What Bull Durham and I Have in Common


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

“Well, 247 home runs in the minor-leagues would be a…kind of dubious honor.”

Bull Durham, 1988.

Today marks two occasions, both of them a bit bittersweet. One, I marched and picked up my doctorate on this date, a quarter-century ago. A whole 25 years since my PhD ceremony, and my professional life has been a roller-coaster of betrayals, slights, and occasional triumphs since. I have written about all of them ad nauseum over the past 25 years, too. Learning people like my advisor and my mom were jealous of me was so discouraging that if it weren’t for writing, I might not be here at all to muse about anything.

But this May 18, in the year 2022, I have achieved a milestone I didn’t think possible, not even five years ago. Today, I begin teaching my second summer session course, US History from 1865 to the Present, at University of Maryland Global Campus. This is the 100th course I have taught or guest lectured as a regular since 1991. One hundred courses, enough to earn 2.5 bachelor’s degrees. “Yay, me!”, right?

This is a truly half-full, half-empty post, and so is how I feel about today. As Crash Davis would say, “Well, 100 undergraduate and graduate courses taught in academia’s minor-leagues is a kind of dubious honor.” It wouldn’t make news in The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, forget about The Sporting News

I mean, a full 58 of my courses have been taught at a University of Maryland campus that mostly offers online courses. American University, my primary teaching place for the past four years, laughs every time our adjuncts’ union brings up our want for a new contract to correct our paltry salaries (their latest offer barely enough for Chipotle dinner for four per course). I haven’t taught a course affiliated with graduate-level work since my Teaching Black Studies class at Howard University in 2007, and that was marginally so. I made more money managing my former bosses at the defunct Academy for Educational Development for eight years ($620,000) than I ever have in my 20+ years as a TA, instructor, or professor ($360,000). So yes, hitting my 100th course feels dubious.

News flash: it’s still an achievement, too. That means I’ve taught between 2,450 and 2,600 students off and (since 2007, mostly) on over the past three decades. At least a dozen of my students have gone to earn doctorates, at least another 200 have their master’s and JDs. I’ve written dozens of letters and provide references for scores of former students. I’ve had some amazing revelations and epiphanies while teaching, including on many of the topics I write about for income and publication now. And, though almost exclusively in the lowly position of “ad-junk,” have taught at Pitt, CMU, Duquesne College of Education, GW School of Education and Human Development, University of the District of Columbia, Howard University, and my two current campuses. I’ve also taught for two summers at Princeton, worked with students in civic education, and designed curricula and materials for various education organizations over the years. 

I’ve hit home runs, and against quality pitching, too. I’ve also hit threes out of double-teams, caught touchdowns while splitting double-coverages, and made blinding saves off of slapshots. In teaching as much as I have, I’ve had to. One TA in 100 courses, (and the one I did have should have never been trusted with grading responsibilities), one office (American) and two cubicles (Pitt and CMU, and I was a grad student then) in all my years in the classroom. I’ve taught students as young as 12 and as old as 80, too. Short of a mass shooter, I have pretty much seen it all as a postsecondary educator (though I’ve had armed cops as students in the classroom, too).

Really, I hope to remain an educator for the rest of my days, even as I hope that I’m not teaching eight, nine, and 10 classes per year for the next 20 or 30 years, either. For all the joys of light bulbs going off and seeing stereotypes shattered, there’s also the student sitting with their arms folded, refusing to listen, to me or their classmates, blaming me for everything wrong in the world. Crash Davis retired after breaking his record and became a coach in the minor leagues. That’s not so much a retirement as it is a significant role change. Maybe I can achieve the same, and soon.

On Ducats, Duckets, and “Cash Money”


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

Netherlands 1 Ducat (1818 Willem I Trade Coin), accessed May 13, 2022. (https://www.foreigncurrencyandcoin.com/)

For a while at least, my parental guardians actually saw me as some sort of rainmaker. It was around the spring of 1985 when my idiot stepfather started calling me “Duckets.” Especially when it came to anything he said that wasn’t about ordering me to do things, I ignored him. I assumed “Duckets” (or really, “Ducketts” as I spelled it out in my head) was just him making fun of me, like every other kid did in those days. The ones so corny and wack in their coolness, calling me “Donald Duck” or “Ronald McDonald” upon learning my name. 

One Sunday that May, after somehow wrangling $120 out of my dad despite him being on a spring-long drinking binge, Maurice called me “Duckets” again. I had just come home from breaking off some of my Jimme money to wash clothes at the local laundromat for the eight of us and going to C-Town for food when he called me this. And he saw my face, the look I had. I was tired, pissed at doing work for his lazy ass and for my younger siblings and for my mom, and insulted at his joke. 

Then, the abusive asshole did something he rarely did. He actually explained himself. 

“Duckets is a compliment,” he said. “They’re Dutch coins made of pure gold. That’s who you are. You make Duckets come out of nowhere.”

I was gobsmacked. Really, you think I’m making money come to me by having to drag my dad out of bars every other weekend? Spending half of the money I get by helping to take care of your stinkin’ ass and my mom and your kids? Seriously? That’s approximately what I would have thought in that moment (now, a few f-bombs would have dropped, too). But I also thought exactly this: What’s he up to? Is he trying to get on my good side now?

Yes, Maurice was. But life is full of both-hands, and even evil abusers can be complimentary and right about aspects of people they otherwise refuse to get to know well. I was bringing in income when I technically wasn’t drawing a paycheck, and had in fact been doing so for nearly two and a half years by then. Even my older brother Darren was dependent on me to either get my dad to give him money or to find work to get us both paid. 

I had to. I couldn’t just take $50, $60, $100, or $200 from my dad, go back home to 616, and sit there eating Wise Cheez Doodles or preemo chocolate donuts from Clover Donuts or those bomb brownies from the eatery in Wakefield. All while Sarai, my two-year-old sister with sickle cell anemia, couldn’t have an occasional bottle because my mom didn’t have enough WIC to buy formula for two (my brother Eri was barely one in May 1985). All while even with food stamps and the elder Maurice gone about half the time, we still could go anywhere between three and 10 days without food in the house every single month. If we had had a well-muscled dog like my dog Jacobi back then, believe me, that dog would have become a roasted dinner or a stew back then. And our 616 neighbors would never have asked about it afterward.

Jacobi in a dead-dog’s rug pose, February 13, 2022. (Donald Earl Collins).

Maurice continued his “Duckets” campaign with me until he and my mom finally separated in June 1989. Since he was the only person to call me this weird nickname, I didn’t do much to research it. I still hated the man. If Skull Island’s King Kong had reached down his mouth and pulled on Maurice’s tongue hard enough to rip out all his innards, I would’ve laughed and cried happy tears. A suffering death still wouldn’t have been enough for me (even now, a part of me still lingers a few seconds too long on this thought — this is why a commitment to forgiveness is a daily chore!). 

It was pretty easy to bring in “cash money” back in the day, though, even once I started working in jobs not dependent on my dad’s cashflow or his connections to backbreaking work. When no one has work, I’m going to look like a rainmaker by comparison, making $3.40, then $3.65, then $4.15, then $5.50, then $5.90, then $7.70 an hour in the years between 1986 and 1990. I was averaging $6,000 a year in part-time or summer full-time income, and between 20 and 30 percent of it was going to 616. 

Whether Ducats, Dukets, or Duckets, or the Guilder or the Florin, gold coins are all signs of wealth, of colonial, imperialist national pride in such wealth, of good fortune and truly good luck. At least to those who have such coinage. But I am no Scrooge McDuck, and I’m certainly not made of money. My times of unemployment in 1988 and with homelessness too, of even a few weeks of unemployment in 1993 and 1997, and underemployment from 1997 to 1999 and from the end of 2008 off and on through 2011 are proof of this.

If taken symbolically, then the Ducat is a symbol of goldenness, of one’s ability to shine and grow and prosper, even if that isn’t mere financial growth. We have managed even when my income dropped like a rock because of the economy and the feast and famine nature of consulting work. I have continued to find ways to generate income, finding some doors ajar even as folks have slammed others in my face. (I do have a tendency to make difficult, even seemingly impossible things happen in my life, but that tends to happen in a virulently racist and classist country like the US.) My nemeses and enemies still attempt to steal from me and my work, even as they refuse to credit me for the creative I am. (It’s a weird-ass compliment, though, when people plagiarize me. Wow, you are that unoriginal and lack that much imagination!, at least that’s what I think about these assholes).

But don’t get it twisted, and do not call my Duckets or Ducats or Duck or Donald Duck or Ronald McDonald. I will block you on social media and drop you faster than I can drop a 450ºF panhandle. I can actually make it rain sometimes. It takes years to make this happen, through patience, prayer, perseverance, and understanding the nature of living life in deserts.

On Mother’s Day and Areas of Gray, Revisited


, , , , , , , , ,

My Mother’s Associate’s Degree Photo, Westchester Business Institute, May 12, 1997.

I originally wrote this blog 11 years ago this week, on the edge of my wife’s master’s graduation ceremony at American University. Little has changed since 2011. Except my younger siblings are all approaching or over 40. Our son is officially a young adult, applying to colleges after a gap year, and we have a dog. My mom has leaned so hard into white-bred evangelicalism, making herself a MAGA and a not-so-closeted Trump supporter in the process. As I have said in recent months, I can no longer execute the ritual of calling her once every four to six weeks. My spirit and mind can no longer take the gaslighting that comes with these phone conversations. I haven’t talked to her since the start of 2022. I am in year 53, but my mom still talks to me like I am 17, and a naïve teenager at that.

Here’s a reminder to everyone who is spending this weekend and will spend time tomorrow celebrating their mother’s unconditional affection and love that this kind of mother — despite whatever Hallmark and Lifetime attempts to communicate — is not a universal mom. Just like the universal use of “women” without a qualifier all too often equals white women, becoming a mom assumes everyone has loving, nurturing moms. And this is simply not true. There is so much gray between the Hallmark-card-mom and Mommie Dearest.

“I took care of my kids! I put food on the table, put a roof over y’all’s heads, put clothes on yo’ back! I did the best that I could, and none of y’all can tell me different…” That’s what my mother yelled to us the day before Sarai’s funeral last July. It was an excited utterance, after she had spent five days in a trance, unable to do as much as eat a piece of toast. We were in the living room of our place at 616, me, Mom, Maurice, Yiscoc and Eri, being yelled at over a lifetime of disappointment and frustration. Ours and hers.

Folks have been posting all week on Facebook and Twitter about their wonderful, loving and supportive mothers, practically requiring people like me to do the same. As if all mothers all alike. As if all mothers are either the best or the worse. As if a good mother should be put on a pedestal like a trophy or gold medal, and a bad mother to not be mentioned at all. After all, most of us prefer not to hear bad news.

My mother was neither the best nor the worst mother in the world. She ultimately was and remains a contradiction of advice and action. She told us growing up never to depend on the government for handouts, but ended up on welfare from ’83 to ’99. She’d advise us to go to school and college, yet did almost nothing to help any of us get there. She’d complain about us not getting along as a family. Then call my younger siblings “Judah babies” and tell me that I was just like my alcoholic dad.

I’d dealt with all of this, all of the awful decisions and refusals to make any decisions about family, her life, her marriage to Maurice, the abuse that I had to put up with. The intervention I did for my younger siblings, for me and for Mom back in January ’02 had in most respects put the issue of my mother’s mistakes to bed for the family. Or so I thought.

All of that came back to me as I listened to my mother yell at us from seemingly out of nowhere that terribly hot and sticky Friday, the sixteenth of July last summer. I stood, then sat, on the new yet cheap beige couch in the living room, sweating next to a barely working window fan. I watched Mom’s contorted face spew its sharpen words, like arrows raining down on us. I could only think, Not good enough, Mom! Your best wasn’t good enough. I didn’t say it. Because I’d already said it back in ’02.

Her best hadn’t been good enough that week. Neither Sarai nor Mom had taken out life insurance, so it was either “ask Donald” or pass-the-hat time. Mom’s best hadn’t put food on the table one out of every three days between the end of ’81 and the middle of ’86. Her best left us behind in rent for nearly three years, had lost her a job with Mount Vernon Hospital, had led us to welfare. Doing the best that she could had made us Hebrew-Israelites and left us with an abusive, cheating Maurice/Judah as the alleged man of the house for most of the ’80s.

Most importantly, Mom’s fatal flaw as a mother was her lack of love and support for us as we moved from baby to toddler, toddler to little kid, kid to preteen, teenager to adulthood. We were all one group of burdens dumped onto her by a God that used us as a test of her as a mother and person. Mom said as much, multiple times, over the ’80s and ’90s.

I know that some of you will find this post offensive simply because I’m talking about my mother, the woman who gave birth to me. That’s just too bad. There’s a lot of gray between a great mother and a horrible one. My mother made a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and path-of-least-resistance non-decisions that scarred me and my other siblings for life.

I love my mother for all the good that she did and all the good that she did teach me growing up. But that doesn’t me I should gloss over her record as a mother, provider and worker, especially during my growing up years. It means that there’s a lot I don’t like about my mother, who she was and is, and things she didn’t do well or didn’t do at all. It means that she has a limited sense of the responsibility she had when giving birth to me and to my five other siblings.

It also means that Mother’ Day for me remains very complicated. I’ve been buying my mother cards since ’84, and will continue to do so. And every year, finding the right card is hard, like looking for a good shoe for my nearly flat, quadruple-wide, size-fourteen feet. Still, I do the very best I can, because after all, she’s still my mother, and I love her with all of my heart.

In the years since, I have resolved some long buried issues, with neglect, sexual assault, and ass-whuppin’ abuse, long before life at 616, the Hebrew-Israelite years, and my mom’s gradual adoption of whiteness-dipped evangelicalism. Today will be my 39th year wishing my mom a good day on Mother’s Day with a card. But as much as I want to, I cannot celebrate this day with her, even as I celebrate my partner’s nearly 19 years of motherhood. With each passing year, it becomes more painful and sad for me. Maybe today’s the day I stop calling my mom on Mother’s Day, too. Mind you, it’s not out of anger or spite, or even a refusal to accept reality. At this stage of my life, I simply need to protect my heart. I am already disappointed, and from my mom’s perspective, a disappointment.

Being One of The Expendables


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Poster art (cropped) and tattoo art for The Expendables (2010), August 2, 2010. (https://blog.spoongraphics.co.uk/tutorials/how-to-create-the-expendables-winged-skull-poster-art)

Even in my relative youth and arrogance, back in the days where I insisted that any authority figure in my life had to refer to me as DOCTOR Collins or DR. Donald Collins, I still saw myself as an underdog. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a working-class stiff (I did sometimes, given my predoctoral background). But I definitely was not part of the elite bunch. Mark, Mike, Jennifer and so many at Carnegie Mellon, and professors like Oestreicher, Andrews, Smethurst, Chase, and Van Hall at Pitt let me know I was better, but not elite, nearly every week for my five-and-a-half years from bachelor’s to PhD. between 1991 and 1997. 

I held out hope back then. Hope that the doctorate was worth the pain, the suffering, the borrowing, the betrayals, and the burnout. Hope that being three or four times as good would be more than good enough. Hope, most of all, that my flair for writing with imagination and purpose would translate into success, prosperity, vindication, even healing and renewal, as I took my degree and my skill sets into the worlds I’ve inhabited now for a quarter-century.

Who was I kidding? I was probably the least well-connected person I knew going into college in 1987. With the partially bombed-out bridge I crossed to earn my doctorate at the end of 1996, I was lucky to have any connections to work with in finding any work at all. I discovered in a matter of weeks in 1997 my connections were enough to get into the door at one institution after another, but not enough to secure full-time work in academia. 

I had felt expendable before. Graduate school and living at 616 with an abusive idiot stepfather and a patriarchal mother each gave me that feeling. The two-and-a-half-year journey to find a full-time job was different, though. It was as if I was too educated for the working world, not just as a Black man, but as a 27-year-old Black man who had worked on some level since the summer of 1984. 

Almost all my academic job interviews were with schools of education or Africana studies departments. Not a single history department would interview me or hire me for a job, not even as an adjunct, until 2008. As I began doing nonprofit job interviews, it was obvious no one accounted for my doctorate as part of the process, or my three years of TAing and standalone teaching experience. I had already become the job equivalent of Michael Clayton, a fixer who wasn’t really a cop or a lawyer, yet had the expert skill sets of both. Only, substitute the words “professor” and “nonprofit administrator” for “cop” and “lawyer” here.

My expendability became even more apparent as I found myself in the big-time nonprofit world working at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development (AED, now FHI 360). It was here I learned the full nature of how much I could be a misfit within an organization. At my second job within the organization, as a senior program officer and deputy director of Partnerships for College Access and Success, my last two years I was in charge of managing the annual $1.3 million-budget for the national initiative. 

And that’s when I learned why we never seemed to have enough money to manage the project or pay me more than $75 or $80K for doing so. The senior members of AED — the CEO, executive vice presidents, and senior vice presidents — skimmed one percent off the top of all grants passing through the organization. Mind you, individual senior officers who oversaw our unit already billed more than some of their hours to a project they never actually managed (the Denise Borders’ and Sandra Lauffers’ of that world). The project was just a carcass, and these stinky-ass vultures often fed off the remains. These senior folk frequently made anywhere from $200K to $400K, and the CEO Steve Moseley made over $700,000. 

To hide this tremendous amount of overhead (about 35 or 40 percent of the total budget), I had to make up three budget spreadsheets. One for the actual cost of salaries, utilities, travel, and the AED Ponzi scheme, another for the private foundation world (where we manipulated the data to get the overhead to be only 15 or 20 percent of the budget). A third spreadsheet was for the annual audit to satisfy USAID and the feds. The last two budgets hid the “rainy day” fund for AED’s 52 senior officers. 

It was just disgusting. I spent so much time meeting with foundation officers, writing grant proposals, fielding offers, and looking for a less stressful job in 2006 and 2007. We would turn down money because it wasn’t enough to satisfy the vultures or to keep everyone employed, like $100,000 from Carnegie Corporation, another $200,000 elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, when I finally did get burned out at the end of 2007 and submitted my resignation, it was just three months ahead of probably being partially laid off anyway. I didn’t have it in me to spend the next three or six months groveling to every vice president or senior vice president in the organization about my work, hoping to pick up enough hours to keep pace with my salary. I certainly didn’t have it in me to explain for the 1,000th time why I didn’t spend two years in Mozambique as part of the Peace Corps digging wells, learning the local Portuguese, or putting up malaria nests. All to show I was one of them, privileged enough to see what lack of socioeconomic and racial privilege looked like in distant parts of the world. I was never one of them, because I lived this contrast every day growing up in and around the Big Apple.

My Black ass was expendable. My doctorate really meant nothing in the face of this work. And, I was approaching 40, meaning that others would assume I was too old to do this work and learn anyway. I was most definitely expendable by February 2008.

But, so was every AED Ponzi schemer by their ludicrously lazy, racist, and elitist standards. Once USAID became aware of the organization’s shenanigans at the end of 2010, they suspended AED’s $600-million worth of contracts, and then canceled them or moved those contracts to other organizations. They killed the beast, finding my former bosses expendable, too.

Today, I work in a world where everyone truly is expendable. It doesn’t matter if it’s American University, University of Maryland Global Campus, or if I freelance with Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, or Salon. Heck, if I don’t insist on it, these spaces and places won’t even get my name right. Forget about paying me a fair wage or having time off. You can bet, though, that the heads of every organization I do work for now has their own golden parachute, their own Ponzi method for maintaining their lavish material narcissism. It is so typically American that I could stand in the Namib desert and smell the shit blowing inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

On “Baby, Come To Me” and Its Weird Connections


, , , , , , , , , , ,

The Patti Austin-James Ingram (may he RIP, what a talent!) duet love ballad “Baby, Come To Me” (1982), originally released as a single 40 years ago this month, is probably one of the greatest duet love ballads of all-time. At the least, it is up there with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson for me. Commercial music these days does not have duets or love ballads like these combos produced back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But hey, to quote the great UK artist Howard Jones, “What is love anyway?/Does anybody love anybody anyway?” Apparently, not in most music mass produced since about 2007.

To think that a song the great Quincy Jones produced and the great Rod Temperton wrote, a song in which Michael McDonald sang backup, a song on Patti Austin’s 1981 album Every Home Should Have One, took nearly two years and two singles releases to rank #1 on Billboard’s US pop charts in February 1983. That couldn’t happen in 2022, not unless it came with an accompanying video and Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion twerking and doing ligament-popping splits to it.

But how it happened speaks to how weirdly accepting people can be of misogyny and narcissism in the midst of a love song. Austin’s album dropped at the end of September 1981. The single “Baby, Come To Me” didn’t drop until April 1982. That is an amazingly long time to wait to release what is the second-best song on any album (the title song was the first singles release). And there it rose to #73 on the Billboard charts. 

Were it not for ABC’s long-running soap opera General Hospital, most of us not listening to WBLS 107.5 FM in New York might have never heard the song again. The summer and early fall of 1982 was the time of “Luke and Laura” Spencer, a newly married power couple on the soap opera. General Hospital used “Baby, Come To Me” as the intro and outro theme to many of their “Luke and Laura.”

If you think it’s a bit strange for white teenage girls and Boomer stay-at-home moms to fall in love with a clearly R&B duet love ballad meant primarily for a Black audience over the course of several months, then welcome to the 1980s. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” used at times on NBC’s Days of Our Lives the following summer of 1983, had the same effect. Keep in mind, the song isn’t about love at all. It’s about stalking, controlling, and obsessing over a woman. Four summer’s later, U2’s “With Or Without You,” about hating the person you love, it had the same gravitational effect, between airplay and soap opera play. There’s also soap opera actors like Jack Wagner with “All I Need” actually writing and singing their own love ballads, or attempting to look the part. The 1980s ended with Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting For You,” during the “Danny and Cricket” summer of 1989 on The Young and The Restless.

With “Luke and Laura,” though, it gets stranger. Just two years earlier, Luke inadvertently raped Laura over some assassination attempt gone awry. Other than a note discovered by one of Luke’s nemeses, really, nothing. They marry in the summer of 1981, and are madly in love by 1982. I know marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in California until 1982, and Harlequin romance books abounded back then, but really? No long-term trauma or psychological scars and you married your rapist, too? Even for me (once I learned of “Baby, Come To Me’s” connection in 1985), this was a bridge made of wood and dripping with gasoline during a lightning storm. How demure can any woman be under these circumstances? 

Yet the crossover impact was enough for Austin’s label Warner Bros. to re-release the single in October 1982. It was that popular! It went to #1 on the pop charts in the US that February. The song broke through internationally as well. Here’s the video: https://youtu.be/mHyxPIh3c5w.

As for me, I knew of “Baby, Come To Me” in 1982, but not the story behind it until 1985. By then, you could find the song on nearly any radio station that played 1980s pop music, not to mention R&B stations. I happened to be running to the store for my mom (again) on a cold and rainy afternoon in January 1985. I couldn’t find something she wanted. So I went to put a dime in the payphone next to a corner store to call her for more directions. Except I’d forgotten NYNEX payphones now cost 25¢ to use to make even local calls. “Spending every dime doesn’t work anymore,” I said to myself in the pouring rain. Then I said-sang, “out in any kind of weather, just because…of — my mom!,” and laughed. For me, as far as “Baby, Come To Me,” then I suppose…the music never ends?

Even now, so many years later, every time this song pops up on my iPod, smartphone, or Spotify, I still let “Baby, Come To Me” play, because it still makes me smile. It will never be associated with “Luke and Laura” for me. I almost never watched General Hospital growing up, anyway. Days of Our Lives, Y&R, the all-too-short-lived Santa Barbara, Another World, and The Bold and The Beautiful, but never an ABC soap. I would never sing or play “Baby, Come To Me” in any sexual assault context. That tortuous music needs to end.

My Take: A Tale All Too Familiar


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

Hazel-green eyes – maybe hazel-green eyed envy, too? (cropped), April 5, 2022. (Google Images).

“The Slap” at the Oscars has been so much discussed that it seems as if there’s nothing left to say or to write about it. But so many of the columns and comments about Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith’s honor against comedian Chris Rock’s ableist misogyny are also hot takes. For Black folk famous and ordinary, this is a double-dose of deadly, especially in public settings. The white gaze is forever present, especially now with smartphone cameras and recorders everywhere. Black people end up caught between their own fallible humanity and their training to be as respectable as possible during these big moments, precisely because white folks are watching. The result is usually a tangled mess. The vultures will keep circling for meat, fresh and rotten. Such are the ways of a capitalistic, narcissistic, and racist society.

My own story isn’t quite as dramatic as Will, Jada, and Chris’, but it does reflect how narcissism, green-eyed jealousy, hypermasculinity, and other ills can get anyone caught up. A quarter-century ago, I completed my history PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. A few weeks before my two graduation ceremonies, I made the decision to fly my mom in from New York to celebrate with me. She hadn’t been able to attend my bachelor’s or master’s degree ceremonies because my four younger siblings were too young to be left at home. Now, they were all teenagers. 

I had no idea the hell I had set myself up for. That same graduation week was also the same week as my mom’s associate’s degree graduation in White Plains. I flew home to New York to be there for her. Afterward, my mom said, “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” Then she forced a laugh. “It’s a joke,” she said. What was the joke? My degree, or the amount of time and energy I spent in earning it? “I don’t have to tell you that I’m proud of you. I tell other folks, just not you,” she said the next day. 

It was a figurative slap to the face I can still feel 25 years later. From the moment we left for LaGuardia that Friday to the moment I left her at Pittsburgh International Airport that Sunday afternoon, my event was all about her. That Sunday, she refused to be in a photo with my partner, my partner’s mom, a high school friend, and several other friends. She skipped out on the second ceremony, the one where my department chair and my PhD advisor would speak about my accomplishments, where I would also have time to publicly speak about my experiences and celebrate. I abruptly left the ceremony with my degree in hand.

Then, while waiting outside for the airport bus, my mom gave me a look. She seemed confused and lost, as if she would need help getting to her flight. Unthinkingly, I agreed to help her get to the airport, and ended up missing the second ceremony. With each passing moment on our way to the airport, I grew madder and madder. At the gate, I went off on my mom. “You have ruined every good moment in my adult life!,” I yelled. 

I should have gone to my graduation ceremonies without her. But I wanted my mom’s approval. I wanted her to make her proud. I wanted her to see me as a full-grown man. My mom took advantage of my yearning for the kind of relationship we never had. Transparent, honest, loving, affectionate. None of those were her. 

Her comments all week were signs of her jealousy over my doctorate. I just refused to see it, because she’s my mom. Her actions that weekend were of a narcissist. I didn’t know any mom could be that way. Her statements and actions were as much about questioning my manhood as they were about anything else. Ten years of undergraduate and graduate education instead of working jobs to help her with “the kids”? Using my unconscious reflex to get me to take her to the airport instead of doing it on her own? My mom’s sense of patriarchy and what men ought to do was a big part of my ruined moment, too. My relationship with her has never fully recovered.

This is what the proverbial they miss in everyday public human moments. Jealousy and vanity, like the other five Deadly Sins, are normal human emotions. But living in a hypermasculine, patriarchal, and narcissistic nation allows people to weaponize such emotions, just as Pinkett Smith did at the Oscars, just as she did on Red Table Talk with her husband two years earlier. And Smith took the bait despite knowing there was a possibility that his Oscar win would be the culminating moment of his career. His manhood and his image of his relationship with his partner was on the line. So was his hypermasculine pride. Especially with a comedian like Chris Rock, who has operated in sexism and misogynoir for years, especially toward Pinkett Smith, even with Good Hair to his documentarian credit. The white gaze is withering, and will likely warp the way people see Oscars 2022 for years to come.

I had far fewer white eyeballs on me on my PhD day. But the anger and despair I showed that day stayed with me for years afterward. I have been professor or Dr. for nearly half my life, but I never had my moment to enjoy that moment. For Smith, for his sons and daughter, for the Williams sisters, for everyone who worked on King Richard, that moment was cut far too short, ruined by the societal ills that corrupt us all.

The Ultimate Sports Corruption Scandal


, , , , , , , ,

Rolls of $100 bills (makes me think of Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything”), April 9, 2018. (https://www.gtgoodtimes.com/)

I have long believed professional sports and elite college sports as severely compromised enterprises. It’s not just the obvious examples of league officials turning a blind eye away from the lack of fair play, like with baseball players doping and hitting home runs between 1998 and 2004. Or with the New England Patriots and them filming their opponents’ practices to gain an advantage during games. Or with the Houston Astros stealing baserunning signs from the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2017 World Series. Or even with NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball, where there are enough recruiting and (until last year) pay-for-play violations to render the student part of student-athlete a really bad joke.

No, I believe owners, universities, and league offices collude to put their thumbs on the scale, and have done so for years. They do it for two reasons: 1., to generate revenue and renewed interest in their sport (whether basketball, hockey, baseball, or football, or — more obviously — WWE) and/or 2., to steer a sport-wide championship in the direction of a particular team (also a way to keep those multi-billion-dollar TV contracts aflowing). 

This doesn’t just explain the New England Patriots and the mysterious “tuck rule” ruling during the 2001 NFL Playoffs, a ruling that cost the Oakland Raiders the game and catapulted the Patriots toward the first post-9/11 Super Bowl (patriotism and sports — it’s kismet!). It explains when referees, umpires, and other officials make consistently favorable rulings helping certain teams win playoffs series and championships. Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the LA Lakers and the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 NBA Playoffs comes to mind. An official even admitted they may have rigged this particular series in favor of the Lakers. And Duke and Coach K. All anyone has to do is look at the difference between the team UNLV stomped in by 30 points in 1990 and the team UNLV “lost” to in 1991. Really? What difference — no difference! 

Even this isn’t the worst of it. With the newly opened frontier of legal betting on professional and college sports across the board, the temptations for individuals, for officials, for athletes themselves to alter outcomes to win bets will be enormous. The sports would is only a few years away from healthy athletes dying in their athletic prime of suicide or “suspicious circumstances,” stemming from their own gambling addiction, or because of a fan’s gambling addiction and narcissism.

I kid you not. We are a decade or two away at most from discovering how some of these great moments we have seen in a sport should have never been. All because money changed hands, or because of deliberately calibrated officiating, or because of tampering with equipment or with schedules, or because of general collusion among college conferences and universities or between sports leagues and team owners (or, with the student-athlete system, between all of the above). 

And when these turds hit an industrial-sized fan meant for a large indoor arena, what do any of us say then? That we knew all along? That we just went along because we wanted the distraction of sports free from corruption and politics? All of this is bullshit.

The truth is, sports has always been a source of entertainment, a place where we have pretended for years the outcome was never fully assured. But, we all have known the outcome has been helped along, sometimes by a lot. To build a fantasy around sports as set of institutions that brings people together and creates a sense of community is incredibly superficial. Those moments are fleeting and do nothing to change communities, cities, or our societies. Those moments, even as they temporarily unite folks around as flimsy a thing as a win or winning a title, are not untainted ones. 

Listen, I love sports, and have appreciated athleticism going all the way back to the Ali v. Frazier and Ali v. Foreman days. Heck, when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father as payback for psychologically torturing my mother after she filed for divorce in 1977, I had appreciation for it then. That moment of college athletic-level tackling and the physics around it have been in super-slo-mo in my mind for 45 years. I have loved watching sports since I was 12, and playing sports since puberty grew me to five-foot-eight before I turned 13, and six-feet-even before my 14th birthday. The business of professional sports (including college sports programs and Olympic sports), though, is ugly. That is why I no longer care if athletes dope, stopped caring ages ago how much money they and the sports team owners make, or care much about wins and losses for my Knicks or other teams I kinda root for. 

Because I believe as much as I believe in anything a day of reckoning is coming for these institutions. And when it does, don’t say I didn’t write about it. When it does occur, we can then finally agree there is no difference in pop culture between commercialized music, PG-13 movies, fashion, and the world of sports.