Academic Writing, Achievements, Betrayal, Calling, CMU, Crew, Domestic Violence, DV, Failures, Family, Fears, Love, Misfits, Misogynoir, Ostracism, Patriarchy, Pitt, Purpose, Self-Reflection, Setbacks, Toxic Masculinity, Turning 50, Writing
The title could just as easily be, “Confessions From an Educated Fool.” After all, I am highly educated, and have done more than my share of dumb-ass bullshit over the years to avoid certain truths about myself.
I have no idea what turning 50 really means. For Black men, the average life expectancy of 64.5 years makes me worry about every ache and every anomaly. Based on my family genetics, I have at least 30 years where my age will in no way be reflected in my height, weight, athleticism, sex drive, or other general health issues. My mind should remain sharp until I am in my late-80s or early 90s, if not longer. As of now, I know I am in better overall shape than I was this time 10 years ago, but lack the running stamina I developed during most of my 40s. On the other hand, my knees have been thanking me for the past 17 months since I stopped running 300-plus miles a year.
Depending on how I look at my life, I am a scrambler who has turned an Olympic-size swimming pool full of diarrhea with turd chunks into two kilos of gold. Or, I am a once brilliant and talented young Black man whose temper and impatience fucked up his future. Two things can be true, sometimes equally so, and at the same time. That is, if I don’t account for upbringing, systemic racism, extreme poverty, the violence of misogynoir and toxic masculinity, and a host of other burdens that my differential equation mind could not factor into my life’s calculus. Much less control or counteract with respectability or kindness or the Golden Rules of Christianity.
Some context. When I was 11, I participated in my first writing contest and came in second place among the dozens of K-12 students who submitted to the local newspaper, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. By then, I had long buried the sexual assault I endured and the subsequent suicide attempt from five years earlier. I graduated 14th in a class of 509 in 1987, only to spend my last days of high school and the year after my enrollment at Pitt treated as if I were an invisible ghost by many of my former classmates. At 25, I earned a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. But the entire time I was in commune with “my fellow Fellows,” as I used to say, I was ambivalent about my prospects, in and out of academia. At 26, in part because of the Spencer fellowship, I completed my dissertation. Yet my advisor’s petty jealousies and psychological abuse burned me out, just as my dissertation committee’s subsequent abandonment of me once I graduated left me feeling burned.
I was a young prospect with a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon, but with little in financial support or connections to continue to spin shit into gold. After two years, I left the wonderful world of adjunct teaching for a civic education job with the center-right organization Presidential Classroom. My boss was both extremely paranoia about terrorist attacks on DC and openly racist, referring to Asians as “Orientals” and making comments like “Slavery was a hoax.” After seven job interviews for academic positions over three years, Howard University offered me a tenure-stream assistant professorship in June 2000. I said no. At the time, I told my significant other, two months into our marriage, “I do not like working for racists, but at least I know where I stand. With Howard’s constant elitism, I’d likely lose it and pop one of my colleagues in the mouth for saying something elitist and stupid.” I was averaging 100-to-110 hours of work per week and about five hours of broken sleep at night when I made this decision.
Sometimes I think it’s the dumbest adult decision I ever made. Most of time, though, I think about the broom closet that they offered me as an office. I remember the urinals in the Founders Library that dated back to the tenure of Mordecai Johnson (1926-1960). I ruminate on rough attitudes of my one-time colleagues (I eventually taught there as an adjunct in 2007). And through all this, I remind myself that it was okay to say no. Especially to colorism, respectability politics, and a campus that has been in need of a total gutting and a top-down renovation at least since I began visiting in 1993.
My career has been one of wandering by necessity. I have never been a complete fit anywhere. Damn sure not in academia. Definitely not in the nonprofit world. Certainly not in consulting. And not quite as a freelance writer and author. I have had to bend and break so many rules and norms, just to survive, that to mold and shape myself like a shapeshifter would nearly always lead to me feeling at constant war, with myself and my work.
Especially since so much of this war was over who I am. I am a writer, damn it! I love teaching — most of the time. I like managing projects, and was fairly good at raising money. I am an excellent cook (just ask anyone other than my Mom). I am a pretty good basketball player even now, and could’ve made a D1 college squad back in the day. I once considered stripping to make ends meet after finishing my doctorate (my eventual wife talked me out of it, a lot, while I gunned for a six-pack). But since at least the spring of 1981 (maybe, with Peanuts Land, the spring of 1979), I have been a storytelling, introspective, imagining-of-alternative-worlds-and-lives, mixing-fictional-techniques-with-my-real-life writer. It took me 21 years to admit that I was a writer, another decade to see myself as a writer first and foremost. That no matter the job or my roles in that job, that I was, am, and will always be a writer.
That was what motivated me to write Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window and then self-publish them, even as the process of researching and writing Boy @ The Window led me to uncover so many uncomfortable truths about me, my family, and the people I grew up around. Including the truth about my greatest failure, my refusal to dig out the splinter in my mind. The dual decision to not see myself as a writer and then to not dedicate myself spirit, soul, and body to my craft and calling until after turning 45. That’s my biggest regret, my daily frustration, my constant companion, buried just a few millimeters between my flesh and my bones.
Even when I finally push through, break through, blow up, and have any modest level of success as an author of x-number of books — and I will, because, me — I will continue to carry this deep well of what coulda and shoulda been. My need to credential myself, to make up for the loss of my childhood to poverty and domestic violence and child abuse, my desire for worth and work, my simple arrogance of youth. It nearly squeezed out the divine voice of purpose in my mind. More than once, it all drove me to the edge of the galaxy, where rage against the world, a lust for lust and self-destruction, and the sheer drop into the abyss of depression all intersect into a nebula of desperate insanity.
This is precisely why it is so important to have a crew, a group of folx who will not jump into the void with you, but instead will support you with critique and encouragement, and yes, love. Of course, I could not have transitioned from the burnout of the nonprofit world and the constant search for money to “change the world” into the constant search for income through freelance writer and teaching social justice through history and education without my wife. After years of watching bosses and co-workers get down on their knees to beg for money while they morphed the grassroots and systemic social justice work they really wanted to do into inchworm-paced “social change” models, I wanted out. I figured, consulting, occasionally teaching, and doing the work I truly wanted to do would be better.
Then, the Great Recession hit, and did a number on my permanent job prospects and consulting work. If someone had told me on verge of my 40th birthday that I would spend the next decade primarily working as contingent faculty at not one but two universities, I would have laughed until I cried. I would’ve also predicted that my wife would’ve handed me divorce papers. I didn’t die from woeful laughter, and my beloved did not demand that I move on.
But we did argue. One of those arguments led me to a “Fuck It” realization at the end of 2014. No one would ever offer me a permanent position at a university as faculty, not without offering me an administrator position first. And since the unofficial rules of the academy have never really applied to me and my writing, I had the right to publish anywhere, on any topic, even if and when other academicians — including some whom I had trained — looked at me like I was some tragic figure.
Along with some counterintuitive thinking about my eclectic writing skills and queer approaches to understanding the application of history and education in mainstream journalism, this new truth has been my resurrection and insurrection as a writer. Between The Guardian and Seven Scribes, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post, and especially Al Jazeera English, I have come closest to being my truest and whole self outside of marriage, friendship, parenting, and my many moments in prayer.
I owe my wife for allowing me the space necessary to finally access my calling. But I also owe my small inner circle of folx who may not have always understood my journey and the decisions I made that led me to where I am at half-century. They’ve read my horrific drafts, heard my most hare-brained ideas, smiled through my most ludicrous of plans both before and during this bitter slog of a rollercoaster ride. I’m more than sure that some in my circle still don’t understand my end game. Mostly because there is some aspect of my whole self that I haven’t shared with them. Not only my desire as a writer. But my general desire to be excellent at everything, my quest to know everything, and my contradictory default of being scared of nearly everything, especially of whatever good moments I have had. Too many times, I have seen the anvil drop on or near me all too soon after drilling a three.
I think I have one more big run in me left. The proverbial they say that life is a marathon and not a sprint. They are wrong. Life is like a continuous basketball game, where one can be overmatched, but can take timeouts and make a series of 12-0 or 30-13 runs to tie the game or take the lead. I am in the midst of a run right now, as unexpected as living past the age of 30 was for me when I almost jumped off a bridge on my 14th birthday, 36 years ago.
I need the crew I have, and I could use some help from a few more folx who may want to join me on my journey into decade six. I’m gunning for a book contract for my American narcissism and American racism work. I’m looking for some career stability that takes advantage of my work in academia, in nonprofits, and in freelance writing. I’m looking to make sure that my son becomes the whole person he needs to be without spending the next 20 or 30 years kvetching about everything in the universe. I’m looking forward to spending more time traveling outside the US with him, with my wife, with others, and with myself. It’s time. It’s been time for 50 years.
I have seen some shady shit as a student and educator over the years. Between my middle school and high school magnet programs in Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon, my four years as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, my three years of grad school course work at Pitt and at Carnegie Mellon, and my years of contingent teaching, I have seen students do everything short of killing me or killing their classmates for a higher grade.
This semester provided some new wrinkles (really, old wrinkles I haven’t seen since my Humanities days in the 1980s) that actually shocked me. All as I taught my 77th, 78th, 79th, and 80th classes in my roller-coaster of a teaching career. I have felt a certain way toward some of my most demanding, hold-my-hand-for-an-A, spoiled-brat students over the years. This semester, I found myself actually despising three in particular across two universities and four classes. By no means does my grading reflect what I think of them, as I assigned each of them the grades they earned. But really, there is no letter in the alphabet low enough for them that I could assign. At least, one in which I would ever feel fully satisfied. And that is all because they all made the decision to be cut-throat, toward me and toward their peers.
I fully understand the compulsion. Six years in a magnet program that was one part Benetton commercial and three parts Death Race — the Jason Statham version from 2008 — showed me George Orwell’s Animal Farm as a live-action drama set from 1981 to 1987. Students giving each other incorrect notes from which to study. Classmates telling each other they were going to fail a final, or that they didn’t belong in Humanities. One Class of ’87 star making sure to say to another that they were only getting into an elite school because they were Black.
Hazing, bullying, torture, ostracism, denigration were all part of my experience, and that was before we started taking AP courses! I even snickered when our valedictorian received a 67 on an English essay in 11th grade because she failed to underline the title of a James Baldwin book (either Go Tell It on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time, who can remember such mundanity nearly 34 years later). We became good friends for a while after high school — go figure!
So, it’s not like I couldn’t conceive of setting up a classmate to fail, using someone else’s better words to substitute for my gross and imperfect writing, or spending money to hire a tutor to study for an AP exam. I could’ve really done it, if I had the will and/or the wealth. I just wouldn’t do it. You know, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s in Matthews, the first book of the Gospels in the New Testament. It’s one of the few tenets that I have tried hard to follow in all my years as a human being and as a Christian. (The tenets I follow consistently are universal ones, so please do not get your atheistic drawers all twisted.)
But not always. During finals week my second semester at Pitt, at the end of April 1988, I put that Golden Rule aside, and for good reason. During our two-hour, multiple-choice final exam in Roman History, I noticed him. A skinny, geeky White yinzer with dirty blond hair sitting behind me in the Cathedral of Learning lecture hall on the ground floor. I noticed him because I heard him, somewhere around the question 70 mark. The only time his pencil made a noise was after I had filled in a bubble with an answer. By question 75, I knew the dumb mf was cheating off my answer sheet.
So I did what my years in Mount Vernon and in Humanities had trained me for. I proceeded to answer the next 25 questions on this 100-question exam incorrectly on purpose. It was rich and dripping with caramel-chocolate-on-ripe-strawberries revenge! I knew every correct answer and just kept bubbling in one wrong one after another. And as sure as dog-shit peppering dirty snow piles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in February, Mr. Yinzer bubbled in his answers right after mine.
Then, I stopped. I paused for a half-minute after bubbling in question 100. I picked up my big eraser, and frantically rubbed out my incorrect answers to each of those last 25 questions. Then I turned around, and gave the yinzer a “Gotcha!” look. He was pissed and scared, his face the pale color of white pastel paint mixed with water. I turned back around, and carefully bubbled in my correct answers for the last quarter of the exam.
After I got up to submit my exam to the professor, I walked up the steps toward the back of the lecture hall, passing Mr. Yinzer along the way. He shot me a look, one where he knew he was caught, like a rat in an old-style trap, about to die from the pain of asphyxiation and a broken neck. I rolled my eyes with the thought, That’s what you get, dumb muthafucka!
I am not proud of that moment. Sure, the yinzer deserved it. But, I could’ve reported it to the professor. I could have just covered my answer sheet up better. I could have confronted the student directly. I could have even let the student ride my coattails toward an A on his final exam. Instead, I went all cut-throat and ensured that this student failed his final. In what way am I really better than him when I helped an academically drowning classmate swallow more water while holding his head down?
I know. What I did may seem milquetoast on the scale between blatant cheating and the viral slut-shaming of a peer with whom you are in academic competition. But that’s the point. None of this should be acceptable. My A in the course would not have changed, and Mr. Yinzer would still have struggled academically even if had succeeded at cheating on this one exam.
At just 10 days before I turn 50, I have figured out what I hate, actually hate, about other humans. I hate habitual liars, especially the ones who regularly lie to themselves while telling me their lies. I hate elitist assholery, even from those whom I admire, even from among my friends. I hate cheating, and those who think they can get away with it. I hate brown-nosing, as I smell this shit from a mile away. Now, I despise those who would eat A’s and A-‘s for their three squares a day before recognizing that education is about much more than a high grade an a job to pay off their student loans. Education is about freedom, having and making good choices, and finding yourself a crew that you can rely on and can rely on you long after graduation. Those who think otherwise are as lost as Dr. Manhattan caught in a quantum vortex.