“Let Me Tell You About Ms. Martha…”



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Ms. Martha with her grandson, Silver Spring, MD, December 25, 2009. (Donald Earl Collins)

I’ve been reluctant to write this post. Not because I have nothing good to say about my late mom-in-law, someone I’d known for nearly half my 51 years. I have nothing but good things to write about her. Not because I’m grieving. I often write when I’m in an altered state emotionally or psychologically. No, I’m a bit nervous because this will be my first blog post about any specific member of my wife’s family, Thanksgiving 2001 excepted. I’m mostly concerned that some will see what I have to write about my mom-in-law as an indirect slap toward my own mother and parents/guardian in general.

Trust me, it’s not. That I first met Martha Mae Guinn Levy (1931-2020) a month after my twenty-sixth birthday meant the nature of this relationship was never going to be strictly parent-to-child or mother-to-son.

The truth is, Ms. Martha really did treat me that way. But not just that. Sometimes our conversations could be contentious, like professor-student, or like two bickering friends, or brother-sister. The woman had nearly 39 years on me, but the battle-axe of a geezer could just as quickly be affectionate and a never-ending fountain of love and optimistic clichés. There are so many conversations, so many arguments, so many moments I could discuss that made me see all the facets and contradictions of my mom-in-law.

Ms. Martha made herself available for nearly every important event in my life since my then girlfriend introduced us on the last Saturday in January 1996. She attended my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon the following year. She drove me and her daughter to the Greyhound bus station in “dahntahn Picksburgh” in August 1999, so that we could begin our 20-plus years of living in the DMV, the Washington DC area. She shared a hotel room with my mom in 2000, just a few months after me and her daughter eloped. She came here to Silver Spring and watched at Sibley Hospital in DC as my wife gave birth to her one and only grandchild in 2003. She stayed with us for six weeks to watch her grandson in November and December of the same year, so that my wife could go back to work, and just before our son would start daycare.

But there’s one conversation that really and truly encompassed the evolution of our relationship over the years. It was in December 2013, just a few months after I had self-published Boy @ The Window. A week earlier, I had called my father about his yearly Christmas ritual of sending barely cashable Western Union money orders to give to his grandson for the holiday season. Instead, he mumbled and gave gruff one-word answers to my questions. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “I told you not to put me in your book,” he said, sounding hurt and embarrassed. “I didn’t want nothing to do with your book. You shoulda left the past in the past.” My dad actually hadn’t said any of these things in the seven years between first sentence and the rough final draft I ended up publishing that April. I had been completely open about what I was going to write and why. I guess having a paperback copy of Boy @ The Window in his hands to leaf through was too much for him.

The weekend before Christmas 2013, Ms. Martha called. She dialed up my partner on her cell phone to talk to me (mind you, she had my direct number, but called her daughter first). When I picked up Angelia’s phone, I heard “Hey Donald” in Ms. Martha’s gravelly voice. After a brief exchange, she said, “I wanna talk to you about your book.” I mailed Ms. Martha a copy of Boy @ The Window, along with my dad and a few others, but I hadn’t expected her to read it, at least not so quickly.

“I started reading and I didn’t wanna put it down,” Ms. Martha said. I was surprised. Really, I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t expected this response at all. Not because Ms. Martha didn’t read. I figured, Oh, she’s just being polite, especially after hearing from my dad a little more than a week earlier.

We talked about my book for nearly an hour and a half on my wife’s iPhone. I might as well have been doing a book talk as conversation with my mom-in-law. Ms. Martha asked questions about my Boy @ The Window years, wanting more details beyond the stories I did include. There were a lot of “I didn’t know…” and “I couldn’t believe…” comments about what I and my family lived through. She asked at least a dozen questions about my mom and her decision-making, about my brothers and sister, about my asshole classmates.

Mostly, she doted on me. “Oh boy! I liked this sentence here…,” Ms. Martha said while reading me back to me a number of times. When I explained away my accomplishments or challenges, she’d say, “…as far as that matter goes…” to remind me that what was normal for me was not normal for most tweeners or teenagers, not even Black ones living with poverty. “This was a joy to read,” she said so many times. She said she laughed and cried while reading the book, and laughed and cried while talking to me about it.

I ended that conversation with Ms. Martha thinking, Wow! This tough old woman really loves me! It made me feel better about writing Boy @ The Window. It made me feel better at a time when I felt low, about my writing, about switching careers, about life in general.

And yes, I truly loved and love Ms. Martha. I will miss our conversations, our rational disagreements, our out-of-nowhere arguments, our hugs, our embraces, and her love for me, her daughters, her grandson, for family and community more broadly. I will miss your presence and your voice in my life. May God bless you and keep you…and give you peace, in your life after life.

Music of the Dystopia


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Screen shot, Silent Running (1972) poster, November 24, 2020. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067756/mediaviewer/rm3505217792/).

Music has nearly always been a dreamscape from which I could envision alternative histories, sense multiple futures, uncover possible presents, feel and find my best self.

It has also been a place for revealing the naked, uncomfortable truth of humanity’s existence in real life. If one were to take the music of the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s, the R&B that clearly outlined the combination of migration, poverty, heroin addiction, the Vietnam War, police brutality, unemployment, miserly government social welfare and urban living would be one way to go. If one were to take the eclectic British and Irish pop and rock of the 1980s, those folks illuminated the connections between rising conservatism, austerity meant to cut the social safety net, and the normalization of government oppression, corruption, and infiltration into the private lives of everyday people.

It all adds up to one simple yet very scary truth. Our world, the one in which my mother birthed me, the one in which I have grown up and grown older, has always been a dystopia. That’s it. All this talk of technological innovation, of moral and philosophical advancements, of a post-World War II, West-led democratized, globalized, capitalist meritocracy is simply The Real-Life Matrix pulling the dystopian world over our deluded, narcissistic eyes. And nearly everything in the world of mainstream news and journalism, in everyday national and international politics, in formal education systems, and in every single iota of American and global popular culture.

Except in the occasional and deliberate attempts made by artists and authors to expose the underworkings of this Matrix. I have written far too much about those authors of late, from Sarah Kendzior, Mona Eltahawy, and Leta Hong Fincher to Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Derrick Bell. Truth is, I felt and sensed this truth in music even before I had read Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, or William Faulkner’s short stories about racist White men sleeping in beds for 20 years with the dead bones of their incestuous mothers. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues {Make Me Wanna Holler),” Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” and Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” brought the dystopian of Black life in the US to my attention long before I knew what the prefix dys- even meant. The contrast between this and the Afrofuturism of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” and “Boogie Wonderland” of the late-1970s wasn’t lost on me, even though it would be nearly 15 years between these songs and my reading of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.


But the 1980s hit me and my family as hard and fast as a government coup in Brazil or in Trump’s version of the US. It’s wasn’t just that it was our apocalypse. It revealed that the American Dream was a nightmare for so many people. It opened up my 100 billion neurons to the possibility that there could be no American Dream, no rise of the West, no Euro-American hegemony over the world without it being a dystopia for billions of people in the US, in Europe, and around the world.

It was also the decade of the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85, “We Are The World,” Bob Geldof and Live Aid, Farm Aid, and protests for South African divestment. So it seemed normal for groups of White guys in bands to write music, play instruments, and belt out lyrics like the ones below from Mike + The Mechanics’ “Silent Running” (1985).

Don’t believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I’m with the high command

The post-apocalyptic movie of the same title from 1972 was apparently on Michael Rutherford (guitarist of Genesis), et al.’s minds when they decided to work on the lyrics for this song. The idea that someone from the future would communicate with their ancestors in the past to resist the forces of totalitarianism and propaganda in order to preserve the path to a better future? Boy does that sound like the stuff of Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, Kiese Laymon, and Colson Whitehead (not to mention, Tomi Adeyemi in her Children of Blood and Bone), where ancestors and descendants can somehow have confabs in real life! All in an effort to swap ideas, to conjure up solutions before we understood the problems, to recognize that time is nonlinear, and so are we.

As a teenager who saw more than most that the Reagan Years were part of the dystopian present, and not a return to American greatness, “Silent Running” was refreshing, if also incredibly scary. I was like, if these White guys from the UK and Ireland get it, then why don’t folks in America get it? At least, the folks I saw at school and in running my errands every day.

But it wasn’t just Mike + The Mechanics. A lot of music from the 1980s and 1990s was subversive, including the more obvious Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Alanis Morrisette, and The Cranberries. It was just that the less subtle, the Billboard Top 40 hits and the B-side non-hits stood out for their double-meanings. When I stripped away the male bravado, the love and the lust and the loneliness from the repertoire of rap, R&B, hip-hop, and ’80s pop I listened to, the subversive was the remainder.

In my family-level apocalypse and resistance against my stepfather, the subversive helped. In the disconnect between the normalcy of magnet-program-learning among a cabal of Benetton-commercial-wannabes, the undercurrent understanding that this fakery belied a world very much like the one in The Matrix. The lyrics, the synthesizers, the heavy guitar strums and the drum rolls meant something different to me than anyone I knew growing up could imagine.

It wasn’t just “Silent Running” for me, nor something that hit like a sledgehammer like Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” that hit the radio waves my senior year of high school. There were others. For more than a decade, there were others, including:

  • PE, “Welcome to the Terrordome
  • Sting, “Love Is The Seventh Wave”
  • Dave Matthews Band, “Cry Freedom
  • The Cranberries, “Zombie
  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” and “Shaking The Tree”
  • Des’ree, “Crazy Maze
  • James Blake, “No Bravery”
  • Seal, “Future Love Paradise” and “People Asking Why”
  • U2, “Bullet The Blue Sky”
  • Arrested Development, “Tennessee”

In the years after I finished my doctorate, I didn’t forget these songs, and may have taken on some more obscure ones by Floetry, Coldplay, U2, Bryan Ferry, Pharcyde, The Fugees, among others, along the way. Popular music has become more vapid and craven and corporate as the leaders in our world have made their taste for a dystopia that advantages them more and more obvious. This position is probably why I can’t find a nod to the dystopian in Rihanna, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Rick Ross, Beyoncé, Gary Clark, Jr., or Chris Stapleton (although Solange’s and Missy’s music videos at least contain subversive and dystopian wisps).

This world is the dystopia that has always been. And those of us who talk to ourselves while speaking out at the same time have been trying to get everyone else to see it and sense it all along. I should know. I’ve been talking to myself since my week of homelessness at 18, and speaking out as the world has lurched itself toward calamity for nearly as long.

I Was Never Good at the Popularity Contest


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Molefi Asante speech, Philadelphia, PA, September 13, 2014. (AP photo/file).

If I so chose, I could be a jealous-hearted bastard, and look at every achievement of all the folk in my life as, “Well, good for you, asshole!” But I learned a long time ago, maybe even when I was at high school’s end, that the main person I have to compete and contend with is me, that I am exhausting enough. Vying for popularity, kudos, or power was never a big thing for me. It was a game I’d almost always lose, for enough reasons to make my pre-Christian and depressed self actually jump off that bridge and end it all. What I learned by my mid-twenties was to allow myself a moment or two of envy, to feel like life was easier for those who achieved what seemed like cheap and easy success and fame. And then I’d think, But that’s not what I want for me. That’s their path, not mine, no matter how many parallels and similarities there may be between them and me.

What helped me get there is a story of plagiarism, of ideas, if not of actual words. It’s a story of my first attempt to publish an article as an adult, my first foray into the world of popularity, of ideas, of writing, and of extreme disappointment. It began the summer before grad school at Pitt in 1991. My friend Elaine egged me into this work, after a long and hard final semester of undergrad and three weeks on a starvation diet while working full time that April and May (I stretched $30 over 20 days). I began work on what I hoped would be my first article, comparing ideas around Afrocentric education with the broader idea of multicultural education.

The piece was originally to be her and my response to what was then a major controversy involving research into the revision of New York State’s social studies curriculum. The New York State Department of Education had given a committee the task of figuring out how to make the state’s K-12 curriculum more inclusive and representative of the state’s tremendous racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity. 

By July, I had gone from disinterested to fully engaged, minus the young woman in whom I no longer had an interest, now working on a piece that had become much more academic than we had originally intended. By then, I’d already learned the names Leonard Jeffries, Asa Hilliard III and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I’d read articles from the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about Jeffries’ name-calling, Schlesinger’s incredulousness about calling slaves “enslaved persons,” and about the committee in general getting along like hyenas tearing at a dead wildebeest.

By the end of September, they would produce One Nation, Many Peoples: A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. With all my revisions out of the way, I’d produce my first publishable document since elementary school. I titled it “Comparing Afrocentric and Multicultural Education: Why American Education Needs Both.” I had reviewed much of the leading literature in the field at that point, between James A. Banks, Cherry McGee Banks, Christine Sleeter, Robert Slavin, Maulana Karenga, Frances Cress Welsing, 

I mailed it to three journals, including the Journal of Black Studies. It was then that I realized that one of the folks whose writing and research I had referred to in my review was also the editor of the journal. It was the one and only Molefi Kete Asante. He was also the founder and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies (now Africology and African American Studies) at Temple University in Philadelphia. His The Afrocentric Idea (1987) was half the basis for my understanding what Afrocentricity could look like as pedagogy at the K-12 level.

But I had problems with that pedagogy. I chafed at the idea that there was any litmus test to what was and was not authentically Black or African. No, I’m not sure if “chafed” is the right word. The idea that anyone — including folks like Asante, Karenga, Welsing, Jeffries, and John Henry Clarke — could arbitrarily decided that ragtime isn’t authentically Black or African, while say, rap and hip-hop was definitively so? It seemed like a bunch of bullshit to me.

I knew why reading Asante’s work made me feel that way, too. Those three-and-a-half years spent living in a Hebrew-Israelite household. Those times were with a man who claimed to be my stepfather, the one who could quote the Torah. All while eating squid and crabs and lobster tails, cheating on my Mom while begetting other kids he never fed, and beating on his “womens”, too.

That’s ultimately what I saw in Asante’s work, hell, in the work of the Afrocentric set across the board. That none of them grew up in Accra, Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Gaborone, Nairobi, or Jo’Burg or were Africanists who spent years and years living somewhere on the continent before committing to this litmus test. Intellectually, it made as much sense as a “reincarnated” Balkis Makeda in her 70s living in my Mom’s master bedroom at 616 in 1984 while we eight lived by rules like me cooking for the family at 14 because Mom had “unclean issues of blood.” Or, this fake-ass Balkis Makeda telling us that we could no longer use Ivory soap because she dreamt about rats gnawing on it. Authenticity has its costs, no?    

I didn’t write all this in my essay, though. I merely wrote that between an authentic African-centered education and an authentic multicultural curriculum, the latter made the most sense in a multicultural nation like the US, in a multicultural state like New York. I justified this because I only grew up in New York State, in and around New York City. I justified it because the fact was and remains, American Black folx are, well, Americans, who have cobbled together a culture of resistance, and joy within that, both multicultural American with shards and pieces of African Blackness, and all at the same time.

Nearly two months pass. The Black Action Society at Pitt had brought in Asante to speak, a week and a half before Thanksgiving. The ballroom BAS used in William Pitt Union was jam-packed. BAS heads Justin and Doug looked so proud of themselves that evening. And Asante was just as full of himself. He spoke for between 45 minutes and an hour, about Eurocentricity, about Afrocentricity, about creating a path where Black boys (and sometimes, girls) could become proud Afrocentric men (and sometimes women). Really, it wasn’t much different than anything I heard from temple during my Hebrew-Israelite years.

Then, he turned to multiculturalism and the controversy over the revisions to the New York State global studies curriculum. Unbeknown to the nearly 300 students in the room — aside from yours truly — he began parroting my submitted article. Not quite word-for-word, though. You see, he used my arguments as fodder for sarcasm while on stage, to point to “how the poison” of Eurocentricity “flows” in multicultural curriculum across the US. Asante believed that multicultural education was a mere euphemism to disguise the “Eurocentric in the multicultural.”

“He stole my ideas. He quoted me to crush me,” I told my friend Marc, who attended the talk with me that evening. Marc thought I was wrong, that Asante wasn’t quoting me at all. Yeah, sure Marc, I thought.

Two months later, I received my first article rejection. It was a week after I finally got my driver’s license, and two weeks before I published my first piece, a book review for a small scholarly journal. It was from Journal of Black Studies. I do not remember what the rejection letter said, but I read it as, “Nice try, but you’re not Black enough for this publication.”

This was my first foray — but hardly my last — into this world, where popularity mattered more than reality, perception more than evidence, and power more than anything.

But I do consider myself lucky. A few months later, I presented another paper at a conference at Lincoln University. Bettye Collier-Thomas was in attendance, and we ended up in a conversation. She invited me to apply for the PhD program in history, where I could work with her and esteemed people like Asante. I listened and respectfully declined. 

A year later was my joint article with Marc about the pitfalls of Afrocentricity. And with it, two months of Asante’s sycophants, er, students sitting in seminar rooms writing scathing rebuttal letters questioning if between the two of us we had enough brainpower to spell Black. To learn from one of his former students in 2007 that my imaginations of what could have happened in Asante’s seminars was actually true? Well, I was so glad he had used my words as a baseball bat to my head back in 1991.

I grew up with phony proselytizers. I didn’t need to follow another one. Plus, where’s my Afrocentric gravy? Does it go with my Jollof and Brussels sprouts, too?

The Fight of the (Buick) Century


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Mike Tyson slamming his right fist into Michael Spinks’ left cheek and jaw, knocking him down and out (screen shot), Atlantic City, NJ, June 27, 1988. (https://www.gentside.co.uk/).

I hate bullies. There, I wrote it. There aren’t too many things I hate more than bullies. Because bullies are the ultimate liars. Their presumed strength is a mask for the same insecurities the rest of us humans have. Only, they’ve decided that beating up on others physically, verbally, and emotionally as the solution to their fears. The only way really to deal with bullies is to stand your ground and beat them into submission. Or, if you can’t win the fight, to make the fight so vicious and bloody that the bully would rather die than fight you again.

I was robbed four times growing up between age nine and a few weeks before my 14th birthday, all in Mount Vernon, New York (so much for my parents’ worries about me being out late at night in the Bronx or Manhattan!). Two of the four robberies were full-fledged muggings, where I had to fight. Two of the four robberies, my older brother Darren abandoned me with bags of groceries (April 1979) or three bags of laundered clothes in a laundry cart — seven people’s worth — (October 1983).

That next-to-last robbery was a calculated one. I was literally walking uphill near the Hutchinson River, about to cross the bridge over the parkway of the same name, with an overloaded cart and no help from Darren. As I strained with between 60 and 70 pounds of clothes in the cold and dank fall weather on this rickety cart that I had to pull from behind (no front facing wheels), Darren walked back toward me. Two wanna-be-hard-asses were a few steps behind. “They want you to give ’em five dollars,” Darren said, as if I was in the charity business.

Now the taller one was behind Darren, the shrimp to my left. After years of basic Isshin-ryu karate training and two years of taking my everyday bully, er, stepfather Maurice’s punches, kicks, and chokes, I could have easily taken the shrimp. But Darren, as he had done in my first mugging four years earlier, had fled the scene. My  choices were to fight and risk scattering and ruining six weeks’ worth of clean clothes for me, Darren, Mom, Maurice, and my three younger siblings, or give them the five dollars. I did the latter. “That’s the last five dollars you’re ever gonna get from me,” I said to the shrimp while gritting my teeth. He sneered, but when I stepped toward him as if I was going to hit him, he stepped back.

I never expected Darren to help me with anything after that. This was when I began to say, to anyone who asked about my positioning in the family, that I was the oldest brother by default. “Well, I’m actually the second oldest, but my older brother abdicated the throne when I was 12 or 13,” I said with sarcasm for the next 20 years after that day. Including on my college essays!

That shrimp’s name was Reggie. He was among a group of roving bullies from 616 and 630 East Lincoln and the Pearsall Drive projects in those not-so-long-ago days. Reggie had been robbing folks for years, stealing money and candy from ten and eleven-olds, trying to crack on boys for being “ugly,” talking shit to girls like they would give his Vasoline-needin’ ass the time of day.

I’m not going to lie. People like Reggie scared me when we first moved to the roughest part of North Side Mount Vernon in 1977. After being sexually assaulted the year before, pretty much everything scared seven-year-old-me. But that was before the Reagan Years, the Hebrew-Israelite years, before getting my head caved in and my ribs cracked and bruised by a 32-year-old bully, a fourth-degree black belt in leeching off a welfare-poor family, my mother’s second husband. It was before puberty had shot me up from five-two to six-feet even, and with a recognition that I had some physical skills. So no, my biggest fear that day wasn’t being robbed, mugged, or even standing up for myself. It was dealing with Maurice afterward.

Five or six months after I handed him an Abe, Reggie finally got his. It was after school, sometime in late March or April 1984. The Reggie incident was now long forgotten under a pile of high school assignments, my post-suicide attempt conversion to Christianity, and plotting another round of resistance against my idiot stepfather. As I stared out the second bedroom window on the third floor, toward the northwest corner of the A block of 616, a mob of preteens and teenagers, between 20 and 30 in all, surrounded Reggie the shrimp and another, lighter-skinned kid who had also shot up in height in the past year. It dawned on me later that the older Reggie was either still stuck in middle school or a high school dropout, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me if his mama dropped him on his head when he was three.

Words turned into fists as the crowd swelled into a rough circle. I could hear the taller kid’s (lets call him KJ) fists land hard on Reggie’s cheeks and the left side of Reggie’s jaw, as KJ threw what we would now call an MMA combination that landed Reggie’s short ass in the dirt and sparse grass of 616’s front yard. KJ then pounced on Reggie and beat him in the face and torso until the shrimp curled up. I don’t remember what the freshly-minted teen yelled at Reggie as he stood over him like Ali over Sonny Liston, but whatever he said, the crowd of kids cheered and celebrated.

UFC 207 between Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey (screenshot; a full KO beatdown administered by Nunes in 48 seconds), T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, December 30, 2016. (https://youtube.com).

Reggie, bloodied lip, bruised from forehead to belly, with dirt and grass and straw in his hair and all over his clothes, all but cried as he stood up a moment later. By then, the crowd had followed KJ to 630, or gone home somewhere between 616, 630, or to their single-family dwellings on the other side of the street, or to the Pearsall Drive projects at the end of the long block. He somehow looked even darker, shorter, and more diminished than he did when I jerked at him as if to hit him five or six months earlier. As much empathy as I can have for the vanquished, I had zero empathy for Reggie at all. The only wish I had at that moment was that I had joined in with KJ and swung-kicked some teeth down Reggie’s mf-ing throat.

This is how we should all deal with bullies, like 45 and his minions. Not with empathy or with regard to what in their backgrounds helped make them this way. That comes later, when we have a chance to implement for the long-term. No, the immediate threat is a bully who taunts and grifts and threatens. You beat the shit out of that person, or make it so that their victory costs them so much that it feels like a defeat. After all, this is about self-preservation, survival, and harm reduction. Or to quote Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday from Tombstone (1993), “it’s not revenge that [we’re] after, it’s a reckonin’.” We need a reckoning this time around. Thanks, KJ, for showing the way.

About That Time at Van Cortlandt Park, and Other Bricks in the Wall…


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Van Cortlandt Park screen shot (parade grounds, cropped), June 4, 2020. (https://www.thisisthebronx.info/a-van-cortlandt-park-living-room-picnic/).

I don’t consider myself to be a seer. Not exactly. I might have gotten a thing or 1,000 predictions correct in my life. But since I usually prefer to expect good outcomes, I do not indulge the dreams I have of destruction, or the muses who conjure the possibilities of apocalypse, whether for me, my family, or at larger scales.

But the last half of 1980 was different for me. I’d come into my own as a kid. I finally had a posse of classmates and friends, between the two Joes, Starling, Chris, Ronald, Vanessa, Eric, Ray Ray, Sean, Lajuan, and Dahlia, among others. I was kicking ass academically, and was on the verge of discovering other talents, including writing. After my last summer camp with Darren at Clear View, and rereading the late Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, I understood my Blackness, really and truly, for the first time.

But I chose to see the glass as half full, both for myself and for Black folk in the US. Why wouldn’t I have? Somehow, in the middle of what I call “deep summer,” when the previous school year and the start of the first day of the next school year are about equally far away, it happened. My stepfather Maurice got a call from his music-obsessed friend Dennis (who was also a professional musician, by the way) in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in mid-August about going to some concert in the park in the Bronx. There was no mention of who the headliners were. I just remember playing Peanuts Land with my Matchbox cars and driving down along the shoppes in the nightlife district of the city underneath my bed when Maurice came in and rushed us to get dressed.

Mom, Maurice, Darren, little Maurice, and me. We piled into a cab over to Van Cortlandt Park, where we met Maurice’s friend Dennis. He knew a couple of the headlining people who were playing. I don’t recall tickets, but I do remember flyers everywhere. It seemed like this was a spontaneous gathering, where people somehow knew where to go and where to gather. I remember it being sometime around 7 or 8 pm when the jamming began, with all the music of the late-1970s and 1980. It was mostly an MC mixing a string a songs together, between Chic and “Good Times”, The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On,” and Michael’s “Off The Wall.”

But maybe 45 minutes in, three guys got on the stage to do their performance, Sugar Hill Gang, and the crowd of hundreds erupted into a roar as they rapped to “Rapper’s Delight.” They did a bunch of songs beyond the “a hip, hop/the hippie, the hippie/To the hip hip hop/a you don’t stop…” I was into it like everyone else, doing my terrible version of a Michael Jackson dance routine while clapping my hands to the beat. Sometime between 10 and 11, we left, I think, between a cab and Dennis giving Maurice and Mom and little Maurice a ride home. Even Mom looked like she had a good time. It would be just about the last good time we would have as a sort-of-family.

But the music didn’t stop with Van Cortlandt Park or the Sugar Hill Gang. The spring and summer of 1980 was the transition to a new decade of music, as homophobes from New York to Detroit and L.A. had spent the past year killing disco by smashing vinyl and smashing in Toyota Corollas and Datsun Zs. (By the way, for those who are still kicking and screaming over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” go on YouTube and listen to the late Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby“. It’ll probably make you question the meaning of your false sense of morality.)

Kool and The Gang had crossed over with “Ladies Night,” and were about to walk the fine line between success and selling out with “Celebration.” All summer on the bus back and forth from Clear View with Darren, SOS Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” was on at least once a day. There was also Teddy Pendergrass, the one, the only, and emerging, Luther Vandross’ “Searching” (yes, not his official solo debut, but), and of course Stephanie Mills with “Never Knew Love Like This Before”. And all that because my father had introduced us to Toni, a new drinking budding of his, herself a professional singer. Not to mention, a couple of bartenders in Mount Vernon and in the Bronx who didn’t mind a 12 and a 10-year-old sitting around on off nights in July and August.

On the AM side of things with 770 AM WABC radio, there was still Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand and her collabs with The Bee Gees, “Guilty” and “Woman In Love.” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was the second half of the summer of 1980, old and yet new, at least to me.

But as that summer moved into fall and 6th grade, I sensed something was changing, and not for the better. I sensed it in music, more than I did with Jimme’s alcohol abuse and fewer visits, more that even in Mom’s inability to keep food in our stomachs or in her failing marriage with Maurice. The music seemed more sinister, less hopeful, darker somehow. Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” somehow conjured “No mas! No mas!” and Roberto Duran giving up against Sugar Ray Leonard that November, the same month Reagan beat a beat down, haggard Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. The beginning of four decades’ worth of hollow promises to White Americans, millions willing to sell the rest of us to Hell for their macabre pleasure and some tax breaks.

But no song signified the transition of the US for me in 1980 more than Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. It was likely the first true music video I ever saw, courtesy of my 616 friend Tré, who lived on the second floor. I spent a lot of time hanging with Tré, his older sister Renee, and her friend Stephanie (who I had the tiniest of crushes on, but I digress). It was during the months after Maurice and Mom had separated, with him taking the TV and a month’s supply of mail-ordered meats out of our two freezers. Tré, Renee, and their mother made me feel welcome between that first Saturday in October and when the Hebrew-Israelite bullshit began six months later.

“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control…” It was about much more than strict teachers and social control over students. It was a prediction of a future, my future, our collective futures. That’s what I thought about this time 40 years ago. I had conversations with my classmates about this, about Reagan, about double-digit inflation and unemployment, about the Iran hostage crisis, about the rumors that the US had given Israel nukes, and Israel had, in turn given nukes to apartheid South Africa. “You’re so weird!” they’d say. Or, more often, “You worry too much, Donald!” Only Starling understood. But he expected me to “become one with Jesus,” as if Jesus alone could stop me from worrying about the future.

In short order, the Reagan Years came and gutted the relative economic security of the US, disrupting the shaky gains Blacks had made in the years between 1946 and 1980. Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon to ring in the holidays, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry badly rapped her way through their January 1981 hit “Rapture” while Mom began to talk about being raptured up for the first time. My family was at the edge of an abyss, a mini-apocalypse that would ultimately transform all of us. It would certainly sidetrack me from my calling as a writer for years to come.

But the world didn’t stop spinning. Nor did life stop handing me days of happiness, of contentment, of miracles and even some joy. It just meant that I would be more cautious, anxious, depressed, worried, on edge. Because America believes itself above reproach, even as it deals in shit and blood, and drags the rest of us into the burgundy-soaked muck with it. The distance between 1980 and 2020 might be 40 years, but with Trump and his army of minions, I might as well be in the same moment. Only, I’m 50 now, and I know much better about listening to my inner voice and my muses.

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad P(Vagina)y? Men, in a Word


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Layered anatomy of the anatomical male and anatomical female body, June 5, 2016. (https://naturopathicdoctorwizangwira.wordpress.com/).

The first time I became self-aware of myself as a male with male parts was when I was five. At our second-floor flat on South Sixth in South Side Mount Vernon, New York, sometime in the summer of 1975, I walked in on my mother in the bathroom. She had just finished peeing and was wiping herself. All I could do was stare at her vagina area, seeing mostly what wasn’t there. “Maywa,” I said (a mash of my mother’s name Mary with Mom) “what happened to your pee-pee?” My mother explained that she didn’t “have a pee-pee” — without explaining why she didn’t have one. “When I get some money, I’m gonna go to the pee-pee store and buy you one,” I responded.

There are maybe 20 stories growing up where it seems me and my mother both share and end up smiling, with a sense of real warmth and affection, and not just base-level love, and without irony or a hidden sense of jealousy or disdain. The pee-pee story is one of them.

But this is more than just about the time before sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, and a massive slide into poverty changed my sense of the world. It’s about how men learn to fear all things vagina and vagina-related, and how that fear so easily turns us into misogynists and misogynoirists. It’s about how we as men fail to educate ourselves about women, about patriarchy, and ultimately, about who we are and who we need to be to end patriarchy.

A few years after discovering the differences between the anatomically male and the anatomically female, I knew a bit more, in both an intellectual and social sense. I no longer accidentally danced under my mother’s and other older women’s dresses at the parties my mother took us to when I was five and six years old. I guess if you get slapped upside the head enough times, you recognize why acting like you’re playing hide-and-seek with your mother’s dress as a prop might be socially inappropriate.

But that’s not all. By 1978 and 1979, we had World Book Encyclopedia at 616. Once I began plowing through it to learn all I could — and not just as a way to punish my mother for punishing me — I learned even more about the body than any eight or nine-year-old ought to learn on their own. The “Human Body” section contained celluloid slices of the male and female body, which would layer together to form a full body. From bones to muscles, from muscles to blood vessels, from blood vessels to nerves and organs and systems, and then to derma and coverings for orifices.

I remember the reproductive system either being the last or among the last of the sectional celluloids to form a male or female body. I learned about ovaries, testes, scrota, urethras, and vaginas long before I could say these words correctly. This also meant that I understood where babies come from, without fully understanding the drive that led to human reproduction.

A year later, near the end of fifth grade at William H. Holmes ES (I think it was the third week of May 1980), me and my classmate Joe were on our way home (we both lived in the A section of 616). We were talking shit about girls, about boys, about life in general, maybe with a few “yo’ mama” jokes thrown in. Suddenly, Joe hits me with the question, “Have you ever seen a pussy before?” “No!,” I lied, and loudly too. Joe teased me about it, saying, “You can’t even say ‘pussy,’ can you?” I just laughed it off, not knowing what to say, really. Even at ten, I knew enough to know I couldn’t reveal I’d seen my mother’s vagina at five or that I had seen the encyclopedia’s White female rendering of one.

I didn’t use the word at all until June 1988. It was after I escaped yet another attempt by my idiot stepfather Maurice to make me see him as my father through the use of his fists. He ended up falling into a tub of bathwater meant for my youngest siblings Sarai and Eri. What made this even more ridiculous? This was after my first year at Pitt, a year where I knew more than enough about the world, about the predicament at 616, and about myself to recognize I didn’t have to put up with this bullshit. But I slid back into my old role as teenaged man-child anyway.

This was what happened afterward, via Boy @ The Window

All I kept muttering to myself was, ‘I’m a pussy,’ because I still could’ve gone to the cops for his attempted assault. After a couple of minutes, he said, ‘Get this through your head, boy. Me and your mother are happy together, and we’re gonna be together long after you leave here and go out in the world. The world’s a dangerous place, and we’re just gettin’ you ready for it.’
Huh? What? I knew not to laugh right then, but I was laughing at him on the inside. I knew right then that him and Mom would be over sooner rather than later.

Even in that moment, it felt weird to call myself “a pussy.” I never saw myself as weak, or women in general as weak. It didn’t occur to me that I was afraid, not of getting beat up or of being weak. I was afraid that I would never become the person I wanted to become. I was afraid that mfs like Maurice would continue to come at me because they saw the version of me that I presented at 616, the shell that seemed weak, just like how they saw women, just like how they saw anyone with a vagina.

This is the fear of all boys and men unknowingly or fully conscious of the patriarchy, masculinity, and the world, of folks on the verge of misogyny, misogynoir, and hypermasculinity. The fear of being seen by other men and women-as-patriarchy’s-footsoldiers as pussies, weak in body, mind, and spirit, and therefore as exploitable to the point of being used as a punching bag.

This was why there was such a ludicrous outcry over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” last month. The responses weren’t about Christianity and morality. Not really. They were about the need to keep women from freeing themselves and their vaginas from the clutches of patriarchy. The angry gasbags on Instagram and Twitter venting their spleens were expressing their need to keep women and their pussies in a locked box, fully under the control of men and women-as-patriarchy’s-footsoldiers, for use only in case of wanting to make a sanctified baby (especially White ones). Anything short of this total control weakens men, weakens patriarchy, and makes us vulnerable to questioning ourselves.

The truth is, heterosexual men especially are scared because we as a group cannot be as strong as women, queer/transgender women included. None of us can be strong when we refuse ourselves the right of vulnerability, the need to feel feelings aside from anger, rage, and bravado, the courage of solidarity and love, and the humanity of affection with and for others — including for the men in our lives. This isn’t just about men needing to cry when in each other’s presence (although I am more than sure that would be helpful for millions). It’s about the need to connect with the parts of ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge. For most men, it’s as if we are all M1 Abrams tanks, ready to kill and destroy at a moment’s notice.

But as so many Black feminists in my life have reminded me over the years, the vagina is a really strong muscle. After all, the vast majority of humanity has passed through one on the way to being born. It is a muscle that can be strengthened, stretched, and even repaired, something we as a species and world so desperately need. Try as men might, there are no dick exercises in which any anatomical male can do reps with his penis and build strength. At least not yet.

Constantine’s, No Longer Around, Missed Anyway


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The East Liberty CVS on Penn Avenue (where Constantine’s once stood), August 2017. (Itay Gabay via Google Maps).

“Last call for the alcohol!,” the half-bartender, half-bouncer would yell about 20 minutes before the two o’clock closing of the hole-in-the-wall joint that spend a few too many Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in between the summer of 1991 and January 1995. It was my time “bein’ around my peeps,” sitting around to nurse two or three drinks, dance, people-watch, and occasionally go back home with a patron. It was my time to not think about what I feared, especially God and graduate school. It was my time to forget that I was the second of six kids who had the triple responsibility of father figure, oldest brother, and caregiver. Mostly, it was just a place to allow my horny and bored-with-the-world ass hang out and not be so intellectual and weird all the time.

Constantine’s was where the East Liberty CVS on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh now sits. It was less than two blocks from where I lived on Penn Circle South, my first on-my-own flat that I didn’t have to share with no one. I have no idea what was there in that rickety and beaten up old one-floor building before Constantine’s. Maybe it had always been a bar or a club, one that had seen better days in the decade or two before I was born. Maybe it was once a hardware store or a dry cleaners. Who knows?

All I knew was, in the month or two after I moved into my Penn Circle South studio apartment, I stumbled onto the place. It would’ve been October 1990, just cool enough for Pittsburghers to start wearing winter gear, Steelers jerseys, and enough Steelers and Pirates pleather and leather to scare a herd of charging bulls. A group of 20-somethings were packing their way through Constantine’s front door. There was a bouncer, I guess, checking IDs to make sure everyone was over 21. Judging by the way some of the youngest women were made up, though, I didn’t think the bouncer was consistently checking folks.

I didn’t go in that day. Too many bills, not enough money, and too many thoughts about What would Mom think? and What temptations would harm my soul? So I forgot about the place for the remainder of my senior year at Pitt.

It wasn’t until I started having problems with my friend E during my first full summer living in the ‘Burgh in ’91 that I started carving out me-time at Constantine’s. I went in on a sweltering mid-June Wednesday, and as would become ritual over the next 3.5 years, the so-called bouncer didn’t check me for ID. The joint was tacky as hell. The tables and chairs on the left were either plastic or plywood, Kelly green or harsh white.

Ving Rhames in Dave (1993), Screen Shot, August 17, 2020. (https://MovieActors.com).

The barstools on the right were of better quality, up against a bar with a prickly middle-aged-looking Black dude who maintained his fresh Ving Rhames-in-Dave (1993) haircut under any and all circumstances serving drinks. He was so mercurial. He could be, “Wassup man? How you be?” one Saturday, and “We don’t serve your kind!” another. One Friday, I ordered a screwdriver (Vodka and O.J.) without any pushback. The next Friday, he was all like, “Muthafucka, just call it a vodka and orange juice! I don’t mix screwdrivers here!”

There was a well-proportioned Black woman who always, always, always, sat in the middle of seven barstools, just to the right of the cash register. She was maybe about five-two, skin the color of mahogany, her hair in a ’90s-style perm or in ruffles. She either wore skin-tight dresses or jeans with a revealing blouse, never danced, and rarely greeted anyone. I figured she was either the gruff bartender’s girlfriend or that Constantine’s was her favorite watering hole. Whatever. She probably could drink the entire group of men (and sometimes women) who hit on her every night under the table and under the concrete foundation, too.

Much of what remember from my Constantine’s outings were the fights. There were so many fights. Fights between two guys over a woman would break out in the middle of the dance floor one Friday or Saturday after another. I once saw a guy beaten until there was a pool of blood in the center of the floor, with a trail of blood leading into the alleyway that led to the side entrance of my apartment building. It wasn’t unusual for women to throw down either, knocking each other out somewhere between PE’s “Can’t Truss It” and Daddy Freddy’s “We Are The Champions.”

Speaking of the music, it was the early ’90s, so the vibe went from New Jack Swing, Babyface and Tony! Toni! Toné! to Jodeci, MJB, and PE, with bits of Kriss Kross, Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, TLC, Dre, MC Lyte, and LL Cool J thrown in. But it was reggae — specifically dancehall — and gansta rap that was mostly in our ears at Constantine’s for most of my time attending. Shabba Ranks was so big at Constantine’s. So was Patra and Buju Banton and fake raggamuffin Shaggy. Outside of Pitt, I didn’t know African Caribbeans lived in Pittsburgh until I started sipping drinks at Constantine’s.

I also didn’t really know how to dance until I started hanging out at this smoked-filled and slick-floored destination. I went on the floor maybe once every three trips. Sometimes I was more interested in observing than in participating. Sometimes I was too stressed and horny to do anything else but stare at faces, breasts, hips, and asses for a few hours. But I did dance, at least, as best as I could. I used my halfway decent post-up moves from the basketball court as the basis for decent footwork. But, as I began realizing that some of the women wanted to grind, I learned how to do that too.

I had some awkward moments. Like the time my Swahili instructor and I found ourselves at Constantine’s one really warm Wednesday night in the fall of ’91. He had a woman on each arm. All three of them were from Tanzania, not the typical group of Constantine attendees. We greeted each other, and proceeded to ignore each other the rest of the night. Class the next afternoon was pretty much about my and his after-hours habits.

Sometimes I almost got into it with a guy here or a woman there because I looked at them the wrong way, said the wrong thing, sounded too educated or “White,” or because someone’s conversation with me ran on too long. In 1992, one woman laughed at me and kicked me in my rear on my way out the door after I revealed that I was “also working on my master’s” — she obviously didn’t believe me. Until she saw me on campus a week later. After that, I lied, and told folks who asked that I was a “part-time college student.”

I was too young, stressed about grad school and life, and excited and aroused to be scared. I should’ve been. On two occasions, someone threw a large liquor bottle in my direction when I was on my way out of Constantine’s. One other time, I swear, a bullet whizzed past me and into the window of a parked car.

The last time I went to Constantine’s was the beginning of February ’95. I kid you not, they were running the place with a portable electric generator plugged into an outdoor outlet — someone hadn’t paid their Duquesne Light bill. It kept the lights even dimmer than normal. There was no heat. This is a bar in Pittsburgh, before climate change made American winters into the wet season in Guyana. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit that day, and it felt like it at Constantine’s that night, even with nearly 30 dumbasses like me in the bar that night. I left after 45 minutes.

Three days later, I was in Washington, DC, working on my dissertation project. When I returned at the end of March, Constantine’s was gone, bulldozed to make way for East Liberty’s first CVS.

Truly, if my field had been sociology, cultural anthropology, or social psychology, creative nonfiction writing, my times at Constantine’s would’ve made a great project, with me as subject, too. The misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and hypermasculinity on display, side-by-side with intersectionality, feminism, sexuality, all in the midst of the beginning of this neighborhood’s gradual shift toward gentrification. It was, well, fascinating. Thankful, though, to not feel that awkward at this stage of life.