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In recent weeks, Blogger.com, my host for my blog “Notes from a Boy @ The Window,” has been informing me that they will no longer support my regular FTPs from Blogger.com to my website Fear of a “Black” America.com as of May 1. Given the limited options available to me from Blogger.com, I have decided to migrate my blog to WordPress.com between now and May 1, 2010.
But there’s a bit more to it than this. I’ve contemplated the idea of another website or domain over the past year or two. One, if you’re engaged in promoting another book manuscript or idea as Boy @ The Window, it probably doesn’t help to have a blog about it linked to the website for your first book. Two, despite number one, it’s problematic to migrate any blog when the number of visitors and the amount of traffic that it has attracted has grown steadily over the past three years. Three, so many things besides my blog are on this website that it felt both risky and expensive to have two websites with the same blog running at the same time. After looking into it, it seems like WordPress (in .com or .org form) is my best option for migration and other options, including FTP if I so choose.
So here’s my plan. I will create a new domain/blog at WordPress.com in the next week or so, and maintain the blogs at that domain and fearofablackamerica.com simultaneously until April 30, 2010. At that point, I will have either made the decision to also have WordPress.org in order to FTP my blog to fearofablackamerica.com or decided against it, using the new domain (which will likely be http://www.donaldearlcollins.com) as my primary or, possibly even, only domain presence beginning May 1 of this year. Either way, my online presence is in transition. I hope that all of you will be supportive and patient as this transition occurs. Thanks a bunch.
One of the worst teachers I ever had was my eighth grade history teacher. There were a few others in my Mount Vernon K-12 days — and certainly in my times at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon — who were worse. But the absolute worst history teacher or professor I ever had between ’74 and ’96 was in a classroom in the corner of the new wing at A.B. Davis Middle School from September ’82 through June ’83.
His name was Mr. Demontravel, our American history teacher. Or as he preferred in the last three months of eighth grade, Dr. Demontravel (he had finished his doctoral thesis on the Civil War, on what beyond that, I wasn’t sure, and, given the way he was to me and us, I didn’t care either). Or as I liked to call him throughout that year, “Demon Travel.” His was a class that sucked the life out of history for most of us. Like most teachers of K-12 social studies or history, it was a dates, names, and places class. Unlike most social studies teachers, his teaching methodology was the epitome of lazy. Every class, five days a week, Demontravel would put up five questions on the blackboard for us to copy down and answer using our textbook. At the end of every two-week period, we’d get a fifty-question multiple choice exam, helping Scan-Tron stay in business.
Demontravel rarely stood up to lecture or do anything else. Lectures for him might as well have been appearances by Halley’s Comet, only the lectures were far less memorable. This process went on unabated for forty-weeks, four marking periods, an entire school year. Calling this boring would only get you into the door of the intellectual famine Demontravel subjected us to in eighth grade.
He wasn’t particularly helpful on the rare occasions when someone did have a question. When a classmate did ask him something, the portly Demontravel would stand up from his desk, which was to our right as we faced the chalkboard, slowly walk toward it, point to a question on the board, tell us in his best Teddy Roosevelt voice what page to turn to in looking for the answer, and then, just as slowly, return to his seat at his desk. Of course, the page numbers he gave us were usually wrong. Demontravel was truly an unremarkable man, virtually bald in all of his pink salmon-headedness, skinny and potbellied beyond belief. His shiny bald head had a Gorbachev-like spot on it. In his early fifties, Demontravel was so boring that it was a wonder that I noticed him at all.
But there was the fact that there was a prize on the line for us nerdy middle-schoolers—the eighth-grade History Award. “Something I could actually win,” I thought. And Demontravel was the sole arbiter over the award. My favorite and easiest subject was in the hands of this hack of a teacher. That made me downright angry whenever I thought about it.
What made it worse was that I was in competition with a classmate who cared for history in the same way that a semi-suburban boy like me cared for milking cows. For most of the year, we were separated by less than a point in our overall grades as we fought for the award. I guess I should’ve known that I wasn’t going to get it, regardless of my grades in Demon Travel’s course. My competitor, female and White as she was, was doted on by Demontravel for most of the year. I guess my near-exact same grade just meant that I was slumming in the A+ zone.
Then there was Demontravel’s demand for a typewritten three- to five-page essay on a World War II topic of our choosing, at the beginning of April ’83. It wasn’t something I could just write at my leisure and in my own handwriting. My father Jimme had to go buy a typewriter for me, one of those where you have to punch the keys to leave lettered ink on a page. I didn’t know how to type, and I knew no one else at home did either. So I used the two-index finger method, gradually figuring out how to type in double-space, to add footnotes and references, to write without using a pen. I chose to look at the Battle of the Philippines and the almost comical errors of both the Japanese and the U.S. there in 1942 and again in 1944-45. Demontravel gave me a 95 or 96 on it, helping me pull away of my friendly competitor at the beginning of May.
This was when we had our little incident, me and “Demon Travel,” in which I showed up the newly-minted PhD in his classroom. Ours was a discussion of World War I, one of the few times he actually attempted to lecture. He somehow managed to get wrong a key treaty on the Eastern Front that declared Germany a victor, gave them parts of Belarus and the Ukraine, and took Russia out of the war. Demontravel managed to get the parties involved in the treaty incorrect as well. I raised my hand, and when called upon I politely pointed out his error. He immediately became angry and told me that he couldn’t be wrong. Since I also could never be wrong, especially about an historical fact, I quoted the book directly, pointed out the name and date of the treaty, the parties involved, and the significance of the treaty to boot.
At that point he told me that if I ever corrected him like that again I would go Assistant Principal Gentile’s office. Gentile, a hard ass, would’ve been better off as a correction’s officer in Shawshank Redemption or in the HBO series Oz than as an administrator at Davis. I still didn’t want to see him, so I got quiet, quiet but fuming. Demontravel looked like a redneck after a day of labor in the hot Mississippi sun. All he needed was a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. My classmates were cracking up, excited even because they saw me as having put Demontravel in his place. I kind of knew then that it wouldn’t matter if I did finish ahead of my competitor. I wasn’t going to get my much-deserved award.
The lesson that it would take me until my thirties to learn was that life and learning isn’t just about how much you know and how well you exhibit such knowledge and wisdom. It’s much more about politics and being able to read people and situations before speaking and acting in such situations. I knew, but pretty much didn’t care, that Demontravel didn’t like me. He probably knew, but didn’t need to care, that I thought that his class was a joke, a cheap version of the short-lived contest show on NBC, Sale of the Century. Bottom line — especially in having gone through the experience of earning my own doctorate in history — you don’t mess with a boring yet overworked teacher who just finished earning a Ph.D. Even if his reach has exceeded his grasp of it.
I wrote this piece several months ago, as a way for me to think through why such a stark split regarding those who do and don’t support President Barack Obama. Unfortunately for me, I sent it to TheRoot.com, which apparently receives and rejects about 50,000 manuscripts about Obama per hour. But given President Obama’s major political victory in the passage of the historic health care bill, it seems appropriate to post this piece (with some minor changes) considering the obvious divisiveness that this bill and the leaders who represent it have allegedly inspired, at least according to some of our more unhinged American narcissists.
What does it mean to us as a nation – and Black folk especially – if President Barack Obama fails? Now, I don’t mean failure in an absolute sense or failure as defined by the radical conservative fringe. Nor do I mean failure approaching the proportions of President Bush 43. Failure for President Obama in the sense that the change he promised in 2008 and 2009 doesn’t occur by 2013 or 2017. For millions of us, though, Obama can do no wrong, for he’s already done far more than we would’ve expected.
So, what approximately does failure for Obama look like? It depends on how much his promises for change are fulfilled. If unemployment falls below five percent. When the US has adopted a strong policy on climate change, alternative energy and universal health care – and not just universal health insurance. And even with the passage of the health care bill on March 21, we don’t even have that. It’s better than no overhaul at all, but nowhere near universal.
Other meter-sticks for change fulfilled include the possibility that geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, South Asia and North Korea have been curtailed, if not abated entirely. When the growing debt crisis the federal government and the nation faces have been solved. Or if the administration rolls back the expansive powers of the executive branch around intelligence gathering, detaining potential terrorists or use of torture methods. These are the signs of success, and for many, falling short of most of these would constitute failure. Even achieving half of this ambitious but necessary agenda would make Obama one of the top seven presidents of all time.
But for some African Americans, that would hardly be enough. Especially if they feel they’ve been left behind. If communities of color remain besieged with poor schools, poor health care, high crime and high unemployment, Obama’s work would remain wholly unfinished. If African Americans continue to experience inadequate access to living-wage jobs, affordable apartments and homes, and public services across the board, Obama’s presidency would be about what could’ve been. Without addressing these issues – for some African Americans and the rest of the country – Obama’s status and popularity would surely drop.
Yet, President Obama will still be one of the most popular presidents since FDR and JFK. Many, if not most Blacks, would see Obama as a towering beacon that lit up their early twenty-first-century world. So many will take pride in his achievements – however limited – that it would be as if Obama could never fail. His serving as president is – and likely will continue to be – seen as success by default.
That truth is the reason why few African Americans criticize Obama in the public eye. Nobel Peace Prize, a strong State-of-the-Union speech, honorary degrees, meeting with foreign heads of states. Every step is an achievement, every speech an accomplishment. White progressives and conservatives of every stripe fail to understand. Progressives may be invested in Obama. African Americans, though, have doubled down on the president over the past two years. For so many, anything that President Obama makes happen in terms of domestic policy and statecraft is icing on the cake. President Obama will be seen as successful because millions of us will refuse to see any of his mistakes as failures, to see him in any other way.
Even the reactions that I’ve seen to the health care bill’s passage reflect some of this “can-do-no-wrong sense” among African Americans, a mixed blessing reaction among progressives, and signs of the Apocalypse among teabaggers. It is what it is, and there’s not much more to say than that. Except that post-racial America looks very much like the America that I grew up in and have worked in for the past forty years. President Obama can do no wrong. But as Americans, we still seem unable to do much right as a people or by our people.
America is the land of “it’s all about me.” Without a doubt, our economic, military and geopolitical imperialism has made all of us as narcissistic as Napoleon at the height of his power in France. Or as self-centered as Ted Bundy in the middle of a misogynistic killing spree. Or as self-absorbed (minus any self-reflection) as Steven Colbert appears to be while in character on The Colbert Report. It’s a shame, a symptom of sixty-five years as a superpower, as well as a history of propping up this land of ours as one of abundance, spinning fables about it all along the way.
It starts, of course, at home. With parents who face tough choices between balancing their own wants and needs with those of their kids, their spouses, and their family as a whole. Many of us fail to do so, and many of us do so spectacularly. It’s not just adultery, or serial adultery, or even divorce. It’s family annihilators, who, upon losing their jobs or some other calamity, choose to not only kill themselves, but their spouses and children, refusing to give them any choice at all. It’s folks who would prefer to talk on the telephone at the park while their kids play by themselves or who believe their babysitters should spend more time with their kids than they do. It’s parents who’ve been remarkably successful in their careers and terrifically unsuccessful in teaching their kids what they know about life.
Of course we grow up in a world of narcissism as a result. Even as much as we swear not to be like our parents, we can’t help to be. Not with TV teaching us that winning is everything, commercials that crap on losers at every turn, winner-take-all reality shows, individual archetype heroes in animation shows, and on and on. While cultural critics, corrupt politicians and priests, and parents complain about our corrupt culture and how it’s turning our kids into selfish and apathetic humans, keep one thing in mind. The bling-blingers in music videos and the ‘roid-rage-athletes on our TV, iPhone and computer screens are a reflection of us as much as we are a reflection of them. We all think that if we work really hard and get the right breaks (a.k.a. “know the right people”), we too can live the American Dream of riches and excess, of bills paid and endless amounts of goods to buy and accumulate.
College for many and high school for so many more teaches us as much about being self-centered and self-absorbed as anything else in our lives. High school history is mostly about great men (and I mean “men”) in all of their egotistical glory, especially great men as military leaders and empire builders. And why not? Despite all of the claims to the greatness of American democracy and American exceptionalism, ours is a country whose myths are all about great men and whose history is one of empires. Manifest Destiny, slavery, robber barons, the Spanish-American War, the Cold War, Iraq Wars I and II. Make no mistake, centuries from now America will be seen more as an empire than as an exceptional democracy, especially with the way we act, speak and live as a country these days.
Higher education, liberal or illiberal, is a place that fosters individualism and group identity in and out of the classroom. Even knowing the tensions between the two ideas doesn’t necessarily prevent narcissism. In fact, both ideas exacerbate our national obsession. Individualism in a post-industrial, consumer-driven economy and society leads to people borrowing the equivalent of a downpayment for a stately manor to pay for school. It leads to unreasonable expectations for a high standard of living, the lack of understanding around the need for robust public policies and services, and the need for a constant high. From drugs and alcohol, music and food, to the latest car, the best house, the finest clothes, the greatest sex. Even God for the spiritual and religious among us has become an enabler for our individual desires, without regard to the resources used, not to mention the future.
Group identity, especially in our era of neo-conservatism, exaggerates differences and minimizes similarities, making it difficult to relate to others’ ideas and perspectives on life. Blacks often act as if it’s us against the world on predominately White campuses, even on ones that have become decidedly more welcoming in the past two decades. Whites act as if individualism is all that matters, and buy into too many stereotypes about Blacks and other groups, including Blacks needing handouts and liberal Whites who will always be there to help hapless Blacks. Women talk as if men truly are a different species, while men act as if the First Amendment gives us the right to misogyny. Let me not get started on gays and straights, Latinos and Asians, and other groups on campus.
By the time we graduate, we’ve learned so little about being empathetic and sympathetic toward others that we go into the adult world with our chests puffed out (male and female, literally and figuratively, steroids and surgery). It’s about the same as our government acts toward the rest of the world. We believe we have the right to consume whatever we want, to tell others “Too bad” when they complain, and to step on others’ toes in the process For us as individuals, it’s jobs, money, cars, iPhones, spouses, children, other women and men. For the government that represents us, it’s oil, tin, rubber, trade agreements, borrowed money, cheap labor, and so much else to consume in a country full of consumers but increasingly devoid of producers.
It almost makes me ashamed to be an American when I see folks complain about immigrants (as if most Americans aren’t immigrants on some level), or talk about climate change as fantasy, or act as if the Rapture will come before all of the oil runs out. The common link between the viable and current solutions to all that ills us is that we have to begin to behave as a “we” and not as an “I” or a “me.” But if we can’t stop for someone who’s in the crosswalk crossing the street when they have the right of way, how do we make it possible for our older selves and our kids to live in a world of universal public healthcare, equitable use of resources, environmental justice, geopolitical accountability, and quality education? In a society as selfish as ours, we might as well be talking about “Peace on Earth, good will toward man.”
Before I veer off into another enchanted story about my past and its relationship to the universal search for truth, justice and understanding beyond the American way, I want to issue a brief apology to my regular readers. I’m down to about one posting a week right now, and for that, I am sorry. The 3,000 and more visitors (and 8,500 hits) this blog and website receive each month serve as part of my motivation to keep writing, to keep pushing to publish Boy @ The Window. Your comments, good, bad and ugly, are all appreciated. Because I’ve touched someone’s heart, or a nerve, or tapped into a deep well of rage for many of you. I’ve been swamped with work, looking for work, and otherwise stuck with a variety of other projects that have kept me from posting more. All I can say is that I will continue to post at least once a week, as I originally promised when I started this back in June 2007, and more as time and my schedule allows.
And because of my schedule of late, I didn’t post nine days ago about the event twenty-eight years ago that led to my first true crush, my first glimpse at love beyond myself and my family. But this is not a story about Crush #1, one that I’ve probably told too often over the past three years as it is. The fact is, I’ve had other crushes, not nearly as long, as deep or as enduring, probably because I hadn’t started puberty in my pre-Crush #1 crushes. They did exist, though, and two of them may have foreshadowed what would and did occur in early March of ’82.
There’s nothing like having a crush in first grade. Most boys run as far away from girls as possible, even tomboys. Even my son Noah has decided that he’ll never kiss a girl, after spending most of kindergarten batting off potential kissers between his class and second grade. I went the other way in the spring of ’76. The first girl I ever kissed was named Diana. She was a delightful beauty, with both of upper front teeth growing in at the same time. Our seats were assigned so that we were right next to each other, so I saw her every day, with dainty clothes, pigtails and barrettes. One day she walked right up to me during recess, sometime in April, when the trees had flowers and pink and white petals would take off in the wind. She told me she liked me, and we were “boyfriend and girlfriend.”
And so we were, in our little six-year-old minds. We’d sometimes hold hands on the playground or she’d walk me the three doors down from Nathan Hale Elementary to my house at 425 South Sixth. But my favorite part was the “French kissing.” Mouth, tongues, and sometimes teeth collided between her and me as we struggled to kiss the way we figured adults did. Looking back, it would seem about as disgusting as me making out with myself after having not brushed my teeth for two days. But back then, it was heaven-on-Earth. Until Diana told me at the end of the school year that her family was moving away. I was sad after I waved and said “Goodbye!” to her on the last day of first grade. I don’t remember crying, though. I pouted, and missed her for all of a day or two. Such is the life of a kid whose memories may have been solid, but emotions remained fleeting.
Three and a half years later, I had another brief crush on a girl, this one in my fifth-grade class with the late Mrs. O’Daniels. “T” was the only girl my age that I liked in any way between Diana and Crush #1. I really don’t know why, I just did. She seemed both feminine and tomboyish at the same time, I guess. Long and lanky, cool and calm, pretty yet not beautiful (although she always smelled pretty good to me). Who knows what was in my nearly ten-year-old mind that would’ve allowed me to have a crush on her?
Mrs. O’Daniels (and, I presume, Ms. Bracey, the other fifth-grade teacher at Holmes Elementary, but I’m not sure about this) allowed us to have a party sometime around Halloween ’79. It was a candy and dance party, from what I remember. Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” from his Off the Wall album, was playing on Mrs. O’Daniels’ record player. I was dancing — sort of, in the way you can imagine someone being half a beat off dancing, anyway. “T” was dancing too, and completely coordinated. The girls danced with the girls, and only a few boys were brave enough to dance too, though more in a Soul Train-kind-of-way. Though I didn’t dance with “T”, the fact that we were on the dance floor of our classroom at the same time made me feel as if we had.
Of course, “T” went away as well. Right around Lake Placid time, in February ’80. Her family was moving to Philadelphia. We had talked, but it was all small talk, nothing about crushes or the big philosophical arguments I got into with male friends like Starling. But she did specifically say “Goodbye” to me. I wondered about that for a few days after “T” and her family moved to faraway Philly. I did miss her, miss whatever longings I had for her, but, I was only ten, and I had other things to think about, like buying more Matchbox cars or arguing with Starling about what Carter should do about the Iran hostage crisis. I had time to wonder about those things without the pressures of family dissolution and religious confusion back then.
When I add my half-year-long crush on my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon to this list, it seems to me that my crushes back then were on people that were just beyond my grasp (or well beyond the attainable, as the case may be). Maybe that’s the point though. Not that love is fleeting, or that I should’ve been more assertive in the case of “T” or Crush #1. Maybe I should take a line from Shakespeare about knowing that I could really fall head over heels for anyone, for a few days, weeks or months anyway. Better that than having my nose stuck in a book or the World Book Encyclopedia all the time, right?