The past three months have been a roller coaster ride. I’ve been blessed with new opportunities to teach and to write. For the next year, I am a visiting assistant teaching professor in African American and US history at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. The search committee offered me the job just a week after I turned in my final grades for the Spring 2022 semester at American University, and just two days after the start of summer session. I was honestly more stunned than happy at that moment — lack of sleep and constant grading will do that!
Then, a few weeks later, as the reality of having an official full-time teaching position set in (I have taught full-time before, but only temporarily, without benefits, and/or with two universities that combined for full-time), Al Jazeera came along and offered me a regular contributor gig for their Opinions page. After 19 articles over five years, I am to publish an article every two weeks for the third largest news outlet in the world. Pretty heady stuff, for sure!
In between, my son finished up his gap year (really, his mostly year-long vacation) with an acceptance to University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC, or as I like to do in the late asshole Don Imus’ voice, double-U-eMMM-BC) the second week in June. It was the school of his choice, meaning no more excuses for bad interviews, no more hemming and hawing over finding volunteer work or applying for City Year. Yay, him! And, yay us!
All these blessings (and thank God, of course!) have meant a lot of changes in the family, too. For the first time since April 1999, there will be no specific focus on DC, not for work, not for school, not for commuting, not even for shopping or food deliveries (there’s a Cheesecake Factory between Silver Spring and Towson). Maybe this will revert in a year, maybe not. But it means spending more time in Baltimore and in Baltimore County than I ever have.
For this blog, it means ever longer stretches between posts. There are maybe five months in 14 years where I haven’t blogged at all. June was the fifth time. Between my own freelance writing agenda and now this regular gig with Al Jazeera English, I simply no longer have the time to blog three or four times a month. And, as my themes have expanded from the themes of Boy @ The Window to pretty much everything else, my blog posts will be sporadic and infrequent. I am not ready to shut down the blog just yet. But it will be a less active space for the next year or so.
I do promise to keep it going, a blog once every six to eight weeks, or as I am motivated to comment on a key anniversary or a critical in-the-moment issue or incident. There are also more than 1,000 posts here, and a collection of my published and unpublished writings. Not to mention, eclectic music and my goofball videos!
To my regular readers and to those who read and comment out of the blue, I will miss hearing from you. But hopefully, less is more, and I will check in to see if this truism is true for this blog as well. Peace and blessings to you all!
A few months ago, I watched part of my Twitter feed blow up over the raunchiest songs of all time. It was between Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and some newfangled hit in the middle of the first Omicron surge. I shook my head and decided not to reply. Any thread on raunchy music that excludes Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” is pretty inexcusable.
This theme pops up every few months on Twitter and other social media circles, unfortunately. I saw one tweet near the end of July talking about how there weren’t any nasty lyrics prior to 2010! As an eclectic music consumer and as a trained historian, I find all hot trash declarations arrogant and offensive. I mean, how much research did these people do before they decided that their tiny window into lyrics, videos, and sounds led them to these ludicrous conclusions? None, apparently. It would be like trying to fight COVID-19 or monkeypox with Raid roach spray and Grape Kool-Aid, I suppose.
Because I like to keep track of what’s out in the world, I dabble into the raunchy, almost always by accident, occasionally on purpose, because I am a curious person. And if anyone is willing to look and listen, the sexually obvious and guttural isn’t hard to find, and much of it is in the twentieth century. Robert Johnson, Elvis, The Beatles, John Lee Hooker, Bessie Smith, Prince, The Ohio Players, Donna Summer, and that’s off the top of my head. Pick a genre in any cultural medium, and there’s the equivalent of a closet full of stag films for anyone to discover.
With hip-hop, rap, and the music video age, the idea of what is and isn’t nasty or raunchy has been stretched like taffy, almost to the level of subatomics. 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” would be relatively tame when compared to Too Short’s 1990s hit “Top Down” (“don’t swallow don’t spit”) or Nelly or Ludacris’ rap videos in the early ‘00s. And those dudes would be about on par with Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, but not quite as lyrically raunchy as LL Cool J’s 1996 hit “Doin’ It.”
As for my own deep dives into music with “explicit lyrics,” MC Lyte’s voice and Salt-n-Pepa’s first two albums probably made my toes curl up multiple times after first listening to their words and work. Even Salt-n-Pepa’s silly cover version of The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” I found downright sexy. Honestly, it wasn’t just reading Audre Lorde or Toni Morrison that introduced me to the idea that Black women need to be free for all of us to be free. So it would be ridiculous to think my interests in music were purely intellectual. It was spiritual, it was sexual, it was emotional, it was imaginational, it was my need to take up roles and to take up spaces, and all at once.
Then again, I was between 18 and 25 years old, at my music-buying peak, constantly getting tapes and CDs and trying out artists because of one song or another. Everything from Arlo Guthrie to ZZ Top had been something to listen to at least once in the years between 1984 and 2003, especially when I was in undergrad at Pitt and going into grad school there.
Pitt’s radio station was and remains WPTS-FM 92.1, and for most of my 12 years living in Pittsburgh, it was only listenable on Friday and Saturday nights. (When I moved out of Oakland to East Liberty in 1990, just two-and-a-half-miles away from campus, sometimes I had trouble locating the station on my Aiwa tape decade and CD player — but I digress.) Saturday night was jazz and smooth jazz, and that occasionally was fine when I was in a Coltrane or Grover Washington, Jr. mood. But Friday nights were ones for rap, and mostly underground rap (or at least, underappreciated yet successful rap). KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, PE, Chubb Rock, Queen Latifah, Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, Geto Boys, N.W.A., H.W.A., among so many others.
One night toward the end of 1991, I heard the rap group BWP (Bytches With Problems) for the first time. The brothas at WPTS played their big hit “Two Minute Brother” from their debut LP The Bytches. (I will forever find it funny that Lyndah McCaskill and Tanisha Michele Morgan put out a five-minute song about a guy who couldn’t last two minutes in bed.) My mind was blown. I had seen tons of explicit lyrics labels on tapes, vinyl records, and CDs before hearing BWP. “I guess this is what Tipper Gore was worried about,” I remember saying to myself after hearing the song again a few months later.
Out of New York, produced by No Face (think Mark Sexx and Shah collabs with Ed Lover and Shock G [RIP] for those who should know)/Def Jam Records, their sound wasn’t particularly unique. The duo’s willingness to be as real and nasty as they wanted to be, to go here, there, and everywhere as rappers was impressive. Their lyrics were the nastiest I’d ever seen and heard. I vaguely remember The Source doing a piece on them in 1992, and The Vibe a piece on their follow-up album from The Bytches somewhere in 1993 or 1994 (my friend Marc shared that article with me). Yeah, I liked them. I found them sexy as hell.
So much so that during my final summer coming back to Mount Vernon to work in 1992, I finally bought the album. I took my rare Friday evening at the beginning of August away from the duties of older brother and surrogate summer parent and took the 40 Bee-line bus up to The Galleria in White Plains. I saw nothing of interest at the Sam Goody’s there between Whitney, Boyz II Men (I was burned out from a summer of “End Of The Road” on air play every 20 seconds), and all the usual suspects in 1992. Then I stumbled on BWP. For anyone who loves raunchy lyrics, sex noises, and good beats, I promise you, there is no better collection of raps between 1971 and now. “ Is The P____ Still Good?” is the ultimate sex track. McCaskill and Morgan truly did it up. But, be warned. It can be addicting, especially for men who need to learn.
But the duo also dealt with Rodney King and police brutality on the LP, so it’s not just raps that some would say are better meant for hardcore porn. My second favorite song on the album was “No Means No,” or really “No Means No [m—f—]” There was some serious Black women’s empowerment going on with BWP’s work, but I guess most folk from the early 1990s either found them offensive or just weren’t ready to hear it.
Don’t believe folks — especially anyone under 35 — when they say stuff about “nasty lyrics” or “the raunchiest music videos” from 2010 or 2022. They really don’t know what they’re talking about. Seriously, willfully ignorant fans are the worst. They’re fickle, they’re momentary, and they turn anything any favorite artist of theirs does into the GOAT because they have no basis for comparison. Especially Beyoncé’s Baehive folks.
My relationship with food has always been one of love, but with a heavy price. Off and on between October 1980 and May 1999, two things defined my time with food: the frequent lack of it, and my ability to cook and manipulate it. Besides having my mom as a guide, I think those 1,900 or so days with little to no food wherever I lived and whomever I lived with heavily influenced my cooking ambitions and chef-esque cooking skills.
While money has been tight at times in the years since, I have not personally confronted food insecurity or food access issues since the end of the twentieth century. Yet my ability to eat whatever I choose has declined from near-Hoover-vacuum levels of anything edible to a Matrix-level diet of rice krispies in water-infused electrolytes. My stomach has always been where stress and sickness decides to manifest. Even in my preteens, a milkshake at the wrong time or in combination with the wrong kind of food became a shitshake. I would sometimes be a few minutes late for class in graduate school (to the chagrin of my racist and ableist white professors) because of my GI (gastrointestinal) tract.
But there was nothing consistent about what I’ve known for more than 20 years to be my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) until the week after my PhD graduation in 1997. After a week of travel, job interviews, graduation, and personal betrayal, my body was burned out along with my mind and spirit. I had stomach pains for four days, and could barely eat. For more than a year afterward, the only dairy I could handle was Lactaid. Nearly anything, including spaghetti with red sauce, could set off a wave of diarrhea, or days of constipation.
Once we moved to the DMV, and especially once I took my assistant director job at New Voices, I finally had a regular doctor at GW Hospital in DC. After a sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy in 2001, my internist diagnosed me with IBS. There was a wrinkle, though. There was no physical evidence for why I had IBS. No signs of serious acid reflux, no tapeworms or other parasites, no ulcers or tears in the intestines or colon. “Are you saying that my irritable bowel syndrome is psychosomatic?,” I remember asking. The doctor said, “No. Whatever’s going on, we can’t explain it with the tests we have.”
Stress, work travel, and lack of sleep were constant companions in the ’00s for me. And that meant popping Imodium pills, the occasional acidophilus and other probiotics, and regulating parts of my diet. I did colon cleanses, fruit fasts, full fasting, and tried a shift toward vegetarianism. All results were middling at best.
It took leaving the nonprofit world and becoming a consultant with part-time professoring for my IBS to calm down in 2008 and 2009. Working mostly from home also allowed me more time to cook. Especially to cook meals I hadn’t cooked or eaten since I was a teen, or to cook entirely new dishes and desserts. I learned how to make traditional and Silician-style pizzas, French bread, madeleines, and rabbit ragù. I reverted and started making grits and biscuits, beans and rice, and corned beef from a can. I tried out stew peas with goat and beef, chicken tikka masala, and chicken marsala.
With all this, by 2013, I realized organic foods didn’t mess up my stomach nearly as much. And, that tons of probiotics and acidophilus (at least 7 billion CFU per meal or 30 billion for the whole day) kept me regular and regulated. I was in the best GI tract health of my adult life, and it stayed that way for a while. My flare-ups were maybe a few times a month, and not every day like they had been before. Yay, me!
That is, until the second half of 2019, the months going into the pandemic. With me teaching a 60-percent full-time schedule at each of two universities (for 120% FT equivalent) and drafting an article once every two weeks as a freelancer, even working from home became stressful. My IBS became worse, but selectively so. Eggs, brown, organic, free-range, whatever, became problematic. So did spaghetti, as well as hamburgers, anything with pinto beans, kidney beans, any food beyond the mildly spicy (and sometimes that would go through me, too). Snickers in the daytime was bad, but a bar right after dinner and under 75 degrees Fahrenheit was okay. Egg whites from Trader Joe’s led to a fart here or a burp there, but organic liquid egg whites from Whole Foods easily sparked a flare-up. Salads for lunch were now flat-out forbidden, but a tiny one with dinner was fine. Ice cream with a brownie, blondie, or cookies, dairy or dairy-free, was also okay. Most delivered or picked-up food has been an experiment in pain and gas.
This back-and-forth with IBS only got worse with the pandemic. Plus, I am over 50. Not everything I ate in my teens and in my 20s should be in my stomach and intestines now. Some would say I should go completely vegan (keep in mind, about a fifth of my diet is already vegan, and if one cooks for meat eaters, it’s hard for an omnivore to not taste). But after making stew peas last week, even four kidney beans was enough to make my stomach grumble, and vegan or not, all of us (and yours truly, too) need protein.
If my IBS is mostly a combination of environmental factors (e.g., stress internal and external, sleeplessness, travel, work intensity) and my psychological profile, then what do I do now? Go see a hypnotist? Move to another part of the world with millet, sorghum, sugar beets, and other things my stomach can digest? As it stands now, about half the meals I make these days are for my wife, my son, and sometimes my dog, but I can no longer eat or even taste without consequence. And that is more frustrating than the IBS.
“Well, 247 home runs in the minor-leagues would be a…kind of dubious honor.”
Bull Durham, 1988.
Today marks two occasions, both of them a bit bittersweet. One, I marched and picked up my doctorate on this date, a quarter-century ago. A whole 25 years since my PhD ceremony, and my professional life has been a roller-coaster of betrayals, slights, and occasional triumphs since. I have written about all of them ad nauseum over the past 25 years, too. Learning people like my advisor and my mom were jealous of me was so discouraging that if it weren’t for writing, I might not be here at all to muse about anything.
But this May 18, in the year 2022, I have achieved a milestone I didn’t think possible, not even five years ago. Today, I begin teaching my second summer session course, US History from 1865 to the Present, at University of Maryland Global Campus. This is the 100th course I have taught or guest lectured as a regular since 1991. One hundred courses, enough to earn 2.5 bachelor’s degrees. “Yay, me!”, right?
This is a truly half-full, half-empty post, and so is how I feel about today. As Crash Davis would say, “Well, 100 undergraduate and graduate courses taught in academia’s minor-leagues is a kind of dubious honor.” It wouldn’t make news in The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, forget about The Sporting News!
I mean, a full 58 of my courses have been taught at a University of Maryland campus that mostly offers online courses. American University, my primary teaching place for the past four years, laughs every time our adjuncts’ union brings up our want for a new contract to correct our paltry salaries (their latest offer barely enough for Chipotle dinner for four per course). I haven’t taught a course affiliated with graduate-level work since my Teaching Black Studies class at Howard University in 2007, and that was marginally so. I made more money managing my former bosses at the defunct Academy for Educational Development for eight years ($620,000) than I ever have in my 20+ years as a TA, instructor, or professor ($360,000). So yes, hitting my 100th course feels dubious.
News flash: it’s still an achievement, too. That means I’ve taught between 2,450 and 2,600 students off and (since 2007, mostly) on over the past three decades. At least a dozen of my students have gone to earn doctorates, at least another 200 have their master’s and JDs. I’ve written dozens of letters and provide references for scores of former students. I’ve had some amazing revelations and epiphanies while teaching, including on many of the topics I write about for income and publication now. And, though almost exclusively in the lowly position of “ad-junk,” have taught at Pitt, CMU, Duquesne College of Education, GW School of Education and Human Development, University of the District of Columbia, Howard University, and my two current campuses. I’ve also taught for two summers at Princeton, worked with students in civic education, and designed curricula and materials for various education organizations over the years.
I’ve hit home runs, and against quality pitching, too. I’ve also hit threes out of double-teams, caught touchdowns while splitting double-coverages, and made blinding saves off of slapshots. In teaching as much as I have, I’ve had to. One TA in 100 courses, (and the one I did have should have never been trusted with grading responsibilities), one office (American) and two cubicles (Pitt and CMU, and I was a grad student then) in all my years in the classroom. I’ve taught students as young as 12 and as old as 80, too. Short of a mass shooter, I have pretty much seen it all as a postsecondary educator (though I’ve had armed cops as students in the classroom, too).
Really, I hope to remain an educator for the rest of my days, even as I hope that I’m not teaching eight, nine, and 10 classes per year for the next 20 or 30 years, either. For all the joys of light bulbs going off and seeing stereotypes shattered, there’s also the student sitting with their arms folded, refusing to listen, to me or their classmates, blaming me for everything wrong in the world. Crash Davis retired after breaking his record and became a coach in the minor leagues. That’s not so much a retirement as it is a significant role change. Maybe I can achieve the same, and soon.
For a while at least, my parental guardians actually saw me as some sort of rainmaker. It was around the spring of 1985 when my idiot stepfather started calling me “Duckets.” Especially when it came to anything he said that wasn’t about ordering me to do things, I ignored him. I assumed “Duckets” (or really, “Ducketts” as I spelled it out in my head) was just him making fun of me, like every other kid did in those days. The ones so corny and wack in their coolness, calling me “Donald Duck” or “Ronald McDonald” upon learning my name.
One Sunday that May, after somehow wrangling $120 out of my dad despite him being on a spring-long drinking binge, Maurice called me “Duckets” again. I had just come home from breaking off some of my Jimme money to wash clothes at the local laundromat for the eight of us and going to C-Town for food when he called me this. And he saw my face, the look I had. I was tired, pissed at doing work for his lazy ass and for my younger siblings and for my mom, and insulted at his joke.
Then, the abusive asshole did something he rarely did. He actually explained himself.
“Duckets is a compliment,” he said. “They’re Dutch coins made of pure gold. That’s who you are. You make Duckets come out of nowhere.”
I was gobsmacked. Really, you think I’m making money come to me by having to drag my dad out of bars every other weekend? Spending half of the money I get by helping to take care of your stinkin’ ass and my mom and your kids? Seriously? That’s approximately what I would have thought in that moment (now, a few f-bombs would have dropped, too). But I also thought exactly this: What’s he up to? Is he trying to get on my good side now?
Yes, Maurice was. But life is full of both-hands, and even evil abusers can be complimentary and right about aspects of people they otherwise refuse to get to know well. I was bringing in income when I technically wasn’t drawing a paycheck, and had in fact been doing so for nearly two and a half years by then. Even my older brother Darren was dependent on me to either get my dad to give him money or to find work to get us both paid.
I had to. I couldn’t just take $50, $60, $100, or $200 from my dad, go back home to 616, and sit there eating Wise Cheez Doodles or preemo chocolate donuts from Clover Donuts or those bomb brownies from the eatery in Wakefield. All while Sarai, my two-year-old sister with sickle cell anemia, couldn’t have an occasional bottle because my mom didn’t have enough WIC to buy formula for two (my brother Eri was barely one in May 1985). All while even with food stamps and the elder Maurice gone about half the time, we still could go anywhere between three and 10 days without food in the house every single month. If we had had a well-muscled dog like my dog Jacobi back then, believe me, that dog would have become a roasted dinner or a stew back then. And our 616 neighbors would never have asked about it afterward.
Maurice continued his “Duckets” campaign with me until he and my mom finally separated in June 1989. Since he was the only person to call me this weird nickname, I didn’t do much to research it. I still hated the man. If Skull Island’s King Kong had reached down his mouth and pulled on Maurice’s tongue hard enough to rip out all his innards, I would’ve laughed and cried happy tears. A suffering death still wouldn’t have been enough for me (even now, a part of me still lingers a few seconds too long on this thought — this is why a commitment to forgiveness is a daily chore!).
It was pretty easy to bring in “cash money” back in the day, though, even once I started working in jobs not dependent on my dad’s cashflow or his connections to backbreaking work. When no one has work, I’m going to look like a rainmaker by comparison, making $3.40, then $3.65, then $4.15, then $5.50, then $5.90, then $7.70 an hour in the years between 1986 and 1990. I was averaging $6,000 a year in part-time or summer full-time income, and between 20 and 30 percent of it was going to 616.
Whether Ducats, Dukets, or Duckets, or the Guilder or the Florin, gold coins are all signs of wealth, of colonial, imperialist national pride in such wealth, of good fortune and truly good luck. At least to those who have such coinage. But I am no Scrooge McDuck, and I’m certainly not made of money. My times of unemployment in 1988 and with homelessness too, of even a few weeks of unemployment in 1993 and 1997, and underemployment from 1997 to 1999 and from the end of 2008 off and on through 2011 are proof of this.
If taken symbolically, then the Ducat is a symbol of goldenness, of one’s ability to shine and grow and prosper, even if that isn’t mere financial growth. We have managed even when my income dropped like a rock because of the economy and the feast and famine nature of consulting work. I have continued to find ways to generate income, finding some doors ajar even as folks have slammed others in my face. (I do have a tendency to make difficult, even seemingly impossible things happen in my life, but that tends to happen in a virulently racist and classist country like the US.) My nemeses and enemies still attempt to steal from me and my work, even as they refuse to credit me for the creative I am. (It’s a weird-ass compliment, though, when people plagiarize me. Wow, you are that unoriginal and lack that much imagination!, at least that’s what I think about these assholes).
But don’t get it twisted, and do not call my Duckets or Ducats or Duck or Donald Duck or Ronald McDonald. I will block you on social media and drop you faster than I can drop a 450ºF panhandle. I can actually make it rain sometimes. It takes years to make this happen, through patience, prayer, perseverance, and understanding the nature of living life in deserts.
I originally wrote this blog 11 years ago this week, on the edge of my wife’s master’s graduation ceremony at American University. Little has changed since 2011. Except my younger siblings are all approaching or over 40. Our son is officially a young adult, applying to colleges after a gap year, and we have a dog. My mom has leaned so hard into white-bred evangelicalism, making herself a MAGA and a not-so-closeted Trump supporter in the process. As I have said in recent months, I can no longer execute the ritual of calling her once every four to six weeks. My spirit and mind can no longer take the gaslighting that comes with these phone conversations. I haven’t talked to her since the start of 2022. I am in year 53, but my mom still talks to me like I am 17, and a naïve teenager at that.
Here’s a reminder to everyone who is spending this weekend and will spend time tomorrow celebrating their mother’s unconditional affection and love that this kind of mother — despite whatever Hallmark and Lifetime attempts to communicate — is not a universal mom. Just like the universal use of “women” without a qualifier all too often equals white women, becoming a mom assumes everyone has loving, nurturing moms. And this is simply not true. There is so much gray between the Hallmark-card-mom and Mommie Dearest.
“I took care of my kids! I put food on the table, put a roof over y’all’s heads, put clothes on yo’ back! I did the best that I could, and none of y’all can tell me different…” That’s what my mother yelled to us the day before Sarai’s funeral last July. It was an excited utterance, after she had spent five days in a trance, unable to do as much as eat a piece of toast. We were in the living room of our place at 616, me, Mom, Maurice, Yiscoc and Eri, being yelled at over a lifetime of disappointment and frustration. Ours and hers.
Folks have been posting all week on Facebook and Twitter about their wonderful, loving and supportive mothers, practically requiring people like me to do the same. As if all mothers all alike. As if all mothers are either the best or the worse. As if a good mother should be put on a pedestal like a trophy or gold medal, and a bad mother to not be mentioned at all. After all, most of us prefer not to hear bad news.
My mother was neither the best nor the worst mother in the world. She ultimately was and remains a contradiction of advice and action. She told us growing up never to depend on the government for handouts, but ended up on welfare from ’83 to ’99. She’d advise us to go to school and college, yet did almost nothing to help any of us get there. She’d complain about us not getting along as a family. Then call my younger siblings “Judah babies” and tell me that I was just like my alcoholic dad.
I’d dealt with all of this, all of the awful decisions and refusals to make any decisions about family, her life, her marriage to Maurice, the abuse that I had to put up with. The intervention I did for my younger siblings, for me and for Mom back in January ’02 had in most respects put the issue of my mother’s mistakes to bed for the family. Or so I thought.
All of that came back to me as I listened to my mother yell at us from seemingly out of nowhere that terribly hot and sticky Friday, the sixteenth of July last summer. I stood, then sat, on the new yet cheap beige couch in the living room, sweating next to a barely working window fan. I watched Mom’s contorted face spew its sharpen words, like arrows raining down on us. I could only think, Not good enough, Mom! Your best wasn’t good enough. I didn’t say it. Because I’d already said it back in ’02.
Her best hadn’t been good enough that week. Neither Sarai nor Mom had taken out life insurance, so it was either “ask Donald” or pass-the-hat time. Mom’s best hadn’t put food on the table one out of every three days between the end of ’81 and the middle of ’86. Her best left us behind in rent for nearly three years, had lost her a job with Mount Vernon Hospital, had led us to welfare. Doing the best that she could had made us Hebrew-Israelites and left us with an abusive, cheating Maurice/Judah as the alleged man of the house for most of the ’80s.
Most importantly, Mom’s fatal flaw as a mother was her lack of love and support for us as we moved from baby to toddler, toddler to little kid, kid to preteen, teenager to adulthood. We were all one group of burdens dumped onto her by a God that used us as a test of her as a mother and person. Mom said as much, multiple times, over the ’80s and ’90s.
I know that some of you will find this post offensive simply because I’m talking about my mother, the woman who gave birth to me. That’s just too bad. There’s a lot of gray between a great mother and a horrible one. My mother made a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and path-of-least-resistance non-decisions that scarred me and my other siblings for life.
I love my mother for all the good that she did and all the good that she did teach me growing up. But that doesn’t me I should gloss over her record as a mother, provider and worker, especially during my growing up years. It means that there’s a lot I don’t like about my mother, who she was and is, and things she didn’t do well or didn’t do at all. It means that she has a limited sense of the responsibility she had when giving birth to me and to my five other siblings.
It also means that Mother’ Day for me remains very complicated. I’ve been buying my mother cards since ’84, and will continue to do so. And every year, finding the right card is hard, like looking for a good shoe for my nearly flat, quadruple-wide, size-fourteen feet. Still, I do the very best I can, because after all, she’s still my mother, and I love her with all of my heart.
In the years since, I have resolved some long buried issues, with neglect, sexual assault, and ass-whuppin’ abuse, long before life at 616, the Hebrew-Israelite years, and my mom’s gradual adoption of whiteness-dipped evangelicalism. Today will be my 39th year wishing my mom a good day on Mother’s Day with a card. But as much as I want to, I cannot celebrate this day with her, even as I celebrate my partner’s nearly 19 years of motherhood. With each passing year, it becomes more painful and sad for me. Maybe today’s the day I stop calling my mom on Mother’s Day, too. Mind you, it’s not out of anger or spite, or even a refusal to accept reality. At this stage of my life, I simply need to protect my heart. I am already disappointed, and from my mom’s perspective, a disappointment.
Even in my relative youth and arrogance, back in the days where I insisted that any authority figure in my life had to refer to me as DOCTOR Collins or DR. Donald Collins, I still saw myself as an underdog. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a working-class stiff (I did sometimes, given my predoctoral background). But I definitely was not part of the elite bunch. Mark, Mike, Jennifer and so many at Carnegie Mellon, and professors like Oestreicher, Andrews, Smethurst, Chase, and Van Hall at Pitt let me know I was better, but not elite, nearly every week for my five-and-a-half years from bachelor’s to PhD. between 1991 and 1997.
I held out hope back then. Hope that the doctorate was worth the pain, the suffering, the borrowing, the betrayals, and the burnout. Hope that being three or four times as good would be more than good enough. Hope, most of all, that my flair for writing with imagination and purpose would translate into success, prosperity, vindication, even healing and renewal, as I took my degree and my skill sets into the worlds I’ve inhabited now for a quarter-century.
Who was I kidding? I was probably the least well-connected person I knew going into college in 1987. With the partially bombed-out bridge I crossed to earn my doctorate at the end of 1996, I was lucky to have any connections to work with in finding any work at all. I discovered in a matter of weeks in 1997 my connections were enough to get into the door at one institution after another, but not enough to secure full-time work in academia.
I had felt expendable before. Graduate school and living at 616 with an abusive idiot stepfather and a patriarchal mother each gave me that feeling. The two-and-a-half-year journey to find a full-time job was different, though. It was as if I was too educated for the working world, not just as a Black man, but as a 27-year-old Black man who had worked on some level since the summer of 1984.
Almost all my academic job interviews were with schools of education or Africana studies departments. Not a single history department would interview me or hire me for a job, not even as an adjunct, until 2008. As I began doing nonprofit job interviews, it was obvious no one accounted for my doctorate as part of the process, or my three years of TAing and standalone teaching experience. I had already become the job equivalent of Michael Clayton, a fixer who wasn’t really a cop or a lawyer, yet had the expert skill sets of both. Only, substitute the words “professor” and “nonprofit administrator” for “cop” and “lawyer” here.
My expendability became even more apparent as I found myself in the big-time nonprofit world working at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development (AED, now FHI 360). It was here I learned the full nature of how much I could be a misfit within an organization. At my second job within the organization, as a senior program officer and deputy director of Partnerships for College Access and Success, my last two years I was in charge of managing the annual $1.3 million-budget for the national initiative.
And that’s when I learned why we never seemed to have enough money to manage the project or pay me more than $75 or $80K for doing so. The senior members of AED — the CEO, executive vice presidents, and senior vice presidents — skimmed one percent off the top of all grants passing through the organization. Mind you, individual senior officers who oversaw our unit already billed more than some of their hours to a project they never actually managed (the Denise Borders’ and Sandra Lauffers’ of that world). The project was just a carcass, and these stinky-ass vultures often fed off the remains. These senior folk frequently made anywhere from $200K to $400K, and the CEO Steve Moseley made over $700,000.
To hide this tremendous amount of overhead (about 35 or 40 percent of the total budget), I had to make up three budget spreadsheets. One for the actual cost of salaries, utilities, travel, and the AED Ponzi scheme, another for the private foundation world (where we manipulated the data to get the overhead to be only 15 or 20 percent of the budget). A third spreadsheet was for the annual audit to satisfy USAID and the feds. The last two budgets hid the “rainy day” fund for AED’s 52 senior officers.
It was just disgusting. I spent so much time meeting with foundation officers, writing grant proposals, fielding offers, and looking for a less stressful job in 2006 and 2007. We would turn down money because it wasn’t enough to satisfy the vultures or to keep everyone employed, like $100,000 from Carnegie Corporation, another $200,000 elsewhere.
Meanwhile, when I finally did get burned out at the end of 2007 and submitted my resignation, it was just three months ahead of probably being partially laid off anyway. I didn’t have it in me to spend the next three or six months groveling to every vice president or senior vice president in the organization about my work, hoping to pick up enough hours to keep pace with my salary. I certainly didn’t have it in me to explain for the 1,000th time why I didn’t spend two years in Mozambique as part of the Peace Corps digging wells, learning the local Portuguese, or putting up malaria nests. All to show I was one of them, privileged enough to see what lack of socioeconomic and racial privilege looked like in distant parts of the world. I was never one of them, because I lived this contrast every day growing up in and around the Big Apple.
My Black ass was expendable. My doctorate really meant nothing in the face of this work. And, I was approaching 40, meaning that others would assume I was too old to do this work and learn anyway. I was most definitely expendable by February 2008.
But, so was every AED Ponzi schemer by their ludicrously lazy, racist, and elitist standards. Once USAID became aware of the organization’s shenanigans at the end of 2010, they suspended AED’s $600-million worth of contracts, and then canceled them or moved those contracts to other organizations. They killed the beast, finding my former bosses expendable, too.
Today, I work in a world where everyone truly is expendable. It doesn’t matter if it’s American University, University of Maryland Global Campus, or if I freelance with Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, or Salon. Heck, if I don’t insist on it, these spaces and places won’t even get my name right. Forget about paying me a fair wage or having time off. You can bet, though, that the heads of every organization I do work for now has their own golden parachute, their own Ponzi method for maintaining their lavish material narcissism. It is so typically American that I could stand in the Namib desert and smell the shit blowing inland from the Atlantic Ocean.