When I Choose The Wrong Book For a Class

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Screen Shot of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007), by Dinaw Mengestu, November 9., 2019. (https://target.com).

Yes, I’m back! After two months of grading, writing, pitching, grading, revising, pitching, and more grading, though I’m not sure I’m ready to be back, but I have things to get down on here anyway.

I have taught eighty undergrad and grad-level classes since 1996, and been a part of more than 90 high school, college, and graduate classes as a guest lecturer, TA, instructor, or professor since 1991. I have definitely made more than my share of mistakes in the classroom. Miscounted the number of students to split into small groups. Occasionally quipped in New Yorker-sarcasm English to my Midwestern or Southern-raised students, not exactly endearing myself to them. I have miscalculated grades, posted an electronic announcement to one class when it was meant for another. But, on historical context, historical content, storytelling, use of materials, the substance and guts of courses, I can honestly say I do not allow myself to make egregious errors.

Now, that does not mean that I haven’t inherited errors from courses that others had taught or haven’t been hamstrung with mediocre materials and textbooks that my previous institutions (and one current one) have said were just fine for my students over the years. This is about my unforced errors.

This semester, in my Washington, DC class (the full title is Washington, DC: Life Inside a Monument, a terrible title, really) at AU, I made one all-time error, one in which I should take 60 percent of the blame. I chose a book for the course based mostly on a couple of recommendations from colleagues, Washington Post review of the best books on DC and the DMV, and an admittedly quick skimming of the first 15 pages. It was Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a historical novel about the lonely and isolated experience of one Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Logan Circle, set some 17 years after his escape from the Ethiopian Civil War (roughly 1996 or 1997).

I picked it ultimately because there are precious few books about any aspect the DC immigrant experience, much less one about the history of Black and Brown immigrants in the area. The problem was, I decided to read the book — one month into the semester, that is. Once I dug in, I started having flashbacks of my AP English class with Rosemary Martino, where we spent the better part of three months reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Mengestu’s Sepha was not lonely, apathetic, and dyspeptic merely because he was a thirtysomething stranger in the strange land of the US, of DC, of Black DC. I’m more than sure that loneliness and isolation are an inevitable consequence of leaving one’s home country and family behind for another country in another part of the world. But no, most of Sepha’s isolation was self-imposed. For 17 years, this man lived in a predominantly Black part of DC, in the midst of a nascent Ethiopian residential and business community within walking distance of his apartment and corner store, during the heart of the Marion Barry years. Yet he only has two friends, one from Kenya, the other from the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Really?

What was worse was once the White character Judith and her biracial daughter Naomi moved into Logan Square at the height of Sepha’s deepening self-loathing and depression. Judith apparently bought a mansion-turned-broken-down-addict hangout across the street from Sepha, and spent a significant chunk of change fixing it up for upper-middle-class habitability. Sepha becomes enamored with the two of them as they began to frequent his falling-apart store. He becomes sort-of-friends with Judith, and sort-of-a-father-figure to Naomi.

There were at least four times between pages 52 and 120 where I put down the book out of sheer frustration with the plot, the characters, and with Mengestu for writing this non-historical, non-realistic historical novel. Mengestu crafted a main character that had serious internalized racism, and was as anti-Black as a drunk Trump supporter at a tiki-torch rally. How can any reader explain a man who owns a store for the better part of a decade and a half in Black Washington, interacting with Black women of all classes and stripes — some presumably who may have struck up a conversation with him, some presumably with a precocious preteen daughter — and it’s this first White women in the neighborhood that raises your spirits?

Mengestu had Sepha do awkward Data-from-Star-Trek: TNG-type things. Like standing in the middle of the sidewalk a block from his place while watching Judith go into her house. Or over-explaining the shabbiness of his apartment to Judith, who invited herself over to his place. Or weird kisses between Sepha and Judith, not unlike ones involving two tweeners unsure of themselves. The awkwardness ultimately stems from Sepha’s elitism, self-loathing, and internalized racism. Judith is too good for me, was what Sepha thought, just like he thought he was too good for too poor and too Black Logan Circle. That’s why this thirtysomething man was acting like a weird homeless stalker, fully befitting a macabre and existential Dostoyevsky work.

But then came the backlash from the Mengestu-reverse-one-drop-rule approach to pre-gentrification gentrification. Somehow, the Black Washingtonians in Logan Circle became so hostile to the presence of one White woman with a kid that they threw a brick through her window and later set fire to her house. In what scenario in any major city in the US have Black folks ever deliberately attempted to forcibly drive out White folks who happened to move into a predominately Black neighborhood? There isn’t one.

My students, for the most part, though, loved the book. They thought it was “so cool” to get a glimpse of the “real” immigrant experience from an atypical perspective. They really liked the interplay between Sepha, Judith, and Naomi. They mostly wrote papers relating the book to the actual relations between Black Washingtonians in Shaw with the Ethiopia community there. They used Mengestu’s book as evidence that Blacks in Shaw drove Ethiopians out of Shaw and across the border into Silver Spring, Maryland, all because Black Shaw residents blocked renaming the U Street strip “Little Ethiopia” in 2005. All these conclusions, despite two full hours of discussion over two weeks about the books and its historical and local inconsistencies and stereotypes.

I haven’t been this beside myself about having inadvertently reinforced racial and cultural stereotypes since the first time I taught World History under Peter Stearns in 1994. But at least I was a 24-year-old grad student then. Now, I’m thinking that maybe 2.5 hours per week with my mostly affluent and White students is not enough time to counteract the idea that an excursion to Georgetown, Nats Park, or Chinatown is peak DC exploration. I also think that me as the little-old-nobody professor cannot overcome a MacArthur “genius” award-winner author whose book libraries possess in volume and school districts like DCPS and Montgomery County (and apparently) all over the country regularly use.

But if Mengestu is a genius, he is such because he has captured the White gaze. A story about Ethiopian migration to the US and the impact of such on that generation between the late-1970s and the turn of the 21st century. It is tailor-made to pull on the heartstrings of White Baby Boomers and loaded with a sense of exoticism. Mengestu’s DC looks more like where he grew up in real life (Peoria, Illinois and in the Chicagoland area — pretty White-bred communities, really) than any part of the DMV I have experienced since 1992. And no, being a Georgetown University student and earning a bachelor’s degree in the process is nowhere near enough time in DC to realistically depict even a sliver of DC, fiction or nonfiction.

I have learned my lesson. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears will not be a part of any course I teach moving forward. I will continue to pick books as I always have before this one. I will rely on my own counsel, and unlike most of my colleagues, will actually continue to read them before I put them in my syllabi. As for this DC course, I am replacing Mengestu’s book of anti-Blackness and elitism with Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls. If I am going to continue to use historical fiction, it should center Black girls and Black women living in DC/the DMV, and not Mengestu’s kinder, gentler version of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Sepha.

Blog Hiatus (at least until November 2019)

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To all my readers. With the new school year, my teaching schedule, my writing schedule and deadlines, and heightened familial responsibilities has come the need to take a blogging break. I’ve only taken two breaks in the past 12 years, with neither running more than a month. This time, I need more time as I transition one project and revise another. In the meantime, there are 1,000 posts here to read, plus my published mainstream and academic articles, plus my interviews. I may be back for a post if the lethal world in which we live dictates that I should comment, but otherwise, I do not expect to be regularly blogging again until November.

Thanks, all, for your support of my blog and my writing over the years. You know who you are, and know that I appreciate your support very much. Until the leaves turn and fall…

The Unbearable Elitism of This World (Especially Academia)

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Gated community, Houston, TX area [but virtual gates in education for years], February 13, 2012. (Chelsea Lameira via http://www.houstonagentmagazine.com)

This is my 1,000th blog, folks! It took me 12 years and three months to reach this milestone — yay, me!

But it’s on the exact day/date that I began grad school, specifically, the master’s program in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh, 28 years ago. Although that day and that semester were great times for me, my professional lifecycle has been almost as full of failures and setbacks as it has been one of triumph and overcoming. Unfortunately, the microaggressions of racism, ageism (too young and too old), and elitism have all been a central part of my experiences in academia, in the nonprofit world, in writing books, in freelance writing, and in consulting in the nearly three decades since.

In contrast to 2019, that day in 1991 was the first of many in which I heard from professors and colleagues, “You’re too young to do…” and “What? You’re just 21? You know the average age of a history grad student’s 28, right?” Now, when I say to people that I’m a fledgling writer, they ignore me or say, “but you’re too old to be a writer.”

If it were just Millennials or Baby Boomers discounting me, my successes, and my outlook on the world because of my age, I might have been able to live that down. But throw in the occasional, “Wow! You’re a program officer? I thought you only played basketball!” (this happened to me in one of my nonprofit jobs back in 2003), and, “You know what we call a Black guy with a PhD…,” and the rage that reminds me of everyday racism rises up. James Baldwin said as much as part of a 1961 conversation Nat Hentoff between him, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Alfred Kasin, on “The Negro in American Culture.”  “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” Baldwin famously quipped.

But mostly, it has been others’ attempts to demean me by offering ashes as opportunities, whether for publishing a book, finding an agent, getting a consulting gig, or teaching a course. Or, rather, to expect me to perform free labor for a so-called opportunity at some middling job. Only to realize later on that the job was a mirage. And they really expected me to drink sand and glass shards while they mocked me by pouring cold water down their throats!

I had a reminder of the layers of professional elitism and the cruelty that it engenders in April. For nearly two years, I had been in contact with a colleague of mine at Georgetown about the prospect of teaching undergraduate education courses there. Even with my two teaching gigs (which combined make me slightly more than full-time, contingent, but not nearly as tenuous as life had been back in 2010), I still wanted to teach education foundations/policy courses. Because, well, I’m still me, eclectic and still wanting courses that fit my experiences working in multiple worlds.

Out of the blue, Douglas Reed, a professor in a related department, contacted me about the possibility of teaching a summer course. “I now direct a graduate level program that just launched two years ago and have a possible last-minute opening to teach a summer course entitled ‘Social Justice in Education’ to our incoming cohort of MA level students in Educational Transformation. Would you have time to meet over the next week or two to talk about that possibility?,” he emailed.

Now, as someone who has done this with seven universities since 1997, of course I wanted to meet! It’s a grad-level course, combining social justice and education, something that I had taught before, I thought. I hadn’t taught grad students in more than a decade, but at least I already knew how to. I figured that this was a legitimate chance at a third part-time teaching gig.

I was wrong. Instead of the informal meeting/interview process, it seemed more like a one-on-one interrogation. Reed asked questions that would have been easily answered by my cv, by our mutual colleague, by literally anyone in my classrooms that semester. I brought samples from my relevant courses, while Reed never produced a copy of his Social Justice in Education syllabus. When I assumed that I was brought in to teach this course, he mused, “Maybe there might be others involved,” a wishy-washy answer at best.

Five weeks later, after I prompted Reed several times, I got this response:

Our situation has changed a bit since we last spoke. We have extended an offer for a three year position to a candidate and that candidate has accepted our offer and she will also be teaching the course we discussed. We will definitely keep our CV in our files and be sure to reach out if we have any new opportunities.

Un-effing-believable. Unless I consider the truth. I am a 49-year-old Black guy with a salt-and-pepper beard who has never held a tenure-stream position, and one who never attended or has formally taught at an Ivy League school (I did two summers at Princeton, working with high school students, but that doesn’t count in the eyes of the elite gatekeepers). I had the nerve to leave contingent academia behind for nearly a decade, working at nonprofit entities. I made the decision three years ago to no longer pursue publishing scholarly articles, because of, well, the elitism of such publications. And, I eat friend chicken with my bare hands to boot — I’m sure that’s been a dealbreaker some time in the past twenty-something years!

The following is part of what I wrote in response to Reed:

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Thanks for your email and for letting me know. I am miffed. Not because I was not ultimately offered a teaching opportunity. Rejection is a heavy part of being an adjunct, as one doesn’t have a true home. No, what has left distaste in my proverbial mouth is the reality that this was never an opportunity for a summer teaching position to begin with, and that you were not an honest broker in discussion this teaching opportunity with me.
Let me be more specific. There are several ways in which anyone with no opinion on the matter could see that this was not an honest opportunity.
1. You never sent me a copy of the Syllabus for the Social Justice in Education course, nor did you ever provide a copy, before, during, or after our meeting on Friday, April 5. When I inquired about it on April 5, you seemed hesitant about sharing it with me.
3. You never quite said it, but you sort of implied that there was someone else who was vying for teaching the Social Justice in Education course this summer. When I asked specifically if there was another person you were considering for teaching this course, you implied “maybe” at best. You left the context for our meeting and the purpose of our meeting murky.
7. Specifically, the fact that another person was offered a three-year teaching position (one that included this summer course) in the four weeks between our meeting and yesterday afternoon is proof of 5. Since positions generally do not develop spontaneously, I can only assume that you knew about this possibility at the time you met with me, and chose not to disclose it, either because you did not want me to apply for it or because you simply felt I wasn’t qualified for whatever reason.
All of these add up to a clear example of bad faith on your part. I had to clear my schedule to set up a meet with you on Friday, April 5, in the middle of a four-course semester. I came prepared to talk about a teaching opportunity, while you didn’t even provide a Syllabus for the course you purportedly wanted me to teach. You had me travel across DC to Georgetown for a meeting that was really an interview, and one that could have been conducted by phone or videoconferencing at that. While you may have been meeting with me out of courtesy to X, it was not a courtesy to me, at least not in the ways you handled it.
I learned something from this experience. As an adjunct with a non-linear academic, nonprofit, and writing background, I know full well the snarky elitism of many of my so-called colleagues already. Now I have confirmed that in times of hiring, I have nothing to offer as an itinerant minister of education in the eyes of faculty like you.

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I ended with, “You already hold all cards. There was never a need to hide half the deck.”

Most of the time, I am okay with the idea that I can make the combination of mainstream freelance writing and full-time equivalent teaching work, for me, my wife and son, and for our future. It’s been working for almost a decade, after all. But I know that as I approach the big 5-0, that combination better become semi-successful author and term faculty pretty soon. Because I’m too young and too broke to retire, and too old and too good at what I do to try much of anything else. I have considered janitorial work or the Steve Salaita route, though.

Namby-Pamby Land

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The Sound of Music (1965) poster with Julie Andrews. (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy/AP; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/)

Last week marked an all-time milestone. Me and my future wife moved to the DMV on Tuesday, August 10, 1999, and moved into our luxury high-rise apartment in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland the next morning. It was a crazy move, done between two jobs and the crossroads of two careers, and with bronchitis on top of that. It was also two days after I proposed to Angelia. Lucky me, she was very, very kind in saying yes, despite my sometimes manly, trash-ass flaws!

Twenty years here in DC, in Suburban Maryland, and (mostly for work) in Confederate Northern Virginia has been both good and terrible at the same time. Living around here has been an exercise in outsized cosmopolitanism. The expensive apartments and homes, the high-salaried jobs that come with stress that will age you right into the grave, side-by-side with examples of poverty that reminded me of my Mount Vernon growing-up years. I’ve seen it happen, to 23-year-olds and 60-year-olds of every stripe. Not much different from what I’ve seen of New Yorkers over the years.

United Therapeutics headquarters (a block long, across from high-rise apartments), Silver Spring, MD, August 23, 2018. (https://moretocome.net).

Living in the DC-area has also been an exercise in patience. The area’s penchant for urban and suburban elitism is matched by its Southern and East Coast colloquial nature. Gentrification in NE and SE DC would be a case in point, with Trader Joe’s and restaurants serving osso bucco within a sniff of an old fried fish or crab shack. Or watching downtown Silver Spring, once dotted with dimly-lit bars and mom-and-pop eateries, turn into a gentrified nightmare, with two-dozen new luxury high-rise apartment buildings and a Star-Trek-like office starship that United Therapeutics had built across the street from our former place. All as Silver Spring has no mayor, save the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and Montgomery County executives selling off county buildings and parking lots to the lowest bidder. Only to see DC government match the suburbs in driving out its residents living with poverty, to rename neighborhoods in an effort to get White-suburbanite bodies and dollars while giving the trillion-dollar businesses of the world significant tax breaks.

But since I (mostly) left AED and the nonprofit world to go back into academia as a part-time and (since 2012) full-time contingent faculty member at two universities, I really don’t spend that much time in DC. Working on nationwide initiatives and programs tends to distort one’s view of DC, and it certainly did mine, at least in my time here before about 2006. Really, it shouldn’t have. I had lived in Shepherd Park while dissertation-ing for several months in 1995, and regularly visited across various communities between 1992 and 1998. Still, being solidly middle class after years of growing-up, welfare, and self-imposed-via-grad-school poverty does create a bias.

I thought DC was great those first years as a result. This despite the poverty I saw. This no matter the homelessness I breathed in, regardless of the LGBTQ discrimination I witnessed. This in contrast with the education “reforms” occurring in PG County and in DC itself, as politicians like Adrian Fenty and school supers like Michelle Rhee and John Deasy letting the corporate education reform vultures into the school districts. Only to create money-leeching charter schools that would only leave another generation of students with less educational resources and not improve their life chances while also decimating teachers’ autonomy and teachers unions.

I thought the same of Silver Spring and Montgomery County, especially after Angelia gave birth to our one and only egg in 2003. After all, we lived in middle class section of an upper-middle-class community in one of the best school districts in the US, and easily the best in the state. What I didn’t realize until we moved our son from daycare at a federal agency in DC to one adjacent to his eventual elementary school in Silver Spring was the level of White-bred provinciality our near-immediate neighbors possessed. Yes, even the Black ones. Whether Ivy League-educated, PhD-ed, JD-ed, school teacher, firefighter, nonprofit entrepreneur, lawyer, or government bureaucrat, they all seemed to know very little about the world beyond a two-square mile radius.

Now, some of this was because our kids were four or five years old. I didn’t watch anything other than PBS Kids Sprout, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon (with the exceptions of The Wire and Grey’s Anatomy) between 2003 and 2010, except for news, of course. But as our kids became preteens and then teenagers, I knew it was more than that. My neighbors, though struggling through the Great Recession and a general downshift of the US middle class throughout the past two decades, still expressed little concern beyond their own day-to-day, as if nothing impacted them as individuals or a family. As our conversations did shift toward politics and -isms, they would cliché their way through them with platitudes like “If we could just get rid of the hate” and “Things have gotten better since the ’60s.” These conversations were so White that I sometimes clicked my tongue to signal to my prefrontal cortex that it was time to go in Standby mode.

That provincial laziness in thinking and general willful ignorance of the relationship with the world outside the community made me more aware of Namby-Pamby Land as a whole. From my fellow drivers (some I’ve recognized while driving) driving too slow, taking seconds to react to a green or red light, and blowing through stop signs, to my neighbors walking down sidewalks six abreast and forcing people into streets to go around them. And of course, their general resistance to changing intra-district boundaries because they didn’t want to “go over the bridge” across 495 to have little Johnny or Maddie attend school with less-well-off Latinx kids.

That’s the price I’ve paid for living in a suburban community of relative class privilege. The toxicity of it all has left me wanting for the New York of my youth (not Mount Vernon, mind you) as I’ve gotten older. But I guess it could be worse. It could Potomac or Bethesda, Maryland-worse.

My Alex and America’s 45, Bullies with Fan Boys on the March

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45’s fans at campaign rally, Greenville, North Carolina, July 17, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/AP; https:/usatoday.com).

At least one person will undoubtedly find my latest post unfair and offensive this time around. My Humanities classmate Alex, whom I interviewed as part of my book Boy @ The Window, will likely not be too happy with me this week. So Alex, if you do find yourself feeling this is unfair and my post offensive, I apologize in advance.

But either way, that’s okay, because the comparison between the person he once was and the person who is 45, America’s usurper-in-chief, is apt. Not because Alex was ever a malignant narcissist in need of constant adulation from his entourage. But because even small-d demagoguery around putting down so-called others out of insecurity, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, religion, a sense of superiority, and/or willful ignorance will still lead to violence and bullying. On a societal level, that is mass violence, that is fascism within a democracy, and nation-state sanctioned. No matter what the College Board and ETS says.

The thing I didn’t really allow myself to understand, even after I interviewed Alex in 2007, even after writing my first eight drafts of Boy @ The Window regarding Alex and the “Italian Club,” was this. That people like having leaders, folks they can relate to, even as preteens. In our times, that means someone who’s cool, or at least, pulls off the cool aesthetic well. Alex did. Whether you liked him or despised him at A. B. Davis Middle School in Humanities in seventh or eighth grade, Alex had a certain prepubescent charm. He was playful, goofy, corny, and fully engaged in pop culture as an up-with-everything 12 and 13-year-old.

And that attracted a specific group of folks into Alex’s solar system. Some of them knew him from their mutual time together at Columbus ES, but several in his entourage were from other schools prior to Davis. All of them were disaffected boys in some way or another, mostly Italian (or at least in one case, half-Italian), but almost to a person, not comfortable with the multicultural pressure cooker of relative uncoolness that was our magnet middle school program.

Alex led his “Italian Club” in acting out. Like a wolf pack, they looked for prey in the classroom to pick on, to call the wittiest names, to occasionally get physical with. Many times, they messed around with corny lines for girls like Sandra and Marianna. But I ended up on their radar early on. Between my kufi, my big but slow-talking mouth, and my fight with Brandie, I was ripe for Alex and his band of predators.

On November 2, 1981, the bullying started in earnest, as Alex and his band jumped me after school in the area near the side door exit from Davis. About a third of my classmates watched as the “Italian Club” knocked me to the ground, punched and kicked me until I began to cry. Alex himself never put his hands on me, but watched with glee as his fanboys did the dirty work.

But that wasn’t all. I had to endure seven months of being “dumb,” “stupid,” and a “monkey” from Alex’s band of brothers. It was topped off by a month of “Captain Zimbabwe” chants in May and June 1982, typically in Mrs. Sesay’s homeroom, but after counter-protests from other classmates, it moved to Ms. Fleming’s Italian class.

Eighth grade was nowhere near as bad, partly because I grew four inches over the summer, and partly because they likely sensed my rage from my summer of abuse with my idiot stepfather. Still, this didn’t stop Alex from messing with me or other vulnerable classmates that year or in ninth grade. I remember him greeting Josh a couple of times with the refrain from The Beatles “Hey Jude,” except it was, “Na, Na, Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey Jew.” I remember him and his entourage calling my other classmates “monkey.” He once went after our class’ eventual valedictorian, “she’s a brainiac, a brainiac,” adapting a song from the Flashdance soundtrack.

This was the Alex I knew between the ages of 12 and 15. Comparing him to a 73-year-old who has the impulse control of a nine-year-old hopped up on crystal meth is somewhat unfair, as Alex isn’t that teenager anymore. Still, what 45 has done on a far larger stage than Davis’ Humanities program is essentially the same thing. Except that there are millions of folks — especially White men — attracted to his intersectional message of “this is our [read, ‘A White Man’s’] country.” And anyone not for White men first, second, and always needs to get out, or at least, get out of the way.

There’s a video clip making its social media rounds via Bloomberg editor Tim O’Brien from 45’s rally in Panama City, Florida on May 9. In it, you have 45 and many in his audience laughing at the idea of shooting “illegals” coming in from Mexico as a solution for stemming the tide of “invasion” from Central America.

This is hardly the only blunt signal 45 has sent to his anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latinx fanboys and footsoldiers-for-the-patriarchy (thank you for the truth, Mona Eltahawy) fangirls over the years that their intersectional -isms are justified. But it is one direct example that those who really believe a race war is coming can use to take up arms and shoot to kill Black and Brown folks for existing in the US. That’s what Patrick Crusius and Connor Betts did this weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio to their dozens of dead and injured victims. That’s what 45’s entourage has been doing with increasing frequency over the past decade. This is what demagogue bullies do. They build a following. They jizz their racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia all over their followers. Those most predisposed to lap up such vitriol and act on it then do the not-so-subtle calls for violent action and take it out on truly random marginalized people.

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which, attending a majority-Black-and-Brown high school and perhaps recognizing his own racism and misogyny, Alex wasn’t the same Billy Idol-worshipper I’d known in eighth grade. By our senior year, he even seemed like-able, and spend way more time with a group of Black and Latino friends than he did with his one-time entourage. I assumed he matured. Good for him. Really.

But it’s way too late for 45 to grow out of his -isms. It’s way too late for millions in his entourage to grow out of their violent fantasies for mastery over vulnerable others. We have to disarm them, with the repeal of the 2nd Amendment. We have to disarm them, by calling them out for the bullies and intersectional terrorists they are. We have to, if we’re going to survive them.

There’s No Starman Waiting in the Sky For Us

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

This week of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing has been yet another reminder that humanity’s evolution has not kept up with its aspirations for exploring and colonizing the universe. A week that is supposed to be one of celebrating NASA’s work and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon has become a week about the immutability of racism and misogyny (really, misogynoir) in the US and beyond. Telling four Black and Brown congresswomen “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” 45 once again showed his xenophobia and misogynoiristic racism and exposed the -isms of millions of Americans. 45’s campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina on Wednesday specifically targeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and descended into a Ku Klux Klan gathering, as the presidents fanboys and foot soldiers chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” for thirteen seconds.

A century before 45’s latest racist, Islamophobic, and misogynoiristic spewings, and a half-century before the Apollo 11 landing, Whites across the US engaged in Red Summer. It was part of a World War I and post-World War I response to the first wave of Black migration out of the Jim Crow South and Black prosperity across the US. A violently racist response made worse because the US plunged into recession in the two years after the end of World War I. The Fourth Estate trafficked in racist stereotypes around “Negro Man Rapes White Girl,” further fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia in the years around and after the Great War. Whites marched into Black communities to beat up, main, rape, kill, burn down Black businesses, and otherwise terrorize Black men, Black women, and Black families. To call these “race riots” implies that Blacks did the same toward Whites, a lie about as close to the truth as 45 has been in the past 50 years.

East St. Louis, Illinois really set the pace for these “race riots” in 1917. But in the Red Summer of 1919, it was Washington, DC, Chicago, Elaine, Arkansas, Omaha, Nebraska, and dozens of other cities and towns in which Whites went off to show Blacks the true nature of racism. Whites exerted their power and violence on Black populations out of an out-of-this-world narcissism, in that everything belonged to them. They were angry because Blacks had taken “their jobs” and moved into “their neighborhoods.” They also wanted laws changed so that White ethnics couldn’t come to the US and take jobs and depress wages, ultimately pitting White immigrants against Black migrants in these White terrorism efforts.

Sound familiar at all? It should. White terrorist attacks on Blacks in Tulsa (Greenwood, a.k.a., Black Wall Street) in 1921 and Rosewood, Florida in 1923 were the culmination of White supremacist violence stemming from the narcissistic need for dominance and economic distress. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively shut off immigration from most of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean in an effort to preserve “White Anglo-Saxon stock” and as a way to appease White men angry about not finding work post-World War I. It was the third anti-immigration bill Congress had passed in the previous seven years.

The parallels between 45 and this week in American racism and the Red Summer of 1919 are enough to prove that humanity is most definitely not ready to meet extraterrestrials from elsewhere in the multiverse. We humans are ill-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 the Cassini probe to reach Saturn. We humans lack the emotional, psychological, moral, and spiritual capacity to cope with such a history-altering event. We Homo sapiens are devoid of the humility necessary to meet the challenges that will come after finding out that first contact with an advanced civilization is both an end and a beginning.

Here’s a short list beyond 45 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. Jeffrey Epstein. R. Kelly. Marine Le Pen. Kim Kardashian. Vladimir Putin. Boris Johnson. Xi Jinping. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nigel Farage. Richard Spencer. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Rodrigo Duterte. Theresa May. Bashar al-Assad and Syria. Kim Jong Un and North Korea. Jair Bolsonaro and his anti-LGBTQIA work in Brazil. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Capitalism. Neoliberalism. Misogyny and misogynoir. Islamophobia and anti-Black and Brown xenophobia. Patriarchy’s foot soldiers. The very need for Black Lives Matter. The limited response thus far to man-made global 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 never want to meet humanity!

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’s 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. 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 folk like Michelle Thaller, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, 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 humans be exceptions? These beings are likely able to use dark matter or dark energy to power faster-than-light spacecraft. They may 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. They may even be able to fold space and create wormholes and black holes. There’s no way they could see any humans as deserving of first contact.

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 humane thing— maybe even, the godly thing — to do.

Humans should continue to explore space and its endless scientific revelations and mysteries. But humanity should refrain from colonizing the Moon and Mars, much less anything interstellar. All humanity will end up doing is spreading its Whiteness-driven elitism, racism, patriarchy and misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and life-destroying narcissism. The species remains too primitive to be worthy of prime time on a galactic stage. We’ll have to wait for a more just, verdant, and glorious age before first contact will work out well for us. We’re not ready.

The “Anti-American” Trope and Being a Black Writer

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Malcolm X quote from his “By Any Means Necessary Speech,” Organization of Afro-American Unity, New York, June 28, 1964. (https://azquotes.com).

This week, I published yet another article article in Al Jazeera English, this one titled “How US history is whitewashed in high school exams.” It’s about my experiences scoring AP US History and AP World History exams for the College Board through Educational Testing Service as a contingent faculty member. It was also about how the two organizations consistently present a sanitized version of both histories, excluding and marginalizing those of African, of Latinx, and of indigenous descent in the process. My biggest concern was that folks would find my treatment of the work of the College Board and ETS unfair. Or, that readers would disagree with me personally, attacking my intellect and my race purely out of racism and jingoism.

On the second concern, I was mostly right, but not quite in the way I expected. At least three trolls accused me of being “anti-American” and “anti-patriotic.” Really? So, no critique of American education or of two education organizations can stand without it being a referendum on whether I am a patriot for America as it is instead of what I’d like it to be? The narcissism I see out of the mostly male, nearly all White set in the US — it must reside in a bottomless pit. Or in the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Is calling out folks who believe themselves to be educators because they favored Japanese internment during World War II as an example of state-sponsored mass violence over slavery in colonial America/US really anti-American? Is pointing out the flaws in the politics around K-12 and college education in the field of history an example of my anti-patriotism? Should I be subjected to jingoistic scorn because I dare say that “[c]hattel slavery will always serve as a complicating counternarrative to The College Board’s trope of the West’s continual social and political progress?” If this is anti-American, then so is racism, misogyny, anti-Latino and anti-Arab xenophobia, and rolling tanks into DC on the 4th of July.

But, there was more. At least two trolls tweeted and messaged me about Al Jazeera publishing my article this week. One called me a “fool” because they saw me as a mere tool for their otherwise anti-Black stances and tropes in their coverage. Another tweeted twice, “QATAR LAW: Since 2004, Article 296 of the current Penal Code (Law 11/2004) stipulates imprisonment between 1 and 3 years for sodomy between men.” This because Al Jazeera is partially owned by the Qatari government. Last I checked, the British government partially owns the BBC. The US has repugnant laws and policies in place toward Blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, women, LGBTQIA folx, and the millions living with poverty. Yet I’m supposed to not publish a piece with one of the largest news outlets in the world because it might make me a tool of the Qatari, and therefore somehow anti-American? Give me a break!

Ultimately, I published with Al Jazeera this time around because they allowed me the most space to air my first-hand account and analysis, without delay and without editing out my direct experience. As a freelance writer and someone with an affinity for the journalistic, that’s really all any professional can ask for.

What I cannot nor will not do, though, is back down or renegotiate my critiques about the US, as is my right as an American citizen. Nor will I attempt to tailor what I write for folks who otherwise stand in opposition to a curriculum that holds fast to Western sacred cows and American mythologies.

At a job interview I did a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey, a search committee member asked me this. “What will you do to reach those people on campus who don’t just have concerns” about my work and the work of the department I could’ve represented, “but are in opposition to your work” and the department’s very existence? “Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s my job to reach folks who stand in opposition to equality, to my insistence that I am equally human. Why would I want to spend time and energy trying to reach those people? We’ve tried that already. With respectability politics, with assimilation. It hasn’t worked,” was my response.

The same goes for the trolls on the Internet, who’ve never seen an idea from a Black man or a Black woman that they’ve respected, who will find anything short of an endorsement from 45 anti-American. I am not writing for you. I am writing for everyone else but you.