WWMLKD (What Would Martin Luther King Do) – and Say Now?

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"Return of the King" screenshot, Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture's low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

“Return of the King” screenshot, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture’s low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

Perhaps the most famous episode of Aaron’s McGruder’s award-winning series The Boondocks was his “Return of the King,” which originally aired on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in ’06. In it, King survived his ’68 assassination and came out of a coma into an early twenty-first century America and Black America in which his style of activism was no longer in vogue.

Instead, in McGruder’s vision, King came to realize how generations of younger Blacks have become lost in their overt materialism, as symbolized by ass-shaking, hip-hop and rap culture, the constant use of “nigga” in public, and the self-aggrandizement of Black televangelists and other purveyors of the cult of prosperity. In response, McGruder’s King said, “I’ve seen what’s around the corner, I’ve seen what’s over the horizon, and I promise you, you niggas have nothing to celebrate! And no, I won’t get there with you. I’m going to Canada!”

McGruder’s attempt to address the generational and socioeconomic divide between the Civil Rights generation and the post-civil rights generations that have followed was a limited one. It certainly represented well the views of a Black elite nurtured at the altar of the Civil Rights Movement. But despite the hilarity and the double-meanings, I don’t think that The Boondocks‘ “Return of the King” episode is even close to a decent representative of what King would’ve been like had he lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Extrapolating from King’s last years:

The best and easiest guess in thinking about what King would’ve said or done in the years between that dreaded first Thursday in April ’68 and today would be to look at what King was doing in the last months of his life. Openly protesting the Vietnam War and the oppression of the poor and of color in the US and abroad. Breaking with other civil rights leaders on the Vietnam War and issue of addressing the collusion between institutional racism, income inequality and anti-union efforts in Memphis, in Chicago and in other places in the US.

Memphis sanitation workers' strike/march under "I Am A Man" picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via http://workers.org).

Memphis sanitation workers’ strike/march under “I Am A Man” picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via http://workers.org).

Alienating a president in Lyndon Baines Johnson — the most radical supporter of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts of any president ever — was what King did in expanding his words and deeds beyond “I Have A Dream” and “We Shall Overcome” mobilizations to end segregation and overt racial discrimination. Moving beyond the grassroots movement paradigm of respectable Negroes (i.e., traditional church-going, middle and some working-class Blacks) to include Black men and women who weren’t relatively well-educated and in good jobs — like the sanitation workers in Memphis — was where King had already moved himself.

This is the King that would’ve evolved over the previous forty-five or so years had he lived. Based on this actual King, it would be a bit mystifying to hear him give speeches on, grant interviews for or write op-eds in which his main theme would be to eviscerate the American poor, Blacks and Latinos for buying into a material capitalistic hip-hop culture. Or to spend all of his waning moments lamenting the perpetual stereotype of teenage welfare mothers looking for a handout instead of a hand up. Or to devote his remaining energies to blaming Black males for their inability to wear waist-fitting pants and then connecting hip-hop to a criminal culture, a drug culture and general thuggery (That’s Bill Cosby’s and Don Lemon’s jobs, apparently).

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (http://cnn.com).

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (http://cnn.com).

King would’ve probably withdrawn from public life by now, maybe even to Canada, as McGruder’s version suggests. But not before an additional two or three decades in which he would’ve boldly gone after the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, government corruption, the War on Drugs and insufficient investment in America’s public schools and infrastructure. King would’ve seen all of them as factors that would have a negative impact on the life chances of the poor, especially poor African Americans.

Assessing blame – or not:

No doubt that King would’ve also found aspects of how Blacks have expressed themselves in pop culture and in the public sphere over the past four and half decades problematic. Yet based on the last years of his life, I think that he would’ve saved much of his ire for the aging Civil Rights generation for resting on their laurels and standing in judgment of younger Blacks, poor Blacks, or anyone else who didn’t follow directly in their now elitist footsteps. As King evolved in the four years, seven months and one week between the March on Washington and his assassination, so had his views of civil rights leadership. Well-meaning but pretentious, with the assumption that fixing the South would clear the way for Blacks of every socioeconomic stripe everywhere.

What’s most important to realize, though, is that King, had he lived, would’ve seen what most Americans regardless of race have seen in their own lives. Decline in wealth and income, a gulf of wealth between them and the top one-percent of income earners, a significant decline of well-paying union jobs replaced by minimum-wage non-union ones, rising unemployment, and expensive housing and healthcare. These are among so many other things that 240 to 270 million of us face on various levels that didn’t exist at the end of King’s life, things that disproportionately affect the poor, especially the poor and of color.

King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement:

The movement never evolved to address such issues, King would’ve said. Individuals did. Jesse Jackson, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, did. But the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole didn’t. They assumed that eliminating all forms of deliberate and overt discrimination in public institutions would bring down barriers for all African Americans. King would’ve said they were incorrect, and knew as much by the time of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in February and March ’68.

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both of which have obviously been weakened by the Reagan Years and this year’s Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision), the life chances for any Black person born into poverty haven’t improve much at all. They remain in segregated communities, despite the movement toward mixed housing. They send their kids to underfunded and overcrowded schools, despite the paternalistic efforts of the so-called education reform movement. Jobs that pay a living wage are few, and conditions that promote neighborhood stability are better but still rare.

To assume that Blacks a half-century removed from the March on Washington and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would be eternally grateful for the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of subtle yet pervasive discrimination on the basis of both race and socioeconomic status is ludicrous. It would smack of the elitism in which those who benefited most from the movement have displayed over the years. King would’ve realized the same thing, certainly well before the turn of the twenty-first century.

That anyone poor and of color in particular can overcome such barriers to, say, earn a doctorate or write a book is something akin to a miracle. Or to become a professional athlete or a music artist, a bit more common, if stereotypical, for that matter. King would’ve seen this and brought an analysis to the legacy of civil rights that didn’t put the movement and its leaders on a pedestal or proclaim victory where defeat was obvious.

What King would’ve (maybe) done:

King wouldn’t have given speeches in the years after the height of the movement to Black Gen Xers where he would’ve said, “I’ve got mine. Now it’s time to get yours,” or blamed hip-hop culture for so-called Black-on-Black crime. Instead, King would’ve listened, learned, facilitated and spoken without accusing those most vulnerable to discrimination of being the only ones at fault, if he would’ve faulted them at all. In terms of what he would’ve done beyond the attempt to form multiracial coalitions to fight for better conditions, it’s unclear. It would’ve been better than chest-thumping and belly aching, though.

ICE is America’s Gestapo, the White House the Waffen SS

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Two pictures: ICE raid to arrest foreign nationals. February 6, 2017, (Charles Reed/ICE; http://amsterdamnews.com); Gestapo in midst of a raid, circa 1939-40. (http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com). Both in public domain.

I may have developed my sense of thinking on the issue of inclusion and migration from the ostracism I experienced via the cool class of Black classmates from Mount Vernon High School. Maybe. Maybe not. But, it was on this date 31 years ago that the Class of 1987 graduated. And, within minutes of us tossing our mortar-board caps in the air, people who were the “cool ones” in the graduating class began ignoring my greetings and staring through me like I was invisible whenever and wherever I saw them. A silent treatment that I went through for two summers with this group.

This is not unlike the way the media and this 45 presidency deals with most marginalized Americans and the daily indignities and atrocities from which they suffer. Especially those who migrate without papers and those would-be-migrants and asylum-seekers. The amping up of a policy that separates parents from children at the US-Mexico border is nothing short of kidnapping and taking hostages. However, the policy isn’t entirely new, and the media coverage of it until a week and a half ago was scant. President 45 and his minions had truly believed that they could keep something like this under wraps, because undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers have no representatives, no voice, and no support among many Americans.

The cries of outrage across this country have proven them partly wrong. Still, the “cooler” — really, crueler — class of Americans, White, White privilege, White patriarchy, Whiteness-is-always-right-thinking Americans (which unfortunately also includes Americans of color) remain all for body snatching. They have either been silent or have made some lame-ass excuses for fuckery worthy only of superficially-cool high school graduates.

I’m reminded of the first time I saw America’s cruelty in kidnapping kids and tearing apart families. For me, it started with Roots in 1977. I watched through Kunta Kinte’s  capture and Middle Passage across the Atlantic, his arrival in colonial Virginia, and later, the selling off of his daughter Kizzy to a slave owner who raped and impregnated her with Chicken George. Kizzy (played by Leslie Uggams) never saw her father alive again (she’s somehow able to visit her father’s grave, though), and her mother Bell is sold off to some Deep South plantation.

Leslie Uggams as Kizzy Kente in Roots (screen shot), 1977. (http://roots.wikia.com).

At seven, I cried at least three times watching this. At ten, when I saw all of this a second time, I cried and got angry. Especially at Sandy Duncan’s character, Missy Anne. Because Kizzy had the audacity to have a boyfriend and attempted to help him escape, Missy Anne shunned Kizzy and put up no protest as her father sold off her childhood playmate. And I learned that this is how nice people do people like me, especially the times when we need their help the most.

Later, I learned about the Fugitive Slave Laws. I learned how Congress, starting in 1793, passed a series of laws making it possible for every White American to act as a secret police. Whites were on the lookout for runaway African slaves in places as far-flung as Charleston, South Carolina, Bangor, Maine, Buffalo, New York, and, by the 1850s, Arizona Territory and California. The assumption of African enslavement was so pervasive that thousands of free and freed Blacks could end up being sold and re-sold into slavery, merely because some random White person wanted to make an extra $10 in the 1830s (12 Years a Slave comes to mind here).

Later, I’d learn about the Trail of Tears, Indian Removal, and the long, bitter march of indigenous peoples onto reservations between the late-1820s and 1890. A population of perhaps three million Native Americans reduced to 250,000 by the time of the 1900 Census. All federal policies as the US Army executed them. All so that mining interests could get to gold and coal, all so that railroads could be built. In the process of assimilating “the savages,” the federal government also snatched thousands of Native American children from their tribes and families and put them in boarding schools. With White families all too willing to teach them to forget about their long and proud histories, languages, and peoples.

But before learning all this, I also learned through my mom’s years on welfare just how easy it could be for a government and willing neighbors to have children and parents separated. More than once, a social worker swung by in the years between 1983 and 1990 to inspect my younger siblings, to make sure there wasn’t a man in the house, to ensure that my family’s deep poverty was real. More than once, a neighbor would threaten to call Social Services on my mom (and at least once, on me when I was a teenager) because my four younger sibling kept up too much noise. The policies that now comprise what some experts call “Jane Crow,” of separating allegedly neglectful and abusing parents (mostly Black women) in the name of protecting children, were very much alive and well during my teenage and early adulthood years. Because of course, poverty in America to the point of needing a few dollars and some Food Stamps is illegal.

Signs and protesters at “Families Belong Together March,” Los Angeles, June 14, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images).

With all this history of breaking up families to control African slaves, free Blacks, Native Americans, and poor people, why would the sudden ramping up of separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border surprise anyone? It doesn’t surprise me. ICE has been brazen in their modern-day execution of its Fugitive-Slave-Act-esque charge to “round up all the illegals.” The White House has 45 and an army of minions who spend every waking moment of every day figuring out ways to quash dissent and foment support for policies that would make the US a Whites-only country.

But for all this to work, there have to be millions of Americans willing to help them. And there are. Some out of pure ignorance, some out of willful ignorance and denial, and some because they are racist sociopaths. All, though, are fully steeped in the idea that America would be better off if Whites remain the majority, if White men and White women sire most of America’s kids, and if all the Black and Brown people submit to their rule and oppression with bright smiles.

People, America isn’t becoming a fascist state. For so many of us, America has always hung in the balance between freedom and fascism. Fascism for Americans of color, and freedom for good, Christian-as-racism White folks. This. Is. America.

Mrs. Bryant and the Beginning of Donald 1.5

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A bright blue sky, just before the long storm, February 19, 2011. (http://www.photos-public-domain.com). In public domain.

We’ve reached the end of yet another school year, number 32 for me overall, between my twenty-two years between kindergarten and doctorate and my son’s ten years of K-9 (this doesn’t included the 13 years of overlap, in which my primary job has been as an instructor, or my wife’s two years of grad school). The end of sixth grade was not particularly violent. But it was a rough transition to nearly eight years of bumps, bruises, grinding poverty and psychological torture, and a constant struggle for my true self.

The one strong and calming influence in the midst of this gathering storm system was my sixth grade teacher at William H. Holmes ES, Mrs. Della Bryant. She was the fourth of my four Black teachers between first grade and middle school. Mrs. Bryant was as important to me on the cusp of becoming a teenager as Ms. Griffin was to my grounding as a student in first grade, and the crush I had on Mrs. Shannon in third. Because Mrs. Bryant didn’t just aspire for us to do well and get A’s. She wanted us to think big picture, and not just about high school or college. Mrs. Bryant encouraged us to think in larger, worldly terms, to take politics and religion and literature and the stuff of intellectuals seriously.

She indulged us, especially me and my then best friend Starling. So many times that year, Mrs. Bryant allowed us to debate current event topics in class, whether we had sufficient facts or not. The Iran hostage crisis, the 1980 election cycle and why Ronald Reagan would be worse than President Jimmy Carter (no one in our class played devil’s advocate), the legality of Israel unilaterally bombing an Iraqi nuclear weapons centrifuge site.

Those were among the moments I lived for in Mrs. Bryant’s class that school year. I lived for them not just because I liked showing off my knowledge. I already knew I was smart. I spent the following year saying “I am the smartest kid in the whole world!” to myself, and occasionally, to Humanities classmates who made me feel inferior.

No, those debates weren’t about my raw analytic power and great ability to remember. They were about discovering what I thought I knew about a topic, understanding what I didn’t know, and being able to articulate it all without losing my thoughts in the ether. And in all that, I discovered parts of myself. My forthrightness. My New York-style sarcasm. My sense of righteous anger. My ability to summarize a situation in order to derive or intuit possible responses, even solutions.

That was what Mrs. Bryant with her light but steady touch helped me get to in sixth grade. A sense of enlightenment that could survive the false gods of Hebrew-Israelite-ism, the false father of my then idiot stepfather “Judah ben Israel” née Maurice Washington, and the fallacy that I had any control over my world.

But that wasn’t all Mrs. Bryant helped me do that year. She encouraged me to take on other projects, especially contests. Like posters for Dental Health Month, or participating in Election 1980 activities, and journaling and writing down my thoughts about virtually everything. Mrs. Bryant did me the honor of having me introduce our graduation speaker at the end of sixth grade, nearly 37 years ago. It was a two-minute speech, but it was also in front of a couple hundred people. I don’t think I’ve even been as nervous being on radio or television. Most of that stuck with me for years, somehow surviving through years of crumpled neglect.

Mrs. Bryant was the one who shepherded me into the Humanities Program, something that I’d only heard about once before, inadvertently through Brandie Weston (who was a student at Pennington-Grimes) the year before. With my grades and test scores, I probably could’ve made into the Grimes Center a year or two earlier. That is, if my teachers Ms. Pierce and Mrs. O’Daniel had thought of me that way. But in the big scheme, it wasn’t that important. Mrs. Bryant did think of me that way, and went out of her way to say as much. “Mrs. Bryant’s encouragement, her insistence that I was ‘one of the best students’ she ‘ever had,’ made sixth grade a joyful time,” I wrote in my memoir.

Now, despite Mrs. Bryant, I wasn’t prepared for going to school every day with 150 other know-it-all’s, many of whom would never have to worry about Con Edison bills being overdue or having no food to eat for three or four days at time. Or, the constant threat of domestic violence and abuse at home. Heck, between Humanities’ decided demographic affluence and ideological Whiteness, I doubt that most of my eventual classmates worried about anything other than getting A’s until puberty took full hold.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, “Mrs. Bryant never warned me that Humanities would be overwhelming because my social skills outside of Holmes were as well developed as a spoiled seven-year old’s.” I simply didn’t handle the transition from a 98-percent-Black elementary school to the mostly White Humanities program very well. Then again, with so much going wrong at home, I didn’t handle much of anything well in the 16 months after sixth grade.

But one thing I carried from my year with Mrs. Bryant was that I could survive and succeed despite it all. To observe and listen, and not just speak off the cuff. To be patient, and keep working. Frankly, it was likely because of teachers like Mrs. Bryant that I discovered my first superpower, my ability to think, remember, and write. And in that discovery, bury the pains of earlier abuses that would’ve surely killed me (or at least, led to a successful suicide) by the time I turned fourteen. Mrs. Bryant, wherever you are, and whatever you’re up to, I say, with love, many, many thanks!

“Sweet Christmas”

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Luke Cage, as played by Mike Colter (cropped), August 29, 2017. (https://refinery29.com; Myles Aronowitz/Netflix.

For the past eleven years, I’ve worked on this blog (albeit, not so much the past couple of years) to talk about my past and how it made me, well me, warts, lesions, and all. That has meant putting as many aspects of my upbringing under an electron microscope as I could bear. Everything from physical and sexual assault to ostracism and bullying. It has meant looking at my friends, acquaintances, enemies, classmates, my mother, father, idiot ex-stepfather, my older brother, and my younger siblings and trying to understand them. Most important, it has meant me constantly interrogating myself, my motivations, my challenges, my -isms, and my other bullshit. I’ve taken nothing for granted since my first post in June 2007, and for as long as I continue to blog and write, I hope that this attitude remains.

But since my blog’s second month, one group of people have consistently poo-pooed my blog and the experiences I’ve talked about here. Mount Vernonites, especially the ones who saw me, but from a distance, during my Boy @ The Window years. Not necessarily my immediate classmates or family (although I know a couple of siblings have had issues with a post here or there). Mostly, it’s been folks who grew up around me, ones who obviously saw me as strange, and used that as an excuse for never attempting to get to know me.

I accepted long ago that this group of Mount Vernonites would be a group I could never placate. But it’s been surprising over the past eleven years how so many have come out of the woodwork to complain about me publicly airing my experiences. About two-dozen in all have found fault with my blog. Their complaints have come in several forms:

1. “Mount Vernon’s a great city with a rich history — how dare YOU (of all people) ever type a word that shows us in a negative light!”

2. “You should never say anything bad about [so-and-so]. He/she was a great person to me — how dare you!”

3. “Donald, it wasn’t that bad. You wouldn’t be the person you are today without Mount Vernon and Denzel Washington.”

4. “You have no right to talk about [x-person]! You should never say anything in public about your experiences with them!”

As I noted in talking about my blog’s tenth anniversary last June, the first missive I ever received was from someone about how I “deserved” my stepfather beating me up. Given the specificity with which the person spoke about my “defiance,” it was likely my late ex-stepfather Maurice responding to my first post about his abuse of me. Too bad I never saved that comment!

This week I received a new comment on an eight-year-old blog post about the man from one of his other kids (from one of his other unions). I won’t post the comment, because her complaint doesn’t really deserve a full airing. “What ever you have with my father should be kept private…No one should be exploited like this. It’s unethical and childish. Seek therapy and consult God for your pain and issues,” she wrote. I guess she doesn’t get that I mostly write non-fiction. At 48, I’m also too old to be told what to do by someone who’s a stranger to me.

But that’s not my main point here. Silence kills people from the inside out, often long before the blood stops pumping through our veins. Bringing abuse to the light of day isn’t exploitation, it’s necessary. Especially if it helps us move on. If a writer like me cannot be honest about the people who were in my life growing up, why bother writing at all?

For the Mount Vernonites who’ve expressed their issues with my blog, let me say this one last time. This blog has never been for you. In so many ways, this blog hasn’t been for me, either. It hasn’t been cathartic, nor has it helped me exact revenge or a pound of righteous vindication. It’s been about the hundreds of comments and emails I’ve received over the years from people I don’t know and will likely never meet. The ones who’ve had similar experiences with abuse, poverty, systemic racism, not fitting in, graduate school, their parents, and in their marriages and parenting. The kids who decided to give college another try. The adults who’ve found their way to a career, or who’ve worked out some problem in their life. The ones who’ve occasionally found their way to God, or conversely, decided that God wasn’t for them.

After nearly 300,000 views and 970 posts, I’m secure in the fact that whatever I’ve said here over the years, my words have done far more good than harm. Or, at least, they have made folks think about a variety of issues differently than they would have otherwise.

It would be all too easy for me to wish that life at 616, in Mount Vernon, and in New York had treated me much more gently between 1969 and 1989. But it didn’t. It would’ve been easier to write everything I’ve typed here over the years as mystery novels or horror graphic novels. But that’s not me (at least, not yet). I don’t regret a single word. On the other hand, I do regret my dropped words (and dropped “s”s) and other grammatical errors.

What Being #1 Is and Isn’t

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#1 (cropped), May 24, 2018. (http://www.modern-senior.com).

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, Micheal Brown, Elmont Memorial High School, and Mirabeau B. Lamar High School must be very proud of themselves these days. And they all should be. After all, Ms. Uwamanzu-Nna joined Mr. Ekeh as being the only two students in the history of this high school to gain acceptance to all eight Ivy League universities — in back-to-back years, in 2015 and 2016. Mr. Brown was four-for-four in his quest for Ivy League admissions at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania in 2017-18, and went 20-for-20 in college admissions overall. Uwamanza-Nna and Ekeh each went 13 for 13 in their applications to colleges ranging from Johns Hopkins and New York University to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

They are among a very short list of above-the-rim, high-achieving high school students who have the distinction of winning the college entrance lottery. They have credentials (and with full rides, the means) to attend any and every elite institution in the US. That’s just it, though. In so many ways, this narrative of American education as one of  “winners and losers” merely reinforces a society of haves and have-nots narcissistically competing for limited and segregated resources.

With a closer look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s backgrounds, it becomes obvious that despite their amazing achievements, their success was predestined. Both Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh’s families are from Nigeria, and both moved to the US when they were of elementary school age. Uwamanzu-Nna’s father remained a physical therapist after moving to the US, while Ekeh’s parents “left comfortable lives in Nigeria” to take jobs at a Target store in Queens to provide opportunities for their five children. Both families picked places within the Sewanhaka Central High School District to live. The district is made up of a group of Long Island bedroom suburban towns within Nassau County, including Elmont.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna standing next to a picture of 2015 graduate, Harold Ekeh (cropped), Elmont Memorial High School, Elmont, NY, April 5, 2016. (CBS2).

This decision for the two Nigerian families could not have occurred by accident. The Sewanhaka Central High School District and especially Elmont Memorial High School has long had a reputation of providing an atmosphere of academic excellence and being a welcoming environment to students from immigrant families. Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh both benefited from such an environment and from families willing to sacrifice in order to push their children to win the academic lottery. In the US, getting into any Ivy League institution — much less all eight — is the pinnacle of being #1.

Brown’s case is a little less obvious in terms of advantages. But clearly Brown’s mother’s continuous efforts to enrich her life and her son’s life academically and socially were critical to his high-flying success. “When I was in elementary school, I saw my mom graduate from community college and that just meant a lot to me,”  Brown said to USA Today last month. Involvement in extracurricular activities in school and year-round after school programs like “QuestBridge, Emerge Fellowship and Breakthrough Collaborative,” where Brown got to mingle with students of color with college aspirations, must’ve helped with both his academic motivations and preparations. This more than made up for whatever deficiencies Brown faced in his education because of growing up in the Third Ward in Houston (where several of my uncles and cousins on my mother’s side lived between the mid-1970s and the early ’00s).

There are a couple of ways to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s success. One is to take the route of racist jealousy. “It’s a little obnoxious because you can only go to one, you can only take one full ride, and you are taking a spot from someone else who worked really hard,” co-anchor Holly Morris said on her FOX5 DC morning show. There was a huge backlash in response. The response implied that Brown’s achievement was a sign of showboating, that Brown was merely an attention-seeker. Keep in mind, the media sought Brown out, not the other way around. Keep in mind, Americans obsess over obvious measures of success. But somehow, if you’re Black, you can’t be joyful and in the moment over such success, even when the press is shining a floodlight on you.

Micheal Brown and his mother Berthinia Rutledge-Brown sharing the news of him getting into all 20 schools to which he applied, Houston, TX, March 31, 2018. (https://www.rawstory.com/).

Another way to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements, though, would be to see their stories as a positive for them as individuals, but a negative for our society as a whole. With the increased emphasis on standardized curricula, standardized testing, and standardized individual teacher evaluations based on this testing has come an obsessive focus on the individual in education. The savior teacher as superhuman, somehow able to make every student into a proficient test-taker. The grinding student, ready to score a proficient or higher score on every school district, state-level, and national standardized test. The tiger mom-esque parent, willing at a moment’s notice to spend money that most Americans do not have to tutor and drill their child into excellent test scores. All involved in education for the greater good, but more and more, for their greater good. All without knowing about what their children have really learned, whether their students can really work in unison on a common goal, or if their kids can create, innovate, or think independently of a test-taking script.

I’m sure that Uwamanzu-Nna, Ekeh, and Brown’s have learned a lot in their respective journeys to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But what does this measure of achievement mean for them down the line? Is it merely their ability to meet the right people and find job opportunities looking for them around every corner as a result of their academic achievements? Or do their achievements mean anything beyond the material, for them and for the rest of us?

The “winners and losers” narrative also plays itself out in insidious ways for parents at the have-nots end of the scale. Because America’s educational resources are unevenly segregated by race and social class across its 14,000 school districts, the opportunities for winning this competition are also segregated. School district boundary hopping has become more prevalent in recent years. This as the competition for better-resourced schools has become more intense, all in the wake of the Great Recession and the resulting reduction in education budgets.

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

One famous case of boundary hopping occurred in 2011. Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American, Akron, Ohio-area mother, was arrested for and convicted of falsifying records to enable her two daughters to attend a more affluent school district in the area for two years. (Williams-Bolar’s now deceased father Edward L. Williams was a legal resident of the Copley Township district at the time.) The real crime here is that a patchwork public education system based on income and place of residence exists at all. That it also promotes an obsession with competition and mostly pre-selects students to be #1 in the line for the elite university is worse still. That is why Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements look so remarkable. They won an educational game that in so many ways our society had rigged for them to lose.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, and Micheal Brown are among a truly lucky handful. Their parents found a welcoming home in a diverse suburban community with well-resourced (if somewhat segregated) schools, or enriched their child with resources not available to most kids in poorer and segregated urban school districts. They won the competition for #1. For most Americans, though, the education game is rigged, as the system reproduces and reinforces residential, racial, income, and academic inequality. Not to mention, the American idea that there should be winners, losers, and a grinding competition to show who won and lost.

It’s Been A While Since I’ve Been a Sports “Fan”

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Cropped image of seven year-old Linus Van Pelt sucking his thumb and holding his security blanket (like the average American sports fan), May 3, 2018. (http://amazon.com).

If my 25 year-old self and my 48 year-old self met in the same hotel bar on Rolling Rock Beer and Wings night in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Cleveland, they would have so much in common (or explode space-time). But they would have one hell of a disagreement about the quality, purpose, and feeling of being a sports fanatic. We’d both be ex-baseball fans, courtesy of the sports’ over-inflated view of itself, its long history of racism, exclusion, and paternalism, and George Will’s ludicrous books on America’s so-called pastime. We’d both watch NBA basketball, NHL hockey, a fútbol match or a tennis tournament or a golf major here and there. But the reasons for watching, the rationale for whom to root for and why, the purpose for either of us to indulge in such athletic delights? We would be at an obtuse angle, at least 120 degrees apart.

My history of sports fandom began pretty much in middle school, even though I’d been exposed to all of New York’s underdog teams from the womb. Mets, Jets, and Knicks (Mom still doesn’t watch or understand hockey, by the way) were her teams by the time she and my dad conceived me. But me being me, I reinvented the wheel between the end of ’81 and the spring of ’84. I watched/listened to Yankees and Mets games, as well as the Knicks and Nets, the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils, and the Jets and Giants.

I picked my childhood teams based on low expectations, the balance between them being underdogs and being doormats, the players I’d most likely would want to emulate if I ever wanted to be a professional athlete. And, mostly important, based on that team’s ability to help me forget about all that was wrong in my world, for at least three hours per day (in baseball), or six hours a week (between the other sports combined).

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY, October 25, 1986. (http://halloffamememorabilia.net).

That gradually began to change once my teams started winning championships, or at least, regularly competing for them. The change accelerated once I left the New York area for Pittsburgh and its Western Pennsylvania ways. Between my Mets winning a World Series and my Giants winning two Super Bowls between ’86 and ’91, I found myself no longer a fan of hometown underdog teams. Sports weren’t an escape from my reality anymore. Especially as I began regularly working out and playing sports myself.

But I still saw sports fandom as a good thing, something that could unite people and cross the barriers of racism, classism, and even sexism (depending on the sport). That was my next phase of fandom, beginning around ’93. This view was what fueled my divorce from baseball after the ’94 MLB strike and lockout, and what caused me to begin watching more golf and international soccer, and not just falling asleep to it.

I still rooted for my Giants, Rangers, and especially the Knickerbockers. Too bad only the Rangers broke through in the ’90s, although the Knicks had their chances between ’93 and ’99. With living in Pittsburgh, though, I also began to cheer for the Steelers, the Penguins (except when they played the Rangers), and sometimes the Pirates.

But even in this phase of my fandom, I recognized the basic truth. I was cheering for athletes and their talent and will to shine in competition. That they happened to be a linebacker for the Giants or a pitcher for the Mets was a bonus, but I would’ve enjoyed their talent on other teams and in other athletic contexts anyway. I recognized this already with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield in the ’80s, and I saw another glimpse of it in ’96, when Dwight Gooden, at this point with the Yankees, finally threw a no-hitter. I wasn’t even a baseball fan anymore, but I was so happy for the diminished Gooden to achieve this feat.

Venus hitting a backhand against Elise Mertens in 1st round of Wimbledon, Wimbledon, England, UK, July 3, 2017. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/; John Walton/PA).

I think that’s why I started rooting for Venus (who does not get nearly enough credit for being an elite athlete and tennis player) and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and so many others while they were still in their teens. I’m sure that’s why I stopped putting up with cockamamie excuses from other fans about too much money in professional sports, about free agency, about the difficulties of running a franchise, when I’d see the same teams losing year after year. It didn’t help that the athletes I rooted for growing up or in the ’90s began to retire, often with a vocal and unappreciative fan base trying to shove them out to door.

Most importantly, I saw the greed and narcissism and conservative politics and racism and misogyny and homophobia that is embedded in the ownership of teams and in the building of franchises. That sports are no more divorced from the politics and malignancies in society than our choices in food and clothing, or the decision of most Americans to berate the poor for their poverty. That sports teams and franchises are about as “clean” and “merit-based” as legacies in college admissions (the ultimate form of affirmative action) and the American election process at any and all levels. Despite this, a hundred million people still entertain this naive view that sports fandom is an essential good, a form of escape, a place for camaraderie. It is not. It’s escapism, a form a narcissism that allows millions to feel a bit better about their lives without doing anything to change their lives and the lives of untold others for the better.

Maybe my jadedness comes from nearly two decades in the DC area, where I regularly root for the local teams to fail, because I love it when the fans here are disillusioned. Maybe it’s because of the poor quality of most of the sports I watch (or in the case of the NFL, have stopped watching for going on three years now). Or, maybe it’s because my Knicks haven’t a title since Nixon was president! Whatever it is, I will continue to root for athletes, but not for teams. Especially those who take a stand, those who have a purpose beyond their athleticism, those whose bodies make me a bit envious, but only envious enough to keep working out, to keep running, to keep draining Js. Also, the NFL is still blackballing Colin Kaepernick!

 

 

68 Days in 1968

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968. (http://youtube.com).

Over the next week or two, America will talk incessantly about the fiftieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Many Americans will memorialize MLK this April 4th, one day from the actual day of the week James Earl Ray’s rifle shot took the great one’s life at a two-star motel. This was a moment that shook the nation. It certainly was a moment that blew up in the minds of nearly every Black American. There were more than 100 riots — actual riots, and not the random vandalism the media’s all too quick to call a riot — in cities across the country. It changed the nation enough to where, at least for a few years, African Americans once denied educational and employment opportunities could suddenly find themselves at elite White universities, with major corporations, and with big private foundations, and often, for the first time.

But as much as I want to memorialize Dr. King, his life and his death, I do not want to resurrect him as a zombie-like poster child for ridding the US of racism. Especially when I know all too well that it’ll likely take the The Rapture, and not a rally, to make this impossibility a reality. I’ve long since tired of King as a marble statue of unattainable goodness and perfection for Whites and conservatives of color who use him as a cudgel against any Blacks who haven’t materially progressed or who have exposed the nation as racist. I’m also tired of progressives who call out racism as only hate, and King’s life and death as an attempt to fight it, when King was speaking truth to power, and organizing poor people to siphon that power. That’s what King died over, ultimately.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on Vietnam and not running for reelection, White House, March 31, 1968. (http://gbpnews.com).

Even more than King, though, is the reality that America has a string of fiftieth anniversary milestones to contemplate. In a sixty-eight day period in 1968, the true nature of American power dashed the delusion of an easy path to ending systemic racism and gross economic inequalities in which millions of naive Americans had once believed. Between LBJ’s refusal to run again on March 31st, MLK’s execution on April 4th, and RFK’s assassination on June 5th, any traditional Democrat, White liberal, or even someone with some sense of hope in America’s future must’ve been devastated. If I’d been at least ten years old in 1968, I would’ve been, too.

Sadly, President Lyndon Johnson tried to fight a War on Poverty and build the Great Society while also escalating a war over communism in Vietnam and in the rest of Southeast Asia. He bled the nation’s wealth and its poorer class of men dry in Vietnam, and starved his modestly radical domestic programs in the process. While so much of Johnson’s legacy remains, none of it remains strong. Every administration since Johnson announced, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” has weakened his attempts at a comprehensive welfare state. Including Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and of course, aid to single parents with younger children.

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the weeks after President Johnson’s “no mas” announcement was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY). His victory in winning the California primary on June 5 had mostly sealed that deal. He barely had more than a few minutes to enjoy it, though. After his victory speech that night, Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK, and with it, the center-very-very-very-slightly-left Democratic coalition of the 1960s. Johnson, of course, died in 1973. No president has come close to being transformative since.

A facsimile of the JFK, MLK & RFK painting that used to hang over many a Black home’s mantle, August 27, 2013. (http://robertktanenbaumbooks.com).

I was born in 1969, so I didn’t get the chance to experience living through these horrible events. But I did learn about them early on. Seeing paintings of MLK, JFK and RFK (or of MLK, JFK, and LBJ) in the living rooms of my mother’s friends. Through John Lennon’s music and CBS’s All in the Family. That sense of lingering hopefulness in changing the world that I did see at the end of America’s Vietnam era. In some ways, I’m as much a “child of the 60s” as anyone who was ten or fifteen years old at the time of RFK’s death.

Yet I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which most White liberals and Democrats decided to forget about the overall message of change and social justice that LBJ, RFK, and MLK represented. The youthfulness and motivation that was JFK in the early 60s. The sense that by breaking down barriers and encouraging the end of those practices that leave many Americans behind, our nation would retain its strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality. Of course there was a great tension there. And in that tension, America returned to its center-right script, symbolically using a marble and granite King while chipping away at welfare state protections and regulations, and promoting virulent racism.

Those 68 days in 1968 proved more than anything else that while Americans can envision a multitude of Americas, there was and remains only one America. The one in which money, power, racism, misogyny, and homophobia rule the day. Americans can fight for a better nation, and Americans should, if only to blunt the full fury of America’s ills. But make no mistake. The America that assassinated MLK, RFK, and JFK, and put LBJ in an early grave. That’s the same America that elected 45 and allows police to shoot unarmed Black and Brown people like rabid dogs. This. Is. America.

Rich, Lorde, and What I Care/Don’t Care About

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Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich after leading a writing workshop, Austin, TX, 1980. (K. Kendall/Flickr, July 15, 2007). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-2.0.

Among the literary arts, poetry is somewhere between okay and blech for me. At least most of the time. That doesn’t mean I hate all poetry or all poets. I fully appreciate the rhyme and meter (and lack thereof) of so many, from James Weldon Johnson and Archibald MacLeish to Phillis Wheatley and Langston Hughes. I love the emotional layering in the choice of the words, and in more modern times, the delivering of such words, with The Last Poets, with Gil Scott-Heron, and of course, Maya Angelou. Rap legends like Tupac, Nas, Eminem, Public Enemy have lyrics that are essentially spoken-word poetry put to bass, beats, and music loops. Heck, I’ve even enjoyed W. E. B. DuBois’ forays in the art in my scholarly research (when I more regularly did it) over the years.

But as a writer of prose (and often, long-winded prose), I also find the form of poetry ill-fitting. For me, it’s like being a home-run hitter in baseball playing hard-court tennis. It’s not that I can’t hit a baseline winner or an ace. But for every one of those, I could easily hit four tennis balls in a row out of the court, and literally onto the roof of a house half a block away. I prefer the ability to lay out my thoughts and explain them in full sentences, without worrying over every single word and the rhythm that a sequence of carefully chosen words may or may not bring.

I barely read any poetry during my Humanities years, unless my English classes forced me to. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Alexander Pope, all for 10th grade English, and with the exception of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” not particularly entertaining. I was convinced after high school in ’87 that I’d never read poetry again.

What brought on a new interest in poetry came from my sophomore year at Pitt. I had to take a General Writing class in Fall 1988. I had to because if I wanted to take upper-level History classes as a History major, this general education requirement needed to be knocked off.  But I had an enthusiastic graduate student as my instructor. When I say enthusiastic, I mean someone who knew their students wouldn’t be, but whose passion for teaching and literature of all kinds made the class and the readings more interesting. She told me early on, after reading one of my first essays, that I should’ve been able to pass out of General Writing through the diagnostic tests Pitt gave my freshman year. “I wasn’t exactly awake when I took it last year,” I said in response.

Ways of Reading anthology book (2nd edition), used in 1988. (http://ebay.ca).

When we got to the poetry portion of the course, I thought at first I was going to die from boredom. But our instructor didn’t assign us the usual suspects. The main poet we read that week was Adrienne Rich. She was someone I’d heard of growing up, but that was about it. Until the assignment of reading both Rich’s poetry and her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” that is.

There were three things I’d never considered before reading Rich. One was the idea that writing was both art and craft, and that most writing was editing and re-envisioning one’s work. Two was the notion of transforming and being transformed through the writing process, and all as a proxy for a meaningful life. Three was the positioning of poets and other writers in literature, the privileging of men over women, of White males over feminists, of White heterosexual feminists over lesbian feminists, and especially Black lesbian feminists.

That last one about power, privilege, and positioning, it really grabbed me. So much so that I read more Rich that October weekend, in between pangs of hunger from lack of money and my Saturday evening shift at the Cathedral of Learning computer lab.

And the more I read of Rich, the more I decided to read about one of Rich’s contemporaries. I moved on to Audre Lorde the following week. She wasn’t among the long list of readings we had for General Writing, but she should’ve been. I couldn’t believe that someone who lived only miles away from my growing up experience in Mount Vernon and in New York could yet have such a vastly different experience with the city and the area.

I picked up Sister Outsider (1984) for the first time near the end of that fall semester. Lorde’s collection of essays about civil rights, about Black feminism (or womanism), about what we now call intersectionality, opened my eyes to how even Rich’s brand of feminism could be problematic. But more than that. Lorde, along with Rich, helped me realize, and not for the first time, that I didn’t care if the person I read or learned from was straight or gay, male or female (or later on, transgender), Black, Brown, or White. This despite what the Hebrew-Israelites and the evangelicals tried to teach me. They just had to be excellent in their work.

Excerpt of Audre Lorde’s Power (1978) (screenshot). (http://poetryfoundation.org).

Sister Outsider also opened up my eyes to the possibility that even my poetry-loathing ass could appreciate a true master at work in the art. So early on the following semester, I read Lorde’s poetry for the first time, likely some poems from her Coal (1976). Lorde talking about her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, and her issues with her own skin color, resonated with me.

But that was it with poetry for me until I borrowed my friend E’s recording of The Lost Poets 1971 album, and then read Angelou’s poetry, both in the summer of ’91. By then, I knew that while I’d never be a full-fledged fan of it, I could still appreciate the work, the art, and the layering of ideologies, emotions, and ideas contained in the best of poetry.