The Audacity of Low Expectations/Jealousy



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Mimi and Eunice, “Low Expectations,” September 19, 2011. (Source/ Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because of image’s low resolution and without the intent to reproduce or distribute for profit.

It seems to me that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past three decades overcoming other people’s psychological issues. Regarding race, race and gender, race, gender and class, not to mention performance issues, success, jealousy and envy, and other psychoses that had little or nothing to do with me. It’s something that most folks who aren’t Black, male, grew up in poverty and had some success (however one defines that) really can’t understand unless they have parents who’ve told them every single day that they “weren’t good enough to live.”

Still, these issues have mostly cropped up for me when I’ve experienced what most people would recognize as success, as if the only role I was ever supposed to play in life was that of a doormat. The first time I went through this process of blowing up other people’s low expectations of me was at the beginning of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about this time twenty-five years ago. A couple of weeks into the school year, MVHS released our class rankings. Out of the 545 or so students eligible to graduate as part of the Class of ’87, I was ranked fourteenth with a 3.83 average.

My MVHS trascript, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Admissions Office, January 7, 1987. (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Note the circles from the admissions officer all over the transcript.

I understood that this was pretty good, but I was also disappointed that I hadn’t cracked the top ten. In fact, the top twelve students in our class all had GPAs above a 4.0, all because of our weighted Level 0 and Level 1 courses. Crush #1 finished just ahead of me, thirteenth in our rankings, something I saw as ironic. Despite this sign of academic success, I hoped and wished for more, and spent several late-night walks over the next few weeks second-guessing my work in tenth grade.

My classmates started to show their darker sides, some for the first time since the days of 7S. One came up to me after my AP Calculus class soon after the rankings were posted. “The only reason you’re in the top twenty’s because of history!,” implying that I was an average student in all of my other subjects. Another, much shorter and much more condescending classmate chimed in a few days later, saying that “the only thing you can do with history is play Jeopardy.” I wasn’t exactly walking around school celebrating my good fortune. I chalked it up to the stress of years of academic competition, the boiling over of senioritis and the rage associated with college preparations. The possibility that jealousy was involved didn’t cross my mind until much later. I didn’t think that anyone could be envious of my standing.

Fast-forward four years to the fall of ’90, as I prepared in earnest for grad school. Not only had I endured a short conversation at the beginning of that year with the great Sylvia Fasulo and her attempts to discourage me from pursuing grad school, law school or a career in law (see my “The Legend of Sylvia Fasulo” from September ’09). I had two professors from Pitt who told me that they weren’t sure about my chances for getting into grad school, and Reid Andrews, who flat-out told me that he didn’t think that I was “graduate school material.”

I have no doubt that if these yahoos were jealous of me at all, it was because of my age, and not my potential. They simply didn’t see how a 3.4 GPA and a 3.82 in my history major would be good enough to get me into a master’s — much less a doctoral — program. The fact that I completed my master’s degree in two semesters within twenty months of essentially being told that I was a fool left Andrews, at least, at a loss for words.

There are so many other instances in which a grad student, a professor, a supervisor, even my siblings, have expressed their low expectations and jealousy over my tiny little crumbs of success that it has left my head spinning on a broom handle. I mean, what did I really do to earn or deserve that kind of attention? I don’t own a house or have a million dollars in gold lying around. I have yet to publish an article in Rolling Stone or in The Atlantic Monthly. I don’t exactly have LeBron James or President Obama on speed dial.

So what is it about me, I’ve asked myself so many times? And then, I’ve reminded myself of something I figured out about twenty-one years ago. That the only expectations that I ultimately need to meet or exceed are my own. That what other people say about me, no matter how distasteful, really doesn’t matter, for those folks were never going to be there for me anyway.

Maybe it’s my refusal to live under someone else’s low expectations, to not allowing myself the luxury of envy, that irks those around me. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as simple as misery loving company, and not loving mine. Either way, it’s ironic that we live in a time in which we prefer to tear each other down rather than help each other get going in our lives. Which makes my relationship with the rest of humanity so bittersweet. I guess I really am a writer!

Academia’s Racist Expectations


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The long wall that separates Morningside Park (and Harlem) from Columbia University, New York, circa 2008. (

The long wall that separates Morningside Park (and Harlem) from Columbia University, New York, circa 2008. (

I found myself back again. After reading Marybeth Gasman’s follow-up Washington Post article on her findings about academia’s hostility toward faculty diversity and the low expectations of the mostly White and male search committees in hiring faculty of color, I remembered. Seymour Drescher, George Reid Andrews, Van Beck Hall, Richard Smethurst, Dick Oestreicher, Larry Glasco, Paula Baker, Joe Trotter, John Modell, Steve Schlossman, Wendy Goldman, Kate Lynch, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones, and Peter Stearns. Everyone on this list was either my advisor, a professor for a graduate course I took while in the history departments at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, on my dissertation committee, the department chair, or someone I TA’d for between January 1990 (when I was a junior at Pitt) and May 1997. And nearly all of them either had super-high expectations of me — really, weight-of-the-world expectations — or expected me to choke on my own vomit intellectually while in grad school.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen this before. With select folk while in Humanities in middle school or in high school, like Doris Mann in seventh and eighth grade art, Sylvia Fasulo as my guidance counselor while at Mount Vernon High School, and most notably, with David Wolf in AP Physics my senior year (more on him soon). At Pitt, I had an elderly White professor in a constitutional law class who regularly expressed his displeasure over affirmative action in his lectures and gave all four Black students in the course a C+ on every assignment. But generally, if faculty did have low expectations of me because of their racism, it was more of a feeling, a sense that creeped up on me but couldn’t quite grasp, and not obvious because of their statements and actions.

Headwinds, July 2011. (

Headwinds, July 2011. (

Until I decided to go for an MA in history in 1990. Everything from discouraging statements to half-baked letters of recommendation brought headwinds meant to slam me up against rocky shoals. Professors like Smethurst or Hall who assumed I didn’t work hard enough because I took time to recharge and hang out with friends. A couple like Oestreicher and Resnick who believed that I actually plagiarized material because the quality of my writing was higher than they had seen from a grad student in years. Some like Andrews, who couldn’t believe I was well into my dissertation, much less having made it into another PhD program at all. That doesn’t even count the assumptions about my basketball prowess, or about what I did in my spare time. Nor does it include the overlooking of alternative perspectives on Marxism, on Whiteness, on multiculturalism, on American poverty, on religion, on a host of historical issues I brought to one seminar after another. Because in my spare time, I read more than what was on a syllabus, and given my upbringing, I had already lived a good portion of what the privileged class had only studied.

Add to this the expectations from Baker and Glasco, or Trotter and Jones. All had high expectations of me. So high, in fact, that their expectations were about more than me. It was about what I should or could represent, a graduate student of color who could compete successfully with the so-called geniuses in the field. With Trotter as my dissertation advisor, of course, it became a balancing act between his paranoia born out of his own experiences with graduate school, the job market, and academic racism, and working with me to make me a better scholar. We never had a conversation about why Trotter was the way he was with me, but as I have noted here over the years, Head Negro In Charge syndrome (HNIC) was certainly part of this equation. It’s one thing to meet one’s own high expectations. It’s another when folks who are pulling for you expect you to outperform yourself because of race.

There were so many expectations of me because of my race and relatively young age that I rebelled, mostly unconsciously, my last two years of graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. I wasn’t sure I wanted a professorship of any kind by 1996. But I was so close to being done with the dissertation, with Trotter, and with my mixed-signals dissertation committee. So I finished, and put myself into a job market, hoping that it wasn’t going to be so bad to look for tenure-track positions.

I was wrong, of course. Search committees couldn’t even meet the minimal expectation of at least evaluating my applications based on my qualifications. I interviewed for seven academic jobs between 1997 and 2000 before my first full-time professorship offer from Howard University. In at least three cases — including Tufts and NYU — the search committee chair’s friend was the person whom ended up with the job. With Teacher’s College, who knows? Slippery Rock canceled their search altogether. I didn’t even care to find out what happened with UNC-Charlotte or Colgate. I can say with absolute certainty, based on yawns, stupid questions, racist comments, and strange looks, that racism played a role in the Slippery Rock cancelation, and in my interviews at NYU and Colgate. Those people simply did not want me there, period.

Israeli armored car patrolling barrier wall between it and Palestinian West Bank, June 17, 2016. (

Israeli armored car patrolling barrier wall between it and Palestinian West Bank, June 17, 2016. (

In all, I have applied for 350 academic positions over the past two decades (keep in mind, I applied for 250 of these between 1997 and 2001, and hardly any during my nonprofit work years between 2001 and 2011). Other than adjunct or term faculty work — sometimes, even well-paying positions — going for academic jobs has confirmed my worst expectations of an institution that prides itself on the myths of meritocracy, scholarship, and objectivity. If I had to do it all over again, I would have not pushed myself through two revisions of my dissertation to get this degree. It wasn’t worth the $24,000 in student loans, the thousands of hours of reading boring ass dense writers, all the stupid hypotheses and theories, and the half-assed people I sat in front of in classrooms who claimed the title professor.

That’s how I feel sometimes. But I’ve also had a full slate of courses at my current gig for the past eight years, worked with thousands of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students since 1996, written dozens of recommendation letters, and worked myself into a writer who has dropped nearly all the trappings of academe. Had I not faced the racist failings of academia head-on, I might have bought into this world’s hypocrisies and reproduced them for my students over the years. In this, at least, I can be thankful for academia’s low expectations of me.

The Meat-Market Society


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Slaughtered pigs in a slaughterhouse line, accessed October 8, 2016. ( via Pinterest).

Slaughtered pigs in a slaughterhouse line, accessed October 8, 2016. ( via Pinterest).

About a year ago, I figured out someone in my Facebook timeline was a bit of a misogynist. He had been posting pics of Black women as if it was his and his followers’ jobs to rate, or rather, berate women based on how “respectable” they looked while out in public. The comments he elicited were so stereotypical and nasty that I will not quote them here. But I can quote part of my own response. “Why do we get to choose? Are we at a grocery store shopping for ass or something?”

It was as if it never dawned on anyone responding that this was far more than objectifying women. (The truth is, we all objectify, regardless of gender, as any form of attraction comes with this as part of the equation. It’s a question of the degree to which we do so). This was a case of putting “good” versus “bad” women on display. It was as if I had gone to Whole Foods, or, more aptly, Reading Terminal Market in Philly. But instead of butchers and mongers and other vendors with stalls selling cuts of boneless/skinless chicken thighs, prime rib, duck breasts, pork tenderloin, and fresh caught salmon, they were selling big butts, round asses, wide hips, perky breasts, and sanded feet. The post was straight up misogyny, and I all but dropped the person as a result of it.

Cuts of beef, lamb, and pork (plus ground beef), Martin's Quality Meats & Sausages, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, PA, March 2013. (http://hobbiesonabudget).

Cuts of beef, lamb, and pork (plus ground beef), Martin’s Quality Meats & Sausages, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, PA, March 2013. (http://hobbiesonabudget).

But it did make me think. The folks who responded acted as if they really were shopping for groceries, as if you could buy a woman at a store for say, $4.99 a pound, or find a sale where “prime rib” goes for $10.89 instead of $12.99 per pound. The key to this frame on misogyny, then, is literally how little the men in question valued women, and more specifically, Black women, physically and otherwise. After all, with an average weight of 140 pounds, $700 or $1550 is a clear-cut and sickening example of cheapening a person, with slavery auction overtones included. At the very least, if these alleged men were truly interested in any kind of relationship or a long-term commitment, a minimum of three additional zeros should be added to this misogynist numbers, no?

Of course this isn’t the point, that no price tag should be put on the value of a human life, and on women specifically. It’s fairly obvious, though, that many, if not most, men and women think, speak, and act on this mindset. Donald Trump has been an example of this for decades. That it took the release of unused footage from an Access Hollywood clip from 2005 to confirm Trump’s meat-market views on White women is both sad and unsurprising. Sad because it’s as if many Americans haven’t paid attention to Trump’s ridiculousness since announcing his candidacy 17 months ago. Unsurprising because the tape reveals what those of us who have been paying attention over the past months — and in my case, years — already knew.

Donald Trump posing with Kim Kardashian at Celebrity Apprentice event, New York, 2010. (Mathew Imaging/WireImage via

Donald Trump posing with Kim Kardashian at Celebrity Apprentice event, New York, 2010. (Mathew Imaging/WireImage via

Sure, Trump apologized via video on Facebook late last night. But he won’t stop being a misogynist, or seeing people as meat. Heck, the Central Park 5 are still guilty and still deserving of the death penalty in his mind, and the jogger whom had been raped in 1989 is still only a “broken woman” and a “victim.” As far as Trump is concerned, his America consists of 320 million stalls of meat that he “can do anything” with at any time and expect to get away with it.

But if you think that this mindset has merely trickled down from the likes of people like Trump, you would be mistaken. American culture is so rife with a meat-market mentality, that I can smell the lean cuts of animal protein from miles away.

No Time For Jealousy


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Envy, June 2009. (

Envy, June 2009. (

There are some emotions and human actions in which I don’t allow myself to partake. I usually don’t follow the herd. I don’t get caught up in what’s popular at the moment, no matter how many cool people in my life are riding the wave. I don’t build someone up in order to tear them down. And I don’t allow myself more than a flash of envy or jealousy.

Sometimes, these choices are rather easy, like with me having never watched an episode of Scandal or Empire. Sometimes, the choice to not virtually excoriate someone is difficult, given the narcissisms and moralisms that make up American culture. Sometimes, my path less traveled is one that has become easier over time. With jealousy, I’ve learned over the past thirty-five years that it’s a waste of time, neurons, and quantum energy to peer into the lives of those allegedly better off.

But this was hardly an easy process. I had so many reasons to be jealous when I was a preteen and teenager. My middle school and high school Humanities years were ones of constant, albeit momentary, jealousy. I was envious of classmates whose parents made more in a month than my Mom made working all year at Mount Vernon Hospital. I felt envy whenever I saw a classmate chow down on a smorgasbord of a lunch every day, especially on all the days I couldn’t eat because I either didn’t have the money to buy lunch or because the Hebrew-Israelite no-pork rule prevented me from eating the Friday grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Jealousy would come along when I’d see the mini-cliques of former Grimes and Pennington Elementary classmates getting along like the best of friends. Or, when my classmates would come to school wearing the latest and best of ’80s fashion while I walked around in sneakers with holes in the bottoms.

Smorgasbord, from breakfast to dinner, September 2010. (

Smorgasbord, from breakfast to dinner, September 2010. (

These first bouts with jealousy quickly turned inward toward my own insecurities and inadequacies, and outward toward my parents’ inability to do anything to make my life better materially. For years after the shock of preteen and early adolescent jealousy, I never saw myself as worthy of my classmates, not even worthy enough to befriend someone whose life, though maybe materially blessed, might have been unstable in other areas.

My first realization of seeing myself as being jealous, though, was toward the end of tenth grade at Mount Vernon High School. That’s when my secret first love Wendy and the contrarian one JD had begun to date. I didn’t feel this sense of love or weird emotional trepidation regarding Wendy by the time we were in tenth grade, though. I sensed as early as seventh grade this particular eventuality. No, I was more jealous of the reality that Wendy and JD could connect with each other in a way that I knew for me was beyond my reach. I didn’t really have any friends, so dating would’ve been like building a bridge over the Pacific Ocean by comparison.

But I learned something as well. Because theirs was an interracial relationship, I got a first-row seat to the stares, the whispers, and the occasional ignorant-ass comments from the other high schoolers about them dating. Seeing that, hearing that, made me aware of the fact that jealousy is a dangerous emotion, and give the life of deficits I had to make up, I didn’t have time or gray matter to waste in the matter of woe-is-me-as-outsider in 1985 or in the foreseeable future.

Public Enemy logo (note the crosshairs target), September 30, 2016. (

Public Enemy logo (note the crosshairs target), September 30, 2016. (

A year later, when I sensed on some level that some of my classmates were actually jealous of me, I balked at the idea. I thought, “I have nothing that anyone should be jealous of.” To me, this was literally true. With some of the cool kids literally laughing at me as I walked by them in the hallways, I couldn’t foresee a situation in which anyone would ever be jealous of me.

And yet I was wrong. My academic success, my fierce insistence to fight isolation by making myself independent of fads, trends, and conventional wisdom, had already made me a target of other’s envy. It wasn’t until the summer after I graduated when a co-worker at my General Foods job, one who was one year behind me at Mount Vernon High School, cut through the psychology for me. Erika cleared up so many things for me about the nature of friendships, relationships, and jealousy. I owe her big time for that, then and now.

Love Canal, suburban community turned EPA Superfund site, circa 1980. (

Love Canal, suburban community turned EPA Superfund site, circa 1980. (

Nearly thirty years later, and I am still surprised when I discover that someone is jealous of me. Really, I am. I guess it’s because I operate by the moment-of-envy rule. Meaning that I allow myself to feel jealous, but only for a moment, and remind myself of my own path, my own destination, and the work I must do to get there. After all, I don’t really want someone’s else job, promotion, salary, status, car, or house. That’s their life, and only God truly knows if their life would be one I’d want to have. And then I move on, knowing that the green grass on the other side of the tracks can often obscure the Love Canal underneath. I move on, because there’s always more work to do, for me, my wife, and my son. I move on, because after all these years, that’s all I know how to do.

If Racism Is Broadway, Narcissism Is Grand Central


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Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

This is a subject matter that normally would be too complicated for me to write about here. But then again, the work of explaining any aspect of the human condition is complex work. Especially when addressing American racism, its origins, its subatomic parts, and its effect on humans beyond the material and physical. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, and so many others have described the Black body and what the Black body has had to endure at the hands of American racism. But perhaps one of the most serious effort to address the psychological impact of American racism on Blacks and Whites was W. E. B. Du Bois’ in Black Reconstruction (1935). It’s a book that is the very definition of tome, covering twenty years of history with a sociological lens determined to cut to the marrow of what occurred during Reconstruction as if the reader was an eyewitness to each day’s happenings between 1860 and 1880.

Thanks in varying measures to Derrick Bell, David Roediger, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michael Eric Dyson, and many, many others, intellectuals and scholars have made much progress with the oft-quoted phrase “the wages of whiteness” over the past quarter-century. But while many have explained the wages of Whiteness, most haven’t tried to define it, especially when it comes to the psychological.

For a refresher, this was what Du Bois actually wrote about Whiteness and wages in Black Reconstruction:


“A sort of public and psychological wage,” Du Bois wrote on page 700. Most scholars have explained rather thoroughly the public or material wages of Whiteness, of American racism for Whites on a structural and institutional level. Many have attempted to do so on an individual or internalizing level. But Du Bois was one of a handful who attempted to explain both the collective and individual impetus for being comfortable in racism. A founding member of the field of American sociology, an expert American and Black historian, Du Bois in 1935 discussed with great explanatory power the nature of American racism and how it developed over time to trump class divides.

But this only gets at the material. As for the psychological, Du Bois spent a significant amount of his 760 pages in Black Reconstruction attempting to do so. Except that, as a sociologist, Du Bois explained the psychological wage primarily in terms of group and interpersonal dynamics, and not in terms of group thought or a sort of collective thought.

On page 52, though, Du Bois hits home with the following about American racism’s corrosive effect on those practicing it at the individual level:


What Du Bois described in 1935 was not just the effect of American racism on the individual Southern planter. If Du Bois had possessed a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), what he described we would call narcissistic personality disorder in 2016. Phrases like “inflate the ego…beyond all reason,” “arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets,” “expected deference and self-abasement,” and “were choleric and easily insulted.” These could easily be “a persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy,” the DSM-V general description of narcissism.

A couple of quotes and a general description of narcissism are likely insufficient to link Du Bois’ prescient nod to social psychology on the issue of American racism. This is what the DSM-V says about narcissistic personality disorder in full:

In order to determine if a patient may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a psychiatrist must determine if that patient meets at least any five (5) of the nine (9) standards below:

  1. A grandiose logic of self-importance
  2. A fixation with fantasies of unlimited success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
  3. A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
  4. A desire for unwarranted admiration
  5. A sense of entitlement
  6. Interpersonally oppressive behavior
  7. No form of empathy
  8. Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
  9. A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Now there are actually far more serious personality disorders that can be part of a larger set of self-destructive, dangerous, or even lethal behaviors, in which narcissistic personality disorder can be entangled. Most individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are not dangerous or self-destructive, and often function as normal or even high-performing human beings. In other words, there are levels of narcissism here, from the ground floor to the edges of the known universe.

Ah, but the DSM-V is describing the behavior of individuals, and not that of a class of people or a society, like what Du Bois attempted to do in Black Reconstruction, right? Yes and no. Du Bois used one individual example after another to build the case that the “white laborer” had come to have the same aspirations for the “public and psychological wages” that the Southern planter class had obtained through generations of owning slaves. Only, Blacks by the time of Reconstruction were slaves no more. The best way for Southern White elites to provide poor Whites all of the amenities of American racism without the latter either revolting against them outright or joining up with Blacks to fight grinding poverty was to codify American racism in the form of Jim Crow.

But where I and Du Bois are not on the same page is in the nature of American racism and narcissism as variables. Du Bois essentially argued that the psychological wage of Whiteness was the effect of American racism on Whites over time. The problem is, where does American racism come out of psychologically and sociologically? The simple yet true answer is out of gaming an advantage through greed and the desire for profit, through fear and the disdain for those whom have been deemed lesser, and through a willful ignorance and ignoring of the condition in which one has left other human beings. And that, for those who are reading, is both racism and narcissism, two separate yet interdependent ideas that help to prop each other up.

Before digging deeper into this, there are two things I want to make clear. One is that to think about American racism and American narcissism as part of the collective culture, think first of an atom. If racism were an atom, narcissism is its neutron. An atom doesn’t necessarily need a neutron to be stable (think Hydrogen atom, for example), and neutrons can be used to split atoms. People can be individually or collectively racist without necessarily being narcissistic, in other words, but the two often go hand-in-hand. Or, one can think about racism as the result of the social construction of race (to slightly quote Barbara Jean Fields), while narcissism is a psychological construction from which socially-constructed racism can spring, and then the former can be reinforced by the latter.

However, do not get it twisted. Just because I am saying that narcissism is a part of racism and vice-versa does not make racism a psychological illness by any means. That narcissists often function normally in nearly all social settings means that the personality disorder is a flaw or weakness of the human condition, not a disease. Racism is the attempt to take as much advantage of this flaw for oneself or for one’s group as better than others, and then use that success to reinforce the belief that one person or one group is better than another by taking even more advantages, materially and otherwise. American racism and American narcissism are two bosom buddies, and intertwine and intermix much more freely in the American context than virtually anywhere else.

Responses to My Piece in The Atlantic


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On Labor Day last week, The Atlantic ran my piece “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students.” It was a culmination of thoughts I had gleaned from the latest, research, from working on education issues in the nonprofit world, from my time as a professor at various universities, from my own college journey, and is in some ways, a summary of Boy @ The Window.

The response over the past week has been much more than I expected. It was definitely overwhelming in terms of the number of people who shared their own first-generation stories. I found myself wading through emails, nodding my head in agreement or shaking my head at the crap that some of my readers had to put up with to attend and graduate from college. These emails — as well as comments on the article on The Atlantic website — made all of the work putting the article together worth it.

A couple of stories stuck out for me. One was from a first-generation student who attended college a few years before my own 1987-91 run at the bachelor’s.

I read your article in the Atlantic, I was shocked at the similarity of our college experience. I like the Columbia investigation tale, they told me they didn’t believe me that my family income was so modest…Georgetown offered me the most money. I went to Georgetown in 1982, graduated in 1987, was homeless for a time, embarrassed about my modest financial background, grew up very fast in all areas, to enable completion of my studies.

Among the things that struck me was the shame of poverty the person felt then and years later. Living in a country like the US, with the constant mantra of hard work, faith, and ability all lead to prosperity, means that anyone not doing well might as well be a laughingstock standing naked in front of their high school graduating class. Or should contemplate committing suicide. It shouldn’t be purely on first-generation students to open up about their experiences before universities and states put resources into leadership and youth development organizations, mental health services, and fully-funded, need-based aid beyond tuition (covering food, housing, and books) to maximize opportunities for this increasingly larger group of college students.

I know the unofficial rule about not reading comments sections for articles, especially if the article happens to be your own. But given the personal nature of “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students,” I wanted to see what folks had to say. Some accused me of self-aggrandizement, of “patting myself on the back” for having graduated with a degree from Pitt in four years. Another went on to call me “exceptional,” that most “sixth-generation” students couldn’t have done what I did. Both comments seemed vaguely envious. I took no joy in writing about being homeless for five days. Especially since I knew so many others under similar circumstances haven’t completed their degrees.

Some of the comments I received on Twitter were of the nitpicking variety. One was from an education professor whom told me to “read her book” because I didn’t nuance the fact that non-financial aid programs for first-generation students cost money and other resources. Really? No kidding! Another pointed out there were more aspects to Hillary Clinton’s higher education plan than free college tuition, while a third commented that I didn’t discuss Pell Grants as part of my financial aid packages. All true, but given the comprehensive nature of the piece, I didn’t think it necessary to write a magnum opus or someone else’s version of combining my experiences with today’s data on first-generation students.

Many of the comments in The Atlantic’s Comments section, though, were of the more stereotyping variety. Comments about my Mom as undeserving of welfare because of the number of kids she had. Comments about my father’s alcoholism. Assumptions that because my father wasn’t in the household, that I lived in a “broken home.” Stereotypes about affirmative action, about “big government,” about “welfare cheats” versus law-abiding “tax payers.” I could address all of these well-meaning race-baiters one-by-one, but I’ve challenged these assumptions in the piece and even in my blog, anyway.

One of my readers emailed me in expressing their assumptions about me and about first-generation students in general.

What makes sense is for first-generation students to go to colleges more oriented toward their needs, even if those colleges are less ‘competitive.’

Navigating a huge bureaucracy isn’t easy for anyone. What it takes is the emotional strength that comes from being raised in a functional, intact home…But rising up the ladder has to be seen as, for most, a gradual process, not a “rags to riches” one.

I guess this person missed the part where I noted that 50 percent of all first-generation students are White, and that technically, I did live in a home with either my father and my Mom or my idiot stepfather and my Mom growing up. Part of the problem in understanding the needs of first-generations students, though, are people like this reader, many of whom are college administrators who also make sweeping assumptions about students who aren’t middle class and White. Heck, the main indicator of success for students is parent’s income and wealth, not hard work, ability, or whether their parents live together or face substance abuse issues.

And that’s kind of the point another emailer made about her own college journey as a first-generation student.

I went off to a private college — which I picked without any idea about getting a job or learning a profession. My mother…naively believed that a degree would guarantee I would be more employable. I was one of maybe 2 scholarship students on my small campus and I was miserable. None of my friends there worked and for them, living “poor” was hip. I was the only one desperate not to be broke (because mom and dad couldn’t bail me out). I stayed there for 2 years even though I did poorly academically because I didn’t even know I could transfer schools. I thought if I left, I was giving up on college altogether. In reality, it took me almost 10 years to finish college (finally, at a state school) and I lived in poverty in the meantime…I still can’t eat ramen noodles because I grew so ever-loving sick of having them all the time.

In her case, I would eat ramen noodles any day over canned tuna fish. Twenty-eight years later, the smell of it still makes me queasy.

So, thanks to all of you who read the piece, disagreed with some or all that I said, shared your stories, commiserated with me, and/or misinterpreted my article and why I wrote it. Much appreciated!

We Were Never United


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9/11 Memorial reflecting pool (w/ reflection of Freedom Tower off building straight ahead), August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

9/11 Memorial reflecting pool (w/ reflection of Freedom Tower off building straight ahead), August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The media trades in archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes the way an alcoholic can become drunk by just smelling ethanol from a block away. It’s been so true around every 9/11 anniversary that it’s somewhat sickening.

There are two tropes the mainstream media has used to keep Americans in a perpetual state of fear and hyper-patriotism since that gruesome second September Tuesday in 2001. One is the theme of “Never Forget” (and the most obvious Twitter hashtag ever). The only other times the mantra of “Never Forget” normally comes up is either in reference to Jews and the Holocaust or to the systematic genocide Native Americans experienced. It should also come up for Blacks and Africans regarding the Middle Passage and slavery, Aborigines in Australia, and other groups who’ve experienced the wanton destruction of their lives and culture in the relatively recent past. Of course Americans shouldn’t forget what happened on 9/11. Nearly 3,000 people died on that tragic day. But 5.9 million Jews, 8-10 million Native Americans, untold millions of Africans, Aborigines, and other groups? Not exactly a fair comparison. If we cannot consistently have empathy and sympathy for the plight of others who suffer and die in the thousands or millions — like with Syrians, Iraqis, South Sudanese — then what does “Never Forget” really mean beyond an extravagant display of navel-gazing?

The second trope the media sells Americans every year is the idea that we “came together” in the weeks after 9/11 like never before. This is some high-grade bull crap. Maybe White Americans did. Maybe Americans who saw Arab Americans, Sikhs, Black and Latinos who looked like they could be Arabs united. But to say that the US “united” in a common bond to bring each other peace in a grand display of patriotism belies the reality of what happened in the six weeks between the attacks and the passage of the USA Patriot Act.

The most poignant moment of my own 9/11 experience was on a fifteen-hour Greyhound bus trip I took from Atlanta to DC after the government grounded commercial airplanes. There was a Sikh man on our bus, who got on somewhere between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. Two men, one White and one Black, tried to get in the face of this man and blame him for what happened in New York, in DC, and in Western Pennsylvania. I literally had to get in between these dumb asses to keep them from doing worse than their ridiculous name-calling. If this is what the media meant/means by Americans “uniting” after 9/11, then, yes, we did, if only to show our religious and ethnic ignorance, to vent our not-so-subtle hatred and intolerance.

This was some of what I wrote in the days after 9/11 and my wonderful bus trip up I-85/75.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah? If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred. If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.

Welp, I was wrong. We would “Never Again” condone acts of terror against our own citizens, right? Whether through the systemic use of law enforcement as death squads against Blacks or Latinos, or the occasional White vigilante dispensing their own form of racist justice? We would unite to stop White supremacists from blowing up mosques, synagogues, and temples, to stop other Americans from harassing Arab American citizens and Sikhs for their open display of their First Amendment religious freedoms, no? We Americans would stand up for the rights of those who protest in opposition to existing examples of lethal oppression, because the American flag is about much more than the US military? Yeah, right!

Americans have proven that “united” and “never forget” are proxies for our societal narcissism. It runs as deep as anything that has taken root in American culture, including racism, individualism, and xenophobia. For me, at least, it is why media mantras like “united” and “never forget” ring hollow, despite my memories of the week that was 9/11.


Looking Back to My Future


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The power of "What If?," September 4, 2016. (

The power of “What If?,” September 4, 2016. (

I don’t “what if” my past moments nearly as much as I used to, thanks in part to one of my first Twitter conversations six years ago. It was with Blair Kelley, a professor and dean at North Carolina State University. I brought up the fact that I sometimes indulged my students’ “What if…?” scenarios regarding slavery and other issues in US history in order to help them find the truth. She said that this was a waste of time, that “What is…?” is already hard enough for students to understand, much less playing out a “What if…?” to get to a “What is…?”

Kelley was right. Students often play the “What if…?” game to deflect from what actually happened, out of potential pain or discomfort with historical truths, or because their conception of history doesn’t allow for humanity and human nature as significant factors. So I stopped humoring my students in fantasies about the South winning the Civil War or Nazi Germany winning World War II in Europe. It hasn’t made my students any happier, but it has made teaching them easier.

As for my own “What ifs…?,” I still think of a few on occasion. Like what if I had gone to college at Columbia or another elite institution instead of Pitt? Or what if I had possessed the courage to act on my crush on Wendy in seventh grade, or not wear my kufi to school during the Hebrew-Israelite years at all? Those can be very good mental distractions when I’m running a 10K or working on a boring set of revisions to an education piece. But they’re also rather silly distractions, with me knowing full well why I did or didn’t do most things, even knowing my thought process at the time they occurred in ’81, ’82, or ’87.

With this weekend being exactly twenty-eight years since my five days of undergraduate homelessness on Pitt’s campus, I have a real “What if…?” scenario to reconsider. What if I hadn’t bumped into my friend Leandrew, who had told me about the dilapidated fire-trap rowhouse he lived in on Welsford? What if I hadn’t met with my landlord Mr. Fu and gotten my 200-square-foot room with a literal hole in the wall so that two rooms could share a single radiator, all for $140 per month (about $285 in 2016 dollars)? What if I had to spend Labor Day weekend on a closed Pitt campus sleeping on that top floor concrete landing in a Forbes Quadrangle (now Posvar Hall) stairwell, where I had already spent three nights?

The mythical 6th-floor landing I slept on for three days (leading out to the roof), Wesley Posvar Hall, September 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

The mythical 6th-floor landing I slept on for three days (leading out to the roof), Wesley Posvar Hall, September 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

I already know the answers to these questions. I decided on this after praying about this on Wednesday, August 31 in ’88 while in that stairwell, laying on some of my clothes and my book bag. If I came out of Labor Day weekend without housing, I’d have to take my remaining $300 and go back to New York, to Mount Vernon, to 616. I’d have to drop or withdraw from my courses at Pitt. Maybe, with add-drop still going on, I could have some of my financial aid refunded, after Pitt deducted the $819 I owed them from my freshman year. I could enroll at Fordham or at CUNY’s Hunter College for the Winter/Spring 1989 semester, maybe find work somewhere in the area, and gut it out a few months at 616 with my nonfunctioning family.

I knew then that this was a scenario as ridiculous as Napoleon conquering Russia in the dead of winter. One of the reasons (but not the main reason) I left for the University of Pittsburgh in the first place was to get away from my family, to meet people unlike my Mom, my idiot stepfather, my five siblings at crowded 616, and the asshole Humanities classmates I’d gone to school with every day for the previous six years. I knew I had to have the mental space I needed to find myself, to figure myself out, all in considering whether I even had a future, much less how that future would take shape or how I’d shape myself into a future.

If I had gone with my cockamamie idea, the best case outcome would’ve been me transferring to Hunter or Fordham with my first year’s credits from Pitt, and me making it through a few semesters full-time before becoming a part-time student. I have no idea if I would’ve finished with a degree in history or something else from Hunter or Fordham. But given how exhausted I was each time I went back to Pitt after a summer of paid and familial work, I likely wouldn’t have even considered grad school.

The weight of guilt, survivor's and otherwise, September 2014. (

The weight of guilt, survivor’s and otherwise, September 2014. (

Why? I would’ve been at 616. I would’ve been obligated to help out with everything, from dealing with my idiot stepfather before me and my Mom finally forced him out, to providing food, entertainment, and childcare for my four younger siblings. I know this because during my college years, I did come back to 616 to work each summer and during the holidays. Those additional responsibilities were ones I felt obligated to fulfill until I was in my early thirties, and felt most intense when I had to face my family’s poverty head-on.

Keep in mind, this is the best-case outcome. Most likely, I would have stopped going to school all together after my bout with homelessness. I would’ve found part-time or full-time low-wage work, first to help out, then to find a roach trap somewhere in Mount Vernon or in the Bronx, and been relegated to the torture of “What ifs?” around getting a degree and having a better life. Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve been bumped around enough by that rough life to try again, to seek help from the likes of an ombudsman like Ron Slater or a provost like Jack Daniel. But I barely knew how to seek help when I first went about doing it as a homeless and broke-ass student in ’88. Given my mental makeup back then, it would’ve been a monumental task to trust that much after years of low-wage work and unrelenting poverty at 616.

UCLA education professor (although he is so much more than that) Pedro Noguera reminded me of something I’ve come to disdain in recent years. This idea that philanthropists and researchers can use kids and families as experimental subjects on the issue of “grit” or “resilience” is one I find disgusting. The idea that oppression and inequality can be overcome if you or I simply toughen up, grow a thick outer shell and just push through? The idea that with grit and spit and sweat, anyone can just overcome through sheer will power a lack of preparation, a lack of resources, a lack of access to resources, a lack of connections, and a lack of knowledge? Are you kidding me?

Quaker Instant Grits, Super Family Size, September 4, 2016. (

Quaker Instant Grits, Super Family Size, September 4, 2016. (

I had just about the best academic preparation anyone could have going into college, and I still came within three or four days of dropping out and heading back to 616. I was staring into the abyss of my future. The only grit I knew that would’ve worked for me on August 31, ’88 would’ve been a gigantic box of Quaker’s Instant Grits. And that was assuming I found a place to live in Pittsburgh so I could buy a pot and cook them. I didn’t want to be resilient. I’d always been resilient. But I didn’t call it that. I called it surviving.

And without help, without knowing how to ask for help, without some occasional divine or quantum-level intervention, my grit, resiliency, or survival up to August 31, ’88, wouldn’t have mattered. Philanthropists, educators, and social scientists need to stop asking individuals, families, and communities in poverty to be part of their test of resiliency as if we’re all rats in their maze. They need to start asking all of us not just how we survive, but what we need to succeed. Then again, they shouldn’t even need to ask. It’s not as if this is a “What if…?” The Great Society and War on Poverty efforts in the 1960s have already provided a roadmap. Go study that.