“Let Me Tell You About Ms. Martha…”

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Ms. Martha with her grandson, Silver Spring, MD, December 25, 2009. (Donald Earl Collins)

I’ve been reluctant to write this post. Not because I have nothing good to say about my late mom-in-law, someone I’d known for nearly half my 51 years. I have nothing but good things to write about her. Not because I’m grieving. I often write when I’m in an altered state emotionally or psychologically. No, I’m a bit nervous because this will be my first blog post about any specific member of my wife’s family, Thanksgiving 2001 excepted. I’m mostly concerned that some will see what I have to write about my mom-in-law as an indirect slap toward my own mother and parents/guardian in general.

Trust me, it’s not. That I first met Martha Mae Guinn Levy (1931-2020) a month after my twenty-sixth birthday meant the nature of this relationship was never going to be strictly parent-to-child or mother-to-son.

The truth is, Ms. Martha really did treat me that way. But not just that. Sometimes our conversations could be contentious, like professor-student, or like two bickering friends, or brother-sister. The woman had nearly 39 years on me, but the battle-axe of a geezer could just as quickly be affectionate and a never-ending fountain of love and optimistic clichés. There are so many conversations, so many arguments, so many moments I could discuss that made me see all the facets and contradictions of my mom-in-law.

Ms. Martha made herself available for nearly every important event in my life since my then girlfriend introduced us on the last Saturday in January 1996. She attended my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon the following year. She drove me and her daughter to the Greyhound bus station in “dahntahn Picksburgh” in August 1999, so that we could begin our 20-plus years of living in the DMV, the Washington DC area. She shared a hotel room with my mom in 2000, just a few months after me and her daughter eloped. She came here to Silver Spring and watched at Sibley Hospital in DC as my wife gave birth to her one and only grandchild in 2003. She stayed with us for six weeks to watch her grandson in November and December of the same year, so that my wife could go back to work, and just before our son would start daycare.

But there’s one conversation that really and truly encompassed the evolution of our relationship over the years. It was in December 2013, just a few months after I had self-published Boy @ The Window. A week earlier, I had called my father about his yearly Christmas ritual of sending barely cashable Western Union money orders to give to his grandson for the holiday season. Instead, he mumbled and gave gruff one-word answers to my questions. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “I told you not to put me in your book,” he said, sounding hurt and embarrassed. “I didn’t want nothing to do with your book. You shoulda left the past in the past.” My dad actually hadn’t said any of these things in the seven years between first sentence and the rough final draft I ended up publishing that April. I had been completely open about what I was going to write and why. I guess having a paperback copy of Boy @ The Window in his hands to leaf through was too much for him.

The weekend before Christmas 2013, Ms. Martha called. She dialed up my partner on her cell phone to talk to me (mind you, she had my direct number, but called her daughter first). When I picked up Angelia’s phone, I heard “Hey Donald” in Ms. Martha’s gravelly voice. After a brief exchange, she said, “I wanna talk to you about your book.” I mailed Ms. Martha a copy of Boy @ The Window, along with my dad and a few others, but I hadn’t expected her to read it, at least not so quickly.

“I started reading and I didn’t wanna put it down,” Ms. Martha said. I was surprised. Really, I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t expected this response at all. Not because Ms. Martha didn’t read. I figured, Oh, she’s just being polite, especially after hearing from my dad a little more than a week earlier.

We talked about my book for nearly an hour and a half on my wife’s iPhone. I might as well have been doing a book talk as conversation with my mom-in-law. Ms. Martha asked questions about my Boy @ The Window years, wanting more details beyond the stories I did include. There were a lot of “I didn’t know…” and “I couldn’t believe…” comments about what I and my family lived through. She asked at least a dozen questions about my mom and her decision-making, about my brothers and sister, about my asshole classmates.

Mostly, she doted on me. “Oh boy! I liked this sentence here…,” Ms. Martha said while reading me back to me a number of times. When I explained away my accomplishments or challenges, she’d say, “…as far as that matter goes…” to remind me that what was normal for me was not normal for most tweeners or teenagers, not even Black ones living with poverty. “This was a joy to read,” she said so many times. She said she laughed and cried while reading the book, and laughed and cried while talking to me about it.

I ended that conversation with Ms. Martha thinking, Wow! This tough old woman really loves me! It made me feel better about writing Boy @ The Window. It made me feel better at a time when I felt low, about my writing, about switching careers, about life in general.

And yes, I truly loved and love Ms. Martha. I will miss our conversations, our rational disagreements, our out-of-nowhere arguments, our hugs, our embraces, and her love for me, her daughters, her grandson, for family and community more broadly. I will miss your presence and your voice in my life. May God bless you and keep you…and give you peace, in your life after life.

More Confessions From an Educated Fool

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Me and my receding hairline, May 22, 2020 (Donald Earl Collins)

The Sacrifice of the Lambdas

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Lambs from living to skewered (cropped and collaged), July 27, 2021. (Donald Earl Collins, via https://www.mygreekdish.com/recipe/greek-lamb-souvlaki-recipe-skewers-with-pita-bread/ and © Alison Toon/Adobe stock)

Most people I’ve met and known over the past 30 years have no clue as to what it is to teach high school, college, master’s and doctoral students. None. They think we who are serious educators just wing it and lecture to death, with no preparation at all. They have no inkling of what it takes to research topics, write articles for different audiences, to work on a book-length manuscript, or to publish one. Nor do they understand the job market — any job market, not just in higher education — or the psychological and emotional burden of holding students’ trust, or the constancy of systemic elitism, racism, sexism, in these elite white and elite Black spaces. 

I know my mom and dad never have. “You might as well have another high school diploma,” my mom said of my 10-year pursuit of my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD, on the week of my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon University. It was the day after she had finished her associate’s, a ten-year trek on her part.

My dad during one drunken stupor accused me of lying about having earned my master’s in barely two semesters. “Anybody coulda gone somewhere and made up a fake one,” he said in 1992 during my summer visit to New York, when I showed him my actual degree from the University of Pittsburgh. A few weeks later, after talking with his two white bosses, the Levi brothers, my now hungover dad admitted, “they say you can get a master’s in a year.” I said in response, “Really? I had no idea!”

But that’s only the beginning of the sacrifices people like me with advanced degrees and training make in earning these degrees and pursuing careers related to them. I know people whose first jobs were in weird and not-quite-ideal places. University of Maine at Machias. Austin College in North Texas. North Dakota State University. Washington State University. University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Sam Houston State University. University of Mary Washington. Northern Illinois. Illinois State.

Now, before anyone says, “Why, these seem like good places to work,” my response is, “Sure, if you are white!” Yes, I said it. If you are Black, Brown, Indigenous, man, woman, or transgender, most of these are between weird and horrible places to work. The communities around many of these campuses could be or would have once been sundown towns. Or, one could be a place where they tried to lynch someone like me 10 or 20 years earlier. The only people on many of these campuses who know your needs for culture and community play Division I sports or are the other three or four colleagues who aren’t white. To go through two, even three jobs to land at a place that provides one a tenure-line or tenured position — this is a massive sacrifice.

It means living a sort-of half-life, of only focusing on your professional development, or of partners putting their lives on hold so that you can build your career. And all while dealing with an everyday deluge of direct racism, isolation, marginalization, and erasure on the job. If one is lucky, you find community off campus in some of these places. In more white-bred (or more accurately, white-corn-fed) communities, that deluge can turn into a tsunami, and might force you to stay at home and away from these racist and misogynistic and homophobic Children-of-the-Corn-types as much as humanly possible.

There are those like me who never fully believed in making these kinds of sacrifices in order to publish a scholarly article or book, just so that we could get the plum job at a major university. But that choice means sacrifices, too. Like leaving your research and writing behind for a steadier and better-paying gig. But, at least in my case, I couldn’t ask my partner to drop her own aspirations while I took a job in the middle of Nowheresville (Colgate University, Slippery Rock, and Northern Illinois all come to mind here). 

So my first post-PhD job search between 1997 and December 2000 was an urban, mostly East Coast one. I turned down as many job interviews as I took on. I ended up in the nonprofit world in the DC area, though, and the abject racism I faced there was still not as bad as the elitism I dealt with during a job interview I had at Howard University. I said no to the only tenure-track job I was ever offered, with few regrets. But it still meant that I would lack the job stability necessary to build my writing career and to keep a steady paycheck. Not all sacrifices turn out the way any of us expect. 

My parents and other people born before 1955 have had the tendency to say to me in one version or another, “See, that’s why all that book learnin’ aint all that good for you. Better to do work with your hands. That’s how you become a man.” It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d become an award-winning author and full professor, or a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation. As far as they have always been concerned, I was sacrificing my mind to “useless facts.” If I had become divorced or homeless because of my path, on the other hand, they would’ve said, “I told you so.”

For the rest of folks in my life, mine is a “lazy” life, where my liberal butt “gets paid a lot of money to sit around and indoctrinate students.” All built on the fact that I and other faculty only teach for a few hours a week, instead of working from 8:30 to 5 like real Americans. They have no idea that I’ve given up ten years worth of weekends and holidays to prepare for my classes, review papers, grade assignments, to write a piece, to work on a manuscript or a new project, just in the past 13 years alone. Or, to meet with students struggling in the classroom or in life in general. The emotional toll of learning about some student or colleague’s trauma or abuse is incalculable. But, yeah, I’m “lazy” when I take a nap in the middle of the day, because it’s the only way I can get to seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period five days out of seven.

They have never experienced what it is like to have the same qualifications and make some of the same sacrifices as my more successful colleagues, and not get a specific job or a particular grant. Just recently, I learned that I will not get interviewed for a term faculty position in my department at American University. The job is the same job as the one I have worked at AU for the past three years, but as contingent faculty. Patting me on my head to tell me that I’ve made “valuable contributions to the university,” to students, and to the department does not make up for my sacrifices as a writer, as an educator, and as a historian.

And I still have it much easier than my less lucky colleagues, who may be working at three or even five universities to generate a full-time-equivalent income. Or those who have had nervous breakdowns from the brutal conditions of working for abusive institutions within the nested doll of this matrix of elitism, racism, misogynoir, and other -isms and -phobias that is the United States. Or those who are burned out husks of the educators and writers they used to be. Or still, others who’ve died because of their sacrifice. 

Not all sacrifices are worth it. Then again, assuming my mind and spirit remain intact, I might be able to drill NBA-range 3s and run faster than most of my students until my 75th birthday.

The White-Boy Logic of Supernatural

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Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki as Dean and Sam Winchester in Supernatural, Season 9, Episode 13 (“The Purge”) screenshot. Originally aired February 4, 2014.

One of the benefits of working from home for years is the ability to take in copious amounts of popular culture in passive and subliminal ways. For more than a decade before the pandemic, my daily schedule included a multitasking routine of writing, teaching, grading, working-out, napping, running errands, and getting my son off to school and my partner off to her job. All the while, I am consuming news and pop culture. BBC World News from 6 or 7 am until I go to the car to drive my spouse to the Metro stop or run errands, sometimes longer. In the Honda Element, listening to my tunes or ESPN 980 (before Dan Synder sold the station two years ago) or WAMU/NPR. And, bouncing from show to show while writing, grading, working out, making lunch, prepping dinner, sometimes taking a brief nap between 1:30 and 2:45 (when my son returned home from school) or between 3:45 and 6 pm (when it was time to pick my significant other up from the Metro). 

Of all the TNT reruns I’d put on in the midday slot over the years, between Bones, Castle, Arrow, and Law & Order, the one that has stuck with me the longest is Supernatural. Its final episode aired at the end of this past year. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a white boy’s show, or because it’s about as American as a show filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia can get. Whatever it was, I went from calling the show “Brooders” and “White Males Brooding” to actually enjoying the series, a not-so-guilty pleasure in between grading, writing, and revising, and yoga poses, planks, pushups, crunches, free weights, and plyometrics.

That doesn’t mean I’ve watched it with an uncritical mind. Just like with what I’ve called “white male angst music” in the 1990s — alt rock and grunge (think Pearl Jam and Live here) — Supernatural is a tour-de-force of whitemansplaining the world. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki as Dean and Sam Winchester might play classic ‘70s rock in their legendary 1967 black Chevy Impala, but they are all “White, Discussion” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under The Bridge” in their attitudes. Seriously, how do two white dudes get away with mass murder while they constantly “save the world” with the “family business” of “hunting and killing monsters”?

The premise of the show, for the generation of folks who haven’t watched the 15 seasons of episodes between 2005 and 2020 (I watched my first episode in 2012, so there’s that), is that the Winchesters have to fight monsters born of supernatural forces while hunting for a yellow-eyed demon who killed their mother, and eventually, their father. In between bouts with demons, angels, archangels, Lucifer, Leviathans, Knights of Hell, Princes of Hell, the King of Hell, and God, er, “Chuck” himself, the Winchesters battled the usual. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, jinns, Greco-Roman, Norse, Incan, and Mayan gods, witches, and whatever other supernatural monster one could imagine. Supernatural was at its absolute best when the focus was on the ancient lore around cultural considerations of the metaphysical.  

But the overarching theme of Dean and Sam Winchester “saving the world” is the great white man’s white lie. How does anyone get credit for “saving the world” when they broke the world, the natural order, multiple times. Here’s a short list of the Winchester’s thirst for revenge leading to Armageddon:

– the father John Winchester selling his soul to the “yellow-eyed demon” to save Dean’s life (Season 1)

– Dean selling his soul to the same demon to save Sam’s life (Season 2)

– Sam drinking demon blood to kill a Princess of Hell and Dean torturing damned souls in Hell, breaking the last and the first of 66 seals to unleash Lucifer and the Four Horsemen on the planet (Season 4)

– Dean not allowing Sam to die after finishing the three trials to forever seal up the gates of Hell, and then tricking Sam into allowing a rogue angel possess him for months afterward (Seasons 8 and 9)

– Dean taking on the Mark of Cain, becoming a demon in the process, and Sam freeing Dean from the Mark, unleashing the Darkness (think if so-called dark matter was God’s sister here) and another universe-destroying force (Seasons 9, 10, and 11)

– The Winchesters allowing a nephilim to live and its power to open up a rift between alternative Earths, a rift that threatened both versions of the planet in the process (Seasons 12 and 13)

– Engaging in a all-out war with God, ending only when they resurrect the nephilim Jack from the Empty, as he become the new God, and the old God becomes just Chuck, “just a slob like one of us,” ala 1990s rocker Joan Osborne (Seasons 14 and 15).

Dean and Sam die and go to Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory multiple times in this series. How narcissistic do even white guys — get to be when they assume that they can come back to life over and over again in order to “save” their brother while also saving the world? Especially when they sacrifice other family and friends to keep each other living and hunting monsters? So many die in this show because of their ignorance, so many who didn’t have to. When you take apart the context of their “jobs” as hunters involves hustling pool tables, identity theft and hacking credit cards, stealing cars, and regularly killing people who’ve turned into monsters or in the midst of demon possession. Any two of these gets Black and Brown and Indigenous folks a one-way ticket to prison or a grave, with no chance for resurrection.

It’s hilariously macabre and the height of arrogance of two white guys believing they are doing more good than harm. But isn’t Supernatural really just a parable about how white guys see themselves in the world? Everything is there for the taking, it’s all about us and our lives. Between the drugs, the boozing, the meaningless misogynistic sex, the endless buffet of death by food, Supernatural is the ultimately expression of white male-dominance, or at least, the quest for it, from two average Joes.

Near the end of Season 9, Episode 13 (“The Purge”), Dean and Sam talk, not for the last time, about putting their need to save each other from certain death above the needs and lives of everyone else. Sam has a moment of complete clarity, one that fades away by the end of Season 10 (see the list above). 

You think you’re my savior, my brother, the hero. You swoop in, and even when you mess up, you think what you’re doing is worth it, because you’ve convinced yourself you’re doing more good than bad…but you’re not…What is the upside of me being alive?

Dean’s response:

You kidding me? You and me — fighting the good fight — together.

It never occurred to these characters, and perhaps, even the actors, producers, directors, and writers for Supernatural, that Dean and Sam Winchester are the real monsters here. Two everyday white guys who think that killing monsters and a host of supernatural entities is the solution to everything. Did they even consider that killing monsters might be the reason they need to keep hunting, because they create more each time they kill one? Or that maybe because the US is a place full of kidnapping, rape, enslavement, genocide, and murder, this nation is a natural incubator of supernatural hauntings and possessions, a place where all monsters can thrive? Did they ever see themselves as the humans they never seem to understand in the show? Probably not until the final episode in Season 15, when Dean and Sam finally die — this time for good, and for good. 

I never wanted them to “Carry On Wayward Son,” as Kansas sang it in 1976, as a choir of white girls sang it Season 10, Episode 5. As sad as it was to see the final finale of Dean and Sam Winchester, we need a world without the hundreds of millions of Dean and Sam Winchesters around us, an anti-racist world. A world without these narcissistic and yes, racist and misogynistic and homophobic monsters who see themselves as do-gooders.

The Unbearable Whiteness of White Proximity Fuses, Part II

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Front cover of my copy of Rebecca Carroll’s Surviving the White Gaze, July 3, 2021. (Donald Earl Collins)

The other and more direct parallel with Carroll’s journal in Surviving the White Gaze that comes to mind was someone I worked and went to school with at the University of Pittsburgh. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call her Heather, because I can no longer recall her name. She was a Black/biracial young woman from Erie, Pennsylvania, adopted by a white couple as a baby. I met her my third year at Pitt in 1989, when she was a freshman. We worked together for a while on a psychological epidemiology project that the great Juan Mezzich ran, as part of a larger project to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (turning the then-DSM-IIIR into the DSM-IV) and the International Classification of Diseases (turning the ICD-9 into the ICD-10). Aside from the fact that I thought Heather was cute, the first thing I noticed about her was her hair. It had been straightened, permed, and blown out beyond all recognition of a curl. Even at 19, I knew immediately that she was biracial, and didn’t have a Black woman who knew how to do her hair in her life.

I didn’t say a word. It wouldn’t have mattered if I did. Heather was very much standoff-ish, to me and the couple of other Black and Brown students who staffed up the project. She got along extremely well with the White students and staff, though. She rarely said hello when I saw her outside of Western Psych, on or off campus. Honestly, I felt sorry for her.

In the summer of 1991, when I became a full-time staff member on another of Mezzich’s projects, I worked with Heather for a few weeks. This was when I learned more about her upbringing and extremely limited exposure to Black folk. The questions she would ask about what I listened to on my Walkman, songs by Anita Baker, PE, Earth, Wind & Fire, even Phil Collins. She was maybe two years younger than me, and only knew ‘70s and ‘80s rock. Wow.

But, one day, Heather or another staff member had asked me a question — I don’t remember who asked, or what the question was. It one with a historical component, which I answered in typical granular exactitude, because, me. “Are you autistic or something?,” Heather immediately blurted out, as if I had some disease she had yet to see first-hand. “If by autistic, you mean the Rain Man movie? No, I just have a very good memory,” I answered back, rhetorically, with irritation and a bit of side eye. “Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you,” Heather continued, and then she went on for several minutes about why she thought I was autistic. 

I was gobsmacked by Heather’s entitled ignorance and by the racist and ableist implications of her questions and response. Seriously? I’ve been living on my own, mostly successfully navigating the world since I was 17, adulting since I was 12, and somehow I’m Dustin Hoffman with the most serious form of this neuro-social illness, all because my memory is stronger than a bank vault made of titanium and cobalt? And all this because I’m probably the first Black guy you’ve met with a bachelor’s degree from anywhere other than podunk Western Pennsylvania? All this and more ran like a chyron in my brain as I listened to Heather, now sensing my ire, stumbling over her words to make herself sound like she knew what she was talking about.

There were more than a few places in Carroll’s book where I saw the girl and the young woman that I saw in Heather, taking all of her assumptions about Blackness, about Black people, about whiteness and race, and applying them, often in damaging ways. I was absolutely disgusted at what Carroll and Tess did to her one-time English professor and advisor at the University of New Hampshire. I literally stopped reading Surviving the White Gaze for a week afterward. How could you?!?, I thought. Even with zero exposure to Black men, you had to know you put this man’s job in jeopardy over a minor utterance. You had to know that Tess’ vitriol toward him was about him not finding her intellectually interesting, or worse still, rebuffing potential flirtations. As a professor teaching mostly white students off and on for nearly three decades, I know this part all too well.

Carroll gradually embraced and uncovered her Blackness, over time, through years of alcoholism and eating disorders and fresh traumas from folks White and Black in her life. Her experience, though, is all too uniquely common from where I sit. There is the all too common story of someone the product of a Black-White relationship stumbling through life to discover their true selves and their Blackness, a story that is sadly still so easy to sell to a white-dominated book publishing industry and to a white-reading audience. But even for this sub-genre, Carroll’s willingness to reveal more than she conceals is really necessary, even as it feeds the beast, because she is still a work-in-progress at 52. 

There is also the all-too-common assumption that Black folk who aren’t raised by white parents or the product of a biracial pairing somehow don’t have any identity issues at all. Seriously? Anyone ever read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye? We live in a white-dominant society, with white supremacy and white-ways as its main, everyday features. While most Black folk know and love their Blackness, it does not mean there isn’t a struggle to secure our identities as Black folk. Proximity to white people, class privilege, gender, age, and more play a role into the growing-pains-trajectory of how each of us gets to be comfortable in our own skin (or not). 

As for Wendy and Heather, it’s difficult to say where they are on their own trajectories. I haven’t spoken to either of them in years, decades in Heather’s case. But last time I saw Heather, it was May 1995 at a Pharmor store in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. I had just received my Spencer Fellowship award to write my dissertation. Heather was different, too. Her hair had gloss and curls, and her clothes fit better. We ended up talking for a few minutes, with me wishing her well. In thinking about this moment, I’ve wondered if Heather ever fully embraced her Blackness. In my imaginations, I think of her as having done so.

The Unbearable Whiteness of White Proximity Fuses, Part I

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A field of allegedly civilian-friendly land mines (cropped), September 14, 2018. (https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a25064634/better-land-mine-us-army-gator/; Andrew Renneisen, Getty Images)

I just finished reading Rebecca Carroll’s diary-esque gem of a memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. It is 313 pages of fearlessness in presenting people as they are, and not as one would like them to be, especially when it comes to parents and parent figures. Like with so many books I’ve read in the past six years, I laughed, I cried, I got angry at Carroll, I got angry for her as well. If you want to learn all the ways not to parent an adopted Black/biracial child in lily-white New Hampshire during Generation X’s growing-up years, then Surviving the White Gaze is definitely for you.

As someone born at the end of 1969, the fact that Carroll is only seven months older than me immediately stood out. And because I often think through time in music, her occasional name-dropping made me think of the eclectic music I grew up around. A Steely Dan reference here, a David Bowie reference there for her. But because of her almost hermetically-sealed experience in everyday proximity to White folk, there weren’t any references to Alice Coltrane or Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire or Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. My three years of fractured relations to pop culture as a result of the Hebrew-Israelite years (abuse aside) have nothing on Carroll’s growing-up years in endless, toxic whiteness, musically and otherwise.

Still, there are layers to Carroll’s life and book that I do understand because of my own proximity to whiteness growing up, and my proximity to two people who may and may not have benefited from such proximity. One was Wendy, my first true crush, my first real and unrequited love. I commented on this in Boy @ The Window, partly because Wendy brought it up during my interviews with her over two days in 2006, and partly because I observed this behavior first hand over our years in middle school and high school.

A couple of crazy rumors emerged. None of which I could believe in their entirety. One was that she was part White and Black – or ‘mixed’ or ‘Oreo’ as the rumors about Wendy’s background were worded – especially from ___. It was based mostly on sightings of her eventual stepfather, who was White. I thought it was part of the reason some of my affluent White classmates found Wendy interesting. There were times I thought Wendy took advantage of the assumptions made about her at the same time. She was invited to their homes, occasional parties, and was a part of a circle that I called ‘the Benetton Group,’ the true cool of Humanities…

I do not think that either Wendy or Carroll were completely conscious of their desire to take advantage of the exoticism that their white classmates ascribed to them. I think that every child has a desire to be liked, and if the reason is embedded in lighter skin, or othering, or proximity to whiteness, then so be it. Even if there’s a great price to pay in one’s understanding of their identity (or lack thereof), especially later on in life. 

Carroll is extremely clear about how fractured her mirror became as she transitioned from child to teenager to young woman, courtesy of her biological white mother Tess. The kindest way to describe Tess is that she’s a piece of work. Really, I can think of few parents more emotionally and psychologically abusive than Carroll’s biological mother. It’s not like I don’t speak from the experience of having a mom hell-bent to make me and my siblings hypermasculine foot-soldiers for an anti-queer patriarchy and misogyny. Having an alcoholic father and a stepfather that beat me up a few times? I’d still take that over Carroll’s bio-mom Tess, who only saw Carroll as a sexual being or a potential one, at 10 years old, because that’s how Carroll’s bio-mom saw Black men and Latinx men, possibly even Carroll’s half siblings, too. 

Carroll’s adoptive parents weren’t much better, taking a “you’ll figure it out” approach to parenting that fell below the already low bar of GenXers being “latch-key kids” as a result of parents adulting their children at ages 6, 7, 8, and 9. None of them protected Carroll from sexual abuse, or prepared her to understand her Blackness. As Carroll wrote, they tried to “erase” her Blackness. I’d go a step further, though. The three of them attempted to make Carroll raceless, white without being white, an exotic extension of their white-bred lives.

In Cicadas and Graduation Years

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Noah and me, stuck in a post-graduation moment, Montgomery Blair HS, Silver Spring, MD, June 2, 2021. (Angelia N. Levy)

Hard to believe but still true. Today, our son graduates from high school, nearly 34 years after my own high school graduation, or three cicadas cycles (1987, 2004, and 2021). In between has been “my second childhood” of Pittsburgh, undergrad and grad. In between was learning how to be comfortable in my own skin, dating, marrying. In between was my beginning to reject so much of the fear and bs that my parents and idiot guardian and others fed to me. Otherwise there would be no graduation of our soon-to-be 18-year-old son to celebrate, no reason to work to be an example to him about building and walking a path, no misogynoir or misogyny to give up.

I have only been alive for four cicadas cycles (1970, 1987, 2004, 2021), our son in the middle of number two. Most humans in this part of the world don’t get to see more than five cycles (I’d have to make it to 85 to see my sixth cycle, and who knows what the US would be like by then). 

But there’s symmetry here. I was in my first year of life when I likely saw but could not possibly remember my first cicadas. So was our son in the late spring of ‘04. I graduated high school in the middle of the cicadas’ mating season in ‘87. I vaguely remember them. I walked so far and so fast in those days. My headphones and my Walkman were practically glued to my ears and left hip and belt. I may have noticed the unceasing chirring and flying and crunches a time or two. But I walked at Warp Factor 3 or 5 blasting Genesis, White Snake, Whitney Houston, or U2 through your ears down one Mount Vernon street or in Co-Op City or somewhere in between. The cicadas’ were mostly a crunch speed bump on my way to obsessive heartbreak and on my way to college and Pittsburgh.

Our son’s path has been bumpy, and not just because he walks at a tortoise’s pace. He’s not a big fan of school. Nor does he have the fight-or-flight instincts I had when I was his age, well-honed from years of trauma and living in a place where no one cared how broken I was. His musical tastes barely register on the decibel meter. He often claims he likes “nothing,” but I’ve found him bopping to The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” and Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes” and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” in recent years. He apparently does like one indie rock band, Bloc Party, a UK group.

Music has changed so much over the past three cicadas cycles. So has our world. When I graduated nearly 34 years ago, Cameo’s “Candy” and “Word Up,” Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” U2’s “With Or Without You,” Luther’s “Stop To Love,” Europe’s “Final Countdown,” and Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” were the sappy hits of the moment. Yet some songs were subversive, and deliberately so, like “With Or Without You” (who thought this song was about romantic love? — certainly not me!), Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” and Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times.” And there was the music that as a 51-year-old I’ll admit I knew was wack and lame even at the time, including anything by Glass Tiger or Starship. The cicadas must have loved it when I warped by blasting this schlock.

Our son might not like much music, but it isn’t because we don’t play any at home or in the car. We play the music we grew up around, the music of our adult choices, the music we listened to despite and because of our parents. Blues, gospel, real R&B, rap, hip-hop soul, punk rock, heavy metal, ‘80s pop, ‘90s pop, grunge, jazz, smooth jazz, emo, country (that’s my spouse, definitely not me), and yes, even BTS. All are welcome to the eclectic music party. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel the need to pick a genre. Our family is a jukebox, er, iPod, no, um, iPhone and Spotify of sounds. That’s not something a Walkman or 700 billion cicadas can duplicate.

But I also keep in mind two things. One is that from our son’s perspective, JLo’s On The 6, Coldplay’s “Clocks,” even Kanye’s The College Dropout is the growing-up-as-a-zillennial equivalent of The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Diana Ross & The Supremes’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye did the original), and Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” via his What’s Going On album was for me at 17. It took me years to appreciate the music, understand what it was always trying to say to me. Hopefully, with enough luck and time, our son will get there. Hopefully with enough cicadas cycles, so will our world.

Especially with the second issue. Have you heard the music of the past decade? BTS is fine, but will peak as all glambands do at some point. Between SZA and RZA and Sia and H.E.R. and Lizzo and J. Cole and Lil Nas X (love him, btw) and so many others, I’m longing for the days of Solange. I know, so five years ago. No instruments, no good lyrics, and aside from Lil Nas X and The Weeknd, not much subversiveness, either. A wall of sound that seems indecipherable, like the cicadas this morning. Hopefully, our son will decipher it all, for himself, if not for any of us.

BA Collins, 30 Years Ago

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Pitt logo, the one closest to what was on their brochures in April 1986, April 12, 2016. (http://pitt.edu).

As I have said in a couple of places this week, this time three decades ago I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. My major was History, with minors in Mathematics (courtesy of my 1.5 years working toward a Comp Sci degree) and Black Studies (before the powers that were changed the name of the degree to Africana Studies). Yay me!

My degree is nine years older than my marriage, between five and 10 years older than most of my students. Goofy semi-asexual me was more than 12 years away from becoming a father. It seems surreal to look back at myself from 30 years ago. Especially when there had been so many years before Saturday, April 27, 1991 when I didn’t think I’d make it to 30.

If I could somehow get a message to my 21-year-old self, and only one message, what would it be? Trust God? Write as if your life depends on it, because it will, and sooner than you think? Take time off after finishing the master’s next year? Move back to NY, so that you can please your Mom? Don’t try to date E, it will go badly?

No, no, no. None of those will do. Find your true self. Find your core beliefs. Admit your loves, your disdains, your anxieties, and your fears. You do that, you will be the writer and the person you always wanted to be. That’s what my dreams and my multiple muses have been saying for years. I’ve heard them, but only in bits and pieces, since I was in my teens.

Well, better lately than never, and better late than Laettner, as I say.