The Sweet Consolation of Suicide

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Sweet-and-sour-chicken, 2011. Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com

Well, not exactly sweet to be thinking about what you have thought about and attempted to act out in the past. In the next few hours, I turn 49, which is to say that I begin year fifty on Planet Earth. “Yay me!,” right?

Not so much this time 35 years ago. My suicidal ideations had gone on in December 1983 for nearly three weeks before my fourteenth birthday, in the aftermath of my fourth mugging in four years. That Tuesday, December 27, at 2:30 pm, coming home from C-Town in Pelham, standing on the parapet of that stone bridge overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway, I had every intention of jumping. I played it out in my head all the different possibilities. At first, it was going to be like the second between taking a deep breath plunging myself underwater and holding my breath while feeling the pressure build up all around my head, eyes, and ears. Except that I imagined a screech, a pop of a hit, and the world turning into stars before I escaped into eternal darkness.

But then, I thought about the plausibility of surviving the 13-foot jump, only to get hit by a car or truck flying down the parkway at 60 or more. Paralyzed, brain-damaged, trapped for days, months, years, decades even, in a body that defied me once again. At this point, my knees were already bent, pretty much ready to push off the stones I stood upon anyway. The possibility of survival and suffering, though, stopped me short of taking that leap. That, and wanting sweet revenge on the stepfather and others who had driven me to this moment.

It’s all in Boy @ The Window. What isn’t in the book is that I couldn’t imagine living past my thirtieth birthday, much less to 49. What isn’t in the book is that I have had other episodes where I either attempted to take my own life via car accident or had suicidal ideations (anywhere between 1982 and 1988, as well as in the late-1990s). This isn’t the same as contemplating my own mortality or considering how much more I may be worth dead than alive (at least I think it isn’t the same, anyway). If someone had put a gun to my head, and asked me why I should keep living, I probably would’ve told them to pull the trigger. I really didn’t have any answers when I got low enough to consider best suicidal practices.

Sure, in the process of working through my own trauma while in progress, I found God, I found Jesus, I read my Bible, I embraced the Holy Spirit. But as the U2 song goes, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” at least not during my Boy @ The Window years, or in the years after my doctorate, or even after a decade in the nonprofit world. Heck, I’m still a work in progress, and not quite sure what’s around the corner for me (although I’m cautiously hopeful, with fingers and toes crossed, and knocking on wood in my mind’s eye as I type this). But a focus on escape isn’t enough. Striving for perfection — including perfect chastity — wasn’t enough. Even writing my fifty-to-100-pages-too-long memoir wasn’t enough.

Two things in the past decade have been enough. One was to admit, and not for the first time, that I controlled nothing, not even my own body, and certainly not all of my thoughts. For a person who’s policed himself as much as I have over the years, this was a hard truth to finally and fully accept, and that was a little more than four years ago. Two was that I needed to let out my thoughts and feelings, no matter how fucked up or how revealing or embarrassing they could be for me. Some of that has worked through this blog and Boy @ The Window. The rest has been as a result of social media, freelance writing, and otherwise remembering that though I may be truly weird, I am also truly human.

Maybe that’s why in the past couple of years I’ve mostly read Black women writers on their trauma and intersectional experiences, between Brittney Cooper, Morgan Jerkins, Roxane Gay, Crystal Fleming, Patricia J. Williams, and a host of others. Maybe that’s why I found more solace in Kiese Laymon’s Heavy than I ever did with any of my history monographs. Maybe this is why I’m convinced that to be a better writer, I had to become an even better reader, and read across genres and disciplines like I never had before. Maybe, too, this is why I as an educator have committed to use a wider variety of materials to reach my students, even if one or two want to only read mainstream history texts and don’t want to engage in “literary analysis.”

I finished Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire two days ago. Despite his stepping out of narrative to preach “Black radical love” at least three too many times, Moore’s book reminded me of what all the other wonderful books I’ve read in the past three years have told me. Share your truth, so that others may see, hear, or react to it. Tell your story, ‘cuz ain’t no one else gonna tell it for ya. Talk about it, if only to yourself, so that you know you’re not crazy. There’s bravery in putting in words your pain, your joy, your sense of the world and sense of self, your need for a higher power (or lack thereof). There’s courage in pointing to your unique sameness relative to humanity, and your need to crystallize the dominance of systemic racism, heteronormative patriarchy, and narcissistic worshipping of dollars and billionaire elitism that is this warped-assed world.

None of this may convince someone from taking their own life. I don’t pretend that I have any specific answers, because I don’t. But many times, living begins with one question, then another, then another. Living for me is about finding the best questions to answer, to turn the embers of what was once a wall of bullshit into a forest fire of questions, for me and others. This world will never give us the right to question it, which is why we who might want to live another day must wrest that right for ourselves, every single day.

Chanukah, Christmas, My Birthdays, and No Gifting Traditions

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A contemporary Candelabrum in the style of a traditional Menorah. United Kingdom, Chanukah service, December 2014. (Gil Dekel; http://www.poeticmind.co.uk; via 39james via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-4.0.

The truth is, the only holiday traditions I have come either from my wife or her family or were born out of my circumstances. Like making super-sweet, two-packs of Fruit Punch Kool-Aid and mixing it with either ginger ale or Sierra Mist for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or getting our son’s Christmas presents ready for him without him knowing the night before. Or me making some holiday/birthday cake for me and us (since my birthday is two days after Christmas). And often going to a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or other venue to give away clothes, toys, money, my time in knowing that no matter how I might feel about my life, plenty others have it much worse.

The truth is also more complicated than simple poverty. Up until my eighth birthday in ’77, my Mom and me and Darren (with either my father or my idiot stepfather) celebrated Darren’s birthday, Christmas and my birthday as separate or nearly separate events. Some of my best times growing up were those days. Then, when the hyperinflation of the late-1970s kicked in — along with a second marriage and two more mouths to feed — Christmases ’78 and ’79 consisted of a fake two-foot table tree, a new shirt or sweater and a new pair of slacks. There were no birthday celebrations for me.

Between Christmas ’80 and Christmas ’88, we didn’t even have the fake dwarf tree. Of course, four of those years we were Hebrew-Israelites. But see, there is this holiday known as Chanukah that also occurs in December, in which Torah believers celebrate the Festival of Lights with eight days of gifts and giving. But these were also the worst of our poverty-stricken years, and we could barely afford one candle for the menorah, much less eight or nine. The best gift I got those years was my idiot stepfather being out the apartment at 616 and on the prowl for other victims for his fast-talking nonsense about making money and living a godly way-of-life. I also attempted suicide on my fourteen birthday, not exactly a tradition worth repeating.

My running away in response to my Mom’s marriage to my stepfather Maurice on Saturday, December 2, 1978 was the start of eight consecutive years without an acknowledgement of my born day (that was part of my punishment for taking $16 in my and my older brother Darren’s savings with me). Even when the drought ended on Friday, December 27, 1985 (my 16th birthday), I had to get my own cake, with my idiot stepfather’s money, a Carvel ice cream cake on a cloudy 15-degree day. That and my father attempting to hook me up with a sex worker in ’86 was how my family reintroduced me to gifts during my last two Decembers before my 18th birthday. This was when and how I decided to celebrate my birthdays by making my own cakes. If I screwed up the cake, at least it was my screwup, and I’d still be able to eat my own screwup! 

But, in December ’89, we had our first Christmas at 616 with my Mom having divorced my now idiot ex-stepfather. She bought a fake full-sized tree. I bought my four younger siblings gifts big and small for the holiday. My mom even made me a Duncan Hines chocolate cake with vanilla icing for my twentieth birthday that year. We didn’t have much, but what we did that year meant so much as we moved into the 1990s.

In all of my adult Christmases, I’ve actually only done two in Pittsburgh. One was Christmas ’98. That week, perhaps the only important tradition I’ve ever been a part of began. I moved in with my then girlfriend Angelia, mostly as a cost-cutting measure, partly out of love and concern for our respective futures. We’ve been living together and celebrating the holidays ever since!

The other one was Christmas ’15, one of the worst Xmases and birthdays I’ve ever had. It included four days of my wife and son not being able to endure my now persistent snoring, even with a divided room. It included a Xmas in one of the most culturally boring-ass White towns in the US (not counting places like Indy, Cincinnati, and Buffalo, which are even more culturally White than the ‘Burgh). It included my 46th birthday-Sunday, one that began with a summer-like rain at 68ºF. The unusually warm and wet weather helped a spark plug in our Honda Element explode out of its cylinder as I started the car so that I could pick up my mother-in-law on the way to her church. The weather then immediately turned cold, as the rainstorm turned into an ice storm and temps dropped to 33 degrees by 4 pm that day. We were stuck in Pittsburgh an additional night, as we got by on Five Guys and The O that evening.

No cake, no celebration, no gifts on my first day of year 47, my first year of middle age. Just like my Hebrew-Israelite years. Someone light a candle for me!

Viewing World AIDS Day From the Cheap Seats

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World AIDS Day 2018 logo, November 30, 2018. (http://hiv.gov).

Today and this weekend mark 30 years since the first World AIDS Day. Unlike three decades ago, I seldom give HIV/AIDS any thought at all. Where did it go? Has anyone actually died from AIDS recently? Do people still have to worry about HIV/AIDS? I know the answers are, nowhere, yes, most definitely, and hell yes, dumb ass.

But 30 years ago, I worried about HIV/AIDS the same way I worried about the Soviet nuclear threat, my Mom still living with my idiot stepfather, and dying if I wasn’t part of some evangelical Christian rapture. I pretty much worried about everything back then. In the context of my heterosexuality and mostly burying it for fear of intimacy, pregnancy, and bodily fluids, though, I worried that with my luck, any sex at all would lead to the STD to beat all STDs.

So when my dad went out of his way to get me a prostitute (we didn’t use the term “sex worker” then, I think) for my seventeenth birthday in December 1986, a young woman I knew to have been a fellow Mount Vernon High School student the year before, I didn’t hesitate to say no. I preferred Jimme calling me “faggat” to doing the equivalent of Spike Lee’s character in School Daze, a form of meat-market sex approaching (but not quite) rape.

I knew, down to my bones, despite the ACT UP crowd of relatively well-off gay White male activists on MTV and elsewhere, despite the dome of Black hypermasculine homophobia found in Mount Vernon and in the city, that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease.” Basic biology would dictate that viruses don’t make left turns based on sexual orientation, class, gender, or race. So, hell yes, I was scared, for quite some time, from the prospect of living with a disease that has killed more than 35 million people worldwide since 1979.

The dangers of sex work, of casual unprotected sex, and of HIV/AIDS were made clear to me on my trip to Pittsburgh in August 1990 to secure what would be my studio apartment living for the next eight and a half years. It started at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 41st on Friday night, August 3. It was going to be my second trip ever on Greyhound, catching the 11 pm red-eye, nonstop bus from Manhattan to downtown Pittsburgh. As the 40 of us stood in line to catch the bus, I saw a woman around my age wandering between the men’s room and the waiting areas, talking to different guys, with one or two jumping out of line for a few minutes.

Port Authority Bus Terminal entrance, New York, NY, October 22, 2015. (Ilana Gold/CBS2; https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/10/22/port-authority-bus-terminal-plan/).

As she drew closer to my line, I recognized her. She was someone I knew to be the cousin of one of my neighbors on the third floor of 616. By then, I also saw a Black guy in his mid or late-twenties, standing near the men’s room, keeping a close eye on her. It was like the cogs of my mind moved in slow motion as it became clear that this person I knew was a sex worker and the guy was her pimp.

A few minutes later, the pimp bellowed, “Five-O! Five-O!.” The all-too-familiar woman took off. She booked out the terminal doors and toward the streets around Times Square. The Port Authority police and two NYPD cops had grabbed the pimp, put him on the ground, handcuffed him, and took him away.

I was so surprised and sad after that, at least as we boarded the bus and weaved our way through New Jersey. I hadn’t seen this woman since 1986 or 1987, when I was a senior in high school. Over the years, she had come over to her cousin’s place to visit, and maybe to stay (at least temporarily). She had mostly teased me about my “White music,” except for Tears for Fears in the summer of 1985 (their “Shout” had been turned into some hip-hop urban mix on WBLS).

She had asked me on more than one occasion, “Do you like girls?” I mostly ignored her, saw her as just another person at 616 and in Mount Vernon who saw me as something to kick around. I didn’t consider her attractive because of how she talked to me, but looking back, she was. At five-seven or five-nine, she was a yellowish-brown skinned woman, with some freckles, a nice smile, shortish hair, and a nice proportionate shape. She could be witty, in a New Yorker’s sarcastic sort of way. But between Wendy, Phyllis, and my march to college, nothing and no one in Mount Vernon could compete for my attention in that way back then.

A week later, I came back from my Pittsburgh trip, on another Greyhound non-stopper, only to realize at 8:30 on Saturday, August 11 that I needed to take a dump. As I’ve said elsewhere, I tried and failed to take one at Grand Central, as the basement restrooms were full of broken toilets, boarded up stalls, and at least one person with obvious signs of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a sign of full-blown AIDS. I don’t know how I managed to hold my shit until I made it back to 616.

I learned from my Mom twelve or thirteen years ago that my former neighbor and teaser had died from AIDS-related complications, leaving two children behind. Even though I didn’t know her very well — didn’t want to know her, really — I was still heartbroken for her and her kids. All I could think was, what an awful life, what an awful way to die! Who’s going to raise her kids?

But really, I couldn’t help but go back to that Friday night in August 1990. I observed from up close, what the limited choices in a world of capitalism, patriarchy, misogynoir, and racism left people like this young woman. I observed, from afar, how this world can make something as destructive as HIV/AIDS a movement for gay White males, and a silent way of killing Black women at the same time.

Thanks, Away From Home

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Thank You — paying it forward, March 3, 2017. (Catlane/iStock; http://digital.vpr.net/)

Yet another Thanksgiving has come and gone. The holiday is problematic for so many reasons, between the erasure, cultural exploitation, and dehumanizing mythology of indigenous Americans and the climate-change-defying national pig-out that begins every late-November Thursday, and continues for weeks afterward, year after year. But the fact that the days off around Thanksgiving gives us worker bees time to spend with family, friends, and those we seriously like and love can’t be ignored.

Sure. At least for those of us who have such people in our lives with whom to share our time off from work, school, and life’s constant treadmill. My American University students reminded me of the allegedly normal ritual of returning home to eat and spend time with family, et al., this past week. Half of them contacted me to let me know they weren’t going to attend the two classes immediately before Thanksgiving, even after learning I wasn’t granting them an excused absence for the holiday week. All so that they could have a few extra days away from the stresses of higher education and the classroom. I envied them, just an iota, if only because they presumably had good reason to spend time with their families and loved ones. I also figured that not everyone in my class was going home to a welcoming environment, or really, going home at all.

“And this time, we didn’t forget the gravy” Looney Tunes “Chow Hound” episode of bullying, greed, and gluttony, originally aired June 16, 1951. (WB; http://tralfaz.blogspot.com/).

That last one was certainly the case for me during my student days. Growing up the way we grew up, in Mount Vernon, at 616, a good Thanksgiving was one where we had a regular meal to eat. Even before the Hebrew-Israelite years of 1981-84, our Thanksgivings weren’t seven-course eat-a-thons. We were lucky if my Uncle Sam came over to eat with us (which after 1978, was pretty rare), and we didn’t spend time around my Mom’s friends once we dived into being Black Jews and fell into grinding welfare poverty.

After I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in August 1987, I only came home to Mount Vernon and 616 one time for Thanksgiving, three months later. My Mom made the biggest Thanksgiving meal I’d seen her make since 1975. I remember mostly the mashed potatoes and gravy. But it wasn’t a family affair, not really. I was home mostly because I had grown used to the well-worn grooves of poverty, abuse, and adult-level responsibilities that had been my life since the fall of 1982. The food, while the first home-cooked meal I’d eaten in three months, was an escape from my normal attempts at escape.

Twelve months later, after six weeks of depression, getting over my Phyllis obsession, a semester of graduate school-like concentration, a summer of unemployment, a week of homelessness, and three months of financial woes and malnourishment, Thanksgiving 1988 had arrived. Between Ron Slater, Beverly, and finally having enough money to not worry about eating or bills for the first time in almost a year, it felt weird, only having gratitude as my companion for a few years.

But life got even weirder for me, as my friend Melissa had invited me to her father’s house for Thanksgiving. This was not a date of any kind, certainly not from my perspective. I think that Melissa sensed how rough my year had been, knew that I wasn’t going home to New York to see family, and did the Christian thing of looking after one’s neighbors. This even though things weren’t exactly great for her and her father at the time. Melissa’s father was an ailing contractor in his early sixties. I really don’t remember much about that Thanksgiving in terms of the food. I think there may have been dinner rolls or candied yams. What I do remember is the two-and-a-half hours I talked with Melissa and her father, about politics, the “Stillers,” Christianity, and Pitt. It was the most thankful holiday I’d ever experienced, and my first Thanksgiving seeing what Thanksgiving was like for family members who enjoyed each other’s company.

It was the first of seven straight Thanksgivings either spent with friends like Melissa, Howard, Kenny, the Gants and their families, or by myself. The “by myself” Thanksgiving was in 1990. It was a cold and rainy day, where I did nothing but watch football, made myself two double cheeseburgers, and found a nearly usable director’s chair outside a vintage furniture gallery in East Liberty. Even then, folks looked out for me. The next day, two of my older Swahili classmates swung by my apartment to bring me Thanksgiving leftovers. They brought me cornbread, dinner rolls, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and stuffing, greens, and candied yams with marshmallows. I had tried to say no, but neither of the women would let me. It was really hard for me not to cry while being thankful for such generosity.

It seems like it’s been a lifetime since those naive and cynical days, where I didn’t trust anyone in my life. The bout with homelessness and the financial straits that followed changed my life in ways that I notice even today. Even with the years of working long hours and fighting for my career as a writer and an educator, I realize that I wouldn’t be here doing any of what I’m able to do today without the kindness of strangers and friends, the ability to weigh, sift, and analyze myself and my past or the sense that God had a purpose for me, a reason for living and being. Even after 30 years, I have this and so much else to be thankful for.

Where Am I Now?

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Mom with my son Noah at 616, August 4, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

This has been a month of months, teaching three classes at two different universities with two very different models for their everyday operations. Not to mention, another Al Jazeera article taking up my time, working on my latest “book” idea, and so many familial and parental events to attend and issues to address. Where did I have the time for all this when I worked full-time in the nonprofit world? Oh yeah, that’s right — I didn’t have the time for all this back then!

But this October’s also been a historic month. Forty years ago, my Mom married my one-time stepfather Maurice Washington. Thirty years ago, I broke free from my Mom’s mantra of practicality and from being first-born son/mama’s boy/younger brother/friend/husband substitute when I changed majors from computer science to history at the University of Pittsburgh. I still feel that becoming a historian has been a mixed blessing over the years. My retirement account and bank account think so as well.

And of course, there’s today, my Mom’s 71st birthday (Happy Birthday, Mom!). I’ve written plenty about Mom on this blog over the years. Lots of what I’ve written has been in the negative, and even eye-opening to me at times. My relationship with Mom has always been complicated, because our respective lives together were hard and horrible, with few moments of joy in between. There were so many moments of boredom, of wishing for a prosperity that never came, along with stacks of violence and threats of violence. Mom was abusive and vain, could be caring and defiant, and was prayerful and profane, all while I was growing up.

So when I say I love Mom, but I don’t like her, I hope it’s something folks can understand, even relate to. Mind you, this isn’t an expectation, because I write often for two people: myself, and that random person one of my posts might help. But in the past few months, on this issue, my friends and Twitter folk have let me down a bit. At least two people I’ve gotten to know pretty well have told me that to discuss my Mom warts and all is a no-go zone. “You can’t be talmabout yo’ mama like that! Hell wrong witchu, boy? That yo’ mama, fool!” Or, the more sophisticated approach: “Your mother is a victim of systemic racism and misgynoir, Donald, so cut her some slack!”

Hmm. It’s funny having folks who otherwise don’t believe in any sacred idols (cows or otherwise) tell me how I should view Mom, as if they were in the same room with me when she beat me with an extension cord at eight years old. Or as if I haven’t spent most of my adult life as a historian and writer involved in understanding human behavior and systems that exploit race, class, gender, sexual orientation in favor of cisgender heterosexual rich White males who feign Christianity as capitalism. Hello! I absolute do get it.

Two things, three things, heck, an infinity of things can be true at the same time, even and especially if they contradict each other. Quantum theory dictates that an electron or some other subatomic particle can be in two places at once and spin in sync with each other at opposite ends of the multiverse. So too it can be true that Mom is a victim of systemic racism, misogynoir, and domestic violence. And it can be equally true that she made some of the most messed up decisions (out of a limited set of choices) a young Black woman with two kids could make in 1978. Including marrying my idiot stepfather, partly in order to “make” me and my older brother Darren “men.”

Folks, if we are to truly understand the people in our lives, we have to grant them the fulness of their humanity. That means acknowledging that the people we love are imperfect, flawed, cracked and broken, maybe even fucked up human beings. That certainly describes me in full, then and now. I think it’s fair to say much of this about Mom as well.

As for whether I love Mom or not, whether I should ever discuss Mom in terms of my growing-up and adulthood times with her or not, it’s really not for anyone to approve or disapprove. After all, so many of you flaunt your wonderful and great relationships with your moms. It’s so sweet and syrupy and sugary and sticky that it’s almost disgusting. How your mama’s your best friend. How folks best be keepin’ your mama’s name outta their mouths before you get ready to throw down. About the oceans of support and love your mamas deluged you with from the moment of conception to this very nanosecond. It’s a truly wonderful thing. I don’t question it, I nearly always applaud it. I also lament it, because even when I thought I had that kind of relationship with Mom, it was in my head, not in reality. That truth hit me harder than a bullet train on its way to Kyoto running at full speed on my PhD graduation day.

And I do love Mom. I do. At times, she did the absolute best she could. Early on, she did tell me she loved me, ever so often. She never wanted the world of racism and evil to hurt me or leave me dead. I’ve long forgiven her for her vanity, her imperfections, and her many, many tragic mistakes as a parent. (Trust me, as a father, I’ve made my own mistakes, but I’ve made a point of always owning up to them.) But I am not God, and with this long memory of mine — usually but not always a blessing — I cannot forget everything that happened on Mom’s watch. Nor can I forget the denials of such from her throughout most of my adult life.

So where am I now? In a state of constant awkwardness on the subject of Mom, especially around her birthday. It’s really difficult to find a birthday card that says “I love you” but doesn’t go into “You’re the greatest, Mom!” or “You’re the reason for every good thing that’s happened in my life” mode. So folks, please just grant me my truth. Just listen without denial, deflection, defense, justification, or excuse. And I’ll promise to keep my envy of your love-enveloping relationship with yo’ moms to a minimum.

The Journey of My Red Towel, 30 Years in the Making

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My red beach bath towel (and EKCO knife), still around after three decades, September 9, 2018. (Donald Earl Collins).

There are so many things I could think about regarding my cosmic jump into independent adulthood in the fall of 1988. The five days of homelessness, almost ending college for me right at the start of my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh. The nearly three months of financial crises that followed, including six weeks of giving plasma to Sera-Tec for an extra $25 per week (it left a scar in my right elbow-bend vein that most medical professionals interpreted as me having been a drug user — talk about racism and assumptions!). The end of my eating things like tuna fish sandwiches and pork neck bones and rice, and drinking grape Kool-Aid. My changing my major from computer science to history, to my mom’s disapproval.

But another way to look at my journey would be to look at the two items in my life that survived that fall. A red beach bath towel, and an EKCO steak knife. The towel I bought on Labor Day 1988, after my Mets beat the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. Darryl Strawberry hit two home runs that game, after a thirty-minute rain delay, in which the upper deck folks dumped beers on some of us (not me, though) in one of the mezzanine sections behind the wall in left center field.

I had walked the four miles or so between where I lived in South Oakland (off Bayard Street and Welsford Avenue) to the stadium, getting rained on along the way. On my way back, I noticed the Downtown Kauffman’s was still open for its Labor Day sale. I went in and walked around for twenty minutes, mostly to longingly look at all the things I couldn’t afford. But I did know to go into the baths section, and saw that the beach towels were on sale for $17.99.

I thought about buying a wash cloth, but after rent and the game, I only had  $50 on me at the time, and no bank account or credit cards. I thought about buying an “in-between wash cloth,” which was what I called hand towels back then (I thought they were bigger towels for people with bigger hands, like me!). It would be a few days before I got my refund money from Pitt, but I knew I was in need of a shower after the homelessness ordeal and the Pirates game.

I bought the towel, and spend the rest of the fall using it for everything. Especially after that second Friday in September, when Pitt, after deducting nearly $900 of my refund for last year’s room and board charges. After accounting for my books, I had $205 left to work with for at least the next two months.

So I budgeted down to the penny. After I cashed my refund at Pittsburgh National Bank, I went downtown to Ralph’s Discount Store, across from Kauffman’s. I bought a Sony Walkman on sale for $55, the most I’d spend on anything other than rent for the next two and a half months. I then caught a bus back to Oakland, and went to the South Oakland Giant Eagle (yes, post-millennials, South Oakland used to have its own Giant Eagle, on Forbes Avenue, where CVS and Jimmy Johns are today). That’s where I bought an orange creamsicle plastic plate, a soup spoon, a dinner fork, and that EKCO steak knife, for something like eight or nine dollars. That would have to do.

Closeup of my red towel, September 9, 2018. (Donald Earl Collins

My red towel did the work of two tea towels, a wash cloth, a hand towel, a half roll of paper towels, and a dozen napkins every week through the end of 1988. I’d shower with it, of course. But I also used a corner of it for washing up. If I made a heavy dinner, like spaghetti and meat sauce (with a pot and iron skillet I saved from my freshman year), I used the towel to dry my pot, pan, dish, and utensils. It was my go-to for everything. I had to wash it every week, because how I was using the towel back then was nothing short of disgusting.

I finally bought two wash cloths and a hand towel in 1989. But the red towel remained my one and only bathing towel. I didn’t buy a second one until the summer of 1994.

After that, my reliance on old reliable declined. Once I moved in with my eventual wife at the end of 1998, my red towel became part of a rotation. It still had enough heft to be reasonably good at drying me off from a shower. It had shrunk a bit from its original 30″ x 54″ size, though. By now, I would have gotten rid of it. But my red towel reminded me so much of what I had overcome. It was my tangible link to an unbelievably shaky past.

My red towel got more use when my son hit school age in 2008. For the next nine years, Noah would use the towel for showers and baths. A “Made in the U.S.A.” towel manufactured during Reagan’s last year in office was still in use in the age of Obama, and my son, born in the early 2000s, was the one using it! Life is funny.

Now sad and worn to the thickness of cheesecloth, part of me knows the red towel is no longer of any use. I mean, I still use the EKCO knife, mostly for cleaning and cutting up chicken. I’m not sure the red towel could dry the baby version of Noah anymore. But it doesn’t matter. Because it was there for me when I needed it the most.

Black Women, Feminism, and Writing on My Mind

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“This is what a Black Feminist looks like” t-shirt, August 24, 2018. (http://youtube.com).

It’s been a different last year and a half for me as a reader. With the exception of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, a woman of color has been the author of every book I’ve read since January 2017. Keep in mind, Cora is the main character in Whitehead’s latest masterpiece, so it’s been since Walter Mosley’s last Leonid McGill mystery that I’ve read a book with a Black man as a protagonist.

This wasn’t a deliberate decision, at least at first. It started with me catching up on law professor Patricia J. Williams‘ critical race theory works from the 1990s, especially The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1992). I fell in love with the book, and found it in so many ways better than anything I’ve ever read from Derrick Bell. Williams is simply a better writer and storyteller, even as Bell hit all the right notes in his incredible allegories. Both have informed my Al Jazeera and Washington Post articles over the past year.

Then I started reading Roxane Gay at the end of last summer. I was going to do both Bad Feminist and Hunger, but after reading through the first chapters of Hunger, my wife ended up reading it and telling me about it in detail. I did the same for her with Bad Feminist. There was quite a bit of overlap on the personal side of things from both books. But boy can Gay write, and edit, and edit, and edit some more! Every word she must’ve put through an acid test, quenched in cold water like a samurai sword, then reheated, cooled, and polished for months on end. In recent years, only Whitehead and Kiese Laymon have polished sentences the way Gay does in her books. I felt her hurt, disappointment, anger, laughter, and intellect throughout. After reading it, even in places where I disagreed, I felt like Gay left me with so much to chew on as a sexist feminist heterosexual Black man.

I picked up Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage in May. It was after reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in early 2018. Cottom’s book is so important, especially in understanding that higher education is far from some idealistic and lofty intellectual enterprise. It is lightly regulated capitalism, plain and simple, and not just among the for-profits, either (more on this at some future date). Cottom makes a generous use of rational-choice theory in her assessment of the limited range of decisions poor Black men and especially African American women living with poverty have in choosing for-profits for certificates and degrees, and for borrowing tens of thousands of dollars.

The book shines when Cottom touches on the journeys of the students she interviewed as part of her research. But like most scholars, Cottom’s writing didn’t bridge the divide between important work and compelling writing. I’m sure that this is an unfair assessment. But given the importance of Cottom’s sociology of education work and the stories involved in it, I wanted more direct interrogation of the systemic sexism and misogyny (even misogynoir) embedded in the enrollment practices of for-profit colleges and universities. I wanted more of Cottom’s personal journey (and not just her professional one). I’m sure, though, that Cottom gave her best, and it was more than what I could typically get out of text genuinely attempting to move beyond the academic’s gaze.

Adichie’s work was disappointing. Not because Americanah isn’t reasonably well written. It’s just too long, too centered on Ifemelu (about ninety percent of the book is from her perspective, when the blurbs make it seem a bit more even between Ifemelu and Obinze), and too self-centered, smug, and elitist. I felt all of the meanings of outsider embedded in Americanah to be sure. As a American Black man, I’ve been an outsider even among other heterosexual Black males most of my life. Adichie doesn’t allow for her main character to interrogate her outsider status, though. As a result, Ifemelu related to her American boyfriends in the most superficial of ways, as if they were perfect robotic representations of neurotic Americans. She related to the world as if she was somehow above it all, both in the US and Nigerian contexts. I guess heterosexism was as acceptable in Ifemelu’s world as it has been in Adichie’s comments in the past couple of years. I must admit, though. Adichie can write sex scenes and scenes of trauma in emotionally demanding and touching ways. But not with the precision of Whitehead and Gay, and not with the intellectual awareness of Cottom.

So when I picked up Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, I was expecting to be fighting with myself over boredom and a glut of words. I was so happy to be so wrong! Right from the first paragraph, Cooper was throwing fastball’s like Nolan Ryan and Vida Blue, or rather, hitting first-serve aces like Serena and Venus Williams. Cooper had me at “[t]his is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up.” She welcomed me in and said, “hit this 130 mph serve, brotha!” I couldn’t stop reading until I finished the book. I understood so much the struggles she described and the choices she and others made as Black women. I felt her pain, her joy, her anger, and yes, her rage throughout. I regularly interrogate my -isms as is. But Cooper helped me reach another level in Eloquent Rage (all premature hints at Beyoncé’s superhero feminism aside).

After Cooper, I made the deliberate decision to read more feminists of color this summer. I read Morgan Jerkins‘ This Will Be My Undoing and found her a wonderful writer on her coming of age with her own Black feminism, if a bit too young (I am middle-aged, after all). I finally read Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens and wanted to beat up every man she and the women she interviewed encountered over the years. It was compelling (if at times uneven) reading, and it left everything in question regarding the West, Islam, the Arab world and misogyny. There were no sacred cows with Eltahawy. She even addressed her relative privilege in addressing the latticework of gender, LGBT, and sexual oppression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US, and elsewhere in the world. I wish I had gotten to her book three years ago, when it first came out.

I snuck in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book on Ona Judge, Never Caught. I’d been wanting to read it since I heard Dunbar talk about it on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmandi Show Valentine’s Day 2017. Plus, I decided to assign it for my upcoming African American History to 1877 this semester at American University. Dunbar puts the use of narrative nonfiction writing to the test in Never Caught. I can only imagine what my academic historian colleagues would think, as most of their writing is the equivalent of a pressed protein bar made of unflavored soy powder and coated with ground mealworms. Although Dunbar provides many more questions than answers around the inner thoughts and everyday actions of George and Martha Washington eventual escaped slave, I did sense that Dunbar was converting research into a form of textual humanity. So much so that when the moment for Judge to escape came, I said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Dunbar compelled me not to be too excited, though. For “Judge knew that…She would transform from a trusted house slave for the most powerful American family to a criminal, guilty of stealing her own body away from her owners.” (p. 112).

Embedded in Dunbar’s narration are the issues I’d been reading about for the past year. Misogyny, misogynoir, enslavement, rights to one’s own body, intersectionality, American history and its mythologies, and the long legacy of American racism, still very much alive in 2018, as it was in 1789 and 1796. To be sure, Dunbar lacks Gay’s precision, and the passion found everywhere with Cooper and Eltahawy is more subdued in Dunbar’s work. But the latter is only true if readers choose to ignore the smoldering billows throughout.

I finished up this month with Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race, a primer on basic do’s, don’ts, and don’t-give-ups, regarding starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism in an American context. After the previous reads, I hoped for more, but there wasn’t any more for me to mine as a reader. There were several points, though, where a more careful edit would have made this a clearer read. As a blogger for the past eleven years, I have no room to talk regarding editing. Then again, I presently do not have an agent or editors looking over my work, either.

My biggest criticism (which actually isn’t a criticism) is that the book is geared toward the White man or White woman who believes themselves to be a liberal, colorblind non-racist. Because this is Oluo’s stated intent, her book reads as if I’m an outsider to my own topic. The compelling personal issues with which Oluo contends around race and intersectionality (specifically, Black feminism and relative privilege) aren’t well treated until the last quarter of the book. As someone who once help manage a national social justice fellowship program, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything particularly new about starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism. I hoped, though, to learn more about Oluo, to find her writing more impassioned, to see her use real punch in bringing to bear the reasons that race conversations quickly devolve into White accusations of “reverse racism.” The elements are there, but weren’t mined in sufficient quantities to make this book more than a “Race/Racism Conversations for Dummies,” I’m afraid, for me.

That’s not to say that nothing resonated at all. Oluo early on hits at a theme common to everyone I’ve read over the past eighteen months. That need to find one’s true, authentic voice. Those moments when the people you know now find your writer’s voice too loud, too demanding, and too impractical.

I also started writing. I…started saying all the things that everybody around me had always said were ‘too negative,’ ‘too abrasive,’ and ‘too confrontational.’ It did not go over well. My white friends…some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck. Yes, they would rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country.

I’ve found this and so much more to be true in my own writing journey. Thanks to all of you who’ve helped make me feel younger, my feminism fresher, and confirmed so much I’ve found wrong (and right) with myself and the world.