Feminism without accounting for intersectionality is essentially Whiteness from a White middle class (in outlook, if not in fact) women’s “me too” perspective. Blackness without accounting for intersectionality can often be a cover for misogyny and sexism, and can easily contradict anti-racist thoughts and actions. My random thoughts for the morning after listening to Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” for the umpteenth time. Need to add to my latest piece.
425 South Sixth Avenue, 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Boston, Busing, Classism, Common Ground (1985), Community, Desegregation Orders, Divorce, Economic Inequality, Educational Equity, Friendships, J. Anthony Lukas, Ms. Hirsch, Nathan Hale Elementary, Ostracism, Racism, School Desegregation, Second Grade, William H. Holmes Elementary, Youth
Schooling and friendships have been the main theme of my posts this month. I find myself in deeper reflection about my years before the Boy @ The Window years these days. Maybe because I’ve come to realize that those years between ’74 and ’81 were far more influential in how I saw the world than I’d previously given credit.
One issue that I think I’ve had insight into for years before actually becoming an educator is busing. Maybe not so much in relation to school desegregation, though. As a seven-year-old, it would’ve been in terms of friendships and belonging. The only time I faced a no-choice busing situation was my last two and a half months of second grade, between April and late-June 1977. My Mom and Maurice had moved in together and moved me and my brother Darren to North Side Mount Vernon and 616, the house of horrors that would become the central locale of my memoir.
The only thing I knew of busing before the move from 425 South Sixth to 616 East Lincoln was that Darren had been taking a bus to Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry every school day since my first day of kindergarten in ’74. Also, the images in my head from national news on the three main networks about Boston Public Schools and protests in ’74 and ’75. I had no idea in the spring of ’77 that many White and more than a few Black parents were fighting a desegregation order that required widespread busing in Boston. All I knew at the time was that a lot of angry people with signs and bricks and bottles were on my TV screen at the beginning of September almost every year.
My spring of busing was one of misery. Not because Mount Vernon was under any desegregation order, which it was. Mom had made the decision to not disrupt second grade for me by keeping me at Nathan Hale Elementary, the school that we had lived two doors down from prior to our 616 move. The other option was for me to start at William H. Holmes Elementary five months sooner, so that my transition to third grade would’ve been easier. Thanks, Mom.
Even at the time, I wished she had. Mom had been sick for half that school year. She and my father Jimme were in the midst of a nasty divorce. We had already moved. It made no sense for me to continue to go to Nathan Hale Elementary. I couldn’t stand my teacher Ms. Hirsch. She was the only teacher prior to Humanities, and especially Humanities at Mount Vernon HS, who thought of me and other students as essentially kids without a future. Ms. Hirsch was the only teacher prior to my senior year at MVHS who told me that I wouldn’t “amount to anything.” I hated, hated being in her classroom. It was a feeling I wouldn’t have again until David Wolf and AP Physics my senior year, and even then, that feeling only lasted for forty-five minutes, and even then, it wasn’t with me every day.
By the end of second grade, I was without any friends. Not because I did anything weird, which I’m sure I did. The constant disruptions in our living arrangements meant that I no longer played in the playground next to Nathan Hale after school, where I could hang out with other first, second, and third graders. (I was scared to go there by myself otherwise, anyway — this issue, to be continued.) A bunch of my first grade friends from Ms. Griffin’s class had left during the summer of ’76, leaving Winston, a first grader, as my only friend at Nathan Hale. Yeah, I talked to Lauren and one other girl in Ms. Hirsch’s class, but that was pretty much it.
Taking the bus to and from school for those last fifty days or so of school was torture. Not because kids make fun of me, which they didn’t, or because I was part of some experiment related to desegregation, which I wasn’t. I hated the smell, of bubblegum and Now-&-Laters, of sweat from recess and gym, of exhaust fumes from cars because our little TFD bus wasn’t air-conditioned. Mostly, I couldn’t stand the forty-five minutes or hour that it would take to go from 616 to Nathan Hale, picking up kids all through Mount Vernon along the way.
Fourteen years later, in an upper-level US urban history undergraduate course (my last history class before grad school) at the University of Pittsburgh, one of my required readings was J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground (1985), his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on busing and school desegregation in Boston. There were so many powerful parts of Lukas’ book that piqued my interest. His coverage of parents from all sides of the busing controversy. The sense that school desegregation was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory legally, but not so much culturally, because of the “hearts and minds” issues around race. What struck me, though, was the limited perspective Lukas provided on kids who had to ride these buses between Black, White, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods to get to these schools throughout Boston.
I imagined what it would’ve been like to bus in Boston during my K-2 years. I had it hard enough as a child of abuse and divorce, with a move to an uncertain future, and with at least one teacher who saw me as little more than human garbage. Add screaming and spit-flying from White parents raging over school desegregation? I really could’ve been written off, never having a chance to become a good student, and more importantly, a lifelong learner. Maybe the only lesson I would’ve learned from busing was that Whites against busing have serious high-blood pressure issues. Or, more realistically, that White parents didn’t want me to become friends with their kids.
Either way, Lukas helped me realize, maybe for the first time, how twisted and evil American society would have to be to expose kids to blatant racism and not-so-blatant economic inequalities as demonstrated through busing.
Ambivalence, AP US History, Career Decisions, Career Development, CMU, Commitment, Editors, Graduate School, Historian, History, Nonprofit World, Nuance, PhD, Self-Discovery, Self-Reflection, Teaching and Learning, UMUC, Writer, Writing
Right now I sit between two important dates in my life. One was a few days ago, the thirtieth anniversary of my triumph on the AP US History exam in eleventh grade. Two will be in two days, the nineteenth anniversary me of graduating from Carnegie Mellon with my PhD in History. Both are signifiers of my achievements, my ambitions, and of my becoming a professional historian. But in the decade after earning my first college credits and the nearly two decades since earning my doctorate, I’ve still had a few lingering questions about where and who I am professionally.
One of those questions I’ve discussed ad nauseam here. Am I a writer who’s also an academically trained historian, or am I a historian first and a writer second? Or, can I be both at the same time? For better and worse, I am always both, but can emphasize one or the other at random, depending on context.
Other questions, though, have lingered even after spending more than a decade in the nonprofit world and another eight years teaching a full slate of undergraduate history courses. Do I still enjoy teaching history? Does my experience working on real world issues in civic education, social justice, and educational equity cloud how I see myself when I’m lecturing on the Agricultural Revolution or the Middle Passage? How is it possible for me to reconcile myself as a freelance writer who wants to take my academic historian experience, combine it with my other professional and personal experiences, and write about it for editors with little clue about the roads I’ve traveled? Is it even possible to un-layer the onion of my life and write about it to my or anyone else’s satisfaction? And if so, am I still a historian when doing so?
To that next to last question, I think that’s already a yes-no answer. Since 2013, I’ve written articles for publication with newspapers and magazines, and am working on my first new scholarly piece in six years. It’s difficult, to say the least, to explain to an editor what in academia or even among US or African American historians is a settled issue. Editors always believe that any story has two equal and opposing sides, because that’s how most ordinary people see most stories. As an academic historian, I’m trained to see nuance, to know when one side has a stockpile of evidence, while another one has a stockpile of bullshit.
Or, more often, to know that the no man’s land of gray present several or even multiple perspectives on issues like racism, poverty, college retention and graduation, American individualism, or the rigging of the federal election process. That no man’s land, I have found, more often than not scares away an editor, even ones working for intellectual magazines. They think their audience is incapable of getting nuance, when I think that they often reflect their own narrow and elitist view of the world.
As for teaching history, I find myself literally bored with the basic facts of any survey or even upper-level history course. To me, history is a panoramic lens through which students and experts can study human beliefs and behaviors in all its glory, ugliness, and ordinary-ness. Understanding how and why a person or a group of people did x, y, or z is much, much, much more important than knowing the exact date a specific event took place or coming up with some interesting but irrelevant fact in the process.
Which was why I began to teach my undergraduate courses with far more discussion and less lecturing than I did when I taught history as a grad student. (I taught a bunch of graduate-level education foundations courses in between my various nonprofit stints between 1997 and 2008.) I decided it didn’t matter if my students had done the readings, hated history, or were tired and ready to nap through three hours of lecture. I will facilitate discussion. I will make sure to make this process one about human interaction. Even when the lack of independent thinking among my students has me near ready to strangle a few of them. Why? Because understanding how people think and why they draw the conclusions they do can be as eye-opening as the knowledge they pull from one of my classes, maybe more so.
So, do I still see myself as a historian, or more as a psychologist or sociologist? Does it really matter how I see myself? Probably not. I just know that after years of teaching, writing, and all of my ups and downs professionally, that I remain two things most of all — a writer and a learner. Those two callings fuel my ability to raise my game, to want to be a better professor, a more expert historian, and an insightful writer. That, I hope, won’t change as I continue my long march toward fifty.
"Friends" (1984), "Scream" (1995), 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Child Abuse, Ego Inflation, Friendships, Hip-Hop, Hubris, Humanities, Intolerance, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Rap, Salvation, Shunning, Starling Churn, Teenage Angst, Whodini, William H. Holmes Elementary
My friendship with my one-time best friend Starling ended on this week thirty-five years ago. It was a friendship that “began with a fight and ended with a fight,” as I wrote in Boy @ The Window. The second fight had as much to do with inflated preteen egos as it did with intolerance and ignorance. But that couldn’t be helped, given the way we were, the way our families had been back in the first days of the Reagan Years.
We’d been friends since the last third of fourth grade at William H. Holmes Elementary Most of our conversations the first year or so of our friendship had been about music, politics, history, and other things related to school or pop culture. By the time we reached Mrs. Bryant and sixth grade, a good portion of our conversations turned to Christianity. I guess that this was inevitable. Starling was the “son of a preacher man,” a Southern Baptist pastor. Starling wanted to see me become an official child of God and brother in Christ. My search was one of truth and God, and if Jesus was the one who could get me there then so be it. I didn’t feel the same sense of urgency for water immersion and John 3:16 as Starling did for me.
The return of my prodigal stepfather Maurice Washington/Judah ben Israel and his bringing the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing to 616 put a temporary end to my Christian enlightenment in April ’81. Him and my Mom had been separated for about six months. During that time, my idiot stepfather had discovered the ways of Yahweh and Torah and alleged that he was a changed man. So we all had to change, to stop eating pork and bloody meats, to start wearing kufis, and to somehow see this fool as our dad.
Starling stopped speaking to me immediately and entirely when I showed up on a mid-April Monday with a white kufi on my head. on the last Friday in March. Our friendship was suddenly over. This was what our second fight was about, our friendship, my bizarre religion and my acceptance of it. At least it was for me.
As I wrote in the memoir,
I guess that Starling at twelve was definitely his father’s son. I could certainly understand Starling’s perspective on this. I’d betrayed him when I came to school and professed that I was a Hebrew-Israelite. Starling had been talking to me for months about becoming a Christian, a Baptist, and now here I was embracing Afrocentric Judaism, similar in many ways to the Nation of Islam and its variants in terms of its racial politics. The practitioners I’d been around tended to see Black Christians as “weak,” out of touch with “their heritage,” and as “worshiping the wrong God.” Starling couldn’t accept this. We ended up in our second and final fight. I was fighting for our friendship, literally. Starling beat me to end it.
I felt betrayed myself. Starling had turned his back on me at a time in which I needed his input the most. I still cared about the same things, thought about the same issues, and wanted someone whom I could banter with about music and politics and religion. But given Starling’s background, even back then I realized that he thought that I was well on my way to hell. Starling and I saw ourselves as adults in many ways, so he assumed that I had made a free-will adult decision for becoming a Hebrew-Israelite when I walked into Mrs. Bryant’s class with a kufi on my head. He had no idea how much I was struggling with my mother and stepfather’s decision to make our family a Hebrew-Israelite one.
So I projected the outward appearance of supreme confidence and faith in Jehovah and this slant on the ten Lost Tribes of Israel, to protect myself from being hurt and to see if this whole Hebrew-Israelite thing really was for me. Not a good move going into middle school and the Humanities Program later that year. I had no idea how much worse my life was about to become in the two years between the end of my friendship with Starling and my family’s fall into welfare poverty, bumps, bruises, babies and concussions along the way.
It wasn’t until the end of eighth grade that Starling and I began exchanging “Hi’s” again. Even then, this was often forced. The only conversation I had with Starling after our fight was at the end of ninth grade, with him letting me know that he was moving with his family down South. Starling Churn left with his family for Wilmington, North Carolina in the summer of ’84, still believing I was well on my way to eternal damnation.
That friendship’s rise and fall has helped me understand who friends really are. Ultimately a friend is someone who isn’t a relative but you gravitate toward and have shared interests with, a person who has sympathy and empathy for you and your life. A person who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re fucking up and who doesn’t shun you when you lose your way. That’s a real friend. I’ve had and still have, thankfully, a core group of ride-and-thrive friends who fit (or at least come close to it) this definition.
Starling and I couldn’t. We were tweeners, after all, and pseudo-intellectual ones with inflated egos from straight-As at that. And in a country that barely tolerates anything other than blind, unthinking Christianity and a false sense of patriotism, maintaining a friendship in the midst of a major religious shift — even a childhood one — was and is nearly impossible.