Well, today’s my/our eighth wedding anniversary! It should and is something to celebrate, even if the issues of life stand in the way, especially my mama’s boy son Noah. He insists these days on cutting off all PDAs, putting his almost four-foot body in between me and my wife every time he sees us attempting to hug. Despite our son, my full-time job search, the need for rest, new stuff, and debt relief, we’re still hanging in, looking forward to the future, learning from our pasts.
Tomorrow marks another troublesome day in the life that is my own, but it was a day that led all of us as a family into better times, even as things grew more difficult in the first few years after it happened.
It was the fire that gutted 616 East Lincoln Avenue, a 60-family apartment building on the North Side of Mount Vernon, New York, four short blocks away from the Pelham-Mount Vernon border to its east. It and 630 East Lincoln make up the bulk of low-income and working-class income families that reside in this section of Mount Vernon. Otherwise, the half-mile square area consists of everything from co-ops and converted public housing (now all fairly affordable condos for those of middle class means) to starter homes, cul-de-sacs and stately manor homes. As the years have gone by, 616 and 630 East Lincoln have stuck out like boils on the forehead of an otherwise healthy-looking person.
Until April 25 of ’95, 616 was a code for everything that had gone wrong in my life growing up in Mount Vernon. It bothered me more than Humanities or Mount Vernon High School ever could. 616 was about much more than teenage angst or indifferent teachers. 616 stood for our ugly fall into poverty, the lost years to being a Hebrew-Israelite, my ex-stepfather’s abuse of my mother and me, Darren’s fall into institutionalized retardation, and a sheer sense of a world turned upside down. Even after leaving for college, I still spent most of my next five summers there (not counting the summer of ’91), watching over my younger siblings and working full-time for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, which gave me additional insight into the psychological nuances of our family.
By the time I had transferred from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon to finish my doctorate, it was so obvious to me the crippling nature of the poverty that my younger brothers and sister experienced every day. It had also worn down my mother. For years growing up, she talked about how we “shouldn’t take handouts” from the federal government or from other people, that we had to “work for a livin’ to make it” in this world. When we went on welfare in April ’83, I knew that it tore her up. I just didn’t know how much until my Carnegie Mellon years.
When I came home for Xmas in ’93, when the subject of welfare came up, my mother said that this system was the only way that “Black folks could get paid their back wages for slavery.” And she said it more than once. Even if I bought her logic, it would still mean that the descendants of slaves were getting a pittance for the work performed by our ancestors. My mother by this time spent most of her days praying, praising and singing to the Lord, watching the 700 Club and other religious programming, or otherwise keeping the sparse apartment clean and stocked with food. While I had no objections to this as a Christian, I also realized that my mother was waiting for God to change her and her life, waiting as if she had nothing to do with this process herself.
My last visit before the fire was the month before, at the end of March ’95. By this time, New York State had changed its regulations regarding welfare in anticipation of President Clinton’s “mend it don’t end it” legislation that would turn AFDC into TANF the following year. So my mother was taking remedial math and reading classes — as well as cooking classes — at Mount Vernon High School to keep the welfare checks coming in. My mother in August ’89 was about a year away from earning an associate’s degree in accounting from Westchester Business Institute, not to mention her fifteen years working as a dietary supervisor at Mount Vernon Hospital. It was like she had given up. My siblings acted the same way, as if tomorrow didn’t matter. But I was still happy to see them all, and they seemed happy to see me. Of course, they all did their usual song and dance for money from me.
I left for Pittsburgh, having spent the previous seven weeks in DC doing research for my doctoral thesis, hanging out with some new friends and hoping for a grant that would save me from heavy amounts of teaching in the ’95-’96 school year. On April 14, I got the call that put my doctoral thesis “on cruise control,” as a friend of mine put it. I found myself with a year-long dissertation fellowship from the Spencer Foundation that enabled me to live worry-free through the summer of ’96. Five days later, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing happened. It dominated the news cycle for the next week or so. I felt for the folks in Oklahoma City, but I was still in the middle of my Spencer fellowship high.
Tuesday, April 25 was a normal day of putting together rough drafts of my second and third chapters of my thesis, doing additional research, talking with colleagues and professors, and bumping into my former advisor at Pitt’s Hillman Library. I spent much more time on Pitt’s campus because Carnegie Mellon offered few faces that looked like mine, was a conservative haven and possessed few places where I could do work and then find a chair to take a nap on if I got tired. Around 4 or 4:30, I felt ill. It was as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I thought it was something I ate at first. After a few minutes, I packed up my stuff, left campus and caught the bus back home to my apartment in East Liberty.
Even after getting home and taking some medicine, I still felt ill. Then I felt the need to call home. No answer. I tried again around 8 pm. Still no answer. I tried three more times between 8 and 11 pm. I got really worried. I called the Mount Vernon PD. They told me about the fire and gave me the local number for the American Red Cross to call. When I called them, they couldn’t locate my family.
After a few more calls early the next morning, I found my mother at a shelter at the First Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, seven blocks from 616 and down the street from where all of us (except Darren) went to elementary school. I was relieved to find them, to find out that they were all right, that no one was home at the time of the fire.
It was a electrical fire, sparked by loose wiring on the second floor that tenants had reported to the landlord at least a year earlier, and certainly in the weeks prior to the incident. The fire itself was small, but Mount Vernon’s finest apparently flooded my mother’s side of the building with water, making most of 616 uninhabitable. Most of the clothing, the beds, the few pictures and pieces of furniture we had, my high school diploma and yearbook, all gone. But the TV that I had bought my family for Xmas in ’94 survived the flooding. It’s ironic that a friend of mine from high school’s father was also a prominent member of the church in which my family took shelter, while another friend’s father was indirectly connected to the landlord’s real estate company in charge of managing 616. As far as I know, none of my classmates from high school served or had father who served with the Mount Vernon Fire Department.
This was the beginning of a long and difficult journey, for me and for my family. They spent a couple of weeks at a motel in Elmsford while I immediately wired them a few hundred dollars. Then they came back to Mount Vernon for a few months, spending the summer of ’95 in a halfway house normally meant for women seeking shelter from abuse or women who were transitioning from drugs and/or prison with their kids to a more typical living arrangement. By November, my family had moved into low-income housing off Broadway in Yonkers, three blocks from the Bronx and a short walk from Van Courtland Park, one of the biggest in New York City. All the while, I sent home money to help my mother with bills, food, clothing for my siblings, whatever she needed.
I finally visited after another round of research and interviews for my dissertation in DC. This was Thanksgiving ’95, and my family had just moved into the place in Yonkers. It was clean but smelled of cheap paint and looked more sparse than 616. But the biggest change was on the faces of my family. My brothers and sister looked agitated, hungry, defeated, and betrayed. My youngest brother Eri and my brother Yiscoc were in the middle of the first year of academic struggles that would lead both of them to drop out of school. My mother was completely out of sorts, more tired and more depressed than usual. She was “forced to go back to school,” as she put it, to finish up her associate’s degree in exchange for the continuing flow of welfare checks and rent payments on the new temporary apartment.
She refused to transfer my siblings to Yonkers Public Schools. It would be “too much to transfer them back,” she said when I pressed her about it. They were waking up as early as 5:30 am to catch a bus (school bus or transit) to get to school, and weren’t in bed most of the time before 11 pm. I caught on right away that my mother had lost control of and authority over the family. She might’ve been in charge, but my siblings had begun to figure out how to ignore her and shut her out.
A little more than two years later, in March ’98, my mother and family moved back to 616, into a refurbished sanitarium, as my wife has called it over the years. By then my mother had finished her associate’s degree but couldn’t find steady employment. My brother Eri had spent two years in seventh grade, and would have to go to summer school to finish eighth grade. Yiscoc spent his high school days cutting classes and hangin’ out with his homies. Maurice had graduated high school on the honor roll and was in his first year at Westchester Community College, but rudderless while going there. They were all moving ahead with their lives, but in a fog of depression it seemed. The fire and its aftermath had torn up their lives. It explained — though it didn’t excuse — my mother’s behavior toward me as her uppity son.
I too had lost something. As horrible as it was, 616 gave me a sense of home, a physical and psychological address in which I could compare my adult life to my growing-up years. The money that I given my mother all through ’95, ’96 and ’97 was money that I could’ve used in the year after finishing my doctorate. For nearly four years, until I visited in April ’99, I didn’t visit my first hometown.
But the fire did open up the opportunity for my siblings and for me to question my mother’s moral authority and decision-making. It enabled all of us to realize that in the midst of poverty, a parent can only do but so much to protect their kids from the worst that the world offers. It was a wake-up call that forced me to realize that I couldn’t go home again, to the home that never a real home growing up anyway. It was the fire that eventually led to my family intervention nearly seven years later. And that did lead to my siblings growing up and moving on with their lives. It has even helped my mother live her life in a better way in recent years.
April 14th represents a very good day in the history of my life. I passed my M.A. oral defense on Tuesday April 14th in ’92, and was awarded my Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship on Friday, April 14th in ’95 (which, by the way, was the 130th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth). But then again, Aprils in general have been important months in my life, for better and worse.
We — meaning me, my older brother Darren, my mother and my eventual stepfather — moved to 616 East Lincoln Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York on the fifth of April of ’77, a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot flat in a working-class apartment complex on the North Side of town. It was a clean break from living on Mount Vernon’s overwhelmingly Black and mostly low-income South Side. But it was a place where most of my wide-awake nightmares occurred.
Five Aprils later was when I had my first experience with physical abuse at the hands of my stepfather. He was a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.” My stepfather thought that I was soft, a boy who spent too much time in books and not enough time on New York’s mean streets. This despite the fact that we lived in Mount Vernon, a quietly violent city whose meanest streets were on the South Side, the part of the town that bordered the Bronx. Not that 616 and the Section 8 projects down the street didn’t qualify as “mean.” They were tough, but nothing like the crack and weed wars that would erupt on Third Street by the early ’90s.
Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin–ryu Karate two years earlier — he apparently was a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. And forget about the larger philosophy of spiritual balance and harmony involved in learning an East Asian martial art. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw punches. After I yelled “You’re not my father!” I got drop-kicked to the ground. Maurice then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. I was getting hit by a man who was six-one and weighed 270 pounds. My stepfather, completely exasperated, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.
Other Aprils weren’t nearly as violent or chaotic. But they remained important. April of ’83 was when our family first went on welfare. It was the final nail in my childhood’s coffin. It meant that I couldn’t deny our plunge into grinding poverty any longer. It also meant that I didn’t have to worry as much about when we would have a decent meal to eat. April of ’87 was when I officially accepted Pitt’s invitation for college and their rather generous scholarship and financial aid package. Four Aprils later found me deciding between Pitt, U Maryland and NYU for graduate school, while April of ’00 was when I married my wife Angelia.
Even with the triumphant Aprils in ’92 and ’95 came some pain. My advisor and exam committee made a point of passing me and recommending me into the PhD program of Pitt’s History Department. But not without telling me that I “was moving too fast.” I still don’t know what “too fast” means. Was I showing up my fellow grad students? Was my knowledge or discipline as an historian lacking? If so, then why did I pass? Did I create a political problem for my advisor because I had finished my master’s in two semesters instead of the usual four or five? I never got a direct answer. What I do know is that my advisor and a few others in the department spent the following year attempting to slow me down because I “needed more seasoning.” I knew then that it was time to transfer. My pace as a graduate student was based on what I knew, at least I thought, not who I knew or who I sucked up to, and wanted my experience to stay that way.
Only to find that my next advisor at Carnegie Mellon was even less accommodating of me as a student that worked both quickly and effectively. He once made the comment, “since you have time to travel across the country to present your work, you can make sure to do the same here.” He called himself “running interference” anytime he learned I published an article or was off to present at a conference or at a university. After an exchange we had in April of ’96, our relationship became a cold and dispassionate one. While my advisor taught me how to be a good historian, he also taught me that not everyone with the role of advisor or mentor in my life was actually looking out for my best interests.
So April has been an important month in my life. It’s one where I’ve made major decisions, seen many not-so-good things happen, had to salvage something good out of something bad. It’s also the month of Passover, which between my Hebrew-Israelite years and some Jewish friends from my grad school days, I’ve been a participant in for four Aprils. Passover is a reminder of Jehovah’s great grace for those who believe in Him (or Her) and of divine intervention, fighting for the freedom and lives of the oppressed. Passover, Easter, and April all serve as symbols of that aspect of my life, that reality in which I see myself as an underdog overcoming the worst of circumstances.
This April is a bit different. In four short months, my son Noah begins kindergarten. We have an orientation to get ready for in a couple of weeks. It’s almost time for him to begin to create his own memories, his own stories of triumph and struggle. For him it will likely be another month and other signposts that suggest that his life is going in the right direction. I just hope that he has many more up days and significantly fewer down days than I have had, while still learning the importance of symbols as motivational tools in life.
This week marks twenty-four years since I became a Christian, giving up forever on the idea that I was somehow special as a supposed member of the Lost Tribes of the ancient Hebrews. For those of you who sit in the agnostic or atheist camps, this blog post should still be of interest. We all need salvation, we all need hope, whether we seek it from ourselves or in the love of others, or whether we seek it from God, Jehovah, Allah, The One or a higher power. It is this dimension of life that provides meaning beyond quantum physics and natural selection, evolution and the near infinity of the universe itself. This is my story of a significant part of my life, the story of how I made sense out of the senseless and began to walk a path to find myself and my purpose in this life.
It was in the aftermath of my fourteenth birthday at the end of ’83 where I began the journey to find myself spiritually. As talked about in my blogs from Fall ’07, this was the day where I spent the afternoon planning to jump off a bridge overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway on East Lincoln Avenue in Mount Vernon before a voice in my head pulled me off the bridge. After I decided not to take my own life, I spent the rest of my time during the holidays going through everything I could find at home and at Mount Vernon Public Library about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three major religions west of India as I saw it. I wanted to know once and for all how to situate myself spiritually. I didn’t want to wake up at thirty only to realize I wasted another fifteen years, ready to commit suicide again.
I picked up an old Bible we had in a storage bin underneath my bed. I went to the library to compare Biblical text with the Qur’an. I read key Talmud scriptures that matched up with key Islamic ones. Two revelations came to me from these exercises. One was that there wasn’t much of a difference between Islamic and orthodox Jewish law. The other was much more significant. Forgiveness and redemption wasn’t automatic in either belief system. You had to go through some form of ritualized spiritual purification to gain Jehovah or Allah’s amazing. You had to earn your forgiveness if you were a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hebrew-Israelite. Messing up even in the smallest of ways left you on the spiritual outside looking in for a connection to The One. It was like being disconnected over the telephone with no way to dial back in except through a holy day of atonement.
In reading the Gospels, it started sinking in that Jesus’ life was about providing a path for each of us to gain unconditional and unearned forgiveness, including me. I read the New Testament at home late at night so that I wouldn’t get caught venturing into forbidden scriptures. Somewhere between Matthew and Mark I found myself, maybe for the first time, realizing that I’ve been searching for someone to save me. From myself, from my family, from a life without meaning, from a life of hell-on-earth, and certainly from an afterlife without my proper place in it. I was finally in a place where I felt like I could turn myself over to my God, possibly through Jesus.
But I wanted to be as sure about this decision as I could be. After the last few years of watching my mother, my stepfather and Jimme make so many horrifying and almost fatal ones, I wanted this decision to be more correct that any 100 I’d gotten on any test. I wanted my potential conversion to Christianity to feel as good as I did the day I served as the introductory speaker at my elementary school graduation. And above all else, I wanted to be at peace with my decision so that if anyone asked me about the Hebrew-Israelite thing again, I could respond to their questions—and their questioning of my decision—with honesty and good information.
After the holiday break, much of what I did was to use my Afro-Asian Literature and History classes to compare and contrast the various belief systems with each other and with Christianity especially. I went from Taoist yin and yang to Zen Buddhism and the need for balance to Confucianism’s ethical standards and the practice of Animism in various cultures around the world. The common theme in every major philosophy or belief system I looked at was achieving a state of spiritual balance. This kind of balance would lead to balance in my physical world. Now some philosophies, like Buddhism and Hinduism, discussed the need to seek a path to full enlightenment and some sort of ultimate balance. That seemed a bit like Judaism and Islam to me. The need to take a long and difficult spiritual journey in order to gain a connection to this essence, or higher being, which would lead to an ultimate state of balance and being.
The long history of social stratification and strife in older and wiser civilizations like India, China, the Arab World, also left me wondering. How much were these belief systems about maintaining a certain social order, and how much were they about providing true enlightenment to every person who was willing and able? Nearly three years as a Hebrew-Israelite had left me feeling like I was part of an oppressed group within an oppressed group within a naively freedom-loving society. Despite the attractions of balance for and in my chi, the status quo of accepting poverty, abuse, and ignorance just wasn’t going to work for me.
Then I turned to Christianity in the everyday lives of folks around me, not my classmates necessarily, but in Mount Vernon generally. Most Blacks were Baptists, most Latinos and Italians were Catholic, while other Whites ranged from Presbyterian to Episcopalian. Afro-Caribbeans were all over the denominational plain. By the time I turned to Christianity in all of its sectarian forms, the beginning of March, I’d already read enough of the New Testament to understand that the writers were all concerned about the creation of sects. It seemed to me that denominations were idiotic. Didn’t everyone who claimed to be Christian worship the same God and believed that Jesus was his son? Does it really matter if one form of Christianity forbids its pastors from having sex and another allows its pastors to marry? Without a full knowledge of the long history of Christianity and its nuances both as a form of social control (see Roman Empire and medieval Europe) and a form of social unrest (see life of Jesus, Protestant Reformation, and Civil Rights Movement), I just assumed that Christians formed different sects because they simply didn’t like each other.
Catholics in so many ways reminded me of Hebrew-Israelites and orthodox Jews. Although they already had spiritual redemption, they lived their lives as if they didn’t. Between Confirmation, Easter, and confession, not to mention the dress of popes and priests, Catholicism didn’t seem all that dissimilar from what I knew about Judaism. The other denominations didn’t seem to me to do much in the way of really making sense of how to reconcile salvation and redemption with how to live my life while waiting for the inevitable.
But more than anything else, I wondered about the brutality of life and how to understand that in the context of other belief systems. I lived in a world where whenever I made a mistake someone was there to jump down my throat about it. At school, if I screwed up, someone was there to make fun of me, to destroy me from the inside out as I saw it. Or some teachers were there to make light of my mistakes. If I made a mistake at home, if I said or did the wrong thing, my mother would yell at me, or I’d have to go back to the store or I might put myself in an abusive situation with Maurice. I felt like I had no margin for error, and any error I did make led to swift and severe retribution.
That was what being a Hebrew-Israelite had come to feel like by the time I was in ninth grade, an unending, broken-down mule kind of burden. Becoming a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist seemed much more attractive but didn’t provide any immediate or beyond life answers for me that I could put faith or hope into. Becoming a Muslim, a more traditional Jew, or a Catholic would’ve been like trading in one overwhelming, earn-your-salvation-for-the-rest-of-your-life belief system for another. Denominational Protestant Christianity, despite all of its appeal, didn’t seem so different from what it had protested in past centuries.
I was left with one choice. Christianity, plain and simple. If the New Testament said that the only things I needed to concern myself with were putting God and Jesus first in my life and loving others as I should love myself, then that was enough for me. I sat back on the morning of Easter Sunday ’84—no one at home was awake at the time—and after watching a televangelist preach about the power of redemption, I found a corner in my room and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart and life. In my mind, I thought I’d feel a thunderbolt hit me in my stomach. Or at least I thought I might cry or become giddy or something. Instead what I felt was a sense of relief. Nothing more, nothing less. I knew that, maybe for the first time in my life, I made a conscious decision for me, not for anyone else, not influenced by anyone else, at least not anyone bound to earth.
My objective was first to find some sense of peace with myself, enough where my only thoughts late at night weren’t about suicide or nuclear war, taking out Maurice or leaving 616. First I decided not to tell anyone about my spiritual conversion and rejection of the Hebrew-Israelites. Despite the outward contradiction with the kufi, I knew who I was in my heart of hearts, after all, a follower of Christ. Second, I made the decision that with a little bit more than three years left before the possibility of college and life away from Mount Vernon that I would focus more energy on my classmates and my siblings than I would on Maurice. Third, I made a pact with myself to never consider suicide a serious option unless the God I now believe in betrayed me in some way, which to me would be if my stepfather killed my mother or something like that. Fourth, I decided to think of myself as being someone who had some worth, if for no other reason than because I was a child of God. If I couldn’t find anything else worth preserving about me, being one with The One would have to do. This meant doing something that had been difficult in those heady months. I had to not give up on me.
My spiritual faith and journey has gone through a fair number of ups and downs over the years since my conversion, some of which were self-induced, many in the midst of some crisis or another. I can’t say that I’ve never thought about death or suicide at all since ’84. But I know that I’ve never seriously considered it as I did at fourteen. I’ve discovered my own sins and shortcomings, failures and weaknesses, as all who occasionally reflect upon our impact on the world, over the past twenty-four years. But I know that despite all of my imperfections, that I have a purpose, a reason for being, a message to others in this life. That hope, faith, and even salvation on some level are necessary in order to live the purposeful live. And that these things can help a human being overcome just about every hurt, every discrimination, every roadblock put up by this world and this life.
As most of us know, tomorrow marks forty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Over the next few days, CNN, the History Channel, local news stations, NPR and PBS will undoubtedly broadcast documentaries and provide analyses of the meaning of Dr. King’s life and death and what the giving of his life has meant for America, for African America, and for race relations. Most will undoubtedly concentrate on MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech as if it’s the only one that he ever delivered or the only one that Whites have ever heard. Some may go further by taking an in-depth look at the folk or folks who coolly planned Dr. King’s murder and whether James Earl Ray was the only person involved.
Most will not, however, be able or willing to capture the way Dr. King was in his last three years on this earth and in this country. As I discussed on my blog last week, MLK took a number of stances in his final, post-Civil Rights Act of ’64 and Voting Right Act of ’65 years that infuriated the powers that were, particularly LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. But they weren’t the only ones who shunned Dr. King in those last thousand days or so of his life. Many White liberals and many Black civil rights leaders also turned away from MLK. His view that America was involved in an evil and imperialist war in Vietnam made many leaders of the ’60s liberal establishment squirm. His willingness to address de facto segregation in Chicago in ’66 didn’t exactly sit well with southern Black leaders or so-called Black militants either. King’s decision to fight for the economic rights of working-class Blacks (and Whites, by the way) in Memphis and in other parts of the country made him many more enemies than friends.
It’s amazing how quickly a people can forget their own history. I’m talking about all Americans. This was who MLK was. He was someone whose agenda for civil rights expanded into other forms of social justice, into international human rights and issues involving the peace and security of this country and the world at large. To only think about Dr. King as the man who delivered one of the great speeches of the modern era belies the fact that he made many great speeches about our world, our national ills and the human condition. But as with many a great death, people tend to emphasize what they are most comfortable with about that person’s life — they seldom think about what the person would want others to remember about them.
We’ve also forgotten the context of MLK’s death on April 4th of ’68. Within a week or so of the assassination, the Johnson Administration has released the Kerner Commission, the one that declared that America was “two nations — one white, one black, separate and unequal.” With the Tet Offensive, the failure (at least in the eyes of White conservatives) of the Great Society and other issues, LBJ appeared on TV at the end of March to say “I will not seek, nor will I accept” the Democratic nomination for President for a second term. Of course, race riots had occurred in cities such as Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and Cleveland in the summer before.
So with Ray’s firing of a high-powered rifle with a target scope into the body of MLK came also a massive set of race riots across the country. From Washington, DC to Pittsburgh and several dozen other cities came an outpouring of rage that we only usually see in other parts of the world these days. The response in the next few years was the one that allows most Americans to feel good about MLK and his legacy — employers and foundations took seriously the need for inclusion and diversity, hiring Blacks into white collar positions, providing funds to organizations to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, discrimination and the riots of ’68. And universities began to practice affirmative action far more seriously than before.
Of course, neocons across the racial divide united in the mid-70s and began to chop away at these efforts. But in some ways, that takes away from the main point. Which is to remember that Dr. King’s sacrifice pulled America kicking and screaming into a world where it could no longer hide its ills and problems around race. We don’t talk about it publicly, and we don’t like to hear others asking us to talk about it, but issues around race and poverty and a multitude of other issues are there for the world to see and discuss, even if we won’t.
One other note. This week also marks something particularly special for me. Fourteen years ago this week, I took my first flight ever outside of the Eastern Time zone. I was on my way to my first major conference, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Since my flight there had a stopover in Houston, I took full advantage of that and found a day and a half to spend with my mother’s side of the family, my Gill side. I was twenty-four years old, and other than my Uncle Sam, I had never met any of my relatives on my mother’s side. If I had stayed in New York for college, I may have been able to meet my Uncle’s Hobart or Paul, since they were in the area in ’88 during my fall semester at Pitt. Still, I didn’t think much of this gathering, at least at first.
My Uncle George picked me up at the airport, all smiling and happy to see me, saying, “I should of recognized you from that Gill nose of yours.” We drove from the airport and through what seemed like three Houston downtowns before reached a basketball court in the Third Ward. I missed three shots (they all rimmed out) before my uncle told me to sit down. Oh well. He obviously played almost every day, as he kept making shot after shot. Of course, it was a hot day to me for April 2 (seventy-eight degrees), and coming from Pittsburgh on a six am flight, I just wanted to eat and take a nap. After about an hour, we finally left and went to his place.
I eventually met my Uncles Robert, Hobart, and one other one in addition to Uncle George (my mother has nine brothers and two sisters, plus her late half-brother Charles), an aunt-in-law and a few cousins. Because of the size of the Gill family, two of my uncles were only four and six years older than me. My cousins (Uncle Robert’s kids) were sixteen and eight, making me more like an uncle than a first cousin. My Uncle George insisted, “Don’t call me ‘Uncle’ — you’re almost as old as me!” We had dinner, watched the NCAA Men’s Tournament (Arkansas won that year), talked about why my Knicks would lose to the Rockets in the NBA Finals (which actually happened two months later – Uncle George called me to gloat), and talked about how much money they thought us folk in New York walked around with.
We were at Uncle Robert’s house. Given the poverty that the Gill’s had grown up in as tenant farmers in Bradley, Arkansas, Uncle Robert had done really well. His was a modest two-story standard suburban house of off-white and sandy tan hues, with a two-car garage and driveway. He owned four cars and had a small boat that obviously needed work. Besides that and the telephone bill that he had refuse to pay for the previous four years, it was a real family with normal family dynamics. I could tell that the uncles hung out with each other a lot, and that despite the phone issue, that Uncle Robert and his wife got along. I was relieved to see that my relatives on my mother’s side were doing pretty well.
They asked lots of questions about my accent, my schooling, why I needed a doctorate, how expensive living in New York is, why I hadn’t made it down to visit them before. I answered their questions, but I don’t think they understood. I said that we were poor, but the figures I gave my uncles made them think that I was lying. What I should’ve done was tell them about the abusive husbands and the fall into welfare, but I didn’t. Those times were as far away from me at that moment as the other side of the universe. I was happy to have met them, glad to see them doing so well in their lives, with steady jobs as truck drivers or plant supervisors. But I also had little in common with them besides the love of basketball. It wasn’t like I could easily explain my earning a doctorate in history in order to teach at a college. I tried, but I don’t think that they fully understood why someone as young as me would’ve chosen to stay in school an extra five or six years for the degree. They left me alone, though, when I explained that they were a lot of attractive women in graduate school too.
I spent the next day pretty much laying around, watching basketball, hanging out with the uncles and explaining bits and pieces of life in Mount Vernon and my lack of dates in recent months at Carnegie Mellon. They spent a lot of time ribbing me about my uninteresting love life, then began to discuss their experiences, conquests and hurts. Ultimately, my Uncle George seemed ready to settle down, while another uncle seemed conflicted about marriage.
On the drive to the airport and to say goodbye, I realized that Houston would’ve been the more logical choice for my mother to move to in the summer of ’66. It was big, Southern, Texas, but not big like New York is and certainly much closer to family. If she had done so, would I have been born, and if so, would I have been as driven to be the writer and educator I am today? I don’t know. What I do know is that my mother would’ve been happier and more welcome in a world that would’ve been as familiar to her as her own experiences growing up in Bradley. Most of her family had moved there, and would’ve been a good support system.
In the end, I was glad to have finally met them. I just hope that I don’t let another twenty-four years go by before I visit them again.