Signs of Elitism

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Front cover, Joel Stein’s In Defense of Elitism (2019, cropped), January 16, 2022. (https://amazon.com).

I have spent four-fifths of my life in elite spaces among affluent whites, middle class Blacks, and Americans elites in general. I have so little in common with them aside from eating, drinking, breathing, and having a sex drive. So little that I sometimes think that God made a mistake and missed my exact time and place for my existence by 20 or 30 years, meaning 1949 or 1994 would have been better years for my birth. 

But it’s not when I was born so much as the lack of material resources with which I lived growing up in the most resourced area in the US. And that has brought consequences for me since the year I began puberty. The years in Humanities in middle school and in high school in Mount Vernon, New York. Hearing about everyone’s summers those first days of school between seventh and 12th grade, for example. Black and Black Caribbean classmates regaling us with their summers spent down South, in Jamaica or Barbados or  Trinidad and Tobago visiting close relatives. Or, their trips around the US, from the Grand Canyon to cities I wouldn’t travel to until I was 24 or 35. Or my white peers spending their Junes, Julys, and Augusts in France, the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, Greece, Egypt, or Israel. I lied about going to Tel Aviv my first year.

I rarely left Mount Vernon and New York City those years. Albany was the furthest I’d been away from home, on a school trip in October 1985. My walks occasionally took me across the New York-Connecticut border (in 1986 and in 1987), but that was somewhat accidental.

In grad school, especially once I transferred to Carnegie Mellon to complete my PhD, these awkward communications involving my lack of socioeconomic privilege and my white classmates’ rose-colored worldviews continued. In my final semester of grad courses in Spring 1994, I took Comparative Urban History with Katherine Lynch. One week, we were in a discussion of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, about the correlation between suburbanization and the expansion of the white middle class. Jennifer, one of my classmates, contributed her not-so-insightful analysis of what this correlation meant, about how “most Americans benefited” from the growth of suburbs between 1945 and 1980. 

I was not happy with her elitist worldview. I already knew that she was 23 or 24, married, and from suburban Philly (think a place like Cherry Hill, New Jersey). I also knew that Jackson’s point correlated well with White Flight from increasingly Black and Brown cities like Philly, New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, and Chicago. Being in my third year of grad school overall and surrounded in this course by first-years, I had one advantage. I was almost as well read on topics of inequality as most of my professors. 

So I said to Jennifer and the rest of the class, “Well, if by ‘most Americans benefited,’ you mean white Americans, then yes, suburbanization was a good thing. But cities’ tax bases didn’t benefit, and neither did the African Americans who moved into cities that whites flew out of. Redlining and restrictive covenants made it harder for middle-class Blacks to ‘benefit’ from suburbanization. And last I checked, poor people live in suburbs, too.” That last past was a direct reference to my growing up with poverty in Mount Vernon, and the scores of poor Black and Latinx and Black Caribbean folk I knew in Mount Vernon and throughout the New York area, suburban and urban. 

During the class break, Jennifer came up to me as I was standing outside the seminar talking with my other white classmates congratulating me for my eye-opening perspective on how to break down Jackson’s book. She brought all five-foot-three of her frame to bear, almost as if she had attempted to stand on a soap box (even with one, at six-three, I would’ve had to bend down to see her ire). She had tears in her eyes and one running down each cheek. “I can’t help how I grew up. I am not a racist,” she said, and then walked away in a huff. “I guess I struck a nerve,” I said in response to one of my other peers.

I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about her crying. None of it was going to make the lives of Blacks and Latinx people with poverty in Camden or Philly or even Cherry Hill any better. White women’s tears and crying foul when challenged for their elitism had already hardened me against placating them. My experiences matter, damn it!, was what I thought after that exchange.

Even outside academia, the elitism wafted like millions of gallons of human shit at a sewage treatment plant. Between Presidential Classroom and AED, I spent much of my nonprofit years (meaning, a good portion of my thirties) proving to others that despite my background, I could do work on behalf of others. My bosses held it against me that my parents weren’t GS-12 or higher federal employees, or diplomats, or advisors, or members of country clubs. Or, especially in AED’s case, that neither I nor my parents ever served in the Peace Corps or traveled overseas. I practically had to do somersaults and cartwheels to do my work between 1999 and 2008, but could not maintain social connections, because my doctorate from Carnegie Mellon would never be good enough.

Maybe I’ll discuss Black middle class folk and their rites of privilege and passage, especially fraternities and other organizations. But I’ve already written quite extensively about why I’ll never fit it with such groups. And at 52, I’m not entirely sure I want to. I guess after a lifetime of my peers ignoring me or erasing me or acting as if only their socioeconomic and racial privileges matter in explaining how the world works, I simply don’t care anymore.

My mom grew up as part of a sharecropping family in southwestern, Red River Arkansas. She’s the oldest of 12 children. She worked mostly in the kitchen of Mount Vernon Hospital or in the billing department of Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla as a paraprofessional for 34 years, with a 16-year period on welfare in between. My dad worked as a janitor or a supervisor of janitors and building cleaners all his time in New York and in Jacksonville. He grew up as a tenant farmer (before his family bought out their land) in rural south-central Georgia. He barely finished seventh grade. His two sisters were the first in the family to go to college, and both spent years teaching during segregated times. Despite it all, I am proud of their work. No pedigree is fine with me.

The Scourge of Scholarship & Scallops

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Pan-seared scallops with bacon cream sauce, February 10, 2015 (cropped, December 31, 2021). (https://www.cakenknife.com/pan-seared-scallops-bacon-cream-sauce/).

I am not much of a scholar. No, really, I’m not. At least not in the extremely narrow way those who taught me to do historical research defined scholarship. For me, uncovering deliberately hidden truths or coming to new ideas, realizations, and leap-in-logic epiphanies was always about more than just “evidence.” It was about the nexus between human history and human behavior, the ability to use the past to understand the present and possibly the future. And through all that, to predict, to prevent, to propose remedies or possibilities for being, and being better, as a person, as people, as entire societies.

But all through graduate school in the 1990s, especially during my Carnegie Mellon years, all I was supposed to learn was about the greatness of “scholarship.” The way my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter would say “scholarship,” it reminded me of how my now recovering-alcoholic father would say “pep-up” when he wanted a drink. Trotter said “scholarship” with the zeal and relish of a person ready to eat at their favorite down-home restaurant or fish shack. 

For years even after finishing my doctorate, I could still hear Trotter’s “scholarship” and think of scallops, the ugliest and fishiest tasting of mollusks, in my opinion. I imagined them raw, then either sautéed or seared in butter, as this is the only way to eat the nasty things. Just like with academic scholarship. None of this removed their fishiness or the loads of carcinogens lurking in their lumps of meat.

For years, I have watched former and current colleagues, former and current students, and big-fish academicians I have only seen from my cold and cheap seats in the Kuiper Belt promote scholarship as a great and mystical process. “This is groundbreaking scholarship” is a common phrase in my academic world. “The genius of” so-and-so’s “scholarship” can also be read and heard, in book reviews, in scholarly journals, at academic conferences. I could be jealous, but I’d eat a can of unseasoned and undressed tuna again before eating up these scallop-y descriptions of scholarship.

For those who really don’t know, “scholarship” is really a combination of three things. 

1. Research, which in my field usually involves archival materials, like a letter Martha Washington might have written about making “her” Rum Punch, or a diary left behind by a granddaughter of an enslaved African woman, providing details not normally found in historical literature. For me, it’s interdisciplinary. Interviewing people about their experiences, asking common questions along the way for comparative purposes. It could also mean looking at census records, running microfiche machines for 100-year-old op-eds about “Saturday Night and the Negro.” But it is ALL research, and you don’t even need a high school diploma to be this nosy. I knew this already, but was reminded of this by a former student, an archivist who recently completed his bachelor’s.

2. Training and Methodology helps folks shape the research they do into what we call scholarship. It is very hard to do historical research on any given topic without “going to the archives.” That’s where researchers can commune with the primary sources, where they can most readily find the first-hand and “objective evidence” they need. But, if dead folks didn’t write anything down, then proximate evidence, like census records, can tell us about a people who didn’t leave written records, or because of oppressors, might have seen their records destroyed. Ethnographies, all the rage in my profession in the 1990s, are a sociologist’s and an anthropologist’s tool. So is mere observation or years spent reading others’ research. This is how I and so many others know lazy-ass Martha Washington ain’t never mixed no drinks in her Mount Vernon mansion. Not when she had trusted enslaved Africans as cooks and mixologists doing all the work.

3. Experience works on multiple levels, and is often the way others who like what they’re reading reach the conclusion that so-and-so’s “scholarship” is “genius.” There’s the experience of interpretation and being able to take new information and meld it with everything one already knows about a specific person, a group of people, a given topic, event, question, and/or social problem. There’s the experience of being a human being, and how those experiences have shaped you and how you process information, including the small and big epiphanies gleaned from one’s research. There’s also the experience of being oppressed or benefiting from oppression, which utterly colors whatever “objectivity” one may believe they have. In the case of oppressors and their beneficiaries, those experiences often dilute one’s ability to take quantum and cosmic leaps in logic to cover up the ginormous holes in their research, training, and methodology.

So when like-minded people get together to discuss what is and is not “scholarship,” 3. outweighs 1. and 2., just like Jupiter outweighs the other seven planets in our solar system — combined. It is a toxic, cannibalizing system, made more potent by the riches and miseries of capitalism, where research grants, book deals, and media appearances, and lecture circuit checks are on the line. 

When people ask for “evidence,” whether at this year’s American Historical Association conference or on Twitter, they are saying, “My experiences in life and in my field are privileged and limited, so I have decided your experiences in life and in my field do not matter.” When people refuse to accept your findings, it is often their myopia and their sense of narcissism and entitlement at work, and not flaws within the research you did. Especially when one’s research is about oppression, oppressors, how to fight oppression, and what happens when a people succeed in that fight.

This is why I chafed at Trotter’s salivations over scholarship some 26 years ago. This is why I find much about the idea of scholarship offensive today. Oh, I think doing one’s own research in a field of expertise or even to acquire expertise is fundamentally important. I just don’t think genius and scholarship are in any way related. Not without the experiences of life, the understanding of one’s positionality in privilege, not only to do research, but one’s unique life experience through which to process it. This is why I can never be a scholar. I refuse to be part of a club that has to sear and sauté its poisonous, fishy-ass scallops and declare themselves all “geniuses” for doing so. 

One might say that there’s something fishy going on here in the academic world. Scholarship is like scallops in that way. Do not leave it at room temperature for too long. Just like the academic “geniuses” who refuse to shower while writing their latest unreadable tome.

How Does Self-Determination Work in a Place Determined to Kill Me?

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Kujichagulia, the Second Day of Kwanzaa, the principle of self-determination (cropped), December 27, 2021. (Caroline Moman via Pinterest).

Today is my 52nd birthday. My born day always coincides with the early Capricorn season, winter breaks, and falls two days after the celebration of Jesus’ birthday (which is NOT December 25th, no matter what dumb white people and unthinking Christians think). My birthday sometimes falls in the middle of Hanukkah (I think it did one time during the Hebrew-Israelite years, but I’d have to look that one up). My date of birth is also always on the second day of Kwanzaa, known as Kujichagulia, Swahili roughly meaning “self-determination.”

On this last one, I must confess. I learned a bit about Kwanzaa growing up, but it was in my Black Studies courses I learned about Maulana Karenga and his Afrocentric visions and philosophy. Kwanzaa was among the creations of Karenga and other like-minded brothas and sistas from the more radical part of the Movement. That was more than 30 years ago. I am not a Kwanzaa celebrant. But I fully believe in all its principles. Mostly because I would not be here at 52 if I didn’t.

Kujichagulia was a principle I understood long before I took my first Swahili class in Fall 1990. I had to. Between poverty, physical abuse, suicidal ideations, and the occasional bouts with bullying and ostracism, not taking some charge over my life would’ve ended it. Seriously. But too much self-determination without others’ help or guidance (Ujima or Nia) between twelve and a half and my 14th birthday left me one leap off a bridge away from death. Somehow, I managed not to take my own life that day, or in the 38 years since. 

Self-determination has been very good to me, despite the bruises and busted up body parts I picked up early on. I determined I should cut my own path, to the chagrin of my teachers and a good portion of my middle school and high school classmates, not to mention my guidance counselor. I learned how to cook like my mom despite her not wanting to teach me how to cook, a week or so after my youngest brother came into the world. The same thing goes with shooting a J, dribbling left and right handed, writing, jumping rope, loving and forgiving others, moving on (eventually) from those who have hurt me, and a million other things I cannot name because Kujichagulia has been my everything since 1982. I am so fully into Kujichagulia that I’ve made my own birthday cakes and desserts most years since my 15th birthday in 1984. This year, I made myself German Chocolate cupcakes!

But Umoja is just as important. Unity as a principle has been as hard for me as Kujichagulia has been easy. Most people in my life have given me little reason to trust them in their truth, in their half-hearted offers of help, in their words consistently not matching their deeds or follow-through. I live by the words, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” but so many have failed to live up to those words, my family members included. Even when I ask for help, what I often get back is silence, or few offers in kind, and usually no equivalent measure in deed. Maybe it’s because I never joined a frat, never found a permanent church home, was never particularly “cool,” or have worked in affluent spaces around folks who would never get my one-generation-removed-from-sharecropping-but-lived-with-welfare-poverty-for five-years self. What makes me truly sad is the Black folks who should get me, but choose not to.

But none of this is really about me. It’s about people who want unity without self-determination or purpose or faith. Umoja cannot work without Kujichagulia, Nia, and Imani. We live in an especially narcissistic age, on top of the half-millennium of narcissism that systemic racism, nationalism, and capitalism has wrought. I am not trying to be popular. I am trying desperately to be me, the best version of me I can be. 

I have a couple of more mountains to climb. One is to finally publish a book in a more traditional way, so that all the work isn’t on me (alternatively, I were to self-publish, maybe raise $20,000 or $25,000 through GoFundMe — probably not). I suspect this goal is not the mountain I have built it up to be. The other is to get out of the adjuncting ratrace. If that means leaving academia again, or leaving the US and living overseas, or even giving up on writing for a time. Whatever is next, I hope that Kujichagulia is the principle guiding me to these places and spaces, and not fake Umoja. There’s already been too much of that in my life.

Another Year of Not Seeing Family

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The Welsh word hiraeth, not easy to say, but easy to understand, December 19, 2021. (Reddit.com)

I wish I could say I am fine with going into my eighth year since my last visit with my mother and sibs in Mount Vernon, New York. I am and I ain’t. The one thing this pandemic has exposed is how little things have changed with my folks back in the New York area, and how little and how much I have changed living away from them and New York in the past couple of decades.

I had originally planned to visit my mom in March 2020 during my “Spring” Break week from teaching at American University and University of Maryland Global Campus. But we know what began to occur in the US due to bad policies combined with brutal narcissism, racism, and capitalism. COVID-19 Alpha slammed into the Big Apple like one of those ginormous worms from Dune, and ate into it faster than a supernova. My mom was sick by mid-April, as was my younger brother Maurice. If you ask her, my mom would say her “tests came back inconclusive,” but given the accuracy of her tests and the reality of her symptoms, she had COVID Alpha. My youngest brother contracted the virus a month later. I do not know for certain if I would have contracted COVID-19 if I had gone through with my plans in March 2020, but had I done so, I very likely could have infected my wife and then 16-year-old son, unacceptable by my standards then and today.

Then they started doing the unthinkably ignorant. They started having gatherings sans masks and vaccinations. My mom had my siblings and niece and nephew over for Thanksgiving 2020, and babysat the young’uns all during this shitstorm. My mom’s apartment is barely 800 square feet. Ten people gathered in the living room/kitchenette area of her place, nine not masked at all. My older brother Darren wore a KN-95, “except when [he] was eating and drinking,” he said. I all but facepalmed my forehead into mashed potatoes.

When the vaccines finally came on line for emergency use last December and the beginning of 2021, I assumed my mom would reluctantly but definitely get hers. After all, she worked for Mount Vernon Hospital and Westchester County Medical Center for a combined 27 or 28 years. Boy was I wrong! We last discussed it in May. “I don’t know what’s in it,” she said. “I wanna wait and see how it affects people,” she also said. Keep in mind, the younger brother between Maurice and the youngest one (convoluted, I know, but the 40-year-old doesn’t want me to mention him on my blog anymore) and his wife caught COVID-19 Delta earlier that month. They went out to eat at a restaurant, unvaccinated. “Probably got it off a fork or something,” my mom said.

After I explained the facts, that at that point, a billion people had been partially or fully vaxxed, she gave her usual defensive response. “I know the facts, Donald. You think I’m stupid?” Even now, though I may think, No mom, but you are acting as stupid as stupid can be, I don’t say it. It’s all part of her vanity, her anger and misunderstanding of me. At this point in her life, I couldn’t convince my mom that water is wet and the sky is blue, not even if I quoted Jesus himself. So I conceded. Do what you want. But it’ll be a long, long time before I come visit again. Don’t expect a lot of phone calls or letters or cards moving forward, either. For me, this was and remains about self-preservation, body, mind, and spirit, and not about anger or spite.

I last checked on my mom and brothers during Thanksgiving last month. I didn’t even bother to ask my mom about her vaccination status or her health. I knew she wouldn’t tell me the truth about her decisions, anyway. But my brother Maurice. Yep. He too refused to vaccinate. “I don’t know what’s in that stuff!,” he raised his voice while lilting on “stuff.” He was out of work, too, because New York State’s not allowing unvaccinated people to work for them.

He said one other thing that made me truly sad. I asked about what being unvaccinated has done with his social life. “I can’t be around these…’modern women’,” Maurice said with a pause and the feel of air quotes around the term. Somehow, a woman who doesn’t need a man to “take care of them” is “modern,” and made Maurice feel obsolete. All I could think was, Wow! Mom’s misogynoir and patriarchy really rubbed off on you. You, and all of us at some point.

Nick Nolte’s character about ready to kill James Coburn’s (screen shot, cropped), Affliction (1997), December 20, 2021. (http://www.camera-roll.com/raging-bulls-affliction/)

There’s this not-so-famous 1997 movie Affliction, starring the late James Coburn, Nick Nolte, and Willem Dafoe. The cycles of physical and psychological abuse, the obvious misogyny and hypermasculinity, the mental breakdown, the need for distance from family, are all part of this movie. Nolte’s character eventually kills his father (Coburn), and eventually loses his grip with reality. His withdrawn and recluse brother (Dafoe), a writer and English professor, wrote down his brother’s story for posterity. This as Nolte’s character disappears to Canada, where someone eventually finds a cadaver matching his physical features. 

I wonder if I am Willem Dafoe’s character. Probably not. At least, I don’t think my partner since 1995 and my 18-year-old see me that way. But I do feel the lurch to stay away from people, especially my immediate family outside of Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s not like I don’t want to see them. But they have never ever seen me, not even during all the years I stared them in the face.

The Black Man-White Woman Matrix

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Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) chained up (screen shot), accessed October 14, 2021. (https://racism.org/articles/defining-racism/338-thematrixa).

There have been and will be tons of think pieces about the misogyny, the homophobia, and the transphobia in Dave Chappelle’s The Closer, his latest/last stand-up comedy special for Netflix. Within that maelstrom of using the stage as a 75-minute patriarchal therapy session, I noticed how most of the people whom Chappelle apparently discussed his id issues with were white women, whether straight, lesbian, or transgender, including the late Daphne Dorman. “Maybe he should spend time with transgender Black women. They are among the most marginalized in the US, with deadly results, between suicides & murders,” I tweeted. But Chappelle never would. His hypermasculine defense of transphobes and homophobes like Harry Potter billionaire J. K. Rowling, fellow comedian Kevin Hart, and rapper DaBaby, means seeing the binary and non-binary white women he referenced throughout his latest stand-up concert as a sign of personal progress, or even, as part of a televised revolution.

From a deeply emotional and psychological level, I fail to understand this penchant for Black men like Chappelle to use and idolize white women as if they are the pentacle of all that America ought to be. Hubert Davis and Alfonso Ribeiro have publicly uplifted their marriages to white women as a commentary on racial progress. “I’m very proud to be African-American. But I’m also very proud that my wife is white, and I’m also very proud that my three very beautiful, unbelievable kids are a combination of us,” Davis said during his opening press conference as the first Black men’s head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Ribeiro of Fresh Prince fame believes “the Black house” has ostracized him. “I am in a mixed relationship….And it’s not easy to make that choice…I’m never going to be white and I’m never going to be fully supported in the Black house,” he said in an interview with Newsweek in August.

Davis’ and Ribeiro’s are both very strange statements. Somehow they and many other Black men have convinced themselves that marrying white women is a sign of racism’s end. Somehow, this is the televised revolution the US needs. Somehow, marrying white will dismantle the latticework of racism on which this nation is built. But, as sociologist Crystal M. Fleming wrote in her How to be Less Stupid About Race, “we’re not going to end white supremacy by ‘hugging it out.’ And we’re certainly not going to fuck our way out of racial oppression. That’s not how power works.” The US Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that legalized interracial marriage was groundbreaking, but it never was the “promised land” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned the night before his death in 1968.

My first time thinking through the social and political implications of Black men and white women together in union or solidarity was in 1990, my third year at the University of Pittsburgh. At the student union one day, I sat down for lunch in between classes to hang out with three of my friends. Two were already in the middle of conversation about a growing visible concern on campus — young Black men dating young white women. The two of them (one man, one woman), were biracial themselves, each the child of a white mother and a Black father. One other Black girlfriend also chimed in. They were decidedly against the idea of interracial dating and marriage. At one point I said, “If they love each other, what does it matter?” My two Black biracial friends both sighed and side-eyed me, and then laughed like I was telling a cruel joke. 

What they understood and I didn’t get in 1990 was that while universal love ultimately conquers all, romantic love and friendships will never negate racism in any of its forms. I also knew about Emmett Till’s lynching for winking or whistling at a white woman. I definitely knew from the movie Birth of a Nation (the original one) the deadly dangers of white women accusing Black men of rape or unwanted flirtations. 

I also knew this from personal experience. The year before, and with the support of my one-time boss, a 26-year-old white woman at my campus computing lab job who was my supervisor’s high school friend accused me of sexual harassment. This after she had groped and squeezed my ass cheeks on two occasions during our shifts. I was 19 years old at the time.

In his Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III wrote, “You marry White. It doesn’t change…What do you do with an unconscious that appears to hate you?” The bigger question is, why would any Black man ever expect to end the latticework of American racism and anti-Blackness through interracial marriage? This is  the typical combination of Black mens’ colorism, hypermasculinity, and seeking the same status as white men through white women. “Those black men who believe deeply in the American dream…a masculine dream of dominance and success at the expense of others, are most likely to express negative feelings about black women and…desire [for] a white woman,” as bell hooks wrote in her Ain’t I A Woman.

Davis, Ribeiro, Chappelle, Wilderson, and many other Black men are too susceptible to the idea of interracial relationships as their revolution, their American Dream. The late critical race theorist Derrick Bell foresaw this in one of his lesser known allegorical essays from Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “The Last Black Hero.” It’s a story about a leading Black revolutionary who fell in love with a white woman. As Bell wrote, many whites in power see Black men with white women “as proof that black men in such relationships were, despite their militant rhetoric, not really dangerous.” For anyone working to dismantle the matrix of American racism, though, this way of Black-man-thinking (and white-woman-thinking) is very dangerous. Especially in the words and deeds of people like Chappelle, Davis, Ribeiro, and Wilderson.

This is why if the revolution does come, not only will it not be televised, it will rely predominantly on Black women binary and non-binary to lead it from imagination to actuality. Like in The Matrix movie series, there are too many Black men and white women who have “the world pulled over their eyes,” a world of white binary hypermasculine and patriarchal racism. Too many Black men — whether they are entertainers in need of long-term therapy like Chappelle or are people who see themselves leading revolutions — are too compromised by their own gendered privilege and social status desires to be the leaders they’ve all been waiting for.

While My PhD’s Getting Cold…

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Cold, lumpy grits, September 26, 2013. (HuffPost via Flickr: Marshall Astor – Food Fetishist).

I have been Dr. Donald Earl Collins for almost half my life. (It will be exactly half my life on October 11 or October 12 of next year, a couple of months before my 53rd birthday.) Only a small handful of things have brought me more pain, failure, and momentary triumphs than earning the PhD during the 1996-97 school year. But while writing is a profession that pays, I am still paying off the debt I generated earning this degree, literally and figuratively. This debt is something I will not pass on. I hope my life has more meaning than earning this degree ever took away.

Friday morning, November 22, 1996, I checked my email just after getting out of bed. Since the beginning of that August, after banging out a full second draft of my dissertation, I knew. Since the end of that July, really, after spending eight hours combing every iteration of every chapter of my doctoral thesis for comments from my advisor I missed, I knew. Since my advisor’s one-page response three weeks later to my six-page memo detailing every change, revision, dressed-up lie, obfuscated statistic, and glossed-over fact, I knew. Really, it was moot on October 23, when my other two committee members both approved it and knew, too.

That Friday morning before Thanksgiving 1996, Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr. sent me a rare email, officially signing off on me becoming Dr. Collins with the words, “It is done.” It was anticlimactic, but it was also freeing at the same time. Yay, me, right?

Not so much. I was a month away from possibly leaving my PhD work behind. That was how much Trotter and the whole process of petty jealous and verbal abuse and threats had taken their toll. To know that my advisor did not support any endeavors to give my career a boost, including the Spencer Fellowship that I won despite his lukewarm letter on my behalf. To feel so betrayed that I felt solace dreaming of wrapping piano wire around his throat from behind and pulling until I spilled his blood and death occurred. It should have been a sign for moving on to something less soul-destroying. But I prayed. I persevered. I finished what I started. 

And I lost the thread for why I started in the first place. I went to graduate school to become a writer with enough knowledge and authority in my expertise to not be challenged in whatever writing project I decided to take on post-PhD. Boy was I a naive, dumb-ass 21-year-old! I ruined my writing for more than a decade as a result of this path. It took me until my blog and Boy @ The Window to find my voice again, my true, authentic, uncopyable voice. By then, I was already fortysomething (or, really between 39 and 44 years old at this point). My doctoral degree was already more than a decade old.

If I could do it all over again, would I choose to relive what I have truly reviled as much as I have relished? No, no, no. You don’t need to have a PhD to be an excellent writer. You certainly do not need one to write in relative obscurity. I learned that from Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Martino in AP English in 1987. No. I probably would have earned a PhD in social psychology instead, with stints of working as a K-12 teacher and a freelance writer or journalist in between. That path would have been more fun — if not just as morbid — at least.

I can think of what pursuing a more direct path to writing and working would have done. It would’ve saved me from four years of Trotter as my advisor, from “poverty wages,” never-to-be-counted-on Bruce Anthony Jones, and from abusive theoretical Marxists like Dick Oestreicher and Wendy Goldman. It would have saved me from myself and my self-doubt and constant need to prove myself to others to the exclusion of everything else in my life. 

My mom does get a few things right about me. After I finished my master’s in 1992, she said one day, “Why you always gotta ‘I’ll show you’?” I wasn’t trying to “I’ll show you,” especially to the white gatekeepers aligned like a fraternity or a gang with baseball balls eager to jump me in (or out) of academia. Still, I do not like being told “No.” Especially by mediocre people with half-baked ideas motivated by their own racism and ageism.

This will not be a self-loathing celebration, though. I have figured it out, myself included. I know what I want to write, and why. I have succeeded more than I have failed on this front since turning 45. I may never make up for those years in the wilderness, between academia and the nonprofit world, chasing dollars and chasing the approval of white gazers and HNIC (Head N-word In Charge) types. But I am still here. I am much closer to the life I’ve always wanted than I am  to the life I have gradually been putting behind me since 2008.

I’ve Been An Educator for 30 Years

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Me with my old Duquesne University ID, where I taught in 1998 and 1999, May 2017. (Donald Earl Collins)

It’s a bittersweet anniversary for me. Thirty years since the first time I was in a classroom as an instructor. Thirty years of providing professional development advice (because I assisted with undergraduate advising of history majors in 1991 also). Thirty years of traveling this path, whether in higher education, the nonprofit world, or as a consultant. Thirty years of being seen as “less than,” of exploitation, of disappointment, of disrespect, regardless of my degree status or age or how I dressed. Thirty years of the occasional thanks or pat on the back for a job well done. Thirty years. Maybe too long for a person who should have always put being a writer first.

It was the first Thursday in November 1991 when my advisor Larry (Laurence Glasco) had me run his brand-new course for one evening, History of Black Pittsburgh. It was one of my elective courses toward my MA in History degree, an easy-A in the midst of two core courses, third-semester Swahili, and a primary research paper project on the intercultural education movement. I had fully-charged Energizer bunny energy back then.

Larry’s History of Black Pittsburgh was an evening block course, which at the University of Pittsburgh meant that it met from 5:45 to 8:10 pm. The class met in one of the auditorium-style rooms in David G. Lawrence Hall. The object that evening was for the class to watch and then discuss/critique the documentary “Wylie Avenue Days.” It was a film about the cultural heyday of the Lower and Upper Hill District, Black “Picksburgh’s” mecca from the 1920s until urban renewal wiped out the Lower Hill to build a sports arena in 1958. The film, though, continued through the 1960s, when somehow, the remnants of the Lower Hill did not explode in uprising and riot after MLK’s assassination, but marched in massive protest instead.

I was terrified of the idea of being in front of any classroom in 1991. But with 15 of the 35 students in the course over the age of 35 — and some old enough to have met and have known the people who were in the film — my stomach did flips in the days before I had to run the class. Larry sensed this, I think, which was why he gave me this assignment to begin with. “You’ll do fine, Donald” was the only thing Larry said to me about guest lecturing that day.

Looking back, it was a pretty easy assignment. The documentary took up an hour by itself, and with a ten-minute break, all I really had to do was facilitate discussion for an hour. No big deal.

But it was a big deal. With about 20 traditional college-aged students (mostly Black, with a few brave white Yinzers), the older students would dominate the conversation about “Wylie Avenue Days,” about meeting jazz artist Billy Eckstine or swooning over Lena Horne, about how the clubs were “integrated” every Saturday night between “6 pm and 6 am.” They also discussed the need for community reliance and self-sufficiency, because shopping for clothes “dahntahn” at Horne’s, while not Jim Crow illegal, certainly could get Black Picksburghers in trouble.

We also had retired Pittsburgh Courier correspondent Frank Bolden in the classroom that night. Larry had Bolden as a guest speaker earlier in the course. Bolden would show up on occasion and just hang out and add a story here or there to provide a living perspective on something that would otherwise only be a footnote in a newspaper article or a book. Bolden was in his eighties by this time, so he had a lifetime of stories.

With so many older students and guests in the audience, I barely had to ask any questions at all. My main challenge was to find a way to get the younger students involved, but after a couple of quick comments, I realized that it was better for them to listen and learn than for me to run a more typical and less free-flowing discussion.

The older students were extremely respectful. They kept calling me “Mr. Collins” or “Professor,” even though Larry and I had told them I was just a first-year grad student. “Don’t pay that no never mind,” one of the other students said. “You up there, you a professor.” And then they kept talking about the good-old days, the sense of community on the Lower Hill, and then, the end of it all because of urban renewal and eminent domain.

The class went over by ten minutes, and the younger students began to leave. But a core group of about 10 of the students and Bolden stayed until after 8:30. The last of us didn’t leave until after 9. “Larry, I have to admit, this was fun,” I remember me saying afterward, before catching a bus back to East Liberty and home.

I have TAed for or taught 95 standalone classes in the 30 years since, helped run a national social justice and leadership development project and a national education reform project, and have directly and indirectly worked with thousands of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students since. There have been more good days than difficult ones, and more than a few great discussions and wonderful times with the 2,500 students I have taught directly. 

I must thank Larry for the opportunity, and for allowing me to use his class and classroom as a way to break out of my shell, to get over my social anxiety and other insecurities about being in front of fickle crowds. And yes, students, especially the younger ones, are a fickle bunch, more jaded these days than in the 1990s. I wonder why…

Will I do this thing called teaching another 30 years, just like Larry is still doing? I do not know. If I am doing this into my eighties, I would have to be able to teach the courses I want to teach, not the courses I am assigned or the courses that I’ve designed but are picked apart by the affluent and white who may be a little uncomfortable with my critiques of the rich and powerful, of the capitalistic and the racist. Especially as I have added American narcissism to these critiques. Ha! Here’s 30 years!