Colson Whitehead’s a Genius, But What’s Slavery to Me?

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Colson Whitehead is a genius. I am absolutely convinced of this truth. I’ve read other things by him. But his novel The Underground Railroad is one part Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and two parts Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man mixed with the macabre and mystical in Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. Every sentence in Underground Railroad was written with precision, especially the first 120 pages. It was as if Whitehead put every word through a metal acid bath, every phrase was pored over with an electron microscope. I was hooked by page 24, and didn’t stop to put the book down again until page 160. I finished the book in eight hours over two days, not a record, but pretty close.

The Underground Railroad is all about escape, of course, but not just the obvious, physical escape from slavery’s asphyxiating grasp. It was a need to escape the post-traumatic stress of having been a slave. It was finding ways to use the mind and spirit to cope with torture, whippings, rapes, mangled bodies, demonic rhythms of an existence in which humans are little more than broken toys. It was escaping inhumanity to find humanity and the divine, even in the most minuscule of proportions.

I loved the main character Cora. That Whitehead made his main character female, a third-generation slave from a plantation in Georgia during the antebellum period wasn’t lost on me. As with all of his characters, Whitehead developed Cora with a full sense of imperfection, making her a nearly perfect lens for me to view the novel. She and Mabel and Ajarry fully embodied kidnapping and slavery in all its horror. Folks, if you want anyone to come close to the actual experience of what slavery was for Africans in America, Whitehead got as close as any writer I’ve read in my lifetime.

I could nitpick about Whitehead a bit, too. That Cora’s femaleness wasn’t fully explored, with everything from not having periods to how she may have experienced her development as a woman prior to her first escapes or her one almost romantic moment. Or about the mystical mashup of the last twenty to thirty pages. Or about the railroad going on to infinity, in this case, Missouri, as Cora never really escapes.

My biggest criticism, though, isn’t really a criticism at all. It’s an admission. I really didn’t want to read The Underground Railroad. I made no plans to buy it or to check it out from a library. I would’ve been content in life to have never read this masterpiece.

Why? I’m sick and tired of talking about slavery, about the physical, mental, psychic, and spiritual torture of millions of Africans so that a few Whites could profit financially and many more could profit psychologically. It feels like I’ve been talking about slavery my whole life, even though I’ve only been aware of it since Roots and its television debut in February 1977, or for 41 of my forty-eight years.

I studied slavery with deliberate disembodiment in my teens and twenties. It might’ve been through reading books by Alice Walker or Morrison. But by the Fall Semester 1989 at Pitt, I was reading and writing about slavery and American racism in earnest. I wrote my undergraduate readings paper about the slavery studies literature for my professor Larry Glasco’s class. The next semester, I took a grad course in Comparative Slavery, reading about the differences between slave systems in Brazil, Cuba, the US, and for my 34-page paper, slavery in South Africa before 1838.

Having done that, nearly every course I took through my master’s program in 1991-92 had a slavery studies component. So I read White paternalists like Ulrich B. Phillips. Racist historians like him contended that Blacks in the US should be on their knees and thankful that Whites stole them, sold them, and slaughtered their ancestors during slavery, such was the civilizing effect. I read slavery studies by not-so-obscure authors like Sterling Stuckey and John Blassingame, who made the living hell that was slavery come alive in stories and statistics. I also read White apologists like Fogel and Engerman in their Time on the Cross. I remember saying in my US history grad seminar in 1991, “so they’re saying that slavery wasn’t so harsh because the average slave received 21 lashes per year versus the standard 39?.” It was my translation of their multiple regression analysis.

By the time I started my PhD work in September 1992, I was through with studying slavery. It was too painful to be in class with White students who at their best could never really understand slavery beyond statistics and ideology. Even if it was in their DNA via an unknown African ancestor (some estimate that as many as one in eight Southern Whites carry recent African DNA, and about four percent of Whites in the US overall). That any person could and did regularly argue that slavery was a “necessary evil” or “saved” Africans in the US from “savagery” helped me move into twentieth-century US and African American history as a field of study. Still brutal, still mind-destroying, but not the complete horror show of slavery.

Whenever I touch the subject of slavery in the courses I teach these days, I still get that sense of outrage and indignation when I see students unable to deal with the bitter, devastating truth. “C’mon, slavery wasn’t that bad. They were fed and clothed. And wasn’t there White slavery for the Irish, too?” That’s what one of my White students said in a world history course I taught a couple of years ago, in response to a discussion of the differences between the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. The latter was the first fully successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere, leading to the founding of Haiti as an independent nation in 1804.

I don’t know how Whitehead could write this novel and not go through hours of emotional torment at the end of each day. In my own experience, writing about any trauma has left me dazed for minutes or even an hour or two at a time, unable to sleep, and wondering why I’ve never smoked weed. I’m thankful Whitehead did, and I hope that he’s healing.

I was so uncomfortable reading Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because I knew that the horror and pain of slavery was literally encoded in my DNA. I was uncomfortable because I knew that people like this one UMUC student would never get it, even if he did read the novel. Whitehead didn’t write the novel for him, though. I think he wrote it for me, freeing me from my discomfort with the horrible.

“You Can Tell From The Lines On Her Face…”

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One of the more haunting songs for me from the ’80s is Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise.” It came out in the mid-fall of 1989, and ended the ’80s as a #1 hit. It was also #1 to start the ’90s. For those who were younger than ten in late ’89, “Another Day In Paradise” was a song about chronic homelessness and the callousness of folk toward the homeless, in the UK and in the US.

There were at least three million people living on the streets between Battery Park in New York and the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California when Collins released his admonishment for the world and God to do something about what was then considered a serious crisis. It’s not Phil Collins’ best song. But if you gave a damn about people you saw every day, leather-faced, wearing tatters, obviously sick in body and broken in mind, then this song may have touched you in some way.

It touched me. Just sixteen months removed from five days of worry about my future, sleeping on a concrete slab, and washing up in public bathrooms, I was going to be moved by “Another Day In Paradise” anyway. Unlike most Americans, I cannot walk by someone homeless and not have it register that this could be me. I don’t give change every time a panhandler asks me. I’m not made of money. Sometimes, though, I do tear up, because seeing families without a place or home sitting on a sidewalk in the rain should make anyone sad or angry. Especially on days like today, when much of the nation is around 10ºF (-11 or -12ºC).

America had as many as five million homeless people during the height of the Great Recession, and as few as about 600,000 as recently as a year or two ago. But as with most social statistics, this is likely an underestimate. There are plenty of well-washed, well-kempt, and somewhat healthy folk in this country who don’t have a place of permanent residence. They bounce from friend to friend or from extended family member to caring loved one. They may have access to a bed or some halfway house or temporary housing. Still, they aren’t guaranteed a place to sleep, sit, or rest from one day, week, or month to the next. And this takes a toll.

It took a toll on my own family between April 1995 and March 1998, especially the first seven months after the 616 fire. I’m convinced it’s why my younger siblings struggled for years afterward to earn a high school diploma or GED. The disruption in their lives, of their dreams, in their peace of mind. It can and does drive many people to drink, drugs, and madness. It drives those who are with mental illness to the grave, like my former classmate Brandie Weston.

Yet our nation homeless-proofs itself with jagged spikes on stone walls, covered steam grates, and patrol officers hell-bent on making sure homeless Americans will not see one moment of sleep and rest. We treat our most vulnerable Americans as if they’re some form of contagion, a diseased sort of garbage that we’d love to put on a barge and dump in the middle of the Pacific.

America in our policies and our people visits indignities, malignancies, and wrath upon our homeless, whether military veterans, impoverished families, or mentally ill individuals. It’s what we do to anyone in our nation who isn’t a so-called winner. And if you’re a person of color who’s homeless, the best you can hope for is being near a college campus, where a steady stream of the well-off exploit your stories for A’s and writing jobs.

America does “to the least of us” whatever it can to take advantage, ridicule, hide, and even eliminate their existence. Proving once again that while America is a great nation, we are a horrible people. Phil Collins was right. We “can tell from the lines on her face” that America has forever calloused itself, human but often devoid of humanity.

A Christmas Eve Night In 4.5 Parts

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Main entrance to the Cross County Mall, Yonkers, NY, January 2017. (Ernie Garcia/The Journal News).

For so many years before marriage and parenthood, my Christmas’ and Christmas Eves were about as memorable as having surgery while under general anesthesia. As in “wake me up when it’s either my birthday [two days after Christmas] or New Year’s Day.” But not Christmas Eve 1994, especially that dreary night. It wasn’t all bad. It definitely wasn’t good. It was ugly here and there. Mostly it was a confluence of my life before I became more of the person I am right now than it was of the person I had to be growing up.

I was in Mount Vernon and at 616 for my second-longest holiday break ever (my longest break had been the year before), one of the few benefits of attending Carnegie Mellon for my doctoral work. But unlike the previous year, I had money to work with. I had borrowed to cover my dissertation research trips to DC for that fall, and had money left over. God knows my CMU teaching stipend was barely enough to cover my basic expenses!

By now, my 616 visits were accompanied with my sister Sarai literally holding her hand out for extra dollars, of store trips to help Mom stock up on non-perishables, and to buy appliances that everyone needed. This Christmas season, it was obvious. The used TV I had bought for everyone in ’89 was done for. I bought a new 27-inch Toshiba for everyone just before Christmas Eve, along with some games for the kids to play. I was set for a relaxing Christmas Eve.

My father Jimme came over that night. I was the last person he expected to greet him at Mom’s apartment door. “Bo’, didn’t know you was here!,” he said, all surprised. As soon as I looked at my dad, I knew he was drunk. He was standing atilt, and his breath reeked of cheap alcohol and cheaper mints. Mom almost went off on him. Jimme, though, wasn’t there for me or Mom. He was there to impress my younger siblings. At first he was going to give them money. Then Eri and Sarai suggested the grand idea of going to Toys “R” Us to get more games and toys for Christmas. Jimme said yes, and they were all ready to leave within ten minutes, before Mom and I knew what was happening.

Mom agreed to go, but not without reservations. “If you mess up, I’m leaving yo’ ass in the street,” she said to my dad. I went with my four siblings and Mom because I knew my dad would mess up. He was already too far into his drinking routine to do anything other than act abnormal.

The 7 Bee-Line Bus from Yonkers to New Rochelle, via Mount Vernon, Yonkers, NY, September 11, 2007. (Adam E. Moreira via Wikimedia). Released to public domain via CC-BY-SA 3.0.

We made the last 7 Bee-Line bus to Yonkers, around 8 pm. It was packed with parents who were shopping late for toys and Christmas trees, along with a host of younger adults ready to find a club or some other partying spot. Some had been drinking too, so my dad wasn’t a complete oddball in this crowd. Jimme being Jimme, he started in on the diverse human sardine can of “Jamaicans” and “Spanish people” with his “po’ ass muddafuccas” and other favorite Jimme-isms. At one point I squeezed next to him and said, “You need to stop this, or I’m taking you off this bus myself.”

Jimme was so drunk that he fell over on some people on the bus once, and fell into the rear stairwell one other time. With so many on the bus in a partying mood, the group around us just laughed it off. I helped him up both times. I wasn’t embarrassed as much as I was disappointed and saddened to see my 54-year-old dad so old and so out of it. I’m sure Mom was embarrassed. This was her ex-husband, after all.

Toys “R” Us/Babies “R” Us, Yonkers, NY (the newest version), September 2017. (Sam Samsonov/Google Photos).

We got to Toys “R” Us and the Cross County Mall around 9:30, and it became a nearly two-hour free-for-all. My siblings went nuts, because Jimme said, “I buy you anythin’ you want. I buy the whole sto’!” I agreed with Mom to chip in if it turned out Jimme’s mouth was bigger than his cash wad. Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri found almost $200 worth of toys in the course of an hour. Kids and babies were screaming and hollering everywhere, along with their parents. At least two kids got ass-whuppins while we were in line. Eri and Yiscoc nearly had a fight while in the store. Jimme’s alcohol-fuel was on empty, and he was ready to fall asleep standing up. And, I had a headache.

We left the store at 11:30 pm, and walked out into cold, damp darkness. The drizzle that was the weather when we left 616 was now a full-on downpour, unusual for late December. It took us twenty minutes to get a taxi, and almost ten minutes to get our wet asses into the cab. My siblings were sitting on top of each other, with Jimme squished in between them. Me and Mom were up front with the cabbie, with my left butt cheek on the cigarette tray between the two bucket seats. We dropped Jimme off first, before cutting across Mount Vernon back to 616. It was 12:30 am Christmas Day by the time we walked through the apartment door, soaked, tired, and with me ready to start 1995.

It would be the last time I’d see my dad until I went to visit him sober and in Jacksonville in January 2002. It was my next to last trip to visit my younger siblings and Mom before the 616 fire of April 1995. It was the last time I came to Mount Vernon as someone who could so easily shed my persona as academic historian and single-minded professional for the loner and super-responsible eldest child I once was. But more than anything else, it was the last time I’d ever go shopping on the night before Christmas. That was just too crazy for me.

Dateline: Noriega

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An army helicopter ferries reinforcements to the Vatican embassy in Panama City, where Gen. Manuel Noriega has taken refuge, Panama, December 21, 1989. (David Walters/Miami Herald).

It was on Wednesday, December 20, 1989 was the true beginning of the post-Cold War world, American style. It was on this date twenty-eight years ago that President George H. W. Bush sent in 20,000 soldiers and sailors to end Manuel Noriega’ dictatorial rule over Panama. It remains a date from which any student of history can infer as the beginning of blatant American aggressions abroad and increasingly craven governmental behaviors at home. At least without the counterweight of the Soviet Union to keep the US from running totally amok.

That week was part of my holiday semester break during my junior year at Pitt. I’d only been back in Mount Vernon and 616 for three full days, yet I was once again fully engrossed in my role as eldest child (in responsibility, if not in age). I was washing dishes post-breakfast that Wednesday morning between 11 am and 12 noon, as the national news of that day preempted The Price Is Right. It was no accident that within two months of the end of communist rule across most of Eastern Europe that the US hatches it first invasion of another nation. At least, that’s the thought I had in my head just before I cut the skin in between my middle finger and my ring finger on my right hand. This as I scrubbed out a glass that apparently had a chip around its rim. I bled profusely for a good ten minutes afterward, all while watching Dan Rather and company dig deep for analysis of what was happening in Panama and why.

It wasn’t even as complex as covering my second-level cut with a band-aid (which we didn’t have at 616). Noriega had become increasingly erratic and more difficult for Bush the puppet-master to control. It wasn’t as if his dictatorship and his running drugs through Panama had been any concern of either Bush or Reagan in the eight years before the invasion.

Drug trafficking and dictatorial crimes would be the excuses the Bush Administration would make for Operation Just Cause, an invasion that took 650 lives (150 or so Panamanian soldiers and more than 500 civilians), including 23 Americans. But it was essentially President Bush’s personal use of military forces to take down an asset that was the real reason for this incursion. Noriega was a man who Bush and other CIA officials had been using for the benefit of US interests in the Panama Canal and in Central America for nearly two decades. See? Much simpler than any justification over drugs and human rights violations Bush and Cheney (then Secretary of Defense) could muster.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) gaveling in ecstacy as House passed its $1.45-trillion tax cut bill, December 19, 2017 (http://twitter.com).

Both the UN and the European Parliament condemned the action. It didn’t matter. A year later, the US was part of the largest coalition of forces assembled since the end of World War II, this time to kick another former US asset in Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. That Hussein invaded Kuwait after getting mixed signals from the Bush Administration is pretty well documented. That Hussein would no longer wear the leash the former head of the CIA had put on him was the ultimate cause for an counter-invasion that ultimately has destabilized the Middle East over the past three decades.

This week, Congress is doing for the US what the US has done to countries and regions with increasing levels of brazen and calloused bigotry since 1989 (and in cases like Batista and Cuba, Pinochet and Chile, far longer than 30 years). What’s another trillion dollars between friends, especially friends who can donate to your congressional campaign or stash hundreds of billions of dollars off-shore?

Who can Americans count on to stop this ride of greed-possessed, craven people who believe that the only Americans who count are the one’s who count suitcases full of cash to go asleep at night? Americans can’t invade themselves, after all. Of course, Americans can resist, elect more Democratic candidates, yada, yada. But dear world, we need your help, because America’s leaders are doing their level best to decay the US from within.

Darren and Donald

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A better picture of Darren and me, taken in April 1975, Sears, Mount Vernon, NY, July 6, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

My older brother Darren turned 50 years old yesterday. The start of my courtship with my wife of more than seventeen years began on this date and day 22 years ago, at her job’s Christmas party in Pittsburgh. The parallels wouldn’t be clear to anyone looking from the outside in on two of the more important relationships of my nearly forty-eight years. But one thing is apparent. The relationship that I’ve always attempted to have with Darren I’ve always had with my wife. One of friendship, sharing, caring, and rooting for each other.

Me and Darren were never that close, even when he taught me how to read, even when I taught him algebra, and even when we both were dodging rocks and bullies at 616. I have the scars to prove it. Three of them, exactly. Earned when I fought Darren over a chocolate Easter bunny on Easter Sunday 1977. Darren clawed my right cheek with his three middle finger on left hand to hold on to the candy, and then proceeded to eat while I was on the floor bleeding and crying.

The time between August ’08 and May ’09 wasn’t much different. My consulting work had dried up after the middle of the summer, as the Great Recession puckered up assholes and opportunities for additional work across the board. I had to dip deeply into my savings to get through, while only then teaching one class a semester at UMUC those two semesters. Darren caught wind of my job troubles through our father. During Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day during those months, Darren would ask very loudly, “Did you get a job yet?,” as if I wasn’t working at all. Of course, he was visiting Mom at 616 for free food during my calls to check in with family.

The third time Darren pulled this stunt, it sunk in what he was attempting to do. “Just because I’m not working full-time doesn’t mean I’m not working. I’m still teaching, and I still have some consulting work, which pays $550 per day,” I said. Darren responded, “Oh, oh, okay.” I knew he didn’t get the gig economy or the idea that I could work three days as a consultant and make as much as he would make in a month. Darren’s only goal through those eight months was to embarrass me with Mom and my siblings, to take glee and joy in whatever misery I was experiencing in the feast-and-famine consulting world.

It was all part of a long pattern of Darren wanting everyone in his life to be as miserable as he has been for nearly all of his adult life. I’ve long understand why he wanted all of us to accompany him in his abyss. Fourteen years going to a school for the mentally retarded and aping that behavior in a affluently lily-White context would mess anyone up. Coupling this with our lives, between Mom, our dad, and our idiot ex-stepfather would lead most to either self-loathing or suicide. Darren chose the former. It has meant him not having much of a life for more than three decades, though.

Given how we grew up, it’s amazing that I could form bonds of friendship and relationship at all. The level of distrust, anger, and disappointment was so great at one point that I could’ve lived as a hermit for the past three decades without anyone to notice. I wouldn’t be surprise if a group of my classmates from Mount Vernon High School have the caption, “Least likely to bond with another human EVER!,”around my yearbook picture. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if all of them were laughing while drawing a penis coming from out of my forehead. I did break out, despite them, despite 616, despite Mom, Jimme, Maurice, and Darren.

The five-day saga of homelessness in ’88 was just one of several events in my first two years at Pitt that made me see what I was doing to myself. But it was the most powerful event, in that it made me fully conscious of the fact that I didn’t like myself very much. It made me aware of the fact that I had maybe two people in the whole world at the time whom I called “friend” and meant it. The rest were acquaintances, former classmates, or soapbox types who liked bouncing ideas off me. Five days of staring into the pit of my possible future of misery — while looking at the seven years of grinding poverty and suffering before — fundamentally changes how I saw myself and my need to connect with other people.

By the time I first met Angelia in ’90, I was well past those events, yet if was as if I was experiencing a social life for the first time. In some respects, I actually was. So much so that I almost short-circuited a friendship before it actually began. Even after we began dating at the end of ’95, Angelia would sometimes call me a “tactless wonder.” That was usually in the context of someone getting on my nerves with their willful ignorance or witless prattle (the “getting on my nerves” part happens much more often than I let on) or being in a social setting after days of dissertation writing.

Beyond that, I’ve learned to accept that weird-old me is an okay person, that I won’t always succeed, that I have a love-disdain relationship with humans. Forming and maintaining friendships and my marriage, though, is hard, but not the impossible thing I thought it would be for me to do this time three decades ago. I remain happy about finding Angelia so many years ago. I remain hopeful that Darren may do the same, in this life or the next.

The Deadly Bliss of American Ignorance

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The US and its love for drinking poisonous Kool-Aid, June 21, 2016. (http://www.booksbytesblog.com/).

Events past and present have converged on the world stage in the past three weeks, all to remind the world of American ignorance. The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, ushering in Soviet Russia for most of the 20th century. The Balfour Declaration, also of a century ago, in which the British leaned their imperialist weight into the idea of a Jewish homeland carved out of Ottoman Palestine. And, two Sundays ago, Devin Patrick Kelley’s rampage at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where he killed 26 worshippers and wounded another 20. The one thing these seemingly disparate events share in common is America’s ability to will ignorance out of learning moments.

Take the Bolshevik Revolution, for example. Nary a word has been printed about the spark that led to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the US. Not about how the million-plus Russian dead during the First World War created an atmosphere of chaos within the tsarist empire. Not about how the calculations of German leadership led to them injecting Russian exile Vladimir Lenin back into his home country in order to get Russia out of the war. And certainly not about the role of US among the other world powers in attempting to overthrow the new Communist regime in the years after the war.

What little focus there has been on this event has been in assessing whether Russian oligarch Vladimir Putin is a 21st-century Russian tsar. That, and the case of author Simon Sebag Montefiore, who “what-if-ed” about the Russian Revolution in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. Somehow, the Second World War, the Communist Revolution in China, the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, and a nuclear-armed North Korea would’ve never happened. While it was a nice touch for Montefiore to write, “Hitler would likely have ended up painting postcards” if not for the Bolshevik Revolution, the lessons deriving from this event should be far more important than typical American navel-gazing. The revolution did happen, a consequence of World War I and the imperialist meddlings of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the US.

The ho-hum coverage around the Balfour Declaration a century on is yet another example of American ignorance, but in two ways. One, Americans have literally ignored the idea that the modern clashes between Jews and Arabs had an origin point straight out of the First World War. The modern conflict over Israel comes out of the European imperialism playbook, led by the UK. As a way to get the Ottoman Turks out of the war, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, an avid supporter of the Zionist movement. The promise of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine made its way to the British newspapers a week later, November 9, 1917. The declaration set off a complex chain of events that led to the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars between 1948 and 1973, and the oppression of Palestinian Arabs.

Instead of focusing on this complicated history, Americans often chalk this recent history up to a family squabble that happened 3,000 years ago, as if Jews and Arabs have been fighting since the Biblical days of Isaac and Ishmael. That, and the willingness to automatically blame Arab Muslim culture for inciting and inviting conflict. As conservative Middle East Forum fellow Philip Carl Salzman recently wrote, peace “is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners,” carefully avoiding the word Arab in his article. Salzman’s is merely a more sophisticated version of the ignorant Christian belief that the Middle East represents the “world’s oldest family feud,” that every Muslim is primed for violence. Or, as my neighbor put it last week, in the aftermath of Sayfullo Saipov’s terrorism-by-truck-ramming in New York, “they read that Koran, and they’re radicalized.”

The other part of American ignorance regarding the Balfour Declaration was the American role in helping it evolve from the idea of a homeland to the nation-state of Israel. President Woodrow Wilson supported the declaration. Writers like Lawrence Haas have argued that the declaration was only about “empower[ing] Jews to return to their historic homeland.” Despite his and other’s claims, every US president since Wilson has understood the declaration to be the bedrock for building Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and not just an ancestral homeland for members of the Jewish diaspora. This ignorance of the past and present has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions in dollars, and is likely as intractable as the century-old conflict itself.

Still, from an American perspective, none of this is as ignorant as the common refrain, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Or, as President Trump described the mass shooting at a church in suburban San Antonio, “I think that mental health is your problem here,” that this isn’t a “guns situation.” In the first few days, experts weighed in on this incident in which Devin Kelley killed and maimed dozens. They have added factors such as Kelley’s domestic violence history and the lack of communication between the Department of Defense and local law enforcement databases about Kelley’s record to the mix.

But in explaining the correlation between domestic violence and a person’s willingness to slaughter random humans, many Americans remain blissfully ignorant of one elephant in the room. Easy access to assault weapons. Americans often avoid the topic, as if the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is sacrosanct. Yet here too is the First World War and the development of hand-held assault guns a factor, as automatic weapons like the Tommy Gun became more readily available to both criminals and law enforcement in the US in the 1920. While some may kill regardless of the weapon, regulations state and federal have made it all too easy for ordinary Americans to murder in large numbers.

The most ignorant thing Americans do on gun regulation, though, is assume the only choices on the table are either full access for everyone or regulated access meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and potential mass shooters. Another choice would be to repeal the Second Amendment entirely and replace it with a law that keeps guns mostly out of the American public domain.

The ignorant American in me knows that the idea of a gun-free America is a pipe dream, no more realistic than any line in the Balfour Declaration about protecting the civil rights of “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” And no more plausible than seeing Soviet Russia as not just an historical accident, but the result of imperial wheeling and dealing to end a deadly world war. Americans are simply too willing to be ignorant of history and the here-and-now.

My Mom’s Milestone

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Orange roses in a garden, February 2014. (https://hdwallsource.com/).

This past weekend, Mom turned seventy years old. 70! Wow! I sent her a plant with orange blossom roses, a vase and a candle setting, which arrived on time for her birthday on Saturday. We had a good phone conversation about the gift and about her day. When I turned the conversation to what she planned to do for her big day, she said she might “go to the Red Lobster at Cross County [Mall].” That was disappointing, but also somewhat expected. After a lifetime of drama, abuse, and pain, maybe a relatively peaceful weekend of phone calls, well wishes, and a table for one at Red Lobster is really all Mom can aspire to seven decades in.

I’ve thought a lot about Mom the last few days. Especially in light of my mother-in-law’s last two years of dementia and decline. Mom’s been a hard worker in her life, but not a strategic one. Mom dedicated a good portion of her life to relationships with men, to two abysmal marriages, and to the basic provisions for raising six kids. None of which she did with inspiration and passion, for none of this was what she dreamed for herself. Mom, when focused, could and did learn, but she’s not a particularly curious person, or a person devoted to learning new things. Mom was also one of the most vain persons I knew growing up. Despite $16,600/year for eight in most of the ’80s, would preen and primp for going on The Avenue (South Side Mount Vernon’s shopping district, Fourth Avenue) like it was an evening gala at the Met.

The good news and bad news about only being a bit more than 22 years younger than my Mom is that I have observed her growth and lack thereof for so many years. Some people say that to have a younger mother is to have someone who grows up with you while you’re growing up. No, not really. I was Mom’s second kid. My brother Darren came two years and eighteen days before me. Between my alcoholic, losing-one-good-job-after-another, seventh-grade-education dad and a full-time job at Mount Vernon Hospital, where was the time for Mom to grow as a young adult?

At the same time, I know this. At twenty, I had barely begun to know myself as a history student, writer, and human being. I had tons of thoughts, but often couldn’t find a way to articulate them fully. At 22, I was better at all these things, but not so much better that I could determine how I would raise one child, much less two. And before my wife of now more than seventeen years, I never saw myself getting married. Heck, I didn’t start regularly having sex until I was twenty-one!

Mom made a lot of decisions in her younger years by letting men and friends and circumstances — and really, fear — decide for her. Then, she played increasingly bad hands, each more laughable as they were more oppressive to all of us. Domestic violence, child abuse, grinding poverty, being Hebrew-Israelites. These barely scratch the surface of the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual torture Mom endured until she was 42.

Mom with my son Noah at 616, August 4, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

But you know something? I endured all of this as well. Because, when you are a keenly aware son of a Black woman going through all this, and you decide that you must help, that you must act, you take on the same burdens and the same pains. Being keenly aware isn’t the same thing as knowing what I signed up for, though. Certainly not at twelve, not at twenty, not even at 32. I only knew that I had taken on too much growing up after my son was born fourteen years ago.

Someone on my Twitter feed said recently that he couldn’t believe the cats who would get on Twitter to criticize their moms. I’m not arguing that grown-ass men should criticize their mothers on Twitter. Nor should that put them on pedestals. If we are doing too much of either of those, we’re not seeing our mothers as real human beings, ordinary and flawed like most others. Except that they carried us in their wombs, birthed us, and even under circumstances as crushing as mine, attempted to raise and nurture.

My relationship with Mom will always be complicated by the fact that I know more than most people ought to know about their mothers. Mom couldn’t hide, Mom couldn’t protect, even on the many occasions she did try. Since I couldn’t hide or protect, I just went out and did all I could to help her help herself. Only that by the time we’d driven off my idiot stepfather in ’89, the damage, the depression, the PTSD, was already fully manifest. The fire at 616 and having the burden of my younger siblings made it worse.

Now that Mom is a septuagenarian, it would be interesting to know how she looks back at her life, to see how she sees her years spent on Earth. I wonder because for so many years, the only thing Mom desired was for “the Rapture to come and take her up.” I wonder because nearly all of her southern Black migrant friends from her first decade in the Bronx and in Mount Vernon are dead. I wonder because I’m not sure how it is that she’s managed to make it to 70 under the constant strain that has been most of her life.

I have no idea if Mom has ever read or will ever read my blog. I know others around her have. If she is reading, I want her to know that I do love her, and want for her seventies to be her best decade ever. I want her to want to learn, to finally find herself, to take up projects, to travel and explore a bit, even if it’s only Manhattan. I want her to find some meaning in life, even if it’s only the size of a speck.