Toronto and Miscellaneous Items

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Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, ON, Canada, March 20, 2017. (https://torontostoreys.com).

I meant to write about this a month ago, but after the Toronto Raptors’ not-so-surprising Game 6 win against the Milwaukee Bucks to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time, it’s still relevant. Last month made 20 years since the last time I’ve been north of the border (but not in Alaska, as I was in 2001). Last month was also the 28th anniversary of me finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and the subsequent decision to spend my first post-baccalaureate summer in Pittsburgh working and securing funding for my first year of graduate school. April 20 also marked two decades since Columbine, something that was very much on my mind during that Toronto trip and presentation at OAH there in 1999.

I can say that there are only a handful of times in my life since the end of first grade and being sexually assaulted in the summer of ’76 that I have felt “free.” By that, I mean free from the toxicity that is the US, on race, on gender, on class, on religion, on family, on friendships, on breathing, on eating, on walking, on daydreaming, on talking, on being contemplative, on laughing, on merely being myself. Those five days in Toronto to present my research on multiculturalism, to meet up with a couple of friends, to hang out in different neighborhoods and catch their subway. That was one of those times. Maybe the six months my Mom and my deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice spent separated between October 2, 1980 and April 13, 1981 was one of those times. Certainly when I proposed to my wife and then moved to DC and Silver Spring later on in 1999 was another. And, how can I forget the sheer ecstasy of watching my son emerge from my wife’s womb in 2003 at Sibley Hospital?

But while all of those and more experiences brought happiness, even orgasmic joy, I’ve spent more than 40 years of nearly 50 looking over my shoulder. In the back of my mind, the idea that the other shoe’s going to drop is never that far away. Even with the lack of American toxicity during my times in Toronto, I knew that this cosmopolitan city had its own unique edge. This despite the poutine, maple syrup, and Molson’s.

Plus, even with going to vegan restaurants, confirming my 1994 research on public housing policies in Toronto, seeing the diversity and freedom of movement sans the gaze of American Whites, it was still a very White city. And that Canadian Whiteness left room for a different (or really, indifferent) kind of gaze. It meant dealing with questions about Columbine and gun violence as if I could explain the actions of narcissistic White males steeped in patriarchy and entitlement. It meant remembering in subtle ways that while Canadians I met were both far nicer and kinder than most Whites in the US, they were still White. And Whiteness, like Arya Stark’s many-faced god, takes numerous forms.

I was free in ways that I couldn’t have been in the States. I walked in White neighborhoods without police following me around. I noticed how most folks didn’t lock their doors at night. I sensed that no one looked over their shoulders for a mugger. Everything was written in metric-system English, which I was happy to use in real life for the first time. It was just different, as if White Canadians hadn’t spent four centuries sitting around and figuring out even more ways to grind down Black people. I sensed that this wasn’t the case with White Canadians and First Nation tribes, though.

I didn’t feel anywhere near this free when I graduated with Degree #1 in April 1991. The immediate need of reporting to my $5.20 per hour job at Western Psych, three weeks of starvation, and the miracle that Dr. Jack Daniel performed meant that I was pensive and then relieved by May 26. I knew more twists and turns awaited me.

I want to visit again, this time with my son, and hopefully before the Fall Semester begins. I want him to see Caribana there, to breathe freer air, and to get away from the Lower 48, if only for a few days. But that’s not all. I want him to go overseas, to visit South Africa, and Nigeria, and Tanzania, and Ghana, and Mali, to see himself in everyone around him.

As for the Raptors, congrats on drudging your way to the Finals! Your organization is finally free to play for an NBA title. With Kawhi Leonard, I wouldn’t bet against you. But I’m not exactly rooting for you, either. Know that win or lose, I love your city, and the questions about freedom that it generates for me.

On Arrogance and Opinions

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“No, fear and arrogance, you hayseed.” Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins characters in Bull Durham (1988), screenshot, May 18, 2019. (https://getyarn.io).

I received my latest evaluations from my AU students this spring. Really, I shouldn’t complain. Overall, my scores met or exceeded most metrics in all three of my courses this semester, even as some students thought there was “too much reading” or that I needed to “provide more guidance” on the readings I assigned. As an instructor, I have to sort of compartmentalize or even mentally toss out the personal attacks in such surveys. From students thinking I’m sexist because I used “#TimesUp” to get their attention after saying “Time’s up” multiple times during a small group discussion, to students saying I lack “emotional intelligence” because of email miscommunications (mostly on their part, though I took the blame) over a dramatic event. I’m hardly perfect, have never claimed to be, and expect that in dealing with human beings, especially young adults, that these things and their sometimes petty responses are bound to occur.

But some responses have been consistent across time and institution since my TAing days at the University of Pittsburgh. At some point since Fall 1992, a student or two will decide that I’m “arrogant” and that “[I] only care about [my] opinions,” that somehow, I never gave them room to express their opinions or somehow failed to validate their opinions. I don’t think I’ll ever overcome these critiques, nor should I try, especially after so many years of teaching. As the research has indicated for at least a decade, student evaluations of faculty are not reliable sources of data. Barely four out of 10 students at most colleges and universities will actually take the 10 to 20 minutes to complete one. Most negative evaluations correlate to an actual or an anticipated grade that is lower than what the student wanted for themselves in the course.

But the data for faculty of color, especially women faculty of color, and even more especially for Black women faculty, shows measurable racial and gender biases. Complaints about language, how one dresses, speech patterns, and other ticks and foibles become heightened. And not just among White students. Students of color, and Black students in particular, hold the Black faculty who have served as their instructors to a standard that could only be met by a parent of a newborn baby, something akin to perfection. I have felt this last bit during classes and other times at AU this semester more than others.

Still, on the broader issue of arrogance, I have changed my lecture style, the amount I lecture, the kinds of discussions I have run, the tactics for getting students to bond in the classroom, and (where I could) the types of readings I have assigned, just so students are more comfortable and willing to learn. None of this has mattered for the students who expect me to validate every idea they express in the classroom. None of this matters when I go in front of the classroom and lecture and facilitate discussion to this small but very vocal minority.

I used to think it was my age back in the 1990s. So I tried to be more objective, less animated, and gave up some degree of authority in the classroom. That worked for a couple of semesters at Duquesne College of Education and at GW. Mostly. But, even there, one student who told me day one she “hated history” and two students at GW wrote about my so-called classroom arrogance in their evals.

In teaching undergrads for a couple of semesters at the University of the District of Columbia and at Howard in 2006 and 2007, though, not one student had that issue with me. They didn’t complain when I poked holes in their analysis, or when I asked them to back up their opinions with evidence. It was refreshing, actually, to have students who didn’t assume that their opinions and that my years of interpreting and writing about history were equal in weight. Could it be that the racial dynamics of UDC and Howard made for a different interpretation of my demeanor and conveying of knowledge in the classroom (as one is a predominantly Black institution and the other is a flagship HBCU)? Probably.

Since my second year of teaching at UMUC, though, and with this first year at AU, this allegation of arrogance via my opinions has been constant with my evaluations, no matter how well students did and how positive my evaluations were otherwise. At this point, I have figured out a few tendencies of students who lodge this complaint. They are typically not comfortable with the material or with me as their instructor. I am frequently sarcastic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and gesticulate while using some of the skills I picked up from acting-as-public-speaking classes to lecture. In other words, lecturing with skill for me is a performance, one that conveys information, and it must be done with a high degree of confidence and seriousness, balanced with levity. That I have also decided to not treat history in a truly objective manner was deliberate, because history is a living subject, and thus cannot be taught objectively. Fairness and truth are far more important. That doesn’t make me arrogant. That makes me a confident instructor, but one with humanity and empathy.

As for opinions, I have sometimes said to my students, “As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes — nearly everyone has one.” That has usually gotten a few laughs (you gotta read the room before saying something like this — my AU students are too serious on the use of colorful language from what I’ve found so far). But even when I say that “this particular interpretation comes from me,” I am still expressing more than a personal opinion or insight. I am expressing an idea or interpretation based on years of study, observation, reading, and writing, for scholarly and mainstream publications. So when I insist on students backing up their opinions with evidence, or literally have to say, “No, that not correct,” and then explain why it isn’t, this is me doing the job of an instructor with years of knowledge and even expertise on a wide variety of topics, not just some random person on the Red Line train to Shady Grove.

Even with all of these caveats about the differences between opinion and interpretation, about my level of expertise, and about my approach to the classroom, there are some small number of students who will say, “He’s arrogant,” “He doesn’t value my opinion.” Or, as one student emailed me four years ago, “Sir, you are a dickhead.” I realize that these specific comments, like the ones I wrote about for The Washington Post last year about the rejection of Black history and racism as central parts of US history, were about my difference, not my indifference. Being a Black man teaching mostly White students, or teaching Black students who expect me to consistently validate their unsubstantiated opinions, does not have its privileges. Especially on a student evaluation form.

My Life as a Scrambler

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I wish I could say that it was different. I wish I could say that the key to success in my life was crafting plans, developing rubrics, and building out scale models of every step, move, and smile toward achieving Points A, B, and Z on my life-sized to-do list. I wish that life was like being Tom Brady (not really). Or really, like being every White male statue that’s ever stood behind a bruising, blocking, dynamic offensive line in American professional football. One where even a mediocre quarterback like Trent Dilfer or Jim McMahon could stand behind and take as many as ten seconds to find an open receiver for a first down or a long touchdown on their way to a Super Bowl championship.

But, with some notable exceptions, my life, and the successes I’ve garnered in my life, have come from scrambling out of the pocket, usually because my proverbial offensive line couldn’t block the pass rushers in my life. It’s hustlin’ really, but not the kind of hustlin’ that would bring me notoriety. My life has been mostly Joe Montana and Russell Wilson, with occasional periods of Warren Moon half-standing in the pocket and half-scrambling in between.

Graduate school was the one exception that almost ruined me. I took the lesson I learned about keeping my schedule of work, social life (however ill-defined in 1991), and classes and transferred it to my five and a half years of working toward a doctorate. After a straight-A first semester and finishing my master’s in two semesters, I took it as a sign that this drawing up plans and executing them with brutal efficiency was the best way for me.

Keep in mind, I scrambled all through middle school and high school, for all six years I was in my Humanities Program. I scrambled because I had to. I couldn’t make concrete plans to study at 616, to read books by a specific date, to just have a day to myself just to work on me. Not with my abusive ass, idiot stepfather Maurice/Judah/Maurice there. Not with my younger siblings running around. Not with my Mom going through welfare and depression. Not with having to track down my alcoholic father on weekends for work and money.

San Francisco 49er QB Joe Montana scrambling to make a throw, Super Bowl XIX, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA, January 20, 1985. (http://youtube.com).

And yet with all that, I finished 14th in my graduating class of White, Black, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx hyperachievers. I received scholarship offers from every school I got into (with Columbia withholding only because they couldn’t believe I came from a family of eight with a $16,600 per year income in New York). Scrambling worked, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

Which was why I went the other way. And so, for my graduate school years, and the baker’s dozen of years that followed, I stayed in the pocket. I drew up plans like an architect for my career and life, and followed those plans as if I’d gotten them from God him/herself. And the truth was, most of my plans worked to perfection. I earned a two-year master’s degree in one, earned a big-time dissertation fellowship without overwhelming support from my advisor and committee, published articles, presented at conferences, and, once fully immersed in nonprofit work, job after job, promotion after promotion, more publications and teaching opportunities.

Or so I thought. I hadn’t realized that while my 150-PowerPoint-slide gameplan seemed to be working, that I was still scrambling every chance I got, and hustlin’ myself in the process. I only completed my doctorate in November 1996 because I scrambled, and left my advisor little choice but to approve my dissertation. This after lobbying my other committee members, documenting every comment from my advisor on my dissertation going back a full year, and otherwise turning the academic politics of Carnegie Mellon to my favor that summer and fall. That, and having a complete, 505-page manuscript, sealed the deal.

I scrambled for work all the while, went the summer of 1997 without work before hustlin’ my way into nonprofit work by lying about only having a master’s degree that year. I scrambled into my jobs at Presidential Classroom, both of my positions at Academy for Educational Development, and every single teaching position I’ve held since 1998, AU included.

It just took me until 2008 to realize that I wasn’t the figurative pocket passer. I ran myself and those who’ve been there to catch my publishing, teaching, and working passes open. I’ve never had a good offensive line, because America stacks their lines for privileged White men and White women first, second, and third. Sometimes I’ve had to take the proverbial ball to the end zone or for a first down myself, because there hasn’t been anyone else who can help. Sometimes, too, I have to take the hit, also because I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’ve fought against the mantra “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” for most of my 49-plus years on this Earth.

I’ve come to accept that this is my life. I don’t have to like that despite all the article publications, conference and public presentations, grant money raised, students taught, students now in prominent positions themselves, book manuscripts produced, friends made, and so many other measurables, I am a bad six months away from career collapse. And with that, maybe my marriage, my status as a dad, and  my health and life would be at risk as well.

But I do not intend to be a contingent faculty member and an older man pretending to be a youngish freelance writer with fresh ideas (with the rare consulting opportunity) for the rest of my most productive working days. Either all this works out, somehow, or I’m driving as the Uber professor/Trader Joe’s stock boy/MCPS bus driver (ala Steven Salaita) down the line. Anyway, Red from Shawshank Redemption put it best. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” My mantra for the past four and a half years.

How Did I Know I Was Heterosexual?

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Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” 45 single sleeve, circa 1986. (https://medium.com)

This is more than just whether I knew I liked teenage girls and women by the time I was my son’s current age of fifteen, though. Between humping older women’s legs when I was three or four years old (too much information, I suppose), me and Diana slobbering on each other in first grade, and my crush on Ms. Shannon in third grade, that would be enough for most kids to know their orientation. But because I wasn’t “hard” like the boys I lived around at 616 and 630 East Lincoln and the young Turks who lived in public housing on Pearsall Drive, I was often the neighborhood “pussy” or “faggot.” I was mugged four times between April 1979 and the end of 1983. I spent more than one weekend dodging a hail of pebbles and rocks that the neighborhood kids pelted me with. That, and the then buried sexual assault I endured when I was six left me questioning my own sexuality, and with that, my place in the world in terms of friendships and relationships.

The whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, and the additional layers of abuse, hypermasculinity, and misogyny that came with it didn’t help my evolution one bit. One would think that a months-long crush on — really, love for — Wendy in the spring of 1982 would once and for all settle this issue. It didn’t. It didn’t because even I recognized that my love for Wendy was for the version of her who took up space in my imagination. She had become ethereal, and was detached from the flesh-and-blood human being with whom I shared little more than the confines of the classroom in the years between 1981 and 1987. I found her attractive, but had already judged myself unworthy.

Puberty, rebellion, and my switch to Christianity in 1984, and the contradictions that came with this switch over the next year, would tell me more about who I was. This was the beginning of my years of relative asexuality, at least as I presented myself in public. Since I dedicated my life to Jesus, every potential carnal thought I had or action I could take was met with self-doubt and loathing. Mostly, though, I feared for my newborn soul. I feared that somehow, I would go back to being suicidal, Hebrew-Israelite-and-going-to-Hell Donald, the one that got clowned and stoned before reaching six-foot-one.

One of my many attempts at being chaste between September 1984 and May 1985 involved toting my Bible everywhere and breaking it out to read during every idle moment. At school, which got me in trouble with my 10th grade history teacher, Ms. Zini. At home, when I wasn’t distracted by music, my younger siblings, or our fucked up living arrangement with one Balkis Makeda. As sanctimonious as it was, I was really trying to learn, to receive revelation, to understand how this 66-book, 1300-page document could transform me and my mini-apocalyptic world.

I also rode the buses and subways around the city with my red-covered Bible in hand. On many Fridays and Saturdays, whether working for my dad or hunting him down for money, or just because I needed to get away, I’d take the 2 from East 241st in the Bronx to 72nd in Manhattan, or further down, to Times Square, or sometimes, all the way out to Flatbush in Brooklyn.

No matter where I or we (when my older brother Darren would tag along) went, the most interesting part of these outings usually were the people who would be in the cars with me/us. Drunkards who reminded me of Jimme. Older Jamaican women on their way to do domestic work. Middle-aged, haggard-looking White guys who dressed twenty years too young for their faces.

Screenshot from “I Wonder If I Take You Home” video, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (1984/85). (https://imgue.com).

Frequently, Nuyorican or Dominican girls and young women would board somewhere between 180th and East Tremont and 149th and Grand Concourse (though because of the ethnic tensions I didn’t understand at the time, certainly not at the same time). I would look up from reading II Chronicles or Esther or Ephesians, and before I could comprehend the people my eyes took in, my dick responded. At 15, I already knew that even a mildly warm breeze was enough for me to get a hard on. I didn’t know that four or six young Latinas on a train wearing bright, tight clothes, makeup, lipstick, and perfume, and heels that would accentuate their breasts, hips, and round butts would completely counter my asexual front. Luckily for me, the Bible-toting phase of my life was during wintertime, and I could cover up my woody with my jacket.

Of course, it felt sinful, and I felt ashamed, that a second and a half of staring up from my Bible would lead to carnal stirrings. But it also gave me a sense of who I was and wasn’t attracted to, really and truly. When White girls with their voluminous ’80s hair got on the train, I hardly noticed. They were trying too hard, and their flat butts did nothing for me. When single Black women in their twenties and thirties would board, I noticed, too. I didn’t have what I would learn later to be colorism issues.

Of course, I learned that I was heterosexual, which I knew would please my Mom to no end. Which actually pissed me off. So, if I had discovered I was gay, she wouldn’t accept me? Wow!, I thought one April Saturday on way back to East 241st. At that point, my evangelical zeal for setting myself apart from the rest of world with my Bible as a baseball bat had waned. I was nowhere near ready to be involved in any kind of relationship that would lead to sex. But, I was ready to drop the idea that my eternal life completely depended on me ignoring both women and my attraction to women. I would remain publicly asexual for a few more years and endure f-bombs from my dad. Truly, it took until I was twenty to understand that whatever my orientation, no one has the right to tell me that my sexuality was anathema to my Christianity.

As A Former Hebrew-Israelite…

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The Kufi, cute on some, a symbol of a curse for people like me, April 3, 2010.

I’m a month late with this post about the Covington Catholic High School White boys and their -isms-filled excursion across DC, including their well-filmed smirk and Native American-stereotyping confrontation with Nathan Phillips. The part of the confrontation that produced the most hype but little substance was the nearly two-hour period around the Lincoln Memorial, in which some of the privileged White-privileged-males made taunting runs the handful of people the media called “Black Hebrew-Israelites.” Clearly this was a misnomer, as if there were such a thing as White Hebrew-Israelites!

That these Black Israelites or Hebrew-Israelites could call these White boys “Edomites,” the descendants of Jacob’s suckered and inferior pink-skinned twin brother Esau, was apparently shocking for many Whites. But within a day or two, the “Black Hebrew Israelites” narrative went away, as the focus shifted to White boys shouldn’t have their lives ruined over a little bit of March for Life misogyny, racism, and intimidation.

The media dropped this line of inquiry, likely because it didn’t play to any of their typical tropes and other two-sided themes. As someone who spent three years of my life wearing kufis and yarmulke, eating kosherized meats, and understanding the meaning behind “unclean issues of blood,” I can tell you that the Hebrew-Israelites likely didn’t start the confrontation, but once taunted, were going to give as much as they got from the privileged White males from Kentucky. I can tell you that Black hyper-masculinity, misogyny, and a sort of anti-Whiteness was all part of my experience with the Shalom Aleichem crowd. White folks were either Edomites — the descendants of the less-favored Esau from Genesis, the first book of the Torah — or were “healed lepers.” Either way, Hebrew-Israelites saw Whites as a somewhere between a curse of God or God’s not-quite-as-chosen people.

To call Hebrew-Israelites a “hate group” — putting them on the same plane as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups — is astoundingly ridiculous and a waste of time. As a rule, Hebrew-Israelites may preach the fiery end times, but they’re not working particularly hard to make them happen. They especially want as little to do with White folk of any stripe as they can get away with. Now, at least for the sect of Hebrew-Israelites my family belonged to in the 1980s, there was support for Israel, and many certainly saw a certain degree of commonality with our Levite and Judahite brothers in Palestine, many also saw these European Jews as Edomites. To be both pro-Israel while also harboring some anti-European-Jews-as-Whites-in-disguise -isms, well, it all made sense to me sometime between October 1981 and March 1983 (no, not really).

What made more sense to me, though, was the connection between the ancient Israelites of the land of Canaan and the Ten Lost Tribes living in the US and reclaiming their birthright. Not just a homeland in Palestine, though. They claimed the practices of the ancient Israelites as well, including especially polygamy. Never mind that this practice could only work “in practice” if the man involved had the material means to provide for all of his women and for his progeny. That so many of the men didn’t possess the means but attempted this practice anyway speaks to the fact that being a Hebrew-Israelite for them merely meant easy access to women, sex, and reproduction via their sperm in a way that justified their misogynoiristic view of the world.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, circa 2008. (http://www.famousbirthdays.com).

My stepfather Maurice, er, “Judah ben Israel,” gleefully used the temple teachings of proper polygamy as permission to act like he was living in the time of Saul, David, and Solomon. Maurice’s was some of the worst misogyny I have ever witnessed this side of Henry the Eighth as Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayed the portly king in Showtime’s The Tudors. He was with at least two other women in the months between January 1982 and June 1984, all while having knocked my Mom up with my two youngest siblings. All while also knocking my Mom around their master bedroom like she was a six-foot piñata. Keep in mind, for a three-year period between May 1979 and August 1982, my idiot stepfather didn’t work at all, and held down a part-time security job guarding an abandoned Vicks factory between August 1982 and October 1986.

I pretty much thought that the man was a piece of shit by the time I learned that my younger siblings has siblings of their own around the same age, sometime in 1984 or 1985. But that was the thing about a religion like this one. It attracted and still attracts a sector of Black men who otherwise feel emasculated, like strangers among strangers in a strange land, and hands them hyper-masculinity in return. It draws in Black women in search of a Yahweh, a stern and often unforgiving god who sees them as they see themselves, as unworthy of anything other than what can be drawn from family, from the men and the children and kindred sistahs in their lives.

So it’s not hard for me to believe the folks on my Twitter timeline who live in New York and in Philly feeling like they were on display at a butcher’s shop in the middle of Grand Central or Reading Terminal Market when encountering the kufi-wearing, Shalom-Aleichem set. But it’s also hard for me to believe that these privileged White boys fully comfortable with their White supremacy didn’t stoke and anger a group of Hebrew-Israelites as part of their -isms-laden tour of DC. There was enough White patriarchy and testosterone involved in these confrontations to make a lea full of sheep bald and barren.

Still, I thank God for every day I’ve had since surviving those Hebrew-Israelite years, those years of doubt, and all of that self-loathing and misogynoir. I can only hope that there are others who’ve made their way out of that malignancy.

What If You’ve Never Really Had a Crew?

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My copy of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s #ThickTheBook, January 12, 2019 (Donald Earl Collins)

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: And Other Essays, like so many of the books I’ve chosen to read over the past six years, will stay with me a while. She is brilliant, period. I feel blessed having been on the journey of reading about her experiences, her views of the world, and her Blackness and Black feminism. There are so many nuggets and witticisms in Cottom’s Thick that I should sit down and plan out a way to mine her book for actual gold and platinum. It’s rich and thick like hot chocolate with hits of cinnamon and nutmeg, something to imbibe while taking a bite of a New York-style blondie (which I specialize in cooking-wise) or slice of chocolate torte cake here and there.

But there was one sentence that stood out, before I even began reading the book in earnest. As I randomly flipped through the pages after first getting Thick, this sentence hit me hard, dazing me like the day my one-time stepfather punched me in the jaw for the first time. “Everybody needs a crew,” Cottom wrote to start her “The Price of Fabulousness” essay, adding that she has “many because I am extremely fortunate.” Yeah, no kidding!, I thought immediately after reading that sentence. For a moment, maybe even 0.68 seconds, I was envious. Not like, “Oh my God, the arrogance of this one here!” kind of jealous. Nor was I the “I wish I was her!” green-eyed monster, either. I realized that since the last weeks of sixth grade and the beginning of three and a half years as a Hebrew-Israelite, I hadn’t really had a crew as Cottom defined it at all. That was the spring of 1981, when I was eleven years old, nearly 38 years ago, by the way.

From the day I let my one-time best friend Starling beat me in a fight over my alleged decision to join the Hebrew-Israelite cult and walk into William H. Holmes ES with a white kufi on my head, I had no crew. There’s a reason I consistently refer to my middle school and high school Humanities classmates as either “classmates” or “acquaintances.” They weren’t my friends, some were genuine bullies and assholes to me and to each other, and lacked in most forms of what grown folk would call social graces. They were my academic and (sometimes) athletic competitors, they were friends with each other, but only to a point. But one thing they could never, ever be was my crew or posse or homies or anything close to what Cottom meant. That Wu-Tang Clan-level of professional collaboration and possibly personal friendship didn’t exist in the cauldron that was that magnet program within an even more hostile public school system in Mount Vernon, New York.

College at the University of Pittsburgh was where I’d find friendships again, and maybe at times, the primordial beginnings of a crew. But these proto-crews never quite came together for more than a night on the town here or there. Quite frankly, the other thing my eclectic groups of friends and acquaintances had in common was knowing me. At least, the parts of me I was willing to show folks at the time. I knew most of them weren’t ready for the real me, because I wasn’t ready for the real me. Not at nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one.

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. (Donald Earl Collins)

Graduate school me, though, was more ready. My times at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon earning my doctorate were the closest I got to having a crew. At one point in 1994-95, I probably knew at least half of the Blacks, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinxs on Pitt’s campus, and all of the Black diaspora students at CMU (the latter because there were so few of us there). But despite the common interests around campus climate, student and faculty diversity, mistreatment on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, the fact remained that my crews were eclectic and transitory ones. Masters students would be gone in two or three years. My warp-drive, single-minded race toward the doctorate made certain that any bonds I forged during those years wouldn’t last. There would be no collaborations or calls for career help or advice with these disparate groups. Not even when I lived off the fumes of my last grad school stipend check the summer of 1997.

Working in the nonprofit world and as contingent faculty has often meant being on the inside, but still feeling like an outsider, anyway. Or really, a fraud, because I never fully embraced the norms of nonprofit capitalism or academia as intellectual capitalism and exploitation. I became friends with a fairly eclectic bunch in these spaces, too. But none of them shared my passion for creative nonfiction writing, or have wanted an alignment between career goals and social justice fights, or even, have had a taste for basketball as a spectator or player.

I guess one could say that my wife and son and two of my closest friends are my crew, but that’s not how a crew works. They are family, a very supportive family to be sure, but family is muck thicker than blood or a crew.

So, maybe Cottom is right. I really, really, really need a crew. I’ve made it pretty far in parts of my life without one. I’m not sure how much more Sisyphus I can do on my own, though.

Year 50 (So It Begins…)

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US Route 50 sign, August 26, 2017. (Fredddie, originally SPUI, via http://wikipedia.com). In public domain

As I’ve said in other settings and on my blog, I never dreamed of making it to 30 growing up. Fifty might as well have been 150 for me when I was in the middle of my Boy @ The Window years! But, with my forty-ninth birthday and the calendar change to 2019, I’m here anyway. A half-century (starting sometime in March) between conception and me being just old enough for my son and my students to see me as a fossil. To think that I was Egg #3 in one of my Mom’s ovaries this time 50 years ago? I’m sure I just creeped myself and a large number of you out with that strand of my imagination!

But this isn’t just my Year 50. There are some 500 people I know from my Mount Vernon public schools days, from my years at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, and from other settings who’ll turn 50 this year. Among the Mount Vernonites and New Yorkers I’ve known directly, between a handful who graduated with the Class of ’86, and with the exception of a couple who graduated with my class in ’87 a year early, almost all from my high school days will turn 50 between now and January 2, 2020 (One notable exception is a classmate whose forty-ninth birthday isn’t until April, but…).

What does all of this really mean, anyway? Have I used up more than half of my youth? Will I shrink immediately? Will my joints, which only ache on occasion, grind me into oblivion and infinite pain at the same time? Will my steel-trap mind become mush? Or, will I finally harness my lost dunking ability, in one last grand gesture of youth, getting my head above the rim one last time, before crashing down to earth and fracturing my metatarsals? Who knows!

What I do know is that I’ve been keenly aware of my mortality since my summer of abuse in ’82, and off and on since the summer of ’76. With a milestone such as this, and the average life expectancy of Black males at 64.5 years, I can’t help but think it. Will I make it through middle age? Heck, will I make it long enough to see my son graduate from high school and earn a higher education degree? Will my wife outlive me (probably), and if so, by how much?

Mostly, though, I’ve had dreams about the plausibility that I haven’t done enough in my life, and what little I have achieved could be turned to ash in an instant. Especially by an indifferent-to-openly-hostile and virulently racist nation-state. I’ve had dreams about losing my jobs because I was forty-five minutes late to lecture for one of my classes. I’ve worried about whether I could ever publishing another article again, even though my track record the past four years has been at least pretty good. I’ve worried about never publishing a book in the mainstream, about leaving my son and wife with nothing, about the possibility that not everything will work out, for me and for us. I also worry about not doing enough to support my family, my friends, even strangers, knowing that I can barely save myself in the here and now, much less anyone else.

But perhaps God has more in store for me beyond Year 50. Dare I hope to be healthy and relatively youthful and around long enough to live past 70, 80, even 90? My grandfathers lived until they were 90 and 97, my aunts on my father’s side are both in their late eighties, and my father (despite a 40-year battle with the bottle) is nearly 80 himself. We’ll see.

I just hope that my youth battery is on the plus side of fifty percent, and not on the minus side. Part of me feels like I’ve only just started living, not out of mission, faithful desperation, or obligation, but out of a sense of it all being worth it, of me actually being worth it. I’ve traveled all over the US, to Alaska during the summer solstice, to Canada, to the US-Mexican border. But it was all for work, to present at conferences, to visit family, to give my son a sense of the world. Except for my honeymoon and other marital excursions, I’ve only traveled a couple of times just to experience the world. Despite my disdain for humanity, I still want that, for me and for my family. I can’t get there, though, on my current double-adjunct, full-time equivalent salaries. This must change.

If it all continues to work out, let it be this year, my God, let it be, let it be. For “there will be an answer, let it be” — eeeeee! (It’s not so interesting to quote a song from The Beatles final studio album, the title song released when I was just a bit more than two months old.) To misquote Princeton professor Tera Hunter’s 1996 book, let it be that I “‘joy my freedom,” that I give myself permission to do so, that my life gives me more opportunities to do so. Let Year 50 be about more than just Nixon and Vietnam, the Moon landing and the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party, about Woodstock and the Jets and Mets winning titles. Let it be that I have as keen an understanding of my future as I do of the past.