Aside

Leaving Mount Vernon

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I left for Pittsburgh and for the University of Pittsburgh on this day/date twenty-eight years ago, my first trip on my own. It was my first trip out-of-state since my Mom took me and my brother Darren on a bus trip to Pennsylvania Amish country in June ’78, nine years earlier. At 5:51 am on the last Wednesday in August ’87, with my older brother Darren’s help — and with my Mom and three of four younger siblings watching us from the living room window — I packed my luggage, Army sack, and two boxes of bedding and materials into a Reliable Taxi. We headed for East 241st to meet up with my dad. From there, we took the 2 Subway all the way to Penn Station, with enough time to board and get all of my stuff on the 7:50 am Pennsylvanian train to the ‘Burgh. For the second time in a row, my dad was sober, and gave me a glassy-eyed hug and shoulder squeeze. Darren was both sad and happy to see me go.

Amtrak's Pennsylvanian train pulling out of Altoona, PA station, heading east for Philly, NYC, uploaded February 2013. (Dustin F.; http://www.northeastrailfans.com/).

Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian train pulling out of Altoona, PA station, heading east for Philly, NYC, uploaded February 2013. (Dustin F.; http://www.northeastrailfans.com/).

I’ve gone over the trip to Pittsburgh and my transformation from a seventeen-year-old with the pent-up emotions of someone who hadn’t left May 31, 1982 behind throughout my eight years of blogging and through my memoir. I’ve written about moving on to Pittsburgh before. What I haven’t really written about fully is how I thought and felt in leaving Mount Vernon, New York behind. The short answer is, I was somewhere between terrified, joyous, embittered, and sad to go, and all at once.

I was terrified. It was my first trip on my own, to a city I’d never been to before, to a university I never visited prior to saying yes. I could meet people who might catch on that I was someone who had spent the previous six years with few acquaintances, much less friends. I was hopeful, but had zero idea what to expect.

But I really was happy to leave. Between my decade living at 616, the abuse, the poverty, the Hebrew-Israelite years, the constant ridicule, the years in Humanities, the constant work of watching after Mom, my dad, my siblings, I was through. Throw in a summer of obsession with and emasculation by Phyllis, and five years of realizing that I needed to get out, and going to Pittsburgh was a no-brainer. Heck, if I’d been a bit smarter about my application process, I could’ve just as easily applied to the University of Washington, Stanford, Northwestern, Georgetown, Michigan, University of Toronto and UPenn and almost certainly gotten in. It didn’t matter where I was going, really. I just needed to go and find my myself, and my education with that.

That last year or so in Mount Vernon had let me know that even with an academic scholarship (after a private investigation) from Columbia, staying would’ve been a huge mistake. Between the silent disdain and snickering of Black teachers at Mount Vernon High School around my sullen presence and the whole Estelle Abel episode at the end of four years of torment. Add to that the years of Black middle class folk talking at me about how my life was so much better because they marched or protested somewhere before I was conceived, or because they prayed for me. Add to that this insistence that I “give back to the community.” As if Black Mount Vernon had given me anything but a hard way to go since I was knee-high to a boil weevil.

Viewing and wake service for Heavy D, Grace Baptist Church, Mount Vernon, NY, November 17, 2011. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images; https://cbsnewyork.files.wordpress.com/).

Viewing and wake service for Heavy D, Grace Baptist Church, Mount Vernon, NY, November 17, 2011. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images; https://cbsnewyork.files.wordpress.com/).

As I saw it, the only difference between the vapid, seething facade of White liberalism among paternalistic White Mount Vernonites and the false smiles and frequent excoriations of Mount Vernon’s Black middle class was skin color. They drank deep from swimming pools full of what we now call respectability politics, born out of a need to be good examples to the world, like Kendrick Lamar described in “Swimming Pools” (2012). (Pour up [drank], head shot [drank]…faded [drank]). This isn’t the same as doing the right thing at the right time or speaking truth to power. You make money, wear nice clothes, drive a nice car, stand up straight, look a White man in the eye while firmly grasping his hand. And apologize for not being as assimilable as you pretend. It was 100%, USDA-approved bullshit, and it smelled like it a lot of days, too.

I was sad to leave, too. There was a part of me that still wanted to fit in, out of loneliness, if nothing else. I still liked Clover Donuts and some of the breakfast places on the South Side. I longed for some sort of acceptance, an acknowledgment that I was a real person, even though that would’ve required being around real people at 616, and in Humanities, and in the rest of Mount Vernon. I knew that I’d miss the close proximity to The City. I’d put my hopes and dreams in a place in which I knew I couldn’t afford to stay, literally and figuratively. That longing would come to haunt me in the coming year, but I’d eventually learn, I could always visit New York.

A Brief History of My “Virginity”

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Nigerian-American actor Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly on the HBO series Insecure (2016-), August 15, 2017. (http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/).

Yvonne Orji, one of the lead actors from the HBO series Insecure, has revealed the fact that she is a thirty-three year-old virgin in recent weeks. But Orji has in fact spoken about her virginity several times over the past year, something I was surprised to learn (that she had spoken so much about it, not the fact of it). Some folks on social media have applauded Orji’s stance on her sexuality, while others like womanist Obaa Boni derided Orji’s adherence to her virginity as “patriarchal.”

Screen shot of @obaa_boni tweets re: Yvonne Orji’s virginity, August 23, 2017. (Donald Earl Collins via http://twitter.com).

Let me first say that there’s nothing wrong with virginity, celibacy, or promiscuity. So as long as it’s transparent, healthy, and done with a full understanding of why one has moved in a certain direction sexually. The problem is, people often do the wrong things for the right reasons and the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Especially in a world where gratuitous sensuality is everywhere, fake-sex-porn is ubiquitous, and social norms remain hostile and puritanical. This is especially so in the US, where the distance between healthy sexuality and where many Americans are with their sexuality is about the same as between a racism-less society and the virulent racism that is truly all-American.

I was once Yvonne Orji, believing that maintaining my virginity kept me in a state of purity, if not in a physical sense, then certainly in a spiritual one. There were several reasons beyond “being pure in God’s eyes,” or saving myself for the right person, though, that I emphasized my virginity.

Screen shot of Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Tré in Boyz n the Hood (1991). (http://mentalfloss.com).

My top two reasons were practical ones. As the second of six kids growing up at 616 in Mount Vernon (my Mom remarried and had my younger brothers and sister between the time I was nine-and-a-half and fourteen-and-a-half years old), I didn’t want to become a father, especially a teenage father. Like Tré from Boyz n the Hood (1991), I didn’t want to be stereotypically Black and male, to make a baby when I had no means to take care of it, to impregnate another person when I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to thirty. Also, STDs scared the crap out of me, especially AIDS. I was smart enough even at fifteen to know that AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease,” that it could infect anyone, especially anyone without protection.

But the fact was, I had lost pieces of my virginity long before I tried to find a state of purity. I had already been sexually molested before I hit my seventh birthday. Any number of teenage girls at 616 had attempted to come on to me before I had started my first day of high school. Heck, my father had hired a prostitute to get rid of my penetrative virginity the month of my seventeenth birthday!

Beyond that, masturbation from the time I was thirteen, porn mags between birthdays seventeen and nineteen, the occasional date at Pitt, where kisses, petting, and touching was involved. I had pretty much lost my sexual virginity by the time I was nineteen, and yet I didn’t really know how to be me sexually at all. So when I finally did start hooking up with folks for purely sexual purposes, it was an emotionally messy dance, between religious guilt, occasional actual pleasure, and lots of frustration in between. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four where I felt fully comfortable with myself sexually, and even then, I had another decade of pseudo-evangelical, patriarchal, and puritanical bullshit to get over.

Which is why I rarely gave anyone any advice about what to do or how to be on the sexual side of relationships before my mid-thirties, especially when asked. Have sex at fifteen with a partner of the same age whom cares about and respects you? Sounds fine. Stay celibate for ten years? Okay. Have fuck buddies for a couple of years? Sure! Remain a virgin like former NBA player A. C. Green until you turn thirty-eight? Whatevs!

Former NBA Ironman A.C. Green, Time Warner Cable Media Upfront Event, “Summertime is Cable Time,” Hollywood, CA, May 3, 2011. (Toby Canham/Getty Images; http://zimbio.com).

My Black masculinity shouldn’t have been defined by evangelical White Christian notions of virgin purity, any more than it should’ve been by how frequently I penetrated a woman. My relationship with God should’ve never been about some fucked up notion of sexual purity. It is way too easy to let Western culture screw each of us up, with the result that it will take way too many years to find our sexual equilibrium. For so many, that day of balance between sexual freedom and mature responsibility will never come.

Just realize that being a virgin doesn’t make one special, and having a regular rotation of trusted sexual partners doesn’t make one a slut or a stud. As a culture, we are both obese and anorexic when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. We imagine it too much, do it too little, and often do it incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. No wonder America is such an angry place, with so many believing in an angry God!

Moving On, Thirty Years Later

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A Boeing 767 Delta flight at takeoff, JFK Airport, Jamaica, Queens, NY, circa 2011. (http://panynj.gov).

I am now three full decades removed from Moving Day 1987, the final Wednesday in August, when I moved for my freshman year of college to Pittsburgh. I was leaving Mount Vernon and 616, but neither would begin to leave me, at least for another year or so.

It was a day of days. But really, it wasn’t the hardest leaving day I faced. In the summers I’d come home to work and watch after my younger siblings, the end of those Augusts were tearful ones. I played music for me and my siblings to sing to before I left at the end of the summer of ’88. I added an extra week to my stay in 1990, just so I could spend extra time with Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri, teaching them how to ride a bike and how to tie their shoes, and missed a week’s worth of classes at Pitt to start the fall. Even in ’92, when I came back to 616 to work for two months that summer at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health because I couldn’t find a teaching gig at Pitt, I stayed an extra week. That was my life outside of college, grad school, and Pittsburgh for a good decade after my first trip to Pittsburgh. It got easier to leave as my life became about working, teaching, dating, and writing, but leaving was always hard.

My hardest leaving day was in late-August 1989. After a full summer of work, between two jobs, the end of my Mom’s marriage (finally!), my older brother Darren moving out, and my schedule of activities with the younger Gang of Four, I saw going back to the University of Pittsburgh for my third year as a vacation. But it wasn’t going to be one for Mom. She would be completely on her own with my younger siblings for the first time once I left. And I knew the thought of being with them without any help, or least, without any enemies at 616 to war against (like my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice) terrified her.

Screen shot of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY, June 2016. (http://maps.google.com)

I stayed an extra five days before leaving on August 30, because Mom still had two weekends of summer courses left to finish at Westchester Business institute. Mom made the decision to not finish up her business law and accounting classes that session the Saturday before I left. She said to me, “Go on to Pittsburgh, Donald. I’ll be all right.” It didn’t make sense to me. She had an A in the business law class, and likely could’ve talked with her instructor about taking an incomplete and then the final exam once my siblings started school after Labor Day. I said as much, but Mom, per usual, didn’t listen to me. She ended up with a D in the business law course, and an F, of course, in the accounting class. Mom wouldn’t return to Westchester Business Institute to finish up her associate’s degree until January 1996.

I felt guilty at the time that I put my own education over my Mom’s. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help out more. Mostly, I felt guilty that despite what I saw back then as “my responsibilities to the family,” I wanted to leave, and part of me wanted to stay gone. I didn’t want to come home for Christmas, my birthday, and New Year’s every single holiday season. I didn’t want to spend my summers living at 616 while working in Mount Vernon or White Plains. And though I wanted to help the Gang of Four out as much as I could, I would’ve preferred bringing them to Pittsburgh, and not going back to Mount Vernon over and over again.

Looking back, though, I realized the truth. Mom really didn’t enjoy school. Mom decided to go to Westchester Business Institute because I was in college. And as a professor who has taught hundreds of adult learners (students twenty-five and sometimes much older), I know that earning a degree with your kids can be a great motivator for enrolling in higher ed. It just can’t be the only motivator. At some point, it has to be about more than a friendly familial competition or even about using the degree to earn a few extra dollars. It has to be about improving yourself and the people around you. Mom wasn’t ready to juggle that burden, and likely had gone through too much that summer to spend another fifteen months in school while also watching after my younger siblings.

Boy, it was hard to leave that last Wednesday in August ’89. I was nervous for Mom, sad for my siblings, and maybe even a little angry with Mom and God about the impossible choice I thought I had made at the time. But I reminded myself that I wouldn’t be any good to anyone if I couldn’t finish my degree and use it to help others. I reminded myself that I was still only nineteen years old, that, my outward maturity and 616 aside, I still had a lot to learn about life.

What Trump in 2017 and My Dad in 1984 Have In Common

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Donald Trump greets supporters after a rally, Mobile, Alabama, August 27, 2015. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty via http://www.telegraph.co.uk/).

The first time I ever heard of Donald J. Trump was while working for my father in the fall of 1984. It was in the context of having to work for our money with my dad from August until December that year. Not to mention, Walter Mondale’s sad and forlorn presidential run, Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” sound bite, and my Mets making themselves relevant again with Strawberry and Gooden. So many Friday evenings, Saturday and Sunday mornings in that part of the year, me and my brother Darren spent on the 2 Subway going to the Upper West Side to clean co-ops and condos, offices and hallways with so many industrial cleaning and buffing machines. And usually, my father was either drinking, hung over, or jonesin’ for a drink during these nearly weekly weekend job duties for nearly four months.

My father would often name drop as part of his constant yammering about “The City,” and how he was “a big shot doctor an’ lawyer” working carpet cleaning machines on the eighteen floor of a co-op off 68th and Broadway or 77th and Columbus. For two weekends, we worked the Upper East Side off the 86th Street Subway stop. It was during those weekends on the blocks between White Manhattan and Spanish Harlem that I learned who really ran the city.

King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken screen shot. (http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/).

“You know who really run dis city? Milstein,” my father said, as if I had asked him about New York’s movers and shakers. I remained silent as I worked the buffing machine in an office building lobby.

“But dere ‘nother one comin’ up. That Donal’ Trump a good bid-ness man dere! Yep, yep!,” my father continued while waging his right index finger in admiration.

I didn’t think much of the comment at that moment, because it was part of my dad’s typical “Lo’ at dis po’ ass muddafucka! I make fitty million dollas a week!” delusional diatribes. But soon after, I remembered seeing something about Trump and his first wife Ivana in the Daily News. It was probably related to one of his business deals, either for the eventual Trump Tower, the hotel deal near Grand Central, or his fight with Koch over being snubbed out of the work for the new Jacob Javitz Convention Center. I thought nothing of the man beyond the truth for people like me, people who tended to be repulsed by narcissistic self-aggrandizers seeking attention and praise.

But in those Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous times, it was obvious Trump believed in host Robin Leach’s closing words. “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” The man always talked about making deals, making money, and living as if he were a single man with an insatiable libido and without kids. More than once, in listening to this unseemly rich man, I thought, “Sounds just like Jimme.”

To think that an eventual US president would have the same ways of viewing the world as an inebriated man in his mid-forties is beyond troubling. At the very least, it makes me wonder what kind of drugs 45 has snorted over the years. But it also is proof of the pervasiveness of American narcissism. That a Black man with a seventh-grade education — not to mention, an alcoholic with a $30,000-a-year job — could see himself as a “big shot” in the same way as 45 sees himself as a “successful businessman” with at least four bankruptcies, a $200 million trust fund and a $1-million loan courtesy of his dad to his credit. It points to a society that seethes with an egocentric penchant for money, riches, and power to lord over others. It points to a people who self-loathe so much that jealousy can be normalized, that using precious psychological, emotional, spiritual, and even material resources to one-up themselves over unnamed others whom they see as their lessers is an everyday thing.

Luckily, my father sobered up about whom he had been, his narcissism, the many slights he absorbed as a late-era Black migrant in New York, the many jealousies he harbored, and his own self-hatred. And that was all before he stopped drinking at the end of 1997. That doesn’t mean that my father now qualifies for sainthood. But he is at least in touch with who he is, and the need to be a better person every day.

Losing brain cells, September 27, 2013. (http://www.dailyhealthpost.com).

45, though, hasn’t grown a single self-reflective neuron in the past thirty-three years. Matter of fact, as evidenced with so many verbal explosions over Charlottesville and “Rus-shur,” 45 may have destroyed at least five billion neurons since Ivanka was a toddler. America, to its collective detriment, has a 71-year-old less psychologically able to be president than my father would’ve been during the worst of his alcoholic times. What makes this unsurprising, sad, and anger-inducing, is that the US has had at least a half-dozen other presidents who also shouldn’t have been trusted to sit next to my dad and remain civil at the same “Shamrock Bar” on East 241st Street, where he frequently gave away his paychecks.

So America, 45 is “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. A shame to the US and the world stage, and a pitiful mess for anyone to watch in action.

 

The Politics of the Apolitical

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Mimi and Eunice comic strip, July 27, 2012. (Nina Paley via http://mimiandeunice.com/category/politics/).

In late-October 1994, I had a wonderful steak dinner with my friend and former high school classmate Laurell in DC. It was during my first ABD (all-but-dissertation) visit to the area to conduct some official initial research on my multiculturalism-in-Black-Washington, DC-doctoral thesis. It was also a couple of weeks before the midterm elections, the cycle that would sweep in Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House and the rest of his cronies as part of the Contract With (really, on) America, the gift that has kept on giving for the past twenty-three years.

As part of our three-and-a-half hour dinner and dessert, we talked about the Clintons, their failed attempt at universal healthcare, the Contract With America, and the ongoing politics of racial resentment. Laurell said, not for the first or last time, that she was “apolitical,” that she didn’t “adhere” to “either party’s platform.” This was because she was “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal.”

Even in ’94, I could’ve picked apart Laurell’s hair-splitting with a hot hair comb. But here’s the part that got me then and really irks me now. Being apolitical is a political stance and perspective. Being apolitical is like being agnostic. You may not believe in someone or something exactly the way most people in the crowd do. You may have some serious doubts. But you are still a human being. And since you are human, and have beliefs, you also have a political point of view. Otherwise, your apolitical stance is the equivalent of selling bullshit to others and lying to yourself.

The politics of steak, August 8, 2017. (http://zeenews.india.com).

A few weeks ago, I watched BBC World News and saw a young White actress on the telly promoting her new summer film, declaring it “apolitical” as it delved into serious issues around feminism and potentially other -isms. Here’s a news flash, folks. Every movie, piece of art, song, poem, every article, book, or TV show, contains a hidden agenda, a specific set of beliefs, an ideology. By definition, every piece of entertainment or art has a political message, no matter how gentle or subtle. Even if a movie like, say, Rough Night is just about women “laughing at themselves” and “having a good time,” the idea that White women have the right to both feminism and femininity is embedded in these otherwise rather banal phrases. And that’s a political statement, whether people are willing to see it or not.

But the realm of politics goes well beyond the world of entertainment and leisure. Politics is everywhere, in everything, and with everyone, all the time. Calling yourself “apolitical” doesn’t change this truth. If you eat steak and potatoes, you obviously aren’t a vegan, and that reflects your personal politics around food. When you buy clothes, wear perfume or cologne, take a vacation overseas, call a young person in your neighborhood an “all-American boy” or “all-American girl,” you are unwittingly expressing your politics. Even in declaring yourself a Christian, atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jew, this isn’t just an admission of your love for God, Yahweh, Allah, or a lack of belief in a higher power at all. It is a worldview with political implications, one that colors how you see the world, humanity, and governance. We are all political animals, no matter how little some of us pay attention to the machinations of the Democrats and Republicans.

Time Magazine cover (cropped) Colin Kaepernick, October 3, 2016. (http://facebook.com). Qualifies as fair use due to cropped nature and subject matter.

This is also why the common refrain among racist sports junkies about not combining sports and politics is also total bullshit. Of course the political implications of sport are intertwined with the actual sport in question! How else can you explain the blackballing of former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his Black Lives Matter kneel-downs during the National Anthem at NFL games in 2016? It’s certainly not based on Kaep’s performance or merely about a kneel-down. The politics of American racism, of faux-hyper-patriotism, of money and fandom, were and remain in play here. That some continue to doubt this is yet another example of the penchant of millions to crave willful ignorance of anything that would make them think beyond their own perceived superiority and simplistic views of an always political world.

So no, you can’t away from politics in this world. One would have to take a time machine back to before the Agricultural Revolution to find humans in a world without politics. But even then, there would be domestic politics, gender politics, tribal politics, and food/water politics. Not to mention, religion and the politics thereof. But, keep believing that you’re apolitical, and see how that works out as your worldview comes crashing down.

The Painful Destruction of the Pedestal

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Demolition of the Kingdome as a GIF, Seattle, Washington, March 26, 2000. (USA Today).

This week thirty years ago was the beginning of the end of my sexist dream of having women recognize me for being “a nice guy.” As I wrote in one of my very first blog posts a decade ago, it was a dream “that had to die.” Precisely because it was a fantasy, a phantasmic display of teenage delusion borne from five years of abuse and oppressive social immaturity. In ’80s parlance, my wack ass had to learn the hard way that I had no game. And, more importantly, that pedestals are meant for smashing with sledgehammers, as people can never live up to their marble or bronze busts.

It wasn’t really women I was trying to impress with my quiet and stoic demeanor. I was all about my second infatuation, Crush #2, my version of Phyllis in the summer of 1987. I’ve outlined in painstaking detail here and in Boy @ The Window my obsession with Phyllis and her smile, and my ridiculously stupid attempts to make conversations with her in the three weeks of my various impromptu encounters at the old Galleria in White Plains and on the 40/41 Bee-Line Bus back to Mount Vernon.

But “the end of the lesson,” or at least, the “end of the beginning” of it (to quote both Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987) — which I saw at The Galleria twice that summer — and Winston Churchill), began on my brother Yiscoc’s birthday on the fourth Thursday that July.

I walked around for over an hour after I got off the bus at North Columbus and East Lincoln. I must’ve called myself “pathetic” at least a dozen times on that hot and steamy walk. And I was. I didn’t get home to wish Yiscoc a Happy Birthday until after 8 pm, by which time I missed any semblance of a birthday celebration at 616.

Packing up and moving to Pittsburgh — and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh — seemed as far away that weekend as it did during my summer of abuse five years earlier. I was no longer sure that this transformational period of my life would actually bear fruit. I thought I was destined to spend the rest of my days alone, ridiculed, emasculated, and otherwise as a piece of trash.

Toppling and destruction of Vladimir Lenin’s statue via sledge-hammer, Berdichev, Ukraine, February 22, 2014. (unknown).

I was seventeen years and barely seven months old when I had those thoughts. I’ve been married for nearly that long, and have a son on the cusp of turning fourteen. There’s no way that Donald 1.0 could have envisioned either of these experiences, much less worked to make them happen. It wasn’t exactly a miracle that I became a boyfriend, fiancé, husband, and father. No, it was an evolution, with a couple of personal rebellions and revolutions mixed in.

The one good thing I did after Phyllis took a wrecking ball to my delusions of feminine perfection was to talk about it with someone who was willing to listen. This time around, a young woman put up with me griping about something I never had, someone whom was never for me to begin with. As many times as I would go on to listen to women of all stripes about their relationship issues, I needed to be on the rueing end of things this one time.

It would take a lot more talking, a bit more learning, and four more years befriending and dating, before I’d completely give up putting women on pedestals entirely. Women may be beautiful, and Black girls may be magic, but none are meant to be worshipped at altars. Like all other anthropomorphized idols, humans on pedestals will always fail us when we delude ourselves into thinking that we need them to be free. Especially when we need them the most, or at least, believe so.

 

When Enough Isn’t Close to Enough

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Yiscoc Washington, July 5, 2017. (http://facebook.com).

“I took care of my kids! I put food on the table, put a roof over y’all’s heads, put clothes on yo’ back! I did the best that I could, and none of y’all can tell me different…” That’s what my Mom yelled at us the day before Sarai’s funeral seven Julys ago. It was an excited utterance, after she had spent five days in a trance, unable to do as much as eat a piece of toast. We were in the living room of Mom’s flat at 616, me, Mom, Maurice, Yiscoc and Eri, being yelled at over a lifetime of disappointment and frustration. Ours and hers.

Today is my brother Yiscoc’s thirty-sixth birthday. That he’s here at all is a bit of a miracle. Especially with the number of times he ran away from 616 between 1989 (when he was eight years old) and 1994, with his one-time video game addiction, and with muggers and pedophiles out there and all too willing to take advantage of a vulnerable preteen.

I started with Mom, though, for a reason. Her yelling at us was probably meant for me, but it was in response to Yiscoc, who shared a personal secret with her for the first time. Mom’s response was to defend her record as a parent, to tell us that we had no right to judge, critique, or assess her record. That she added, “That’s what you get for…” in response to Yiscoc’s tearful sharing session was shameful and disgusting.

“You’re So Vain” (1972), by Carly Simon, 45 cover, cropped, July 23, 2017. (http://avclub.com).

“But you don’t understand, your Mom was mourning the loss of her only daughter,” would be the response of Mom-defenders everywhere. To which I say, really? Your Mom’s response is to push four of your five living children away with a tirade? One where she says, “this fucked up, piece of shit life I helped set up for all of you was the best I could do, and if you don’t like it, that’s on you, and you can kiss my Black ass!” Would that really be acceptable under any circumstances, much less during a week of mourning?

Yiscoc ran away from home, hung out with several wrong crowds, and dropped out of Mount Vernon High School a year and a half before he could have completed his coursework. Seventeen years later, and Yiscoc still doesn’t have his GED (the last two times, he failed the social studies portion of the exam — ain’t that a kicker!). I’m not laying all of this at my Mom’s feet. But Yiscoc’s adult life wasn’t exactly set up for success by his growing up years. The normative permanence of systemic racism on the one hand, and domestic violence, welfare poverty, and the 616 fire of 1995 that left Yiscoc and my other younger siblings temporarily homeless on the other, would make any kid itching to run away.

A second younger brother has now reached the second half of his thirties. Yiscoc’s the same age I was eleven and a half years ago, when I began working on Boy @ The Window in earnest. One of the things I figured out in writing such a torturous book was that I blamed myself for so many of my parents’/legal guardian’s failures and sins. I had blamed myself for not putting an end to the domestic violence at 616 since I was twelve, for not doing enough to support Mom and my younger siblings since I went away to college at Pitt in 1987. I also came to understand how much Mom deflected, defended, and denied when it came to her parenting, especially when we called on her to do more than find temporary shelter, meager food options, and threadbare clothing. Mom was and remains one of the vainest and unaffectionate people I have ever known — vain, insecure, and likely clinically depressed.

“Flash Memory #2” (an unmasking), in stainless steel, by Liu Zhan, Kuang Jun, and Tan Tianwei, 2009. (http://elhurgador.blogspot.com/2012/05/unmask-group-escultura.html; H.T. Gallery, Beijing, China).

I also know that Mom has passed these traits down to each of us. I’ve been dealing directly with them for three decades. I’m not sure Yiscoc has ever peered behind his mask long enough to see Mom lurking in the shadows, warts and all. If he has or ever will, it has been or will be an ugly sight. But if we are truly attempting to rebuild and remake ourselves, it is a sight we must endure. A painful process of honesty, soul-searching, revelation, and admitting that on some level, we’ve fucked up, and been fucked up, by life, oppression, and parenting.

Happy Birthday, Yiscoc. Know that despite everything, I do love you. I hope that this next year brings you closer to the person you want and need to be.

The Yoke of Student Loans

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Time, money, debt, yoke = same difference, from screen short from movie In Time (2011), October 27, 2011. (http://collider.com/in-time-review/).

This week in July thirty years ago, I took out the first of what would be a series of student loans. Loans that would help cover eight of my ten years of undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. In three-and-a-half-months, I will be ending my twentieth year paying off those loans. If I had to do it all over again, I may have stayed in New York State to take advantage of the TAP award (need-based financial aid). That way, I wouldn’t have needed to borrow for my undergrad. But given my near desperation for wanting to escape grinding poverty, 616 and my family, Mount Vernon, New York, and the stigma that was my life living there among hostile and indifferent classmates, teachers, and neighbors, borrowing $2,625 on July 16 of ’87 didn’t seem so bad.

Yep, my first subsidized/unsubsidized Stafford student loan was a modest one. It was a set maximum based on the old laws limiting student borrowing (especially for college freshmen) three decades ago. I remember thinking to myself, “How the heck am I gonna pay this back?,” as I went through an hour of phone calls between Pitt’s financial aid office and Marine Midland Bank (now part of HSBC). The latter was where I had my first bank account, where I had deposited $500 of scholarship money from Mount Vernon’s Afro-Caribbean Club. That’s how little I knew about the process – I went with a bank that didn’t exist outside of New York State to work with a school in Western Pennsylvania!

Pact with the Devil, July 18, 2017. (http://evil.wikia.com/wiki/Pact_with_the_Devil)

Because I wasn’t yet eighteen, I needed my Mom to co-sign my loan. Because my Mom didn’t have collateral, she needed to add two relatives who did have assets to my first loan. In the end, Mom chose my maternal grandmother Beulah and my great-great-aunt in Seattle Inez (who just happened to be Johnny Gill’s great or great-great grandmother — didn’t know it at the time) as relatives with collateral who could be on the hook if I or she ever defaulted on our future payments. Of course, Mom didn’t actually seek permission from my then sixty-year-old grandma in rural Arkansas or my better-off, octogenarian, great-great aunt for this sign-off. Apparently, Marine Midland didn’t care, either. And that’s how it was for the next four years, having relatives whom I had never met (and in the case of great-great aunt Inez, who died at 101 years old in the early ’00s, would never meet) as collateral for my loans.

I’d also take out the smaller Perkins Loan for my undergraduate time at Pitt, an additional $2,000 per year, for three of my four years there. In all, I’d borrow more than $16,000 in four years, with a high of $4,000 in Stafford Loans in my junior year, 1989-90.

It bothered me every time I had to re-up for student loans. Not just because of the false notion of American individualism, the idea that I shouldn’t need anyone’s help to go earn a degree. It bothered me because I feared, sometimes to the point of nightmares, that I’d never be able to pay this money back.

Graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and the loosening of the student loan rules and amounts under President Clinton in 1994 made things better and worse. I barely borrowed my first two and a half years of grad school at both Pitt and CMU, to the tune of $1,800 in all. CMU paid me so little as a grad student that I had little choice if I ever planned on eating more than one meal a day but to borrow. And that’s how most of my borrowing occurred between January 1994 and January 1997, to either have to supplement my meager stipend (before the year of my Spencer Dissertation fellowship). Or, to use the funds to help support my dissertation research, the travel to/from and living arrangements while in DC in 1994 and 1995. Unlike many of my graduate school colleagues (especially the ones working on professional master’s degrees or a law degree), I didn’t use my loans to go on extended weekends to Bermuda or to take summer vacations in the Grand Caymans.

Of course, I graduated in May ’97, and lo and behold, I couldn’t find full-time work. And with the exception of the months of July, August, and September 1998, I wouldn’t have full-time or full-time equivalent work until I left Pittsburgh for work in the DC area in the summer of 1999. But, my consolidated student loans through the dispensations of Sallie Mae never took that into account when my first payment became due Thanksgiving Week 1997. I was able to get a reduced payment of $20 per month for the first two years. I didn’t default, but it made paying off my student loans that much harder. It didn’t help that Sallie Mae had locked in my interest rate at eight percent, retroactive to July 1987, and unchangeable under any circumstances. Even with consumer interest rates the way they have been for the past decade.

Relationship between lenders and payees, July 27, 2015. (http://forbes.com).

Flush or not, full-time or underemployed or somewhere in between, the student loan payments, deferments, and forebearances have been non-stop for two decades. Even credit card companies will leave folks alone if they make regular minimum payments. Not so with student loans or with Sallie Mae (now Navient, which must mean assholes in financial aid-speak). Despite everything I’ve been through financially over the years, I finally paid off the original principal of my consolidated student loans about two years ago. Great. It still means that I have left another decade of payments on accumulated interest before I can be forever free of this nearly endless cycle.

Here’s the real thing that I think I’d do over again, that should be done about this corrupt and serfdom-like process. Sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen years old is way too young to be making financial decisions that I or anyone else will have to live with for four decades or more. Even deciding to serve in the military isn’t a decades’ long commitment (unless one chooses to re-up or goes to officer’s school). At the very least, no one under twenty-one should have to commit themselves to debt peonage, including student loans. As for me, working thirty hours a week on or off campus between 1987 and 1997 to cover costs and necessities would’ve been preferable to this iron collar.

The real problem, of course, is that adult learners are taking out many of these loans these days. Even though they may be old enough to know better, they aren’t experienced enough. Lumina Foundation and other organizations have concentrated on “financial literacy” as the way out. This is wrong-headed, as it does nothing to change this financially enslaving system. Really, it would take free and significantly-reduced undergraduate tuition to do the trick. But where’s the fun, profit, and human misery in that?