In·ter·sec·tion·al·i·ty

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Kimberlè Crenshaw quote, from “Whose Story Is It Anyway?: Feminist and Anti-Racist Appropriations of Anita Hill,” in Toni Morrison’s Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, 1992, p. 403. (http://azquotes.com).

In truth, I’ve considered the issue of intersectionality as a historian and writer since 1993, when I wrote my quantitative methods requirement-fulfilling paper, “The Dying of Black Women’s Children.” Except that, for me and for most of my colleagues, the term was barely in use. Matter of fact, in five and half years of graduate school and in my first three years after finishing the doctorate, I may have heard the term used only once or twice. It’s not like I didn’t think about the unique issues facing women of color — especially Black women — in the context of US history and African American history. Sometimes as a historian, how leading Black men and White women marginalized African American women in education movements, in the suffrage movement, and in the Civil Rights Movement was all I could think about. In the context of understanding American education and the role of Black women as teachers and education, it made me reconsider the notion of education as a form of social control versus it as a form of social liberation as an and-both, and not an either-or proposition.

But, as with all other issues, I’m not perfect. I remember getting into an argument with an African American women at a joint Carnegie Mellon-University of Pittsburgh conference on diversity in 1992. She was a second-year master’s student in the public policy program at CMU’s Heinz School (now Heinz College) to my second year as a grad student and first as a PhD student. I had talked about my initial research on multiculturalism and Black education, and what that research could mean in terms of diversity in higher education. Over lunch, I barely got three sentences out about the implications before this student pounced on me for not taking a more Afrocentric approach to my research, all but calling me an Uncle Tom. She also pointed out that while I had accounted for race and gender in my work, I hadn’t accounted for them together. I was already used to middle class Black folk who only radicalized at the ripe young age of twenty-two telling me that my research was too conservative and too White. But on the second part, not accounting enough for Black women in my research, I did take to heart.

In 1999, at my “Black Brahmins” presentation on W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke and their ideas around multiculturalism and connections to Harvard at the Organization of American Historians conference in Toronto, I got a cold shoulder from the panel’s moderator, Stephanie Shaw. She barely said a word to me the entire time, and barely commented on my paper. I figured that Shaw thought I should’ve found a way to make the paper more inclusive of Black women graduates of Harvard and multiculturalism, even though Harvard didn’t allow any women to attend. I could’ve included Black women who attended Radcliffe College around the turn of the twentieth century, but even then, those women did not earn graduate degrees or become proponents of pluralism or what we’d call multiculturalism today. I followed up at OAH in Los Angeles in 2001 with my “Multicultural Sisters” paper, but by then, I no longer had an interest in multiculturalism as a historian.

Times Square intersection time-lapse, August 2014. (http://shutterstock.com).

On this day and date in 2000, though, was the argument I had with a colleague at Presidential Classroom, one that would keep me conscious about intersectionality and womanism from that point on. Sev had been brought on by my racist boss Jay Wickliff to help out with the international recruitment for the weekly civic education programs we had for high school juniors and seniors. Sev was Canadian, had been an intern with the program the summer before, and had recently finished up a master’s in history. She had stopped by my office to ask about some revisions I’d been making to parts of our upcoming summer programs, especially the one on media and democracy, which was a new program for Presidential Classroom. Somehow the conversation swung toward women’s rights and issues that Sev thought were important to women. I kept correcting her, saying that some of these issues were “only important to White women.” She took offense, telling me that I shouldn’t be correcting her, that her master’s made her as much an expert on the topic as me. I remember actually chuckling at that assertion, which miffed Sev even more. The common refrain, “Just because you have a PhD…,” was how she responded.

But I did take a few minutes to break down the differences between second-wave and third-wave feminism (or womanism). I went on about the history of exclusion that Black women in particular had faced from Black men in civil rights movements and White women around suffrage and reproductive rights. I said, “maybe it’s because you’re Canadian, but here in the US, these issues you’re bringing up mostly concern middle class White women.” She didn’t like that at all. Before Sev responded, Wickliff, having overheard our argument, came by and said, “Slavery was a hoax” as a joke. That was the moment I knew my days working for this group of Whiteness folks were numbered.

A few months later, in my new job at AED with New Voices, I picked up and read Kimberlè Crenshaw’s essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (1989) for the first time. I knew that I already understood intersectionality for Black women, how misogyny, sexism, and racism constantly confer a double marginalization, discrimination, and violation on Black women. Now, between Crenshaw and my own experiences, I also realized that I could experience intersectionality as a Black man, between White men and White women. Especially middle class ones, where their well-meaning color-blind racism had served to put me in a box as well. It was an and-both box, where I was a historian who didn’t write about intersectionality enough and a professional who had also experienced race and gender-based marginalization, albeit differently from women or color. What I did learn, finally, was that the intersection of race, class, and gender made Times Square look like Walden Pond by comparison.

The Cruel Lure of Academia

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Rihanna as Medusa, GQ Magazine cover, December 2013. (http://pinterest.com).

Twenty years ago on this date, I took the call that would help define my last two decades professionally. It was a call from Teachers College, Columbia University. I had made a final cut of interviewees “out of more than 300 applicants,” for a tenure-track assistant professorship in the history of education, the administrative assistant to the ed foundations department chair’s office had told me. It was my first post-PhD job call, one at the time that I hoped would be the only one I’d need.

It wasn’t my first interview for an academic position, though. That distinction went to Illinois State University, in April ’94. Two of their history professors were at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New Orleans, screening applicants for a lecturer and a non-tenured assistant professor position. I dared not tell my advisor Joe Trotter or anyone else about the screening invite. I went, I met the two youngish professors, both of whom told me to finish my PhD before applying for another job, because they thought my work “too promising” for non-tenure-stream positions. I had also interviewed for two education nonprofit positions, both in Pittsburgh, and both only offering me only a few thousand more than the US Postal Service offered me in ’92, when my name for a job finally came up.

Burned out 40w light bulb, April 27, 2010. (http://www.iamtonyang.com).

Now I had gotten a call from one of the most prestigious education schools in the world. A school within the same university that wanted to hire a private investigator ten years earlier because they didn’t want to give a poor Black kid a four-year free-ride. Despite the irony, I was happy, nervous, and apprehensive. I was happy for the opportunity, nervous about my prospects, and apprehensive about the possibility of moving back to New York. But, most important, I was also burned out emotionally and psychologically from the dissertation process, though not as burned out as I would become in the six weeks that followed.

The interview itself three weeks later was one of the best I’ve ever done for anything. I gave my job talk on multiculturalism and Black education, and for once, professors and graduate students in the audience didn’t look at me like I was speaking Vulcan. I actually had fun on that eight-hour interview day. As much fun as eight hours of scrutiny and answering the same questions over and over again could bring.

But, I remained apprehensive. Because I knew that I had a lot of big decisions ahead if I didn’t get this position, and just as many or more if I did.

Could I pay rent or eat through the summer if I didn’t get the job? Should I go groveling back to Carnegie Mellon, so that I could teach the required World History course for the 1997-98 school year? Could I pick up an adjunct gig at Pitt, Duquesne, or one of the other universities for next year, or what if it’s already too late to reach out? Could I get help from Bruce Anthony Jones, or beyond my dissertation committee, people like Barbara Lazarus, in securing my future? These were the normal questions that an army of PhDs in fields like history faced every single year.

For me, though, the idea of being an assistant professor twelve miles from where I grew up and thirty blocks from one of the buildings I helped my alcoholic father clean made my brain twist in knots. Heck, Teachers College had put me up at the Hotel Beacon on Broadway, between 74th and 75th Street, just three blocks from a high-rise me, my older brother Darren, and my father had cleaned the carpets and floors of regularly between 1984 and 1986. Did I really want to go back to a place with so many bad and embarrassing memories?

Plus, it wasn’t just my past I worried about. Living in subsidized faculty housing wasn’t ideal for me and my soon-to-be-wife. My younger siblings could reach me by catching the 1 or 2 train, and with the recent fire at 616 and the trauma that had caused, their visits were likely to be a regular part of my routine. I had given Mom something like $5,000 in the three years before the possibility of this job, as a graduate student. As a professor, she would likely expect me to do so much more.

Charging Bull of Wall Street (or a false god), cropped, January 19, 2016. (Sam Valadi/Flickr, via http://www.atlasobscura.com/)

Looking back, if Teachers College had offered me the job and I’d of course taken it, I likely wouldn’t have earned tenure. Oh, I would’ve been a fine classroom professor, and most of my students would’ve liked, loved, or learned from me. But between me having not dealt with my Mount Vernon/NY past, my Mom and siblings and family issues, and trying to turn my dissertation into a book and churn out academic pieces, I would’ve needed psychotherapy after three or six years. But Teachers College rejected me two months later. It supposedly came down to me and one other person.

This is what academia does to its own. With too few tenure-stream jobs and way too many qualified candidates, each job interview or job earned becomes magnified, to the point where taking a position can close as many doors as receiving a rejection for a job. Combine that with the false gods of meritocracy and academic freedom, and you have a recipe for a world of competitive disappointment. Academia is a world full highly educated people working for working-class wages but with elitist expectations of themselves and of those lucky few with tenure-stream positions. Add race, class, gender, family, and intersectionality to this brew, and it’s a wonder more of us don’t experience depression or some other mental illness.

I wouldn’t have been able to write this twenty years ago, even if I subconsciously suspected or consciously knew this to be true. I was tempted by the brass ring, only to find it was really a rusty old nail bent to look like something valuable.

Psalm 23 and Christian-isms I Don’t Understand

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My iPod w/ U2, November 13, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins)

It’s Easter Week for 2017, and year 33 since I became a follower of Christ. I’ve written at length about my conversion and my evolution as a Christian. I’ve also posted about my problems with Christians and the way many impose — or at least, attempt to impose — their racism, sexism, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Black respectability politics on the world.

For me, it shows most American Christians to be hypocrites as best, and full of shit at worse, when it comes to following the two most basic rules of Christianity. To have “no other gods but God,” and “to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” For most American Christians (if not Western Christians in general), money is god, Whiteness is god, and the two go together better than the chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Both assert that others are but dirty pieces of gum on one’s shoe, that hatred, violence, and permanent superiority in the name of these gods supersedes following any important teaching or practice of Jesus and his disciples.

But that’s not all. After all these years, I still don’t quite get even some of the more mundane Christian practices and assumptions. The most basic one is Psalm 23. For the life of me, I don’t understand why pastors, priests, and parishioners seem to only read the psalm after a person has died. The psalm reads as:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Bajoran Wormhole screenshot (or the entrance to the Celestial Temple), Star Trek DS9. June 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

It has always seemed to me that the living have needed the verses around “I shall not want,” lying down “in green pastures,” and walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” far more than the dead. No one has explained what Psalm 23 has to do with wakes and funerals to my satisfaction. The way people use Psalm 23 assumes so much about what occurs after we die — something none of us could ever fully comprehend — and completely neglects the reality that the living need rest, peace, and strength in our walk through a corrupt world. Kind of like the way many American Christians value embryos, cats, and dogs over Black and Brown babies, toddlers, and adults.

In 2005, I picked up evangelical Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics in an attempt to expand my knowledge of the intersection between social justice activism and Christianity. Wallis’ book was supposed to be a primer on how to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable while also standing for “traditional” American Christian values. The book was a hot mess, as it did little more than insist on the right of those who weren’t Christian or following evangelical values (e.g., openly LGBT, pro-choice, womanist, and anti-racist) to exist and to be tolerated. Wallis wasn’t exactly calling for a revolution in God’s Politics. Certainly not when he insisted that many Black play “the race card” in identifying American racism in its myriad forms.

Where I stopped reading, though, was in Wallis’ description of U2 lead singer Bono’s activism and religiosity. Wallis saw Bono as someone “who has become a serious and well-informed activist,” and as a “spiritual man, though not a churchy person.” That was a back-handed compliment. But then Wallis expressed surprise to learn that Bono would get “on his knees” to pray for guidance, as this image of this rock superstar for Wallis was “humbling and heartening.” That came from pages 198-99 of God’s Politics, and that was where I stopped reading. The self-aggrandizement and name-dropping. The assumption that Bono couldn’t possibly be thinking in both social justice and Christian terms because of his profession. And the most obvious fact of all: Wallis likely had never listened to or read a single verse of a U2 song going back to the October album (1980). There are enough Christian and biblical allusions in U2’s catalog to keep most preachers in sermons for a generation. But yeah, let’s assume that anyone other than a devout evangelical Christian is living in sin or isn’t serious about combating Whiteness or poverty or any host of manmade plagues!

Religion in general isn’t the issue. Christianity at its heart is a belief system based on forgiveness, reconciliation, embracing of diverse peoples and differences, and of course, eternal salvation. What people do with religion is what they do with everything else. It can occasionally become a catalyst for spiritual freedom and social change, even revolution. But, much more often, institutionalized religion is a spiritual yoke, a way to control the way multitudes of millions see themselves and the world around them. Funny, then, that American Christianity represents everything that America is, and very little of the basic tenets of Jesus’ teachings in practice. Promoting blind patriotism, a lover’s embrace of money changers — a.k.a., capitalism, a hatred of vulnerable populations, and a tendency to racially self-segregate. This is the American way.

American Christians have let me down in so many ways. We have let our individual -isms and individualism overwhelm whatever it is that supposedly makes us Christian in the first place. If evangelicals want to look for someone to blame for America’s decline since the 1970s, they need only to stand fully unclothed in front of a full-length mirror. Maybe Bono as quoted by Wallis was right when he said that maybe “God [was] on his knees praying” for us to get it together in eradicating poverty, systemic racism, homophobia, HIV-AIDS, and climate change. Too bad most of us aren’t listening.

Forty Years of 616

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Screen shot of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY, June 2016. (http://maps.google.com)

This past weekend marked four decades since my Mom and my late one-time stepfather (though not quite in 1977) Maurice moved me and my older brother from South Side Mount Vernon to an apartment complex three blocks from the Mount Vernon-Pelham border. This is much more a memorial of remembrance than of anything to celebrate.

For me, it was part of an endless series of storms. Mom had filed for divorce with my father and had decided to move in with her allegedly new boyfriend Maurice (who wasn’t so new, as I’d learn years later). My father Jimme’s alcoholism had gotten worse. He had drowned my Mom’s clothes in a bathtub, thrown a color TV out of our second-floor window, and stomped in a glass coffee table during dinner after my seventh birthday in response to the cheating and the divorce. My Mom ended up in the hospital for two months due to the stress and her kidneys, which had almost shut down due to her nonexistent diet. Add to all this the sexual abuse that I had suffered while Mom and Jimme were going at it during the centennial summer of ’76. My world was upside down, in shambles, as shattered as glass blown out of a skyscraper by well-placed plastic explosives.

A week ago, my thirteen-year-old son asked me, “Did you ever live in a house?” Even though I had talked about my life before the move to 616 East Lincoln Avenue before, it had been a few years. I think my son asked because of our plans to move out of our “luxury” high-rise after fourteen years. The truth is, I have lived in four homes over the years. But in my first seven years (with 240 East Third as a notable exception during my Mom’s illness), I grew up in three houses: 24 Adams Street, 48 Adams Street, and 425 South Sixth Avenue. We lived in one-bedroom flats in the first two homes, where we shared a kitchen and a bathroom with one other family. I have memories of playing in the front yards of both, of older neighbors (by toddler standards) hosing down their cars, of older kids and teenagers at the Adams Street Park on monkey bars and shooting hoops. I even remember the day my Mom told me we were moving to 425 South Sixth, August 12, 1974. It was the same week I burned my knee on an over door, the same week Richard Nixon announced his resignation from the presidency.

48 Adams Street, Mount Vernon, NY, November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins)

At 425, we had a two-bedroom, one-bath flat, on the second floor, with a separate entrance. It was as close to owning a home as we got during those years. And boy did my Mom and Jimme blow it! Between the sexual abuse incident and my unconscious attempts at self-erasure, even suicide, 425 never quite felt like home.

The move to 616 occurred about a week after my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father like he was the late Deacon Jones and Jimme was a running back whose career was coming to a crashing halt. I remember it being the second Friday in April, near Easter Sunday time. It had warmed up from the frozen winter of ’77 to the light chills of early spring. But I didn’t feel particularly warmed up inside.

It didn’t help that where we end up moving didn’t look at all like the newer — if more impoverished — series of apartment complexes down the street on Pearsall Drive. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in an apartment building. But from the first time I walked into the A section of 616, I didn’t like it. The vestibule was too dark, the elevator too slow, and the building too smelly for my tastes. Plus, because of the haste of the move and the damage my father had done to our furniture, me and my older brother Darren didn’t even have a bed. From April to December ’77, we slept on the floor or on the couch in the new living room or in our eventual bedroom, with Mom and Maurice staying up sometimes until Johnny Carson time watching sitcoms and the news. So many times in those first months, I felt like I was a rag doll that had been hurriedly thrown into a box marked “Miscellaneous.” I was along for whatever ride Mom and Maurice were on, a permanent reminder of yesterday’s marital storms, a yoke on whatever future they had in mind.

I acted out repeatedly the first twenty months after the move. I chewed on a red-and-blue-striped t-shirt until I had swallowed about a third of it. I began biting and eating my nails until I made the skin underneath bleed. I stuffed sandwiches into the holes I made in my coats, and ate every booger my nose could expel as a substitute for lunch. That’s how much I hated Mom, Maurice, myself, my life, and 616 forty years ago.

Mom and Maurice tried to explain it away as simple selfish jealousy, that as a soft mama’s boy, I wanted Mom to myself. That’s only about twenty or twenty-five percent accurate. What I did know was that Maurice wasn’t my dad, yet Mom foisted him on us as if Jimme had died and none of us had any other choice. What I did know was that I was hurting, and since I was getting an ass-whuppin’ about once a week, I couldn’t lash out. What I did know was that not a single neighbor or kid in the building, especially the Bagleys, welcomed our presence in the building or my existence at 616.

Danger Keep Out sign, April 9, 2017. (http://www.safetysign.com/).

With what I’ve learned about Mom, Maurice, Jimme, myself, and my neighbors since ’77, it’s a wonder I didn’t go up to the roof and just throw myself off it those first two years, or in ’82, ’83, or ’84. God knows I ran away enough, got beat up enough times, and was called “faggot” often enough to see slamming myself into the slate sidewalk leading to 616’s front stairs as a better alternative to living. College was the first opportunity I got to get away from this living hell, and I took full advantage.

Mom and my two youngest siblings still live at 616. The youngest barely remembers the end of the abuse and chaos that I lived through and Mom put up with. The other sibling has horrible memories of his own. After the fire at 616 in ’95, when Mom asked me for advice about where to move after the renovations, I told her, “Anywhere but back to 616.” Mom, as nearly always, didn’t listen to me. I guess misery is as addicting as anything else.

Racial Privilege Matters Most

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World War Z gif of horde climbing a wall (much like the way Americans see immigrants regardless of status), March 26, 2017. (http://reddit.com).

I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed the stark, sad, and anger-inducing contrast between two events in the past couple of weeks. One involved the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by two undocumented immigrants (ages 18 and 17) at Rockville High School. The press gave this incident coverage on a local and national scale. So much so that xenophobic, anti-Latino Twitter trolls got involved.

Screen shot of tweets regarding Rockville High School rape, March 26, 2017. (http://twitter.com)

The proverbial “they” used the arrests as evidence of an immigration form of World War Z, in which angry hordes of the undocumented pour through America’s border with Mexico, raping, pillaging, and drugging up White (and mostly female) innocents. “Build the wall,” “illegals,” and “liberals” all became a cabal of iniquity in the (White) America First camp. What about the 14-year-old girl, the counseling she may need, or security issues at Rockville High School in general? Instead, two almost adult teenagers are a stand-in for immigration policies and 11 million undocumented persons. But what else is new?

On the other end of the spectrum has been the lack of coverage of missing Black and Latina girls in the DC area — in fact, in many parts of the US. So little has been even the local coverage that it took a tweet (one that I retweeted myself) two weeks ago for DC affiliates to pay closer attention.

Screen shot of retweet on 8 missing Black girls in Washngton, DC, March 12, 2017. (Twitter via @BlackMarvelGirl).

National coverage only kicked in when someone erroneously posted on Instagram that 14 Black and Latino girls had gone missing in the DC area in a 24-hour-period. True or not, there was no corresponding outrage over even the mere possibility that girls of color could have been kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or murdered as part of a crime spree. Though the facts of this particular Instagram posting were skewed, there’s no debate or daily concern for what happens to youth of color, especially girls of color, in the US. When confronted with the fact that 37 percent of America’s missing children are Black (Blacks are 12.4 percent of the US population), the excuse has been that most of them are “runaways.” And with that kicks in all kinds of racist and misogynistic assumptions. “The poverty and crime and drugs” got to be too much. “They’ve been exposed to more,” and therefore, can handle being on their own. “They’re sexually promiscuous” anyway, so let them run off with older men.

No one considers the why. In this case, why would these girls run away? Physical and sexual abuse at home, leading to vulnerability outside the home to human trafficking, rape, prostitution, or run-of-the-mill homelessness and poverty. No matter how one looks at this, this should be national news. That is, if America wasn’t primed to see only White kids as innocent.

Which brings me back to Rockville High School. No one knows the identity of the 14-year-old rape victim. But based on the Twitter trolls and the Washington Post comments section, most assume the girl is White. It proves a few things, especially for me as a Montgomery County (MD) resident. One, that my upper middle-class neighbors would turn on me in a second if I met anything approaching a criminal stereotype. For them, I would represent the alleged cultural deficiencies of 44 million other Blacks. Two, that for all their so-called liberal ideology, most White Americans are center-right, no matter where they live. They will turn a tragic incident into a racial or xenophobic referendum on millions of people faster than you can say “white on rice.” Three, only White lives matter and always matter to Whites, especially when put in contrast to the lives of people of color, immigrant or native-born or otherwise.

Show me you’re a liberal by embracing the truth of your own racial privilege. Show me you’re a liberal when you have to risk ostracism from your neighbors about defending the rights of undocumented immigrants as alleged rapists or decrying how the media doesn’t cover missing, exploited, and abused Black and Latina girls. Don’t tell me you’re a liberal, when it’s obvious your racism, sexism, and xenophobia is showing.

From One Starving Writer to Another

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Raven eating a hand (in my case, the writer’s dead hand), March 19, 2017. (creativeuncut.stfi.re via http://pinterest.com).

Six years ago, a student of mine made a reference that very much reminded me of, well, me, the person I was my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. It was as part of a conversation about looking for work. She didn’t want to be another starving artist, living in some basement apartment somewhere, “smearing paint on a canvas” while waiting for a big break. I thought at the time that the idea of a starving artist had all but died out in the era of bling-bling.

But it made me think for a while about the choices I’ve made with my life and career in the years since the middle of my senior year at MVHS. I once said to my AP English teacher Rosemary Martino that I didn’t want to be a starving artist “like Edgar Allen Poe” all those years ago. Now a student had made a similar — although better developed — reference. I think I understood better the momentary look of shock on my former teacher’s face after that conversation.

My student made me think about what Martino saw in my writing so many years ago. I certainly wasn’t focused on it. The same week she commented on making myself into a writer was also the week I had my Ivy League dilemma, between Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh for undergrad. I was waist-deep into my obsession with Phyllis, or really, my obsession with my crush on Phyllis. So much so that I wrote my creative writing assignment for Martino about me and my Crush #2, switching the names to “Donna” and “Phil” to barely cover up the truth of this otherwise short fictional work. Martino returned it without comment. She did comment heavily, though, on my assessment of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a series of redundant paragraphs in search for a coherent sentence.

But my wack “The Way It Is” title was as much an indication that I was as far away from seeing myself as a writer as Earth is for Alpha Centauri without a faster-than-light-speed vehicle. And I was starving on so many levels back then. For food. For attention. For love. For a connection with anything or anyone who didn’t remind me of my poverty. Martino’s encouragement, though she obviously meant well, sent me scurrying in my mind for something a bit more comfortable than Poe’s indebted and untimely death.

My own student’s commentary made me wonder if the quality of my life and career would be better these days if I had embraced the promise Martino saw in my writing back then. I mean, I was already a slightly malnourished six-foot-one and 160-pounder at that point anyway. The inner struggle to put thoughts to paper creatively would’ve been much easier at seventeen than it is as a married forty-seven year-old with a contrarian teenager and bills to pay.

Maybe so. But until Noah or one of his progeny designs a time machine, I can’t rewrite my history in order to make me embrace what I now see as my calling. All I know is that those words I uttered in March ’87 have stayed with me for three decades. The question of finding and following my calling has always been juxtaposed with my need to eat and pay the rent and other bills. How do I do both without dropping one of the balls that I’m juggling?

The issue for more than half of my adult life was finding my calling. Along the way, I spent the summer of ’88 unemployed, the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless and three weeks in May ’91 losing sixteen pounds for lack of food. Not to mention six weeks of unemployment in ’93, walking to Carnegie Mellon many a time in the snow with holes in my sneakers in ’94, and two and a half years of underemployment from December ’96 to June ’99. I was a starving writer long before I saw myself foremost as one. In all, I’ve probably made about $2,500 in direct net income as an author and writer since 2003 (half through Fear of a “Black” America, the other half in the past two years), not counting consultancies or giving talks based on my writing. If I depended on my writing income, I maybe could pay the cable bill or treat us to a night of Cheesecake Factory and a movie. Two or three times a year. When one doesn’t follow their calling and doesn’t follow a typical path to making a buck, the tendency is insufficient funds.

Creative abilities, even genius, may well drive people mad, but most folks in pursuit of their calling aren’t fools. No one, including the starving artist, wants to starve. Some of us, though, have a desire for much more than the ability to get a job, any job, and hold one long enough to see our own kids graduate from college and meet someone they truly love. Even with the responsibilities of adulthood, we shouldn’t give up on our own aspirations, for it’s those things that we reach for (although not at all costs) that will help others — including the most important folks — in our lives pursue their own calling.

Michael Clayton, My Writing, and 20 Years of Sinai-Wandering

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George Clooney and Sean Cullen in Michael Clayton (2007), March 15, 2017. (http://bbc.co.uk).

My favorite scene from Michael Clayton (2007) is when the title character’s brother Gene (played by Sean Cullen) confronts Michael (played by George Clooney) about the past seventeen years of his career as a fixer.

You got these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. You got these lawyers thinking you’re a cop. You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.

About a year and a half ago, I figured I could insert the words “writer” and “scholar” in those lines, with twenty years of my career(s) for context, and maybe some of the meaning would be correct. I am a writer’s version of Michael Clayton. I’ve got academicians thinking I’m a unscholarly writer, and journalists and editors who think I’ve only written for scholarly audiences. What a mess!

Last year, after receiving a rejection for a version of my article about American narcissism, American racism, and why real conversations on race (whether through Clinton’s Race Initiative or via Ferguson) are all but impossible, I decided no more. I will not seek to submit another scholarly piece to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal ever again. And if asked, unless it’s something I truly feel passionate about, I will say no.

Do not think of this as sour grapes. I have published two full-length journal articles in my career, not to mention a bunch of the standard book reviews, and an op-ed for Teachers College Record in the past. Technically, I am 3-for-11 in publishing academic articles over the past two decades, not great, but hardly abysmal.

My issue is with the elitism and implicit bias that is rampant in the publish-or-perish world of academia. While some folks could argue it is the same in publishing in general, it really isn’t. The unwritten rules in publishing, if not followed, may well still lead to published articles, even if a person is starving and homeless in between. In academic publishing, not following the rules leads to ostracism, and a career dead before it ever begins.

Keep in mind, no scholarly journal pays authors for their articles. It takes about two years to go from submission to publication in most history and education journals. If twenty people read your article, that’s icing on a protein-powder cake. If you aren’t in the tenure-stream, though, it really doesn’t matter how many articles you publish, because it doesn’t provide job stability or security. As a former nonprofit administrator, it scared most of my supervisors whenever and wherever I published, so no benefits there either. For those in tenure-stream positions, it does matter, no matter how crappy the research or how densely unreadable the writing.

After twenty years in the publishing struggle, it’s time to face the truth. I simply wasn’t good enough to publish in academic journals. I’m not talking about my writing ability or research skills. I’m pointing out my eclectic career path, my lack of tenure at an elite university, with few to vouch for me when I was younger and an up-and-comer. My interdisciplinary research on race, on multiculturalism, on education, meant that I was a misfit from day one. Heck, I know for sure in at least one case, a journal editor held my race and age against me.

Sinai Desert, where Moses, the Israelites (and I) wandered for a generation, Egypt, March 9, 2010. (Tommy from Arad via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-BY-SA 2.0.

I know most of the academic writing rat-race is a system of exploitation based in part on fears of joblessness, loss of prestige, and elitism based on class, race, gender, and whether one teaches at an elite university or at a community college. It is based on an academician’s ability to blame themselves and themselves alone for their failings, and not the oppressive publishing system itself. Kind of like the poor blaming themselves for their poverty. Or Whites and Blacks blaming other Blacks for a degenerative culture instead of looking at systemic racism as the real culprit for racial inequality. Academia is very much in and of this wider world of social injustice and oppression, no matter how university presidents attempt to spin it.

Truly, I find the idea of a cold, objective, dispassionate, dense writing style as more serious and scholarly than any other form to be high-grade bullshit. It’s what folks in academia tell each other. Just like many a journalist and editor is a frustrated writer looking for creative and book manuscript-length outlets, many a writer in academia believes their writing (and as often as not, their research) to be much more than it is.

But the biggest issue for me was my elitist and naive attempt to straddle the fence between academic publishing and writing for wider audiences. This living in two worlds began for me during my heady days, my grad school years at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. Some of my history professors, like Paula Baker, Kate Lynch, and Joe Trotter, all tried with a considerable amount of frustration to get me to write in more scholarly tones. Others seemed to be fine with my writing style. I had a tone that was too “journalistic,” according to my racial paternalistic professor Dan Resnick, who meant it as an insult.

Between 1997 and 2002, I churned out eight full-length pieces (in the 20-35-page-range) on multiculturalism and Black education/history meant for peer-reviewed scholarly journals, four of them between February and December 1997 alone. None of them were ever published. One, an admittedly ambitious state-of-the-subfield piece on multicultural education and its history in American education, elicited a response from the History of Education Quarterly’s editor-in-chief. He was my one-time professor during my first year of graduate school at Pitt, Dick Altenbaugh. Him and his managing editor met with me for nearly an hour and a half in March 1998.

Some of the meeting was about the deficiencies in my article and in my argument. But most of the time was about my writing style, my ambitiousness, and quite frankly, my age and race. I wrote about some of this in Fear of a “Black” America. Apparently, at twenty-eight, I needed to be in my mid-40s to write a grand essay on multicultural education. Allegedly, I needed long-retired (and in one case, dying) White scholars to support my arguments, no matter what evidence I brought to bear. I needed, most of all, to stop being so ambitious about my work, and stick to more objective, run-of-mill, 181-variations-on-a-theme topics in the education field. Like what Karl Marx or John Dewey would have to say about ability grouping.

I gave up on academic publishing in 2002, at least on the topic of Black education/history and multiculturalism. I tried to write articles on everything from social justice movements to the fallacies of the liberal-conservative construct, on education, poverty and mythology of American social mobility, even on intersectionality. Only, I had worked so hard to make myself more of a scholarly writer. So much so that I now had to relearn how to write for more than fifteen people, and really, to write for myself. It took about a year to drop the 40, 50, and 60-word compound sentences, the use of inappropriately complex language, and the mask of dispassionate objectivity in my writing. Ironically, this was also when I published my first scholarly piece, on multicultural conservatism and Derrick Bell’s “Rules of Racial Standing,” in 2003. I also published my first solo op-ed, in the Washington Post, around the same time.

By this time, I saw myself as a recovering academic. I also had some unfinished personal business, around how I got to my mid-thirties, to this place in my life where I had “made it,” sort of, but I hadn’t escaped my past. This was where the story of Boy @ The Window took over, and why I have a memoir and nearly ten years of blog posts.

But because of my nonprofit work on college access and retention, two professors invited me and my team to submit a piece for publication in their journal. It was a four-person piece with me as the primary author (I wrote about 90 percent of it, so there’s that). The original invite was in June 2007, and the article came out in mid-October 2009. I had stopped working for the Academy for Educational Development, and found writing the article like a strait-jacket and a time-gobbler.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) and a horse, a moment of truth, screen shot and crop, 2007. (http://chud.com).

After Boy @ The Window in 2013, I decided to write articles for a broader audience again. This time, I made the decision to take my memoir-writing experiences and apply them to my writing. I started writing about K-12 and corporate education reform, the problems in higher education, about racism in the Obama era, about poverty and its connections to race, gender, and current issues. And over the past two years, I’ve published more and reached more people than I could ever have done with an award-winning article in the Journal of American History.

So academia, you win. I give up.