Selfie of me at 50, December 27, 2019. (Donald Earl Collins)
The title could just as easily be, “Confessions From an Educated Fool.” After all, I am highly educated, and have done more than my share of dumb-ass bullshit over the years to avoid certain truths about myself.
I have no idea what turning 50 really means. For Black men, the average life expectancy of 64.5 years makes me worry about every ache and every anomaly. Based on my family genetics, I have at least 30 years where my age will in no way be reflected in my height, weight, athleticism, sex drive, or other general health issues. My mind should remain sharp until I am in my late-80s or early 90s, if not longer. As of now, I know I am in better overall shape than I was this time 10 years ago, but lack the running stamina I developed during most of my 40s. On the other hand, my knees have been thanking me for the past 17 months since I stopped running 300-plus miles a year.
Depending on how I look at my life, I am a scrambler who has turned an Olympic-size swimming pool full of diarrhea with turd chunks into two kilos of gold. Or, I am a once brilliant and talented young Black man whose temper and impatience fucked up his future. Two things can be true, sometimes equally so, and at the same time. That is, if I don’t account for upbringing, systemic racism, extreme poverty, the violence of misogynoir and toxic masculinity, and a host of other burdens that my differential equation mind could not factor into my life’s calculus. Much less control or counteract with respectability or kindness or the Golden Rules of Christianity.
Some context. When I was 11, I participated in my first writing contest and came in second place among the dozens of K-12 students who submitted to the local newspaper, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. By then, I had long buried the sexual assault I endured and the subsequent suicide attempt from five years earlier. I graduated 14th in a class of 509 in 1987, only to spend my last days of high school and the year after my enrollment at Pitt treated as if I were an invisible ghost by many of my former classmates. At 25, I earned a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. But the entire time I was in commune with “my fellow Fellows,” as I used to say, I was ambivalent about my prospects, in and out of academia. At 26, in part because of the Spencer fellowship, I completed my dissertation. Yet my advisor’s petty jealousies and psychological abuse burned me out, just as my dissertation committee’s subsequent abandonment of me once I graduated left me feeling burned.
I was a young prospect with a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon, but with little in financial support or connections to continue to spin shit into gold. After two years, I left the wonderful world of adjunct teaching for a civic education job with the center-right organization Presidential Classroom. My boss was both extremely paranoia about terrorist attacks on DC and openly racist, referring to Asians as “Orientals” and making comments like “Slavery was a hoax.” After seven job interviews for academic positions over three years, Howard University offered me a tenure-stream assistant professorship in June 2000. I said no. At the time, I told my significant other, two months into our marriage, “I do not like working for racists, but at least I know where I stand. With Howard’s constant elitism, I’d likely lose it and pop one of my colleagues in the mouth for saying something elitist and stupid.” I was averaging 100-to-110 hours of work per week and about five hours of broken sleep at night when I made this decision.
Sometimes I think it’s the dumbest adult decision I ever made. Most of time, though, I think about the broom closet that they offered me as an office. I remember the urinals in the Founders Library that dated back to the tenure of Mordecai Johnson (1926-1960). I ruminate on rough attitudes of my one-time colleagues (I eventually taught there as an adjunct in 2007). And through all this, I remind myself that it was okay to say no. Especially to colorism, respectability politics, and a campus that has been in need of a total gutting and a top-down renovation at least since I began visiting in 1993.
My career has been one of wandering by necessity. I have never been a complete fit anywhere. Damn sure not in academia. Definitely not in the nonprofit world. Certainly not in consulting. And not quite as a freelance writer and author. I have had to bend and break so many rules and norms, just to survive, that to mold and shape myself like a shapeshifter would nearly always lead to me feeling at constant war, with myself and my work.
Selfie of me post-workout, December 24, 2019. (Donald Earl Collins).
Especially since so much of this war was over who I am. I am a writer, damn it! I love teaching — most of the time. I like managing projects, and was fairly good at raising money. I am an excellent cook (just ask anyone other than my Mom). I am a pretty good basketball player even now, and could’ve made a D1 college squad back in the day. I once considered stripping to make ends meet after finishing my doctorate (my eventual wife talked me out of it, a lot, while I gunned for a six-pack). But since at least the spring of 1981 (maybe, with Peanuts Land, the spring of 1979), I have been a storytelling, introspective, imagining-of-alternative-worlds-and-lives, mixing-fictional-techniques-with-my-real-life writer. It took me 21 years to admit that I was a writer, another decade to see myself as a writer first and foremost. That no matter the job or my roles in that job, that I was, am, and will always be a writer.
That was what motivated me to write Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window and then self-publish them, even as the process of researching and writing Boy @ The Window led me to uncover so many uncomfortable truths about me, my family, and the people I grew up around. Including the truth about my greatest failure, my refusal to dig out the splinter in my mind. The dual decision to not see myself as a writer and then to not dedicate myself spirit, soul, and body to my craft and calling until after turning 45. That’s my biggest regret, my daily frustration, my constant companion, buried just a few millimeters between my flesh and my bones.
Even when I finally push through, break through, blow up, and have any modest level of success as an author of x-number of books — and I will, because, me — I will continue to carry this deep well of what coulda and shoulda been. My need to credential myself, to make up for the loss of my childhood to poverty and domestic violence and child abuse, my desire for worth and work, my simple arrogance of youth. It nearly squeezed out the divine voice of purpose in my mind. More than once, it all drove me to the edge of the galaxy, where rage against the world, a lust for lust and self-destruction, and the sheer drop into the abyss of depression all intersect into a nebula of desperate insanity.
This is precisely why it is so important to have a crew, a group of folx who will not jump into the void with you, but instead will support you with critique and encouragement, and yes, love. Of course, I could not have transitioned from the burnout of the nonprofit world and the constant search for money to “change the world” into the constant search for income through freelance writer and teaching social justice through history and education without my wife. After years of watching bosses and co-workers get down on their knees to beg for money while they morphed the grassroots and systemic social justice work they really wanted to do into inchworm-paced “social change” models, I wanted out. I figured, consulting, occasionally teaching, and doing the work I truly wanted to do would be better.
Then, the Great Recession hit, and did a number on my permanent job prospects and consulting work. If someone had told me on verge of my 40th birthday that I would spend the next decade primarily working as contingent faculty at not one but two universities, I would have laughed until I cried. I would’ve also predicted that my wife would’ve handed me divorce papers. I didn’t die from woeful laughter, and my beloved did not demand that I move on.
But we did argue. One of those arguments led me to a “Fuck It” realization at the end of 2014. No one would ever offer me a permanent position at a university as faculty, not without offering me an administrator position first. And since the unofficial rules of the academy have never really applied to me and my writing, I had the right to publish anywhere, on any topic, even if and when other academicians — including some whom I had trained — looked at me like I was some tragic figure.
Along with some counterintuitive thinking about my eclectic writing skills and queer approaches to understanding the application of history and education in mainstream journalism, this new truth has been my resurrection and insurrection as a writer. Between The Guardian and Seven Scribes, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post, and especially Al Jazeera English, I have come closest to being my truest and whole self outside of marriage, friendship, parenting, and my many moments in prayer.
I owe my wife for allowing me the space necessary to finally access my calling. But I also owe my small inner circle of folx who may not have always understood my journey and the decisions I made that led me to where I am at half-century. They’ve read my horrific drafts, heard my most hare-brained ideas, smiled through my most ludicrous of plans both before and during this bitter slog of a rollercoaster ride. I’m more than sure that some in my circle still don’t understand my end game. Mostly because there is some aspect of my whole self that I haven’t shared with them. Not only my desire as a writer. But my general desire to be excellent at everything, my quest to know everything, and my contradictory default of being scared of nearly everything, especially of whatever good moments I have had. Too many times, I have seen the anvil drop on or near me all too soon after drilling a three.
I think I have one more big run in me left. The proverbial they say that life is a marathon and not a sprint. They are wrong. Life is like a continuous basketball game, where one can be overmatched, but can take timeouts and make a series of 12-0 or 30-13 runs to tie the game or take the lead. I am in the midst of a run right now, as unexpected as living past the age of 30 was for me when I almost jumped off a bridge on my 14th birthday, 36 years ago.
I need the crew I have, and I could use some help from a few more folx who may want to join me on my journey into decade six. I’m gunning for a book contract for my American narcissism and American racism work. I’m looking for some career stability that takes advantage of my work in academia, in nonprofits, and in freelance writing. I’m looking to make sure that my son becomes the whole person he needs to be without spending the next 20 or 30 years kvetching about everything in the universe. I’m looking forward to spending more time traveling outside the US with him, with my wife, with others, and with myself. It’s time. It’s been time for 50 years.