About My Brother

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This Sunday, December 9, my older brother Darren Lynard Gill turns 40 years old. It should be a day of pride, of tears of joy and long-suffering, of wondering about entering the prime decade of his life and my soon joining him there. With our relationship and my older brother’s life as such, there is only the hope that both get better before it’s too late for us.

You see, Darren had both the blessing and the curse of being the first-born son of our mother and our father Jimme Collins (they weren’t married at the time Darren was born) when he was born in ’67. It was a period in which both of our parents were still people full of hopes and dreams. It when my father was nothing more than an occasional social binge drinker and my mother was on the verge of becoming a supervisor of Mount Vernon Hospital’s Dietary Department. Darren became the embodies of their hopes and dreams.

And it should’ve been obvious that at least one of their hopes in Darren came true during his toddler years. All during her first pregnancy, according to my mother, my Uncle Sam, and a number of my mother’s friends at the time, all my mother prayed about was for Darren to be healthy and brilliant. She got what she wished for when Darren turned three. Sometime in 1971, my brother had taught himself how to read. The story goes that Darren was sitting at the dinner table in our second-floor flat at 48 Adams Street while my mother and father and me were milling about. Suddenly, they noticed that Darren had picked up a box of Diamond Crystal Salt and began reading the words on the box. Not just the letter, the actual words “salt” and “diamond” and “crystal”! If he hadn’t been moving his finger from left to right as he was doing this, I don’t think my mother and father would’ve believed what they’d witnessed at all.

This story doesn’t exactly take Darren to the academic decathlon. There was something else Darren inherited from my mother and father besides a high capacity for analytical thinking. He was also extremely shy and didn’t like being around lots of people. For both of them, this shyness needed to be taken care of, as if being shy is some sort of curse. My mother’s solution was placing Darren in Headstart in ’73 and ’74 (delaying his start in public school a full year) so that the shyness issue wouldn’t be one when he started school.

Jimme took this idea one step further and farther. He decided one day that Darren was too much like himself. After seeing an ad for a special school in Upper Westchester County called Clearview, he took us up to Dobbs Ferry (where the school was located at the time) so that Darren could be examined by a group of professionals. After a battery of psychological exams and an IQ test, they determined that my brother was mentally retarded. Darren would begin school in September ’74 at the Clearview School as a day student. Neither of our lives would ever be the same.

But before Darren became an institutionalized version of his shy and wonderfully intelligent self, he gave me the same gift he gave himself. I started kindergarten at Nathan Hale the same fall he started going to Clearview. I already knew and recognized my ABC’s, but couldn’t always make out or sound out words, and didn’t recognize them in sentence form. One afternoon between Christmas and New Years at the end of ’74, we sat down and went through sentence after sentence until I could recognize and read a sentence. He literally changed my life, and I didn’t even know it.

For years after that we remained close. We’d fight like all brothers fight. The main issue besides Clearview was my mother, who treated Darren as if he really was retarded while treating me more favorably because I wasn’t shy like Darren. Between my mother and father’s divorce in ’76-’77, my mother’s second marriage to Maurice, and the kids, poverty, abuse and bizarre religion that would come into our lives on the North Side of Mount Vernon, distance began to grow between us.

The key changes included a temper-tantrum that Darren threw in the middle of a Pelham laundromat in the summer of ’80, when my mother suggested that it was time to move my twelve-year-old brother into a “normal school.” It also included all of the abuse I took from my stepfather two summers later while Darren was off at Clearview’s summer day camp having the time of his life. By the time puberty struck, Darren was jealous of me and I was finding it hard to relate to him and survive 616 East Lincoln at the same time.

Darren would remain a student at Clearview until the year after I finished high school. For fourteen years, the state of New York covered his $33,000-a-year (in 1982 dollars) tuition, as he just slid under the public school accommodations radar for the mildly mentally retarded. I always knew that Darren was retarded, even though he now mimicked the severely retarded students he’d spent day after day with over the years. Through a dispensation granted by the Mount Vernon Board of Education, Darren graduated with the rest of the Mount Vernon High School Class of ’88, even though he had not spent a day in a public school.

From that point on, Darren was jealous of everything I did. I score a 5 on the AP American History exam, and Darren would take the CollegeBoard score sheet and dump it in the garbage. I get into the University of Pittsburgh, and Darren would enroll in college at home for a semester just to prove that he was just as good as me. If I said I was dating someone, Darren would stop talking to me altogether. Even during our Thanksgiving visit to Mount Vernon last year, Darren became angry with me because I offered and gave him a ride home in my family car, even though he wanted to walk in the pouring, freezing rain. I’ve never been able to have a normal conversation with him for fear of pissing him off or making him feel bad or him letting me know how much better my life has been compared to his.

The truth is, I do feel guilty sometimes about where Darren is in his life. For nearly twenty years, Darren has lived in a one-room flat, where he shares a bathroom and a kitchen in South Side Mount Vernon. His jobs have never paid more than $10 an hour. He’s often too afraid to say “Hi” to a woman he’s attracted to. He’s never learned how to drive and hasn’t taken a college-level course since the end of ’88. I’ve tried many, many times to reach out to him, to give him comfort and out of my hard earned wisdom and knowledge. I went through with my family intervention in ’02 in part because I wanted Darren to see what went wrong for our mother and Jimme as far as his education was concerned. Darren rejects almost all that I have to say and give him out of hand, with a smile of meanness that is praying hard for my failure in this life.

My wife says sometimes that she’s surprised that Darren hasn’t tried to kill himself yet. I’m not, if only because someone with Darren’s level of misery wants to see other people suffer with him, in this life, not in the next. That’s why he regularly visits our mother on Sundays for dinner, to remind her of one of the biggest mistakes she’s ever made. It’s why he regularly calls our father for money, to remind him of the idiotic decisions he has made on Darren’s behalf. It’s why Darren wears a permanent smirk on his face, to conceal his contempt for us all.

But I do want to remind him and anyone who knows either of us one thing. I wouldn’t be the intellectual I am today if Darren hadn’t taken the time to teach me how to read. He stepped in the breach to save me from years of catch-up in public school at a time when no one else in my life was willing or able to. Darren is a better person than me, because without him I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. Happy Birthday Darren! I love you very much.

Darren and Donald

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A better picture of Darren and me, taken in April 1975, Sears, Mount Vernon, NY, July 6, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

My older brother Darren turned 50 years old yesterday. The start of my courtship with my wife of more than seventeen years began on this date and day 22 years ago, at her job’s Christmas party in Pittsburgh. The parallels wouldn’t be clear to anyone looking from the outside in on two of the more important relationships of my nearly forty-eight years. But one thing is apparent. The relationship that I’ve always attempted to have with Darren I’ve always had with my wife. One of friendship, sharing, caring, and rooting for each other.

Me and Darren were never that close, even when he taught me how to read, even when I taught him algebra, and even when we both were dodging rocks and bullies at 616. I have the scars to prove it. Three of them, exactly. Earned when I fought Darren over a chocolate Easter bunny on Easter Sunday 1977. Darren clawed my right cheek with his three middle finger on left hand to hold on to the candy, and then proceeded to eat while I was on the floor bleeding and crying.

The time between August ’08 and May ’09 wasn’t much different. My consulting work had dried up after the middle of the summer, as the Great Recession puckered up assholes and opportunities for additional work across the board. I had to dip deeply into my savings to get through, while only then teaching one class a semester at UMUC those two semesters. Darren caught wind of my job troubles through our father. During Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day during those months, Darren would ask very loudly, “Did you get a job yet?,” as if I wasn’t working at all. Of course, he was visiting Mom at 616 for free food during my calls to check in with family.

The third time Darren pulled this stunt, it sunk in what he was attempting to do. “Just because I’m not working full-time doesn’t mean I’m not working. I’m still teaching, and I still have some consulting work, which pays $550 per day,” I said. Darren responded, “Oh, oh, okay.” I knew he didn’t get the gig economy or the idea that I could work three days as a consultant and make as much as he would make in a month. Darren’s only goal through those eight months was to embarrass me with Mom and my siblings, to take glee and joy in whatever misery I was experiencing in the feast-and-famine consulting world.

It was all part of a long pattern of Darren wanting everyone in his life to be as miserable as he has been for nearly all of his adult life. I’ve long understand why he wanted all of us to accompany him in his abyss. Fourteen years going to a school for the mentally retarded and aping that behavior in a affluently lily-White context would mess anyone up. Coupling this with our lives, between Mom, our dad, and our idiot ex-stepfather would lead most to either self-loathing or suicide. Darren chose the former. It has meant him not having much of a life for more than three decades, though.

Given how we grew up, it’s amazing that I could form bonds of friendship and relationship at all. The level of distrust, anger, and disappointment was so great at one point that I could’ve lived as a hermit for the past three decades without anyone to notice. I wouldn’t be surprise if a group of my classmates from Mount Vernon High School have the caption, “Least likely to bond with another human EVER!,”around my yearbook picture. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if all of them were laughing while drawing a penis coming from out of my forehead. I did break out, despite them, despite 616, despite Mom, Jimme, Maurice, and Darren.

The five-day saga of homelessness in ’88 was just one of several events in my first two years at Pitt that made me see what I was doing to myself. But it was the most powerful event, in that it made me fully conscious of the fact that I didn’t like myself very much. It made me aware of the fact that I had maybe two people in the whole world at the time whom I called “friend” and meant it. The rest were acquaintances, former classmates, or soapbox types who liked bouncing ideas off me. Five days of staring into the pit of my possible future of misery — while looking at the seven years of grinding poverty and suffering before — fundamentally changes how I saw myself and my need to connect with other people.

By the time I first met Angelia in ’90, I was well past those events, yet if was as if I was experiencing a social life for the first time. In some respects, I actually was. So much so that I almost short-circuited a friendship before it actually began. Even after we began dating at the end of ’95, Angelia would sometimes call me a “tactless wonder.” That was usually in the context of someone getting on my nerves with their willful ignorance or witless prattle (the “getting on my nerves” part happens much more often than I let on) or being in a social setting after days of dissertation writing.

Beyond that, I’ve learned to accept that weird-old me is an okay person, that I won’t always succeed, that I have a love-disdain relationship with humans. Forming and maintaining friendships and my marriage, though, is hard, but not the impossible thing I thought it would be for me to do this time three decades ago. I remain happy about finding Angelia so many years ago. I remain hopeful that Darren may do the same, in this life or the next.

The Deadly Bliss of American Ignorance

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The US and its love for drinking poisonous Kool-Aid, June 21, 2016. (http://www.booksbytesblog.com/).

Events past and present have converged on the world stage in the past three weeks, all to remind the world of American ignorance. The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, ushering in Soviet Russia for most of the 20th century. The Balfour Declaration, also of a century ago, in which the British leaned their imperialist weight into the idea of a Jewish homeland carved out of Ottoman Palestine. And, two Sundays ago, Devin Patrick Kelley’s rampage at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where he killed 26 worshippers and wounded another 20. The one thing these seemingly disparate events share in common is America’s ability to will ignorance out of learning moments.

Take the Bolshevik Revolution, for example. Nary a word has been printed about the spark that led to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the US. Not about how the million-plus Russian dead during the First World War created an atmosphere of chaos within the tsarist empire. Not about how the calculations of German leadership led to them injecting Russian exile Vladimir Lenin back into his home country in order to get Russia out of the war. And certainly not about the role of US among the other world powers in attempting to overthrow the new Communist regime in the years after the war.

What little focus there has been on this event has been in assessing whether Russian oligarch Vladimir Putin is a 21st-century Russian tsar. That, and the case of author Simon Sebag Montefiore, who “what-if-ed” about the Russian Revolution in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. Somehow, the Second World War, the Communist Revolution in China, the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, and a nuclear-armed North Korea would’ve never happened. While it was a nice touch for Montefiore to write, “Hitler would likely have ended up painting postcards” if not for the Bolshevik Revolution, the lessons deriving from this event should be far more important than typical American navel-gazing. The revolution did happen, a consequence of World War I and the imperialist meddlings of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the US.

The ho-hum coverage around the Balfour Declaration a century on is yet another example of American ignorance, but in two ways. One, Americans have literally ignored the idea that the modern clashes between Jews and Arabs had an origin point straight out of the First World War. The modern conflict over Israel comes out of the European imperialism playbook, led by the UK. As a way to get the Ottoman Turks out of the war, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, an avid supporter of the Zionist movement. The promise of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine made its way to the British newspapers a week later, November 9, 1917. The declaration set off a complex chain of events that led to the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars between 1948 and 1973, and the oppression of Palestinian Arabs.

Instead of focusing on this complicated history, Americans often chalk this recent history up to a family squabble that happened 3,000 years ago, as if Jews and Arabs have been fighting since the Biblical days of Isaac and Ishmael. That, and the willingness to automatically blame Arab Muslim culture for inciting and inviting conflict. As conservative Middle East Forum fellow Philip Carl Salzman recently wrote, peace “is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners,” carefully avoiding the word Arab in his article. Salzman’s is merely a more sophisticated version of the ignorant Christian belief that the Middle East represents the “world’s oldest family feud,” that every Muslim is primed for violence. Or, as my neighbor put it last week, in the aftermath of Sayfullo Saipov’s terrorism-by-truck-ramming in New York, “they read that Koran, and they’re radicalized.”

The other part of American ignorance regarding the Balfour Declaration was the American role in helping it evolve from the idea of a homeland to the nation-state of Israel. President Woodrow Wilson supported the declaration. Writers like Lawrence Haas have argued that the declaration was only about “empower[ing] Jews to return to their historic homeland.” Despite his and other’s claims, every US president since Wilson has understood the declaration to be the bedrock for building Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and not just an ancestral homeland for members of the Jewish diaspora. This ignorance of the past and present has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions in dollars, and is likely as intractable as the century-old conflict itself.

Still, from an American perspective, none of this is as ignorant as the common refrain, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Or, as President Trump described the mass shooting at a church in suburban San Antonio, “I think that mental health is your problem here,” that this isn’t a “guns situation.” In the first few days, experts weighed in on this incident in which Devin Kelley killed and maimed dozens. They have added factors such as Kelley’s domestic violence history and the lack of communication between the Department of Defense and local law enforcement databases about Kelley’s record to the mix.

But in explaining the correlation between domestic violence and a person’s willingness to slaughter random humans, many Americans remain blissfully ignorant of one elephant in the room. Easy access to assault weapons. Americans often avoid the topic, as if the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is sacrosanct. Yet here too is the First World War and the development of hand-held assault guns a factor, as automatic weapons like the Tommy Gun became more readily available to both criminals and law enforcement in the US in the 1920. While some may kill regardless of the weapon, regulations state and federal have made it all too easy for ordinary Americans to murder in large numbers.

The most ignorant thing Americans do on gun regulation, though, is assume the only choices on the table are either full access for everyone or regulated access meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and potential mass shooters. Another choice would be to repeal the Second Amendment entirely and replace it with a law that keeps guns mostly out of the American public domain.

The ignorant American in me knows that the idea of a gun-free America is a pipe dream, no more realistic than any line in the Balfour Declaration about protecting the civil rights of “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” And no more plausible than seeing Soviet Russia as not just an historical accident, but the result of imperial wheeling and dealing to end a deadly world war. Americans are simply too willing to be ignorant of history and the here-and-now.

My Mom’s Milestone

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Orange roses in a garden, February 2014. (https://hdwallsource.com/).

This past weekend, Mom turned seventy years old. 70! Wow! I sent her a plant with orange blossom roses, a vase and a candle setting, which arrived on time for her birthday on Saturday. We had a good phone conversation about the gift and about her day. When I turned the conversation to what she planned to do for her big day, she said she might “go to the Red Lobster at Cross County [Mall].” That was disappointing, but also somewhat expected. After a lifetime of drama, abuse, and pain, maybe a relatively peaceful weekend of phone calls, well wishes, and a table for one at Red Lobster is really all Mom can aspire to seven decades in.

I’ve thought a lot about Mom the last few days. Especially in light of my mother-in-law’s last two years of dementia and decline. Mom’s been a hard worker in her life, but not a strategic one. Mom dedicated a good portion of her life to relationships with men, to two abysmal marriages, and to the basic provisions for raising six kids. None of which she did with inspiration and passion, for none of this was what she dreamed for herself. Mom, when focused, could and did learn, but she’s not a particularly curious person, or a person devoted to learning new things. Mom was also one of the most vain persons I knew growing up. Despite $16,600/year for eight in most of the ’80s, would preen and primp for going on The Avenue (South Side Mount Vernon’s shopping district, Fourth Avenue) like it was an evening gala at the Met.

The good news and bad news about only being a bit more than 22 years younger than my Mom is that I have observed her growth and lack thereof for so many years. Some people say that to have a younger mother is to have someone who grows up with you while you’re growing up. No, not really. I was Mom’s second kid. My brother Darren came two years and eighteen days before me. Between my alcoholic, losing-one-good-job-after-another, seventh-grade-education dad and a full-time job at Mount Vernon Hospital, where was the time for Mom to grow as a young adult?

At the same time, I know this. At twenty, I had barely begun to know myself as a history student, writer, and human being. I had tons of thoughts, but often couldn’t find a way to articulate them fully. At 22, I was better at all these things, but not so much better that I could determine how I would raise one child, much less two. And before my wife of now more than seventeen years, I never saw myself getting married. Heck, I didn’t start regularly having sex until I was twenty-one!

Mom made a lot of decisions in her younger years by letting men and friends and circumstances — and really, fear — decide for her. Then, she played increasingly bad hands, each more laughable as they were more oppressive to all of us. Domestic violence, child abuse, grinding poverty, being Hebrew-Israelites. These barely scratch the surface of the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual torture Mom endured until she was 42.

Mom with my son Noah at 616, August 4, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

But you know something? I endured all of this as well. Because, when you are a keenly aware son of a Black woman going through all this, and you decide that you must help, that you must act, you take on the same burdens and the same pains. Being keenly aware isn’t the same thing as knowing what I signed up for, though. Certainly not at twelve, not at twenty, not even at 32. I only knew that I had taken on too much growing up after my son was born fourteen years ago.

Someone on my Twitter feed said recently that he couldn’t believe the cats who would get on Twitter to criticize their moms. I’m not arguing that grown-ass men should criticize their mothers on Twitter. Nor should that put them on pedestals. If we are doing too much of either of those, we’re not seeing our mothers as real human beings, ordinary and flawed like most others. Except that they carried us in their wombs, birthed us, and even under circumstances as crushing as mine, attempted to raise and nurture.

My relationship with Mom will always be complicated by the fact that I know more than most people ought to know about their mothers. Mom couldn’t hide, Mom couldn’t protect, even on the many occasions she did try. Since I couldn’t hide or protect, I just went out and did all I could to help her help herself. Only that by the time we’d driven off my idiot stepfather in ’89, the damage, the depression, the PTSD, was already fully manifest. The fire at 616 and having the burden of my younger siblings made it worse.

Now that Mom is a septuagenarian, it would be interesting to know how she looks back at her life, to see how she sees her years spent on Earth. I wonder because for so many years, the only thing Mom desired was for “the Rapture to come and take her up.” I wonder because nearly all of her southern Black migrant friends from her first decade in the Bronx and in Mount Vernon are dead. I wonder because I’m not sure how it is that she’s managed to make it to 70 under the constant strain that has been most of her life.

I have no idea if Mom has ever read or will ever read my blog. I know others around her have. If she is reading, I want her to know that I do love her, and want for her seventies to be her best decade ever. I want her to want to learn, to finally find herself, to take up projects, to travel and explore a bit, even if it’s only Manhattan. I want her to find some meaning in life, even if it’s only the size of a speck.

News Media, You’re Elitism is Showing

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Your fly is open: 7 awkward conversations people will never have with your, April 2015. (https://havemoreinfluence.com).

Elitism, and with it, the ability to ignore the pain and suffering of those with no voice, is the true common denominator in American news coverage. Press reports often are about securing access to the rich and powerful, about what news organizations believe the public wants to hear. There’s also the embedded assumption within the news establishment that the American public simply isn’t smart or caring enough to understand serious news that doesn’t involve or look like them.

The news media lets its captive American audience down because it seldom treats events with equal intensity. This is especially true of international news, which outside of The New York Times, NPR, Vice News, and PBS, is virtually nonexistent. On October 14, a suicide bomber set off two truck bombs in the center of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, leaving at least 300 dead and more than 300 wounded. And though American reporting on this terrorist attack has been more robust than usual, it is hardly 24/7. Instead, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace and his decades of predatory sexual harassment has been the dominant news story. Not to mention, the daily drumbeat around President Donald Trump, his anti-Obama policies, and his unhinged tweets and press conferences.

A more classic example of disproportionate news coverage occurred in May. The American press reported around-the-clock on the suicide bombing at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a tragedy that took 23 lives. Yet that same week, gunmen surrounded a bus full of Egyptian Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery and killed 29 men, women, and children, and wounded two dozen others. American news coverage of the Egypt attack was the equivalent of crickets in the woods by comparison. One could easily substitute the reportage on the London Tube (the city’s subway system) attack at the Parsons Green station that injured 30 in September and compare it to the minimal coverage of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar since the middle of August. Or, contrast it with the widespread flooding that killed more than 1,200 in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and left more than 40 million people homeless, school-less, without work, or with farmland too ruined to work. This is more than the idea that Black and Brown lives matter far less than European and White ones. It is the unwitting elitist judgment within American news organizations that stability, peace, justice, and innocence only belong to those living in the West.

Domestically, American news is just as slanted in favor of elitism and access. Puerto Rico and its 3.5 million people have suffered and died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and from malignant government neglect over the past three weeks According to one report, at least 450 Puerto Ricans may have died from this one-two punch of climate-change tragedy and federal government incompetence. Yet most of the American news on Puerto Rico has focused on Trump’s statements blaming its people for their own misery. The American press has been covering Puerto Rico as if it’s just another poor country, one full of brown-skinned people, one that really has nothing to do with Americans or American interests at all.

Even when the reporting involves the continental US and White Americans, the elitism remains obvious. White male terrorist attacks have been on the rise in recent years, especially in the year since Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election. Stephen Paddock orchestrated the latest attack, the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas that scattered a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, as he killed 58 and wounded more than 500 before taking his own life. The American press, true to itself, has refused to use the word terrorism to describe the attack. The incident itself has faded from the news media’s eyeline. But what reporting there has been in the weeks since has included a focus on Paddock’s possible motive and his mental health status. Their coverage, though, has also included a heavy dose of the elitist trope of all-American individual heroes triumphing over individual evildoers. Treatment of these incidents reveals the significant role news reportage plays in perpetuating stereotypes. In this case, one where White criminality is rare and unusual, while Arab Americans are automatically Islamic terrorists. A monolithic, elitist news media makes this half-baked reporting possible.

The triumph of elitism in news stems from forty years of corporate consolidation across all platforms (thanks to Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner) and the increasing socioeconomic exclusion within the industry’s ranks. According to freelance writer and editor David Dennis, Jr., the industry is “populated by those who can afford the jobs,” predominantly by White men (and to lesser extent, White women) in an era of shrinking staffs. The “they” attend elite universities and colleges, earn master’s degrees at journalism schools, and mostly work unpaid internships as the entry point for their careers.  The increasing abundance of affluent individuals in the field has also “changed the way issues are reported and the quality of the product” Americans consume. News organizations and the people they employ are every bit as representative of the American elite as the affluent business leaders and powerful politicians on whom they regularly report. Keeping things simple and giving “equal time” to “both sides”—unless it involves Americans of color and the developing world—is a reflection of elitist values, a rationale that undermines the industry’s own claims of objectivity and fairness.

Defenders of simplistic news media reporting, though, often remind the public of what the news media is not. The Fourth Estate is certainly neither liberal nor conservative, an accusation made all too often by the ill-informed American public. As New York University media critic and expert Jay Rosen once wrote “It’s very simple. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right…vs. This is complicated!” Although tongue-in-cheek, embedded within Rosen’s quip was his own elitist assumption that the news media’s work is variegated and knotty, a mere reflection of the world at large, and not a reflection of its own elitist bubble.

It is the elitist nature of today’s news media that has rendered press coverage as little more than breaking news bulletins for the American public. All while the real global divides at the intersections of race, economic inequality, gender, and immigration remain mostly sidelined. It remains all too easy for the news media to rely on tropes like heroes and villains and the civilized West versus the uncivilized developing world.

Why Humanity Is Undeserving of First Contact

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Cassini’s last full Saturn shot, September 14, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Jason Major via https://www.newscientist.com).

Last week, NASA gave the Cassini probe a glorious death. After twenty years of travel to and trips around Saturn and its 60-plus moons, NASA plunged Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere. It was a fitful end to a very successful mission to a planet roughly 750 million miles from Earth.

NASA and various teams of astrophysicists, cosmologists, exobiologists, engineers, and mathematicians in Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and other parts of the world have been working diligently for breakthrough moments. Probes like Voyager have trekked toward the expansive Oort Cloud, inching ever closer to the edge of the Terran System. Between Hubble, Chandra, Fermi, and so many other space telescopes, the universe going back nearly to the Big Bang has already started giving up its secrets. All toward the ultimate goal of humanity reaching the stars, and meeting sentient beings from civilizations far more advanced than the one led by the West on 2017 CE Earth.

But is humanity truly ready to meet extraterrestrials from elsewhere in the Milky Way, or even beyond? Are humans prepared to make contact with beings with technologies that help them traverse a radiation-filled void in a fraction of the seven years it took Cassini to reach Saturn? Do humans have the emotional, psychological, moral, and spiritual capacity to cope with such a history-altering event? Are Homo sapiens humble enough to meet the challenges that will come after finding out that first contact with an advanced civilization is both an end and a beginning?

Of course we’re not! Here’s a short list of leading people and recent events that prove humans are as ready for first contact as a newborn baby is for a seven-course meal. (At least, a meal that would include filet mignon wrapped with bacon and key lime pie for dessert.) Donald Trump. Marine Le Pen. Vladimir Putin. Theresa May. Kim Jong Un and North Korea. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Capitalism. Neoliberalism. The very need for Black Lives Matter. The limited response thus far to man-made climate change. Hollywood. Las Vegas. The endless fighting over resources and enslavement of peoples for a narcissist’s dream of independence, freedom, power, and wealth. That’s already enough for me to not want to meet humanity, and I’m knee-deep in this muck and mire!

Can anyone who possesses a reasonable amount of empathy and knowledge imagine what the most powerful and learned members of an advanced alien civilization would think of humanity and our stewardship of Earth? They’ve heard and seen us in action for at least a century, since humans started broadcasting on wireless radio. In that time, there have been been two World Wars, ethnic cleansing and mass murder (e.g., Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot and Cambodia, and Rwanda), the Cold War, and the nuclear arms buildup. Powerful nations and corporations have repeatedly exploited indigenous peoples, the most poverty-stricken in Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere, and the planet’s biosphere. Yeah, I am sure sentient aliens have seen us and feel just as welcome to visit Earth as migrants from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East feel in the US and Europe right now!

Is it possible that sentient extraterrestrials might find some exceptional humans potentially worthy? Sure. Science-y folk like Michelle Thaller, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Hakeem Oluseyi, and the late Claudia Alexander come to mind. One might be able to make the case for humanitarians and social justice activists, for the best writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, vocalists, and actors out there. But from a sentient alien’s perspective, why should any of these people be exceptions? These beings are likely able to use dark matter or dark energy to power faster-than-light spacecraft. They may be able to fold space. They may even possess the ability to convert matter to energy and back again at a whim, to make food and weapons out of thin air and bio-waste. There’s no way they could see any humans as deserving of first contact.

James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane making first contact with Vulcans screen shot, from Star Trek: First Contact (1996). (http://www.startrek.com/)

There is also the real issue of what it would take for an alien civilization to become advanced without blowing itself up in the first place. These advanced beings would be collaborative and cooperative to a fault, would’ve long ago assured equity and inclusion as their reason for existence and exploration. They would likely avoid war-loving civilizations like the ones on Earth, while looking to break bread (or the alien equivalent) with more stable, peaceful, and advanced civilizations out in the galaxy.

They may make exceptions, though, for the most vulnerable of sentient beings and other species trapped in warring worlds like our own. These aliens may decide someday to “rapture up” indigenous peoples, vulnerable minority groups, the poverty-stricken, certain women and children, to save them from the leading Western nations and other developed countries on this planet, who seek to oppress and exploit them. It’s something writers like Octavia Butler and Derrick Bell contemplated for Black and Brown folk. It would be the human thing — maybe even, the godly thing — to do.

As for the rest of humanity, we’ll have to wait for a more just, verdant, and glorious age before first contact will work out well for us. We are just too elitist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and life-destroying (read, too primitive) to be worthy of prime time on a galactic stage. We’re not ready.

A Brief History of My “Virginity”

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Nigerian-American actor Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly on the HBO series Insecure (2016-), August 15, 2017. (http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/).

Yvonne Orji, one of the lead actors from the HBO series Insecure, has revealed the fact that she is a thirty-three year-old virgin in recent weeks. But Orji has in fact spoken about her virginity several times over the past year, something I was surprised to learn (that she had spoken so much about it, not the fact of it). Some folks on social media have applauded Orji’s stance on her sexuality, while others like womanist Obaa Boni derided Orji’s adherence to her virginity as “patriarchal.”

Screen shot of @obaa_boni tweets re: Yvonne Orji’s virginity, August 23, 2017. (Donald Earl Collins via http://twitter.com).

Let me first say that there’s nothing wrong with virginity, celibacy, or promiscuity. So as long as it’s transparent, healthy, and done with a full understanding of why one has moved in a certain direction sexually. The problem is, people often do the wrong things for the right reasons and the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Especially in a world where gratuitous sensuality is everywhere, fake-sex-porn is ubiquitous, and social norms remain hostile and puritanical. This is especially so in the US, where the distance between healthy sexuality and where many Americans are with their sexuality is about the same as between a racism-less society and the virulent racism that is truly all-American.

I was once Yvonne Orji, believing that maintaining my virginity kept me in a state of purity, if not in a physical sense, then certainly in a spiritual one. There were several reasons beyond “being pure in God’s eyes,” or saving myself for the right person, though, that I emphasized my virginity.

Screen shot of Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Tré in Boyz n the Hood (1991). (http://mentalfloss.com).

My top two reasons were practical ones. As the second of six kids growing up at 616 in Mount Vernon (my Mom remarried and had my younger brothers and sister between the time I was nine-and-a-half and fourteen-and-a-half years old), I didn’t want to become a father, especially a teenage father. Like Tré from Boyz n the Hood (1991), I didn’t want to be stereotypically Black and male, to make a baby when I had no means to take care of it, to impregnate another person when I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to thirty. Also, STDs scared the crap out of me, especially AIDS. I was smart enough even at fifteen to know that AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease,” that it could infect anyone, especially anyone without protection.

But the fact was, I had lost pieces of my virginity long before I tried to find a state of purity. I had already been sexually molested before I hit my seventh birthday. Any number of teenage girls at 616 had attempted to come on to me before I had started my first day of high school. Heck, my father had hired a prostitute to get rid of my penetrative virginity the month of my seventeenth birthday!

Beyond that, masturbation from the time I was thirteen, porn mags between birthdays seventeen and nineteen, the occasional date at Pitt, where kisses, petting, and touching was involved. I had pretty much lost my sexual virginity by the time I was nineteen, and yet I didn’t really know how to be me sexually at all. So when I finally did start hooking up with folks for purely sexual purposes, it was an emotionally messy dance, between religious guilt, occasional actual pleasure, and lots of frustration in between. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four where I felt fully comfortable with myself sexually, and even then, I had another decade of pseudo-evangelical, patriarchal, and puritanical bullshit to get over.

Which is why I rarely gave anyone any advice about what to do or how to be on the sexual side of relationships before my mid-thirties, especially when asked. Have sex at fifteen with a partner of the same age whom cares about and respects you? Sounds fine. Stay celibate for ten years? Okay. Have fuck buddies for a couple of years? Sure! Remain a virgin like former NBA player A. C. Green until you turn thirty-eight? Whatevs!

Former NBA Ironman A.C. Green, Time Warner Cable Media Upfront Event, “Summertime is Cable Time,” Hollywood, CA, May 3, 2011. (Toby Canham/Getty Images; http://zimbio.com).

My Black masculinity shouldn’t have been defined by evangelical White Christian notions of virgin purity, any more than it should’ve been by how frequently I penetrated a woman. My relationship with God should’ve never been about some fucked up notion of sexual purity. It is way too easy to let Western culture screw each of us up, with the result that it will take way too many years to find our sexual equilibrium. For so many, that day of balance between sexual freedom and mature responsibility will never come.

Just realize that being a virgin doesn’t make one special, and having a regular rotation of trusted sexual partners doesn’t make one a slut or a stud. As a culture, we are both obese and anorexic when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. We imagine it too much, do it too little, and often do it incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. No wonder America is such an angry place, with so many believing in an angry God!

Moving On, Thirty Years Later

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A Boeing 767 Delta flight at takeoff, JFK Airport, Jamaica, Queens, NY, circa 2011. (http://panynj.gov).

I am now three full decades removed from Moving Day 1987, the final Wednesday in August, when I moved for my freshman year of college to Pittsburgh. I was leaving Mount Vernon and 616, but neither would begin to leave me, at least for another year or so.

It was a day of days. But really, it wasn’t the hardest leaving day I faced. In the summers I’d come home to work and watch after my younger siblings, the end of those Augusts were tearful ones. I played music for me and my siblings to sing to before I left at the end of the summer of ’88. I added an extra week to my stay in 1990, just so I could spend extra time with Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri, teaching them how to ride a bike and how to tie their shoes, and missed a week’s worth of classes at Pitt to start the fall. Even in ’92, when I came back to 616 to work for two months that summer at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health because I couldn’t find a teaching gig at Pitt, I stayed an extra week. That was my life outside of college, grad school, and Pittsburgh for a good decade after my first trip to Pittsburgh. It got easier to leave as my life became about working, teaching, dating, and writing, but leaving was always hard.

My hardest leaving day was in late-August 1989. After a full summer of work, between two jobs, the end of my Mom’s marriage (finally!), my older brother Darren moving out, and my schedule of activities with the younger Gang of Four, I saw going back to the University of Pittsburgh for my third year as a vacation. But it wasn’t going to be one for Mom. She would be completely on her own with my younger siblings for the first time once I left. And I knew the thought of being with them without any help, or least, without any enemies at 616 to war against (like my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice) terrified her.

Screen shot of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY, June 2016. (http://maps.google.com)

I stayed an extra five days before leaving on August 30, because Mom still had two weekends of summer courses left to finish at Westchester Business institute. Mom made the decision to not finish up her business law and accounting classes that session the Saturday before I left. She said to me, “Go on to Pittsburgh, Donald. I’ll be all right.” It didn’t make sense to me. She had an A in the business law class, and likely could’ve talked with her instructor about taking an incomplete and then the final exam once my siblings started school after Labor Day. I said as much, but Mom, per usual, didn’t listen to me. She ended up with a D in the business law course, and an F, of course, in the accounting class. Mom wouldn’t return to Westchester Business Institute to finish up her associate’s degree until January 1996.

I felt guilty at the time that I put my own education over my Mom’s. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help out more. Mostly, I felt guilty that despite what I saw back then as “my responsibilities to the family,” I wanted to leave, and part of me wanted to stay gone. I didn’t want to come home for Christmas, my birthday, and New Year’s every single holiday season. I didn’t want to spend my summers living at 616 while working in Mount Vernon or White Plains. And though I wanted to help the Gang of Four out as much as I could, I would’ve preferred bringing them to Pittsburgh, and not going back to Mount Vernon over and over again.

Looking back, though, I realized the truth. Mom really didn’t enjoy school. Mom decided to go to Westchester Business Institute because I was in college. And as a professor who has taught hundreds of adult learners (students twenty-five and sometimes much older), I know that earning a degree with your kids can be a great motivator for enrolling in higher ed. It just can’t be the only motivator. At some point, it has to be about more than a friendly familial competition or even about using the degree to earn a few extra dollars. It has to be about improving yourself and the people around you. Mom wasn’t ready to juggle that burden, and likely had gone through too much that summer to spend another fifteen months in school while also watching after my younger siblings.

Boy, it was hard to leave that last Wednesday in August ’89. I was nervous for Mom, sad for my siblings, and maybe even a little angry with Mom and God about the impossible choice I thought I had made at the time. But I reminded myself that I wouldn’t be any good to anyone if I couldn’t finish my degree and use it to help others. I reminded myself that I was still only nineteen years old, that, my outward maturity and 616 aside, I still had a lot to learn about life.