My AED Resignation

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Richard Nixon delivering the “V” sign outside Army One upon his final departure from the White House, August 9, 1974. (Robert L. Knudsen via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Five years ago today, on the second Friday in November ’07, I handed my resignation notice to my boss Sandy (see my post “Early November” from November ’08). We were at the end of a two-day final Directors Meeting for our Partnerships for College Access and Success grantees. I had decided to step down from my deputy director position with the initiative, and of course, with the Academy for Educational Development (AED). This wasn’t the first time I resigned from a job in order to move on to another job or to a new track in my career. But this was the first time I’d done it without much promise for new work.

I hadn’t even been offered my teaching position with University of Maryland University College at the time I resigned (that wouldn’t happen for another two weeks). Yet I was sure that after seven years at AED and nearly four years with PCAS, that my role as a full-time nonprofit manager with the organization was soon coming to an end. It was obvious that Lumina Foundation for Education was no longer interested in large long-term programmatic work on college access and college success, with changes in leadership and philosophy in the previous year. The additional grant extension that we worked on in ’06 was due to end in March ’08, and with my $70,000+/year salary, I’d find myself without work soon after.

There were other options. Sandy and the AED NY office (with my help in a few cases) had obtained some smaller grants for evaluation work from Citigroup, from Wallace, and from Lumina related to the PCAS work. None of this work was full-time, though, and would likely not be more than half-time work. I would then have to go through months of selling myself to other projects across the organization in order to get close to full-time and maintain my benefits. I’d done this once before, at the end of my time with New Voices, in late ’03 and early ’04. It was a stressful, gut-churning process, one that I didn’t want to repeat.

2007 AED Logo, November 9, 2012. AED no longer exists, releasing logo to public domain.

Plus, I’d learned so much about AED during that process and over those last four years in my deputy director job, most of it not good. Bad business practices, shady accounting practices, poor diversity and promotion practices (see my “AED Update – DOA for 50th Anniversary” from March ’11). I just saw AED as a way-station for people who were truly dedicated to social change, and not a place to build a career.

Still, the work at PCAS wasn’t complete, and would likely not get done (or get done at all deliberate speed – very slowly and gradually) if I just resigned with two weeks or four weeks’ notice. So I proposed the following in my resignation letter and in my conversation with Sandy. I gave three months’ notice, to ensure that I would complete any final reports for Lumina and to ensure my involvement in any potential funding opportunities to continue segments of the initiative. I proposed that I could finish the PCAS and related work as a consultant, making it easier for me to transition out of AED and for Sandy to transition PCAS. I could finish what would end up being a 144-page resource guide and a twenty-six-page scholarly journal article based on the PCAS work.

Sandy accepted my resignation and my proposal, of course. But I don’t think she believed I’d follow through with the resignation, given the amount of time I gave myself before my last day. I don’t think that she believed it until I submitted a copy of my resignation letter to Human Resources on January 9, ’08. She may have figured that my wife would talk me out of leaving.

But Angelia and me had discussed resigning as a calculated risk since the end of ’05. AED had rarely done right by me, right from the day I was first interviewed for a program officer position in November ’00. I was underpaid (given my skills, education and experience), and more important, I found the place an improper fit for the kind of work I wanted to do on education and other social justice issues. We had saved money and I had carefully applied for jobs in anticipation of this decision since the early part of ’06. A bit of good luck made it easier for me to move on, having been offered a part-time faculty position at UMUC right before Thanksgiving ’07.

Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption [screen shot] (1994), November 9, 2012. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws – low resolution & symbolic relevance to post.

The question I’ve been asked the most often in the past four and a half years has been whether I miss working at AED. I sometimes miss the money I made while working there, as it’s easier working one job with a standard schedule than teaching and the feast-and-famine cycles of consulting and contract work.

But I don’t miss the organization, which essentially no longer exists. I really only think about AED when I do work for an organization that reminds me of AED (not good) or when I post about my experiences. Still, I learned a lot about business and greed, administration and ethics, people, social change and fairness in my time there. A mixed blessing, indeed.

The Deadly Bliss of American Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Mom’s Milestone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Media, You’re Elitism is Showing

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Your fly is open: 7 awkward conversations people will never have with your, April 2015. (https://havemoreinfluence.com).

Elitism, and with it, the ability to ignore the pain and suffering of those with no voice, is the true common denominator in American news coverage. Press reports often are about securing access to the rich and powerful, about what news organizations believe the public wants to hear. There’s also the embedded assumption within the news establishment that the American public simply isn’t smart or caring enough to understand serious news that doesn’t involve or look like them.

The news media lets its captive American audience down because it seldom treats events with equal intensity. This is especially true of international news, which outside of The New York Times, NPR, Vice News, and PBS, is virtually nonexistent. On October 14, a suicide bomber set off two truck bombs in the center of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, leaving at least 300 dead and more than 300 wounded. And though American reporting on this terrorist attack has been more robust than usual, it is hardly 24/7. Instead, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace and his decades of predatory sexual harassment has been the dominant news story. Not to mention, the daily drumbeat around President Donald Trump, his anti-Obama policies, and his unhinged tweets and press conferences.

A more classic example of disproportionate news coverage occurred in May. The American press reported around-the-clock on the suicide bombing at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a tragedy that took 23 lives. Yet that same week, gunmen surrounded a bus full of Egyptian Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery and killed 29 men, women, and children, and wounded two dozen others. American news coverage of the Egypt attack was the equivalent of crickets in the woods by comparison. One could easily substitute the reportage on the London Tube (the city’s subway system) attack at the Parsons Green station that injured 30 in September and compare it to the minimal coverage of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar since the middle of August. Or, contrast it with the widespread flooding that killed more than 1,200 in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and left more than 40 million people homeless, school-less, without work, or with farmland too ruined to work. This is more than the idea that Black and Brown lives matter far less than European and White ones. It is the unwitting elitist judgment within American news organizations that stability, peace, justice, and innocence only belong to those living in the West.

Domestically, American news is just as slanted in favor of elitism and access. Puerto Rico and its 3.5 million people have suffered and died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and from malignant government neglect over the past three weeks According to one report, at least 450 Puerto Ricans may have died from this one-two punch of climate-change tragedy and federal government incompetence. Yet most of the American news on Puerto Rico has focused on Trump’s statements blaming its people for their own misery. The American press has been covering Puerto Rico as if it’s just another poor country, one full of brown-skinned people, one that really has nothing to do with Americans or American interests at all.

Even when the reporting involves the continental US and White Americans, the elitism remains obvious. White male terrorist attacks have been on the rise in recent years, especially in the year since Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election. Stephen Paddock orchestrated the latest attack, the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas that scattered a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, as he killed 58 and wounded more than 500 before taking his own life. The American press, true to itself, has refused to use the word terrorism to describe the attack. The incident itself has faded from the news media’s eyeline. But what reporting there has been in the weeks since has included a focus on Paddock’s possible motive and his mental health status. Their coverage, though, has also included a heavy dose of the elitist trope of all-American individual heroes triumphing over individual evildoers. Treatment of these incidents reveals the significant role news reportage plays in perpetuating stereotypes. In this case, one where White criminality is rare and unusual, while Arab Americans are automatically Islamic terrorists. A monolithic, elitist news media makes this half-baked reporting possible.

The triumph of elitism in news stems from forty years of corporate consolidation across all platforms (thanks to Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner) and the increasing socioeconomic exclusion within the industry’s ranks. According to freelance writer and editor David Dennis, Jr., the industry is “populated by those who can afford the jobs,” predominantly by White men (and to lesser extent, White women) in an era of shrinking staffs. The “they” attend elite universities and colleges, earn master’s degrees at journalism schools, and mostly work unpaid internships as the entry point for their careers.  The increasing abundance of affluent individuals in the field has also “changed the way issues are reported and the quality of the product” Americans consume. News organizations and the people they employ are every bit as representative of the American elite as the affluent business leaders and powerful politicians on whom they regularly report. Keeping things simple and giving “equal time” to “both sides”—unless it involves Americans of color and the developing world—is a reflection of elitist values, a rationale that undermines the industry’s own claims of objectivity and fairness.

Defenders of simplistic news media reporting, though, often remind the public of what the news media is not. The Fourth Estate is certainly neither liberal nor conservative, an accusation made all too often by the ill-informed American public. As New York University media critic and expert Jay Rosen once wrote “It’s very simple. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right…vs. This is complicated!” Although tongue-in-cheek, embedded within Rosen’s quip was his own elitist assumption that the news media’s work is variegated and knotty, a mere reflection of the world at large, and not a reflection of its own elitist bubble.

It is the elitist nature of today’s news media that has rendered press coverage as little more than breaking news bulletins for the American public. All while the real global divides at the intersections of race, economic inequality, gender, and immigration remain mostly sidelined. It remains all too easy for the news media to rely on tropes like heroes and villains and the civilized West versus the uncivilized developing world.

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.