That one of the not-so-small miracles of my young adult life from ’88 and me completing my dissertation process in ’96 are just a day apart on the November calendar every year is a story unto itself. Between a month before my nineteen birthday and a month before my twenty-seventh, I went from a semester of homelessness, lack of money for food and rent and living in a firetrap to finishing up a doctorate in history. If this were someone else’s story, I’d think that amazing, even almost unbelievable. At the time, I was so worn out and beat up by Joe Trotter, my dissertation committee, and the scars accumulated over that eight-year — really, twenty-year — period, that the idea of seeing myself as an American example of a Horatio Nelson story would’ve likely made me angry enough to spit blood.
Even now, I don’t and won’t see myself as exceptional. That’s that American bullshit about rags-to-riches stories, about being-a-credit-to-my-race tropes, that I’d be subscribing to here. What I really was back then was young and hungry. So young that I was willing to put up with all kinds of people’s baggage, taking near-minimum wage jobs, allowing people to call me out of my name, excusing racist comments and actions. All because I wanted the brass ring, for myself and for my family. I was already hungry, from years in poverty, from years without friendship bonds, from years of people not recognizing my, dare I say, brilliance. I had a chip on my shoulder, but it wasn’t because I was mad. I was after a righteous reckoning.
Two decades removed from those Carnegie Mellon days, and approaching thirty years since Ron Slater and my band of new friends kept me in money and food during Thanksgiving ’88 and beyond, and I am thankful. I am thankful that I am no longer either of those versions of myself. The one too afraid to ask for help, and the one too naive to realize that the America I believed in for so long never existed. I am thankful that I know more about asking for and providing help, about understanding that in this America, help might never arrive, at least when folks most need it. I am thankful mostly that I still have optimism, I still have drive, and I still have people who like and love me enough to remind me that a few of America’s giga-pixels are worth savoring.