If Racism Is Broadway, Narcissism Is Grand Central

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Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

This is a subject matter that normally would be too complicated for me to write about here. But then again, the work of explaining any aspect of the human condition is complex work. Especially when addressing American racism, its origins, its subatomic parts, and its effect on humans beyond the material and physical. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, and so many others have described the Black body and what the Black body has had to endure at the hands of American racism. But perhaps one of the most serious effort to address the psychological impact of American racism on Blacks and Whites was W. E. B. Du Bois’ in Black Reconstruction (1935). It’s a book that is the very definition of tome, covering twenty years of history with a sociological lens determined to cut to the marrow of what occurred during Reconstruction as if the reader was an eyewitness to each day’s happenings between 1860 and 1880.

Thanks in varying measures to Derrick Bell, David Roediger, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michael Eric Dyson, and many, many others, intellectuals and scholars have made much progress with the oft-quoted phrase “the wages of whiteness” over the past quarter-century. But while many have explained the wages of Whiteness, most haven’t tried to define it, especially when it comes to the psychological.

For a refresher, this was what Du Bois actually wrote about Whiteness and wages in Black Reconstruction:

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“A sort of public and psychological wage,” Du Bois wrote on page 700. Most scholars have explained rather thoroughly the public or material wages of Whiteness, of American racism for Whites on a structural and institutional level. Many have attempted to do so on an individual or internalizing level. But Du Bois was one of a handful who attempted to explain both the collective and individual impetus for being comfortable in racism. A founding member of the field of American sociology, an expert American and Black historian, Du Bois in 1935 discussed with great explanatory power the nature of American racism and how it developed over time to trump class divides.

But this only gets at the material. As for the psychological, Du Bois spent a significant amount of his 760 pages in Black Reconstruction attempting to do so. Except that, as a sociologist, Du Bois explained the psychological wage primarily in terms of group and interpersonal dynamics, and not in terms of group thought or a sort of collective thought.

On page 52, though, Du Bois hits home with the following about American racism’s corrosive effect on those practicing it at the individual level:

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What Du Bois described in 1935 was not just the effect of American racism on the individual Southern planter. If Du Bois had possessed a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), what he described we would call narcissistic personality disorder in 2016. Phrases like “inflate the ego…beyond all reason,” “arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets,” “expected deference and self-abasement,” and “were choleric and easily insulted.” These could easily be “a persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy,” the DSM-V general description of narcissism.

A couple of quotes and a general description of narcissism are likely insufficient to link Du Bois’ prescient nod to social psychology on the issue of American racism. This is what the DSM-V says about narcissistic personality disorder in full:

In order to determine if a patient may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a psychiatrist must determine if that patient meets at least any five (5) of the nine (9) standards below:

  1. A grandiose logic of self-importance
  2. A fixation with fantasies of unlimited success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
  3. A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
  4. A desire for unwarranted admiration
  5. A sense of entitlement
  6. Interpersonally oppressive behavior
  7. No form of empathy
  8. Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
  9. A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Now there are actually far more serious personality disorders that can be part of a larger set of self-destructive, dangerous, or even lethal behaviors, in which narcissistic personality disorder can be entangled. Most individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are not dangerous or self-destructive, and often function as normal or even high-performing human beings. In other words, there are levels of narcissism here, from the ground floor to the edges of the known universe.

Ah, but the DSM-V is describing the behavior of individuals, and not that of a class of people or a society, like what Du Bois attempted to do in Black Reconstruction, right? Yes and no. Du Bois used one individual example after another to build the case that the “white laborer” had come to have the same aspirations for the “public and psychological wages” that the Southern planter class had obtained through generations of owning slaves. Only, Blacks by the time of Reconstruction were slaves no more. The best way for Southern White elites to provide poor Whites all of the amenities of American racism without the latter either revolting against them outright or joining up with Blacks to fight grinding poverty was to codify American racism in the form of Jim Crow.

But where I and Du Bois are not on the same page is in the nature of American racism and narcissism as variables. Du Bois essentially argued that the psychological wage of Whiteness was the effect of American racism on Whites over time. The problem is, where does American racism come out of psychologically and sociologically? The simple yet true answer is out of gaming an advantage through greed and the desire for profit, through fear and the disdain for those whom have been deemed lesser, and through a willful ignorance and ignoring of the condition in which one has left other human beings. And that, for those who are reading, is both racism and narcissism, two separate yet interdependent ideas that help to prop each other up.

Before digging deeper into this, there are two things I want to make clear. One is that to think about American racism and American narcissism as part of the collective culture, think first of an atom. If racism were an atom, narcissism is its neutron. An atom doesn’t necessarily need a neutron to be stable (think Hydrogen atom, for example), and neutrons can be used to split atoms. People can be individually or collectively racist without necessarily being narcissistic, in other words, but the two often go hand-in-hand. Or, one can think about racism as the result of the social construction of race (to slightly quote Barbara Jean Fields), while narcissism is a psychological construction from which socially-constructed racism can spring, and then the former can be reinforced by the latter.

However, do not get it twisted. Just because I am saying that narcissism is a part of racism and vice-versa does not make racism a psychological illness by any means. That narcissists often function normally in nearly all social settings means that the personality disorder is a flaw or weakness of the human condition, not a disease. Racism is the attempt to take as much advantage of this flaw for oneself or for one’s group as better than others, and then use that success to reinforce the belief that one person or one group is better than another by taking even more advantages, materially and otherwise. American racism and American narcissism are two bosom buddies, and intertwine and intermix much more freely in the American context than virtually anywhere else.

Responses to My Piece in The Atlantic

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On Labor Day last week, The Atlantic ran my piece “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students.” It was a culmination of thoughts I had gleaned from the latest, research, from working on education issues in the nonprofit world, from my time as a professor at various universities, from my own college journey, and is in some ways, a summary of Boy @ The Window.

The response over the past week has been much more than I expected. It was definitely overwhelming in terms of the number of people who shared their own first-generation stories. I found myself wading through emails, nodding my head in agreement or shaking my head at the crap that some of my readers had to put up with to attend and graduate from college. These emails — as well as comments on the article on The Atlantic website — made all of the work putting the article together worth it.

A couple of stories stuck out for me. One was from a first-generation student who attended college a few years before my own 1987-91 run at the bachelor’s.

I read your article in the Atlantic, I was shocked at the similarity of our college experience. I like the Columbia investigation tale, they told me they didn’t believe me that my family income was so modest…Georgetown offered me the most money. I went to Georgetown in 1982, graduated in 1987, was homeless for a time, embarrassed about my modest financial background, grew up very fast in all areas, to enable completion of my studies.

Among the things that struck me was the shame of poverty the person felt then and years later. Living in a country like the US, with the constant mantra of hard work, faith, and ability all lead to prosperity, means that anyone not doing well might as well be a laughingstock standing naked in front of their high school graduating class. Or should contemplate committing suicide. It shouldn’t be purely on first-generation students to open up about their experiences before universities and states put resources into leadership and youth development organizations, mental health services, and fully-funded, need-based aid beyond tuition (covering food, housing, and books) to maximize opportunities for this increasingly larger group of college students.

I know the unofficial rule about not reading comments sections for articles, especially if the article happens to be your own. But given the personal nature of “Why Making College Free Isn’t Enough for First-Generation Students,” I wanted to see what folks had to say. Some accused me of self-aggrandizement, of “patting myself on the back” for having graduated with a degree from Pitt in four years. Another went on to call me “exceptional,” that most “sixth-generation” students couldn’t have done what I did. Both comments seemed vaguely envious. I took no joy in writing about being homeless for five days. Especially since I knew so many others under similar circumstances haven’t completed their degrees.

Some of the comments I received on Twitter were of the nitpicking variety. One was from an education professor whom told me to “read her book” because I didn’t nuance the fact that non-financial aid programs for first-generation students cost money and other resources. Really? No kidding! Another pointed out there were more aspects to Hillary Clinton’s higher education plan than free college tuition, while a third commented that I didn’t discuss Pell Grants as part of my financial aid packages. All true, but given the comprehensive nature of the piece, I didn’t think it necessary to write a magnum opus or someone else’s version of combining my experiences with today’s data on first-generation students.

Many of the comments in The Atlantic’s Comments section, though, were of the more stereotyping variety. Comments about my Mom as undeserving of welfare because of the number of kids she had. Comments about my father’s alcoholism. Assumptions that because my father wasn’t in the household, that I lived in a “broken home.” Stereotypes about affirmative action, about “big government,” about “welfare cheats” versus law-abiding “tax payers.” I could address all of these well-meaning race-baiters one-by-one, but I’ve challenged these assumptions in the piece and even in my blog, anyway.

One of my readers emailed me in expressing their assumptions about me and about first-generation students in general.

What makes sense is for first-generation students to go to colleges more oriented toward their needs, even if those colleges are less ‘competitive.’

Navigating a huge bureaucracy isn’t easy for anyone. What it takes is the emotional strength that comes from being raised in a functional, intact home…But rising up the ladder has to be seen as, for most, a gradual process, not a “rags to riches” one.

I guess this person missed the part where I noted that 50 percent of all first-generation students are White, and that technically, I did live in a home with either my father and my Mom or my idiot stepfather and my Mom growing up. Part of the problem in understanding the needs of first-generations students, though, are people like this reader, many of whom are college administrators who also make sweeping assumptions about students who aren’t middle class and White. Heck, the main indicator of success for students is parent’s income and wealth, not hard work, ability, or whether their parents live together or face substance abuse issues.

And that’s kind of the point another emailer made about her own college journey as a first-generation student.

I went off to a private college — which I picked without any idea about getting a job or learning a profession. My mother…naively believed that a degree would guarantee I would be more employable. I was one of maybe 2 scholarship students on my small campus and I was miserable. None of my friends there worked and for them, living “poor” was hip. I was the only one desperate not to be broke (because mom and dad couldn’t bail me out). I stayed there for 2 years even though I did poorly academically because I didn’t even know I could transfer schools. I thought if I left, I was giving up on college altogether. In reality, it took me almost 10 years to finish college (finally, at a state school) and I lived in poverty in the meantime…I still can’t eat ramen noodles because I grew so ever-loving sick of having them all the time.

In her case, I would eat ramen noodles any day over canned tuna fish. Twenty-eight years later, the smell of it still makes me queasy.

So, thanks to all of you who read the piece, disagreed with some or all that I said, shared your stories, commiserated with me, and/or misinterpreted my article and why I wrote it. Much appreciated!

We Were Never United

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9/11 Memorial reflecting pool (w/ reflection of Freedom Tower off building straight ahead), August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

9/11 Memorial reflecting pool (w/ reflection of Freedom Tower off building straight ahead), August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The media trades in archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes the way an alcoholic can become drunk by just smelling ethanol from a block away. It’s been so true around every 9/11 anniversary that it’s somewhat sickening.

There are two tropes the mainstream media has used to keep Americans in a perpetual state of fear and hyper-patriotism since that gruesome second September Tuesday in 2001. One is the theme of “Never Forget” (and the most obvious Twitter hashtag ever). The only other times the mantra of “Never Forget” normally comes up is either in reference to Jews and the Holocaust or to the systematic genocide Native Americans experienced. It should also come up for Blacks and Africans regarding the Middle Passage and slavery, Aborigines in Australia, and other groups who’ve experienced the wanton destruction of their lives and culture in the relatively recent past. Of course Americans shouldn’t forget what happened on 9/11. Nearly 3,000 people died on that tragic day. But 5.9 million Jews, 8-10 million Native Americans, untold millions of Africans, Aborigines, and other groups? Not exactly a fair comparison. If we cannot consistently have empathy and sympathy for the plight of others who suffer and die in the thousands or millions — like with Syrians, Iraqis, South Sudanese — then what does “Never Forget” really mean beyond an extravagant display of navel-gazing?

The second trope the media sells Americans every year is the idea that we “came together” in the weeks after 9/11 like never before. This is some high-grade bull crap. Maybe White Americans did. Maybe Americans who saw Arab Americans, Sikhs, Black and Latinos who looked like they could be Arabs united. But to say that the US “united” in a common bond to bring each other peace in a grand display of patriotism belies the reality of what happened in the six weeks between the attacks and the passage of the USA Patriot Act.

The most poignant moment of my own 9/11 experience was on a fifteen-hour Greyhound bus trip I took from Atlanta to DC after the government grounded commercial airplanes. There was a Sikh man on our bus, who got on somewhere between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. Two men, one White and one Black, tried to get in the face of this man and blame him for what happened in New York, in DC, and in Western Pennsylvania. I literally had to get in between these dumb asses to keep them from doing worse than their ridiculous name-calling. If this is what the media meant/means by Americans “uniting” after 9/11, then, yes, we did, if only to show our religious and ethnic ignorance, to vent our not-so-subtle hatred and intolerance.

This was some of what I wrote in the days after 9/11 and my wonderful bus trip up I-85/75.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah? If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred. If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.

Welp, I was wrong. We would “Never Again” condone acts of terror against our own citizens, right? Whether through the systemic use of law enforcement as death squads against Blacks or Latinos, or the occasional White vigilante dispensing their own form of racist justice? We would unite to stop White supremacists from blowing up mosques, synagogues, and temples, to stop other Americans from harassing Arab American citizens and Sikhs for their open display of their First Amendment religious freedoms, no? We Americans would stand up for the rights of those who protest in opposition to existing examples of lethal oppression, because the American flag is about much more than the US military? Yeah, right!

Americans have proven that “united” and “never forget” are proxies for our societal narcissism. It runs as deep as anything that has taken root in American culture, including racism, individualism, and xenophobia. For me, at least, it is why media mantras like “united” and “never forget” ring hollow, despite my memories of the week that was 9/11.

 

Looking Back to My Future

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The power of "What If?," September 4, 2016. (http://giphy.com).

The power of “What If?,” September 4, 2016. (http://giphy.com).

I don’t “what if” my past moments nearly as much as I used to, thanks in part to one of my first Twitter conversations six years ago. It was with Blair Kelley, a professor and dean at North Carolina State University. I brought up the fact that I sometimes indulged my students’ “What if…?” scenarios regarding slavery and other issues in US history in order to help them find the truth. She said that this was a waste of time, that “What is…?” is already hard enough for students to understand, much less playing out a “What if…?” to get to a “What is…?”

Kelley was right. Students often play the “What if…?” game to deflect from what actually happened, out of potential pain or discomfort with historical truths, or because their conception of history doesn’t allow for humanity and human nature as significant factors. So I stopped humoring my students in fantasies about the South winning the Civil War or Nazi Germany winning World War II in Europe. It hasn’t made my students any happier, but it has made teaching them easier.

As for my own “What ifs…?,” I still think of a few on occasion. Like what if I had gone to college at Columbia or another elite institution instead of Pitt? Or what if I had possessed the courage to act on my crush on Wendy in seventh grade, or not wear my kufi to school during the Hebrew-Israelite years at all? Those can be very good mental distractions when I’m running a 10K or working on a boring set of revisions to an education piece. But they’re also rather silly distractions, with me knowing full well why I did or didn’t do most things, even knowing my thought process at the time they occurred in ’81, ’82, or ’87.

With this weekend being exactly twenty-eight years since my five days of undergraduate homelessness on Pitt’s campus, I have a real “What if…?” scenario to reconsider. What if I hadn’t bumped into my friend Leandrew, who had told me about the dilapidated fire-trap rowhouse he lived in on Welsford? What if I hadn’t met with my landlord Mr. Fu and gotten my 200-square-foot room with a literal hole in the wall so that two rooms could share a single radiator, all for $140 per month (about $285 in 2016 dollars)? What if I had to spend Labor Day weekend on a closed Pitt campus sleeping on that top floor concrete landing in a Forbes Quadrangle (now Posvar Hall) stairwell, where I had already spent three nights?

The mythical 6th-floor landing I slept on for three days (leading out to the roof), Wesley Posvar Hall, September 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

The mythical 6th-floor landing I slept on for three days (leading out to the roof), Wesley Posvar Hall, September 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

I already know the answers to these questions. I decided on this after praying about this on Wednesday, August 31 in ’88 while in that stairwell, laying on some of my clothes and my book bag. If I came out of Labor Day weekend without housing, I’d have to take my remaining $300 and go back to New York, to Mount Vernon, to 616. I’d have to drop or withdraw from my courses at Pitt. Maybe, with add-drop still going on, I could have some of my financial aid refunded, after Pitt deducted the $819 I owed them from my freshman year. I could enroll at Fordham or at CUNY’s Hunter College for the Winter/Spring 1989 semester, maybe find work somewhere in the area, and gut it out a few months at 616 with my nonfunctioning family.

I knew then that this was a scenario as ridiculous as Napoleon conquering Russia in the dead of winter. One of the reasons (but not the main reason) I left for the University of Pittsburgh in the first place was to get away from my family, to meet people unlike my Mom, my idiot stepfather, my five siblings at crowded 616, and the asshole Humanities classmates I’d gone to school with every day for the previous six years. I knew I had to have the mental space I needed to find myself, to figure myself out, all in considering whether I even had a future, much less how that future would take shape or how I’d shape myself into a future.

If I had gone with my cockamamie idea, the best case outcome would’ve been me transferring to Hunter or Fordham with my first year’s credits from Pitt, and me making it through a few semesters full-time before becoming a part-time student. I have no idea if I would’ve finished with a degree in history or something else from Hunter or Fordham. But given how exhausted I was each time I went back to Pitt after a summer of paid and familial work, I likely wouldn’t have even considered grad school.

The weight of guilt, survivor's and otherwise, September 2014. (http://www.fumsnow.com/).

The weight of guilt, survivor’s and otherwise, September 2014. (http://www.fumsnow.com/).

Why? I would’ve been at 616. I would’ve been obligated to help out with everything, from dealing with my idiot stepfather before me and my Mom finally forced him out, to providing food, entertainment, and childcare for my four younger siblings. I know this because during my college years, I did come back to 616 to work each summer and during the holidays. Those additional responsibilities were ones I felt obligated to fulfill until I was in my early thirties, and felt most intense when I had to face my family’s poverty head-on.

Keep in mind, this is the best-case outcome. Most likely, I would have stopped going to school all together after my bout with homelessness. I would’ve found part-time or full-time low-wage work, first to help out, then to find a roach trap somewhere in Mount Vernon or in the Bronx, and been relegated to the torture of “What ifs?” around getting a degree and having a better life. Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve been bumped around enough by that rough life to try again, to seek help from the likes of an ombudsman like Ron Slater or a provost like Jack Daniel. But I barely knew how to seek help when I first went about doing it as a homeless and broke-ass student in ’88. Given my mental makeup back then, it would’ve been a monumental task to trust that much after years of low-wage work and unrelenting poverty at 616.

UCLA education professor (although he is so much more than that) Pedro Noguera reminded me of something I’ve come to disdain in recent years. This idea that philanthropists and researchers can use kids and families as experimental subjects on the issue of “grit” or “resilience” is one I find disgusting. The idea that oppression and inequality can be overcome if you or I simply toughen up, grow a thick outer shell and just push through? The idea that with grit and spit and sweat, anyone can just overcome through sheer will power a lack of preparation, a lack of resources, a lack of access to resources, a lack of connections, and a lack of knowledge? Are you kidding me?

Quaker Instant Grits, Super Family Size, September 4, 2016. (http://soap.com).

Quaker Instant Grits, Super Family Size, September 4, 2016. (http://soap.com).

I had just about the best academic preparation anyone could have going into college, and I still came within three or four days of dropping out and heading back to 616. I was staring into the abyss of my future. The only grit I knew that would’ve worked for me on August 31, ’88 would’ve been a gigantic box of Quaker’s Instant Grits. And that was assuming I found a place to live in Pittsburgh so I could buy a pot and cook them. I didn’t want to be resilient. I’d always been resilient. But I didn’t call it that. I called it surviving.

And without help, without knowing how to ask for help, without some occasional divine or quantum-level intervention, my grit, resiliency, or survival up to August 31, ’88, wouldn’t have mattered. Philanthropists, educators, and social scientists need to stop asking individuals, families, and communities in poverty to be part of their test of resiliency as if we’re all rats in their maze. They need to start asking all of us not just how we survive, but what we need to succeed. Then again, they shouldn’t even need to ask. It’s not as if this is a “What if…?” The Great Society and War on Poverty efforts in the 1960s have already provided a roadmap. Go study that.

Shut Up and Play

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“Shut up play!” That’s what the average White-bred American wants. Not just from Colin Kaepernick. They want that from all vulnerable Americans, especially those of us Black, Brown, and female. Like the chain-smoking, beer-drinking, and buffalo-wing-eating archetypes many are, these average Joes have been going after Kaepernick since Saturday afternoon, attempting to do to him virtually what their great-grandfathers would’ve done to him in the town square. These folk should know that they know nothing of the flag, the national anthem, or the Constitution they claim to believe in so forthrightly. They have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the racism and oppression that motivated Kaepernick to take his stand by sitting is alive and well, both in American institutions and in the hearts and minds of average Joes.

But so are the rules of racial standing, or race rules, for that matter (to quote both Derrick Bell and Michael Eric Dyson). In the past two days, eloquent Black ex-NFL players Hines Ward, Jerry Rice, Rodney Harrison, and Tiki Barber have all weighed in, saying dumb and racist crap in the process. “All lives matter?” “Can’t we just all get along?” Kaepernick “isn’t Black?” Who are these dumb asses? And why is the media searching for anti-Kaepernick perspectives harder than Shell is searching for Arctic oil?

Because Americans demand it. Americans want a society with a permanent underclass, where even the few who somehow “make it” swear their allegiance to the status quo. Americans want to believe that racism is a mere boogieman that can be kept in the closet and will rarely see the light of day. And, most of all, Americans want their Black and Brown athletes, especially in football, to not have brains, mouths, or a conscious. Americans wants to be entertained, not educated.

As a couple of lines from Live’s “White, Discussion” (1994) go,

I talk of freedom
You talk of the flag
I talk of revolution
You’d much rather brag

That is America in a nutshell. Nothing’s wrong with the country, but everything is wrong with those Black and Brown who are willing to say that there is. The flag and the national anthem are sacred, but the lives of those Black, Brown, and female are cheaper than sewer water. Any sweeping changes to policing, foreign and economic policies, or other aspects of American culture are met with “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!,” as if everyone Black and Brown must prove their patriotism in order to confront oppression.

So I say this. The only people who need to “shut up and play” are the ones with a Bud in one hand and three buffalo wings in the other. Shut up and play ball with America’s reality, and not with America’s symbols. Shut up and play the real game of understanding why Kaepernick is protesting and why the ideals of the flag and the anthem are daggers in the hearts of millions. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem. Period.

Splitting The Rail Between Nate Parker and His Work

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Splitting a log into rails, Arkansas, May 1983. (http://www.motherearthnews.com/).

Splitting a log into rails, Arkansas, May 1983. (http://www.motherearthnews.com/).

I wrote about this in the context of rap and popular music three years ago. Yet, most of us have not learned this lesson. That great artists and the works that they produce often do not equate in any way to the person they are outside of their artistry in their daily lives. It is so rare as to be almost a godsend when a wonderful cultural producer can also be a forthright and social justice-oriented person who has few blemishes on their record. It is so rare, in fact, that it is more likely I find a briefcase with a $2 million in $100-bills next to my car this morning than find successful cultural producers with deep waters’ worth of goodness and doing good as their record.

Twitter and Facebook folk have been up in arms about the discovery that actor/director/producer Nate Parker allegedly raped a women in ’99 along with one of his co-producers, was acquitted a year later, and the woman subsequently committed suicide in 2012. Keep in mind, this information has been out here about Parker for a number of years. Keep in mind, this act occurred when Parker was nineteen years old. Keep in mind, this vile act and the acquittal he received for it may well be the reason Parker had the opportunity to become an actor and a movie producer in the first place.

As a survivor of sexual assault myself (it still reads strange for me to write this), it makes me ill right down to my bowels, having read some of the details about what happened. Especially since I also know women to whom this happened and the impact it had on some for years afterward. I almost wish I didn’t know that Nate Parker might have gotten away with rape seventeen years ago.

But, as I also know all too well, if the idea is to not see his, et al’s The Birth of a Nation revamped to be about Nat Turner/Nat Turner’s Rebellion, good luck with that. Ultimately, to see or not to see the film is a choice that any of us can make. One can decide to see it and still feel like vomiting over Parker’s real-life rape case. One can decide not to see the film and claim that Parker is a reformed man. It is not as simple an equation as, “if you see The Birth of a Nation, you are pouring money into a rapist’s pockets.”

From The Birth of a Nation (2016) trailer, August 26, 2016. (http://youtube.com).

From The Birth of a Nation (2016) trailer, August 26, 2016. (http://youtube.com).

My biggest issue, though, is with all the outrage has come the American penchant for hypocritical moralizations, one that is in part based on race. That is, that we only have the choice of supporting Nate Parker and his revolutionary work or not, that the middle ground of seeing cultural production while reviling the man who helped produce it isn’t an available option. Sorry, but we Americans, we obese consumers and appropriators of all things cultural, do this every day. People have not stopped seeing Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films, though one is likely a child molester and the other one committed rape. We haven’t returned or burned Bill Withers’ tapes, albums, and CDs, though he’s had domestic violence issues in his past. Nor do we think about the poetry we read, the paintings and sculptures we peruse, the TV shows we watch, in which an artist of one kind or another has committed a crime, has killed, stolen from, and destroyed people’s lives along the way. The problem is, if one swings a stick at any cultural production, you will hit a thief, a mugger, an abuser, a rapist, a molester, maybe even a Nazi.

As for me, like with most movies, I will not go to see The Birth of a Nation in a movie theater. I will wait the six months or a year it takes for it to come out on premium cable. I wouldn’t have gone to see it before social media caught wind of Parker’s past. I certainly will not get sucked in to see it, to be part some moralistic wave of cultural immediacy, now.

This issue should not be about Nate Parker at all. It should be about the system that allows for rapists to get no jail time or to be acquitted. It should be about universities like Penn State that allow these crimes to go unpunished, places that punish the victims of sexual violence much more often than they do the perpetrators. It should be about a society where both fathers and mothers do nothing to teach their sons to not rape. Instead, we’re focused on one individual, as if the problem of American rape culture will be solved by going after alleged rapists years after their crimes.

My Mom’s Migration Story, 50 Years Later

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I would be a pretty terrible son and historian to not discuss the fact that this July and August marks fifty years since my mother moved to New York from little ol’ Bradley, Arkansas. For those who think fifty years on anything revolving around race and class is “a long time ago” or “ancient history,” consider the following. At the time Mom moved across the country to Gotham, the Civil Rights Movement had entered its northern, splintered phase, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was barely a year old, and the very first episode of Star Trek with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would air that September.

Bus route my mother took from Bradley, Arkansas to New York City in late-July 1966, August 23, 2016. (http://maps.google.com).

Bus route my mother took from Bradley, Arkansas to New York City in late-July 1966 (highlighted in blue with yellow dots), August 23, 2016. (http://maps.google.com).

On balance, with any neutral but fair eye at all, I’d have to say that Mom’s transition has been more failure than success. Five decades of crisis after crisis, of having a handful of fleeting moments of peace and progress followed by years of abuse, misery, poverty, and sorrow. That could be the summary I’d write about Mom’s fifty years of post-migration experiences in New York and in Mount Vernon.

But, let’s start from the top, through Boy @ The Window:

After drifting a bit after her high school graduation, one of Mom’s first cousins came for a visit to Arkansas in the summer of ’66 and told her that there was good-paying work in New York City. Her cousin lived in the [170s, the Tremont section of the] Bronx, a hotbed of Black migration and West Indian immigration in those years. Without much thought, Mom took a four-day bus trip from Texarkana to New York to what she hoped would be a new life. Given the alternative of tenant farming and generational poverty, New York must’ve seemed like going to heaven.

Mom had it rough long before my father and my older brother Darren and I had come along to be a burden. She lived with her cousin for nearly a year in the Bronx, paying $15 a week for a one-bedroom flat, before good luck turned to bad and then back to wonderful. They had both lost jobs at some factory, but had heard through the other late Black arrivals in the Bronx and Mount Vernon about good paying jobs at Mount Vernon Hospital. When Mount Vernon Hospital hired Mom to be a cook in their dietary department, she and her first cousin went their separate ways living-together-wise. They’d stay in touch until ’78, when Mom’s first cousin moved to Virginia, presumably for work with the Navy.

In the interim, Mom met my father at a juke joint on Mount Vernon’s South Side. It was a place where only Southern Black migrants would be comfortable. They didn’t have to pretend to like the grime, the hustle, the noise, and the taunts that New York and New Yawkers threw at them every day. They could be themselves. They could be shy, apprehensive, even, about their time in a place where everyone joked about their Southern accents and their slow ways. I think that’s what made my father attractive to Mom. Here was someone who made Mom sound much less Southern by comparison. At the same time, my father worked in the city, had a job as a janitor with the Federal Reserve Bank, and knew the Subway better than she knew the route from her one-room flat on Adams Street to Mount Vernon Hospital.

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

Within a year of meeting, Mom gave birth to my older brother Darren. Mom often said that she “wasn’t a teenager” when Darren was born in December ’67, as she had turned twenty six weeks earlier. Yet as I finally pointed out during the intervention fourteen years ago, “But you got pregnant when you were nineteen,” all to let Mom know that the stigma of teenage pregnancy was more about her and her insecurities than it was about what White folks thought, especially back then.

I came along two years later, Mom married my father in ’70, and things started falling apart soon after. Mom never gave herself a chance to live the city, and not just work in it. Mom never gave herself time to grow beyond her insecurities and her vanity about her looks. She never really tried to make her aspirations for joining the Navy or going to college happen. The latter, at least until after I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in ’87.

As I wrote about Mom’s/our family’s fall into welfare poverty by ’83 in Boy @ The Window,

Sixteen years, a dead-end job and two abusive husbands later, Mom must’ve been thinking that Mount Vernon was a hellish pit that got hotter every time she tried to make her and our lives better. With a fourteen-year-old kid in a school for the retarded, a twelve-year-old getting beat up by the second husband, a three-year-old who all but refused to speak because of his abuse, a one-year-old and another one on its way, it was little wonder that she showed about as much affection as an NYPD police officer. The ‘I love you, Donald’ faucet, which was an occasional drip prior to the summer of ’82, was pretty much turned off after that.

Yes, this is all truly sad. There was way too much too soon for Mom. Family, marriage, abuse, poverty, and internalized issues around race, sexism, misogyny, Black masculinity, evangelical Christianity (and the whole Hebrew-Israelite debacle), and all in New York. It would’ve been overwhelming for anyone whose income never saw $20,000 in any year prior to temp work in ’99, and $30,000 until working for Westchester County Medical Center in 2003.

There are so many mistakes Mom made, with me, my siblings older and younger, in choosing mates, and with work. I’ve written about roughly half of them. But, awful or awesome, without Mom’s momentary hope and courage — often the very definition of Black migration, especially to New York — I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.