Major Change

Featured

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,


College Major Cartoon. Source: http://choctawsap.blogspot.com

Twenty-five years ago on this date, I made a most important educational decision. Despite my fears, my mother’s misgivings and my former Humanities classmates’ mockery, I changed my major from Computer Science to History. I’d been thinking about making this change since the middle of my first semester at Pitt, but decided against it at first because I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to make enough money to live on as someone with only a bachelor’s degree in History. Luckily my former TA Paul Riggs, a grad student in the History Department at Pitt, helped a lot in convincing me to “follow my heart,” as he put it. It was my third semester, my sophomore year, when I finally had the guts to come out of the closet academically.

The semester went well despite my five days of homelessness and the two months of financial strife that followed. It turned on another nail in my upbringing’s coffin. In addition to Biology, Psych 101, and General Writing, I was taking History of Art and Assembly Language, the last as part of my Computer Science major. Playing around with codes that related to “011000100101010000010” all the time drove me out of my mind with frustration. It was after our first major programming assignment that I recognized the problem. “I’m going to school for Mom and not for me,” I said to myself one late evening after running the debugger software at my CIS job. I had a major decision to make.

On the eighteenth of October, I went to the College of Arts and Sciences office on the eighth floor of Cathedral and changed my major to History. I then walked to Thackeray and withdrew from my Assembly Language course. Boy, did that feel good!

Then I called Mom from William Pitt Union to tell her my good news. She was completely quiet for a good ten seconds.

“What are you gonna do with a degree in history?,” she asked with shock in her voice.

“I don’t know yet, Mom, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ll graduate if I major in something I love.”

“All right, are you sure?,” Mom asked more directly. She already knew I was.

Choices Picture. Source: http://collegejolt.com

Choices Picture. Source: http://collegejolt.com

Looking back, it was probably the best academic decision I made while I was an undergrad at Pitt. My mood, my approach to life, my thinking of the future, all changed that semester. I could’ve easily majored in English writing or Psychology, given the way I see myself now.

But that’s what made majoring in History a wonderful experience. Studying history involved multiple disciplines for me. A great knowledge of history was much more than dates, names and events. It was about understanding the human condition, our attempts at greatness, our exhibition of behaviors that would be considered savage by savages. The ability to write about and analyze critical issues in American and other histories, including apartheid and slavery in South Africa, Latin American revolutions, and the resegregation of Pittsburgh Public Schools through magnet schools. Not to mention looking at the writings of other historians and other scholars in other fields. Most of all, I learned a lot about myself in the process of following a part of my passion.

Still, there were and are practical issues in pursuing a major that doesn’t have a direct relationship to jobs on the job market. I didn’t want to teach high school, and I needed to go to grad school if I wanted to be a professor or scholar. Having come through on the other side, I can say that I learned how to have fun while learning again. That’s what undergrad is for, after all, as the average student changes their major three times in five years. If I had figured out how I was a writer first and a historian second, I would’ve done something different for my master’s degree. But with my major in history, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s after finishing my history degree at Pitt in ’91 where, looking back, I’d make a few changes. A master’s degree in education or psychology — not so bad. A PhD in education policy & foundations would’ve likely been a better choice in terms of making my career transitions smoother. I would’ve figured out that I wanted to write Boy @ The Window much sooner than the end of ’02. This is what makes life interesting, though. So many twists and turns, so many times to embrace change, especially if it is for the better.

The Journey of My Red Towel, 30 Years in the Making

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,


My red beach bath towel (and EKCO knife), still around after three decades, September 9, 2018. (Donald Earl Collins).

There are so many things I could think about regarding my cosmic jump into independent adulthood in the fall of 1988. The five days of homelessness, almost ending college for me right at the start of my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh. The nearly three months of financial crises that followed, including six weeks of giving plasma to Sera-Tec for an extra $25 per week (it left a scar in my right elbow-bend vein that most medical professionals interpreted as me having been a drug user — talk about racism and assumptions!). The end of my eating things like tuna fish sandwiches and pork neck bones and rice, and drinking grape Kool-Aid. My changing my major from computer science to history, to my mom’s disapproval.

But another way to look at my journey would be to look at the two items in my life that survived that fall. A red beach bath towel, and an EKCO steak knife. The towel I bought on Labor Day 1988, after my Mets beat the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. Darryl Strawberry hit two home runs that game, after a thirty-minute rain delay, in which the upper deck folks dumped beers on some of us (not me, though) in one of the mezzanine sections behind the wall in left center field.

I had walked the four miles or so between where I lived in South Oakland (off Bayard Street and Welsford Avenue) to the stadium, getting rained on along the way. On my way back, I noticed the Downtown Kauffman’s was still open for its Labor Day sale. I went in and walked around for twenty minutes, mostly to longingly look at all the things I couldn’t afford. But I did know to go into the baths section, and saw that the beach towels were on sale for $17.99.

I thought about buying a wash cloth, but after rent and the game, I only had  $50 on me at the time, and no bank account or credit cards. I thought about buying an “in-between wash cloth,” which was what I called hand towels back then (I thought they were bigger towels for people with bigger hands, like me!). It would be a few days before I got my refund money from Pitt, but I knew I was in need of a shower after the homelessness ordeal and the Pirates game.

I bought the towel, and spend the rest of the fall using it for everything. Especially after that second Friday in September, when Pitt, after deducting nearly $900 of my refund for last year’s room and board charges. After accounting for my books, I had $205 left to work with for at least the next two months.

So I budgeted down to the penny. After I cashed my refund at Pittsburgh National Bank, I went downtown to Ralph’s Discount Store, across from Kauffman’s. I bought a Sony Walkman on sale for $55, the most I’d spend on anything other than rent for the next two and a half months. I then caught a bus back to Oakland, and went to the South Oakland Giant Eagle (yes, post-millennials, South Oakland used to have its own Giant Eagle, on Forbes Avenue, where CVS and Jimmy Johns are today). That’s where I bought an orange creamsicle plastic plate, a soup spoon, a dinner fork, and that EKCO steak knife, for something like eight or nine dollars. That would have to do.

Closeup of my red towel, September 9, 2018. (Donald Earl Collins

My red towel did the work of two tea towels, a wash cloth, a hand towel, a half roll of paper towels, and a dozen napkins every week through the end of 1988. I’d shower with it, of course. But I also used a corner of it for washing up. If I made a heavy dinner, like spaghetti and meat sauce (with a pot and iron skillet I saved from my freshman year), I used the towel to dry my pot, pan, dish, and utensils. It was my go-to for everything. I had to wash it every week, because how I was using the towel back then was nothing short of disgusting.

I finally bought two wash cloths and a hand towel in 1989. But the red towel remained my one and only bathing towel. I didn’t buy a second one until the summer of 1994.

After that, my reliance on old reliable declined. Once I moved in with my eventual wife at the end of 1998, my red towel became part of a rotation. It still had enough heft to be reasonably good at drying me off from a shower. It had shrunk a bit from its original 30″ x 54″ size, though. By now, I would have gotten rid of it. But my red towel reminded me so much of what I had overcome. It was my tangible link to an unbelievably shaky past.

My red towel got more use when my son hit school age in 2008. For the next nine years, Noah would use the towel for showers and baths. A “Made in the U.S.A.” towel manufactured during Reagan’s last year in office was still in use in the age of Obama, and my son, born in the early 2000s, was the one using it! Life is funny.

Now sad and worn to the thickness of cheesecloth, part of me knows the red towel is no longer of any use. I mean, I still use the EKCO knife, mostly for cleaning and cutting up chicken. I’m not sure the red towel could dry the baby version of Noah anymore. But it doesn’t matter. Because it was there for me when I needed it the most.

Black Women, Feminism, and Writing on My Mind

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


“This is what a Black Feminist looks like” t-shirt, August 24, 2018. (http://youtube.com).

It’s been a different last year and a half for me as a reader. With the exception of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, a woman of color has been the author of every book I’ve read since January 2017. Keep in mind, Cora is the main character in Whitehead’s latest masterpiece, so it’s been since Walter Mosley’s last Leonid McGill mystery that I’ve read a book with a Black man as a protagonist.

This wasn’t a deliberate decision, at least at first. It started with me catching up on law professor Patricia J. Williams‘ critical race theory works from the 1990s, especially The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1992). I fell in love with the book, and found it in so many ways better than anything I’ve ever read from Derrick Bell. Williams is simply a better writer and storyteller, even as Bell hit all the right notes in his incredible allegories. Both have informed my Al Jazeera and Washington Post articles over the past year.

Then I started reading Roxane Gay at the end of last summer. I was going to do both Bad Feminist and Hunger, but after reading through the first chapters of Hunger, my wife ended up reading it and telling me about it in detail. I did the same for her with Bad Feminist. There was quite a bit of overlap on the personal side of things from both books. But boy can Gay write, and edit, and edit, and edit some more! Every word she must’ve put through an acid test, quenched in cold water like a samurai sword, then reheated, cooled, and polished for months on end. In recent years, only Whitehead and Kiese Laymon have polished sentences the way Gay does in her books. I felt her hurt, disappointment, anger, laughter, and intellect throughout. After reading it, even in places where I disagreed, I felt like Gay left me with so much to chew on as a sexist feminist heterosexual Black man.

I picked up Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage in May. It was after reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in early 2018. Cottom’s book is so important, especially in understanding that higher education is far from some idealistic and lofty intellectual enterprise. It is lightly regulated capitalism, plain and simple, and not just among the for-profits, either (more on this at some future date). Cottom makes a generous use of rational-choice theory in her assessment of the limited range of decisions poor Black men and especially African American women living with poverty have in choosing for-profits for certificates and degrees, and for borrowing tens of thousands of dollars.

The book shines when Cottom touches on the journeys of the students she interviewed as part of her research. But like most scholars, Cottom’s writing didn’t bridge the divide between important work and compelling writing. I’m sure that this is an unfair assessment. But given the importance of Cottom’s sociology of education work and the stories involved in it, I wanted more direct interrogation of the systemic sexism and misogyny (even misogynoir) embedded in the enrollment practices of for-profit colleges and universities. I wanted more of Cottom’s personal journey (and not just her professional one). I’m sure, though, that Cottom gave her best, and it was more than what I could typically get out of text genuinely attempting to move beyond the academic’s gaze.

Adichie’s work was disappointing. Not because Americanah isn’t reasonably well written. It’s just too long, too centered on Ifemelu (about ninety percent of the book is from her perspective, when the blurbs make it seem a bit more even between Ifemelu and Obinze), and too self-centered, smug, and elitist. I felt all of the meanings of outsider embedded in Americanah to be sure. As a American Black man, I’ve been an outsider even among other heterosexual Black males most of my life. Adichie doesn’t allow for her main character to interrogate her outsider status, though. As a result, Ifemelu related to her American boyfriends in the most superficial of ways, as if they were perfect robotic representations of neurotic Americans. She related to the world as if she was somehow above it all, both in the US and Nigerian contexts. I guess heterosexism was as acceptable in Ifemelu’s world as it has been in Adichie’s comments in the past couple of years. I must admit, though. Adichie can write sex scenes and scenes of trauma in emotionally demanding and touching ways. But not with the precision of Whitehead and Gay, and not with the intellectual awareness of Cottom.

So when I picked up Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, I was expecting to be fighting with myself over boredom and a glut of words. I was so happy to be so wrong! Right from the first paragraph, Cooper was throwing fastball’s like Nolan Ryan and Vida Blue, or rather, hitting first-serve aces like Serena and Venus Williams. Cooper had me at “[t]his is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up.” She welcomed me in and said, “hit this 130 mph serve, brotha!” I couldn’t stop reading until I finished the book. I understood so much the struggles she described and the choices she and others made as Black women. I felt her pain, her joy, her anger, and yes, her rage throughout. I regularly interrogate my -isms as is. But Cooper helped me reach another level in Eloquent Rage (all premature hints at Beyoncé’s superhero feminism aside).

After Cooper, I made the deliberate decision to read more feminists of color this summer. I read Morgan Jerkins‘ This Will Be My Undoing and found her a wonderful writer on her coming of age with her own Black feminism, if a bit too young (I am middle-aged, after all). I finally read Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens and wanted to beat up every man she and the women she interviewed encountered over the years. It was compelling (if at times uneven) reading, and it left everything in question regarding the West, Islam, the Arab world and misogyny. There were no sacred cows with Eltahawy. She even addressed her relative privilege in addressing the latticework of gender, LGBT, and sexual oppression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US, and elsewhere in the world. I wish I had gotten to her book three years ago, when it first came out.

I snuck in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book on Ona Judge, Never Caught. I’d been wanting to read it since I heard Dunbar talk about it on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmandi Show Valentine’s Day 2017. Plus, I decided to assign it for my upcoming African American History to 1877 this semester at American University. Dunbar puts the use of narrative nonfiction writing to the test in Never Caught. I can only imagine what my academic historian colleagues would think, as most of their writing is the equivalent of a pressed protein bar made of unflavored soy powder and coated with ground mealworms. Although Dunbar provides many more questions than answers around the inner thoughts and everyday actions of George and Martha Washington eventual escaped slave, I did sense that Dunbar was converting research into a form of textual humanity. So much so that when the moment for Judge to escape came, I said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Dunbar compelled me not to be too excited, though. For “Judge knew that…She would transform from a trusted house slave for the most powerful American family to a criminal, guilty of stealing her own body away from her owners.” (p. 112).

Embedded in Dunbar’s narration are the issues I’d been reading about for the past year. Misogyny, misogynoir, enslavement, rights to one’s own body, intersectionality, American history and its mythologies, and the long legacy of American racism, still very much alive in 2018, as it was in 1789 and 1796. To be sure, Dunbar lacks Gay’s precision, and the passion found everywhere with Cooper and Eltahawy is more subdued in Dunbar’s work. But the latter is only true if readers choose to ignore the smoldering billows throughout.

I finished up this month with Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race, a primer on basic do’s, don’ts, and don’t-give-ups, regarding starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism in an American context. After the previous reads, I hoped for more, but there wasn’t any more for me to mine as a reader. There were several points, though, where a more careful edit would have made this a clearer read. As a blogger for the past eleven years, I have no room to talk regarding editing. Then again, I presently do not have an agent or editors looking over my work, either.

My biggest criticism (which actually isn’t a criticism) is that the book is geared toward the White man or White woman who believes themselves to be a liberal, colorblind non-racist. Because this is Oluo’s stated intent, her book reads as if I’m an outsider to my own topic. The compelling personal issues with which Oluo contends around race and intersectionality (specifically, Black feminism and relative privilege) aren’t well treated until the last quarter of the book. As someone who once help manage a national social justice fellowship program, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything particularly new about starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism. I hoped, though, to learn more about Oluo, to find her writing more impassioned, to see her use real punch in bringing to bear the reasons that race conversations quickly devolve into White accusations of “reverse racism.” The elements are there, but weren’t mined in sufficient quantities to make this book more than a “Race/Racism Conversations for Dummies,” I’m afraid, for me.

That’s not to say that nothing resonated at all. Oluo early on hits at a theme common to everyone I’ve read over the past eighteen months. That need to find one’s true, authentic voice. Those moments when the people you know now find your writer’s voice too loud, too demanding, and too impractical.

I also started writing. I…started saying all the things that everybody around me had always said were ‘too negative,’ ‘too abrasive,’ and ‘too confrontational.’ It did not go over well. My white friends…some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck. Yes, they would rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country.

I’ve found this and so much more to be true in my own writing journey. Thanks to all of you who’ve helped make me feel younger, my feminism fresher, and confirmed so much I’ve found wrong (and right) with myself and the world.

Charlatans United

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


The Rev. Al Sharpton, et al., at a press conference providing an update regarding the Tawana Brawley rape case, Queens, NY, 1988. (http://www.wbur.org/; AP)

If I have to pick a point in my life where I began to realize how hypocritical humans could be, my second summer after high school would be such a time. The long, hot summer of ’88, of nearly 50 consecutive days of highs in the Triple-H (hot, hazy, and humid) 90s in New York and its immediate suburbs. It was my first summer after starting college at the University of Pittsburgh, and if it weren’t for sheer determination, it would have been my only year at Pitt.

News wise, there were two local events that dominated my summer of unemployment in Mount Vernon and The City. One was the Tawana Brawley story. Between the end of November of the previous year and the end of June, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his entourage used the bully pulpit of the fourth estate to generate outrage and consternation regarding the alleged rape of one Tawana Brawley. A month or so before her sixteenth birthday, good samaritans found Brawley outside an apartment building in which her family had once lived, lying in a garbage bag, covered in dog feces and with racial slurs written on her body. Brawley had been missing for four days.

There wasn’t much agreement on anything else beyond these facts. Brawley claimed that three White men had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her, including a local police officer, then later denied being raped, but remained adamant about other forms of sexual assault. At one point, a cop who had recently killed himself was a suspect in the alleged Brawley rape. At another point, Sharpton and company accused the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones of being one of Brawley’s three rapist (he later sued Brawley and Sharpton for defamation). Sharpton claimed throughout to believe Brawley, but others in his group later disclosed that the blowhard had his own doubts about Brawley’s story a few weeks after agreeing to represent her in the public eye.

Wappingers Falls is in Dutchess County, just two counties north of Westchester County and Mount Vernon, a hour-and-thirty-minute drive from Manhattan (give or take). After Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, I rarely believed authority figures regarding their crime reportage. But by June, I also realized that not everything is a conspiracy, and that even racists can occasionally be on the right side of the law. I learned, above all else, that Sharpton was a charlatan. He used Brawley’s true life story of familial abuse and misogynoir and fear of more abuse to raise his profile on the New York and national stage. Especially in this case, as Brawley’s mother and stepfather took a dim view on Brawley’s time out with boys, a view shared by Whites all too willing to see Black girls and women as over-sexualized playthings.

If Brawley wasn’t raped or sexual assaulted, she was certainly abused physically and psychologically. It was bad enough that her name was out there and known (a violation of her rights as a potential rape survivor), especially since Brawley was still a minor. It was bad enough that there was a significant racial gap, where six out of every seven Whites polled believed she was lying (versus only half of African Americans polled). That Sharpton put Brawley’s name in the public arena for months with additional and unsubstantiated accusations? He took advantage of her for months, adding another layer of abuse to this teenager’s life. It’s practically unforgivable. And no, Sharpton’s work to get Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 the attention it and he deserved and his self-serving eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral in 2014 do not make up for his original media sins.

The other charlatan I had to deal with that summer was my idiot stepfather and another one of his get-rich-quick schemes. He had spent nearly all of 1988 unemployed and lying around at 616, between losing his car salesman job and burning out the engine of his green 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. It made my summer at 616 almost unbearable. I hadn’t spent this much time around the asshole since my summer of abuse.

In July and August, Maurice had the wonderful idea of starting his own limo service. One of our neighbors on the second floor had moved from driving a limo to starting his own service over the previous eight years. Maurice wanted in.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

Afterward, Maurice went to his once well-off friend, who had survived a three-year period of very local and very public court battles and prison time over alleged incidents of child abuse and molestation at her daycare in Mount Vernon. The woman and her husband were financially ruined in the process, even though neither of them were directly involved in the incidents that occurred at the daycare. Somehow Maurice managed to get $1,000 out of his friend for his limo idea, likely some of the last money she lent anyone before her death in 1989. It’s more likely that “Hebrew-Israelite” Maurice bought lobster tails and moo shu pork at a Chinese restaurant with the money than attempted in any way to use it as collateral to get the downstairs neighbor to give him a shot at driving a limo.

By this time 30 years ago, I had already had my fill of hucksters between Sharpton and Maurice. Their misogyny, their need to use others, their harebrained ideas for fortune and fame. Maybe that’s why I never bought my stepfather’s act when he was dating my mom as a seven-year-old. Maybe that’s why I never, ever, found 45 appealing from the first time I read about him in the New York Daily News in 1984.

The End of Peanuts Land

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Six Flags New Orleans, abandoned post-Katrina, 2017. (http://www.destinationamerica.com/).

I’ve told the story of how my imaginative version of Peanuts Land began, in the wake of my six weeks of punishment for running away from home the month of my ninth birthday in December 1978. The inclusion of so many World Book Encyclopedia and Scholastic Weekly Reader facts to create this alternate reality, one in which Charlie Brown was very much of flesh and bone. The creation of a utopia with few of the world’s deeply entrenched problems, one in which nuclear war wasn’t a worry. From roughly January 1979 until August 1981, I continued building on my knowledge of history, technology, geography, topography, economics, sociology, psychology, sexuality, and militarism to construct this land that never was and never will be.

This was also a time, though, in which my older brother Darren and I read comics. The Marvel and DC universes were a part of my reading in 1980 and 1981 as well. Whether it was Justice League or Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk or The Avengers, all of them gave me ideas for potential bad guys to have on the streets of Peanuts Land City (the chief of police in this scenario was Snoopy, by the way), or enemies for Peanuts Land’s military to fight.

That world of child-like imagination with real world and comic book elements got warped like a vinyl album on a hot radiator the summer of ’82. Maurice beating me up or whuppin’ my ass once every three days between July 6 and August 1 might have had something to do with the rage and loss of any sense of control I had during my summer of abuse. My mom’s role as strikebreaker at Mount Vernon Hospital in the middle of all that abuse didn’t help. Nor did the weeks throughout July where my toddler siblings had more food to eat than me or my mom.

But that wasn’t all. One day, in between my idiot stepfather’s beatdowns, I had come from the store with a small bag of groceries. This time around, instead of walking up the fourth flights of stairs to our 616 apartment, I took the elevator. 616’s A-section elevator was and remains one of the slowest and noisiest elevators I’ve ever ridden. Guys pissed on its floor regularly. I’d seen everything from cigarette butts to dog shit on this elevator over the years. As a result, I only took this elevator whenever the groceries had gotten to be too heavy or because I was simply too tired to walk up the stairs yet again.

A broken pencil (cropped), January 2014. (http://associationsnow.com)

On this day near the end of my ordeals with Maurice, a teenage neighbor from across the hall from our third-floor flat joined me on the elevator on the first floor. As soon as the elevator door closed, she pushed me up against the elevator’s back wall and then attempted to reach into my pants for my penis. I dropped the groceries, and with my right hand, grabbed her arm while shoving her to the other side of the elevator with my left arm in a criss-cross sort of motion. It didn’t dawn on me until that moment that I was now a few inches taller than her. She couldn’t have been more than five-foot-four at the time.

“What are you doing?,” I remember yelling, just as the elevator reached the third floor.

“I was just playin’. Why you gotta be a faggot?,” I remember her responding with her fake grin.

I was already emotionally out of sorts. But this was a neighbor, someone I actually did find attractive. She was either sixteen or seventeen at the time, and I was twelve. As a result of the spring that was all about Wendy, I really didn’t find anyone even emotionally arousing. Sexual arousal was so new to me I couldn’t have described it in 1982 if the dictionary definition had been stamped on my penis.

So I did what I always did when I got really, really stressed, at least since I was three. I went into my and Darren’s bedroom, with my idiot stepfather snoring away, my mom at work, Darren in summer camp, and my younger siblings taking afternoon naps, and I humped a pillow. In this case, Darren’s brown stop-light pillow, one that he had made in art class at The Clear View School a year or two before. Except, for the second time in eight months, instead of stopping because I simply tired out, semen shot out unexpectedly from my penis, and onto the side of Darren’s artwork. Boy did I do my best to clean up the pillow, at least this time around!

Out of that experience came my last Peanuts Land run. Off and on over the next three weeks, I had created a story in which a serial rapist was on the loose. The rapist was a Black woman, an older version of my 616 neighbor. She raped men at gun point or knife point. Her signature was her super-powered vagina (think She-Hulk here). When she sensed physical arousal from the men after she forced them to penetrate her, she used her vaginal muscles to rip off their penises. A number of the men she raped had bled to death as a result.

Detective Snoopy, Woodstock and pal birds attempting to solve a crime (cropped), August 14, 2018. (http://pinterest.com.au).

Despite weeks of searching Peanuts Land’s capital, Snoopy and an army of police couldn’t find the rapist. She managed to get away with killing at least a dozen men in this way.

By the time I reached the end of this story, I was in trouble again, this time with my mom. The stuffing from Darren’s stop-light pillow had started spilling out, with big rifts in at least two places. Between that and the damage from me drowning it in water to wipe up my semen stains, I’d ruined Darren’s artwork. Of course I got an ass-whuppin’! Compared to Maurice, my mom’s use of the belt might as well have been a compassionate smack on the butt for a two-year old, though.

After that, I decided to give up Peanuts Land once and for all. Even then, I knew I wanted to slice my stepfather’s balls off, and that I despised the fact that felt any attraction to anyone besides Wendy at all. Especially to someone willing to molest a preteen.

Looking even further back, I know now that some of my reaction was a residue of the sexual assault I experienced when I was six. But since that memory was a buried jumble in the summer of ’82, all I could think of to do was to do a better job of hiding my masturbatory episodes in the future.

Coming From Where I’m From

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


A week and a half ago, I received an email from a reader in response to my latest Al Jazeera piece, “Why I Don’t Understand the Black Affluent Class.” She congratulated me on the article, and agreed with most of my sentiments in the piece. She also revealed that she had spent a decade living in Mount Vernon, NY.

It turned out that this reader lived five blocks from me during my Boy @ The Window years, right off East Lincoln Avenue! Part of my follow-up included, “[m]aybe our paths crossed, maybe they didn’t. But I’m sure my growing up years helped shape some of what went into my Al Jazeera piece from last week.”

I was mildly excited that someone from Mount Vernon had read one of my mainstream articles, and not just the blog. But, even with some shared ideas and a common point of reference, the reader’s response actually reflected some of what I critiqued in the article. She agreed that “Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon” had helped shape my views around the buying in of a relatively materially privileged class into White patriarchial and supremacist ideas like civility and respectability politics. Then she immediately veered toward identifying the great Mount Vernonites — “Denzel Washington, Al B Sure, Heavy D, Sidney Poitier, etc.”

What is it about smaller cities not blessed with the narcissistic largesse of a New York, L.A., or DC that causes people to fall back on the “but we have successful people from here, too” trope? Not only is this not necessary. It points to a sense of competing for attention and importance in a way that can be a bit unseemly, a way of countering a negative narrative from a crowd of self-centered media elites with one that’s just as narcissistic and needy.

The fact is, pick a spot on a map where at least 1,000 people live, and guess what? Someone rich and/or famous either grew up there or lived there for a time. Even if those individuals aren’t nationally known, one can guess that they’re known in that region or state. Dean Martin’s from Steubenville, Ohio. The opera singer Leontyne Price is originally from Laurel, Mississippi. Mr. “The Price Is Right” Bob Barker is from Darrington, Washington. Stand-up comedian Lewis Black’s from Silver Spring (where I’ve lived for nearly 20 years now). I bumped into former NFL player and sports broadcaster Ahmad Rashad at my local pizza shop in 1989. Heck, the Black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde worked for years at Mount Vernon Public Library. None of this could possibly change how I saw my original home base, not in 1976, not in 1987, and certainly not in 2018.

It’s not that I didn’t know the Delaney sisters lived off South Columbus Avenue, or that Stephanie Mills had a house somewhere between Mount Vernon High School and the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border. But what did that really mean to my day-to-day when I was going from one end of Mount Vernon to the other for groceries, for piece of mind, and sometimes, to avoid more physical and emotional abuse at home? How did knowing that a classmate was in a scene on the soap opera General Hospital change the fact that I still needed to hunt down my alcoholic father on Friday for enough money to cover the cost of my AP English exam? What did Al B. Sure or Heavy D’s success in the 1980s have to do with my striving for a college education, or my five days of homelessness in 1988? Nothing, of course, absolutely nothing.

It’s good to know that there are notable people, Black, Afro-Caribbean, African, Latino, Nuyorican, Italian, male, female, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, dead, old, young, and alive, from Mount Vernon. But a community doesn’t hang its hat on notable people or the rich and successful. Its lifeblood is the ordinary, of activists, artists, and educators, students and librarians and postal workers, the grandparent here, the friend of the family there, who takes a real interest in your development and success. For that reason, Denzel doesn’t really matter to me. I can’t tell you how I feel about Albert Brown night and day, because I’ve hardly given his music a thought since Quincy Jones’ 1989 album Back on the Block (the song “The Secret Garden” makes me gag). Sidney Poitier living in Mount Vernon for a time? And?

For me, for better and for worse, it was the crossing guard at the corner of Esplanade and East Lincoln when was at William H. Holmes. Or, it was my mom and dad’s friends (drinking buddies, really), Ms. Pomalee, Ida, Callie Mae, Lo, and Arthur. Or, it was my mom’s Mount Vernon Hospital friends, especially Billie. It was my Uncle Sam. It was Ms. Griffin, Mrs. Shannon, Mrs. O’Daniel, Mrs. Bryant, my school teachers before Humanities and Meltzer. Whatever lessons I learned about aspirations, civility, and respectability politics, and the idea that these ideas aren’t all good or set in stone, they helped me in that process. These were the people who mattered to me outside of 616 and off the street of Mount Vernon.

Today Was A Good Day (sometimes)…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,


Shea Stadium, second level, behind visitors dugout, Flushing Meadow, Queens, NY, 2008. (http://www.bloggingmets.com/)

Of all my Independence Days growing up, two stand out above the rest. One was Friday, July 4, 1986. It was the grand re-opening of the Statue of Liberty, courtesy of one-time Chrysler head Lee Iacocca and The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which had raised hundreds of millions to restore both symbols of American inclusion (via European immigrants, at least) to museum-quality glory.

Not so for me. I took my older brother Darren, and my then near-seven year-old brother Maurice and nearly five year-old brother Yiscoc to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets play. It was either a 1:05 pm or 1:35 pm start, I don’t remember. It was a beautiful eighty-five degree afternoon, beautiful because it wasn’t particularly humid, and there were no storm clouds to be found that Friday. Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets, starting against the all-time great Nolan Ryan. It was built up to be a duel, and it was.

Keith Hernandez drove in a run in the first, and that was it until the top of the seventh inning, when Dr. K gave up a home run to Kevin Bass. Other than that, fly balls, walks, double-plays, and strikeouts were the order of the day. Lenny Dykstra drove in the game-winning run with a double to right-center field at the bottom of the seventh inning off of a reliever, as Ryan was out after beginning the bottom of the sixth giving up a walk and a hit. Despite giving up five walks and only striking out four, Gooden got a complete-game, 2-1 win, and 30,000 saw the Mets go to 54-21, well on their way toward their World Series title for 1986.

NYC’s MTA 7 train rolling into Queens (Wikipedia), July 4, 2018. (http://amsterdamnews.com).

But that day was so much better with three of my brothers there, away from 616 and Mount Vernon, hanging out, without an adult to supervise, or rather, abuse us in some way. It was one of the first times I actually felt like a fully responsible adult. I took the four of us down to the city on Metro-North at the Pelham stop, rode into grimy Grand Central, took the Shuttle train to Times Square, and then the 7 Subway to Shea. Maurice and Yiscoc were so enamored with the trains and the city that it seemed all they did was stare out at skyscrapers and out of train windows when we weren’t at the game. Darren, though mostly quiet, at least wasn’t staring off into space plotting some revenge on me for my “5” on the AP US History Exam while doing the Wave.

It was so cheap to do what we did that day. The four upper-deck, slightly left-of-home plate tickets we bought cost $4 each, but each hot dog was $3, and the sodas were $2. apiece Given my $3.40-per-hour job with Technisort, though, the $50 excursion wasn’t so cheap that I wasn’t thinking about sneaking a Sabrett hot dog from a street vendor in before we got to the stadium. To be sure, the hot dogs at Shea were better than my usual fare on the street or at Gray’s Papaya.

It was probably the best day I had during my Boy @ The Window years. There were others to be sure, especially in 1986, including my Mets winning the World Series that October and my AP US History exam results. But on this day, I was with innocent family members, watching my favorite team and one of my favorite players. I was lost in the humongous human mob of New York on a double-whammy of an Independence Day weekend. I slept well that evening, knowing that I’d drawn a 10 am-2 pm shift that Saturday. I planned on buying a new Walkman at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers that afternoon. A normal three-day weekend for many sixteen-year-olds was a small eye-wall in the chaotic hurricane that was my life back then.

Contrast this with Wednesday, July 4th, 1979. My mom’s friend Mrs. Ralph was hosting a 4th of July party at her house off Wilson’s Woods in Mount Vernon, with kids included. She had hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, tons of ice cream and drinks, and an ice cream cake to top it all off.

I just couldn’t help myself. I became a nine-year-old version of Pac-Man. I devoured two hamburgers and two hot dogs, had some red drink, and a slice or two of the vanilla ice cream cake. All within the first half-hour of us getting to Ms. Ralph’s house.

I couldn’t have been higher if they had injected me with heroin and then had me snort some Oxycodone. I was running around the house and laughing for no reason whatsoever, my older brother Darren staring at me like I was an alien. My mom had grabbed me by my shoulders at one point. “Stop acting up!” she said.

Looney Tunes’ Tazmanian Devil in the midst of an eat-a-thon, July 4, 2018. (Catherine Babey
via http://pinterest.com).

But I didn’t stop. At least not until I ran into one of Ms. Ralph’s dividers in her living room, knocking it down along with some half-empty cups and plates on an adjacent table.

My mom took off one of her square-heeled flats and proceeded to beat my ass with it for the next minute, in front of a crowd of twenty or twenty-five guests. The ass-whuppin’ hurt, of course. The fact that it was a public one hurt even more. I was crying well after the party went back to normal. Ms. Ralph, though, came over to me later, reminded me that what I did was wrong, and then gave me a hug and told me that she loved me.

Looking back, I definitely deserved some punishment, maybe even an ass-whuppin’. The public spectacle and the shoe was probably a bit excessive. Was it a good day? No. But it was a day that made the 4th of July 1986 and so many other days easier to appreciate and savor.

On Wet Rags and Crocodile Tears

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


The tears of Allison Ettel, a.k.a., #PermitPatty, NBC’s The Today Show (cropped), June 26, 2018. (http://bet.com).

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, probably for at least two years. But it does help when others closer to the subject write about it as well. Between @ProfessorCrunk Brittney Cooper’s chapter “White-Girl Tears” in her hard-hitting Black feminist primer Eloquent Rage (2018), @blackgirlinmain Shay Stewart Bouley’s recent blog post “Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman,” and Ruby Hamad’s piece in The Guardian, “How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour,” what can I really add? (Everyone who believes in feminism and wants to support women of color writers ought to read these essays, by the way). Oh, just the idea that men of color deal with White women’s/girl’s tears as well. And that some of us have been just anti-sexist enough to recognize how our Whiteness and patriarchal-dominated society privileges and legitimizes such tears, often to our detriment.

Over the years, I’ve taken to calling those who cry over the least amount of adversity and stress wet rags, and those instances in which sobbing becomes a central theme “wet-rag episodes.” This started for me in the late-1990s, when my then girlfriend (now wife of eighteen years) would spent upwards of 12 hours of her Saturdays watching Lifetime movies (some of which were originally NBC, ABC, or CBS specials, before the dominant return of reality TV in the double aughts). At first, I did a play on Lifetime‘s slogan back then, “Lifetime: Television for Women,” adding, “not for men” whenever the tag line appeared during commercials.

But Lifetime is an addiction, if you sit there long enough watching the ups and downs of romances, the constant threat of stalkers, date rape, teenage pregnancy, and drugs, and the upbeat endings and vindication at the end of every two-hour movie. What I noticed most of all, though, were the waterworks. Everyone from Lynda Carter to Lindsay Wagner, from Elizabeth Montgomery to Jaclyn Smith could cry at the sound of a book drop!

Cartoon character from Fairly Odd Parents crying an ocean of tears (cropped), June 30, 2018. (http://fairlyoddfanon.wikia.com).

Admittedly, I cry very easily while watching emotional and gut-wrenching scenes. I cried when I saw Viola Davis take on Denzel Washington’s character in Fences (2016) over his years of cheating and his secret family. Especially when Davis blew a snot bubble in the middle of the scene. I was through for the next three minutes!

With Lifetime movies, though, I stopped crying for these White women over the twists and turns in their lives. I watched one scene in one movie where the main character broke out and cried at her dining room table in her laid-out, five-bedroom home when she realized she only had $10,000 left in her bank account. I didn’t just laugh. I howled. As someone for whom poverty and financial struggles have been a constant companion, having that much money in any account at any time has always been a time of celebration. “You shouldn’t laugh. Poverty is relative,” Angelia said while also laughing. “No, it isn’t. She’s a wet rag!” I responded. I’ve spent a good portion of my career proving this point, too.

That scene took me back to so many wet-rag episodes in my life. Like when my high school valedictorian classmate cried angry tears over a 67 on an English essay exam our junior year, losing 25 points because she didn’t underline James Baldwin’s book title Notes from a Native Son in her essay. I didn’t feel sorry for her, Ms. 5.45 GPA, not one bit (it’s all in Boy @ The Window).

Or, during my second year in grad school at Pitt, when a student in one of my US History to 1877 sections tried to proposition me to raise her C- average. When that didn’t work, a fountain of tears poured out. I handed her a tissue, but said, “Your tears in no way are a substitute for studying and working harder in this class.” She didn’t exactly give me 5’s on her evaluations of me in the course at the end of that semester.

Ten years later, I had White women as co-workers and students who could cry about almost anything. My one-time boss Ken blamed me for making a former co-worker cry because I refused to take her “I hope you had a wonderful vacation!” the week after 9/11 in stride. Yeah, sure. It was a week in which I was stuck in Atlanta for four days after a one-day work trip and had to take Greyhound for 15 hours back to DC, not knowing if my older brother was dead or alive. I said as much to my co-worker, and she ran away from me crying.

A student in my History of American Education Reform graduate course cried when I refused to change her grade from an A- to an A. I was in the middle of explaining how she could revise her research paper and still end up with an A. It was just before Thanksgiving, and until that moment, I had thought that this was one of the best courses I’d ever taught, with one of the best group of students I had had in one of my courses. Her sudden sobbing actually pissed me off. I tried not to show it. But I did say, “What are you crying about? There’s nothing about your standing in this course for you to be crying about.” I said it in a tone that I’d only find again once my son became a preteen.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire wailing over the loss of Jamie and the Battle of Culloden, July 9, 2016. (http://www.bookbub.com).

It’s to the point now that I don’t even watch wet-rag shows anymore, at least once the character becomes one. For example, I watched the split first season of Starz’s Outlander with Caitriona Balfe as Claire, and found it mostly enjoyable. Until she began turning on the waterworks in practically every episode. My wife continues to watch, but laughs every time I ask, “What happened on Wet Rag this week?”

I know that White women and White girls, like all human beings, have plenty good reason to cry. Every time I saw video of Kyle Stephens‘ sentencing-phase testimony about what convicted rapist and felon Larry Nassar starting doing to her when she was five years old, I cried for her and with her. Trauma and tragedy are good reasons to cry, wail, sob, and weep. But, so many wet-rag tears are drop-of-the-hat, crocodile tears. About getting caught in lies, about making racist and anti-poverty and anti-women-of-color statements that don’t go over well, about anything that would otherwise paint them as narcissistic and not-so-smart brats.

While I know I don’t have as difficult a row to hoe as so many women of color in the public sphere, one thing I know I’m not allowed to do in a hyper-masculine world of Whiteness and patriarchy is cry. I got hit with the f-bomb so many times growing up, from Black boys, Black men, and Black women, and faced threats of violence as a result. I would’ve been recommended for psychotherapy if I had ever cried over an A-, and been laughed at for complaining about my workplace conditions. Women of color can lose careers over their tears. Black boys and men have lost their freedom and lives over them. One isn’t less damaged over the delegitimization of our tears, but the damage can be differential, depending on gender, class, sexual orientation, and the level of toxic hyper-masculinity surrounding you.

That is why I can’t stand wet rags. Their tears fill the world with concern and fear, and marginalize and dehumanize the rest of us. I have no sympathy for crocodile tears. I don’t know if I’ve ever had sympathy for them.