“Let Me Tell You About Ms. Martha…”



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Ms. Martha with her grandson, Silver Spring, MD, December 25, 2009. (Donald Earl Collins)

I’ve been reluctant to write this post. Not because I have nothing good to say about my late mom-in-law, someone I’d known for nearly half my 51 years. I have nothing but good things to write about her. Not because I’m grieving. I often write when I’m in an altered state emotionally or psychologically. No, I’m a bit nervous because this will be my first blog post about any specific member of my wife’s family, Thanksgiving 2001 excepted. I’m mostly concerned that some will see what I have to write about my mom-in-law as an indirect slap toward my own mother and parents/guardian in general.

Trust me, it’s not. That I first met Martha Mae Guinn Levy (1931-2020) a month after my twenty-sixth birthday meant the nature of this relationship was never going to be strictly parent-to-child or mother-to-son.

The truth is, Ms. Martha really did treat me that way. But not just that. Sometimes our conversations could be contentious, like professor-student, or like two bickering friends, or brother-sister. The woman had nearly 39 years on me, but the battle-axe of a geezer could just as quickly be affectionate and a never-ending fountain of love and optimistic clichés. There are so many conversations, so many arguments, so many moments I could discuss that made me see all the facets and contradictions of my mom-in-law.

Ms. Martha made herself available for nearly every important event in my life since my then girlfriend introduced us on the last Saturday in January 1996. She attended my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon the following year. She drove me and her daughter to the Greyhound bus station in “dahntahn Picksburgh” in August 1999, so that we could begin our 20-plus years of living in the DMV, the Washington DC area. She shared a hotel room with my mom in 2000, just a few months after me and her daughter eloped. She came here to Silver Spring and watched at Sibley Hospital in DC as my wife gave birth to her one and only grandchild in 2003. She stayed with us for six weeks to watch her grandson in November and December of the same year, so that my wife could go back to work, and just before our son would start daycare.

But there’s one conversation that really and truly encompassed the evolution of our relationship over the years. It was in December 2013, just a few months after I had self-published Boy @ The Window. A week earlier, I had called my father about his yearly Christmas ritual of sending barely cashable Western Union money orders to give to his grandson for the holiday season. Instead, he mumbled and gave gruff one-word answers to my questions. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “I told you not to put me in your book,” he said, sounding hurt and embarrassed. “I didn’t want nothing to do with your book. You shoulda left the past in the past.” My dad actually hadn’t said any of these things in the seven years between first sentence and the rough final draft I ended up publishing that April. I had been completely open about what I was going to write and why. I guess having a paperback copy of Boy @ The Window in his hands to leaf through was too much for him.

The weekend before Christmas 2013, Ms. Martha called. She dialed up my partner on her cell phone to talk to me (mind you, she had my direct number, but called her daughter first). When I picked up Angelia’s phone, I heard “Hey Donald” in Ms. Martha’s gravelly voice. After a brief exchange, she said, “I wanna talk to you about your book.” I mailed Ms. Martha a copy of Boy @ The Window, along with my dad and a few others, but I hadn’t expected her to read it, at least not so quickly.

“I started reading and I didn’t wanna put it down,” Ms. Martha said. I was surprised. Really, I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t expected this response at all. Not because Ms. Martha didn’t read. I figured, Oh, she’s just being polite, especially after hearing from my dad a little more than a week earlier.

We talked about my book for nearly an hour and a half on my wife’s iPhone. I might as well have been doing a book talk as conversation with my mom-in-law. Ms. Martha asked questions about my Boy @ The Window years, wanting more details beyond the stories I did include. There were a lot of “I didn’t know…” and “I couldn’t believe…” comments about what I and my family lived through. She asked at least a dozen questions about my mom and her decision-making, about my brothers and sister, about my asshole classmates.

Mostly, she doted on me. “Oh boy! I liked this sentence here…,” Ms. Martha said while reading me back to me a number of times. When I explained away my accomplishments or challenges, she’d say, “…as far as that matter goes…” to remind me that what was normal for me was not normal for most tweeners or teenagers, not even Black ones living with poverty. “This was a joy to read,” she said so many times. She said she laughed and cried while reading the book, and laughed and cried while talking to me about it.

I ended that conversation with Ms. Martha thinking, Wow! This tough old woman really loves me! It made me feel better about writing Boy @ The Window. It made me feel better at a time when I felt low, about my writing, about switching careers, about life in general.

And yes, I truly loved and love Ms. Martha. I will miss our conversations, our rational disagreements, our out-of-nowhere arguments, our hugs, our embraces, and her love for me, her daughters, her grandson, for family and community more broadly. I will miss your presence and your voice in my life. May God bless you and keep you…and give you peace, in your life after life.

Assassin’s Creed is the Story of Modern Racism


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Assassin’s Creed movie poster (cropped with lower resolution, per fair use laws), October 18, 2021. (https://www.deviantart.com/harzi17/art/Assassin-s-Creed-Movie-Poster-625133669)

Where does modern-day racism come from? There’s a recent movie that inadvertently attempts to answer this question, Assassin’s Creed (2016). The film did not do particularly well in theaters, making only $54.6 million in the US, and just under $241 million worldwide. Perhaps the rise of Donald Trump as president made its themes hit too close to home for too many moviegoers. But somehow, the movie’s director Justin Kurzel and its writers unknowingly shot a one-hour-and-fifty-minute crash-course in racism since 1492.

The Knights Templar versus the Assassin’s Brotherhood, a fight between shared bloodlines, Roman Catholicism, and Islam, that is what the game Assassin’s Creed is about. The movie, though, is about much more. It centers the technological science-fiction wonder known as the Animus, a machine that can tap into one’s DNA and find memories passed down generations ago. The Templars use the Animus to find the Apple, the mythical codex that would theoretically allow them to eliminate free will and the ability of people like the members of The Brotherhood to resist their reign. Except that real life has already surpassed art. In 2013, scientists had already discovered that mice and humans can both store memories in a few lines of code within DNA strands across generations. The scientific term for this is transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

There is no real-life version of the Animus yet. But it would figure that the Templars would use such a thing for their dystopian ends. The work of the Abstergo Foundation Rehabilitation Center, a subsidiary of The Templars’ corporation Abstergo Industries, fakes lead character Callum Lynch’s (Michael Fassbender) death and kidnaps him, then uses him to go back to 1492 Andalucia to find the Apple. Once Callum goes through this neurological and psychological “regression” to 1492, he embodies his assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha. Aguilar was the last ancient known to have possessed the Apple. 

The year 1492 is important, and not just because of Christopher Columbus. It’s the year Spain unified under the joint rule of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Castile, as their forces drove the last Moor ruler out of Granada. That victory ended more than 750 years of Arab Muslim and Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, the Reconquista, as Spanish historians have called it. Later that year, Isabella and Ferdinand expelled all remaining Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism. Spanish Muslims faced persecution from 1492 on, and eventually faced Inquisición and expulsion, too. Between 1609 and 1614, Spain forced as many as 300,000 Muslims of Arab, Moorish, and Spanish descent out of the country.

There are at least three sources from which modern-day racism springs. All are in the mix in Assassin’s Creed. The Arab world and the Trans-Saharan Trade, which included enslaved Africans in exchange for goods and knowledge, some of whom ended up in Arabesque Spain. The Iberian world of what would become Spain and Portugal, with a combination of anti-Arab and anti-Moor nationalism, racism, and Islamophobia on regular display. And, the English, the founders of Jamestown, British plantation slavery in North America and the Caribbean, and heavy contributors to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Templars’ headquarters, by the way, are in London. 

Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), the CEO of Abstergo and the embodiment of modern racism, not-so-secretly plans to use the Apple to end free will. In a conversation with Ellen Kaye (Charlotte Rampling) the chairwomen of Abstergo’s board of directors, Alan Rikkin discusses the final demise of human freedom. “The threat remains while free will exists. For centuries we’ve tried, with religion, with politics, and now consumerism, to eliminate dissent. Isn’t it time we gave science a try?” 

Notice how father Rikkin does not mention “systemic racism” or “capitalism,” both central in The Templars’ quest to control people over the past 500 years. This oppression disproportionately impacts the Global South, the Black, the Brown, the Indigenous, and non-Christian Europeans. It is reasonable to conclude that these religious beliefs and their thinly veiled racist beliefs are essentially the same.

One cannot help but notice these racism-based intersections. Especially when nearly every character of color in the film is part of The Brotherhood, and nearly every white character part of The Templars. The late Michael K. Williams plays the only African character in Assassin’s Creed, and he immediately brings to light the oppressive mix of religious bigotry and racism. “They call me Moussa. But my name is Baptiste. I’m dead 200 years now. Voodoo poisoner. I’m harmless,” Moussa says while stretching out his words with hand gestures, in introducing himself to Cal. Moussa confirms he and Cal and the other Assassins are prisoners, that the Templars stripped him of his past even as he reclaimed his ancestor’s name, and signaled that they will need to fight their oppressors (any of this sound familiar historically)? 

Another example comes from Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan Rikkin’s daughter and the head of the Animus project. “You are living proof of the connection between violence and genetics,” Sofia says to Cal when discussing the murder that led to his faked death and capture. That’s as eugenics as eugenics can get, the story of modern racism, slavery, colonization, and exploitation of people in a nutshell. This is how the social construct of racism becomes biological determinism, somehow superseding the truth that we are all related genetically.

There are people who would rather drink ground glass than admit how the US has its own special blend of white supremacist racism, one it has exported to the rest of the world. The whataboutisms set has zero interest in an actual answer to the question of racism’s origins. They are only interested in deflecting from their own complicity in white supremacist racism. Assassin’s Creed reveals as much as it deflects on how systemic racism has managed to thrive, through religion, capitalism, imperialism, and the elitist narcissism all of these -isms engender. Every American teacher of world history or European history should use Assassin’s Creed in this manner, providing entertainment with subliminal critical race theory hidden well enough for most white supremacists to not notice. I think.

Eric The Red


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Bryan Cranston as Walter White (“bald” edition) in AMC’s Breaking Bad (screen shot, cropped), August 2011.

All these years with this blog and I’ve never written about the first of the people who came into my life and decided that I needed their tutelage about grad school and life in general. Because of people like him, despite their helpfulness, I always have found myself leery about people telling me that they will “mentor me” or about calling myself a mentor of any kind. It should be the type of process that happens organically, based on mutual respect and trust, and not just because one person is a generation or more older than the other person.

The first person to volunteer themselves as a mentor during my first year as a graduate school in the University of Pittsburgh’s History department was Eric, who was 42 or 43 to my 21 year-old self in September 1991. A year and a half earlier, Eric was the teaching assistant for my upper-level American Working-Class History course with Dick Oestreicher. We had exactly two interactions that semester. One was when Eric had scored my midterm exam short essays an 89. I asked him, “So, what’s the difference between an 89 and a 90 on this exam, anyway?” His mouth fell open, because he didn’t have an answer. He changed my grade to a 90 on the spot. Two was at a going-away party for my TA from my Western Civ II course my first year at Pitt, Paul Riggs. Paul was headed to Edinburgh, Scotland on fellowship to explore the height, weight, and diet differences among 18th and early 19th century European men in connection to a larger econometrics dissertation. (I still don’t quite know what Paul’s dissertation was about, beyond half-starve British and French soldiers hoping to grow to five-three before dying from bayonets or typhoid during the Napoleonic Wars.)

It just happened that when administrators assigned me a cubby hole for a desk my first year in grad-school-land, that it was in the same part of the department as Eric’s cubicle. His spot included a window that looked out from the third floor of Forbes Quadrangle (now Wesley Posvar Hall) to the open space below, as well as to Hillman Library, David Lawrence Hall, and if you tilted your head to the right, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the lower floor of the Cathedral of Learning. It was a prime spot, and Eric never hesitated to let me or anyone else know that he had earned it.

Eric had, in fact, earned it. He became a grad student in the department at the same time Pitt had awarded me an academic scholarship to attend as an undergrad, in 1987. He bragged about the fact that he had gone from having “only an Associate’s Degree to ABD in just three years.” Pitt had also rewarded Eric an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellowship in 1990, making it seem he was on “cruise control” for finishing his doctorate in a couple of years.

What I’d learn about Eric over the next two years was that he was also a very active Marxist, a card-carrying member of the Community Party USA (or, maybe, if I’m remembering it wrong, the Socialist Party USA), and a trained actor who had made documentaries and written for news rags about union-busting, union-organizing, and class struggle since the mid-1970s. This would appeal to the powers that were in the department (including Oestreicher, his dissertation advisor), a place that privileged Marxist and neo-Marxist thought above all else. 

The acting and other public-facing work made Eric a stand-out pontificator, but was also where his open declaration of his “mentoring” of me irritated me a helluva lot. Many times during our two years together in the same department, Eric would interrupt me in the middle of a conversation with a peer, or when reading a book before class, or when I was prepping to TA, or otherwise just working away on a research project. It was usually with articles on a topic different from my research on multiculturalism or with an issue he wanted to debate me on. Sometimes, these interruptions and distractions I welcomed, maybe even, needed. But so many times, not so much.

Eric accused me on several occasions of having “a chip on [my] shoulder.” Maybe I did have one, mostly about the erasure of anything on American race and racism by the Marxist set in the department. Eric, though, was the proverbial pot-meet-kettle type. His chip made mine look like a speck. Looking back, Eric reminds me a bit of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White from Breaking Bad. Both he and the fictionalized White could not see how their sense of white male privilege shaped their worldview and their interactions with people. In my case, Eric assumed that I sometimes asked him a question or sought his advice as a sign that I needed mentoring, when in my mind, I was just asking a question or seeking an opinion from whomever was around at 9 pm on a Thursday night. 

But nothing piqued Eric’s interest in me more than his attempts to make me into a Marxist. “Racism is a byproduct of dialectic materialism” or “capitalism,” Eric would sometimes say (or at least, as much as I can remember him saying). This line of whitemansplaining I had heard in less sophisticated circles years ago. I never told Eric about all my arguments over the years with my Humanities classmate JD, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had. Eric was deep into his cups of Marxist wisdom, deep enough to ignore my counterarguments. “You cannot understand inequality in America without also accounting for racism,” I often said. I did enjoy these debates, at least at first. By my second semester, and especially by my second year, I was weary. 

I didn’t see Eric much the second half of the 1992-93 school year (this as I prepared to transfer from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon to battle with privileged-white-privileged, ass-kissing center-right fake Marxists). I guess that was when he finally sat down to write his dissertation, though it would be a number of years before Eric would complete it to his doctoral thesis committee’s satisfaction. 

I wouldn’t have learned about the good qualities of Rolling Rock or explored hard apple cider without his encouragement. But, as intriguing as these arguments with Eric could sometimes be, I longed for being understood, for people who took the centrality of racism to everything that is the US and the West seriously. It would be a long time before I’d find people like me in this life.

From Heat Checks to Hail Marys


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Heat Check, Hail Mary, between Steph Curry and Aaron Rodgers (cropped and spliced), September 13, 2021.

This is my final (maybe?) essay in my series More Confessions From an Educated Fool. I do need help, to keep me from self-publishing a third book, to make the leap into writing beyond the freelancing. I ask, but I don’t think I ask correctly. Or, maybe people just don’t like me. Anyway, the essay is less than 1,000 words. Please read.

Make no mistake. This post is a plea for help to reach the next stage as a writer, to get a book out into the world with some measure of success. I’d prefer not to go the route of the self-published manuscript this time, where the book has no chance to reach more than a few hundred people or maybe a couple thousand people. For those who are better positioned as writers, I’m not asking for your first-born child. However, if you have enjoyed my stories, my blog, or my published work over the years, maybe, put in a word with an agent if you have one? Or, maybe, if I ask you to read a chapter of my latest ms, that you read it and give me feedback? Or, maybe even, just the least bit of encouragement to hang in there?

My latest manuscript is titled Narcissism, American Style: Essays on Racism, Narcissism, and How to Get to a Post-Western World. (I do have an alternative title, Sage’s Gold.) It was originally supposed to be a series of essays on America’s narcissism, its origins, permutations, and the damage it has done and will do to the world if left unchecked. After I had published a piece in The Atlantic on the hidden psychological costs of college education for first-gen students five years ago, I did a heat check, put together an initial proposal and a cover letter, and sent out my idea to agents. Two immediately responded, but said no (or didn’t respond) after I sent them my initial drafts. Oh well!

Then, I started writing out the essays, all to figure out what direction this book should take. I had two epiphanies along the way. One, I needed to make my mostly US-focused book one that challenged the West, and that meant testing out parts of essays as articles. Two, I needed to figure out where this world is headed as long as the US and the West remain steadfast in leading and exploiting resources and lives.

That’s where all my articles with Al Jazeera come in. After years of mostly writing articles on education and Black and US identity, I mostly dropped looking at K-16 education reform and debates in 2017. Al Jazeera gradually gave me the platform to write about my topic for an international audience. And despite Al Jazeera’s flaws, it was an opportunity I needed.

But after a while, having figured out how to turn longer essays into digestible article- and op-ed-length chunks, the obvious question to me was, Who’s gonna offer me a contract for a collection of essays that were mostly published as articles internationally — especially in these elite New York streets? That was in the fall of 2018. It occurred to me that I could take another approach, to embed these essays as conversations about a post-Western and post-US world. That made me think of Derrick Bell and his best-selling allegories, published as the nonfiction books And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell demonstrated the necessity of critical race theory to describe the permanence of racism within the American matrix in both books. I needed to do something similar, an ms where systems of racist and class-based oppression had been destroyed as part of the climate-change apocalypse, but the narcissism of our current age lingered on in this new world order.

In early 2017, I had written a post where I envisioned a descendant of mine in Olivia, and what her post-Western and post-US world might look like. I sensed this could be useful in furthering my book idea. I began writing up allegories based on my vision of Olivia in 2018, and worked them out for most of 2019. I wasn’t sure I could completely mesh these allegories with the fuller version of my published pieces, or with those essays I hadn’t published. This was why I asked friends, colleagues, frenemies even, to take a look at earlier drafts. My PhD-ed colleagues mostly didn’t get it. My writer buddies told me they liked it, with two telling me “less is more.” Or, they were like, “Can you even sell this in today’s market?”

Then I fully committed. After separating the nonfiction essays from the allegories about Olivia’s world to rework them as standalones, I sensed in my bones that they needed each other. I spent much of 2020 writing and rewriting to bring the two halves together, but cutting and rewriting anything that didn’t fit. Once I got sections to the point of “this works,” I began contacting publishers, agents, and colleagues again. Some obviously liked what they read, but because Narcissism, American Style was now both nonfiction essays and speculative allegorical fiction, they didn’t “know how to sell this book.” It didn’t matter that I identified Bell, Patricia J. Williams, Kiese Laymon, Octavia Butler, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar (among others) who had successfully done what I am doing now in varying degrees with their books.

This is where I stand right now, about to make another run at finding a publisher this fall. I need any and all help I can get. I have previously reached out to folks who have agreed to read and critique, and then, nothing. Sometimes, I find myself trusting no one. The pandemic has made this mistrust worse. If people can’t consistently keep a mask on, how can I put faith in anyone to read my manuscript with care and honesty, assuming they actually read it at all? It would be one thing if I didn’t think my work was good enough. But even the most self-disparaging of writers knows when they’ve written something publishable, if not for themselves, then for the world. This is my Hail Mary. I pray someone will see or sense it, and respond.

The Three Stooges of My Paths


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This is the fourth post in my series arc of More Confessions From an Educated Fool. This one deals with the “cares of this world,” and how I got caught in a web of them, over and over again, like I was prey for a spider to bite and suck the life out of me.

So, a university president, a corporate senior vice president, and nonprofit senior program officer are all sitting at a bar off East 59th Street, after a long decision-day Thursday. Gus, their bartender, asks in his Hollywood-exaggerated New Yorker accent, “Hey jerks, what is it that youse do for a living, anyway?

Damon, the university president says, “I kneel and grovel for money.”

Steve, the senior program officer says, “I do cartwheels, somersaults, and floor exercises for money.”

After a brief pause, Alan, the senior VP says, “I use ads spots to hold up people for money,” while gesturing with his right hand in his blazer pocket. “Now give me your wallets!,” he says. The other two stooges laugh without restraint.

Gus pulls out his Saturday night special, and points it at the senior VP. “You mean like this?”

The senior VP says, without batting an eyelash or turning away, “I work for a trillion-dollar company. We get a billion people to sign their lives away every day. Hell yeah, it’s like this!”

The other stooges and Gus laugh. Damon pounds the table with his fist so hard he knocks over his drink.

After putting away his gun, Gus says, “What’ll it be? This one’s on me!”

Without taking a beat, all three gents say, “A vodka tonic.”

I have walked three paths in my career. Academia, the nonprofit world, and writing and publishing (and self-publishing) articles and books. Academia will claim that it isn’t a capitalist endeavor. The nonprofit world will say it claims 501(c)(3) tax status because they are changing the world by doing good works. The corporate world deflects while fully engaged in public displays of affection with capitalism, lips and tongues and spit included. “That’s just the way it is,” they sigh before another round of groping.

All of them are liars, I have found with 30 years (mostly) in and (sometimes) out of academia, 11 years working and consulting with nonprofits, and 20 years of off-and-on work in publishing articles and beating my brains into mush in book publishing. But if they are all liars, the lies are for people who are looking to do good in the world, for disdainful people, but people not so cynical that they have given up their core principles and universal moral values. They are for people like me.

That’s what capitalists do. They take advantage of people and rob them of their wealth, of their minds and bodies and souls. They like to do this at gunpoint, but they love to do it with slogans and pitches. “Connecting People, Creating Change” was the mantra of one Academy for Educational Development (AED), a nonprofit I worked with for nearly eight years. I used to joke that their real slogan was “Corrupting People, Creating Chaos.” The sad part was how correct I was in my assessment. This was even before I took on budgetary duties for a multimillion-dollar grant on a K-16 education project, where I learned AED had us mid- and senior-level program officer types to keep three separate budgets: one for the government, one for funders and potential funders (to hide our overhead), and the real one for AED’s nabobs. That last one included a one-percent vig on all grants that any of us brought in, a “rainy day fund” meant only for AED’s most senior staff.

It turned AED into a $600-million-a-year Ponzi scheme, and included millions in bribes to corrupt Afghans as part of the cost of “Connecting People, Creating Change” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The truth was, the 501(c)(3) status was only to get away with making a profit off government and private foundation funding without having to pay a cent in corporate income taxes. I knew this was the reality of this world in 1999, when I made the switch to full-time nonprofit work with Presidential Classroom, when my former APUSH teacher Harold Meltzer laughed at the idea of nonprofits in the US’ capitalist regime. I had ideals about doing good outside of higher education, but I was never naive about their larger money-making agenda.

Publishers, agents, and editors would have me believe that the only criteria for publishing my stuff is if my fastball, curveball, and slider/sinker combination is good enough for dissemination. But first always comes the disclaimer: “if you have a work that doesn’t easily fit into a formulaic category, or if you are Black and over 40, or if you don’t account for the feelings of fragile white readers, we can’t make money, so we can’t publish you.” However, “we will publish schlock, how-to guides, and very famous people with ghostwriters, because that’s easy work for quick bucks.” They are the most honest liars, mostly because they don’t give a shit about the greater good. I can work with this.

But what I can no longer stomach is academia’s hypocrisy. This time 30 years ago was my first week as an MA student in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Eric, a fourth-year grad student and PhD candidate in the program, a man who once saw himself as my mentor (I never saw him that way), explained the nature of academia this way. “The academy is a medieval institution, whose ways are founded on the idea of the guild.” In my head, I’m thinking, This is utter bullshit. The European university began its missions during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries to be sure. But they needed funds to run then, and they damn sure do now. This analysis from an avowed 40-something Marxist let me know just how much he didn’t get about the academic world.

The only thing medieval about academia in my three decades of learning, teaching, and experiencing it is its ideals. In reality, academia is a money-making machine for its boards, for its athletics programs, and for the “hot stuff,” scientific and technological research. It serves at the will of deep pocketed robber barons, professional athletic corporations, and at the behest of corrupt governments and the military-industrial complex. That anyone comes out of a college or graduate or professional school with their sense of morality and social justice intact is no small miracle. That anyone these days earns their degrees with low debt or no debt at all is either part of the super-rich class or has performed a feat John the Baptist would be proud of. And in that latter-day case, they probably are completely fine with the system the way it is, supporting the bloated salaries of upper university managers everywhere.

The story about the three stooges of my career should end with them all stumbling drunk out of the bar, only to be robbed by some random guy wearing a ski mask. After all, that is what they deserve. What I deserve, well, that’s a bit more complicated. Loving money has a way of making the mediocre hireable, popular, and powerful, while marginalizing everything and everyone else. I spent so many years chasing promotions for funds to help pay down student loan debt and to provide for our son the life I never had growing up with poverty (and then welfare poverty in my teens). The strategy didn’t work.

I had to accept that I am not built to be a capitalist cog or hamster. I had to accept that I as a person ask questions, and make good trouble doing so. I am at my best as a writer and thinker. I am at my best when I question the worlds I have inhabited, not when I am just going along to get along in them.

When Their Lies Become The Truth


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Michael Jackson in the middle of his first public moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean” (cropped screen shot), Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, May 16, 1983. (NBC/Starvista; https://www.smoothradio.com/artists/michael-jackson/first-moonwalk-motown-video-1983/)

This is the third of my multi-part series on my paths as a writer. This piece is one that I’ve work on for nearly a year. Mostly because of the issue to out or not out the guy who plagiarized me in 2002. Partly because I do not really want the kind of attention this post could bring. But the more uncomfortable and painful a writing becomes all the more reason to share it with readers.

There is an ugly truth that inhabits every arena of work. Racist, misogynistic, and elitist politics make all workplaces toxic, some dangerously and lethally so. The never-ending palace intrigue, the perpetual ambitious drive and thirst for clout, the absolute must of self-promotion. All of it makes the idea of “just here to do a job” laughable.

With this toxicity comes the need to lay claim to words and works that are not one’s own. In academia, it means stealing ideas, references to primary resources, even actual words from the work of lesser known academicians. All for the lofty prize of permanent tenure and plum professorships at elite universities. All while destroying careers and breaking people.

I was a victim of such a theft. The plagiarist was one Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, today a decently prominent full professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, with a career that was undoubtedly helped along by a book about the so-called culture wars. It nearly broke me as a writer. It took nearly 15 years for me to fully recover. In some ways, I am still recovering.

My story is a case study of how easily White mediocrity can trump Black excellence unless or until the latter forces acknowledgment out of the world. But it is also my tale of an aspiring academician snuffed out in his younger years, a wonder-man who had yet to decide the kind of thinker, writer, educator, and gift-user he wanted to be.

I was only partly aware of the possibility of being plagiarized in the 1990s. Oh, I was paranoid enough. As a Black doctoral candidate at lily-White Carnegie Mellon University, I worried about losing my own work and not finishing. By the summer of 1996, I was mailing out seven 3.5-inch, not-so-floppy-disks-at-a-time to my trusted circle, because I had little trust for folks in my academic world, including my dissertation advisor. But I had no idea that I should have extended my lack of trust to trained academicians who were so devoid of ideas and so bereft of imagination that they would steal from little-old me.

My off-and-on dealings with Zimmerman was where I learned eggs should never mix with stones. In 1994, Zimmerman was an assistant professor in the subfield of social and historical foundations of education at West Chester University. I and a couple of other Black doctoral students (the latter two from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education) had promised to present our work at a conference Zimmerman had organized, but reneged at the last minute. The two thirtysomething Black students felt leery about the invitation. “This is very disappointing…I wish you’d let us know sooner…I was so looking forward to reading your work,” Zimmerman said haltingly over the phone with a tone that combined reassurance with condescension when I informed him of our cancellation. Zimmerman had me agree to send him a copy of my dissertation, “A Substance of Things Hoped For”: Multiculturalism, Desegregation, and Identity in African-American Washington, D.C., 1930–1960, once I finished it.

I bumped into Dr. Zimmerman twice at scholarly conferences after that, in 1996 and 1997. He sought me out about my dissertation, for what purpose, I wasn’t sure. I was too worn out after finishing my degree to find out. The next and last time I saw Zimmerman was at the end of April 1999. New York University invited me to their campus for a job interview in the school of education. It was for a social foundations in education opening. I learned that Zimmerman was on the search committee. He had moved on from his previous job, and was now a tenured associate professor.

I gave a seventy-five-minute job talk about my dissertation research and soon-to-be book topic, titled “Fear of a ‘Black’ America: Multiculturalism and Black Education in Washington, DC.” During the talk and Q-and-A session that followed, I noticed Zimmerman had brought with him a paperback copy of my doctoral thesis to the talk. He must have ordered a copy from ProQuest, the main depository for dissertations in the US.

“Can you tell me more about why Black parents didn’t want Little Black Sambo taught in DC Public Schools?,” Zimmerman asked. “Why do you keep using ‘multiculturalism’ to describe what happened in the past — isn’t this anachronistic?,” he inquired with a bit of disdain. “Do you have a publisher lined up for your manuscript?,” I remember him probing, as if that was really his damn business.

It should have been obvious, but at the time, I honestly wasn’t sure why Zimmerman asked me so many questions. Between a two-year-long search for full-time work, of living off fumes from the one $1,850-class I taught at Duquesne University every semester, of burnout and rage from completing my degree, my head wasn’t right. I also wanted to move on from Pittsburgh. “I’d just about have to wait for Joe or Larry [my former dissertation and graduate advisors] to die before I’d get a job that pays around here,” I said to my significant other numerous times.

I didn’t get the NYU job. Six weeks after that interview, I ended up with a job in civic education in suburban DC, working with high-potential high school juniors and seniors. Soon after, I landed a literary agent with my book proposal for Fear of a “Black” America.

Three years and two jobs later, I heard from Zimmerman again, indirectly. I had stumbled into an opportunity while already working as a nonprofit administrator for the New Voices National Fellowship Program to teach a graduate course in social foundations of education at George Washington University. In looking for books suitable for the class, I discovered Zimmerman had published Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools, his book on a century of America’s culture wars as embodied in history textbooks. I decided to buy it in case any of my students wanted to research this topic.

In those pages, Zimmerman carefully avoided referring to the book Little Black Sambo. Instead, he used the term “Sambo” in reference to mainline history textbooks from the 1940s and 1950s. But in one paragraph, Zimmerman’s skill in textual microsurgery broke down like an old and rusted-out car. Where Zimmerman had written, “[e]ven champions of so-called intergroup education in the 1950s turned a blind eye — or a disdainful frown — on black text protests,” I had written, “the Washington Post [in September 1947] published an editorial on the Little Black Sambo controversy that accused the [NAACP-DC] Branch and the…black Washington community of overreacting.”

Where he had wrapped his quote with “opined the Washington Post, denouncing blacks’ ‘humorless touchiness’ about the term ‘Sambo’ in textbooks,” I had the fuller quote, as “the Post could not ‘believe that the humorless touchiness reflected in these protests represents the attitude of Negroes in general.’” And where Zimmerman cited the original sources as the Washington Post from September 30, 1947 and some reference to papers from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, I also had those same references, plus additional references to the Washingtoniana Division of DC Public Library.

If this theft of ideas and research was pure coincidence, then so is the existence of systemic racism in the US. Zimmerman had access to my doctoral thesis for at least three years before the publication of his book. The likelihood that Zimmerman independently went through the same files at Moorland-Spingarn to address the specific issue of “Sambo” references in textbooks during the 1950s when the controversy over the children’s book Little Black Sambo occurred in 1947 is infinitesimally low (he doesn’t refer to Moorland-Spingarn as a place he visited to conduct research in Whose America?).

The specific Washington Post quote could be coincidental, but not when combined with the Moorland-Spingarn citation. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one couldn’t just do a Google search for a then-55-year-old article. One either had to dig it out from among the thousands of files in archives like Moorland-Spingarn at Howard University, where I spent nearly two weeks in March 1995 uncovering information about issues like the 1947 Little Black Sambo controversy. Or, a researcher would have had to go through reels of newspaper microfilm at libraries looking for clues and key words, like I did for another two weeks at the Washingtoniana Division of DC Public Library’s main branch, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, in February 1995. My doctoral thesis was never cited as a source in these sections, either.

A couple of weeks later, I found Dr. Zimmerman’s NYU email address. I wrote to him about his erasure of my years of sweat, tears, and even blood (in the case of paper cuts) in gathering the information that had gone into my dissertation. “I don’t know who you are,” was his one-sentence response, as was and remains the typical retort from those who are caught using another’s words, work, and ideas as their own. “Fuck it,” I said to myself after that exchange. I definitely should have found a lawyer back then.

I received a note a few days after I discovered Zimmerman’s thievery from my one-time agent Claudia Menza about the acquisition editors at Random House. They had come close to accepting my book, but ultimately rejected Fear of a “Black” America for publication. It was a gut punch while walking carelessly through Central Park on a cloudless early fall day. The kind of punch that leaves one falling on their ass while exchanging pain for air, trying one’s hardest not to cry or scream for fear of embarrassment. I eventually self-published my book in 2004, a shell of the dream I originally held for this manuscript.

I hated academia and academicians. I hated myself for the desperate academic/nonacademic/non-writing writer-who-also-wanted-to-write-more it turned me into. I hated that I had earned a PhD, only to find myself working as a nonprofit administrator where the only thing people cared about was bringing in more multimillion-dollar grants. Most of all, I hated that I had never thought enough of the possibility that others would find ingenious and craven ways to steal from me, and that I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Fast-forward more than a decade later to 2018. I am no longer working as a nonprofit administrator chasing dollars for watered-down education and social justice efforts. I am teaching full-time as contingent faculty between two universities. My writings are now meant for the world, and not for academia. After reading a story about how a plagiarist had copied and pasted huge portions of the author Leta Hong Fincher’s words from Leftover Women, it dredged up my experiences with Dr. Zimmerman.

This is how the big dogs do it. They steal your ideas, your ideals and your soul, really. They do it while simultaneously erasing you from the public record. They violently make you into the intellectual undead, a ghost that exists, but cannot haunt. Like with Napoleon allegedly blasting away at the Sphinx’s nose for fear that the truth of ancient Egypt as a Black civilization would drown the myth of white Egypt. The big dogs make you feel the theft, the death, and the erasure, right down to them blowing your bits of graphite, wood pulp, and synthetic rubber off of history’s pages.

“And mother always told me be careful of who you love/And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth.” These are the last two lines of the second stanza in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” That Michael Jackson — the Black genius that he was — also was a pedophile who preyed on star-struck children and their naive parents. He lied by omission and commission, for nearly half his life. The topic of multiculturalism, and being able to profit from it, no longer matters to me. But having people like Zimmerman out there profiting from their theft and their lies does.

Agents and Not Agents, The Hard Way


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Agents from The Matrix (1999) screenshot (cropped), August 8, 2021. (https://matrix.fandom.com)

This is the second of several posts I’ve put together about my journeys as a writer. Please laugh when and where appropriate.

“You always gotta do things the hard way, don’t you?” my one-time professor Barbara Sizemore said with some sighed frustration. It was in response to me telling her I had decided to stay at Pitt, to pursue my history doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh and possibly transfer to Carnegie Mellon to complete it. It was April 1992. We were standing in the main corridor of the third floor of Wesley Posvar Hall (née Forbes Quadrangle), I was on my way back to my grad student cubicle in the History Department. Sizemore was heading back to her office in the adjacent Africana Studies Department. If I had known this would be my last conversation with the prickly educator, her of squinty eyes and well-manicured afro, before she return to Chicago, took a position at DePaul, and passed away in 2004, I would have done more than given Sizemore a blank stare. As the tall, lanky, and sarcastic 23-year-old I was, I probably would’ve said, “Why yes, professor, I really do!”

I knew what Sizemore was really saying. It was about attending a lily-white university, where there were only four tenured Black professors out of 800 total faculty. My advisor Joe William Trotter, Jr. was one of them. Sizemore assumed that going to Ohio State or Temple to earn a doctorate in Black studies would have been my best move. But even though Sizemore was incorrect about my education decision, she was definitely correct about me taking “always doing things the hard way” paths toward so many of my goals.

Claudia Menza became my first (and so far, only) literary agent in July 1999. The idea of finding a literary agent to help me publish my first book was something I had played with as an idea for nearly a year. At least once I had begun to emerge from my state of rage, depression, and sheer burnout from my years finishing my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon and having Professor “running interference” Trotter as my advisor. I made the decision to turn my doctoral thesis into a book that would straddle the fence between the scholarly and the general. I wanted to publish what would become Fear of a “Black” America for a larger audience, to include both the academic and the personal in the same book. No one told me this was impossible. No one said this was the harder road for a first-time book author. I owned books by scholars that had mainstream imprints and labels. And many, if not most of them, had an agent helping them.

Soon after I finally found my full-time gig with the nonprofit Presidential Classroom in the DMV, I went ahead, did some research in those big, thick books on books and lit agents at Pitt’s Hillman Library, and wrote pitch letters to seven of them. Three weeks later, Menza wrote me back offering to represent me.

She started querying publishing house editors in October 2000, just as I was leaving Presidential Classroom for a higher paying nonprofit job working in social justice in DC. I was so busy with work and my New York family and with married life that I took my eye off the process. One year went by, with a few rejection letters here and there. Then 9/11 happened. I met up with Menza in New York six weeks later. I was already there to do a site visit with a social justice fellow. That’s when I learned Menza at this stage of her time as an agent predominantly represented fiction and poetry. Still, she had some high-powered authors under her belt. I remained confident in her and the mysterious process of finding an editor willing to publish me, in between bites of delicious pasta at a wonderful Italian bistro in the Village.

Two more years went by after that. I received rejections from Basic Books, Random House, Palgrave, Oxford University Press, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, among others. Some stood out because the acquiring editors met to debate the merits for my book before ultimately rejecting it. Some stood out for being two-sentence rejections. I remember Menza saying, “I don’t understand why they don’t want your book.” That was at the end of 2002. By then, even though I remained outwardly confident, I had given up on finding a mainstream commercial publisher. “Maybe I need to go learn how to write again,” I said to my partner more than once. This, just after she became pregnant with our first and only egg.

With the ugly transition between jobs within my nonprofit organization and the birth of and caring for our one and only son, I knew I didn’t have it in me to continue the process of pitch-and-reject with Menza. I was also thinking about writing a memoir, something that could explain how I got to be me. I wrote Menza in March 2004, formally cutting ties with her as my agent. “I wish it had all worked out,” she wrote back.

That July, with some encouragement from my new boss and from my significant other, I decided to look at Fear of a “Black” America one last time, but this time, to self-publish. I went and found a house that did its own reviews of manuscripts and provided adequate enough copyediting to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. Sometime in that process, Barbara Sizemore died. I read about her death in a nicely done obituary DePaul University put out (The Washington Post obit, not so nice about her years as DC Public Schools chancellor). I imagined Sizemore looking down at me that July and August, shaking her head.

The book came out at the end of August. Somehow, despite myself, I sold over a thousand copies in 16 months, did radio and newspaper interviews and talks and signings all over the DMV. I was happy and a bit bitter, like a cup of black coffee not sugary enough for my taste buds. This book could’ve been so much more, I thought so many times in 2004 and 2005.

But none of this is Menza’s fault, or Trotter’s, or even my fault, not in any direct sense. The world of book writing is more mysterious than the cloistered world of academia, and much more mercurial, too. It’s a popularity contest cloaked in American -isms, especially individualism and elitism (which of course contains racism and misogyny, too). It puts all the effort and blame on you and me. In my case, for not having a job in academia that lined up with my expertise in writing Fear of a “Black” America. For not having a degree from an Ivy League institution, or for not having enough successful writer contacts in my genre(s) or in general. For not living in New York as a writer. Maybe even for not being light enough or good-looking enough.

And, even in the four-and-a-half years of having an agent, for not paying close enough attention to how the industry had become a set of six monopolies. All with independent presses being squeezed, to sell out, to fold, to become niches for a small group of aspiring authors. It went from being an industry where you could pitch your books directly to publishers with or without an agent to “Get outta here!” unless you do have an agent. So many agents would prefer DIY schlock or books that easily fit the tastes of elite or hokey white readers than to ever read a query from me. I’m too eclectic, too determined to write for Black folk and beat up on white ways of thinking. I received more than 130 rejections from agents for my memoir Boy @ The Window, between 2007 and 2011, including one that read, “Alas, another book on childhood abuse!”

So, is it really me making it more difficult, because I like to “do things the hard way?” Is it because I have frequently put the need to pay bills and eat over pursuing my art and craft first? Is it because my writing sucks and agents see that immediately? Is it because I don’t know what I’m doing, or because of all of the above? Well, fam, what I do know is that I need help. I don’t quite know what I need to know to navigate this strange world of finding representation. I don’t quite know what I need to know to make publishing with a reputable press work without representation. Kenny Loggins says “when you can’t give love, you give out advice.” Advice with love is preferable, and usually, specific to where I am.

More Confessions From an Educated Fool


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Me and my receding hairline, May 22, 2020 (Donald Earl Collins)