A Quick Note About Colleging in Fall 2020

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Georgetown University, front entrance screen shot (cropped), Washington, DC, May 2, 2020. (https://uadmissions.georgetown.edu/visiting/directions/).

There is a standing COVID-19 pandemic debate about what higher education institutions should do about Fall 2020, when the Class of 2024 will begin their postsecondary studies, and when millions of other students are supposed to return. There are many who believe that because of where things are, that schools should remained closed through the fall, and that university heads should have already made this decision. At one point, Harvard University floated the idea of postponing its Fall 2020 semester to January 2021, but its President Lawrence S. Bacow recently made the announcement that Fall 2020 will proceed. How it will proceed, delayed, partially as online, gradually as face-to-face, no one knows.

But there are a series of if-thens that colleges and universities could work out to make it possible to open up campuses for in-person classes in Fall 2020 and to ensure a safe and healthy campus community for all involved.

1. No matter when they open, these institutions should test every student, staff member, and faculty member for COVID-19. They cannot rely on the honor system to make sure everyone is not contagious.

2. Those who do test positive should be afforded every opportunity to work or teach from home, or to take classes online.

3. Those who do get sick must be quarantined and allowed to make up their work, even if this takes more than a semester, for up to two years.

4. In the event that the US remains on this disheveled trajectory of every state for itself, many schools will not be able to open by mid- or late-August. This is where opting for a quarter-system semester may be best. A 10-to-12-week semester that begins around September 30 would provide enough time for university communities to prepare for a shorter semester, and to prepare to test everyone for COVID-19. But this option only works well if universities announce this soon, between now and June 30.

5. In the event that colleges and universities wait until after early July to think through their options, that will leave only three plausible scenarios for Fall 2020 on the table. One of them would be to opt for an even shorter semester, a half-semester of six-to-eight weeks, similar to a summer session format, but for everyone, starting sometime in mid-to-late-October.

6. Or, universities could just opt for a full-blown semester (however they decide to define this) online, from start to finish, even for incoming first-years. Although this breaks the tradition of welcoming freshmen to universities and upwards of two months of Welcome Back activities, it does have the advantage of protecting everyone while the shit storm continues.

7. Or, if it comes to it, universities could cancel the semester. But this is the worst of all possible options. Contingent faculty like myself would be out of work for four months without any interventions from universities or governments. Students may opt to stay local or try for two-year institutions (already cash-strapped prior to this pandemic), which would lower enrollment and may put even more pressure on higher education institutions to cut faculty and staff.

The truth is, there are no perfect solutions here. Add to this the real possibility that the US version of this pandemic might be with us until 2022, and even then, sans an effective vaccine. Which means that we could be having this same conversation about Spring 2021, Summer 2021, Fall 2021, and Spring 2022. No one wants that, certainly not me.

Which is why options 1., 4., and/or 6. are the best ones. They offer the most in flexibility for everyone involved, and balance safety and health with the need for people to work and enroll in school. All of them are likely expensive. But it’s less expensive than paying off billions of dollars in lawsuits if students, staff, and faculty die in the middle of a lecture or an event. It’s less damaging than rendering millions to unemployment. But we will all see how well America’s college and universities will succeed and survive this pandemic.

Revealing in Cloaked Blindness/I Heart Kendzior’s Work

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Front cover of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), by Sarah Kendzior, April 30, 2020. (Donald Earl Collins).

In the past four years, I have read so many good and great books, fiction, nonfiction, and mixed genre. Black and Brown writers — especially Black women and Latinas — have written nearly all of them. Brittney Cooper (crunk, crunk!), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colson Whitehead (masterclass!), Crystal Marie Fleming, Darnell Moore, Bassey Ikpi (poetic masterclass!), Erica Armstrong Dunbar (literally brought together the academic with creative nonfiction) , Ijeoma Oluo, Kiese Laymon (Black abundance and excellence, of course!), Mona Eltahawy, Morgan Jerkins, Patricia J. Williams, the ever-great Roxane Gay,  Tressie McMillan Cottom, Raquel Cepeda (a New Yorker after my own heart!), Imani Perry (3 books in two years — this woman has range!), Leta Hong Fincher, Jose Antonio Vargas, Alondra Nelson, Mycheal Denzel Smith, and likely another ten or fifteen I can’t remember by name.

All of them (really, all of y’all, since I have had conversations with you all in person, on social media, or in my head since 2016) have confirmed so many of my ideas around racism and narcissism, about the use of the interdisciplinary, about the hard-nosed work of writing. They have strengthened my voice around Black feminism, critical race theory, Afrofuturism (a term I was chagrin to use about my own writing this time seven years ago), and queer studies. They all have shown what I have been teaching since I was a PhD student in 1993 — the connections between -isms-laden ideas and deliberately punitive policies meant to cower the ordinary and crush the marginalized.

Sarah Kendzior has done so much on this last theme, uncloaking the connections between the ambitions of brazenly craven rich White guys (and some women) to enrich and empower themselves while destroying the US that came to be with FDR, the New Deal, and the post-World War II superpower boom. And Kendzior does so unassumingly, with bits of memoir that parallels the US glide path toward naked autocracy since the mid-1970s.

I’ve been reading Kendzior since her freelancing days with Al Jazeera, so, somewhere around 2012 or 2013. So many of the themes in Hiding in Plain Sight are familiar, if only because those themes of a hollowed-out St. Louis, a systemically racist and autocratic government, where corrupt and unaccountable leaders are front and center in nearly everything that Kendzior writes. Plus, I am a half-century old Black man and historian who grew up in malnourished welfare poverty and around eschatological cults in Mount Vernon, New York and in New York City. Everything Kendzior has written over the years, I know down to my bones and veins.

Because of that, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy Hiding in Plain Sight, forget about reading it. But Kendzior uses her book to build a case better than Perry Mason and Jack McCoy (of Law & Order lore, played by Sam Waterston) could on their best days. Kendzior’s thesis is that Trump as POTUS was inevitable, as the “elite criminal network” of which Trump is a part “has been building for decades.” This network includes “right-wing Republican extremists, apocalyptic religious movements of varied faiths, social media corporations, advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association, and part of the mainstream media.” According to Kendzior, what makes them new and lethal to the US is their “transactional nature and reliance on non-state actors.” Ultimately, this cabal “will take your money, they will steal your freedom, and if they are clever, they will eliminate any structural protections you had before the majority realizes the extent of the damage.” Along the way, they are transitioning the US “from a flawed democracy to a burgeoning autocracy” (pp. 8-9).

Kendzior skillfully uses her own growing up and adult experiences and the places she’s inhabited in building the interconnections between Trump’s lifetime of enabled narcissism and criminality and the rise of the American autocracy. She starts where she usually does, in Missouri, “the bellwether state turned corruption capital, the broken heartland that got the sneak preview to the national shitshow” (p. 20). Kendzior makes the case that Missouri and St. Louis even more specifically represents well the erosion of democracy all over the US with the infusion of dark money and out-of-state money and operators in state and local elections. I do think that she oversells the assumption of Missourian and Rust Belt irrelevance here, if only because every White American actor attempts a Missourah or Midwestern accent in the standard movie, TV show, or internet series not centered in New York.

But I digress. The gutting of Missouri and the rest of the Midwest between St. Louis and Pittsburgh (although so many cities outside the Rust Belt could say the same, like my own original hometown) was a deliberate one, meant to destroy unions, to line politicians’ pockets, and to enrich already filthy-rich folk. People like one Donald J. Trump.

Kendzior again builds a Mayan-step-pyramid-of-evidence to show how Trump had aspirations toward the presidency at least since the 1980s, and had gotten away with grifting projects and Ponzi schemes since the 1970s. And with those twin motivations, how Trump could easily become comrades with Russian mobsters and the likes of the infamous Roy Cohn, with Paul Manafort, with Roger Stone, and the rest of this crew of the craven. And Kenzior ties this one up with a macabre dystopian bow, bracketing Trump’s almost inevitable rise with the story of how her mother taught her about George Orwell’s 1984, a timeline her “mother laughingly assured [her] did not exist” (p. 76). “We are living in the future Orwell warmed about” now, Kendzior wrote.

Among the more heartbreaking vignettes in Hiding in Plain Sight is the story of Kendzior’s own personal experience with the new normal of constant job and financial insecurity born from a false Great Recession recovery in the years after 2008. The collective we have often looked back at the Obama years with fondness. But all the while, the US kept rolling down the same road to autocratic perdition, chewing up everyone not affluent along the way. Kendzior’s experience is no different from my own, and no different from at least 150 million others.

For over a year I would wake up shaking. The economic nightmare I had documented for years as a journalist had finally gotten me, like a monster I had tracked but failed to slay…It made no difference what we could offer the world. We only knew what the world could take away…The rage, though — that stays with you. (pp. 133-135).

Kendzior wrote a book that few who truly understand the nature of the evil that has infected the US since the 1970s could argue is incorrect. Her analysis is nearly as excellent as the prose, to be sure.

I do have a few bones to pick. Mostly because I had a hard time figuring out the audience Kendzior was attempting to reach. Was it other journalists? The broader American public? Anyone who needs a Laurence Fishburne-style “Wake up!!!” call from School Daze?

I landed on nearly-disillusioned-White-Americans as Kendzior’s audience, the ones still clinging to the hope of the American Dream with their fingernails, the ones who all but realize that the Dream is a lie and a nightmare for almost all of us. “I am trying to show them [her children] our country was always vulnerable, always flawed, but that people fought back. We’ve survived as long as we have due to self-criticism and sacrifice, a willingness to examine our faults and try to fix them,” Kendzior wrote (p. 213).

I’m sorry, but this is the America I read about in a Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich textbook from fifth grade in 1980, not the America in which I have lived for 50 years, worked in since I was 14, and studied for three decades. This is a part of the American mythology, this idea of self-correction. The only times the US has changed to mete out symbolic half-measures toward its ideals has been when the marginalized through years and even decades of resistance have forced it to. Full stop. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest a land that believes in anti-racism, Black feminism, reproductive rights, non-binary sexuality, and democratic socialism. Where is this US? I am still looking.

Another criticism is around Trump himself, and about the arc of the autocratic glide path of the US since 1968. Yes, just as Kendzior and others have written, I have also written that Trump was an inevitable consequence of rampant criminality and grifting, of lying in the same bed with mobsters and autocrats from Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. But really, in a country as racist, misogynistic, and narcissistic as the US has always been, someone like Trump was always the danger, and has happened on some level in the past (see Andrew Jackson, see James Buchanan, see Teddy Roosevelt, see even FDR’s four terms in office, as good as his New Deal policies were). The US is just two months removed from Mike “will get it done” Bloomberg running for president, a much more competent billionaire and grifter, with his own ideas for autocratic rule. It ended up being Trump, but it could have been any of a dozen aspirants we’ve seen from the top 1% over the past three decades, starting with Ross Perot.

Kendzior’s centering of Trump is disturbing because the “burgeoning autocracy” has always been an autocracy for Blacks and for indigenous Americans, going back to the days before the US even existed. In modern politics, the dividing line isn’t Trump or the Great Recession. It’s Vietnam and Richard Nixon and his “Southern Strategy” in 1968. It’s the Reaganomics and the corporate deregulation of the 1980s, followed up with gutting the social welfare state that has occurred with every president since Reagan, including Mr. “Mend it, don’t end it” himself, Bill Clinton. As Malcolm X said in his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan in 1964, “Oh, I say you been misled. You been had. You been took.” But not by Trump, at least not just. Trump was the one Kendzior and so many others saw coming, but could do nothing about, because Trump wasn’t the first.

“The Bush Legacy” editorial cartoon, Nate Beeler, January 13, 2009. (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2010/11/13/919739/-; Washington Examiner). Fair use applies due to low resolution of screen shot and subject matter.

And if Trump was inevitable, then what does that say about our first family of autocrats, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush? The amount of international meddling in which these two presidents engaged? The trillions spent on wars, all for more access to Saudi Arabian oil, their autocracy, and their money, and all to line their pockets and the pockets of cronies, especially those within the military-industrial complex? Dubya and Cheney used 9/11 to push the Patriot Act in Congress, the single biggest autocratic move in American history since the Electoral College? The players on the US side of the table may be different in 2020, but the evidence gathered in the years since 2000 show significant foreign interference and at least one rigged election. But I’m supposed to believe that Trump’s version of autocracy is worse because his corruption is much more obvious and because his flaunts it with buffoonery and a deluge of lies? Anyone remember a Dubya presser between 2000 and 2009?

I am a big believer in both-ands. Binary either-or explanations may be simple, but they are usually incomplete. Kendzior argues that Trump’s a master of using buffoonery and deception to bamboozle an audience and distract them from his daily crimes. Most of the rest of us think Trump is as dumb as shit. But why can’t he be both? Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler are all proof-positive that one does not need great analytical power to be savvy, brazen, and bullying enough to make one’s stupidity work for them. And when someone like Trump comes from money, it is that much easier.

There’s this song “Silent Running” by the ensemble pop/rock group Mike + The Mechanics — with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, Paul Carrack of Squeeze, B. A. Robertson, et al. — from 1985-86. Kendzior may have heard it growing up. The music is eerie and an homage to resisting totalitarianism. The lyrics, though, so poignant, both to Hiding in Plain Sight and to where my mindset has been about the US since the 1980s.

Take the children and yourself
And hide out in the cellar
By now the fighting will be close at hand
Don’t believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I’m with the high command…

Swear allegiance to the flag
Whatever flag they offer
Never hint at what you really feel
Teach the children quietly
For some day sons and daughters
Will rise up and fight while we stand still

That’s what I hope my descendants (literal and figurative) will take with them, and that’s what I hope for Kendzior’s children. Anything about a primrose American past in the time before cronyism and Coronavirus, though, would belie this “Silent Running” truth. I strongly urge everyone I know to read Kendzior’s book. Just be sure to find the words “Bush,” “Dubya,” and “both-and” along the way.

Being Scared

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Me in my makeshift mask (with filter), outside a Safeway, Silver Spring, MD, April 10, 2020. (Donald Earl Collins).

As a person of faith (however one defines it), I believe in believing. I believe in ideas. I believe in a cause much greater than myself, a calling, really. I believe in God (he and she) and the universe. I believe, therefore, I am.

But I have also been scared so many times in my life. Between my sexual assault in 1976 and my full-circle with myself in 1988-89, I was scared of everything. And I mean everything. My senses were sensitive to every sound, every smell, every inflection of hurt. My mind alert at a moment’s notice to abuse and every threat of abuse. My body in knots over the possibility that no one liked me, or worse, that people secretly did but hardly shared it. It’s amazing that I ever got a good night’s sleep before my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh!

Being scared does not negate faith. Not at all. In fact, to embrace faith fully, one has to accept their fears and why those fears exist. One has to soldier on, fear and all, anyway, if one is to surpass their fears and continue to fight, to sweat, to bleed, to think, to scramble their way through life and crises.

Since teaching my last face-to-face class at American on March 4, I have been scared, more scared than I have been since my days of homelessness at the end of the Reagan Years. I have been scared of contracting COVID-19, because I know what severe bronchitis/walking pneumonia feels like. I have been scared of unknowingly passing Coronavirus on to unsuspecting people, to cashiers and store employees, to mail and package deliverers, and to my wife and son. I have been scared of dying. I have been scared of going to a hospital, only to be turned away, or, worse still, to be intubated or ventilated. I have been scared of my wife contracting the virus and watching her try to survive this. I have been scared that my son has so tuned out the pandemic news that he will end up traumatized by the reality of it when he does tune back in.

Being scared has nearly overwhelmed me at times. I caught a mild cold the week of March 16. But I turned it into five days’ of temperature checks, of breathing tests and just-in-case medications. I checked my wife and son’s temperatures at least twice a day. I hardly slept. But then, I jumped rope at a pace only Muhammad Ali himself could’ve kept up with, and realized that it was only a cold.

It wasn’t only a cold, not for a man with mild asthma who has to look out for spring and fall allergy season. Being scared made me almost miss the fact that the winter of 2019-20 was incredibly mild, with no snow accumulation since November in the DMV. Leaves began growing on our bushes at the end of February, on our flowering trees in mid-March, and the flowers by March 30, five weeks ahead of normal. If I didn’t have asthma or allergies, it would’ve have been a beautiful sight.

Being scared left me with my worst asthmatic cough in recovering from a cold while dealing with a really high pollen count in five years. And that scared me, because even without COVID-19 inflaming my lungs, asthmatic coughing fits and alveoli on fire during allergy season is still somewhat debilitating.

Thankfully, I have folx who tell me that I am a hypochondriac these days. Thankfully, I workout regularly, and would’ve noticed fatigue, chills, fevers, and abnormal body aches by now, between the jumping rope, the planks, the plyometrics, and the water rowing. Thankfully, I keep inhalers and a stock of eucalyptus oil in the house, for these just-in-case moments.

Being scared has left me fearful of going outside, at least as long as I see other people out there with me. I have been inside a store only twice since March 31 — I’m used to shopping nearly every day — and do not plan to go back again until April 24. We have enough toilet paper for a couple of weeks, but we are short on paper towels, all-purpose flour, and liquid soap. We’ll manage.

Being scared has pissed me off, because so much of what is happening is all too predictable, even as it is also all too beyond my control. And yes, callous and craven Trump and his cronies have made this pandemic lethally worse. But, for those “but, those emails” folx who believe that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would have handled this better, ask yourselves this. Is a better demeanor and a better mobilization of resources the equivalent of stopping a virus in its tracks, sans a vaccine? Sure, maybe 750,000 people wouldn’t be infected and 40,000 people wouldn’t be dead in the US (to date). But there would still be hundreds of thousands infected and thousands dead, because neoliberalism and neoliberals also left the US underprepared for a pandemic.

Being scared in the midst of a crisis while having predicted this while working on my Narcissism, American Style manuscript and then having the audacity to read Sarah Kendzior’s Hidden in Plain Sight actually left me more rattled. But at least I know I’m not crazy for seeing the past-present-future for what it is. This will pass. This pandemic is yet another omen that America the Empire is becoming both weaker and more obviously autocratic at the same time. And while I remain a person of faith, as a wide-awake Black man in a racist-ass US, I also know America all too well.

Intermittent Starvation

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Empty fruit and vegetable section shelves, Asda store, London, UK, March 14, 2020. (Yui Mok/PA via AP; https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/15/trump-tells-people-stop-hoarding-and-buy-normal-am/).

A fair number of people I know have gotten into this trend we collectively call intermittent fasting. It’s the idea that you reduce your caloric intake by either reducing you total number of meals per day or take a set of days to not eat at all. When combined with rest, sleep, and exercise, one can become healthier, lose weight, and roll one’s body back to the days of normal blood pressure and glucose numbers. In the somewhat Apocalyptic times in which we live, some have said that intermittent fasting may be the new normal. Especially if or when stores and supermarkets begin to run out of foodstuffs. We will see what we will see come May, June, and the summer.

In the department of limited food intake, I have years of experience. Between the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1999, there isn’t a year where I didn’t have to scramble for scraps. I unknowingly made the lack of food at 616 part of my escapism in those earlier years, especially in Peanuts Land, where I used empty styrofoam McDonald’s and Burger King containers to construct the eatery sections of my imaginary capital city. It was partly why I liked it when my father would show up every third Saturday between April 1979 and April 1981 to take me and my brother Darren out for a few hours or even the whole weekend, sober or drunk. It didn’t really matter to me. Being able to eat fast food was a godsend this time four decades ago. Arthur Treacher’s Chicken and Chips, Mickey D’s, Carvel’s soft-serve ice cream, Papaya’s hot dogs, Wakefield’s brownies and greasy-spoon diners. Once, I even ordered and ate three Big Macs in one sitting at the one-time McDonald’s on the Avenue in South Side Mount Vernon. I was ten in 1980! Ah, those were great days!

But those days came after many days of well-balanced but often meager food options that Mom provided. Chicken and dumplings, pinto beans or black-eyed peas with rice, pork neck bones, and corn bread, and cabbage, cabbage, cabbage! By the end of 1980, cereal was no longer a regular household staple, and snacks were a rarity. Heck, when Mom and my idiot stepfather Maurice separated for six months that October, he cleaned out weeks’ worth of pork chops, lamb shanks, chicken, ground beef, and steaks on his way out of our apartment.

Then, the Hebrew-Israelite years came, and with it, intermittent fasting. That is, with extreme urban poverty. With the start of middle school in September 1981 came days at a time where I didn’t eat or ate very little. Our conservative take on Judaism meant that we would all have to fast for three days prior to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Since Darren and I weren’t adults, we were supposed to fruit and juice fast. That would have worked if there had been fruit juice and fruit in the house regularly! Our first Rosh Hashanah was the only time in those three years where I ate oranges, apples, grapes, and bananas for all three days. But with my family’s economic decline came days where I simply went to school and did not eat at all, upcoming high-holy day or otherwise.

So many days I watched my classmates eat full lunches while my stomach growled from drinking water. Pride and watching the older students clown others for being on free and reduced lunch kept me from picking up and filling out the application. And even if I hadn’t been raised to not expect handouts and to not see free-lunch as a sign of familial failure, the Hebrew-Israelite years complicated matters for me. Most Fridays at school, the cafeteria served grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches with French fries.

It got way worse before it got better. From October 1981 through April 1984, we went between seven and 10 days every single month with little or no food at 616. After the 20th of any given month, I knew I’d miss meals, or it would be cabbage and corn bread or Great Northern beans and rice again. Keep in mind, Mom worked at Mount Vernon Hospital for most of that time as a dietary supervisor, so she worked around food while often hungry herself. One weekend in October 1982, all we had in the kitchen was some dried up cabbage, sugar, a little bit of flour, and a one-year-old box of Duncan Hines Devil’s Food cake mix. Things were so bad the summer and fall of 1982 that Mom was bringing home scraps from her job for us to eat. I got sick of days’ old Boston Creme Pie, hospital version.

Life improved slightly when Mom went on welfare after my late sister Sarai’s birth in 1983. But the food shortages continued into 1985, when Darren and I began working with my father regularly, and then began getting our own jobs. But while the malnourishment and starvation left me scarred, they also left me prepared for future crises that for many would have been calamities. Homelessness, malnourishment, and no money while at Pitt in 1988. Difficulties with rent, bills, and food in 1990 and 1991, when I graduated from Pitt. Summers looking for work and living off fumes in 1992, 1993, and 1997, when I was in grad school and after I finished my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. The beginning of 1999, when me and soon-to-be-wife stretched $20 over ten days, eating makeshift gravy with instant mashed potatoes while teaching nearly every day for a week at Duquesne.

Maybe that explains why I once thought about becoming a chef while growing up. Maybe that’s why I took so quickly to cooking family-sized meals when I was 14. Maybe that’s the reason I made a point of cleaning off every plate of food I fixed or someone else put in front of me until I was 31. It’s certainly the reason behind my OCD around shopping, cooking, storing, and giving food, for myself, my family, and for others, for so many of my 50 years. It very well could explain my G-I tract issues and IBS for much of my adult life.

But with this COVID-19 pandemic could come food and other shortages. The land of endless plenty could have pockets of starvation if millions get sick and stay sick for too long. I have thought for years about buying a composite bow and some arrows with which I could shoot a deer in the neck. I already know I can do it, having killed two dozen mice and rats over the years — some with a broom handle, a hammer, and my bare hands. I have beheaded and gutted fish, chickens, and turkeys. I have eaten venison and rabbit stew before. Or, I could hop on down to Home Depot and buy some seeds to grow snap peas, green beans, maybe even squash or potatoes. We do have a back yard!

Maybe this is all overblown. Maybe this isn’t the Apocalypse. We still have electricity, cable, and wi-fi, after all. Yet the Romans still had gladiatorial games at the Coliseum during two years of siege and starvation at the Visigoths’ hands before it fell in 410 CE. Thousands and perhaps a few million could go without food, even if the power plants and Comcast and Verizon never shut down.

So, intermittent fasting may well work for many. As for me, I’ve tried it, and I still do it from time to time. But you cannot fast your way out of a crisis. You can hunt and grow your way out of one, though.

Fandom and the False Belief in Transcendence

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Trinity jumping across the street clip (GIF), The Matrix (1999), January 31, 2020. (https://gfycat.com/; https://youtube.com).

I don’t know who needs to read this, but no matter how talented someone is, no matter how often someone had triumphed in their field, no matter how popular they are, and no matter their level of celebrity status, that person is not necessarily transcendent. Many of these folk are assholes. Yet we Americans use the term so often that all one would have to do to transcend in this country is film themselves with an iPhone 11 in slofie mode while jumping from one building to another in The Matrix series (either as Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity or Keanu Reeves’ Neo) to sell themselves as such. Or, to just not talk about the realities of the ugly and oppressive world in which we all inhabit while selling sneakers and entertaining millions.

So, let me be clear. The death of former NBA player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, John and Keri and their teenage daughter Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and her 13-year-old daughter Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and the pilot Ara Zobayan is nothing short of painfully tragic. Kobe Bryant, of course, played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. He won five NBA Championships and two Olympic gold medals as part of the USA Basketball team, was an 18-time NBA All-Star, and at the time he retired in 2016, was the league’s third all-time leading scorer, at 33,643 total points. LeBron James only passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list the night before the tragic accident. At 41 years old, Bryant was only into his fourth year of post-NBA life, supporting the WNBA, investing himself in girl’s basketball, winning an Oscar for a five-minute short. This polyglot, this nerd whom experts often mention in the same breath with Michael Jordan and LeBron and other all-time greats, is truly one of the greatest professional basketball players in the history of the sport, full stop.

But, does that make Kobe Bryant “transcendent beyond his sport,” as I have heard the commentators say this week, and have read the sports and culture columnists tweet and write this week? No, absolutely not. We each all have the responsibility to put our lives and our times into perspective, to take a panoramic look at the world in which we inhabit and to dig deep into the soil and rock of that world for meaning. If not, we risk idolizing the first person who comes along to rock our world, and in the process, becoming as short-sighted and as narcissistic as the celebrities, entertainers, artists, athletes, and politicians we worship.

And that has sadly been the case with Bryant. The news and sports media has been paving over the potholes and sinkholes in Bryant’s life faster than The New York Times newspaper plant in College Point, Queens can ink and fold a million hard copies. Bryant’s semi-admitted raping of a 19-year-old in September 2004 (the “incident” was in 2003) has suddenly become a full-throated mea culpa that apparently was unprecedented in the annals of American sport and celebrity. Not one that the rape survivor or any other person who has ever experience rape or sexual violence (yours truly included) should acknowledge, or believe that it would ever make up for the rape, but hey, what do I know?

But my case against transcendence hardly begins or ends with Bryant as a one-time alleged rapist. As great a basketball player as he was, for the bulk of his career, Bryant was a selfish ball hog. By comparison, Bryant made AI’s (Allen Iverson) one-on-five scoring attempts and successes look like Iverson had no choice because he was on the court by himself a lot of those times (which for half of Iverson’s career, was pretty close to the truth). Bryant’s last game in the NBA was one where he scored 60 while taking 50 shots, and he in fact owns the most field goals attempts in any single game of any player this side of Wilt Chamberlain! If this were Rucker Park and not the NBA, maybe transcendence would apply in terms of athletic ability. But as someone who saw how MJ could regularly get 30 while taking only 13 shots (and making 15 free throws) in the second half of his career, great, but not transcendent, from even within the sport of basketball.

Speaking of, the transcendence case really breaks down in terms of cultural influence outside of basketball. Some argue that Bryant was an ambassador of the game and made it international. Really? Two words in response. Dream Team! And, two more words. Michael Jordan! Without the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and with MJ and Magic and Larry and Patrick and Hakeem, et al. among 11 future Hall-of-Famers, Bryant’s overseas efforts would’ve been like selling the current brand of NFL football to the world (no one likes weak tea made from sewage water, by the way). Also, if one wants to know two more names from different sports who have MJ-esque transcendence or higher, try Tiger and Serena (I don’t even need to use their last names)!

How big was Jordan, and how big does Jordan remain? His Air Jordans are still among the leading earners for Nike in 2019, 16 years after MJ retired, and nearly 36 years after Nike started making them. Air Jordans went well with hip-hop gear and in rap lyrics and videos — for decades. MJ’s shaved head and goat-tee became fashion trends (one could argue the same for Bryant’s messy Afro look, I suppose) that remain with us to this day. But so does MJ’s reluctance to speak out against racism, homophobia, sexism and misogyny, something that Bryant inherited and adopted in shaping his public persona as well.

And it’s this last piece that truly makes the case that the late Bryant was not and could not be transcendent. LeBron James, for all his greatness, has also put his weight and words into Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, police brutality, and calling out White supremacists. Certainly athletes from the recent past, from Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe to Jim Brown and Althea Gibson, and of course, Jackie Robinson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fought oppression with the very lives they lived and the barriers they dismantled. All of them had flaws, but none of them had PR machines in their prime to cover up their mistakes and probable crimes, either. Heck, even O.J. Simpson for better and certainly for worse in transcendent in this social justice and injustice sense.

Now, could Bryant have “transcended basketball” if he had live to, say, 60, 70, or even 80 years old? Maybe. But probably not. His image mattered too much to him. The world outside of basketball and family, not so much. And that’s okay. That doesn’t make his death and the deaths of the other eight — especially the three teenagers — on that helicopter any less tragic. This doesn’t make the pain or sadness any fan feels for him and his family any less real. But maybe, just maybe, those who are just fans and members of the media should check themselves before putting Bryant on a pedestal or altar. As tragic a death as it is, death is part of life, after all, and Bryant had as full a 41 years as anyone could expect. Just not a transcendent 41 years.

Ugly

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Me in April 1975, Sears Picture Studio, Mount Vernon, NY. (Cropped/Donald Earl Collins).

Another title for this could be “Ugly Donald,” an homage toward Ugly Betty. But one word should cover it!

All this talk over the past few weeks about who is and who isn’t “ugly,” or “fat,” or just “too dark” take me back to how I felt about myself for most of the 1980s, and sometimes even as I gotten older over the 30 years since the Reagan decade. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been in a camp of vipers like this since my preteen and early puberty years, where I definitely had my own excited utterances toward Black boys and girls in particular (also, the occasionally flat-butt White girl and bed-headed White boy, but I digress). So I never understood the need for deliberate meanness toward people over something that they would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix for a group of misogynoirist assholes who aren’t worth a nanosecond of thought.

Whether Lizzo, Blue Ivy Carter, Bria Myles, Ari Lennox, or Teyana Taylor, these mofos who made fun of their looks, or called them a “rottweiler/German shepherd mix” (sic), or told them to workout to lose weight are such boring-ass losers. These women are beautiful. Black women are beautiful. Full stop. You got time to waste running down an active entertainer over your bullshit? Your ugliness is the kind that takes years of therapy, prayer, active listening, and educational reprogramming (i.e., reading lots of books on Blackness, Black feminisms, and intersectionality) to overcome, if you overcome it at all.

I have a bit of experience with ugly over the years. Usually from family and classmates throwing it in my direction. “Whatcha makin’ that ugly face for?,” my mom would say to me many, many times growing up. “You ugly, faggot!,” I remember hearing from folx in around the 616 and 630 apartment buildings on East Lincoln in Mount Vernon from the time I was nine. “Ain’t no one gonna eva wanna be with your ugly ass!,” an older girl who once attempted to molest me said to me when I was 12. I was ugly, alright. I felt ugly, living with poverty and abuse and anti-Black ugliness in the many places I went in Mount Vernon. It was probably why I felt more comfortable around my father, especially when in the Bronx or down in Manhattan doing work. The anonymity of the city meant that for hours or even days at a time, the centrality of my ugliness could disappear.

I felt so ugly inside and out that I wanted to take my own life at 14. I was so ugly that it scared me to look at myself in the mirror for more than a few seconds, mostly to make sure toothpaste or dried drool or eye crust was off my face. I kept my face as blank as I could, like Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown) in Finding Forrester, just so I wouldn’t have to endure more put-downs about my tall, lanky ass and my ugly features on top of that.

Me at Prom Dinner, White Plains, NY, May 21, 1987. (Suzanne Johnson neè De Feo).

But the worst of all this was my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. My final days took an ugly turn the moment my classmates learned I was ranked 14th out of 545 students (509 of us eventually graduated in June 1987). I’ve written ad nauseam about how my White Humanities classmates responded to my ranking, as if I threatened their worldview of them being more intelligent than the Black folx they went to school with every day. Months before my soon-to-be former Black classmates began to stare through me like I was a ghost, they began to clown me. I’d blow by them in the hallways, and they’d bust out laughing. They’d comment on my ugly, brittle hair, talking about how my “hair could break picks.” They’d talk about my “cheap clothes from Taiwan” — which they were from, by the way (how did they know that?). Or, they’d simply shake their heads, as if my existence was a “shaking my head” moment on par with Raven-Symoné declaring herself “not Black.”

Clyde was among that group of Black guys and gals who made a point of telling me I was ugly throughout my senior year. He did it so many times that somewhere around February of that school year, I lost track of the number. “You ugly. There ain’t nothin’ in the world that’s gonna fix that,” Clyde said to me once. Most days, I ignored it, because what would have been the point? We were graduating, and my plans for college were bigger than any insult any asshole could muster. But, one day before winter break, Clyde just said, “You ugly, Donald. You ugly.” It took every bit of the low energy I had to not cry, and not pick up a desk and tear his fucking head off with it, like the chair revenge scene in Moonlight.

It took getting away and going to college for me to stop seeing myself and my own unique blend of Blackness as not ugly, even handsome. A bout of homelessness here and months of struggling to pay rent and eat there will begin to harden you against the bullshit of muthafuckas who would prefer to tear you down rather than build something for themselves or others. As Flavor Flav from PE would say, “Motherfuck them any damn way!”

After those days of sleeping on concrete slabs or eating tuna fish out of a can until I could eat it anymore, it didn’t matter how the Clydes, Gordons, and Tomikas saw me. I saw myself clearly, for the very first time. And I clearly saw my naysayers, too, as the short-in-body and in mind, coloristic, Blackness-but-only-so-much, racist, sexist, and homophobic pieces of shit for whom they were. Why should it have ever mattered what they thought of me?

One Saturday in early February 1989 in the shared bathroom in the Fu rowhouse on Welsford Avenue in South Oakland, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had just finished washing up. I was six-two, maybe 175 pounds, and six weeks past my 19th birthday, with barely enough facial hair to clog up my right nostril. I must’ve stood there staring at every angle of my face for two or three minutes. Then I chuckled. “You’re an okay-looking guy. You’re not Billy Dee or Denzel, but you’re not bad-looking at all.” Nor am I Idris Elba. But being me since has almost always been okay enough. The truth is, it always should been, for any of us.

“On the Next Episode of ‘Dumb MFers’…”

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Pre-speech prayers over President Donald J. Trump (led by Pastors Paula White-Cain — laying on hands — and Guillermo Maldonado), Evangelicals for Trump coalition rally,, El Rey Jesús International Ministry, West Kendall neighborhood, Miami, January 3, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters via https://nationalpost.com/).

My wife can attest to this. Since the days of HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), I have had the idea of Idris Elba doing a voice over leading into the next episode of an alternative television series. But instead of Elba narrating in his smooth American Russell “Stringer” Bell baritone, “On the next episode of The Wire,” I’d have him say, “On the next episode of Dumb Muthafuckas,” said exactly the way I’ve spelt it here. Then, the no-so-happy highlights from the next episode would ensue!

On the use of the MF word. I grew up around folx who didn’t use the n-word (with the notable exception of my idiot ex-stepfather, who said and wrote the n-word as “niggah” or “nigguh,” such were the influences of the late-1960s and 1970s on him). My mom would either say “Ns” or “Ens” (depending on spelling), or would grunt “un-un” in reference to Black folk she felt were assholes or fucking up in some way. But motherfucker, particularly the AAVE (African American Vernacular English) way of saying it as muthafucka? That could flow freely like the Hudson River after a spring or summer rainstorm, even during the Hebrew-Israelite years, though less so since we went evangelical Christian in the late-1980s! It could start a sentence and end a sentence, and in heated, violent arguments, often at the same time.

Screenshot of a younger Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), January 4, 2020. (https://hbo.com).

But it wasn’t just Mom. My father said “muddafucka” when he was in drinking mode growing up. I once played a game in my head, and counted up the number of times he used it at a bar in the Bronx to describe the other drunks, the barkeep, and other folks in the city. I lost count after 50, between “po’ ass muddafucka,” dumb muddafucka,” “git out of here, muddafucka,” and “Suck my dict, muddafucka!” And that was all in 45 minutes!

Their friends, their kids, and so many others I was around in Mount Vernon, the Bronx, and in Manhattan growing up all used variations of MF. I didn’t become regularly acquainted with the n-word outside of Roots or A Soldier’s Story until I went off to college and Pittsburgh. But when Bruce Willis said the line to Alan Rickman’s character Hans Gruber in Diehard (1988), “Yippee-ki-yay, muthafucka!,” he said it the way the Black and Brown folk I grew up around said it, and not the wimpy ways most Whites tend to use it. And every Black who was in the theater with me that night audibly gasped with delight

So when I use MF here, I am being tongue-in-cheek and as serious as a muthafucka. Especially when it comes to America’s daily reality TV show, 45 and his cabal of mostly obese in body, mind, and spirit privileged White man hell-bent on making America a blatantly White supremacist country again (see Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and Rudy Giuliani here, among a legion of others). They are stunningly craven, which also makes them stunningly stupid. They collectively are the person who comes along and knocks down the Jenga tower you have carefully constructed and deconstructed over several hours with a sledgehammer, and then burp in your face immediately afterward. All while not knowing the chain of events they have set off for themselves and for you. They are too orgasmically high on power and drunk off of spreading lies and fear to contemplate playing checkers, much less picking up a bishop to play chess.

And that’s why the show should be titled Dumb Motherfuckers. Because the 45 thesis is to destroy all of former President Barack Obama’s proverbial statues, statues, paintings, treaties, deals, orders, and obelisks in order to restore Whiteness in the White House. The problem is, the Obamas merely brought their Blackness to the White House. The government remained steeped in Whiteness in policies and in attitude the entire time Obama wore the trappings of American imperial power. But when your racism and narcissism is so great as to think that the first Black president was an affront to millions of Whites and some footsoldiers-for-racism Black and Brown folx, being a bunch of dumb motherfuckers lighting up the US and the world with tiki-torches is the result.

Screenshot of ancient Egypt’s Sphinx, complete with closeup of its smashed nose, January 4, 2020. (https://education.abc.net.au).

Now America enters season four of Dumb Motherfuckers. Season three ended with a cliffhanger, as the House of Representatives voted in favor of impeaching 45 on two counts. But, what will Nancy Pelosi do next? Will Mitch McConnell continue his pledge to march “in lockstep with the White House,” like a jackbooted SS officer in a parade at Nuremberg? Will 45 continue to play golf while the US continues its march toward full-on corporate plutocratic fascism? Stay tuned!

As of 36 hours ago, Dumb Motherfuckers‘ producers threw us a plot twist, assassinating Iran’s leading general, Qasem Soleimani, a sort of declaration of war, and certainly a violation of the Geneva Convention. Sure, this plot twist is a distraction from impeachment and the 2020 election cycle. But it is also another drumbeat toward a war that will cost hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown lives, and displace millions of people from their homes and their possible futures. But that doesn’t matter, right? Ratings, a.k.a., votes, do.

45 and his minions of motherfuckers don’t care about all that. Nor are they smart enough to know where this new plot direction will take them or the rest of the US and the world. What they do know is that there are roughly 60 million Americans who are down for anything that 45 does. If 45 ran over a White family with a steamroller, killing three children under the age of five and their Scottish terrier in the process, his fans would find an excuse, say he’s “making America great again,” call me a racist, and threaten me and my life. So know that they would support, “Bomb bomb bomb/Bomb bomb Iran,” just like the late Sen. John McCain did during his 2008 election run. And apparently, through prayers and supplications, through megachurches and the Gospel of Prosperity.

This is what makes watching Dumb Motherfuckers so frustrating, because it is all so predictable. The thinly-veiled imperialism, the rank anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-Jewish racism, xenophobia as World War Z, and Islamophobia, the obvious women-are-meat misogyny, and the wicked hoarding of wealth. The use of blind patriotism and Christianity to rally Whiteness and White folk into supporting utter stupidity. Just like in 1968-1969, 1973, 1983, 1989, 1991, 2001, and 2002-03, from Vietnam and Grenada to Panama, the First Gulf War, and Afghanistan. Dumb Motherfuckers isn’t dumb just because the characters are dumb. It’s dumb because it will eventually leave the Whites who want to be rich and want Black and Brown people to suffer thoroughly and lethally screwed as well. But give the (White and internalized racism Black and Brown) public what it wants, right? Dumb muthafuckas — it’s a shame and a pitiful!