Namby-Pamby Land

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The Sound of Music (1965) poster with Julie Andrews. (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy/AP; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)

Last week marked an all-time milestone. Me and my future wife moved to the DMV on Tuesday, August 10, 1999, and moved into our luxury high-rise apartment in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland the next morning. It was a crazy move, done between two jobs and the crossroads of two careers, and with bronchitis on top of that. It was also two days after I proposed to Angelia. Lucky me, she was very, very kind in saying yes, despite my sometimes manly, trash-ass flaws!

Twenty years here in DC, in Suburban Maryland, and (mostly for work) in Confederate Northern Virginia has been both good and terrible at the same time. Living around here has been an exercise in outsized cosmopolitanism. The expensive apartments and homes, the high-salaried jobs that come with stress that will age you right into the grave, side-by-side with examples of poverty that reminded me of my Mount Vernon growing-up years. I’ve seen it happen, to 23-year-olds and 60-year-olds of every stripe. Not much different from what I’ve seen of New Yorkers over the years.

United Therapeutics headquarters (a block long, across from high-rise apartments), Silver Spring, MD, August 23, 2018. (https://moretocome.net).

Living in the DC-area has also been an exercise in patience. The area’s penchant for urban and suburban elitism is matched by its Southern and East Coast colloquial nature. Gentrification in NE and SE DC would be a case in point, with Trader Joe’s and restaurants serving osso bucco within a sniff of an old fried fish or crab shack. Or watching downtown Silver Spring, once dotted with dimly-lit bars and mom-and-pop eateries, turn into a gentrified nightmare, with two-dozen new luxury high-rise apartment buildings and a Star-Trek-like office starship that United Therapeutics had built across the street from our former place. All as Silver Spring has no mayor, save the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and Montgomery County executives selling off county buildings and parking lots to the lowest bidder. Only to see DC government match the suburbs in driving out its residents living with poverty, to rename neighborhoods in an effort to get White-suburbanite bodies and dollars while giving the trillion-dollar businesses of the world significant tax breaks.

But since I (mostly) left AED and the nonprofit world to go back into academia as a part-time and (since 2012) full-time contingent faculty member at two universities, I really don’t spend that much time in DC. Working on nationwide initiatives and programs tends to distort one’s view of DC, and it certainly did mine, at least in my time here before about 2006. Really, it shouldn’t have. I had lived in Shepherd Park while dissertation-ing for several months in 1995, and regularly visited across various communities between 1992 and 1998. Still, being solidly middle class after years of growing-up, welfare, and self-imposed-via-grad-school poverty does create a bias.

I thought DC was great those first years as a result. This despite the poverty I saw. This no matter the homelessness I breathed in, regardless of the LGBTQ discrimination I witnessed. This in contrast with the education “reforms” occurring in PG County and in DC itself, as politicians like Adrian Fenty and school supers like Michelle Rhee and John Deasy letting the corporate education reform vultures into the school districts. Only to create money-leeching charter schools that would only leave another generation of students with less educational resources and not improve their life chances while also decimating teachers’ autonomy and teachers unions.

I thought the same of Silver Spring and Montgomery County, especially after Angelia gave birth to our one and only egg in 2003. After all, we lived in middle class section of an upper-middle-class community in one of the best school districts in the US, and easily the best in the state. What I didn’t realize until we moved our son from daycare at a federal agency in DC to one adjacent to his eventual elementary school in Silver Spring was the level of White-bred provinciality our near-immediate neighbors possessed. Yes, even the Black ones. Whether Ivy League-educated, PhD-ed, JD-ed, school teacher, firefighter, nonprofit entrepreneur, lawyer, or government bureaucrat, they all seemed to know very little about the world beyond a two-square mile radius.

Now, some of this was because our kids were four or five years old. I didn’t watch anything other than PBS Kids Sprout, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon (with the exceptions of The Wire and Grey’s Anatomy) between 2003 and 2010, except for news, of course. But as our kids became preteens and then teenagers, I knew it was more than that. My neighbors, though struggling through the Great Recession and a general downshift of the US middle class throughout the past two decades, still expressed little concern beyond their own day-to-day, as if nothing impacted them as individuals or a family. As our conversations did shift toward politics and -isms, they would cliché their way through them with platitudes like “If we could just get rid of the hate” and “Things have gotten better since the ’60s.” These conversations were so White that I sometimes clicked my tongue to signal to my prefrontal cortex that it was time to go in Standby mode.

That provincial laziness in thinking and general willful ignorance of the relationship with the world outside the community made me more aware of Namby-Pamby Land as a whole. From my fellow drivers (some I’ve recognized while driving) driving too slow, taking seconds to react to a green or red light, and blowing through stop signs, to my neighbors walking down sidewalks six abreast and forcing people into streets to go around them. And of course, their general resistance to changing intra-district boundaries because they didn’t want to “go over the bridge” across 495 to have little Johnny or Maddie attend school with less-well-off Latinx kids.

That’s the price I’ve paid for living in a suburban community of relative class privilege. The toxicity of it all has left me wanting for the New York of my youth (not Mount Vernon, mind you) as I’ve gotten older. But I guess it could be worse. It could Potomac or Bethesda, Maryland-worse.

My Alex and America’s 45, Bullies with Fan Boys on the March

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45’s fans at campaign rally, Greenville, North Carolina, July 17, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/AP; https:/usatoday.com).

At least one person will undoubtedly find my latest post unfair and offensive this time around. My Humanities classmate Alex, whom I interviewed as part of my book Boy @ The Window, will likely not be too happy with me this week. So Alex, if you do find yourself feeling this is unfair and my post offensive, I apologize in advance.

But either way, that’s okay, because the comparison between the person he once was and the person who is 45, America’s usurper-in-chief, is apt. Not because Alex was ever a malignant narcissist in need of constant adulation from his entourage. But because even small-d demagoguery around putting down so-called others out of insecurity, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, religion, a sense of superiority, and/or willful ignorance will still lead to violence and bullying. On a societal level, that is mass violence, that is fascism within a democracy, and nation-state sanctioned. No matter what the College Board and ETS says.

The thing I didn’t really allow myself to understand, even after I interviewed Alex in 2007, even after writing my first eight drafts of Boy @ The Window regarding Alex and the “Italian Club,” was this. That people like having leaders, folks they can relate to, even as preteens. In our times, that means someone who’s cool, or at least, pulls off the cool aesthetic well. Alex did. Whether you liked him or despised him at A. B. Davis Middle School in Humanities in seventh or eighth grade, Alex had a certain prepubescent charm. He was playful, goofy, corny, and fully engaged in pop culture as an up-with-everything 12 and 13-year-old.

And that attracted a specific group of folks into Alex’s solar system. Some of them knew him from their mutual time together at Columbus ES, but several in his entourage were from other schools prior to Davis. All of them were disaffected boys in some way or another, mostly Italian (or at least in one case, half-Italian), but almost to a person, not comfortable with the multicultural pressure cooker of relative uncoolness that was our magnet middle school program.

Alex led his “Italian Club” in acting out. Like a wolf pack, they looked for prey in the classroom to pick on, to call the wittiest names, to occasionally get physical with. Many times, they messed around with corny lines for girls like Sandra and Marianna. But I ended up on their radar early on. Between my kufi, my big but slow-talking mouth, and my fight with Brandie, I was ripe for Alex and his band of predators.

On November 2, 1981, the bullying started in earnest, as Alex and his band jumped me after school in the area near the side door exit from Davis. About a third of my classmates watched as the “Italian Club” knocked me to the ground, punched and kicked me until I began to cry. Alex himself never put his hands on me, but watched with glee as his fanboys did the dirty work.

But that wasn’t all. I had to endure seven months of being “dumb,” “stupid,” and a “monkey” from Alex’s band of brothers. It was topped off by a month of “Captain Zimbabwe” chants in May and June 1982, typically in Mrs. Sesay’s homeroom, but after counter-protests from other classmates, it moved to Ms. Fleming’s Italian class.

Eighth grade was nowhere near as bad, partly because I grew four inches over the summer, and partly because they likely sensed my rage from my summer of abuse with my idiot stepfather. Still, this didn’t stop Alex from messing with me or other vulnerable classmates that year or in ninth grade. I remember him greeting Josh a couple of times with the refrain from The Beatles “Hey Jude,” except it was, “Na, Na, Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey Jew.” I remember him and his entourage calling my other classmates “monkey.” He once went after our class’ eventual valedictorian, “she’s a brainiac, a brainiac,” adapting a song from the Flashdance soundtrack.

This was the Alex I knew between the ages of 12 and 15. Comparing him to a 73-year-old who has the impulse control of a nine-year-old hopped up on crystal meth is somewhat unfair, as Alex isn’t that teenager anymore. Still, what 45 has done on a far larger stage than Davis’ Humanities program is essentially the same thing. Except that there are millions of folks — especially White men — attracted to his intersectional message of “this is our [read, ‘A White Man’s’] country.” And anyone not for White men first, second, and always needs to get out, or at least, get out of the way.

There’s a video clip making its social media rounds via Bloomberg editor Tim O’Brien from 45’s rally in Panama City, Florida on May 9. In it, you have 45 and many in his audience laughing at the idea of shooting “illegals” coming in from Mexico as a solution for stemming the tide of “invasion” from Central America.

This is hardly the only blunt signal 45 has sent to his anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latinx fanboys and footsoldiers-for-the-patriarchy (thank you for the truth, Mona Eltahawy) fangirls over the years that their intersectional -isms are justified. But it is one direct example that those who really believe a race war is coming can use to take up arms and shoot to kill Black and Brown folks for existing in the US. That’s what Patrick Crusius and Connor Betts did this weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio to their dozens of dead and injured victims. That’s what 45’s entourage has been doing with increasing frequency over the past decade. This is what demagogue bullies do. They build a following. They jizz their racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia all over their followers. Those most predisposed to lap up such vitriol and act on it then do the not-so-subtle calls for violent action and take it out on truly random marginalized people.

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which, attending a majority-Black-and-Brown high school and perhaps recognizing his own racism and misogyny, Alex wasn’t the same Billy Idol-worshipper I’d known in eighth grade. By our senior year, he even seemed like-able, and spend way more time with a group of Black and Latino friends than he did with his one-time entourage. I assumed he matured. Good for him. Really.

But it’s way too late for 45 to grow out of his -isms. It’s way too late for millions in his entourage to grow out of their violent fantasies for mastery over vulnerable others. We have to disarm them, with the repeal of the 2nd Amendment. We have to disarm them, by calling them out for the bullies and intersectional terrorists they are. We have to, if we’re going to survive them.

There’s No Starman Waiting in the Sky For Us

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James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane making first contact with Vulcans screen shot, from Star Trek: First Contact (1996). (http://www.startrek.com/)

This week of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing has been yet another reminder that humanity’s evolution has not kept up with its aspirations for exploring and colonizing the universe. A week that is supposed to be one of celebrating NASA’s work and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon has become a week about the immutability of racism and misogyny (really, misogynoir) in the US and beyond. Telling four Black and Brown congresswomen “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” 45 once again showed his xenophobia and misogynoiristic racism and exposed the -isms of millions of Americans. 45’s campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina on Wednesday specifically targeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and descended into a Ku Klux Klan gathering, as the presidents fanboys and foot soldiers chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” for thirteen seconds.

A century before 45’s latest racist, Islamophobic, and misogynoiristic spewings, and a half-century before the Apollo 11 landing, Whites across the US engaged in Red Summer. It was part of a World War I and post-World War I response to the first wave of Black migration out of the Jim Crow South and Black prosperity across the US. A violently racist response made worse because the US plunged into recession in the two years after the end of World War I. The Fourth Estate trafficked in racist stereotypes around “Negro Man Rapes White Girl,” further fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia in the years around and after the Great War. Whites marched into Black communities to beat up, main, rape, kill, burn down Black businesses, and otherwise terrorize Black men, Black women, and Black families. To call these “race riots” implies that Blacks did the same toward Whites, a lie about as close to the truth as 45 has been in the past 50 years.

East St. Louis, Illinois really set the pace for these “race riots” in 1917. But in the Red Summer of 1919, it was Washington, DC, Chicago, Elaine, Arkansas, Omaha, Nebraska, and dozens of other cities and towns in which Whites went off to show Blacks the true nature of racism. Whites exerted their power and violence on Black populations out of an out-of-this-world narcissism, in that everything belonged to them. They were angry because Blacks had taken “their jobs” and moved into “their neighborhoods.” They also wanted laws changed so that White ethnics couldn’t come to the US and take jobs and depress wages, ultimately pitting White immigrants against Black migrants in these White terrorism efforts.

Sound familiar at all? It should. White terrorist attacks on Blacks in Tulsa (Greenwood, a.k.a., Black Wall Street) in 1921 and Rosewood, Florida in 1923 were the culmination of White supremacist violence stemming from the narcissistic need for dominance and economic distress. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively shut off immigration from most of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean in an effort to preserve “White Anglo-Saxon stock” and as a way to appease White men angry about not finding work post-World War I. It was the third anti-immigration bill Congress had passed in the previous seven years.

The parallels between 45 and this week in American racism and the Red Summer of 1919 are enough to prove that humanity is most definitely not ready to meet extraterrestrials from elsewhere in the multiverse. We humans are ill-prepared to make contact with beings with technologies that help them traverse a radiation-filled void in a fraction of the seven years it took the Cassini probe to reach Saturn. We humans lack the emotional, psychological, moral, and spiritual capacity to cope with such a history-altering event. We Homo sapiens are devoid of the humility necessary to meet the challenges that will come after finding out that first contact with an advanced civilization is both an end and a beginning.

Here’s a short list beyond 45 of leading people and recent events that prove humans are as ready for first contact as a newborn baby is for a seven-course meal. Jeffrey Epstein. R. Kelly. Marine Le Pen. Kim Kardashian. Vladimir Putin. Boris Johnson. Xi Jinping. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nigel Farage. Richard Spencer. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Rodrigo Duterte. Theresa May. Bashar al-Assad and Syria. Kim Jong Un and North Korea. Jair Bolsonaro and his anti-LGBTQIA work in Brazil. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Capitalism. Neoliberalism. Misogyny and misogynoir. Islamophobia and anti-Black and Brown xenophobia. Patriarchy’s foot soldiers. The very need for Black Lives Matter. The limited response thus far to man-made global climate change. Hollywood. Las Vegas. The endless fighting over resources and enslavement of peoples for a narcissist’s dream of independence, freedom, power, and wealth. That’s already enough for me to never want to meet humanity!

Can anyone who possesses a reasonable amount of empathy and knowledge imagine what the most powerful and learned members of an advanced alien civilization would think of humanity’s stewardship of Earth? They’ve heard and seen us in action for at least a century, since humans started broadcasting on wireless radio. In that time, there have been been two World Wars, ethnic cleansing and mass murder (e.g., Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot and Cambodia, and Rwanda), the Cold War, and the nuclear arms buildup. Powerful nations and corporations have repeatedly exploited indigenous peoples, the most poverty-stricken in Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere, and the planet’s biosphere. I am sure sentient aliens have seen us and feel just as welcome to visit Earth as migrants from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East feel in the US and Europe right now.

Is it possible that sentient extraterrestrials might find some exceptional humans potentially worthy? Sure. Science folk like Michelle Thaller, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Hakeem Oluseyi, and the late Claudia Alexander come to mind. One might be able to make the case for humanitarians and social justice activists, for the best writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, vocalists, and actors out there. But from a sentient alien’s perspective, why should any of these humans be exceptions? These beings are likely able to use dark matter or dark energy to power faster-than-light spacecraft. They may possess the ability to convert matter to energy and back again at a whim, to make food and weapons out of thin air and bio-waste. They may even be able to fold space and create wormholes and black holes. There’s no way they could see any humans as deserving of first contact.

There is also the real issue of what it would take for an alien civilization to become advanced without blowing itself up in the first place. These advanced beings would be collaborative and cooperative to a fault, would’ve long ago assured equity and inclusion as their reason for existence and exploration. They would likely avoid war-loving civilizations like the ones on Earth, while looking to break bread (or the alien equivalent) with more stable, peaceful, and advanced civilizations out in the galaxy.

They may make exceptions, though, for the most vulnerable of sentient beings and other species trapped in warring worlds like our own. These aliens may decide someday to “rapture up” indigenous peoples, vulnerable minority groups, the poverty-stricken, certain women and children, to save them from the leading Western nations and other developed countries on this planet, who seek to oppress and exploit them. It’s something writers like Octavia Butler and Derrick Bell contemplated for Black and Brown folk. It would be the humane thing— maybe even, the godly thing — to do.

Humans should continue to explore space and its endless scientific revelations and mysteries. But humanity should refrain from colonizing the Moon and Mars, much less anything interstellar. All humanity will end up doing is spreading its Whiteness-driven elitism, racism, patriarchy and misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and life-destroying narcissism. The species remains too primitive to be worthy of prime time on a galactic stage. We’ll have to wait for a more just, verdant, and glorious age before first contact will work out well for us. We’re not ready.

The “Anti-American” Trope and Being a Black Writer

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Malcolm X quote from his “By Any Means Necessary Speech,” Organization of Afro-American Unity, New York, June 28, 1964. (https://azquotes.com).

This week, I published yet another article article in Al Jazeera English, this one titled “How US history is whitewashed in high school exams.” It’s about my experiences scoring AP US History and AP World History exams for the College Board through Educational Testing Service as a contingent faculty member. It was also about how the two organizations consistently present a sanitized version of both histories, excluding and marginalizing those of African, of Latinx, and of indigenous descent in the process. My biggest concern was that folks would find my treatment of the work of the College Board and ETS unfair. Or, that readers would disagree with me personally, attacking my intellect and my race purely out of racism and jingoism.

On the second concern, I was mostly right, but not quite in the way I expected. At least three trolls accused me of being “anti-American” and “anti-patriotic.” Really? So, no critique of American education or of two education organizations can stand without it being a referendum on whether I am a patriot for America as it is instead of what I’d like it to be? The narcissism I see out of the mostly male, nearly all White set in the US — it must reside in a bottomless pit. Or in the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Is calling out folks who believe themselves to be educators because they favored Japanese internment during World War II as an example of state-sponsored mass violence over slavery in colonial America/US really anti-American? Is pointing out the flaws in the politics around K-12 and college education in the field of history an example of my anti-patriotism? Should I be subjected to jingoistic scorn because I dare say that “[c]hattel slavery will always serve as a complicating counternarrative to The College Board’s trope of the West’s continual social and political progress?” If this is anti-American, then so is racism, misogyny, anti-Latino and anti-Arab xenophobia, and rolling tanks into DC on the 4th of July.

But, there was more. At least two trolls tweeted and messaged me about Al Jazeera publishing my article this week. One called me a “fool” because they saw me as a mere tool for their otherwise anti-Black stances and tropes in their coverage. Another tweeted twice, “QATAR LAW: Since 2004, Article 296 of the current Penal Code (Law 11/2004) stipulates imprisonment between 1 and 3 years for sodomy between men.” This because Al Jazeera is partially owned by the Qatari government. Last I checked, the British government partially owns the BBC. The US has repugnant laws and policies in place toward Blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, women, LGBTQIA folx, and the millions living with poverty. Yet I’m supposed to not publish a piece with one of the largest news outlets in the world because it might make me a tool of the Qatari, and therefore somehow anti-American? Give me a break!

Ultimately, I published with Al Jazeera this time around because they allowed me the most space to air my first-hand account and analysis, without delay and without editing out my direct experience. As a freelance writer and someone with an affinity for the journalistic, that’s really all any professional can ask for.

What I cannot nor will not do, though, is back down or renegotiate my critiques about the US, as is my right as an American citizen. Nor will I attempt to tailor what I write for folks who otherwise stand in opposition to a curriculum that holds fast to Western sacred cows and American mythologies.

At a job interview I did a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey, a search committee member asked me this. “What will you do to reach those people on campus who don’t just have concerns” about my work and the work of the department I could’ve represented, “but are in opposition to your work” and the department’s very existence? “Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s my job to reach folks who stand in opposition to equality, to my insistence that I am equally human. Why would I want to spend time and energy trying to reach those people? We’ve tried that already. With respectability politics, with assimilation. It hasn’t worked,” was my response.

The same goes for the trolls on the Internet, who’ve never seen an idea from a Black man or a Black woman that they’ve respected, who will find anything short of an endorsement from 45 anti-American. I am not writing for you. I am writing for everyone else but you.

Bronchitis 1999

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“The Colour of Phlegm,” June 22, 2019. (https://www.benylin.ca).

This summer marks 20 years since me and my wife of now more than 19 years moved down to the DC area, specifically Silver Spring. I had visited and lived in the DMV and in the Shepherd Park neighborhood in DC in the years between 1992 and 1997, mostly to visit friends like Laurell or Marya, for previous job searches, or to do my dissertation research. I lived in DC in 1995 for two months, between February and April 1995.

But other than a few days here and there, I hadn’t experienced the full onslaught of a DC summer until the summer of transition from Pittsburgh to DC and Silver Spring in 1999. I’d just accepted Presidential Classroom’s offer for the full-time gig as their Director of Curriculum, but was still obligated to teach my summer grad course in History of American Education at Duquesne University. Part of my obligation upon saying yes to the Presidential Classroom job was spending a week in DC with the high school students and with their instructors for the week, going around town to the key events of a week of civic education in Washington. It made sense that I would need to see programming at ground level before working on the curriculum and any new ideas I might have to improve it.

Although it made sense in theory, in reality, the job was a test of how well I’d perform with serious sleep deprivation and center-right White folk as my constant companions. I cleared my schedule in mid-June to be one of the instructors with the students. I should have cleared my lungs and sinuses for this part of my new gig as well.

I already knew from previous visits and stays that DC flora caused me some serious allergic reactions. In May 1994, I couldn’t breathe for five days, my nose was that stopped up. This was and remains the land of drained swamps and marches, after all.

Between that and a group of government workers turned barely trained instructors who went on benders night after night, I didn’t sleep. Between sinus issues and corn-fed high school juniors and seniors looking to make out and hook up in violation of the curfew during the week, I couldn’t sleep. Did I also mention instructors had to share a room? It was a small hotel room at the Georgetown University Medical Center Marriott. My roomie’s snoring made my own seem like I wasn’t breathing at all. I doubt if I averaged five hours of sleep per night that first week.

While going between sweating on the mall or in line at the Capitol or at the White House in 95 or 99-degree heat and being blasted with bus and Georgetown’s air conditioning, I picked up a head cold. Hanging out on the next-to-last night with the other instructors until 2 am didn’t help. Nor did chaperoning the farewell dance until 5 am the next night.

God Bless You cartoon, January 2013, February 26, 2013. (http://www.cartoonaday.com).

My head cold died down as I moved into my own room for a couple of days while going around town to find a place for me and my then fiancee to live once my Duquesne course ended and we could pack up to leave Pittsburgh. But it didn’t quite go away. I started to cough, sometimes out of nowhere and for no particular reason. On Wednesday before I had to leave to go back to the ‘Burgh to teach and begin the wind-down process for moving, I found a nice luxury apartment just over the DC border in Silver Spring. It was the so nice it made me want to cry. The staff seemed wonderful, if overdressed for daytime and maybe not quite there detail-wise. But I know I sounded like shit that triple-H afternoon.

It didn’t get any better the rest of the summer. I taught for five weeks with aches, chills, and a window-rattling cough that would stop my lectures for at least two minutes at a time while I waited for the coughing fit to subside. I have no idea what my students thought. That summer, I had a soon-to-be mainstream Black actor who talked way too much and a bunch of future and in-service teachers in that class. Really, they were probably more concerned about earning A’s than whether I passed out in the middle of class.

It occurred to me that I might have asthma, and that the cold I caught in DC had severely exacerbated it. Maybe I would’ve gone to see a doctor, that was, if I had any health insurance. Bronchitis, though, was far from my mind.

I assumed that all I needed to do was rest. But who could rest with a move coming up, starting a new job, turning in grades after grading papers, signing leases, buying engagement rings, and finding an agent for Fear of a “Black” America? That was my July and August 1999 when I wasn’t in the classroom earning my hacker’s license.

So I muddled through the heat of my fiancee’s apartment, the cold of Duquesne’s classrooms, the humidity of the DMV, the exertion of packing and moving boxes, and so many other things that summer. By the time I started working in the office at Presidential Classroom in Alexandria the third week in August, I was sucking Halls lozenges like they were orange-cream popsicles and I was six years old again.

Then, my future wife intervened. She correctly guessed that I had bronchitis and that I was on the verge of pneumonia. “You are not leaving this apartment! You are not getting out of bed!,” she said to me when I came home from work at the start of Labor Day Weekend. I didn’t have the energy to fight her, although I did whine, “What about our dinner plans?” somewhere in her bossing me around.

Well, I did leave the bed that three-day weekend, to go to the bathroom and to watch Tiger Woods win yet another tournament. Otherwise, hot soups, hot water, no air conditioning (my partner kept it off for me that weekend), VapoRub, a ton of Benadryl and Advil and NyQuil and Theraflu. Between Saturday night and Monday afternoon, I regularly coughed up the yellowest and greenest mucus I’d ever seen come out my body. My significant other would go, “Yuuuccckkk!” every time I showed her the concoction of sickness my lungs pushed out. In my head, I agreed.

I literally could have died 20 years ago. Seriously. Bronchitis and pneumonia are serious illnesses, even for the relatively healthy 29-year-old I was in 1999. The lack of health insurance and a single-minded commitment to getting out of Pittsburgh and academia, to finding a real job, made me sick. I was a half-dead man walking in August 1999. Another month like that could have killed me.

Leaving Mom and Dad Behind

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Woodstock Leaving Home (cropped), June 13, 2019. (http://pinterest.com).

There are so many ways to write about the idea that if one is to be a grown-ass adult in this world, it requires, actually requires leaving your mother and/or father and/or any other parents and legal guardians behind. At least, dropping their worldview, their ideologies and disciplines, their ideas about life and relationships, their marital and parenting advice, the loads of abuse, baggage, and bullshit that one learned from spending so much time with them.

Yes, we should all be grateful about whatever good our parents did on our behalf to get us to adulthood and beyond. But that gratefulness should not mean a lifetime’s supply of unquestioning everything that any of us learned from those who raised us. Otherwise, any of us are but carbon copies of imperfect beings at best, total fuckups at world. Yet, somehow, so many of us present our parents to the world as if they are marble statues set on top of alabaster pedestals.

For me, it’s taken 30 years to unlearn much of the lessons and baggage I took on under my parents and legal guardian’s tutelage. My Mom “didn’t take no handouts from no one” and saw labor unions as “them bloodsuckers.” My father Jimme asked about “gettin’ [my] dict wet” from the time I was 14 until I turned 18, and called me a “faggat” everything I told him I didn’t. My idiot late ex-stepfather Maurice/Judah ben Israel talked about “making…men” out of me and Darren. He implored us to “honor thy father and thy mother, that ye may take possession of the land that the Lord thy God hath giveth thee.” Otherwise, he was “gonna whup” our “ass, jus’ like a car burn gas!” So many lessons about manliness, Black hyper-masculinity, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and misogynoir, about religion and child abuse, about working and self-reliance. But so many more lessons around willful ignorance as well.

By the time I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, I figured the simplest thing I could do to break free from the thinking of Mary, Maurice, and Jimme was to “just do the opposite of whatever they would do.” That’s what I would say to myself or think about whenever I had a tough-ish decision to make.

But life was never that simple. Those five days of homelessness I had at the beginning of my second year at Pitt in 1988 proved that I needed to scramble and act, and not just think differently from my parents. The most immediate lesson I learned was about needing help and learning how to ask for it. The bigger and most important lesson that took decades for me to learn was how to embrace asking for help, to not be begrudging about the process, and to be gracious when folks who could and should be helpful are not. I am still learning how to be better at embracing help and being graciousness, because, well, people are involved.

Not so with begrudging, though. We are not all on our own deserted island, each expecting to have to do everything on our own. That’s what capitalists steeped in Western individualism and my Mom would expect me to believe. We all need help, for nearly everything we want to do in life. There’s no shame in it, and there’s nothing but success, humility, being grateful and feeling recognized and loved as a result of this help.

This week is underrated in its significance to my past three decades of living this truth. This is the week my Mom and Maurice broke up for good back in 1989. The date of this year’s Father’s Day (it was a Friday in 1989) will be 30 years since the idiot feverishly packed his bags, stole some towels and frozen meats, and moved out of 616. I saw him as he packed up the last of his gear in a suitcase and an army bag. He looked scared, and looked at me with fear and shame. It was probably the only time in the nearly eleven years we lived in the same space (not counting my two years at Pitt and his separations from my Mom) where he showed how lost a person he was. Between that, and my Mom’s post-marriage spin a few months later about how Maurice had “fooled us all,” and I knew. I absolutely knew, spirit, mind, and body, that I needed to craft my own worldview, my own ideas, my own way to deal with ideology, discipline, parenting, marriage, and so many things much more complicated than putting the right amount of seasoning on my fried chicken.

Over the years, this ultimate lesson of leaving behind most of my Mom’s, Jimme’s, and Maurice ways of thinking, doing, and being in the world has made its way into my teaching and writing. It’s why I uphold no sacred cows, and can literally interrogate and question even the most cherished ideas and people in my classrooms and in my pieces. (And yes, in prayer, in between my hallelujahs and my amens, I even question God.) Which may be also why more than a few of my students might cling harder to the lessons of their parents.

A few years ago, I had a young student in one of my UMUC classes who pushed back on a lecture I gave on de-centering Western Europe from the early modern period in world history while taking a closer look at India, China, and the Ottoman Empire.

“That’s not what my parents taught me,” she said.

“Well, maybe it’s time to realize that not everything your parents taught you is true. It’s been three decades, and I’m still learning to unlearn all the things my parents taught me,” I retorted. Most of my over-24-year-old students nodded in agreement, but the not-quite 20-year-old wasn’t receptive. It showed in her evaluation of me at the end of the course.

My soon-to-be 16-year-old son, thankfully, is learning this lesson now. Although that means he will make tons of mistakes and constantly frustrates my efforts at helping him, it also means he can reach out to me and my spouse when he needs help. Being independent requires acknowledging one’s limits and one’s need for help, community, and interdependence. Learning from whom, at what time, for how much, and how deep one can go in all this is a lifelong journey. But none of it can begin without questioning one’s parent or parents, without cutting bait from their baggage and bullshit. Even if it means that we sometimes screw up in the process.

Toronto and Miscellaneous Items

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Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, ON, Canada, March 20, 2017. (https://torontostoreys.com).

I meant to write about this a month ago, but after the Toronto Raptors’ not-so-surprising Game 6 win against the Milwaukee Bucks to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time, it’s still relevant. Last month made 20 years since the last time I’ve been north of the border (but not in Alaska, as I was in 2001). Last month was also the 28th anniversary of me finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and the subsequent decision to spend my first post-baccalaureate summer in Pittsburgh working and securing funding for my first year of graduate school. April 20 also marked two decades since Columbine, something that was very much on my mind during that Toronto trip and presentation at OAH there in 1999.

I can say that there are only a handful of times in my life since the end of first grade and being sexually assaulted in the summer of ’76 that I have felt “free.” By that, I mean free from the toxicity that is the US, on race, on gender, on class, on religion, on family, on friendships, on breathing, on eating, on walking, on daydreaming, on talking, on being contemplative, on laughing, on merely being myself. Those five days in Toronto to present my research on multiculturalism, to meet up with a couple of friends, to hang out in different neighborhoods and catch their subway. That was one of those times. Maybe the six months my Mom and my deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice spent separated between October 2, 1980 and April 13, 1981 was one of those times. Certainly when I proposed to my wife and then moved to DC and Silver Spring later on in 1999 was another. And, how can I forget the sheer ecstasy of watching my son emerge from my wife’s womb in 2003 at Sibley Hospital?

But while all of those and more experiences brought happiness, even orgasmic joy, I’ve spent more than 40 years of nearly 50 looking over my shoulder. In the back of my mind, the idea that the other shoe’s going to drop is never that far away. Even with the lack of American toxicity during my times in Toronto, I knew that this cosmopolitan city had its own unique edge. This despite the poutine, maple syrup, and Molson’s.

Plus, even with going to vegan restaurants, confirming my 1994 research on public housing policies in Toronto, seeing the diversity and freedom of movement sans the gaze of American Whites, it was still a very White city. And that Canadian Whiteness left room for a different (or really, indifferent) kind of gaze. It meant dealing with questions about Columbine and gun violence as if I could explain the actions of narcissistic White males steeped in patriarchy and entitlement. It meant remembering in subtle ways that while Canadians I met were both far nicer and kinder than most Whites in the US, they were still White. And Whiteness, like Arya Stark’s many-faced god, takes numerous forms.

I was free in ways that I couldn’t have been in the States. I walked in White neighborhoods without police following me around. I noticed how most folks didn’t lock their doors at night. I sensed that no one looked over their shoulders for a mugger. Everything was written in metric-system English, which I was happy to use in real life for the first time. It was just different, as if White Canadians hadn’t spent four centuries sitting around and figuring out even more ways to grind down Black people. I sensed that this wasn’t the case with White Canadians and First Nation tribes, though.

I didn’t feel anywhere near this free when I graduated with Degree #1 in April 1991. The immediate need of reporting to my $5.20 per hour job at Western Psych, three weeks of starvation, and the miracle that Dr. Jack Daniel performed meant that I was pensive and then relieved by May 26. I knew more twists and turns awaited me.

I want to visit again, this time with my son, and hopefully before the Fall Semester begins. I want him to see Caribana there, to breathe freer air, and to get away from the Lower 48, if only for a few days. But that’s not all. I want him to go overseas, to visit South Africa, and Nigeria, and Tanzania, and Ghana, and Mali, to see himself in everyone around him.

As for the Raptors, congrats on drudging your way to the Finals! Your organization is finally free to play for an NBA title. With Kawhi Leonard, I wouldn’t bet against you. But I’m not exactly rooting for you, either. Know that win or lose, I love your city, and the questions about freedom that it generates for me.