“I Am Become Columbus, Destroyer of Worlds”

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Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, West Indies, 1862 (published 1892, Currier& Ives). (Dantadd via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The title kind of says it all, no? On this Columbus Day, 2013, we should all acknowledge this as the beginning of the inadvertent (and frequently deliberate) genocide conducted against the indigenous groups that made up the Western Hemisphere as of October 12, 1492. The day that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America — as if First Nation tribes or Native Americans or American Indians were looking to be discovered — was the first day of more than half a millennium’s worth of physical and psychological assault on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

I talk about this in all of my courses — US History, World History (when I get to 1500 CE), and African American History. I describe how this notion of discovery was pretty much invented in the nineteenth century, to create a mythology about the greatness of God-fearing Europeans (and, in the US context, Americans) and their pre-ordained but altruistic triumph over the heathen Indians, those “noble savages.” I go over the fact that the Eurasian diseases that the Spaniards and other Europeans brought with them to the Western Hemisphere wiped out tens of millions of the indigenous between 1492 and 1700. Smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, bubonic plague, chicken pox all helped reduce a population that experts have estimated to have been between 70 and 100 million at the time of first contact to between seven and 10 million by the end of the seventeenth century.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Drawing in Book XII of Florentine Codex (compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of Central Mexico suffering from smallpox, September 11, 2009. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

I talk about Columbus’ second voyage, where he helped establish the first European settlement in what is now Haiti and then in the Dominican Republic, all while searching for gold, enslaving Arawak Indians and engaging in full-fledged battles. Just a year and a half after the first, glorious “discovery!”

The justification, of course, was and often remains that Europeans were civilized Catholic Christians, whereas these half-dressed natives were hedonistic polytheists. Even now, we often get caught up in the human sacrifice rituals of the Maya and Aztecs and somehow use that as justification for exploitation, slavery, and the inadvertent wiping out of whole cultures — worlds, if you will. It’s a justification that should make any believer in a higher power queasy, and any non-believer extremely angry.

I’m disappointed. We still sugarcoat the real meaning of Columbus Day for people of all ages. I began to learn about all of this in fifth grade (thank you, Mrs. O’Daniel), in October ’79. But I didn’t come to know most of the full story until high school. Even then, no one — not Flanagan, Zini or Meltzer — mentioned disease, exploitation, slavery and warfare as the genocidal combination that essentially handed Western Europeans the Western Hemisphere. I guess they either didn’t know or thought that it would be too painful a lesson to teach fourteen-to-eighteen year-olds.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer said in ’65, twenty years after the Manhattan Project’s success in creating the world’s first nuclear bomb, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Well, one doesn’t have to have God-like powers or be a Hindu deity to create large-scale human suffering, as was the case with Columbus. All one really needs is the conviction necessary to treat other humans as if they are only meat with brains and eyes.

Why Humanity Is Undeserving of First Contact

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Cassini’s last full Saturn shot, September 14, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Jason Major via https://www.newscientist.com).

Last week, NASA gave the Cassini probe a glorious death. After twenty years of travel to and trips around Saturn and its 60-plus moons, NASA plunged Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere. It was a fitful end to a very successful mission to a planet roughly 750 million miles from Earth.

NASA and various teams of astrophysicists, cosmologists, exobiologists, engineers, and mathematicians in Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and other parts of the world have been working diligently for breakthrough moments. Probes like Voyager have trekked toward the expansive Oort Cloud, inching ever closer to the edge of the Terran System. Between Hubble, Chandra, Fermi, and so many other space telescopes, the universe going back nearly to the Big Bang has already started giving up its secrets. All toward the ultimate goal of humanity reaching the stars, and meeting sentient beings from civilizations far more advanced than the one led by the West on 2017 CE Earth.

But is humanity truly ready to meet extraterrestrials from elsewhere in the Milky Way, or even beyond? Are humans 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 Cassini to reach Saturn? Do humans have the emotional, psychological, moral, and spiritual capacity to cope with such a history-altering event? Are Homo sapiens humble enough to meet the challenges that will come after finding out that first contact with an advanced civilization is both an end and a beginning?

Of course we’re not! Here’s a short list 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. (At least, a meal that would include filet mignon wrapped with bacon and key lime pie for dessert.) Donald Trump. Marine Le Pen. Vladimir Putin. Theresa May. Kim Jong Un and North Korea. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Capitalism. Neoliberalism. The very need for Black Lives Matter. The limited response thus far to man-made 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 not want to meet humanity, and I’m knee-deep in this muck and mire!

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 and our 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. Yeah, 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-y folk like Michelle Thaller, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Neil de Grasse Tyson, 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 people be exceptions? These beings are likely able to use dark matter or dark energy to power faster-than-light spacecraft. They may be able to fold space. They may even 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. There’s no way they could see any humans as deserving of first contact.

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

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 human thing — maybe even, the godly thing — to do.

As for the rest of humanity, we’ll have to wait for a more just, verdant, and glorious age before first contact will work out well for us. We are just too elitist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and life-destroying (read, too primitive) to be worthy of prime time on a galactic stage. We’re not ready.

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.