American Dream, Bill Cosby, Civil Rights Generation, Civil Rights Movement, Disillusionment, Don Lemon, Estelle Abel, March on Washington, Post-Civil Rights Generation, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tavis Smiley, Tough-Love
I’ve posted about my last official contact at Mount Vernon High School in June ’87 before graduating several times, and documented it well. The brow-beating I took from one Estelle Abel moments after my last day and last class of high school was one of the most puzzling and humiliating moments of a long series of them up to that point in my life. As I’ve written in both Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window:
I walked down the second floor steps and the first floor halls of the high schools to my locker one more time. While clearing out my locker, Estelle Abel walked by and asked to meet with me. I went over to her office, and for the next fifteen minutes, she attacked me for being a slacker.
“You’ve been a disappointment, young man,” Abel said.
“What?,” I said, completely shocked.
“Your work this year is nothing to be proud of.”
I stood across from the tall, witchy-looking lady, speechless, but telling her “Fuck you” in my head. Abel claimed that I had underachieved throughout my four years as a student, that I should have been ranked in the top ten of my class, and that my performance in AP Physics was beyond abominable. All I could focus on was the amount of anger and emotion she possessed in her voice and eyes. You’d have thought that I’d been expelled from school or had raped her daughter!
“By you not graduating in the top ten of your class, you’ve let everyone down. Your family, your friends and our community,” she said, as if anyone around here really cared about me.
Abel continued. “You could’ve been a shining example of achievement to us,” all but hinting at Sam as the person I should’ve been like.
I guess I did let my Black classmates down. I only ranked second in GPA among Black males and eighth among all African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans in my class. I guess I should’ve been taking out back, blindfolded, with cigarette in mouth, and executed by a firing squad.
Abel finished her soliloquy. “You don’t have any excuses! There is nothing going on at home that could justify your performance!”
“Well, that’s not true…” I interrupted. I felt rage rising up from the pit of my stomach. If she’d been anywhere near my age, I would’ve taken all of the Jimme-ese I knew and laid it all on her stupid ass.
Her face turned stern as she cut me off, determined to make some sort of point, to prove that I was a worthless Black man in her eyes.
“Nothing going on in your life would ever compare to what we went through back in the ’60s . . . I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King!”
My mind clicked off my eardrums at that point. Short of showing her my war wounds and having her meet my family, what could I possibly do or say to that? I left her office feeling like my years at MVHS and in Humanities were just bullshit. Abel’s tirade reminded me of the fact that I simply didn’t fit in anywhere.
What I’ve never discussed in all my posts about Abel and her tough-love speech is how this incident — and others like it — have shaped my thinking about the Civil Rights generation. Those local Urban League or NAACP members who gave talks at MVHS or at Pitt or at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh who said, “I’ve got mine. Now go and get yours” — a reference to businesses, jobs and higher education, as if we were all well financed enough to achieve their American Dream goals. Those usual suspects on the local or national level who gave the same speech year after year about the one time they shook Dr. King’s hand, or about their personal experience at the March on Washington in ’63. As if their experience would be more inspiring than the fact that folks like Medgar Evers and MLK actually gave their lives for the movement.
So many folks like Abel have used their kernels of experience with the March on Washington or the Civil Rights Movement more broadly as a club to beat over the heads of other African Americans, particularly those of us born after 1965. What they thought of as inspiration felt like damnation to me. The idea that nothing was worse than fighting for civil rights in the ’60s would be humorous to the four million slaves who lived in the South 150 years ago. It’s certainly an insult to so many deeply impoverished Blacks, White and other people of color who would have to stretch themselves like Plastic Man just to touch the first rung of the American middle class ladder.
Would I had been able to attend Pitt without a Challenge Scholarship for high-achieving Blacks in ’87? Probably not. Would I had been a part of a gifted-track program for six years without the NAACP filing a desegregation lawsuit against Mount Vernon public schools in ’76? Of course not. But those small windows of opportunity do not a movement make. Nor should it make me forever grateful to folks who considered me a waste of space to begin with — I wasn’t righteously “Black” enough for them, respectable enough for them, and obviously did not come from a home well-resourced enough for them, either.
So what if Abel or anyone else marched with Dr. King? What have you done with your life and for the lives of other since then besides discouraged where you could have encouraged, disillusioned where you could’ve provided comfort, or acted as if people like me owed you libations and gratitude? Estelle Abel represented for me in ’87 what folks like Bill Cosby, Don Lemon, Tavis Smiley and so many others have done in recent years — condemning those most in need of help and inspiration. They’ve all in their words helped turn the most hopeful and rhetorical part of “the Dream” into a nightmare.