The Last Mugging

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East Prospect, Mount Vernon, New York, where Foodtown (once Waldbaum’s) and Rite Aid (formerly Genovese) are today – about 30m from where I was mugged in ’83. (http://maps.google.com).

Twenty-eight years ago yesterday was the last time I was mugged, the last time I had to fend off wannabe thugs. As important as the challenges I face in my life are now, the ones I faced just before my fourteenth birthday were a thousand times more intense, if for no other reason than I nearly took the path of suicide back then.

For whatever the reason, December ’83 was spent without food at 616, this time in the welfare and food stamps era. My mother hadn’t received her welfare check on time. She went to Maurice for money to buy groceries, a necessarily rare move. I’d rather had gone to A (see “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe‘” post from May ’09) for grocery money than to my stepfather. He came to me and gave me twenty dollars to go to the store.

“Donald, do not lose this money. I don’t want no excuses. I want all my change back. If you have to, catch the bus,” Maurice said to me. I had already missed the last 7 bus going into Mount Vernon, and I knew that by the time I’d finish shopping that I would miss the last 7 for the return.

After shopping for Great Northern beans and rice and some beef neck bones and spinach at the Waldbaum’s on East Prospect — which cost $6.50 by the way —  I walked out with the intent of cutting down Park Avenue to East Lincoln and avoiding most of the potential for a mugging. But it seemed that Maurice’s God had other plans for me. I barely got to the poorly lit corner of Prospect and Park before I was ambushed by four guys, all around my age and size. Part of it was my fault, as the Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips that held that corner had closed the year before, a casualty of the recent recession. I saw other people around, but none came to my aid.

So here it was that I was jumped by a bunch of dumb kids with dumb parents trying to beat me up and take thirteen dollars from me. Apparently I must’ve learned something from my idiot stepfather, because I was able to kick, punch, and bite my way out of the mugging at first. I kicked one dumb ass in the balls, bit another’s arm, punched someone else in the jaw. I kept going until someone was able to hold me long enough to reach into my pocket and take the money. Then they took off, running across one of the bridges into the South Side.

Grocery bag torn to shreds, food on the ground, shirttail hanging out, I took off after them, now thinking only about what I’d face at home if I didn’t come in with Maurice’s money. They went east up First Street, turned right up South Fulton, and then left on East Third. With groceries in tow, I just couldn’t keep up.

It was after 9 by the time I got back from Waldbaum’s and my mugging. Mom was worried, actually worried, while Maurice was just pissed.

My mother was more concerned about what happened during the actual fight. I told her about what happened.

“You see someone you know?”

“I think one of them’s named C,” I said.

C and his older brother lived in the equally impoverished building next door, 630 East Lincoln. C’s older brother was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade with me at Holmes. I hadn’t seen either of them much since elementary school, but I recognized him immediately as the one who said, “Give me the money, muthafucka!” Those were some ugly kids, inside and out.

In an unbelievable turn, my mother took me the next morning to the Mount Vernon Police Station, its juvenile division, to have me press charges, look at mug shots and ID my attackers. It didn’t take me long to ID C and his henchmen, all of whom had juvenile records. Before I left, they had hauled C into the station for booking. I was glad to see that my fists had done some damage to his face.

I went to school that day with my mother and ended up signing in around sixth period. One of my classmates saw me as I was leaving Vice Principal Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school.

That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep. I spent the rest of the month until my fourteenth birthday considering how to off myself. I spent part of my birthday standing thirteen feet over the Hutchinson River Parkway, on top of the stone facing looking down at the traffic while tears streamed down my cheeks.

All because I had lost hope, and my life was filled with contradiction. Luckily, I found a reason to live, and a reason to begin to see good in others, at least outside of 616.

A Story of My Life

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One of dozen of rags-to-riches falsehoods from Gilded Age author Horatio Nelson (1832-1899). (http://www.pavillionpress.com).

One of dozen of rags-to-riches falsehoods from Gilded Age author Horatio Nelson (1832-1899). (http://www.pavillionpress.com).

That one of the not-so-small miracles of my young adult life from ’88 and me completing my dissertation process in ’96 are just a day apart on the November calendar every year is a story unto itself. Between a month before my nineteen birthday and a month before my twenty-seventh, I went from a semester of homelessness, lack of money for food and rent and living in a firetrap to finishing up a doctorate in history. If this were someone else’s story, I’d think that amazing, even almost unbelievable. At the time, I was so worn out and beat up by Joe Trotter, my dissertation committee, and the scars accumulated over that eight-year — really, twenty-year — period, that the idea of seeing myself as an American example of a Horatio Nelson story would’ve likely made me angry enough to spit blood.

Even now, I don’t and won’t see myself as exceptional. That’s that American bullshit about rags-to-riches stories, about being-a-credit-to-my-race tropes, that I’d be subscribing to here. What I really was back then was young and hungry. So young that I was willing to put up with all kinds of people’s baggage, taking near-minimum wage jobs, allowing people to call me out of my name, excusing racist comments and actions. All because I wanted the brass ring, for myself and for my family. I was already hungry, from years in poverty, from years without friendship bonds, from years of people not recognizing my, dare I say, brilliance. I had a chip on my shoulder, but it wasn’t because I was mad. I was after a righteous reckoning.

Two decades removed from those Carnegie Mellon days, and approaching thirty years since Ron Slater and my band of new friends kept me in money and food during Thanksgiving ’88 and beyond, and I am thankful. I am thankful that I am no longer either of those versions of myself. The one too afraid to ask for help, and the one too naive to realize that the America I believed in for so long never existed. I am thankful that I know more about asking for and providing help, about understanding that in this America, help might never arrive, at least when folks most need it. I am thankful mostly that I still have optimism, I still have drive, and I still have people who like and love me enough to remind me that a few of America’s giga-pixels are worth savoring.

Songs in the Key of Life at 40

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Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life LP/CD cover and sleeve, 1976, 1999. (http://genius.com).

Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life LP/CD cover and sleeve, 1976, 1999. (http://genius.com).

In all the nuclear meltdowns in the last weeks of Election ’16 and in the asteroid impact of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, I almost completely forgot about one of the modern era’s greatest milestones. At the end of September, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life double-album turned forty years old!

My wife swears that this was Stevie Wonder’s last great production of genius, that virtually all the music he’s done since has either been merely “that’s nice” or complete schlock. But compared to Songs In The Key Of Life, at least 75 percent of the music produced since 1500 CE would be schlock! I mean, between “I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and my all-time favorite, “As,” who could ask for anything more out of an album or an artist?

My fandom for Songs in the Key of Life has occurred over several stages since its release on September 28, 1976. I was nearly seven when the double-album dropped, and my life couldn’t have been messier. Between my Mom and my father Jimme’s rocky and violent divorce process, my own coping with sexual assault, and my Mom getting kidney sick and ending up at Mount Vernon Hospital as a patient for three months. Add to this having babysitters as primary caregivers during that time, and a second-grade teacher who wasn’t exactly sympathetic to Black kids who couldn’t settle down. It was a rough time, maybe even rougher than my Hebrew-Israelite years.

But songs from the double-LP were there, either thanks to WBLS-107.5 FM, or to people blasting songs off 8-tracks and cassette decks out of their cars in South Side Mount Vernon. Or, in the case of hanging out with my dad, because of his drinking buddies playing Stevie Wonder’s songs over and over again. For those first few years, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” were my favorite songs from Songs in the Key of Life. That was probably because they were the only songs from the set I’d heard in full prior to 1982.

Then, with the Wendy crush/puppy love/mini-love of the spring and summer of ’82, one of the songs my mind conjured up was “As.” The song’s more than seven minutes long, and I barely knew the words “until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky,” much less the entirety of the poetry of that song, much less its full meaning. But my heart knew how that song made me feel, and for matter, how Wendy made me feel, at least for a time. Once my stepfather Maurice began beating on me, my Mom lost her job, and we slipped into welfare poverty, though, Stevie Wonder’s greatest works slipped from my mind.

Nine years later, and it was my friend Elaine who reintroduced me to Songs in the Key of Life. It was during the spring and summer of ’91, when I both liked and loathed Elaine at the same time. It was also the summer before graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, and it was like my mind and heart knew I needed to feed myself more than Phil Collins, Anita Baker, PE, and Salt ‘n Pepa. I borrowed Elaine’s set of cassette recordings from the genius’ 2-LP set, and spent parts of April, May, and June walking the 3.4 miles between my place in S’Liberty and my job at Western Psychiatric in Oakland listening to Stevie Wonder. I played Songs in the Key of Life straight through a half-dozen times. But of all the songs, “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God” became two of my favorites. After the potential for a more serious relationship with Elaine faded, I gave her back her cassettes in August.

It would be another fifteen years before I finally got Songs in the Key of Life on CD. It was 2006, and I’d finally gotten me and my wife into the iPod era. Between that and my work on my memoir Boy @ The Window, I wanted to explore what made me me musically over the years. In remembering my Wendy-love days, I literally had to go through every song on Songs in the Key of Life again before I remembered “As” in full. I was shocked that after thirty years and so many other Stevie Wonder songs, that it had remained a melody in my heart and mind. It was in the summer of ’06 that “As” became my favorite song off this all-time great album(s).

Given what had occurred in the US over the past decade, and what has been happening to people of color in the US for as long as I’ve been alive, Stevie Wonder’s music from Songs in the Key of Life is always relevant, always uplifting, always life-affirming. Trust me, with Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, “the force of evil plans” will try “to make you its possession.” And yes, I did think “that love would be in need of love today,” because it wasn’t as if “hate” wasn’t going around “breaking hearts” and bodies during the Obama years.

But I’ll close with this, perhaps the most important stanza from “As.” This, to remind myself and all of you America’s may be in more trouble than ever before, but know that trouble has been with America longer than we’ve had the privilege of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life as genius. Thanks to Wendy, Elaine, my former Mount Vernon neighbors, and unknown New Yorkers, for playing these songs for me over the years, whether they meant to or not.

We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you

If Blacks Should “Go Back to Africa,” Whites Should Go to Australia

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Go Back to Africa! Go Back to Mexico! cartoon, 2003. (Luis Castellon; http://google.com).

Go Back to Africa! Go Back to Mexico! cartoon, 2003. (Luis Castellón; http://google.com).

It is part of the racism, narcissism, and stupidity of many US Whites to respond to protests, die-ins, boycotts, and even the most minor criticisms of systemic racism and oppression with “Go Back to Africa.” Or, “If you don’t love America, then leave,” as if most Blacks have a real choice. The amount of ignorant cruelty in these knee-jerk responses says as much about the individual racism of these supposedly right-standing Americans as it does about their comfortability with systemic racism and the psychological — if not material — benefits these Whites draw from Black suffering. Or, Native American suffering, as has been the case with the response of Whites to the Dakota Access pipeline protests over the past couple of months. Or Latino suffering, with chants of “Build that wall!,” “Send them back!,” and “Kick them out!” by Donald Trump’s exclusively White supporters for more than a year.

A few years ago, I had a White student in a World History course who was upset by my lecture about the historical consensus that the American Revolution wasn’t as transformational an event as Americans pretend. The student was so caught up that told me to “Go back to Africa” after the class. The lecture was about the nature of revolutions, and per usual, I compared the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, and used various measures to compare their impact on the social order, on political systems, and on the social mobility of the citizenry after the fact. And as usual, I showed that there was much more change in France and Haiti (the latter the first successful slave-led revolution in modern history) than there would be in the new US until the Civil War.

But I had shattered a student’s worldview of America as always good, and the American Revolution and the US Constitution that followed it as part of some predestined, divinely-inspired, genius-infused plan of greatness. The result was the student yelling at me, “You’re anti-patriotic!,” “You don’t love America!,” and “If you don’t love America, you need to get out!” I mostly ignored the student’s racial Tourette’s, and got to the heart of their issue: a mediocre grade on a paper assignment and their complete misunderstanding of US history in the context of world history.

23andMe sample results, November 2, 2016. (http://ForumBiodiversity.com).

23andMe sample results, November 2, 2016. (http://ForumBiodiversity.com).

The student’s issue, though singularly unusual for me in a classroom setting, is something Blacks hear from Whites in everyday settings literally every day. Like selfish, brattish five-year-olds, many Whites claim everything and everyone as their playthings, and if we disagree, we should leave, we should suffer. But “Go back to Africa?” Even without DNA testing, demographers know half of the 44 million Blacks in the US are partly White, and about one in eight are part Native American. In my case, should I go back to Nigeria, Ghana, or the Ivory Coast, and to what group? Igbo, Yoruba, Wolof? Should I drill down, find that I’m at least one-eighth Choctaw, and apply for tribal membership, so I can live on a reservation in Oklahoma? Or should I sue the estates of the Scotch-Irish assholes who came to the US between 1795 and 1818 for owning my ancestors, for their crimes against humanity and for reparations, and then move to Edinburgh or Dublin?

No, I don’t have to leave at all. As James Baldwin said, “I insist on the right to criticize” the US “perpetually”. But if the White folk who firmly believe Blacks, Latinos, and even Native Americans ought to leave, maybe they should buy a one-way ticket to someplace that will make them feel even more at home than Europe. For these “Leave America [insert racial epithet]” people, they should seriously consider Australia. Seriously. Australia is perhaps the closest America’s Whites-first people can get to a “White man’s country” or a White person’s utopia they can find. Sure, there’s also Europe, but European immigration policies would likely lead to a high-rejection rate, due to lack of skills, higher education, and no need for political asylum.

Then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard not welcoming migrants and asylum seekers cartoon, June 30, 2012. (Bill Leak, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/).

Then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard not welcoming migrants and asylum seekers cartoon, June 30, 2012. (Bill Leak, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/).

In Australia, the image of the rugged White individual remains in full bloom. Their immigration policies are very much the ones Trump’s almost exclusively White supporters would go for. In Australia’s case, anyone without a passport or a visa coming to their shores by boat finds themselves in detention centers in the remote Southwest Pacific island nation Nauru or on Los Negros Island in Manus Province, off Papua New Guinea. For those with visas who’ve committed minor crimes like a traffic violation, those visas can be revoked automatically, and those people can be sent to deportation centers on Christmas Island (off the southwest coast of Indonesia, but an Australian territory), or in remote parts of Australia (less likely). Everyone from asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, and Syria to Britons and New Zealanders arrested for misdemeanors have all been caught up in Australia’s Migration Act, its Pacific Solution, and its post-Pacific Solution solution.

Now this is a country for American White folk who want a country mostly in line with their values. You just have to leave for Australia. One caveat, though. In 1996, Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement, which restricted ownership of semi-automatic and automatic weapons. But that shouldn’t matter. Whiteness should trump all for Whites who would take up my offer to leave for Australia, a continent and country of 24 million, a place that is 92 percent White.

David Wolf, A Teacher I Hope To Never Become

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Film critic Gene Shalit (closest approximation I could find to David Wolf), circa 1980. (http://imdb.com).

Film critic Gene Shalit (closest approximation I could find to David Wolf), circa 1980. (http://imdb.com).

This date was one of the great ones during my Boy @ The Window years. It was a day (and evening) that almost made me forget the role I’d been in since the spring of ’81. One as the sometimes adult male with adult responsibilities on the one hand, and as the nearly ostracized emotional equivalent of a twelve-year-old on the other. But yes, even small miracles (at least in my mind at the time) did happen. The New York Metropolitans, my Mets, won Game 7 of the 1986 World Series thirty years ago on this date 8-5, a biting cold Monday night at the end of October! My Giants beat and beat up the Redskins that same evening 27-24, on their way to a 14-2 record and their first Super Bowl. My underdogs weren’t anymore.

Within three days of that ultimate day of vicarious escapism, the reality of having neglected my studies had sunk in. Or, to be completely honest, the reality of needing much more time to study than I could’ve ever devoted, even without the distractions of senioritis, my Mets and Giants winning or on their way to championships, set in. Because that’s what it would’ve taken for me to have a successful senior year at Mount Vernon High School academically. A greater commitment to AP Physics C, AP English, and AP Calculus AB than my bifurcated life would have allowed. Between four siblings ages two to seven, college applications, and constant errands and chores for my Mom, my weekends of tracking down my father at one watering hole or another, I should’ve gone off to college after my junior year. I should’ve used the summer of ’86 to take gym or something to get the one-quarter credit I needed to graduate.

Instead, here I was with the one teacher who was probably the one most ill-equipped to handle any students other than near-genius devotees to AP Physics. I had David Wolf the year before in high school Physics, so I knew how intolerant he could be toward students who were unprepared, or “just [didn’t] get it.” Or, at least I thought I knew. The week before the Mets’ Game 7 win, Wolf had given us our end-of-marking-period exam on mechanics, and the day after was when we received our exams back with grades. I had the fourth highest score out of seven students, a 22 out of 100. You can look at any grades I’d earned prior to and since this exam in any course between kindergarten and doctorate, and none come close to a 22.

But it obviously wasn’t just me.

David Wolf was another character who was sometimes funny but otherwise sucked as a teacher. It would’ve been hard for me to know what Butler had been like as a teacher when he was happily married. Wolf was a mediocre teacher on his best days because he simply didn’t care if we learned anything in his class. Of course that didn’t make him much different from most of our other teachers. What made Wolf different was the fact that he went out of his way to embarrass students, as if the shock of being outed by him would somehow make us better.

Wolf “taught” us the more difficult AP Physics C version of this Physics course, involving mechanics, electricity and magnetism. It was the equivalent of second semester Physics right from the start, and most of us needed at least a semester of Calculus to keep up with him. Had I known this was Wolf’s plan, I may well have taken my former classmate Laurell’s advice (eight years too late) and switched to AP Biology. Instead, I chose to see this as a new challenge I could take on and will myself through, just like I had in every other difficult class I’d taken up to that point. But after the first two months of the year, it crossed my mind that struggling through this course wasn’t worth it.

Sink or Swim Republican Lifeguard Cartoon, Mike Luckovich, March 14, 2013. (Luckovich/Atlanta Journal-Constitution; http://luckovich.blog.ajc.com).

Sink or Swim Republican Lifeguard Cartoon, Mike Luckovich, March 14, 2013. (Luckovich/Atlanta Journal-Constitution; http://luckovich.blog.ajc.com).

When I wrote in Boy @ The Window, “Laurell was practically using third-semester Calculus to build the Great Pyramids by comparison,” it was hyperbole, of course. Partly because Egyptian calculus was likely more complicated. And partly because Laurell had done something that I couldn’t do. She had gone to Wolf at the end of eleventh grade and borrowed from him a copy of the AP Physics textbook. She had devoted much of her summer to studying up on AP Physics and AP Calculus BC (once the harder version of AP Calculus) before day one of twelfth grade. So Laurell was going to do well, no matter what. Dozens of hours to study wasn’t sometime I had at chaotic 616, textbook weeks ahead of time or otherwise.

However, me doing well or terribly wasn’t my issue with Wolf. It was his sink-or-swim approach, with no attempt to help struggling students in any way. It was his dickish attitude, where he would literally lean on his stool or against the chalkboard insulting us as we attempted to answer a Physics problem.

Wolf’s class remained the most painful academic experience I’d have in Humanities. Period…Wolf continued to berate and belittle us, wondering, ‘Why are you still here?,’ or exclaiming ‘You decided to show up today!’ On the rare occasions I managed to solve a problem at the chalkboard, he gave me a Bronx cheer, the kind good Yankees fans gave when their team was down ten runs and a Yankee hit a home run to close the gap to nine.

Now, some would say this was good preparation for college. Where? While I certainly have known indifferent professors regarding my own abilities or their distance from other students in general, I’ve only known a few who even threw out the rare bit of sarcasm in the classroom. Plus, for courses like Physics, there were TAs who could walk students through problems better than Khan Academy. Even saying that Wolf was good preparation for graduate school would be a stretch. Quiet exclusion, rather than insults and ostracism, is the rule at the doctoral level. And having an advisor like Wolf would’ve led to blood, and not my own, plain and simple.

After years in the classroom with high school, undergrad, and grad students, I understand that being a professor isn’t the same as being a K-12 teacher. Most of the time, I’m not dealing with parents (except as students), I don’t teach five days a week, and I have the expectation that my students should behave as college students. All the more reason that as I have grown older and more experienced as an educator, the more I’ve found Wolf’s behavior objectionable, even almost unforgivable. In all seriousness, why even show up to teach if your primary form of solace at work is yelling insults at students while standing in the hallway in between class periods?

Academia’s Racist Expectations

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The long wall that separates Morningside Park (and Harlem) from Columbia University, New York, circa 2008. (http://Biking-in-Manhattan.com).

The long wall that separates Morningside Park (and Harlem) from Columbia University, New York, circa 2008. (http://Biking-in-Manhattan.com).

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

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

Headwinds, July 2011. (http://forbes.com).

Headwinds, July 2011. (http://forbes.com).

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

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

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

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

Israeli armored car patrolling barrier wall between it and Palestinian West Bank, June 17, 2016. (http://presstv.ir).

Israeli armored car patrolling barrier wall between it and Palestinian West Bank, June 17, 2016. (http://presstv.ir).

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

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

The Meat-Market Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Time For Jealousy

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Envy, June 2009. (http://psychologytoday.com).

Envy, June 2009. (http://psychologytoday.com).

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

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

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

Smorgasbord, from breakfast to dinner, September 2010. (http://web2printexperts.com).

Smorgasbord, from breakfast to dinner, September 2010. (http://web2printexperts.com).

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

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

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

Public Enemy logo (note the crosshairs target), September 30, 2016. (http://twitter.com).

Public Enemy logo (note the crosshairs target), September 30, 2016. (http://twitter.com).

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

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

Love Canal, suburban community turned EPA Superfund site, circa 1980. (http://buffalonews.com).

Love Canal, suburban community turned EPA Superfund site, circa 1980. (http://buffalonews.com).

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