“Let Me Tell You About Ms. Martha…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty Wages

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“How We Slice the Pie in the USA” editorial cartoon (cropped), September 19, 2011 (David Horsey/Hearst Newspapers; https://catherineandojaswi.weebly.com/document-ten.html)

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes how blissfully ignorant I used to be about the fourscore-and-three-layers’ worth of elitist bullshit there are to the nature of academic — and American — life. Even in the months after reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, even after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I still believed that my talent and my production alone would win the day over having the right connections in my circle. What a dumb-ass chump I was, in 1993, and as recently as 2013.

But at least in 1993, my 23-year-old behind could be excused for simply not knowing enough about the world that I inhabited. I was a quick study, academically, but not so quick socially, only four-and-a-half-years removed from homelessness and not trusting humans all. My tutor, my unofficial advisor about the professional worlds that would take up the next 28 years of my life, was one Bruce Anthony Jones. I have talked about Bruce in the past, about how he quietly dumped me and all of his Pitt grad students upon leaving for University of Missouri-Columbia in 1996. That’s near the end of this story, though, not it’s beginning.

It was the year after I did an independent study on the literature of multicultural education in the US, Canada, and the UK with him as a master’s student. I was working with Bruce again, this time to learn more about curricula decision-making and cultural bias among the multicultural education and Afrocentricity set. He knew that this was likely my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I had tired of White professors and their withering White gaze, and of Larry not quite keeping up with my work, even though he was my history advisor.

So it was in late February 1993 that he invited me out to dinner to discuss my next moves. We ate at some high-end Chinese restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh on or off Grant Street. It was just a few blocks from where Bruce lived, his mini-penthouse on one-and-a-half floors (the 11th and 12th) in The Pennsylvanian, situated on a hill overlooking downtown. It was once the station building for all passenger trains in and out of Pittsburgh, having been converted into a luxury apartment building the year I arrived for undergrad at Pitt, in 1987.

As someone whose moments of interaction with affluence and luxury were few, the dinner meeting and discussion was dizzying. We had a five-course meal, sat and talked for two hours about grad school, the dissertation process, finding work in higher education, the crock of the tenure clock and tenure process, and so much more. Bruce really helped me demystify the cloistered world of academia that night.

But, between the end of that dinner, the walk over to Bruce’s penthouse apartment, and the conversation we had about his work, the high wore off. When we got to talking about salaries, he began to bitch and moan about his own lot as an assistant professor in the School of Education at Pitt. “Well, how much are you making as an assistant professor?,” I asked rather courageously (this isn’t something grad students were supposed to ask, my mutuals had told me, but you don’t get anywhere by not asking questions). “Forty-five thousand. But them’s poverty wages,” Bruce said matter-of-factly, his “Lon-Guy-Land” (Long Island, New York) accent kicking in more fully as he spoke.

In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, Arrogant asshole, the most I’ve ever made in a year is $11,000, and you talkin’ poverty wages to me? I’ve grown up without food, without any amenities beyond the basics, and you live in a 1.5-floor penthouse? Really? I don’t know how well I hid my envy and my rage after hearing Bruce’s complaints about his salary. I let him continue his monologue.

It turned out that Bruce’s time at Teachers College was about more than earning his doctorate. It was also an opportunity for him to earn money, really good money, through his connections at Teachers College and at Columbia University as a whole. Including one with Charles V. Hamilton, the co-author of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (originally written with one Kwame Ture, née Stokely Carmichael in 1967).

The Pennsylvanian, near downtown Pittsburgh, PA, circa 2012.

I cannot recall if Hamilton was on his dissertation committee or not, but no matter. Apparently connections with Hamilton and others had helped Bruce find work as an education consultant with the Ford Foundation, among several other private foundations. In the two years leading to his PhD and the year before landing his Pitt faculty position, this was his other professional life. “I make double as a consultant than I do as a professor (really “professa,” the way it rolled off Bruce’s Long Island tongue), and for half the work,” I remember Bruce saying.

“What would I have to do to get into that kind of work?,” I asked once I got over the shock of calculating that Bruce was pulling between $130,000 and $150,000 a year while living in a 1,500-square-foot penthouse that cost $1,350 per month. Bruce should’ve said, “With help from people like me, lifting as we climb.” But instead, he made it sound like he just lucked out, somehow, like he just happened to be walking down a random hallway when leading Black scholars at Teachers College and Columbia offered lucrative consulting gigs on a random Friday.

A bit more than four years later, the summer of 1997, I found myself without work post-PhD. Teachers College had just rejected me for an assistant professorship in social foundations of education. I was literally a month or two away from being completely out of funds. I could pay my rent, but that was about all I could do until I found more work. I hated to do this, but I ended up contacting Bruce for help, either in finding work or in lending me money until I could pay him back.

Bruce returned my call, and was very stern on the phone with me. “I usually don’t lend students money,” he said, as if I was some random students who reached out to him out of nowhere. But he offered to write me a check for $100. “Now I expect you to pay me back,” Bruce said, as if he was being magnanimous. That was when I finally, really, truly understood. My time with Bruce was about making him feel like a powerful person in academia. It was never about mentoring or helping me at all.

Between 1997 and 2000, I continued writing my own letters of recommendation with Bruce’s name on them, a practice we had developed while I was still a grad student. Only, I also used one of Bruce’s old signatures and some University of Missouri-Columbia letterhead to make his letters written by me on my behalf look more authentic. After I turned down a job at Howard in June 2000, I wrote Bruce a check for $100 and wondered, Should I include interest in the total, and if so, how much? That was the last time I used Bruce’s letter, the last time I contacted him.

In the years since, I’ve worked jobs that paid $70,000 and $80,000 a year, charged as much as $550-per-day as a consultant, and turned down jobs paying $100K in areas that were too expensive for that salary (like the Bay Area, for example). I’ve also had a couple of years where I’ve barely earned $20,000 as an adjunct (those were years I also consulted, so). I know damn fucking well what a real poverty wage looks like. The closest Bruce has been to socioeconomic poverty was probably the night he sat across from me at dinner all those years ago. Intellectual, social, and spiritual poverty have been Bruce’s close companions, I’d bet, for many years. For such are the wages of narcissism.

When Plagiarism Isn’t Plagiarism, When Teachers Are Assholes

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A gas pilot light (what gaslighting and other weaponized behaviors can feel like when one’s on receiving end), February 11, 2021. (https://generalparts.com/)

I have been truly miffed and hurt before. But not like this. At least, not since my senior year of high school and my first year as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon. But it is for my 17-year-old son that I am feeling this pain, this anger that ebbs, but doesn’t quite go away. It is apparent to me that so many teachers and staff in K-12 education are operating without a net with a pandemic all around them — and making the most of their ability to make life easier for their students anyway.

But there are others for whom the pandemic and all that has come with it literally means “students should just work as normal” or “even more than normal,” because they are “at home.” I already have colleagues at American University who think that they can take their 2.5-hour block classes and do what they did before the pandemic, lecturing for two hours at a time without giving students breaks, even assigning more work. I didn’t think I’d learn of the same stubbornness to adapt from high school teachers, too.

This story is one about my son’s struggles with school this year and off and on over the past few years. But it is also very much about how a high school in East Silver Spring, Maryland can let even a slightly above average student slip through the cracks, and then punish him, once noticed. It is about how teachers and administrators can circle the wagons like the NYPD or any other “blue wall of silence” police institution and gaslight the parents of such a child when confronted about how they have neglected and abused this child academically. My educated guess as an educator is that this issue with our own kid can easily be multiplied by a factor of a couple thousand across Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), and by hundreds of thousands in the 14,000 school districts across the US.

The story begins with our son in his senior year in a virtual remote learning environment, with some teachers (like his Creative Writing teacher) offering flexibility with due dates and other concerns, and other teachers (like his gym teacher and honors 12th grade English teacher), not so much. Our son has had his ups and downs throughout his high school years, but still was roughly a 3.0 or so student through his first three years. Even with the pandemic setting in last spring, he managed three As in his core courses. His combination of anxiety, social isolation, and (at times) inattention and laziness kept him from doing as well as he likely could’ve those years.

With schools in virtual remote mode for at least the first half of his senior year, we expected it to be pretty rough for our son. But not this rough. It seemed as if MCPS flipped a switch, and as a rule expected teachers, administrators, students, and parents to carry on this 2020-21 school year as if everything was normal. Daily attendance checks, more homework piled on top of homework, constant testing, points off for any late assignments, all part of the normal and toxic routine of rote discipline in the Common Core era.

And so it was for our son. In his gym class, his teacher marked him absent at least three times on days he opened his Zoom more than five (5) minutes past his start time. In the first three weeks, our son switched from Anatomy, Marine Biology, and Calculus to Creative Writing and Intro to Statistics, putting him behind in his courses overall.

But by the end of the first month, of all the classes, we did not expect honors English to be an issue. He had been taking honors English classes since seventh grade, after all. His honors English teacher for the first half of 12th grade, though, was not impressed with our son’s work. Even his A+ work:

You need to be more specific here. There is way to much generalization and because of that lack of specificity you kind of repeat the same ideas over and over again.

…you really didn’t follow the layout that we reviewed in class for this narrative. You need to show and not tell. Use a scene to demonstrate the theme rather than just telling the reader what they should know.

A little more detail as to the character and the setting would have been helpful here.  This goes back to the “show don’t tell” conversations we’ve had about the project.

I’d like to hear a little more discussion with the group next time – that’s what I am assessing.

Because I have electronic access to our son’s assignments, grades, and comments, I read these off and on throughout his months with this honors English teacher. I figured that our son wasn’t quite doing his best work. But then again, who would be these days? I was busy grading my own students and their papers. Although I thought this teacher’s commentary was a bit tough, I assumed it was because our son kept making the same errors again and again.

Until I started reading his assignments and answers in more detail. Even when our son understood the assignment or essay and showed understanding, it was never enough for his honors English teacher. The last quote in the string above was about an assignment in which this teacher had assigned a perfect score. That was in December, just before the holiday break.

I emailed his honors English teacher, in fact, all of our son’s other 12th grade teachers and his counselor at that point. I wrote that we “fully understand your frustrations with [our child], and share them as well.” We asked for them to keep a look out for him, to not let him “blend into the background.” Notice that we did not say that we condoned this teacher’s frustrations or his “terse language” toward our child. Nor did we say to give him a grade he doesn’t deserve. We simply wanted the flexibility that any of us would want in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of death (including the death of his grandmother at the beginning of December), on top of his ongoing issues with sleeplessness and anxiety.

Instead, our son’s honors English teacher became more frustrated, and never addressed us as his parents directly in response to my email. It all came to a head on our son’s last assignment, an essay on satire. Apparently the teacher expected our son to roll with one example on satire and point to how many methods of satire this one example checks off. Instead, our son used four examples, and went through those methods with those examples. In the end, the teacher scored it a 50/100.

At first, I really wasn’t that surprised, given our son’s history with this teacher. But then, in the middle of his comments, the teacher wrote:

As for the elements of satire that you explore, in order to address sarcasm you must include the term irony in order to fully demonstrate your understanding of the device- you also don’t give specific examples.  A caricature is a satirical device but the example you give is not satire, it’s racist.

That was when I read the essay. What our son wrote was meandering, not well organized, but not exactly a disheveled mess either. It was pretty middle-of-the-road, like he wrote it in a rush (given the state of things, I’m certain he wrote it at the last minute). But it did contain a thesis, a mediocre and incomplete one, yet I clearly knew his topic and some of what he intended to cover just from reading it. He addressed the issue of irony in his second paragraph, and went on in detail to describe it in his fifth paragraph. The racism charge was ridiculous, given that our son had immediately pointed out that caricatures of groups like Jews were historical “stereotypes” as part of his essay. Plus, the nerve of this man to write, “I really wish I could’ve done more to help. With this assignment in particular I can help you with these types of essays- that help will prepare you for college if that’s the route you’re thinking of taking.” Tone deaf, with -isms and assumptions at his educator core.

I emailed our son’s honors English teacher, again, this time to ask him to take a second look, to note what our son did correctly in his essay, not just what our son didn’t do. Based on this teacher’s own rubric and nearly three decades of teaching students between 13 and 80 years old, our son’s score should’ve been between a 70 and a 79.

Instead, the teacher doubled down and accused our son of plagiarism, which was now the real reason for his score. My guess was that the teacher deliberately found another weakness in his essay, once confronted by me via email. He offered, though, to knock our’s son’s score up to 66/100, even though this wouldn’t change our son’s grade in the course.

I had to really, really contain myself in my follow-up email. As a father and an educator, I know all the tricks that teachers and professors use to get students and/or parents off their backs. But plagiarism is a very serious charge, the kind that requires evidence, and not mere accusation. That, and the fact that our son’s honors English teacher had not mentioned plagiarism, not at all, until I confronted him about our son’s grade and his unsubstantiated commentary.

I called for a conference with the teacher, our son’s counselor, the English Department chair, and (if available), our son’s 12th grade principal. I did it having already read our son’s essay, and having run it through Turnitin.com myself. Nine-tenths of the assignment was in our son’s own words. The other 10 percent? Parts of three sentences — about 55 words in all — included definitions that our son had not put quotes around. Two others had links to sources, ones our son clearly identified as sources. Inconsistent citing of sources, something I deal with from my own students so often it barely raises an eyebrow. It would have been enough for me to take off some additional points, but it is not a plagiarism offense.

As expected, the conference call that was supposed to be about the honors English teacher’s ill-treatment of and accusations toward our son was really an exercise in gaslighting him and us as his parents with the plagiarism accusation. Expected, but very disappointing. They kept telling us that our son was lucky to have not received a 0 and failing grade in the course. I said that they should be ashamed of themselves as educators, that they were “circling the wagons” like law enforcement. Our son’s honor’s English teacher said nothing for 35 minutes, and kept playing his TV in the background, which kept cutting in and out throughout the call (what a coward!). He was the only person on the call who didn’t speak.

They offered to share their so-called evidence. The “evidence” was exactly the same as when I ran our son’s essay through Turnitin the week before. If this is plagiarism, I would dare say three-quarters of the students I’ve taught since 1992 should be accused of such. MCPS’s definition of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? It includes the key phrase, “the willful giving or receiving” of an academic advantage of some sort, meaning the act has to be an intentional one. It can’t just be a couple of citation errors; evidence of intent must be involved. The wanton theft of other’s words must be involved. I seriously doubt three partial sentences in an average essay granted our son any “advantage” at all (having been a victim of plagiarism myself, I know the signs).

They did so much terribly wrong here, to our son, and to us as our son’s parents. They cared not about the teacher’s escalation of comments to our son. They cared not that the other accusations proved to be false. They cared only about three sets of quotation marks missing from a 900-word essay. They cared only about this, because they knew they could do nothing institutionally that would help students struggling with the pandemic. They cared only about the accusation because K-12 institutions care more about protecting a mediocre White male teacher than they do about Black and Brown students, as these institutions are racist and ableist to their core.

Luckily, our son has a different honors English teacher this semester, his final one at his Silver Spring high school. But as damaging as this could have been for him, at least I can say I stepped up as his dad, right? Except that this has conjured up lots of bad memories about the assholes who were my administrators at Mount Vernon HS, about folks whom I’ve known to be assholes in the education field over the years. Given this, why would anyone want to see these toxic sites of social control open up again for in-person instruction? I don’t.

I had thought about volunteering at our son’s high school this semester, with a smaller teaching load at my institutions this spring. But after this, why in hell would I want to volunteer with these uncaring shits who call themselves educators? They can all kiss my middle-aged Black ass!

However, if our son, a slightly above-average student, had to endure the bullshit of a bullshit-artist-as-certified-teacher, I can only imagine the number students across the achievement spectrum who are catching hell from teachers who have not adjusted well to teaching virtually in the midst of this pandemic. So maybe, just maybe, once I stop thinking about putting our son’s former teacher in a chokehold, I’ll see about volunteering once more. 

But, even if everyone at our son’s soon-to-be-former high school is vaccinated by late this spring or by Fall 2021, I’m still wearing two masks and a face shield. The place is way too toxic for us.

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I truly would like to hear from parents, students, even teachers, in Silver Spring, in Montgomery County, MD, in the DMV, in general. Tell me I’m wrong, that these aren’t examples of education as punitive and gaslighting. Or, conversely, tell me if you have had similar experiences with this high school and this school district, especially since the pandemic.

Do Public Ass-Whuppins Really Work?

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William H. Holmes Elementary (near the southeast corner). Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce’s classroom in 1978-79 year, November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

It was the first Friday of May 1980. I was in fifth grade. As part of my ritual that had been my routine since the start of third grade, after the 11:35 am bell, I walked the seven blocks from William H. Holmes Elementary School home for lunch. I made my standard lunch on that day, a slice of fried beef bologna with two slices of Home Pride white bread with Miracle Whip man-naise. The way the grease from frying the bologna would soak into the bread, combining with catching ten or 15 minutes of The Price Is Right and (if I lingered longer) a few minutes of the 12 noon news on WCBS-2 or WNBC-4. It made the almost one-and-half-miles of midday walking five days a week worth it.

Especially since I could count on my pre-Hebrew Israelite stepfather either being out of the apartment or snoring away, my mother at work at Mount Vernon Hospital on her 7 am-3 pm shift, Darren at Clear View in Dobbs Ferry (the school’s now in Briarcliff Manor), and baby Maurice with the babysitting family the floor above. Those days were the most stable (if one could call it that) of my growing up years. I failed to see the duct tape holding up the stack of playing cards back then.

It was on that bright and sunny spring day where coming back to Holmes for the second half of the day brought chaos. As I rounded the southeast corner of the school for the remaining 15 minutes of recess on the dirt softball fields and the long asphalt pavement adjacent to it, I witnessed the tail end of a brawl. Something like twenty of my male classmates were fighting where they normally played a friendly game of softball. It was often broken down between the two fifth grade classes, Mrs. O’Daniel’s and Ms. Bracey’s. Because there were other fields, the fourth and sixth grader boys (and a few girls) could also play softball and football. The girls usually double-dutched, raced each other, played hopscotch, or just talked in their groups along the asphalt L along the west side and back southern end of the Holmes complex.

For two years, I had wanted to stay at school for lunch in the spring, just to play some softball. But on this day, I was more than happy to have not been a part of the melee. I remember my friend Starling excitedly updating me on how both teams had spent part of the morning and the early part of lunch preparing to “throw down.” Someone was hit by a pitch, and then a fight between batter and pitcher turned into our school’s version of a brawl between the Yankees and the Red Sox, or the Yankees and the Royals (take your pick).

I only saw the last minute or so. But dirt, grass, spit, snot, and even blood embedded in boys’ clothes, faces, and hair. Me, Starling, Anthony, and maybe two other boys between the fifth grade classes were the only boys who weren’t a part of the fight.

Mrs. O’Daniel and Ms. Bracey both witnessed the fight. Mrs. O’Daniel saw everything from her window on the second floor, which faced out to the back of the school. Ms. Bracey was on the playground when the brawl broke out, and attempted to break it up, but got hit herself in the process.

They, along with our principal Dr. Smalls, decided to mete out the only punishment they thought fit the crime of riotous insurrection. Public ass-whuppins. Yep. After lunch, Ms. Bracey read her class the riot act. She was so loud that Mrs. O’Daniel didn’t begin her quiet chastisement of the boys’ behavior until after Ms. Bracey has stopped yelling and came over to our classroom next door.

After the two had their say, they began taking the boys, one at a time, to the boys bathroom down the hall. From 1 pm until 2:55, they took turns beatin’ ass with Mrs. O’Daniel’s “board of education,” three yardstick rulers taped together for dispensing punishment. She had rapped my knuckles once for talking to a neighbor in class way back in September or October. That was enough for me.

Some of the boys cried well before they were taken into the bathroom for their paddling. The older boys in my classroom, at least, the full-on 12 and 13-years-old (we had three that age in Mrs. O’Daniel’s class in fifth grade), were more stoic. Unlike the other boys, they did not cry, or if they did, they did theirs quietly. They didn’t yell out or whimper like the 10 and 11-year-old when the “board of education” met bare ass.

Then, both teachers gave our classes the “don’t you ever do this again” speech, and then, “Have a good weekend.”

Honestly, it was truly an awkward day for me. I wasn’t sure even at ten whether it was kosher for teachers to whup students’ asses. But I also knew not to question it. I knew what my classmates did was wrong and wrongheaded. “That’s what they get for fighting. Them teachers did the right thing,” my mom said emphatically when I told her what had happened that afternoon.

As an educator, I know none of this would fly now. Even if approved by all the parents, the principal, and the teachers, as it actually was in 1980. Heck, if William Prattella and the Mount Vernon Board of Education had known about this in 1980, the incident would have made its way to The New York Times and the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. The Board of Education would have faced lawsuits and been paying off parents and their kids for trauma for the next five years. The teachers and the principal would have been out of jobs, probably out of education altogether, plausibly then and most definitely in the 41 years since.

But we were a nearly 99 percent Black school with a Black principal and more than a few Black teachers. Many of them and us had ties to a culture where corporal punishment was the response for high-level offenses at home and at school. We lived in a violent world, where White cops and White vigilantes wouldn’t just stop with a “board of education” and five or six licks to the buttocks.

Still, long term, it didn’t work. Many of my peers would end up in brawls after school, off school grounds, to avoid this kind of punishment. Or, they and others whom I never got to know would end up in fights on school grounds, at Davis Middle School (for some), at Hamilton Middle School, at Mount Vernon High School, and certainly in other schools in Westchester County and in the Bronx. I witnessed so many fights, boy-on-boy, girl-on-girl, girl-on-boy. I was part of a few myself, if only to defend myself.

Restorative justice is the idea that schools take a 360-degree approach to changing behaviors. One that allows victims of violence and other violations to experience some form of justice, and those who have victimized others the counseling and help they need so that they can embody behaviors that are healing and not hurting. Most school districts remain uninterested in such approaches, as they are too closely tied to the racist police state that most schools are for most students Black, Indigenous, and Brown. Perhaps the namby-pamby White middle-class parents who want schools to reopen should consider the harm that schools to students of color. The ass-whuppins that students of color — who are the majority of students in public schools these days — may be rhetorical and by statute, but they are just as emotionally and psychologically scarring.

Bloodied bust of President Zachary Taylor, Statuary Hall, US Capitol, January 6, 2021. (Frank Thorp V/NBC News).

But for the 7,000 or 8,000 Maga-insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the vote, kidnap, beat up, and possibly kill members of Congress, all to keep one Donald J. Trump in power beyond January 20? Maybe an ass-whuppin’ is what all of them should get. Right outside on the west side of the US Capitol. Have a big strong man, like say Eugene Goodman, or former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison, beat them with the House of Representatives’ gavel on their pale and flat asses. That would be the easy way out. Watching them cry and holler, though, would make my weekend

What should really happen is time for the ringleaders — murderous treason is about as high as crime as it can get — in prison or in a place where can no longer make attempts at bringing a full-blown autocracy to the US. What should really happen is that the rest of the cabal should contribute to a reparations fund, like a quarter of their wealth or something. What they need is years of group therapy to uncover their narcissism. What we need is a government that is worth protecting from insurrectionists mobs moving forward. Otherwise, the US may well get an ass-whuppin’ from which it won’t recover. An ass-whuppin’ from within.

The Things I’d Like to Give for the Holidays, But Can’t

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My copies of Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House (2019) and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (2020), December 26, 2020. (Donald Earl Collins).

The holiday season is a time for giving unto others (apparently unlike the other 11 to eleven-and-a-half months out of the year, when it is your right under capitalism to give to yourself every single day). Except when your own life has shown time and time again that gift-giving without resources is hard. It has meant going years without receiving a gift, without your parents or guarding even buying any of us a card. It is doubly difficult when your birthday is in the middle of the holiday season, two days after Christmas, the second day of Kwanzaa, and at least one year where lunar calendar for Chanukah and my born date aligned.

But, as an adult, I made the most of trying to give to family and sometimes friends. I started buying my mother birthday and Christmas cards when I was 14. I began to buy my siblings cards and presents in 1989, just as I was turning 20. Over the years, I have bought video game systems and clothes, replaced TVs, given money, special-ordered flowers, taken my younger siblings to movies, Toys “R” Us, and other comical holiday ventures for a young man without a car.

Starting in the late 1990s, I began to switch to books as gifts. I figured that to really help my family and to get through to my sibs, books were key. They had been for me, and I assumed that it would be the same for them. I was so wrong! If the books got read by them at all, they generally didn’t say, or they said that they didn’t like them. When I finally got around to buying books for my Mom, she’d say, “What I need this for? I know all about racism already. I done lived it.” I guess my thirty-something years, and not expertise on the topic, should have been sufficient for me, too.

As with all issues related to my Mount Vernon family, this giving issue became tortuous. It is hard buying gifts for people who only talk to you when they have to or when they want something from me. As adults, I have gotten to know very few of their likes, dislikes, and habits and wants and needs. Also, I found myself in the boom-and-bust cycles of teaching and consulting during the Great Recession years (especially between 2010 and 2015). So, I either sent holiday cards with gift cards or just cards.

But then it dawned on me right about my 45th birthday that none of my younger sibs had ever sent me anything. Yes, I know that gifting need not be transactional or reciprocal. Still, I had struggled every year to remember birthdays, special occasions, and Christmases to send them something from the heart. They never saw me as someone to give unto, as if my degrees and relative career stability made me not need and not want, materially, emotionally, or otherwise.

So in 2015, I stopped with the giving. Except for my older brother Darren and my Mom. And even then I mostly send cards and the occasional gift card. The latter gets reactions like, “What I’m gonna do with this?” It was my Mom’s gut punch to the cliché, “it’s the thought that counts.”

One thing I’d like to do again with family in New York is to send books that I’d think they’d enjoy, books that I found entertaining and educational, books that set my mind and spirit in order. Especially in this year of pandemic-driven isolation and putting my and my family’s safety over travel, my recent excursion to Pittsburgh to help make funeral arrangements for my mother-in-law excepted.

The last two books I have completed in recent weeks stand out because of the things I observed and experienced growing up and growing into grown-ass adulthood, between Mount Vernon, New York, Pittsburgh, and my first three years in DC and Silver Spring, Maryland. The two books happen to be Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Both books are by Black women who grew up in the Deep South but sojourned their way to cold Northern cities like New York and Pittsburgh, just like my Mom. And with those physical and spiritual journeys, family and the connections with family were big themes for them both. Or, really, the fault lines and the disconnection that can and does happen over time. Being unmoored, an outsider to one’s own family, Broom and Philyaw cover so well in their books.

Yes, I know that Broom’s National Book Award winner is both genealogy and memoir at the same time, carefully not revealing certain things about herself until her Acknowledgments. Yes, I know Philyaw’s NBA finalist is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of The Church and hypocrisy, fictionalized but with elements of the author’s life that she unveils anyway. The two books are quite different in their approaches to history and family, but they both address history and family anyway.

And it is how they handle family and family secrets that propelled me through both books. Broom is extremely circumspect about what and whom she does put in The Yellow House, explaining why and her conflict about doing so throughout (she makes me look like a gossip by comparison in Boy @ The Window). “Why do I sometimes feel that I do not have the right to the story of the city I come from? Why, when I want to get down to it, just say the damned thing, do the thoughts pool and ring out in a loop in my head a childish chorus of ‘Oh, oh, oh, don’t tell on your place.’ Telling on. Like giving it all away. Giving what away?,” Broom writes on page 329.

I completely understand, between the Mount Vernonites who have declared my growing-up experiences invalid because I was “weird” and family members who have all but stopped talking to me because I unearthed something they didn’t like about themselves. That, and Broom’s use of “The Water” to demarcate the East New Orleans of her, her family’s, and her ancestors’ lives and the East New Orleans after Katrina in 2005. It was the fire of 1995 that was the break between the chaos of 616 and the life of uncomfortable distance between me and family for me. Broom being unmoored caused her to eventually seek deeper bonds. I tried too many times to count, and failed. But then again, family ain’t just blood, and it’s way deeper than the roots of any marriage.

Philyaw’s collection conjured memories of my Black evangelical Christianity years (and so did Broom’s chapters about her feeling the spirit, speaking in other tongues, and passing out in self-induced trances that lasted for hours, but I digress) and my unfortunate Hebrew-Israelite years. Years where Black patriarchy and toxic hypermasculinity ruled the roost. Some of these men practically dripped pre-cum while preaching the promise of Jesus and Yahweh in those days of temple and Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. Philyaw gets at this in so many ways. For so many of her readers, the stories “Peach Cobbler” and “When Eddie Levert Comes” were their favorites. The amount of behind-the-scenes cheating and familial conflict is enough for anyone on the fence to declare themselves an atheist.

For my money, though, “Jael” is the story that will stay with me. I knew at least one, maybe two Jaels while growing up in the New York City area. One of them tried to molest me when I was 12. I somehow know — despite forgetting about the particulars of my previous sexual assault until this time six years ago — that telling my Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice, or my father about this was out of the question. But she was a Jael, alright, another traumatized kid, like me, yet willing to prey on others as a coping strategy.

Even though I wasn’t a Jael, my Mom prayed over me like I could be one, in order “to make a man out of you,” as she used to say. That she could actually say the words, “Or you could be a rapist” to me the same month I’d end up homeless at Pitt for five days was so telling. It told me that my Mom didn’t know me very well after all. Philyaw has me considering the possibility that with family, anyone could be a Jael, even the folks responsible for raising us.

Here’s what I know, though. No matter how I’d couch it, most of my family wouldn’t read a single word from The Yellow House or The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Queerness, hypocrisy, intersectionality, symbolism, stories that parallel their own? I might as well be sending my Mom a stereotypical Hollywood version of a voodoo doll with pins for her to push in it. For my younger siblings, a steaming hot plate of fried beef liver and kidneys smothered in onions and gravy over rice would be more appealing. So this post will have to do. A gift, I suppose.

Music of the Dystopia

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Screen shot, Silent Running (1972) poster, November 24, 2020. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067756/mediaviewer/rm3505217792/).

Music has nearly always been a dreamscape from which I could envision alternative histories, sense multiple futures, uncover possible presents, feel and find my best self.

It has also been a place for revealing the naked, uncomfortable truth of humanity’s existence in real life. If one were to take the music of the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s, the R&B that clearly outlined the combination of migration, poverty, heroin addiction, the Vietnam War, police brutality, unemployment, miserly government social welfare and urban living would be one way to go. If one were to take the eclectic British and Irish pop and rock of the 1980s, those folks illuminated the connections between rising conservatism, austerity meant to cut the social safety net, and the normalization of government oppression, corruption, and infiltration into the private lives of everyday people.

It all adds up to one simple yet very scary truth. Our world, the one in which my mother birthed me, the one in which I have grown up and grown older, has always been a dystopia. That’s it. All this talk of technological innovation, of moral and philosophical advancements, of a post-World War II, West-led democratized, globalized, capitalist meritocracy is simply The Real-Life Matrix pulling the dystopian world over our deluded, narcissistic eyes. And nearly everything in the world of mainstream news and journalism, in everyday national and international politics, in formal education systems, and in every single iota of American and global popular culture.

Except in the occasional and deliberate attempts made by artists and authors to expose the underworkings of this Matrix. I have written far too much about those authors of late, from Sarah Kendzior, Mona Eltahawy, and Leta Hong Fincher to Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Derrick Bell. Truth is, I felt and sensed this truth in music even before I had read Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, or William Faulkner’s short stories about racist White men sleeping in beds for 20 years with the dead bones of their incestuous mothers. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues {Make Me Wanna Holler),” Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” and Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” brought the dystopian of Black life in the US to my attention long before I knew what the prefix dys- even meant. The contrast between this and the Afrofuturism of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” and “Boogie Wonderland” of the late-1970s wasn’t lost on me, even though it would be nearly 15 years between these songs and my reading of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

 

But the 1980s hit me and my family as hard and fast as a government coup in Brazil or in Trump’s version of the US. It’s wasn’t just that it was our apocalypse. It revealed that the American Dream was a nightmare for so many people. It opened up my 100 billion neurons to the possibility that there could be no American Dream, no rise of the West, no Euro-American hegemony over the world without it being a dystopia for billions of people in the US, in Europe, and around the world.

It was also the decade of the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85, “We Are The World,” Bob Geldof and Live Aid, Farm Aid, and protests for South African divestment. So it seemed normal for groups of White guys in bands to write music, play instruments, and belt out lyrics like the ones below from Mike + The Mechanics’ “Silent Running” (1985).

Don’t believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I’m with the high command

The post-apocalyptic movie of the same title from 1972 was apparently on Michael Rutherford (guitarist of Genesis), et al.’s minds when they decided to work on the lyrics for this song. The idea that someone from the future would communicate with their ancestors in the past to resist the forces of totalitarianism and propaganda in order to preserve the path to a better future? Boy does that sound like the stuff of Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, Kiese Laymon, and Colson Whitehead (not to mention, Tomi Adeyemi in her Children of Blood and Bone), where ancestors and descendants can somehow have confabs in real life! All in an effort to swap ideas, to conjure up solutions before we understood the problems, to recognize that time is nonlinear, and so are we.

As a teenager who saw more than most that the Reagan Years were part of the dystopian present, and not a return to American greatness, “Silent Running” was refreshing, if also incredibly scary. I was like, if these White guys from the UK and Ireland get it, then why don’t folks in America get it? At least, the folks I saw at school and in running my errands every day.

But it wasn’t just Mike + The Mechanics. A lot of music from the 1980s and 1990s was subversive, including the more obvious Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Alanis Morrisette, and The Cranberries. It was just that the less subtle, the Billboard Top 40 hits and the B-side non-hits stood out for their double-meanings. When I stripped away the male bravado, the love and the lust and the loneliness from the repertoire of rap, R&B, hip-hop, and ’80s pop I listened to, the subversive was the remainder.

In my family-level apocalypse and resistance against my stepfather, the subversive helped. In the disconnect between the normalcy of magnet-program-learning among a cabal of Benetton-commercial-wannabes, the undercurrent understanding that this fakery belied a world very much like the one in The Matrix. The lyrics, the synthesizers, the heavy guitar strums and the drum rolls meant something different to me than anyone I knew growing up could imagine.

It wasn’t just “Silent Running” for me, nor something that hit like a sledgehammer like Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” that hit the radio waves my senior year of high school. There were others. For more than a decade, there were others, including:

  • PE, “Welcome to the Terrordome
  • Sting, “Love Is The Seventh Wave”
  • Dave Matthews Band, “Cry Freedom
  • The Cranberries, “Zombie
  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” and “Shaking The Tree”
  • Des’ree, “Crazy Maze
  • James Blake, “No Bravery”
  • Seal, “Future Love Paradise” and “People Asking Why”
  • U2, “Bullet The Blue Sky”
  • Arrested Development, “Tennessee”

In the years after I finished my doctorate, I didn’t forget these songs, and may have taken on some more obscure ones by Floetry, Coldplay, U2, Bryan Ferry, Pharcyde, The Fugees, among others, along the way. Popular music has become more vapid and craven and corporate as the leaders in our world have made their taste for a dystopia that advantages them more and more obvious. This position is probably why I can’t find a nod to the dystopian in Rihanna, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Rick Ross, Beyoncé, Gary Clark, Jr., or Chris Stapleton (although Solange’s and Missy’s music videos at least contain subversive and dystopian wisps).

This world is the dystopia that has always been. And those of us who talk to ourselves while speaking out at the same time have been trying to get everyone else to see it and sense it all along. I should know. I’ve been talking to myself since my week of homelessness at 18, and speaking out as the world has lurched itself toward calamity for nearly as long.

I Was Never Good at the Popularity Contest

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Molefi Asante speech, Philadelphia, PA, September 13, 2014. (AP photo/file).

If I so chose, I could be a jealous-hearted bastard, and look at every achievement of all the folk in my life as, “Well, good for you, asshole!” But I learned a long time ago, maybe even when I was at high school’s end, that the main person I have to compete and contend with is me, that I am exhausting enough. Vying for popularity, kudos, or power was never a big thing for me. It was a game I’d almost always lose, for enough reasons to make my pre-Christian and depressed self actually jump off that bridge and end it all. What I learned by my mid-twenties was to allow myself a moment or two of envy, to feel like life was easier for those who achieved what seemed like cheap and easy success and fame. And then I’d think, But that’s not what I want for me. That’s their path, not mine, no matter how many parallels and similarities there may be between them and me.

What helped me get there is a story of plagiarism, of ideas, if not of actual words. It’s a story of my first attempt to publish an article as an adult, my first foray into the world of popularity, of ideas, of writing, and of extreme disappointment. It began the summer before grad school at Pitt in 1991. My friend Elaine egged me into this work, after a long and hard final semester of undergrad and three weeks on a starvation diet while working full time that April and May (I stretched $30 over 20 days). I began work on what I hoped would be my first article, comparing ideas around Afrocentric education with the broader idea of multicultural education.

The piece was originally to be her and my response to what was then a major controversy involving research into the revision of New York State’s social studies curriculum. The New York State Department of Education had given a committee the task of figuring out how to make the state’s K-12 curriculum more inclusive and representative of the state’s tremendous racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity. 

By July, I had gone from disinterested to fully engaged, minus the young woman in whom I no longer had an interest, now working on a piece that had become much more academic than we had originally intended. By then, I’d already learned the names Leonard Jeffries, Asa Hilliard III and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I’d read articles from the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about Jeffries’ name-calling, Schlesinger’s incredulousness about calling slaves “enslaved persons,” and about the committee in general getting along like hyenas tearing at a dead wildebeest.

By the end of September, they would produce One Nation, Many Peoples: A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. With all my revisions out of the way, I’d produce my first publishable document since elementary school. I titled it “Comparing Afrocentric and Multicultural Education: Why American Education Needs Both.” I had reviewed much of the leading literature in the field at that point, between James A. Banks, Cherry McGee Banks, Christine Sleeter, Robert Slavin, Maulana Karenga, Frances Cress Welsing, 

I mailed it to three journals, including the Journal of Black Studies. It was then that I realized that one of the folks whose writing and research I had referred to in my review was also the editor of the journal. It was the one and only Molefi Kete Asante. He was also the founder and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies (now Africology and African American Studies) at Temple University in Philadelphia. His The Afrocentric Idea (1987) was half the basis for my understanding what Afrocentricity could look like as pedagogy at the K-12 level.

But I had problems with that pedagogy. I chafed at the idea that there was any litmus test to what was and was not authentically Black or African. No, I’m not sure if “chafed” is the right word. The idea that anyone — including folks like Asante, Karenga, Welsing, Jeffries, and John Henry Clarke — could arbitrarily decided that ragtime isn’t authentically Black or African, while say, rap and hip-hop was definitively so? It seemed like a bunch of bullshit to me.

I knew why reading Asante’s work made me feel that way, too. Those three-and-a-half years spent living in a Hebrew-Israelite household. Those times were with a man who claimed to be my stepfather, the one who could quote the Torah. All while eating squid and crabs and lobster tails, cheating on my Mom while begetting other kids he never fed, and beating on his “womens”, too.

That’s ultimately what I saw in Asante’s work, hell, in the work of the Afrocentric set across the board. That none of them grew up in Accra, Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Gaborone, Nairobi, or Jo’Burg or were Africanists who spent years and years living somewhere on the continent before committing to this litmus test. Intellectually, it made as much sense as a “reincarnated” Balkis Makeda in her 70s living in my Mom’s master bedroom at 616 in 1984 while we eight lived by rules like me cooking for the family at 14 because Mom had “unclean issues of blood.” Or, this fake-ass Balkis Makeda telling us that we could no longer use Ivory soap because she dreamt about rats gnawing on it. Authenticity has its costs, no?    

I didn’t write all this in my essay, though. I merely wrote that between an authentic African-centered education and an authentic multicultural curriculum, the latter made the most sense in a multicultural nation like the US, in a multicultural state like New York. I justified this because I only grew up in New York State, in and around New York City. I justified it because the fact was and remains, American Black folx are, well, Americans, who have cobbled together a culture of resistance, and joy within that, both multicultural American with shards and pieces of African Blackness, and all at the same time.

Nearly two months pass. The Black Action Society at Pitt had brought in Asante to speak, a week and a half before Thanksgiving. The ballroom BAS used in William Pitt Union was jam-packed. BAS heads Justin and Doug looked so proud of themselves that evening. And Asante was just as full of himself. He spoke for between 45 minutes and an hour, about Eurocentricity, about Afrocentricity, about creating a path where Black boys (and sometimes, girls) could become proud Afrocentric men (and sometimes women). Really, it wasn’t much different than anything I heard from temple during my Hebrew-Israelite years.

Then, he turned to multiculturalism and the controversy over the revisions to the New York State global studies curriculum. Unbeknown to the nearly 300 students in the room — aside from yours truly — he began parroting my submitted article. Not quite word-for-word, though. You see, he used my arguments as fodder for sarcasm while on stage, to point to “how the poison” of Eurocentricity “flows” in multicultural curriculum across the US. Asante believed that multicultural education was a mere euphemism to disguise the “Eurocentric in the multicultural.”

“He stole my ideas. He quoted me to crush me,” I told my friend Marc, who attended the talk with me that evening. Marc thought I was wrong, that Asante wasn’t quoting me at all. Yeah, sure Marc, I thought.

Two months later, I received my first article rejection. It was a week after I finally got my driver’s license, and two weeks before I published my first piece, a book review for a small scholarly journal. It was from Journal of Black Studies. I do not remember what the rejection letter said, but I read it as, “Nice try, but you’re not Black enough for this publication.”

This was my first foray — but hardly my last — into this world, where popularity mattered more than reality, perception more than evidence, and power more than anything.

But I do consider myself lucky. A few months later, I presented another paper at a conference at Lincoln University. Bettye Collier-Thomas was in attendance, and we ended up in a conversation. She invited me to apply for the PhD program in history, where I could work with her and esteemed people like Asante. I listened and respectfully declined. 

A year later was my joint article with Marc about the pitfalls of Afrocentricity. And with it, two months of Asante’s sycophants, er, students sitting in seminar rooms writing scathing rebuttal letters questioning if between the two of us we had enough brainpower to spell Black. To learn from one of his former students in 2007 that my imaginations of what could have happened in Asante’s seminars was actually true? Well, I was so glad he had used my words as a baseball bat to my head back in 1991.

I grew up with phony proselytizers. I didn’t need to follow another one. Plus, where’s my Afrocentric gravy? Does it go with my Jollof and Brussels sprouts, too?