On the Levi Brothers and Trump-esque People

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Darth Sidious, Star Wars VI (The Return of the Jedi) screen shot, 1983/1997. (LusoEditor via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and subject matter.

There are a plethora of people to pick from in making comparisons between President 45 and examples of narcissistic evil operating in positions of leadership. Andrew Jackson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, 45’s hero Vladimir Putin, Jacob Zuma, and Recep Erdoğan all have served as examples in op-eds and other articles over the past couple of years. And these are all potentially good picks. Mercurial, vengeful, and even erratic actions, combined with dehumanizing speeches and screeds, all characterize this cabal of soft despots and fascist dictators, and match 45 well.

But the level of ostentatious stupidity that 45 has exhibited as President and a presidential candidate has made think of people closer to home. After all, 45 has always been a New Yorker, a crass rich White guy who has spent his entire adult life attempting to make himself look even more wealthy and powerful than his relative position in elite circles would’ve otherwise justified. He’s also always seen himself as the most important person in the room, maybe in the world. So much so that he has also seen himself as the smartest person in any context, even as everything 45 has touched has been tarnished or turned to shit by his callous, narcissistic stupidity.

In totality, this could describe any upper-crust New Yorker I encountered growing up looking to own more, buy more, be more than they already were. But in light of all things 45, I am thinking of two folks from my teenage years, the Levi brothers. They owned cleaners in Midtown Manhattan and ran a building-cleaning company, and my father worked for them all through the 1980s. The Levi brothers were two of a kind, some of the most flashy people with wealth that I would ever meet.

As I described them in Boy @ The Window

I can confirm with absolute certainty that the Levi brothers wore not-so-thin gold chains. I can also remember how uneasy my encounters with them made me feel. It wasn’t just the fact that they often questioned my intelligence. For nearly all of the years my father worked for the Levi brothers, they paid him under the table. They enabled his alcoholism, in exchange for $500 a week, for eighteen years. No retirement plan, no raises, no sick or annual leave, no unemployment insurance, in exchange for no child support payments and no tax payments. A Faustian deal if there ever was one.

King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken screen shot. (http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/).

That my father knew who Paul Milstein was — the late real estate mogul for whom a program within the Columbia Business School is named — is amazing to consider in hindsight. It meant that he was privy to many conversations between the Levi brothers about their master plan for generational wealth. It meant that the Levi brothers believed themselves to be kings, or at least princes, of New York. But only because they cut corners in their shops and business, and looked for ways to literally get rid of their competition. Things that would later lead to alleged criminal activities and the loss of their businesses.

If I could interview them in their mid-1980s milieu now, I would’ve ask them, “Who were you trying to emulate, John Gotti?” But given those Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous times, I suspect the person the Levi brothers were most trying to ape was Donald Trump. Only, 45 came from more money, and wanted to do more than corner the market on cleaners and cleaning contracts for Manhattan high-rises. Beyond the differences in a couple of zeros, the braggadocio, the seeing of people not like them as “others” or “not human,” the need to show the world their wealth, their stunning stupidity in their attempts to monopolize their market. It’s as typical a New York story as I ever got the chance to see. And with 45, I get to see it again, this time on a massive scale, a crash-and-burn that the universe of intelligent beings won’t be able to ignore.

I’ve Been Blogging For a Decade, And…

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Me comatose on my MacBook keyboard, March 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

This was what I wrote for my first blog post on my former Fear of a “Black” America website on Monday, June 4, 2007.

It had taken me a month of brushing up on my HTML and a week of negotiating the code between Blogger.com and my former website (hosted by Earthlink) to embed my blog page. All so that I could post for the first time.

I was transitioning from being the writer and “recovering academician” on multiculturalism to the writer I am now, I guess. But I didn’t want to lose a website I’d spent months of self-taught HTML time and energy developing, and years of additions to attract views, comments, and the occasional interview. At the time, FearofaBlackAmerica.com averaged 1,200 unique visitors a month, after a high of 4,000 per month through 2004 and 2005, mostly the result of pumping my first book. Or possibly, the confusion between my book title and PE’s 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet, but given the feedback, it was much more the former than the latter.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. (http://irvine.wikis.gdc.georgetown.edu). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screenshot’s low resolution.

So I went for it, not knowing if anyone would read any of my words, feel any of my emotions, or ever express a thought in support, solidarity, or disagreement. Once I started writing about poverty, racism, and child abuse while growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, though, it didn’t take long for random folks to start sending me missives about how I “deserved” my stepfather beating me up, or how grateful I should be for growing up in a city where Denzel Washington once lived. The kind of respectability politics bullshit that writing about a childhood full of pain tends to attract.

It wasn’t until I moved my blog to WordPress in 2010 that the work of writing and adding multimedia to my musings really took off. It helped that I managed to use contemporary events to tell my story, to provide commentary on human depravity beyond the world of research. By 2012, I was averaging more than 12,000 views a month, and had more comments from folks about my blogs than I could respond to in a timely manner. Excerpts from some of my blogs even made it into social and mainstream media.

Overall, there have been over 250,000 unique visitors to and 300,000 views of my blog off both the Blogger and WordPress platforms over the past decade. With this one, I’ve written 944 total posts, about 900,000 words since June 2007. Among my most popular are

Standing ovation, opera house unknown, May 21, 2012.(http://www.thelmagazine.com).

I think that this is a good representation of what my blog has offered me as a writer and, hopefully, the tens of thousands of folks who read my musings every year. I have no idea what this blog will turn into over the next couple of years, as I continue to pursue more and more freelance writing projects, and maybe even, another book. But I thank all of you for your support, your criticisms, and your reads and views over the years. May I never take this for granted.

Prom Toking

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

I can say with absolute honesty that I have never rolled, smelled, or smoked a joint. No weed, not ever, as I approach my late forties. I have, however, gotten a contact high on at least a dozen occasions, over the past thirty years. Heck, I’ve probably been high a few times off of burnt oregano and gasoline fumes, as infrequently as I’ve exposed myself to endorphin catalysts in my life.

My first contact high happened in the vestibule of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, on the night of my senior prom, the third Thursday in May ’87. As with all things in my life at seventeen, this was unexpected, uncomfortable, and underappreciated on my part. I had just called to find out when the limousine was coming to pick me up before swinging across town to pick up the other four people with whom I was to ride. I had done myself up as well as my sinewy bean-pole ass could. With my father’s funds, I rented a well-fitting tux with a white shirt and peach cummerbund. I’d bought my friendly date Dara a white carnation, matching the once pinned on my tux jacket. My idiot stepfather tied my peach bow-tie. Unusual for me, I lotioned myself from head to toe, greased my hair down, and otherwise made sure I smelled as clean as a Carolina pine forest. Not that I usually smelled bad, but I couldn’t look like a po’ boy tonight.

It was almost 6:30 pm before I walked downstairs to wait for the limo. Right on the steps leading into the vestibule were my C-building neighbors and two guys I didn’t recognize. They were all smoking joints, and the smoke had filled a good portion of the semi-enclosed lobby leading to the front doors. My elementary school classmate Valerie was in this group, across the lap of one of the unknown young men, all as he felt up Valerie’s ass like it was his own. Part of her thong underwear was visible, as Valerie’s boyfriend gave one of her butt cheeks a good slap while she giggled. Her brother Ernie was also there, fully blazed up, apparently without a care in the world. I don’t think he went by Ernie by ’87, though. He was a low-level drug dealer at this point, and had bulked up a bit over the previous couple of years, to protect himself in his line of work, I guessed.

Screen shot from video, Mako, “Smoke Filled Room” (2015). (http://beautifulbuzzz.com).

Ernie asked me if I wanted a puff. I said, “Naw, man, I’m fine.” Him and his sister and crew just laughed like I told the funniest joke. But I knew why they were laughing. In the half-minute or so of standing around waiting for the limo, I was already high. So much so that I didn’t sound like the proper English-speaking teen I often was in public. I sounded like one of them, in slow motion even to me. A full hydro hit would’ve left me ready to do anything else other than go to the prom.

The limo arrived, and not a moment too soon. Even though I’d been in the lobby and vestibule less than two minutes, even I could smell that the weed was a bit stronger than my deodorant, lotion, and cologne combined. The one guy already in the limo with me asked if I was “okay.” I knew what he meant. “I just have a contact high, that’s all,” I responded.

I would’ve hated to admit this thirty years ago, but I needed to be a little high and a little more relaxed, and not just that prom night. It actually helped to be under the influence, even though the contact high only lasted for thirty or forty minutes. By that time, I had noticed that the non-alcoholic drinks in the back of our limo were alcoholic. My date and a couple of the guys, after they became little buzzed, asked me how I knew. I said, maybe for the first time in public, that, “I know from experience. My father’s an alcoholic.”

White Castle, 550 East Fordham Road, Bronx, NY, circa 2015. (http://zomato.com).

In between, me, my date Dara, classmates Allison and Gina, and two MVHS upperclassmen now in college, went to White Plains for the prom dinner and dance, then to Midtown for Copacabana on West 34th, and somewhere around 2 am, for the White Castle on Fordham Road in the Bronx. I didn’t get home until 3 am.

I went to the prom mostly because I didn’t want to look back at my time in high school years later and feel regret about not attending. But the fact is, other than a feigned attempt at social protest during the prom dinner, there was little particularly memorable about the event. Not the rubber chicken or overcooked salmon. Not the music or the overextended small talk. Nor should I have gone on a friendly date to the prom. I should’ve either found someone I did like to go out with, and months earlier, gone in solo, or not gone at all.

But really, the main event for me prom night occurred in the two minutes before I walked out to get into the limo. I didn’t want to smoke weed, feel up a one-time classmate, or risk years of imprisonment in New York State. But even in the midst of a living hell, sometimes it’s best to relax a little. I have five 616 folks to thank for that reminder.

The #45 Mix Tape

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Then candidate 45 hugging US flag at campaign rally (remember, he’s the anti-Midas, everything he touches turns to crap), Tampa, FL, June 11, 2016. (Chris O’Meara/AP, Times Free Press).

I’m changing it up a bit this weekend. With so much focus on the apocalypse that is 45 and his band of greedy, racist, misogynistic, Islamophobia, and Russia-helping yes-men, I have something goofy and meaningful to say. There are already several comprehensive syllabi on Donald J. Trump out, though, so adding my scholarly musings and sources to this almost inexhaustible topic would be a futile exercise. Instead, I have a mix tape (sort of), one that highlights the changes in my music tastes over time and a group of songs that I mostly despise. Just like I loath most of America’s knee-jerk arguments over 45 and his minions from the past two years.

1. “Little Lies” (Fleetwood Mac, 1987). From their Tango In The Night album. Christine McVie sounds like a shot dog on this song (and Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t sound much better). But this was a Top-5 hit on Billboard in 1987, around the same time Trump was likely being turned by Vladimir Putin and the KGB in the former USSR. And, the song’s theme is pretty obvious.

2. “Live to Tell” (Madonna, 1986). Not exactly my favorite artist, but a one-time favorite song from the one-time “Material Girl” for me three decades ago. After several sources quoting the deposed Michael Flynn, “he has a story to tell,” I remembered Madonna’s lyrics, “I have a tale to tell.” Come to think of it, doesn’t Jared Kushner have a tale to tell about his and 45’s “thousand lies?”

3. “Spies Like Us” (Paul McCartney, 1985-86). Proof positive that Baby Boomers will vote for anything, this piece of poop was a Top-10 hit in January 1986. It’s also emblematic of the theme of ineptitude and macabre humor that runs through the song, representing the movie by the same title, and Flynn, Kushner, Carter Page, Roger Stone, and the rest of the monolithic bloc of 45’s White men.

4. “Russians” (Sting, 1985-86). Why? Because Russians (maybe with the exception of Josef Stalin and Putin) “love their children too” — didn’t you know? But they love messing with our corrupt democracy even more.

5. “Oops!…I Did It Again” (Britney Spears, 2000). God, I have no idea why anyone would’ve ever liked this zit-popper. But the then-eighteen-year-old Spears was prescient with the line “I’m not that innocent.” Neither is 45. He made be a narcissistic buffoon who can’t put two coherent sentences together with a pen, two pieces of paper, Scotch tape, and a flashlight. But he knows where his money’s coming from, no?

6. “Just A Friend” (really, “Jus’ a Friend,” Biz Markie, 1989-90). Same theme as Britney Spears’, with a twist of crossover appeal, a ridiculous baroque get-up, and off-key singing that could only be topped by NBA Hall-of-Famer (and internalized racist) Charles Barkley. But it captures perfectly the love affair between ditto-headed supremacist Americans and 45 (it doesn’t go the other way, of course).

7. “White, Discussion” (Live, 1994). A bit of my favorite grunge, which I have used before. It applies to the folks, the so-called American liberals ready to blame non-voters, third-party voters, and Trump supporters for the rise of 45. Still, many of them are to blame also, because most of them aren’t liberal. If you supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 based on principles, and not out of pragmatism, you are not a liberal, and have been voting in center-right candidates for decades. As the song goes, “look where all this talking got us, baby.”

8. “Stranger In Moscow” (Michael Jackson, 1996-97). Jackson’s introspective song applies here as well, because, well, he uses Russia and the theme of isolation throughout. Except in 45’s case, he likes it that way. And apparently, so does Russia.

9. “Lies” (En Vogue, 1990). Trust me, it fits! (s/o to Dawn Robinson).

10. “Thug Paradise” (Capone-N-Noreaga/Tragedy Khadafi, 1997). The lyrics below say it all:

I twist the truth, I rule the world, my crown is called deceit
I am the emperor of lies, you grovel at my feet
I rob you and I slaughter you, your downfall is my gain
And still you play the sycophant and revel in my pain
And all my promises are lies, all my love is hate
I am the politician, and I decide your fate

Supporters and sycophants beware: 45 is coming for you, in a steamroller with a 700-horsepower engine going one hundred.

11. “Fake Love” (Drake, 2017). I’m a Aubrey Graham fan. I can’t stand Drake. Still, this release from More Life should be required listening from 45 supporters who think they’re not racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, or narcissistic. He also has a song on this album titled “Portland,” though I seriously doubt he was thinking about this weekend or Richard Collins III.

12. “Waterfalls” (TLC, 1995). Yep, yep, yep. Both 45 and MAGA-types have been chasing illusory rainbows and torrents off jagged edges, and damning everyone who they perceive as a threat along the way. And they’re both on a one-way trip.

13. “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” (Glass Tiger, 1986). This is the song 45 should play whenever he finally leaves office, whether by resignation, impeachment, and/or force. As everything 45 touches turns into crap, Glass Tiger’s Top-10 schlock cannot be made any worse. Plus, not even Glass Tiger would complain about 45 using their crappy music.

14. (Bonus Track) “No Bravery” (James Blunt, 2006). 45 is part of a continuum, one that stretches through all of American history. On the international stage, though, it has been one of constant chest-thumping while killing innocents in the name of freedom or national security. Though Blunt’s was about fighting for the UK, the song has much more applicability in the US. We have so much blood on our hands, and 45 means to add to this fetid river on the domestic and international frThe #45 Mix Tapeonts.

If I Could Redo Time…

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Show art from SyFy’s 12 Monkeys (the home of alternative timelines), March 2016. (http://syfy.com).

Mother’s Day Week 1997 was one of triumph, betrayal, and deep self-reflection, helping to shape my last two decades. On that fateful Sunday, I finished preparing my transparencies for the overhead projector that I would need to use for my job talk on multiculturalism, race, and education at Teachers College the next day. My then-girlfriend Angelia came over around 1 pm, helped me pack as we talked about the job, my research, her missing me for the next few days, and my wishing I could take her with me to New York. Then we called a cab, went out to Pittsburgh International Airport, and I boarded my 6 pm flight bound for La Guardia.

The next day, that second Monday in May 1997, went well despite barely six hours of sleep (a typical night for me now). I met with Teachers College faculty, graduate students, a department chair, an assistant dean, and the dean. I gave my all-important job talk, fielded questions, and otherwise felt that I brought my heat in this potentially life-changing interview. By 4 pm, it was over, I was exhausted, but I was more than content. I figured I made myself a tough out at worst, and gave myself a real chance at this assistant professor job at best.

I spent the night in Manhattan at the Hotel Beacon, and ordered room service, instead of going out to Barnes & Noble or Tower Records. I had to rest up before going to see my family at their temporary apartment in Yonkers. Refreshed and with my old blank-faced-Donald mask on, I checked out and took the 1 train up to Van Cortlandt, then the Bee-Line bus into Yonkers, where my Mom and younger siblings had been living for a year and a half.

My sister Sarai (1983-2010) in Mom’s cap-and-gown, May 14, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).

Tuesday was Mom’s graduation day from Westchester Business Institute. After ten years of on-and-off-again enrollment, Mom had finished her associate’s degree in accounting. I was really happy for her. That day from 10 am on was about getting Mom and Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri cleaned up and ready for the long bus trip up Broadway to White Plains, Westchester County Center, and hundreds of other WBI graduates. Of all of us, I think my sister Sarai had the best time. After Mom tossed her cap in the air (and caught it), Sarai begged to put on Mom’s graduation digs. My fourteen-year-old sister walked around for the rest of the night as if she had graduated from college!

Wednesday was a difficult day. I had a noon-ish flight to catch out of La Guardia back to the ‘Burgh, as my own PhD graduation was four days away. Though Mom and I agreed that I didn’t have the funds to fly her out and put her up in Pittsburgh, I didn’t agree that my teenager siblings (all between nearly eighteen and thirteen at this point) couldn’t watch over themselves for two or three days. “Are you kiddin’?,” Mom said when I suggested this, and added, “the kids would tear this mutha up while I’m gone.”

But then, as I was getting packed up to do the Bee-Line Bus, 1 train to Times Square, Shuttle to Grand Central, and cab to LGA, Mom said something that made me happy we decided she wouldn’t be at my graduation. “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” The scorn with which she said it, it was like someone suddenly stabbed me in the stomach. It was the first time I truly saw Mom’s vanity, possibly even, her jealousy. After I said my goodbyes, promising my brother Maurice that I’d come to his Mount Vernon High School graduation in June, Mom’s sentence of sneering envy was all I thought about on the trip back.

“Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t invite your mom,” Angelia said after I told her about Mom and her brooding behavior Wednesday evening. “But, this means she will have never seen me at any graduation, seen where I’ve lived the past ten years, seen how hard I worked,” I cried. Angelia got up from her dining room table, walked around to my side, sat in my lap, and gave me a hug. I’m so glad she didn’t let go, and let me cry myself out on her shoulder and chest for a few minutes.

I woke up in Angelia’s bed Thursday morning, having slept past 9 am. It was the most sleep I’d had in five days. I was remarkably refreshed. I rarely stayed over at Angelia’s because the back of her third-floor flat was practically an urban wildlife reserve, between the raccoons, squirrels, pigeons, cardinals, blue jays, rabbits, and the occasional deer. Not this morning. They seemed to know I needed not to hear them that morning.

The next three days were a blur. I ran around Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and Pitt saying formal goodbyes to a few colleagues and former professors, something I wouldn’t have had time for if Mom had been in Pittsburgh with me. Angelia and I spend most of Saturday with her mommy, and then with my friend Laurell, Laurell’s sister Naomi, and their charge Archie. It would be the only time anyone from my Humanities days would witness me graduate with one of my Pittsburgh degrees.

That Sunday, May 18, was going to be a scorcher of a day. I was to be on stage as part of the tent-revival-as-graduation ceremony at CMU (as they did for all the PhD graduates). But there was no way I’d wear a full suit. So I compromised. I put on a shirt and tie under my gown, wore my baggy basketball shorts for bottoms, and put on shoes and dress socks to complete this goofy yet comfortable picture. I marched across the stage and shook Peter Stearns‘ hand, as he was the dean of humanities and social sciences at CMU then. Too bad I didn’t say what I thought about his fast food approach to teaching and learning to him in that moment.

But, after that first ceremony, the individual and group pictures, a bunch of folks had to leave. Laurell, Naomi, and Archie had to get back to Virginia for yet another week of school — that’s what happens between two school teachers and an eighth-grader for graduation attendees. My friends Ed and James had errands to run, and Angelia’s mom had some church-related affairs to get to. So, for the moment, it was just me and Angelia, walking from CMU to The University Club, by Pitt’s Thackeray Hall.

We get there, in this quiet room, with seven burgundy diploma holders, sitting on a table that staff had covered in this dark blue velvet cloth. My now former advisor, Joe Trotter, arrived a few minutes later. I’d only seen him once in the six months since he finally approved my dissertation, ending what had been a two-year ordeal of betrayal, slights, and threats while writing my 505-page tome. Yet, all I was thinking was, “Why are we doing the departmental ceremony in a building in the middle of Pitt’s campus?”

CMU leather diploma album, May 17, 2017. (Donald Earl Collins).

Steve Schlossman, the history department chair, was this ceremony’s emcee. He introduced each of us, our research, any awards we may have won, and our dissertation advisors, all as he handed us our doctorates. I was second on the list to go up and receive my diploma, shake hands with Schlossman and Trotter. I did say a few words, mostly about hard work and perseverance. “With God and faith, and of course, my girlfriend Angelia, even though that word ‘girlfriend’ hardly defines who you are to me, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. Thank you.” That was how I ended my three-and-a-half minute speech.

There was a small reception afterward, and like most CMU ceremonies I’d been a part of since 1993, this one was nearly blindly boring. Except that my friend James did show up and gave me a pat on the back and a handshake. Except that my dear friend and mentor Barbara Lazarus came and gave me a big hug. Except that Angelia had insisted on taking pictures of me from the time I got up to get my degree until the moment we left.

We were out around 6:30 pm. It had rained and poured, as thunderstorms had rolled through during the second ceremony. I wish Mom could’ve been there, seen what I had seen, felt what I was feeling. But, knowing what I knew now, the personal triumph that this graduation day was couldn’t be diminished. I had long since stopped living for what Mom wanted me to be — a sounding board, a babysitter, an extra source of income. For the first time, I no longer felt guilt about not going back to New York after my undergraduate years at Pitt, ready to bail my family out of poverty on a $25,000-a-year salary. For the first time, I realize Mom’s burdens were never mine to carry.

NOT “Only In America”

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Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s Hasan Minhaj speaking at White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Washington, DC, April 29, 2017. (http://complex.com)

Once again, I made myself into a gullible dupe for the American press. I watched the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last night when I had so many other choices. I could’ve watched the Pittsburgh Penguins dismantle the playoff adverse Washington Capitals 6-2. Or slept through an NBA playoff game or rerun. Or watched the last four episodes of season one of This Is Us, or the season-ender to The Expanse. Instead, I chose to watch those smug, not-so-objective elites with pens, notepads, microphones, cameras, laptops, and press passes gaze longingly at each other. I sat and watched them talk about the freedom of the press as if it was still 1974 and the nation could still believe it was a just one.

The narcissistic navel-gazing continued even as Hasan Minhaj took the stage and began to roast the press for its ineptitude, and 45 for his voluminous idiocies. It was a pretty good roasting, but compared to Stephen Colbert in ’06 and Larry Wilmore last year, Minhaj was underwhelming. Then, Minhaj said something at the end of his speech that momentary kept me from REM sleep.

And it’s the same position a lot of minority kids feel in this country. You know—do I come up here and just try to fit in, and not ruffle any feathers? Or do I say how I really feel?

Because this event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy. From college campuses to the White House, only in America can a first-generation, Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.

Really? “Only in America?” An Indian American Muslim couldn’t do what Minhaj did in, say, Canada, or in the UK, where Sadiq Khan, a British Pakistani, is London’s mayor, or even, say, in India?  This statement alone answered Minhaj’s question for me. Sir, wasn’t this an attempt to “just try to fit in, and not ruffle any features?” You just told every America elite to the left of the Islamophobic set exactly what they wanted to hear!

There are two other problems with the refrain, “Only in America,” especially in the context of Minhaj and free speech, free expression, and freedom of the press. One is that none of the First Amendment is free. Sure, if one narrowly means free from government coercion and persecution, then what Minhaj highlighted is mostly true. But given the platform Minhaj had last night, his truth was a lie for most of us. Because for most of us, the connections and money isn’t readily available to have such a lofty platform to proclaim America as uniquely free.

“Only in America” also assumes that anyone who couldn’t be Hasan Minhaj is a loser. Millions of Americans of color and tens of millions of poor and low-income Whites, you simply have worked hard enough, been extroverted enough, or told enough off-color jokes. Apparently, that’s what it takes to make “Only in America” true for us all. Despite his calling 45 the “orange man behind the Muslim ban,” in this one fundamental area of belief, Minhaj is no different from 45. For “Only in America” may be the most narcissistic, hypocritical, and fact-denying thing anyone can say about themselves and the US.

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.