Being One of The Expendables

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Poster art (cropped) and tattoo art for The Expendables (2010), August 2, 2010. (https://blog.spoongraphics.co.uk/tutorials/how-to-create-the-expendables-winged-skull-poster-art)

Even in my relative youth and arrogance, back in the days where I insisted that any authority figure in my life had to refer to me as DOCTOR Collins or DR. Donald Collins, I still saw myself as an underdog. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a working-class stiff (I did sometimes, given my predoctoral background). But I definitely was not part of the elite bunch. Mark, Mike, Jennifer and so many at Carnegie Mellon, and professors like Oestreicher, Andrews, Smethurst, Chase, and Van Hall at Pitt let me know I was better, but not elite, nearly every week for my five-and-a-half years from bachelor’s to PhD. between 1991 and 1997. 

I held out hope back then. Hope that the doctorate was worth the pain, the suffering, the borrowing, the betrayals, and the burnout. Hope that being three or four times as good would be more than good enough. Hope, most of all, that my flair for writing with imagination and purpose would translate into success, prosperity, vindication, even healing and renewal, as I took my degree and my skill sets into the worlds I’ve inhabited now for a quarter-century.

Who was I kidding? I was probably the least well-connected person I knew going into college in 1987. With the partially bombed-out bridge I crossed to earn my doctorate at the end of 1996, I was lucky to have any connections to work with in finding any work at all. I discovered in a matter of weeks in 1997 my connections were enough to get into the door at one institution after another, but not enough to secure full-time work in academia. 

I had felt expendable before. Graduate school and living at 616 with an abusive idiot stepfather and a patriarchal mother each gave me that feeling. The two-and-a-half-year journey to find a full-time job was different, though. It was as if I was too educated for the working world, not just as a Black man, but as a 27-year-old Black man who had worked on some level since the summer of 1984. 

Almost all my academic job interviews were with schools of education or Africana studies departments. Not a single history department would interview me or hire me for a job, not even as an adjunct, until 2008. As I began doing nonprofit job interviews, it was obvious no one accounted for my doctorate as part of the process, or my three years of TAing and standalone teaching experience. I had already become the job equivalent of Michael Clayton, a fixer who wasn’t really a cop or a lawyer, yet had the expert skill sets of both. Only, substitute the words “professor” and “nonprofit administrator” for “cop” and “lawyer” here.

My expendability became even more apparent as I found myself in the big-time nonprofit world working at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development (AED, now FHI 360). It was here I learned the full nature of how much I could be a misfit within an organization. At my second job within the organization, as a senior program officer and deputy director of Partnerships for College Access and Success, my last two years I was in charge of managing the annual $1.3 million-budget for the national initiative. 

And that’s when I learned why we never seemed to have enough money to manage the project or pay me more than $75 or $80K for doing so. The senior members of AED — the CEO, executive vice presidents, and senior vice presidents — skimmed one percent off the top of all grants passing through the organization. Mind you, individual senior officers who oversaw our unit already billed more than some of their hours to a project they never actually managed (the Denise Borders’ and Sandra Lauffers’ of that world). The project was just a carcass, and these stinky-ass vultures often fed off the remains. These senior folk frequently made anywhere from $200K to $400K, and the CEO Steve Moseley made over $700,000. 

To hide this tremendous amount of overhead (about 35 or 40 percent of the total budget), I had to make up three budget spreadsheets. One for the actual cost of salaries, utilities, travel, and the AED Ponzi scheme, another for the private foundation world (where we manipulated the data to get the overhead to be only 15 or 20 percent of the budget). A third spreadsheet was for the annual audit to satisfy USAID and the feds. The last two budgets hid the “rainy day” fund for AED’s 52 senior officers. 

It was just disgusting. I spent so much time meeting with foundation officers, writing grant proposals, fielding offers, and looking for a less stressful job in 2006 and 2007. We would turn down money because it wasn’t enough to satisfy the vultures or to keep everyone employed, like $100,000 from Carnegie Corporation, another $200,000 elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, when I finally did get burned out at the end of 2007 and submitted my resignation, it was just three months ahead of probably being partially laid off anyway. I didn’t have it in me to spend the next three or six months groveling to every vice president or senior vice president in the organization about my work, hoping to pick up enough hours to keep pace with my salary. I certainly didn’t have it in me to explain for the 1,000th time why I didn’t spend two years in Mozambique as part of the Peace Corps digging wells, learning the local Portuguese, or putting up malaria nests. All to show I was one of them, privileged enough to see what lack of socioeconomic and racial privilege looked like in distant parts of the world. I was never one of them, because I lived this contrast every day growing up in and around the Big Apple.

My Black ass was expendable. My doctorate really meant nothing in the face of this work. And, I was approaching 40, meaning that others would assume I was too old to do this work and learn anyway. I was most definitely expendable by February 2008.

But, so was every AED Ponzi schemer by their ludicrously lazy, racist, and elitist standards. Once USAID became aware of the organization’s shenanigans at the end of 2010, they suspended AED’s $600-million worth of contracts, and then canceled them or moved those contracts to other organizations. They killed the beast, finding my former bosses expendable, too.

Today, I work in a world where everyone truly is expendable. It doesn’t matter if it’s American University, University of Maryland Global Campus, or if I freelance with Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, or Salon. Heck, if I don’t insist on it, these spaces and places won’t even get my name right. Forget about paying me a fair wage or having time off. You can bet, though, that the heads of every organization I do work for now has their own golden parachute, their own Ponzi method for maintaining their lavish material narcissism. It is so typically American that I could stand in the Namib desert and smell the shit blowing inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

On “Baby, Come To Me” and Its Weird Connections

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The Patti Austin-James Ingram (may he RIP, what a talent!) duet love ballad “Baby, Come To Me” (1982), originally released as a single 40 years ago this month, is probably one of the greatest duet love ballads of all-time. At the least, it is up there with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson for me. Commercial music these days does not have duets or love ballads like these combos produced back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But hey, to quote the great UK artist Howard Jones, “What is love anyway?/Does anybody love anybody anyway?” Apparently, not in most music mass produced since about 2007.

To think that a song the great Quincy Jones produced and the great Rod Temperton wrote, a song in which Michael McDonald sang backup, a song on Patti Austin’s 1981 album Every Home Should Have One, took nearly two years and two singles releases to rank #1 on Billboard’s US pop charts in February 1983. That couldn’t happen in 2022, not unless it came with an accompanying video and Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion twerking and doing ligament-popping splits to it.

But how it happened speaks to how weirdly accepting people can be of misogyny and narcissism in the midst of a love song. Austin’s album dropped at the end of September 1981. The single “Baby, Come To Me” didn’t drop until April 1982. That is an amazingly long time to wait to release what is the second-best song on any album (the title song was the first singles release). And there it rose to #73 on the Billboard charts. 

Were it not for ABC’s long-running soap opera General Hospital, most of us not listening to WBLS 107.5 FM in New York might have never heard the song again. The summer and early fall of 1982 was the time of “Luke and Laura” Spencer, a newly married power couple on the soap opera. General Hospital used “Baby, Come To Me” as the intro and outro theme to many of their “Luke and Laura.”

If you think it’s a bit strange for white teenage girls and Boomer stay-at-home moms to fall in love with a clearly R&B duet love ballad meant primarily for a Black audience over the course of several months, then welcome to the 1980s. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” used at times on NBC’s Days of Our Lives the following summer of 1983, had the same effect. Keep in mind, the song isn’t about love at all. It’s about stalking, controlling, and obsessing over a woman. Four summer’s later, U2’s “With Or Without You,” about hating the person you love, it had the same gravitational effect, between airplay and soap opera play. There’s also soap opera actors like Jack Wagner with “All I Need” actually writing and singing their own love ballads, or attempting to look the part. The 1980s ended with Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting For You,” during the “Danny and Cricket” summer of 1989 on The Young and The Restless.

With “Luke and Laura,” though, it gets stranger. Just two years earlier, Luke inadvertently raped Laura over some assassination attempt gone awry. Other than a note discovered by one of Luke’s nemeses, really, nothing. They marry in the summer of 1981, and are madly in love by 1982. I know marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in California until 1982, and Harlequin romance books abounded back then, but really? No long-term trauma or psychological scars and you married your rapist, too? Even for me (once I learned of “Baby, Come To Me’s” connection in 1985), this was a bridge made of wood and dripping with gasoline during a lightning storm. How demure can any woman be under these circumstances? 

Yet the crossover impact was enough for Austin’s label Warner Bros. to re-release the single in October 1982. It was that popular! It went to #1 on the pop charts in the US that February. The song broke through internationally as well. Here’s the video: https://youtu.be/mHyxPIh3c5w.

As for me, I knew of “Baby, Come To Me” in 1982, but not the story behind it until 1985. By then, you could find the song on nearly any radio station that played 1980s pop music, not to mention R&B stations. I happened to be running to the store for my mom (again) on a cold and rainy afternoon in January 1985. I couldn’t find something she wanted. So I went to put a dime in the payphone next to a corner store to call her for more directions. Except I’d forgotten NYNEX payphones now cost 25¢ to use to make even local calls. “Spending every dime doesn’t work anymore,” I said to myself in the pouring rain. Then I said-sang, “out in any kind of weather, just because…of — my mom!,” and laughed. For me, as far as “Baby, Come To Me,” then I suppose…the music never ends?

Even now, so many years later, every time this song pops up on my iPod, smartphone, or Spotify, I still let “Baby, Come To Me” play, because it still makes me smile. It will never be associated with “Luke and Laura” for me. I almost never watched General Hospital growing up, anyway. Days of Our Lives, Y&R, the all-too-short-lived Santa Barbara, Another World, and The Bold and The Beautiful, but never an ABC soap. I would never sing or play “Baby, Come To Me” in any sexual assault context. That tortuous music needs to end.

My Take: A Tale All Too Familiar

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Hazel-green eyes – maybe hazel-green eyed envy, too? (cropped), April 5, 2022. (Google Images).

“The Slap” at the Oscars has been so much discussed that it seems as if there’s nothing left to say or to write about it. But so many of the columns and comments about Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith’s honor against comedian Chris Rock’s ableist misogyny are also hot takes. For Black folk famous and ordinary, this is a double-dose of deadly, especially in public settings. The white gaze is forever present, especially now with smartphone cameras and recorders everywhere. Black people end up caught between their own fallible humanity and their training to be as respectable as possible during these big moments, precisely because white folks are watching. The result is usually a tangled mess. The vultures will keep circling for meat, fresh and rotten. Such are the ways of a capitalistic, narcissistic, and racist society.

My own story isn’t quite as dramatic as Will, Jada, and Chris’, but it does reflect how narcissism, green-eyed jealousy, hypermasculinity, and other ills can get anyone caught up. A quarter-century ago, I completed my history PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. A few weeks before my two graduation ceremonies, I made the decision to fly my mom in from New York to celebrate with me. She hadn’t been able to attend my bachelor’s or master’s degree ceremonies because my four younger siblings were too young to be left at home. Now, they were all teenagers. 

I had no idea the hell I had set myself up for. That same graduation week was also the same week as my mom’s associate’s degree graduation in White Plains. I flew home to New York to be there for her. Afterward, my mom said, “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” Then she forced a laugh. “It’s a joke,” she said. What was the joke? My degree, or the amount of time and energy I spent in earning it? “I don’t have to tell you that I’m proud of you. I tell other folks, just not you,” she said the next day. 

It was a figurative slap to the face I can still feel 25 years later. From the moment we left for LaGuardia that Friday to the moment I left her at Pittsburgh International Airport that Sunday afternoon, my event was all about her. That Sunday, she refused to be in a photo with my partner, my partner’s mom, a high school friend, and several other friends. She skipped out on the second ceremony, the one where my department chair and my PhD advisor would speak about my accomplishments, where I would also have time to publicly speak about my experiences and celebrate. I abruptly left the ceremony with my degree in hand.

Then, while waiting outside for the airport bus, my mom gave me a look. She seemed confused and lost, as if she would need help getting to her flight. Unthinkingly, I agreed to help her get to the airport, and ended up missing the second ceremony. With each passing moment on our way to the airport, I grew madder and madder. At the gate, I went off on my mom. “You have ruined every good moment in my adult life!,” I yelled. 

I should have gone to my graduation ceremonies without her. But I wanted my mom’s approval. I wanted her to make her proud. I wanted her to see me as a full-grown man. My mom took advantage of my yearning for the kind of relationship we never had. Transparent, honest, loving, affectionate. None of those were her. 

Her comments all week were signs of her jealousy over my doctorate. I just refused to see it, because she’s my mom. Her actions that weekend were of a narcissist. I didn’t know any mom could be that way. Her statements and actions were as much about questioning my manhood as they were about anything else. Ten years of undergraduate and graduate education instead of working jobs to help her with “the kids”? Using my unconscious reflex to get me to take her to the airport instead of doing it on her own? My mom’s sense of patriarchy and what men ought to do was a big part of my ruined moment, too. My relationship with her has never fully recovered.

This is what the proverbial they miss in everyday public human moments. Jealousy and vanity, like the other five Deadly Sins, are normal human emotions. But living in a hypermasculine, patriarchal, and narcissistic nation allows people to weaponize such emotions, just as Pinkett Smith did at the Oscars, just as she did on Red Table Talk with her husband two years earlier. And Smith took the bait despite knowing there was a possibility that his Oscar win would be the culminating moment of his career. His manhood and his image of his relationship with his partner was on the line. So was his hypermasculine pride. Especially with a comedian like Chris Rock, who has operated in sexism and misogynoir for years, especially toward Pinkett Smith, even with Good Hair to his documentarian credit. The white gaze is withering, and will likely warp the way people see Oscars 2022 for years to come.

I had far fewer white eyeballs on me on my PhD day. But the anger and despair I showed that day stayed with me for years afterward. I have been professor or Dr. for nearly half my life, but I never had my moment to enjoy that moment. For Smith, for his sons and daughter, for the Williams sisters, for everyone who worked on King Richard, that moment was cut far too short, ruined by the societal ills that corrupt us all.

The Ultimate Sports Corruption Scandal

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Rolls of $100 bills (makes me think of Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything”), April 9, 2018. (https://www.gtgoodtimes.com/)

I have long believed professional sports and elite college sports as severely compromised enterprises. It’s not just the obvious examples of league officials turning a blind eye away from the lack of fair play, like with baseball players doping and hitting home runs between 1998 and 2004. Or with the New England Patriots and them filming their opponents’ practices to gain an advantage during games. Or with the Houston Astros stealing baserunning signs from the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2017 World Series. Or even with NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball, where there are enough recruiting and (until last year) pay-for-play violations to render the student part of student-athlete a really bad joke.

No, I believe owners, universities, and league offices collude to put their thumbs on the scale, and have done so for years. They do it for two reasons: 1., to generate revenue and renewed interest in their sport (whether basketball, hockey, baseball, or football, or — more obviously — WWE) and/or 2., to steer a sport-wide championship in the direction of a particular team (also a way to keep those multi-billion-dollar TV contracts aflowing). 

This doesn’t just explain the New England Patriots and the mysterious “tuck rule” ruling during the 2001 NFL Playoffs, a ruling that cost the Oakland Raiders the game and catapulted the Patriots toward the first post-9/11 Super Bowl (patriotism and sports — it’s kismet!). It explains when referees, umpires, and other officials make consistently favorable rulings helping certain teams win playoffs series and championships. Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the LA Lakers and the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 NBA Playoffs comes to mind. An official even admitted they may have rigged this particular series in favor of the Lakers. And Duke and Coach K. All anyone has to do is look at the difference between the team UNLV stomped in by 30 points in 1990 and the team UNLV “lost” to in 1991. Really? What difference — no difference! 

Even this isn’t the worst of it. With the newly opened frontier of legal betting on professional and college sports across the board, the temptations for individuals, for officials, for athletes themselves to alter outcomes to win bets will be enormous. The sports would is only a few years away from healthy athletes dying in their athletic prime of suicide or “suspicious circumstances,” stemming from their own gambling addiction, or because of a fan’s gambling addiction and narcissism.

I kid you not. We are a decade or two away at most from discovering how some of these great moments we have seen in a sport should have never been. All because money changed hands, or because of deliberately calibrated officiating, or because of tampering with equipment or with schedules, or because of general collusion among college conferences and universities or between sports leagues and team owners (or, with the student-athlete system, between all of the above). 

And when these turds hit an industrial-sized fan meant for a large indoor arena, what do any of us say then? That we knew all along? That we just went along because we wanted the distraction of sports free from corruption and politics? All of this is bullshit.

The truth is, sports has always been a source of entertainment, a place where we have pretended for years the outcome was never fully assured. But, we all have known the outcome has been helped along, sometimes by a lot. To build a fantasy around sports as set of institutions that brings people together and creates a sense of community is incredibly superficial. Those moments are fleeting and do nothing to change communities, cities, or our societies. Those moments, even as they temporarily unite folks around as flimsy a thing as a win or winning a title, are not untainted ones. 

Listen, I love sports, and have appreciated athleticism going all the way back to the Ali v. Frazier and Ali v. Foreman days. Heck, when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father as payback for psychologically torturing my mother after she filed for divorce in 1977, I had appreciation for it then. That moment of college athletic-level tackling and the physics around it have been in super-slo-mo in my mind for 45 years. I have loved watching sports since I was 12, and playing sports since puberty grew me to five-foot-eight before I turned 13, and six-feet-even before my 14th birthday. The business of professional sports (including college sports programs and Olympic sports), though, is ugly. That is why I no longer care if athletes dope, stopped caring ages ago how much money they and the sports team owners make, or care much about wins and losses for my Knicks or other teams I kinda root for. 

Because I believe as much as I believe in anything a day of reckoning is coming for these institutions. And when it does, don’t say I didn’t write about it. When it does occur, we can then finally agree there is no difference in pop culture between commercialized music, PG-13 movies, fashion, and the world of sports.

What Remains in the Ashes…

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Jacobi playing dead on dining room carpet, Silver Spring, MD, February 13, 2022. (Donald Earl Collins).

There are so many anniversaries I haven’t discussed over the past month. Just trying to make it week-by-week through being back in a classroom in-person, trying to teach groups of bratty, disengaged students while also wearing an N95 mask over a medical mask. It is torture, an emotional labor I wouldn’t wish on any of my nemeses. My students do not (and really, refuse to) understand the toll of having to teach in front of a group who complains about not going on field trips or couldn’t care less about oppression. All with their arms folded for two and a half hours at a time. If these were my first two courses as a professor, they would definitely be my last two courses as a professor.

That and our weak ass union at American has taken up a good deal of my February. To think the previous negotiators had only gotten our “liberal” employer to pony up a $25-per-course increase per year over three years. To know the whitemansplainers on American’s side of the table thought this was asking too much. To see how shocked my white colleagues were when they realized their well-reasoned arguments, their math, their impassioned pleas, their heartfelt stories didn’t matter. 

It all merely confirmed what I have known for years. Whites unaware of their white privilege will think themselves able to negotiate their way out of all jams and all forms of oppression. Except that white privilege does not mean socioeconomic privilege. And racial capitalism is a Ponzi scheme, a form of the Matrix too many white Americans have hooked themselves into. I had to allow myself the right of righteous anger, and the ability to call out these win-at-all-costs lawyers and shills for what they are, before any of my colleagues would say anything with a sense of anger themselves. Whiteness is a Matrix-level drug, and so is the narcissism that comes with it.

Several dates have come and gone since my last post. My significant other celebrated her 55th. My sister Sarai would have been 39 years old on February 9th, that is if the scourge of sickle cell anemia didn’t exist. Toto’s “Africa” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Pop chart in February 1983 also. (I was in eighth grade, reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the time.)

Yesterday marked two milestones. One was the 40th anniversary of a crush-turned-love for me, on the wings of Ballerina Wendy (I am truly a goofy romantic). Two, it’s been two years since I taught a course in-person and maskless, the last time I felt mostly “safe” in public (truth is, with everyday racism, I have never felt truly safe). I am not sure I will ever feel either of those ways again — March 1982 and March 2020 seem like different timelines that someone who was sorta me walked once in my dreams.

What feels painfully real about the pandemic is the distrust I feel toward humanity these days, not counting my partner, my son, and my dog (and in his case, he sniffs too many disease-carrying turds for me to trust his in-stink-ts). It’s been more than 20 years (February 2002) since I did a family intervention to reach out to my mother and my siblings about being honest about where we were as a family and how we ended up with the poverty and abuse we all experienced growing up. 

I have given up on having the kind of adult relationship a 50-something Black man should be able to have with his 70-something mother. Maybe being only 22 years apart in age, and witnessing so many of her failures and her small triumphs has been too much. Then again, refusing to admit she caught COVID, and that her church friends died from COVID, and refusing to get jabbed with a COVID vaccine, all based on vanity and willful ignorance, has completely worn me out.

I have mostly given up on having the kind of adult relationship a 50-something Black man should be able to have with his four brothers ages 54, 42, 40, and 37 (my door remains open for them, but just). The longest conversation I have had with Darren since 2002 was maybe ten minutes total. My younger brothers admitted during the intervention in 2002 they were jealous of me. That, unfortunately, has not changed over the past two decades. They don’t return my phone calls or my texts. They don’t respond to my Facebook posts on their timelines, or my LinkedIn messages. Of course, at least one of them refuses to vaccinate, and would prefer unemployment instead. Their job prospects in recent years have made them bitter, especially toward me. If they only knew the extent of labor exploitation in higher education and in the writing world. But they would still be jealous anyway, I suppose.

I need no one to tell me how blessed I am overall. I have reinvented myself into the person I always was.  I still make good trouble for my benefit and (hopefully) the benefit of others. My own family life remains good. I can only hope what remains in the ashes will rise again, for me and my own family, even for the flea-bitten dog.

The Elite Jerkiness of Journalistic “Genius,” aka, Advanced White-Mansplaining

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I am most definitely not a journalist. At least not in any professionally trained sense. I majored in computer science, then in history, all while picking up minors in mathematics and in Black studies. Going further back in time, I refused to be part of the high school yearbook committee, even though my classmates asked me to be on it at least four times. I was always a writer, even when I was only in observation mode, even though I didn’t see myself as one until I was well into my 30s. I just didn’t want to work with a group of people who were caught up in their own middle class dramas, the petty jealousies, and the even pettier emotions over pop cultural icons and incidents. 

By the time I thought about J school, I already had my doctorate. I’d already learned from one of my former professors and several senior colleagues my academic writing was “too journalistic.” That’s what they thought, anyway. I knew my writer was stuck between the way I wrote before my PhD work at Carnegie Mellon and the four years of academic abuse I endured to make my writing colder and more “scholarly.” 

I did find my way back to writing without all the high-falutin’ bells and whistles. The words fait accompli and raison d’etre and “promulgated” and “posited,” and (especially for me) “indeed” all had to die in a supernova. Less is more, clarity and conciseness are more important than showing off my super-dense writing skills, at least that’s what the proverbial they say. And “they” are mostly correct.

But in my twenty-plus years of venturing into the world of journalism and writing, it is so clear to me the rules of academia operate in this white-male dominated world, too. Especially when discussing big ideas, like the West’s past, the US’ present, our collective futures. No, that domain is a “white man’s country.” Thomas Friedman, Ezra Klein, David Brooks, Nate Silver, Matt Yglesias, Matt Taibbi, Chris Hayes, Ross Douthat, Tucker Carlson, and an army of others. While there are Black and Brown men and some white women (and nary any Black women and women of color) working as big-idea columnists, I could lock them in a medium-sized conference room and light a match. And many in this group have spent more time discouraging me as a writer than doing anything else, from Pittsburgh to DC and back.

If you are like me and have decided to convert your research and your lifetime of expertise and experience to write about big ideas, then you know the marketplace for our ideas is small. Add to this my penchant for writing pieces on American racism and American identity, about racism’s impact on Black folx and people of color, and the window for publishing my work is a few micrometers in width. 

Rarely do I hear from folks in my circles about what they think of my writing or my ideas. Not even disagreement or open disparagement — even that would be something to work with. But it’s mostly deafening silence out there among the literati set whenever a piece of mine is out there to read. 

If it were just the geniuses group, I wouldn’t really care. (I mean, if Ross Doofus is a genius because he among the white male set was honest about the mythology of Harvard, then everyone’s a genius. Many of us knew this without spending $200,000 to go to Harvard or before even attending college at all. Elite white folk and their narcissism start off in K-12, after all. Woe to us who school with them!) 

Academicians and their silence, their “meh” responses to anything not published in a “peer-reviewed journal” with 300 footnotes and a few pages on multivariate chi-squared bullshit analysis (this includes Black academia). Journalists and their silence, their sort-of, “you write about race and racism well, but you don’t really know anything” when I do hear the occasional burp. The result is me feeling like Sisyphus, constantly reinventing the wheel to publish, well, anything, even though I have enough bylines to my credit to be part of a meaningful conversation about virtually any topic related to the US and the West.

None of this, though, is anything compared to the granting of “genius” status to the white-male set in journalism. To me, they are journalists. Period. Even the ones who have to edit and interpret the bigger picture think in newsworthy hooks, news cycles, and the relative immediate response of a reading or watching or listening audience. They do not care that their response to the January 6th insurrection might well lead to obvious fascism in the US by the 2030s. Nor do they care that their coverage and their analysis often ignores the anecdotal, emotional, and statistical regarding racist oppression in the US and its implications for the future. 

Friedman’s “flat-earth” ideas are mind-numbing. David Brooks’ conservatism is really fairly well-written middle-class white teenager angst and contrarianism. Chris Hayes’ neoliberalism assumes total insulation from the deep cracks in America’s facade of freedom and ignores the falsehoods of ever-increasing progress toward equality. Their whitemansplaing allows them to ignore the past and the future, to focus in blindly ignorant ways on the present. They are only “geniuses” because there is an army of other white men who like what they are saying.

As I have said many times, I am not going to win any popularity contests. Nor do I seek to win them either. I don’t need praise to keep writing. It would be nice, though, if maybe once every couple of months, someone I know or sorta know would go, “hey, this is really good. It’s given me lots of things to rethink about x, y, or z.” It would be better still to get paid for my think pieces, at least more than $150 here, $300 or $400 there. It’s not much comfort that the powers that remain did this to W. E. B. Du Bois, too, and often denigrated Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin as much as they praised them. 

All I know is, “genius” without challenging yourself, your supporters, or the status quo isn’t genius at all. It’s a bunch of grinning dumbasses slapping each other on the back for stating the obvious in their white-bred world.

Signs of Elitism

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Front cover, Joel Stein’s In Defense of Elitism (2019, cropped), January 16, 2022. (https://amazon.com).

I have spent four-fifths of my life in elite spaces among affluent whites, middle class Blacks, and Americans elites in general. I have so little in common with them aside from eating, drinking, breathing, and having a sex drive. So little that I sometimes think that God made a mistake and missed my exact time and place for my existence by 20 or 30 years, meaning 1949 or 1994 would have been better years for my birth. 

But it’s not when I was born so much as the lack of material resources with which I lived growing up in the most resourced area in the US. And that has brought consequences for me since the year I began puberty. The years in Humanities in middle school and in high school in Mount Vernon, New York. Hearing about everyone’s summers those first days of school between seventh and 12th grade, for example. Black and Black Caribbean classmates regaling us with their summers spent down South, in Jamaica or Barbados or  Trinidad and Tobago visiting close relatives. Or, their trips around the US, from the Grand Canyon to cities I wouldn’t travel to until I was 24 or 35. Or my white peers spending their Junes, Julys, and Augusts in France, the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, Greece, Egypt, or Israel. I lied about going to Tel Aviv my first year.

I rarely left Mount Vernon and New York City those years. Albany was the furthest I’d been away from home, on a school trip in October 1985. My walks occasionally took me across the New York-Connecticut border (in 1986 and in 1987), but that was somewhat accidental.

In grad school, especially once I transferred to Carnegie Mellon to complete my PhD, these awkward communications involving my lack of socioeconomic privilege and my white classmates’ rose-colored worldviews continued. In my final semester of grad courses in Spring 1994, I took Comparative Urban History with Katherine Lynch. One week, we were in a discussion of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, about the correlation between suburbanization and the expansion of the white middle class. Jennifer, one of my classmates, contributed her not-so-insightful analysis of what this correlation meant, about how “most Americans benefited” from the growth of suburbs between 1945 and 1980. 

I was not happy with her elitist worldview. I already knew that she was 23 or 24, married, and from suburban Philly (think a place like Cherry Hill, New Jersey). I also knew that Jackson’s point correlated well with White Flight from increasingly Black and Brown cities like Philly, New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, and Chicago. Being in my third year of grad school overall and surrounded in this course by first-years, I had one advantage. I was almost as well read on topics of inequality as most of my professors. 

So I said to Jennifer and the rest of the class, “Well, if by ‘most Americans benefited,’ you mean white Americans, then yes, suburbanization was a good thing. But cities’ tax bases didn’t benefit, and neither did the African Americans who moved into cities that whites flew out of. Redlining and restrictive covenants made it harder for middle-class Blacks to ‘benefit’ from suburbanization. And last I checked, poor people live in suburbs, too.” That last past was a direct reference to my growing up with poverty in Mount Vernon, and the scores of poor Black and Latinx and Black Caribbean folk I knew in Mount Vernon and throughout the New York area, suburban and urban. 

During the class break, Jennifer came up to me as I was standing outside the seminar talking with my other white classmates congratulating me for my eye-opening perspective on how to break down Jackson’s book. She brought all five-foot-three of her frame to bear, almost as if she had attempted to stand on a soap box (even with one, at six-three, I would’ve had to bend down to see her ire). She had tears in her eyes and one running down each cheek. “I can’t help how I grew up. I am not a racist,” she said, and then walked away in a huff. “I guess I struck a nerve,” I said in response to one of my other peers.

I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about her crying. None of it was going to make the lives of Blacks and Latinx people with poverty in Camden or Philly or even Cherry Hill any better. White women’s tears and crying foul when challenged for their elitism had already hardened me against placating them. My experiences matter, damn it!, was what I thought after that exchange.

Even outside academia, the elitism wafted like millions of gallons of human shit at a sewage treatment plant. Between Presidential Classroom and AED, I spent much of my nonprofit years (meaning, a good portion of my thirties) proving to others that despite my background, I could do work on behalf of others. My bosses held it against me that my parents weren’t GS-12 or higher federal employees, or diplomats, or advisors, or members of country clubs. Or, especially in AED’s case, that neither I nor my parents ever served in the Peace Corps or traveled overseas. I practically had to do somersaults and cartwheels to do my work between 1999 and 2008, but could not maintain social connections, because my doctorate from Carnegie Mellon would never be good enough.

Maybe I’ll discuss Black middle class folk and their rites of privilege and passage, especially fraternities and other organizations. But I’ve already written quite extensively about why I’ll never fit it with such groups. And at 52, I’m not entirely sure I want to. I guess after a lifetime of my peers ignoring me or erasing me or acting as if only their socioeconomic and racial privileges matter in explaining how the world works, I simply don’t care anymore.

My mom grew up as part of a sharecropping family in southwestern, Red River Arkansas. She’s the oldest of 12 children. She worked mostly in the kitchen of Mount Vernon Hospital or in the billing department of Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla as a paraprofessional for 34 years, with a 16-year period on welfare in between. My dad worked as a janitor or a supervisor of janitors and building cleaners all his time in New York and in Jacksonville. He grew up as a tenant farmer (before his family bought out their land) in rural south-central Georgia. He barely finished seventh grade. His two sisters were the first in the family to go to college, and both spent years teaching during segregated times. Despite it all, I am proud of their work. No pedigree is fine with me.