I find it amazing sometimes when I hear from folks from my past about the way they saw or see me. I’ve been described as “sober,” “serious,” “studious,” “disciplined,” “hard-working,” “asexual,” “different,” and “eclectic,” as if I was Data from Star Trek: Next Generation (or TNG for my slightly younger readers). Or as if I had planned to become a Jesuit priest or Franciscan monk, boring, with no aspirations, passions, or life beyond books and big ideas.
In more recent years, I’ve had numerous acquaintances and colleagues who only see me as Dr. Collins or Professor Collins, someone who is defined and who defines himself by his degree and academic expertise. One of my colleagues still describes me to others as an “African American historian,” even though about half of the courses I’ve taught and much of the work I’ve done has been on history of education or education reform. I wish I could say that none of this bothers mean, that I know who I am, and that others can take from that what they will. But it does bother me sometimes, not a lot, and not in ways that make me me doubt myself. Because I realize that most people, unfortunately, don’t pay enough attention to the folks in their lives to recognize that none of us are only one thing. Nor are most of us self-aware enough to recognize our own sense of reluctance or ambivalence about certain aspects about our persona, how we project it, and how other perceive it at different points in our lives.
The truth is, all of the adjectives I listed are accurate ways to describe me. At various jobs, my first couple of years in college, in some specific dating situations, between May 30, 1982 and June 15, 1989 at 616 East Lincoln in Mount Vernon, New York, at professional conferences and conference presentations, in the classroom, and in my moments of quiet despair. But these adjectives aren’t me. At least not the person I see myself as or the person I’ve become or the person I’ve been or wanted to be over the years. To quote Alana Davis (one of my wife’s favorite singers from the ’90s), “I am 32 flavors and then some.”
First and foremost, I am a writer who has always had a unique way of looking at people and the world, who has spent many a daydreaming moment contemplating the universe, my existence, my role in it, and the senselessness of people’s actions in it. I am a writer who knew more about writing at eleven than I did at twenty-nine, someone who had lost sight of their calling for years, yet operated in it under the guise of scholarship and academia. I am a writer who spent years sensing that my purpose in life was more than absorbing the world around me with the mind of a titanium-plated steel trap, more than bearing witness to the horrors of poverty and domestic violence.
But even that oversimplifies who and what I am and have been over the years. For as much as I remember things like the constant winter chill in our apartment at 616 East Lincoln in the early ’80s or roasting in 100-degree triple-H weather in summer with my wild-eyed younger siblings, I also remember days without food in the house, nights hunting down my alcoholic father, weekends avoiding being at home around my idiot stepfather, and moments wondering where my mother went wrong. Maybe my sobriety and studiousness come from a sense that if I didn’t make sure to secure my future educationally and economically that I would repeat the cycle that I grew up in and around back in the good old ’80s.
Except that even that’s not the whole truth. As much as I became a serious student, especially in grad school, I became a sarcastic goofball. If I had allowed myself to, I could poke fun at and apply dry wit to just about any person or any situation. I found hypocrisy, unfairness, and just the sense of irony of American people and how we’ve lived our lives funny, a macabre humor for me to dwell on over the years. Like the sense that my classmates either worked too hard or hardly hard enough to get into college and to prepare for it. Or the reality that most of what we were doing to one-up each other didn’t matter. Or that most of the so-called cool folks were about as cool then as Pee Wee Herman is now. I learned to laugh at myself, at first because it protected me from the occasional taunt, but over the years because I found myself funny, quirky, even weird.
Still, I am also an ambivalent academician. As much as I felt at home once I adjusted to college life, and as much as I excelled in grad school, I always sensed that I wasn’t fully an academic historian. Sure, I’ve published a few things. I’ve presented at conferences, obtained a couple of grants, even been quoted by other scholars and academicians. I just knew that something about the academy and the way it operated bothered the heck out of me. Perhaps it was the weird use of foreign languages by historians in the middle of articles and books about slavery and the herrenvolk, the collapse of Booker T. Washington’s influence in Black American and fait accompli, the constant use of “therefore” and “indeed,” as if real people talk this way. Or maybe it was my sense of contempt for authority in general. After all, I lived with and went to school with lots of examples of people who either were incompetent or misused their authority and privilege for years. So participating in a system that forced folks to earn job security through some pseudo-medieval apprentice didn’t seem like a good way to spend most of my thirties.
I’m also a reluctant leader. I’m not a naturally-born leader who loves being around people as a networker or as someone who has a vision that others automatically gravitate to. I’ve become who I am because of several crises in my life and spirit over the years. In a span of five years, I went from being the younger of two children at age nine to the second oldest of six at fourteen. Since my older brother Darren had long ago decided it was better to act retarded rather than take on new responsibilities, it became my job to be the oldest in the family. That theme has played out several dozen times in my life. With my family, in educational settings, in my various jobs, even with my wife. I take charge over situations usually because no one else wants the responsibility and not because I’m looking for a leadership opportunity.
Despite all of the seriousness that is my life, I’m also an innocent, somewhat incurable romantic that has walked a tightrope between fanciful romance, love, and full-blown lust over the years. It’s why I could fall in love with Avatar: The Last Airbender, Katara and Aang (or Kataang for Avatar fans) and with Kim Possible. It’s why I was so surprised to ever have a crush on anyone, much less two young women from my dreaded Humanities days. It’s also why I tended to separate the women I dated from the women I hung out with. At least until I turned twenty-four.
I am also the most ambivalent person I know when it comes to trusting or not trusting others. I’ve either not trusted others as a general rule, which was the case from seventh grade through my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. Or trusted folks too much, which was true from my sophomore year at Pitt through the last year of my doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon. Or not trusted my own instincts, as was the case with some of the jobs I’ve taken over the past twelve years. It takes time to figure out yourself, especially if crises get in the way.
I don’t think that I’m all that complicated. I’ve been hurt by people who I’ve closest to, helped by foes under desperate circumstances, have attempted to suppress memories in order to make something of myself, and have come full circle to make me a better me. But I’m obviously not an easy person to describe. So call me “sober,” “studious” or “serious” if you will. I’ll just know that those who do don’t really know me at all. And that’s just too bad.