The “Anti-American” Trope and Being a Black Writer

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Malcolm X quote from his “By Any Means Necessary Speech,” Organization of Afro-American Unity, New York, June 28, 1964. (https://azquotes.com).

This week, I published yet another article article in Al Jazeera English, this one titled “How US history is whitewashed in high school exams.” It’s about my experiences scoring AP US History and AP World History exams for the College Board through Educational Testing Service as a contingent faculty member. It was also about how the two organizations consistently present a sanitized version of both histories, excluding and marginalizing those of African, of Latinx, and of indigenous descent in the process. My biggest concern was that folks would find my treatment of the work of the College Board and ETS unfair. Or, that readers would disagree with me personally, attacking my intellect and my race purely out of racism and jingoism.

On the second concern, I was mostly right, but not quite in the way I expected. At least three trolls accused me of being “anti-American” and “anti-patriotic.” Really? So, no critique of American education or of two education organizations can stand without it being a referendum on whether I am a patriot for America as it is instead of what I’d like it to be? The narcissism I see out of the mostly male, nearly all White set in the US — it must reside in a bottomless pit. Or in the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Is calling out folks who believe themselves to be educators because they favored Japanese internment during World War II as an example of state-sponsored mass violence over slavery in colonial America/US really anti-American? Is pointing out the flaws in the politics around K-12 and college education in the field of history an example of my anti-patriotism? Should I be subjected to jingoistic scorn because I dare say that “[c]hattel slavery will always serve as a complicating counternarrative to The College Board’s trope of the West’s continual social and political progress?” If this is anti-American, then so is racism, misogyny, anti-Latino and anti-Arab xenophobia, and rolling tanks into DC on the 4th of July.

But, there was more. At least two trolls tweeted and messaged me about Al Jazeera publishing my article this week. One called me a “fool” because they saw me as a mere tool for their otherwise anti-Black stances and tropes in their coverage. Another tweeted twice, “QATAR LAW: Since 2004, Article 296 of the current Penal Code (Law 11/2004) stipulates imprisonment between 1 and 3 years for sodomy between men.” This because Al Jazeera is partially owned by the Qatari government. Last I checked, the British government partially owns the BBC. The US has repugnant laws and policies in place toward Blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, women, LGBTQIA folx, and the millions living with poverty. Yet I’m supposed to not publish a piece with one of the largest news outlets in the world because it might make me a tool of the Qatari, and therefore somehow anti-American? Give me a break!

Ultimately, I published with Al Jazeera this time around because they allowed me the most space to air my first-hand account and analysis, without delay and without editing out my direct experience. As a freelance writer and someone with an affinity for the journalistic, that’s really all any professional can ask for.

What I cannot nor will not do, though, is back down or renegotiate my critiques about the US, as is my right as an American citizen. Nor will I attempt to tailor what I write for folks who otherwise stand in opposition to a curriculum that holds fast to Western sacred cows and American mythologies.

At a job interview I did a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey, a search committee member asked me this. “What will you do to reach those people on campus who don’t just have concerns” about my work and the work of the department I could’ve represented, “but are in opposition to your work” and the department’s very existence? “Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s my job to reach folks who stand in opposition to equality, to my insistence that I am equally human. Why would I want to spend time and energy trying to reach those people? We’ve tried that already. With respectability politics, with assimilation. It hasn’t worked,” was my response.

The same goes for the trolls on the Internet, who’ve never seen an idea from a Black man or a Black woman that they’ve respected, who will find anything short of an endorsement from 45 anti-American. I am not writing for you. I am writing for everyone else but you.

Bronchitis 1999

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“The Colour of Phlegm,” June 22, 2019. (https://www.benylin.ca).

This summer marks 20 years since me and my wife of now more than 19 years moved down to the DC area, specifically Silver Spring. I had visited and lived in the DMV and in the Shepherd Park neighborhood in DC in the years between 1992 and 1997, mostly to visit friends like Laurell or Marya, for previous job searches, or to do my dissertation research. I lived in DC in 1995 for two months, between February and April 1995.

But other than a few days here and there, I hadn’t experienced the full onslaught of a DC summer until the summer of transition from Pittsburgh to DC and Silver Spring in 1999. I’d just accepted Presidential Classroom’s offer for the full-time gig as their Director of Curriculum, but was still obligated to teach my summer grad course in History of American Education at Duquesne University. Part of my obligation upon saying yes to the Presidential Classroom job was spending a week in DC with the high school students and with their instructors for the week, going around town to the key events of a week of civic education in Washington. It made sense that I would need to see programming at ground level before working on the curriculum and any new ideas I might have to improve it.

Although it made sense in theory, in reality, the job was a test of how well I’d perform with serious sleep deprivation and center-right White folk as my constant companions. I cleared my schedule in mid-June to be one of the instructors with the students. I should have cleared my lungs and sinuses for this part of my new gig as well.

I already knew from previous visits and stays that DC flora caused me some serious allergic reactions. In May 1994, I couldn’t breathe for five days, my nose was that stopped up. This was and remains the land of drained swamps and marches, after all.

Between that and a group of government workers turned barely trained instructors who went on benders night after night, I didn’t sleep. Between sinus issues and corn-fed high school juniors and seniors looking to make out and hook up in violation of the curfew during the week, I couldn’t sleep. Did I also mention instructors had to share a room? It was a small hotel room at the Georgetown University Medical Center Marriott. My roomie’s snoring made my own seem like I wasn’t breathing at all. I doubt if I averaged five hours of sleep per night that first week.

While going between sweating on the mall or in line at the Capitol or at the White House in 95 or 99-degree heat and being blasted with bus and Georgetown’s air conditioning, I picked up a head cold. Hanging out on the next-to-last night with the other instructors until 2 am didn’t help. Nor did chaperoning the farewell dance until 5 am the next night.

God Bless You cartoon, January 2013, February 26, 2013. (http://www.cartoonaday.com).

My head cold died down as I moved into my own room for a couple of days while going around town to find a place for me and my then fiancee to live once my Duquesne course ended and we could pack up to leave Pittsburgh. But it didn’t quite go away. I started to cough, sometimes out of nowhere and for no particular reason. On Wednesday before I had to leave to go back to the ‘Burgh to teach and begin the wind-down process for moving, I found a nice luxury apartment just over the DC border in Silver Spring. It was the so nice it made me want to cry. The staff seemed wonderful, if overdressed for daytime and maybe not quite there detail-wise. But I know I sounded like shit that triple-H afternoon.

It didn’t get any better the rest of the summer. I taught for five weeks with aches, chills, and a window-rattling cough that would stop my lectures for at least two minutes at a time while I waited for the coughing fit to subside. I have no idea what my students thought. That summer, I had a soon-to-be mainstream Black actor who talked way too much and a bunch of future and in-service teachers in that class. Really, they were probably more concerned about earning A’s than whether I passed out in the middle of class.

It occurred to me that I might have asthma, and that the cold I caught in DC had severely exacerbated it. Maybe I would’ve gone to see a doctor, that was, if I had any health insurance. Bronchitis, though, was far from my mind.

I assumed that all I needed to do was rest. But who could rest with a move coming up, starting a new job, turning in grades after grading papers, signing leases, buying engagement rings, and finding an agent for Fear of a “Black” America? That was my July and August 1999 when I wasn’t in the classroom earning my hacker’s license.

So I muddled through the heat of my fiancee’s apartment, the cold of Duquesne’s classrooms, the humidity of the DMV, the exertion of packing and moving boxes, and so many other things that summer. By the time I started working in the office at Presidential Classroom in Alexandria the third week in August, I was sucking Halls lozenges like they were orange-cream popsicles and I was six years old again.

Then, my future wife intervened. She correctly guessed that I had bronchitis and that I was on the verge of pneumonia. “You are not leaving this apartment! You are not getting out of bed!,” she said to me when I came home from work at the start of Labor Day Weekend. I didn’t have the energy to fight her, although I did whine, “What about our dinner plans?” somewhere in her bossing me around.

Well, I did leave the bed that three-day weekend, to go to the bathroom and to watch Tiger Woods win yet another tournament. Otherwise, hot soups, hot water, no air conditioning (my partner kept it off for me that weekend), VapoRub, a ton of Benadryl and Advil and NyQuil and Theraflu. Between Saturday night and Monday afternoon, I regularly coughed up the yellowest and greenest mucus I’d ever seen come out my body. My significant other would go, “Yuuuccckkk!” every time I showed her the concoction of sickness my lungs pushed out. In my head, I agreed.

I literally could have died 20 years ago. Seriously. Bronchitis and pneumonia are serious illnesses, even for the relatively healthy 29-year-old I was in 1999. The lack of health insurance and a single-minded commitment to getting out of Pittsburgh and academia, to finding a real job, made me sick. I was a half-dead man walking in August 1999. Another month like that could have killed me.

Leaving Mom and Dad Behind

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Woodstock Leaving Home (cropped), June 13, 2019. (http://pinterest.com).

There are so many ways to write about the idea that if one is to be a grown-ass adult in this world, it requires, actually requires leaving your mother and/or father and/or any other parents and legal guardians behind. At least, dropping their worldview, their ideologies and disciplines, their ideas about life and relationships, their marital and parenting advice, the loads of abuse, baggage, and bullshit that one learned from spending so much time with them.

Yes, we should all be grateful about whatever good our parents did on our behalf to get us to adulthood and beyond. But that gratefulness should not mean a lifetime’s supply of unquestioning everything that any of us learned from those who raised us. Otherwise, any of us are but carbon copies of imperfect beings at best, total fuckups at world. Yet, somehow, so many of us present our parents to the world as if they are marble statues set on top of alabaster pedestals.

For me, it’s taken 30 years to unlearn much of the lessons and baggage I took on under my parents and legal guardian’s tutelage. My Mom “didn’t take no handouts from no one” and saw labor unions as “them bloodsuckers.” My father Jimme asked about “gettin’ [my] dict wet” from the time I was 14 until I turned 18, and called me a “faggat” everything I told him I didn’t. My idiot late ex-stepfather Maurice/Judah ben Israel talked about “making…men” out of me and Darren. He implored us to “honor thy father and thy mother, that ye may take possession of the land that the Lord thy God hath giveth thee.” Otherwise, he was “gonna whup” our “ass, jus’ like a car burn gas!” So many lessons about manliness, Black hyper-masculinity, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and misogynoir, about religion and child abuse, about working and self-reliance. But so many more lessons around willful ignorance as well.

By the time I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, I figured the simplest thing I could do to break free from the thinking of Mary, Maurice, and Jimme was to “just do the opposite of whatever they would do.” That’s what I would say to myself or think about whenever I had a tough-ish decision to make.

But life was never that simple. Those five days of homelessness I had at the beginning of my second year at Pitt in 1988 proved that I needed to scramble and act, and not just think differently from my parents. The most immediate lesson I learned was about needing help and learning how to ask for it. The bigger and most important lesson that took decades for me to learn was how to embrace asking for help, to not be begrudging about the process, and to be gracious when folks who could and should be helpful are not. I am still learning how to be better at embracing help and being graciousness, because, well, people are involved.

Not so with begrudging, though. We are not all on our own deserted island, each expecting to have to do everything on our own. That’s what capitalists steeped in Western individualism and my Mom would expect me to believe. We all need help, for nearly everything we want to do in life. There’s no shame in it, and there’s nothing but success, humility, being grateful and feeling recognized and loved as a result of this help.

This week is underrated in its significance to my past three decades of living this truth. This is the week my Mom and Maurice broke up for good back in 1989. The date of this year’s Father’s Day (it was a Friday in 1989) will be 30 years since the idiot feverishly packed his bags, stole some towels and frozen meats, and moved out of 616. I saw him as he packed up the last of his gear in a suitcase and an army bag. He looked scared, and looked at me with fear and shame. It was probably the only time in the nearly eleven years we lived in the same space (not counting my two years at Pitt and his separations from my Mom) where he showed how lost a person he was. Between that, and my Mom’s post-marriage spin a few months later about how Maurice had “fooled us all,” and I knew. I absolutely knew, spirit, mind, and body, that I needed to craft my own worldview, my own ideas, my own way to deal with ideology, discipline, parenting, marriage, and so many things much more complicated than putting the right amount of seasoning on my fried chicken.

Over the years, this ultimate lesson of leaving behind most of my Mom’s, Jimme’s, and Maurice ways of thinking, doing, and being in the world has made its way into my teaching and writing. It’s why I uphold no sacred cows, and can literally interrogate and question even the most cherished ideas and people in my classrooms and in my pieces. (And yes, in prayer, in between my hallelujahs and my amens, I even question God.) Which may be also why more than a few of my students might cling harder to the lessons of their parents.

A few years ago, I had a young student in one of my UMUC classes who pushed back on a lecture I gave on de-centering Western Europe from the early modern period in world history while taking a closer look at India, China, and the Ottoman Empire.

“That’s not what my parents taught me,” she said.

“Well, maybe it’s time to realize that not everything your parents taught you is true. It’s been three decades, and I’m still learning to unlearn all the things my parents taught me,” I retorted. Most of my over-24-year-old students nodded in agreement, but the not-quite 20-year-old wasn’t receptive. It showed in her evaluation of me at the end of the course.

My soon-to-be 16-year-old son, thankfully, is learning this lesson now. Although that means he will make tons of mistakes and constantly frustrates my efforts at helping him, it also means he can reach out to me and my spouse when he needs help. Being independent requires acknowledging one’s limits and one’s need for help, community, and interdependence. Learning from whom, at what time, for how much, and how deep one can go in all this is a lifelong journey. But none of it can begin without questioning one’s parent or parents, without cutting bait from their baggage and bullshit. Even if it means that we sometimes screw up in the process.

Toronto and Miscellaneous Items

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Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, ON, Canada, March 20, 2017. (https://torontostoreys.com).

I meant to write about this a month ago, but after the Toronto Raptors’ not-so-surprising Game 6 win against the Milwaukee Bucks to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time, it’s still relevant. Last month made 20 years since the last time I’ve been north of the border (but not in Alaska, as I was in 2001). Last month was also the 28th anniversary of me finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and the subsequent decision to spend my first post-baccalaureate summer in Pittsburgh working and securing funding for my first year of graduate school. April 20 also marked two decades since Columbine, something that was very much on my mind during that Toronto trip and presentation at OAH there in 1999.

I can say that there are only a handful of times in my life since the end of first grade and being sexually assaulted in the summer of ’76 that I have felt “free.” By that, I mean free from the toxicity that is the US, on race, on gender, on class, on religion, on family, on friendships, on breathing, on eating, on walking, on daydreaming, on talking, on being contemplative, on laughing, on merely being myself. Those five days in Toronto to present my research on multiculturalism, to meet up with a couple of friends, to hang out in different neighborhoods and catch their subway. That was one of those times. Maybe the six months my Mom and my deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice spent separated between October 2, 1980 and April 13, 1981 was one of those times. Certainly when I proposed to my wife and then moved to DC and Silver Spring later on in 1999 was another. And, how can I forget the sheer ecstasy of watching my son emerge from my wife’s womb in 2003 at Sibley Hospital?

But while all of those and more experiences brought happiness, even orgasmic joy, I’ve spent more than 40 years of nearly 50 looking over my shoulder. In the back of my mind, the idea that the other shoe’s going to drop is never that far away. Even with the lack of American toxicity during my times in Toronto, I knew that this cosmopolitan city had its own unique edge. This despite the poutine, maple syrup, and Molson’s.

Plus, even with going to vegan restaurants, confirming my 1994 research on public housing policies in Toronto, seeing the diversity and freedom of movement sans the gaze of American Whites, it was still a very White city. And that Canadian Whiteness left room for a different (or really, indifferent) kind of gaze. It meant dealing with questions about Columbine and gun violence as if I could explain the actions of narcissistic White males steeped in patriarchy and entitlement. It meant remembering in subtle ways that while Canadians I met were both far nicer and kinder than most Whites in the US, they were still White. And Whiteness, like Arya Stark’s many-faced god, takes numerous forms.

I was free in ways that I couldn’t have been in the States. I walked in White neighborhoods without police following me around. I noticed how most folks didn’t lock their doors at night. I sensed that no one looked over their shoulders for a mugger. Everything was written in metric-system English, which I was happy to use in real life for the first time. It was just different, as if White Canadians hadn’t spent four centuries sitting around and figuring out even more ways to grind down Black people. I sensed that this wasn’t the case with White Canadians and First Nation tribes, though.

I didn’t feel anywhere near this free when I graduated with Degree #1 in April 1991. The immediate need of reporting to my $5.20 per hour job at Western Psych, three weeks of starvation, and the miracle that Dr. Jack Daniel performed meant that I was pensive and then relieved by May 26. I knew more twists and turns awaited me.

I want to visit again, this time with my son, and hopefully before the Fall Semester begins. I want him to see Caribana there, to breathe freer air, and to get away from the Lower 48, if only for a few days. But that’s not all. I want him to go overseas, to visit South Africa, and Nigeria, and Tanzania, and Ghana, and Mali, to see himself in everyone around him.

As for the Raptors, congrats on drudging your way to the Finals! Your organization is finally free to play for an NBA title. With Kawhi Leonard, I wouldn’t bet against you. But I’m not exactly rooting for you, either. Know that win or lose, I love your city, and the questions about freedom that it generates for me.

On Arrogance and Opinions

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“No, fear and arrogance, you hayseed.” Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins characters in Bull Durham (1988), screenshot, May 18, 2019. (https://getyarn.io).

I received my latest evaluations from my AU students this spring. Really, I shouldn’t complain. Overall, my scores met or exceeded most metrics in all three of my courses this semester, even as some students thought there was “too much reading” or that I needed to “provide more guidance” on the readings I assigned. As an instructor, I have to sort of compartmentalize or even mentally toss out the personal attacks in such surveys. From students thinking I’m sexist because I used “#TimesUp” to get their attention after saying “Time’s up” multiple times during a small group discussion, to students saying I lack “emotional intelligence” because of email miscommunications (mostly on their part, though I took the blame) over a dramatic event. I’m hardly perfect, have never claimed to be, and expect that in dealing with human beings, especially young adults, that these things and their sometimes petty responses are bound to occur.

But some responses have been consistent across time and institution since my TAing days at the University of Pittsburgh. At some point since Fall 1992, a student or two will decide that I’m “arrogant” and that “[I] only care about [my] opinions,” that somehow, I never gave them room to express their opinions or somehow failed to validate their opinions. I don’t think I’ll ever overcome these critiques, nor should I try, especially after so many years of teaching. As the research has indicated for at least a decade, student evaluations of faculty are not reliable sources of data. Barely four out of 10 students at most colleges and universities will actually take the 10 to 20 minutes to complete one. Most negative evaluations correlate to an actual or an anticipated grade that is lower than what the student wanted for themselves in the course.

But the data for faculty of color, especially women faculty of color, and even more especially for Black women faculty, shows measurable racial and gender biases. Complaints about language, how one dresses, speech patterns, and other ticks and foibles become heightened. And not just among White students. Students of color, and Black students in particular, hold the Black faculty who have served as their instructors to a standard that could only be met by a parent of a newborn baby, something akin to perfection. I have felt this last bit during classes and other times at AU this semester more than others.

Still, on the broader issue of arrogance, I have changed my lecture style, the amount I lecture, the kinds of discussions I have run, the tactics for getting students to bond in the classroom, and (where I could) the types of readings I have assigned, just so students are more comfortable and willing to learn. None of this has mattered for the students who expect me to validate every idea they express in the classroom. None of this matters when I go in front of the classroom and lecture and facilitate discussion to this small but very vocal minority.

I used to think it was my age back in the 1990s. So I tried to be more objective, less animated, and gave up some degree of authority in the classroom. That worked for a couple of semesters at Duquesne College of Education and at GW. Mostly. But, even there, one student who told me day one she “hated history” and two students at GW wrote about my so-called classroom arrogance in their evals.

In teaching undergrads for a couple of semesters at the University of the District of Columbia and at Howard in 2006 and 2007, though, not one student had that issue with me. They didn’t complain when I poked holes in their analysis, or when I asked them to back up their opinions with evidence. It was refreshing, actually, to have students who didn’t assume that their opinions and that my years of interpreting and writing about history were equal in weight. Could it be that the racial dynamics of UDC and Howard made for a different interpretation of my demeanor and conveying of knowledge in the classroom (as one is a predominantly Black institution and the other is a flagship HBCU)? Probably.

Since my second year of teaching at UMUC, though, and with this first year at AU, this allegation of arrogance via my opinions has been constant with my evaluations, no matter how well students did and how positive my evaluations were otherwise. At this point, I have figured out a few tendencies of students who lodge this complaint. They are typically not comfortable with the material or with me as their instructor. I am frequently sarcastic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and gesticulate while using some of the skills I picked up from acting-as-public-speaking classes to lecture. In other words, lecturing with skill for me is a performance, one that conveys information, and it must be done with a high degree of confidence and seriousness, balanced with levity. That I have also decided to not treat history in a truly objective manner was deliberate, because history is a living subject, and thus cannot be taught objectively. Fairness and truth are far more important. That doesn’t make me arrogant. That makes me a confident instructor, but one with humanity and empathy.

As for opinions, I have sometimes said to my students, “As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes — nearly everyone has one.” That has usually gotten a few laughs (you gotta read the room before saying something like this — my AU students are too serious on the use of colorful language from what I’ve found so far). But even when I say that “this particular interpretation comes from me,” I am still expressing more than a personal opinion or insight. I am expressing an idea or interpretation based on years of study, observation, reading, and writing, for scholarly and mainstream publications. So when I insist on students backing up their opinions with evidence, or literally have to say, “No, that not correct,” and then explain why it isn’t, this is me doing the job of an instructor with years of knowledge and even expertise on a wide variety of topics, not just some random person on the Red Line train to Shady Grove.

Even with all of these caveats about the differences between opinion and interpretation, about my level of expertise, and about my approach to the classroom, there are some small number of students who will say, “He’s arrogant,” “He doesn’t value my opinion.” Or, as one student emailed me four years ago, “Sir, you are a dickhead.” I realize that these specific comments, like the ones I wrote about for The Washington Post last year about the rejection of Black history and racism as central parts of US history, were about my difference, not my indifference. Being a Black man teaching mostly White students, or teaching Black students who expect me to consistently validate their unsubstantiated opinions, does not have its privileges. Especially on a student evaluation form.

My Life as a Scrambler

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I wish I could say that it was different. I wish I could say that the key to success in my life was crafting plans, developing rubrics, and building out scale models of every step, move, and smile toward achieving Points A, B, and Z on my life-sized to-do list. I wish that life was like being Tom Brady (not really). Or really, like being every White male statue that’s ever stood behind a bruising, blocking, dynamic offensive line in American professional football. One where even a mediocre quarterback like Trent Dilfer or Jim McMahon could stand behind and take as many as ten seconds to find an open receiver for a first down or a long touchdown on their way to a Super Bowl championship.

But, with some notable exceptions, my life, and the successes I’ve garnered in my life, have come from scrambling out of the pocket, usually because my proverbial offensive line couldn’t block the pass rushers in my life. It’s hustlin’ really, but not the kind of hustlin’ that would bring me notoriety. My life has been mostly Joe Montana and Russell Wilson, with occasional periods of Warren Moon half-standing in the pocket and half-scrambling in between.

Graduate school was the one exception that almost ruined me. I took the lesson I learned about keeping my schedule of work, social life (however ill-defined in 1991), and classes and transferred it to my five and a half years of working toward a doctorate. After a straight-A first semester and finishing my master’s in two semesters, I took it as a sign that this drawing up plans and executing them with brutal efficiency was the best way for me.

Keep in mind, I scrambled all through middle school and high school, for all six years I was in my Humanities Program. I scrambled because I had to. I couldn’t make concrete plans to study at 616, to read books by a specific date, to just have a day to myself just to work on me. Not with my abusive ass, idiot stepfather Maurice/Judah/Maurice there. Not with my younger siblings running around. Not with my Mom going through welfare and depression. Not with having to track down my alcoholic father on weekends for work and money.

San Francisco 49er QB Joe Montana scrambling to make a throw, Super Bowl XIX, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA, January 20, 1985. (http://youtube.com).

And yet with all that, I finished 14th in my graduating class of White, Black, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx hyperachievers. I received scholarship offers from every school I got into (with Columbia withholding only because they couldn’t believe I came from a family of eight with a $16,600 per year income in New York). Scrambling worked, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

Which was why I went the other way. And so, for my graduate school years, and the baker’s dozen of years that followed, I stayed in the pocket. I drew up plans like an architect for my career and life, and followed those plans as if I’d gotten them from God him/herself. And the truth was, most of my plans worked to perfection. I earned a two-year master’s degree in one, earned a big-time dissertation fellowship without overwhelming support from my advisor and committee, published articles, presented at conferences, and, once fully immersed in nonprofit work, job after job, promotion after promotion, more publications and teaching opportunities.

Or so I thought. I hadn’t realized that while my 150-PowerPoint-slide gameplan seemed to be working, that I was still scrambling every chance I got, and hustlin’ myself in the process. I only completed my doctorate in November 1996 because I scrambled, and left my advisor little choice but to approve my dissertation. This after lobbying my other committee members, documenting every comment from my advisor on my dissertation going back a full year, and otherwise turning the academic politics of Carnegie Mellon to my favor that summer and fall. That, and having a complete, 505-page manuscript, sealed the deal.

I scrambled for work all the while, went the summer of 1997 without work before hustlin’ my way into nonprofit work by lying about only having a master’s degree that year. I scrambled into my jobs at Presidential Classroom, both of my positions at Academy for Educational Development, and every single teaching position I’ve held since 1998, AU included.

It just took me until 2008 to realize that I wasn’t the figurative pocket passer. I ran myself and those who’ve been there to catch my publishing, teaching, and working passes open. I’ve never had a good offensive line, because America stacks their lines for privileged White men and White women first, second, and third. Sometimes I’ve had to take the proverbial ball to the end zone or for a first down myself, because there hasn’t been anyone else who can help. Sometimes, too, I have to take the hit, also because I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’ve fought against the mantra “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” for most of my 49-plus years on this Earth.

I’ve come to accept that this is my life. I don’t have to like that despite all the article publications, conference and public presentations, grant money raised, students taught, students now in prominent positions themselves, book manuscripts produced, friends made, and so many other measurables, I am a bad six months away from career collapse. And with that, maybe my marriage, my status as a dad, and  my health and life would be at risk as well.

But I do not intend to be a contingent faculty member and an older man pretending to be a youngish freelance writer with fresh ideas (with the rare consulting opportunity) for the rest of my most productive working days. Either all this works out, somehow, or I’m driving as the Uber professor/Trader Joe’s stock boy/MCPS bus driver (ala Steven Salaita) down the line. Anyway, Red from Shawshank Redemption put it best. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” My mantra for the past four and a half years.

How Did I Know I Was Heterosexual?

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Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” 45 single sleeve, circa 1986. (https://medium.com)

This is more than just whether I knew I liked teenage girls and women by the time I was my son’s current age of fifteen, though. Between humping older women’s legs when I was three or four years old (too much information, I suppose), me and Diana slobbering on each other in first grade, and my crush on Ms. Shannon in third grade, that would be enough for most kids to know their orientation. But because I wasn’t “hard” like the boys I lived around at 616 and 630 East Lincoln and the young Turks who lived in public housing on Pearsall Drive, I was often the neighborhood “pussy” or “faggot.” I was mugged four times between April 1979 and the end of 1983. I spent more than one weekend dodging a hail of pebbles and rocks that the neighborhood kids pelted me with. That, and the then buried sexual assault I endured when I was six left me questioning my own sexuality, and with that, my place in the world in terms of friendships and relationships.

The whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, and the additional layers of abuse, hypermasculinity, and misogyny that came with it didn’t help my evolution one bit. One would think that a months-long crush on — really, love for — Wendy in the spring of 1982 would once and for all settle this issue. It didn’t. It didn’t because even I recognized that my love for Wendy was for the version of her who took up space in my imagination. She had become ethereal, and was detached from the flesh-and-blood human being with whom I shared little more than the confines of the classroom in the years between 1981 and 1987. I found her attractive, but had already judged myself unworthy.

Puberty, rebellion, and my switch to Christianity in 1984, and the contradictions that came with this switch over the next year, would tell me more about who I was. This was the beginning of my years of relative asexuality, at least as I presented myself in public. Since I dedicated my life to Jesus, every potential carnal thought I had or action I could take was met with self-doubt and loathing. Mostly, though, I feared for my newborn soul. I feared that somehow, I would go back to being suicidal, Hebrew-Israelite-and-going-to-Hell Donald, the one that got clowned and stoned before reaching six-foot-one.

One of my many attempts at being chaste between September 1984 and May 1985 involved toting my Bible everywhere and breaking it out to read during every idle moment. At school, which got me in trouble with my 10th grade history teacher, Ms. Zini. At home, when I wasn’t distracted by music, my younger siblings, or our fucked up living arrangement with one Balkis Makeda. As sanctimonious as it was, I was really trying to learn, to receive revelation, to understand how this 66-book, 1300-page document could transform me and my mini-apocalyptic world.

I also rode the buses and subways around the city with my red-covered Bible in hand. On many Fridays and Saturdays, whether working for my dad or hunting him down for money, or just because I needed to get away, I’d take the 2 from East 241st in the Bronx to 72nd in Manhattan, or further down, to Times Square, or sometimes, all the way out to Flatbush in Brooklyn.

No matter where I or we (when my older brother Darren would tag along) went, the most interesting part of these outings usually were the people who would be in the cars with me/us. Drunkards who reminded me of Jimme. Older Jamaican women on their way to do domestic work. Middle-aged, haggard-looking White guys who dressed twenty years too young for their faces.

Screenshot from “I Wonder If I Take You Home” video, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (1984/85). (https://imgue.com).

Frequently, Nuyorican or Dominican girls and young women would board somewhere between 180th and East Tremont and 149th and Grand Concourse (though because of the ethnic tensions I didn’t understand at the time, certainly not at the same time). I would look up from reading II Chronicles or Esther or Ephesians, and before I could comprehend the people my eyes took in, my dick responded. At 15, I already knew that even a mildly warm breeze was enough for me to get a hard on. I didn’t know that four or six young Latinas on a train wearing bright, tight clothes, makeup, lipstick, and perfume, and heels that would accentuate their breasts, hips, and round butts would completely counter my asexual front. Luckily for me, the Bible-toting phase of my life was during wintertime, and I could cover up my woody with my jacket.

Of course, it felt sinful, and I felt ashamed, that a second and a half of staring up from my Bible would lead to carnal stirrings. But it also gave me a sense of who I was and wasn’t attracted to, really and truly. When White girls with their voluminous ’80s hair got on the train, I hardly noticed. They were trying too hard, and their flat butts did nothing for me. When single Black women in their twenties and thirties would board, I noticed, too. I didn’t have what I would learn later to be colorism issues.

Of course, I learned that I was heterosexual, which I knew would please my Mom to no end. Which actually pissed me off. So, if I had discovered I was gay, she wouldn’t accept me? Wow!, I thought one April Saturday on way back to East 241st. At that point, my evangelical zeal for setting myself apart from the rest of world with my Bible as a baseball bat had waned. I was nowhere near ready to be involved in any kind of relationship that would lead to sex. But, I was ready to drop the idea that my eternal life completely depended on me ignoring both women and my attraction to women. I would remain publicly asexual for a few more years and endure f-bombs from my dad. Truly, it took until I was twenty to understand that whatever my orientation, no one has the right to tell me that my sexuality was anathema to my Christianity.