are more important than the quality of vocals, and the vocals and music are way more important than any video made with the song. That probably makes me a bit old-fashioned. But it’s also why I still have music in my collection that predates my birth.

A Big Wheel and Recovered Memories, Part Two

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It took me until three weeks after the sex assault on the Nathan Hale ES playground before I told my parents. Those three weeks are a blur, but not the blur that the incident with the light-skinned teenager and his three friends would become until three weeks before my forty-fifth birthday

At the beginning of August ’76, my Mom and my dad Jimme were having another one of their vicious arguments. It was that Saturday afternoon when I finally learned that my Mom had filed for a divorce the month before. Anyway, I somehow managed to get myself in the middle of that argument. I complained that Darren’s bigger butt had been the final straw for my Big Wheel. It had broken in half after he tried to ride it earlier that week.

“I told him, it says ‘90-lb limit’,”  I said to my Mom (which I pronounced as “ninety lebs”) while pointing at the inscribed warning label on my now broken Big Wheel, crying.

“You broke that shit weeks ago!,” my Mom yelled.

“I didn’t break it. A bunch of kids did,” I said.

“And you didn’t try to stop ‘em?,” Mom asked.

“I did try to stop ‘em. But they took it and one of them stuck a pee-pee in my mouth,” I explained.

“I done told you not to leave the house when I’m not here! That’s what you get for not listenin’!,” my Mom screamed.

I was so shocked by how angry she was. I was mad, too. I didn’t think. I just ran out the house and out into the middle of the street. I saw a tan Chevy Malibu coming down the street and I just stood there.

1973 tan-ish Chevy Malibu, August 5, 2016. (http://www.autoblog.com).

1973 tan-ish Chevy Malibu, August 5, 2016. (http://www.autoblog.com).

The older, salt-and-pepper bearded and balding Black man didn’t slow down until he realized I wasn’t planning to move. He slammed on the brakes and came to a stop about three feet in front of me. The man put his car in park and got out. He then slammed his driver’s side door really hard, and yelled, “Boy, what’s wrong with you? Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed? Where’s your mama?”

He grabbed me by the back of my chocolate-brown t-shirt and made me show him where I lived. We marched upstairs to the second-floor, where he proceeded to explain my suicidal actions. My Mom then took the older man’s belt and beat me with it in front of him, with Darren and Jimme watching. Afterwards, she said “Thank you” to the older man, and then sent me to bed without dinner. “Don’t you EVER do that again!,” she screamed.

Nine months after that bicentennial summer, we moved across town to 616 East Lincoln, a three-in-one, five-story Tudor-style apartment complex. After a summer camp at Darren’s Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry, we went outside on 616’s grounds for the first time, in August ’77. The kids at 616 and 630 East Lincoln chased us around the vast two-building complex while throwing rocks at us. Scared, we hid behind the big, wooden, dark-brown front door and huddled, hoping that the kids wouldn’t find us.

Instead, a couple of young Black Turks saw us and took us upstairs to my Mom and my eventual stepfather Maurice. The two young men said that they saw us doing “the dukey.” I had no idea what they were talking about. All I knew was that my Mom and stepfather proceeded to whip us as if we’d gone to the grocery store and stolen $100 worth of candy and soda. Both “dukey” and “faggot” were part of my vocabulary — again.

The mind of a child is a strange place. Mine was no different. For years afterward, I’d managed to forget these most painful memories. I managed to bury them without burying all of my other memories, so many memories that I have for the last forty-one out of my forty-five years. I somehow didn’t remember the connections between my Big Wheel, the light-skinned teenager and standing in the middle of South Sixth, waiting to be run over. I didn’t remember my Mom’s response to finding out that her six-year-old son had been sexually assaulted.

It’s ironic. Ironic because I’ve already written my coming-of-age memoir in Boy @ The Window. I spent the better part of a decade researching, writing and revising it before self-publishing it in 2013. I included excruciating details about my family, my Mom, my father Jimme. I included as many relevant and embarrassing events as I could about how I became the person I always wanted to be. And with all that work, I never remembered the moment a teenager forced his penis tip into my mouth.

Buildings/dream in state of collapse, via Inception (2010), August 5, 2016. (http://www.cinemablend.com).

Buildings/dream in state of collapse, via Inception (2010), August 5, 2016. (http://www.cinemablend.com).

I only remembered during the holidays in 2014. One night in early December, I had a really bad trying-to-escape dream — again. This time, though, I remembered the taste of a penis in my mouth, and then I saw the light-skinned teenager. Even in my dream, I said, “That’s him. That’s it.”

After I woke up, a flood of images erupted in my brain. The Chevy Malibu and me standing in the street. Seeing the light-skinned kid who  assaulted me on the playground at 616 on the same day the other kids chased Darren and me around the building while pelting us with pebbles and rocks. The wall of fear that my Mom had on her face when the neighbors told her that they thought Darren and me were “faggots” because we were standing so close to each other that we looked like we were “doing the dukey.”

The now-remembered incident explained so much. My Mom’s constant fear that I’d turn out gay. My father Jimme constantly calling me a “faggat” (as he pronounced it when he was drunk) whenever I stepped out of line or looked at people the wrong way. My Mom giving my one-time idiot stepfather Maurice carte blanche to “turn” me and Darren “into men” through Isshin-ryu karate and draconian physical abuse. Me being terrified at times when around Black guys on the basketball courts or in other social setting. My looking at young women from afar, attainable and yet all but unattainable for me. The sheer desire to save the people in my life from violence and destruction, especially my Mom and Darren, but the inability to do either.

My family’s fear of the mere possibility that I or my brother Darren could be gay drove many of their measures of physical, verbal and emotional abuse. So much so that they ignored all the signs of my actual abuse. Like standing in middle of the street to get run over by a car, were just considered “defiant” or “weird.” Or with me constantly chewing my fingernails right down to nail bed. Or me constantly stuffing sandwiches and other food down into the recesses of my winter coats, having already ripped out the pockets, and leaving the food there. Or the day I stood on Nathan Hale’s playground during recess in May ’77, when I took some string from my red and blue-striped t-shirt, gradually unraveled it, and swallowed nearly a third of it. My Mom figured she could beat the “something’s wrong with you, fool” out of me. My father calling me a “faggat” from the time I turned fourteen was just tough love, not a form of abuse piled on top of abuse.

Now that I remember everything about the physical and the sexual abuse, what do I do next? It’s been forty years since I found out how horrible life could be. It’s not as if I’ll be able to track down and then beat up the light-skinned teenager, who’s now in his early fifties, assuming he’s still alive.

I could start by revising Boy @ The Window. I wasn’t just weird because I wore a kufi, spoke too slowly, or grew up with weird people. I wasn’t just a child of poverty, abuse, and divorce. I was also a sexual abuse victim, all but completely unacknowledged, and yet such a major part of the story.

Forgiving my abuser could be at the top of the list. It would be difficult to be angry at someone whom I’d forgotten about for nearly four decades. But you know what? If I could just punch him in the throat and then knee him in the balls until one fell out and rolled down the street, that would give me some satisfaction.

Mostly, I’m just satisfied that I know my past in full. I already paid the bill. Now that I know what I paid for, I can move forward. I can look at my past, present, and future with more sanity than I thought possible.

Fun Times With Stepfather Maurice

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Male lion eating carcass (the equivalent of fun times with Maurice), August 3, 2016. (Aljameen Alston via http://pinterest.com).

Male lion eating carcass (the equivalent of fun times with Maurice), August 3, 2016. (Aljameen Alston via http://pinterest.com).

Today would be my idiot ex-stepfather’s Maurice Eugene Washington’s sixty-sixth birthday. Maurice died almost four years ago, after a twenty-year losing battle with Type-2 diabetes, kidney failure, hypertension, heart disease, limbs lost, and a host of other ailments included. That, after years of abusing his body with food, much more often than he laid a fist or kick on me or my Mom.

Most of the time these days, I feel far more pity for Maurice than anger. Forgiveness does come with the benefit of some empathy. If only because I know that Maurice had less maturity and more confusion in his heart than a sociopathic misogynist in the middle of puberty. Which, in point of fact, would pretty much describe my ex-stepfather from the time his was fifteen until his death in 2012.

So in the spirit of macabre humor, below are some of Maurice’s favorite stock phrases from my being forced to grow up around him between ’81 and ’89. Most of these made it to Boy @ The Window:

“You and your brother [Darren] are gonna be my brown-skinned servants.”

“Take that base outta ya voice, boy, before I cave yo’ chest in!”

Maurice would sometimes sing his threats, bellowing

‘I’m gonna beat yo’ ass, jus’ like a car burns gas,’ adding, ‘And ya KNOW that!’ at the end

It was something he pulled from the disco group known as the The Jammers.

Whenever I reminded him that he wasn’t my father or whenever I told him that I’d never call him “Dad” again, Maurice would yell

Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!

Sometimes, he’d threatened to kick me out of 616.

That boy’s defiant. I won’t tolerant it in my house!

Once I passed fourteen, I knew this was an idle threat. Boy, he loved calling me “boy” or “it” when I stood my ground. Maurice had colorism issues long before I ever knew what colorism was.

Or, Maurice would get all Hebrew-Israelite on me and quote from Exodus 20.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Even in the midst of busted lips, bruised ribs, and knots on my forehead, I found that last one absolutely preposterous. We owned nothing. This irrational abusive asshole wasn’t my father, and had beaten up my Mom in front of me. Only a god in cahoots with the devil him or herself — or my idiot ex-stepfather — would think that Exodus 20 applied to my situation with this shell of a human being. Mind you, the fool kept quoting this verse to me as late as the week before he broke up with my Mom in ’89!

There is some humor to glean from these, as much as you can find alcohol content in a fresh slice of bacon. I just hope I never say things even in the same galaxy of stupid, demeaning, or threatening to my own son as this idiot said to me growing up.

Sometimes, though, when my son asks, I tell him what it would be like to have an abusive father in the form of Maurice. Sometimes I’ve even imitated how the fool would’ve sounded, and my son will then start to laugh. Luckily, he sees my stories as stories, not the hellish nightmare that my life had once been.

How I Met My Son

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Noah's birthday cake, Cheesecake Factory Original Cheesecake, adorned with candles, July 30, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins).

Noah’s birthday cake, Cheesecake Factory Original Cheesecake, adorned with candles, July 30, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins).

My son turned thirteen yesterday. That sentence by itself speaks volumes. That I have a son, that he’s reached an age where he’s in the midst of puberty, with a discernible personality, with a set of abilities and potential for developing more talents. Wow! Noah loves art, anime, and apples. He’s a classic contrarian who’s just beginning to realize that he has academic and athletic talents. He’s mostly observant, thoughtful, and independent thinking enough to deal with this crazy world outside our home. That he’s managed to get to this point without me messing him up with my own baggage as his father. To me, that’s not just amazing. That’s a miracle.

As late as the early spring of ’02, a half-year before me and my wife conceived our one and only egg, I had some doubts about ever being a dad. But those small doubts mattered little compared to where I’d been the summer and fall of ’01. I wasn’t dead set against becoming a parent. I just felt that in this dangerous, chaotic, racist, oppressive world, how could I be so selfish as to bring a child into this life?

Daddy Emperor Penguin with baby penguin, accessed July 31, 2016. (National Geographic via http://pinterest.com).

Daddy Emperor Penguin with baby penguin, accessed July 31, 2016. (National Geographic via http://pinterest.com).

I wasn’t just thinking of Amadou Diallo or the aftermath of 9/11. This wasn’t just about the expense of raising a kid. Mostly, it had to do with growing up as the second of six, but with ALL of the responsibilities of a first-born Gen-Xer watching over four siblings ten to fourteen years younger than me, not to mention my wayward older brother. It was the trauma of living through eight years of abject, unrelenting poverty with an abusive asshole of a bully who frequently threatened my and my Mom’s existence. It was having to swallow shit from all of my legal guardians about my lack of observable Black testosterone coursing through my brain cells. Add going through a magnet program from middle school to high school and going to the University of Pittsburgh to this baggage. What I was by twenty was a hopeful but yet emotionally exhausted human being.

So, I was never someone who had this American evangelical desire to get married or have kids (which is also a passion connected to Whiteness, by the way, to propagate their numbers, but not just). Even when it was obvious that me and my wife were heading toward marriage by 1998, I was more against having kids than in favor of the idea. I was still occasionally sending money to my Mom and my siblings to help them out, and taking trips to 616 to put out figurative fires. I had changed enough diapers, made enough bottles, dressed, lunched, dinnered, and laundered enough for my siblings to say “I’m good” when it came to having my own child.

But when my youngest brother Eri beat me to the punch by siring his own kid with his high school girlfriend at seventeen in the spring of ’01, I lost it. I couldn’t sleep soundly for months. I listened to my Mom complain week after week about him and his post-high school dropout future. My brothers Maurice and Yiscoc weren’t doing much better. My family was a cyclone of a disaster, and nothing I had done to blaze a trail for them since 1982 had done much good.

This was when I decided to do my intervention, to go after both my Mom and my siblings. Not so much out of anger, and yes, I had enough anger to keep my current iPhone powered for three days. No, this was a combination of righteous indignation and, well, love. I did my due diligence to dig into my Mom’s life with a few questions that I already knew the answers to, about when and how it all went so wrong for us all. And then I did the intervention, in January ’02, right after the birth of my only nephew.

Only later did I realize the intervention I did was really for me. Only later did I figure out that the 616 intervention had freed me from my self-imposed burden to help lift my family out of poverty. The constant anguish and exhaustion I felt when dealing with my family went away in the weeks after the intervention, and I was able to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in months, maybe years.

Noah in portrait, May 16, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins)

Noah in portrait, May 16, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins)

That’s when I was ready to do my part in the miracle of conception, childbirth, and parenting. Giving myself that permission and then having the recognition of the baggage I carried going in has made fatherhood and parenting much easier (not easy, just much easier) than it would’ve been if I had done like Eri or followed Phil Knight’s “Just Do It” advice.

It’s hard to really be passionate about having a child when nearly all your free time with family between the ages of twelve and thirty-one has been to participate in raising kids. Since my little egg arrived thirteen years ago, though, I’ve reserved my parenting for him. I’m the father penguin in -100°F temps, braving blizzards in eighty-mile-an-hour winds to see my son through. I think it’s paid off so far.

We Really Are A Center-Right Nation

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First pitch, Mets vs Pirates (Pedro Martinez pitched for the Mets this day), July 20, 2005. (alpineinc via Wikipedia/Flickr). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

First pitch, Mets vs Pirates (Pedro Martinez pitched for the Mets this day), PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA, July 20, 2005. (alpineinc via Wikipedia/Flickr). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Folks, I cannot put it any simpler than this. Imagine a baseball game in which all the players played between home plate, second base, first base, and from center field, right-center field, and far right field. It would be a harder game to watch, and it’s hard enough to sit through already. That is the state of America’s national discourse and decision-making. Perhaps it’s always been the default setting on which the US was built four centuries ago.

Crop of PNC Park (as metaphor for the political state of the US), Pittsburgh, PA, July 20 2005 (alpineinc via Wikipedia/Flickr). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Crop of PNC Park (as metaphor for the political state of the US), Pittsburgh, PA, July 20 2005 (alpineinc via Wikipedia/Flickr). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

One of the more optimist points that Michael Moore attempted to make in his books Stupid White Men (2001) and Dude, Where’s My Country? (2003) was that he saw that, after all, the US was a center-left nation. Moore’s evidence came from polls suggesting that most Americans would support gun control legislation and gay marriage, were pro-choice and peace doves. His wasn’t the only White progressive voice trying to flip the script on some of the media’s narrative that the US has and remains mostly center-right politically and ideologically. Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and a host of comedians-turned-news-makers have similar points in words or deeds over the past two decades.

The problem is, they are dead wrong. The US really is center-right. Why? Because polls are but a snapshot of people and their thinking. It’s a moment where people may put on their best selves, and frequently skew their attitudes toward more forward-thinking ideals, even if they don’t believe them. Polls are about as accurate as a Soviet/Iraqi Scud missile from the First Gulf War. And they’re also about as worthless.

The media contributes to this delusion of center-left by portraying everything as if there are two sides to it. CNN, MSNBC, the major mainstream networks, even FOX News frames everything between liberal and conservative, as if 160 million people belong to one side or the other. While the best arguments on most issues tend to be left-of-center, they aren’t the best just because of one’s ideology. Most left-of-center arguments contain nuance and context, two things that have been anathema in the world of mainstream corporate media for at least a generation.

Since the press presents everything from agricultural subsidies to zoo protections as an either-or, left-or-right, good-or-bad, nuance and context are missing in action, like whole grain from Wonder Bread. So really, if there are any differences in argument, they are in degree. Being pro-choice with a plethora of restrictions is a centrist argument, not a leftist one. Being for some regulation of military-style rifles and guns is a centrist argument. Wanting to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour — the equivalent of the minimum wage in the mid-1990s — is a centrist argument.

Chants of "No More War!" and "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" erupt from crowd during Leon Panetta's 2016 DNC Convention speech, Philadelphia, PA, July 27, 2016. (http://theguardian.com).

Chants of “No More War!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” erupt from crowd during Leon Panetta’s 2016 DNC Convention speech, Philadelphia, PA, July 27, 2016. (http://theguardian.com).

Most scholars have it correct when they say that the Democratic Party has lurched to the right over the past forty years. That lurch kicked in big time during the Bill Clinton years. The corporate mainstream media during the DNC Convention in Philadelphia has discussed the “left-wing” of the Democratic Party all week. But they have it wrong. This so-called left-wing is really just “less centrist.”

Nothing proved this more than last night’s competing chants during Leon Panetta’s speech. “No more war!” was quickly drowned out by the narcissistic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” These are the same chants repeated by RNC delegates in Cleveland the week before. Both chants were meant to shut up those handful of folk committed to something other than getting in line with a political process or their party’s nominee. Both chants basically said to anyone who is truly in left-center field or further left than that to “shut the hell up.” The tone and rhetoric of the two parties may be different — and stances on cultural issues may be as well. But overall, the state of the American belief in the plutocratic/oligarchic nature of our democracy and projection of American power remains strong.

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