Finding my calling in life has been just about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not because I have no talents or skills. Based on all I’ve done so far in this life, I likely have more skills than I can pursue as a calling. Trauma like domestic violence, poverty, psychological abuse, being Black and gifted in America, and overcoming ignorance justified by religion can all cloud one’s path to their unique calling. I’ve written extensively about my path to seeing myself as a writer, a two-decade-long journey that started at the age of eleven and ended soon after marrying at thirty.
This isn’t so much about my calling as much as it is about what my life might have been if most of the storm clouds in my life never existed in the first place. I think that if I could choose any profession to pursue, regardless of the space-time continuum, money, parents, wife or child, I’d likely be an actor. What? Donald Collins an actor? That’s pretty funny, right? It would be, except that I’ve been acting all of my life. Matter of fact, we’re all actors, if we take the roles we play in life to their philosophical limits. But in my case, acting is as much about lying as it is about playing a specific role over a specific space and time.
It likely started for me between the ages of six and seven. When my mother served my father with divorce papers in July ’76. I knew then that their relationship was far from perfect, with my father strained shoe polish for alcohol when he ran out of drinking money. Or when Jimme came after my mother with a knife, only to end up being stabbed by her with it in the process. Or when they would fight and me and my older brother Darren would hide out under their bed on the other side of our second floor flat at 425 South Sixth, hoping that it would end as quickly as it started. That transition drove me out of my mind with loneliness, anger, rage, and self-loathing. I was probably depressed, too. As little as Jimme was around those last couple of years, he still picked me up from school many a day, fixed lunch for me sometimes, and took me and Darren to his janitor job at Salesian High School in New Rochelle.
Then with our introduction to my eventual stepfather on my seventh birthday, I think I completely lost myself for a while. By the end of ’76, I was acting up in school, just not paying attention to my teacher Mrs. Hirsch. I don’t think she thought I was capable of forming a word longer than “dog” or “cat.” I’d do strange and nasty stuff, like pick boogers out of my nose in the middle of a spelling test, or blow snot on my coat sleeves, or stuff sandwiches from school in my ripped up coat pockets. I found one sandwich in that beige and brown coat about three months after I put it in their, as hard as a brick it was.
Once I made up an entire story about how I got bit by a dog on my right thumb and that I needed a rabies shot. It was an elaborate story based on a incident near my school, one in which two ugly mutts (a German Shepherd mixed with God’s knows what) almost bit me, but they narrowly missed as I ran down an alleyway near Nathan Hale Elementary. What really had happened was the result of one of the nervous ticks I developed after my mother and father broke up. I started biting my nails, all of the time, especially in school. That day, the almost dog attack day, I had chewed up my right thumb nail so badly that I had broken through the skin underneath the nail, and it was bleeding and turning colors. I told the elaborate story of dogs nipping at my ankles, butt and hands to cover up the truth. My dumb soon-to-be stepfather actually believed me, but my mother sniffed out the lie by asking me, “Do you want long needles stuck in yo’ ass?”
In third grade at Holmes Elementary, my teacher Mrs. Shannon and the other third grade teacher had us put on an Easter play. I wanted the lead part of playing Peter Cottontail. I got the part of a dandelion instead. Combined with the fact that I had a hugh crush on my young teacher, I wasn’t just disappointed. I was devastated. And angry. I made such a fuss over not getting the part I wanted over the next week in class that Mrs. Shannon wanted to take me out of the play altogether. It wasn’t until I refused to say my two lines, though, that my teacher removed me from the play. Soon enough, she called a parent-teacher conference to find out what was going on at home. She never knew that my crush, and not my mother’s fatal plans to marry Maurice the idiot, was the cause of my acting out in class.
During my years in Humanities, especially after my first crush in the spring of ’82, I was literally playing a role, at school and at home. It was deliberate because I had to be. At 616, I was the son that my mother didn’t know she had. I cleaned, learned to cook, took care of my younger siblings, washed clothes, went to the store, did some of the bills, spoke with creditors on the phone, and went over to Jimme’s for money for me, her, and Darren. I did that for nearly five years, with only Pitt providing a much-needed break from my role as the teenager taking charge over eight people.
At school, I was the good student Charlie Brown, destined for some level of academic — but not social — success. I somehow knew that given the energies I expended at home, I had little left emotionally for Davis or Mount Vernon High School. It hurt too much to conceal my anger, sadness, and hurt at home. To risk it among a group of apathetic ’80s era students who cared more about getting out of school or being seen as cool seemed like an ultimate waste of time. So I played the role of an emotionless sap, sometimes sarcastic jokester or goofball, but mostly someone everyone knew but didn’t know anything about.
Still, there were moments when I slipped out of character and showed the real me. That got me into trouble with my stepfather, as the chips in my front teeth know too well. With my mother, I could drive her to tears. At school, I left folks like our eventual salutatorian and my idiot guidance counselor shaking their heads. But because I was that way I was, it meant that there were never any emotional or psychological surprises. I didn’t anyone enough with my emotions to allow them to hurt me, no matter what insults were hurled my way. I had enough time to myself to see those years as bull crap, to realize that most of my classmates were making a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing when it came to the long-term, the years after those so-called glory days.
It took about a year and a half of college, homelessness, and financial crises for me to end that act. I didn’t have act with my college buddies, friends or acquaintances. And I refused to act like everything with my responsibility and that I was happy providing support for four younger siblings, my mother and Darren at the ripe old age of nineteen. I had years of anger and hurt to work through, and ’89 and ’90 were the years I worked through a lot of it.
At the end of my junior year at Pitt, I had a chance conversation with Professor Vernell Lillie in the now Africana Studies department. She was looking for a tall Black guy to play a bit part in one of her plays. I was looking for another professor, likely my History of Africa professor. She asked, I gave her my knee-jerk “No, not interested” answer. Then she said something that has stuck with me for nearly nineteen years. “You know, I see you around here all the time. You’re always acting,” she said. Even though I’m sure she was referencing my hanging out with both Blacks and White on campus or my playing the role of a History major, I took it beyond the everyday and the philosophical. I realized that Professor Lillie was right. I’d spent a substantial portion of my life acting, not being honest with the world about who I am and the experiences that explain who I am.
Even with that revelation, I continued in my role as History major, and eventually, historian and academician, one whose past only went as far back as June 18 of ’87. It took people like Alicia and my wife Angelia, mentors like the late Harold Meltzer and the late Barbara Lazarus, friends like the ones I’ve made since grad school, for me to become completely comfortable with me, past and present. So there you have it. I’ve been lying for years, playing different roles, Oscar-winning roles in some cases, and most of you never knew.