It’s hard for me to believe sometimes how blissfully ignorant I used to be about the fourscore-and-three-layers’ worth of elitist bullshit there are to the nature of academic — and American — life. Even in the months after reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, even after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I still believed that my talent and my production alone would win the day over having the right connections in my circle. What a dumb-ass chump I was, in 1993, and as recently as 2013.
But at least in 1993, my 23-year-old behind could be excused for simply not knowing enough about the world that I inhabited. I was a quick study, academically, but not so quick socially, only four-and-a-half-years removed from homelessness and not trusting humans at all. My tutor, my unofficial advisor about the professional worlds that would take up the next 28 years of my life, was one Bruce Anthony Jones. I have talked about Bruce in the past, about how he quietly dumped me and all of his Pitt grad students upon leaving for University of Missouri-Columbia in 1996. That’s near the end of this story, though, not it’s beginning.
It was the year after I did an independent study on the literature of multicultural education in the US, Canada, and the UK with him as a master’s student. I was working with Bruce again, this time to learn more about curricula decision-making and cultural bias among the multicultural education and Afrocentricity set. He knew this was likely my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I had tired of White professors and their withering White gaze, and of Larry not quite keeping up with my work, even though he was my history advisor.
So it was in late February 1993 that he invited me out to dinner to discuss my next moves. We ate at some high-end Chinese restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh on or off Grant Street. It was just a few blocks from where Bruce lived, his mini-penthouse on one-and-a-half floors (the 11th and 12th) in The Pennsylvanian, situated on a hill overlooking downtown. It was once the station building for all passenger trains in and out of Pittsburgh, having been converted into a luxury apartment building the year I arrived for undergrad at Pitt, in 1987.
As someone whose moments of interaction with affluence and luxury were few, the dinner meeting and discussion was dizzying. We had a five-course meal, sat and talked for two hours about grad school, the dissertation process, finding work in higher education, the crock of the tenure clock and tenure process, and so much more. Bruce really helped me demystify the cloistered world of academia that night.
But, between the end of that dinner, the walk over to Bruce’s penthouse apartment, and the conversation we had about his work, the high wore off. When we got to talking about salaries, he began to bitch and moan about his own lot as an assistant professor in the School of Education at Pitt. “Well, how much are you making as an assistant professor?,” I asked rather courageously (this isn’t something grad students were supposed to ask, my mutuals had told me, but you don’t get anywhere by not asking questions). “Forty-five thousand. But them’s poverty wages,” Bruce said matter-of-factly, his “Lon-Guy-Land” (Long Island, New York) accent kicking in more fully as he spoke.
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, Arrogant asshole, the most I’ve ever made in a year is $11,000, and you talkin’ poverty wages to me? I’ve grown up without food, without any amenities beyond the basics, and you live in a 1.5-floor penthouse? Really? I don’t know how well I hid my envy and my rage after hearing Bruce’s complaints about his salary. I let him continue his monologue.
It turned out that Bruce’s time at Teachers College was about more than earning his doctorate. It was also an opportunity for him to earn money, really good money, through his connections at Teachers College and at Columbia University as a whole. Including one with Charles V. Hamilton, the co-author of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (originally written with one Kwame Ture, née Stokely Carmichael in 1967).
I cannot recall if Hamilton was on his dissertation committee or not, but no matter. Apparently connections with Hamilton and others had helped Bruce find work as an education consultant with the Ford Foundation, among several other private foundations. In the two years leading to his PhD and the year before landing his Pitt faculty position, this was his other professional life. “I make double as a consultant than I do as a professor (really “professa,” the way it rolled off Bruce’s Long Island tongue), and for half the work,” I remember Bruce saying.
“What would I have to do to get into that kind of work?,” I asked once I got over the shock of calculating that Bruce was pulling in between $130,000 and $150,000 a year while living in a 1,500-square-foot penthouse that cost $1,350 per month. Bruce should’ve said, “With help from people like me, lifting as we climb.” But instead, he made it sound like he just lucked out, somehow, like he just happened to be walking down a random hallway when leading Black scholars at Teachers College and Columbia offered lucrative consulting gigs on a Friday at the end of a school year.
A bit more than four years later, the summer of 1997, I found myself without work post-PhD. Teachers College had just rejected me for an assistant professorship in social foundations of education. I was literally a month or two away from being completely out of funds. I could pay my rent, but that was about all I could do until I found more work. I hated to do this, but I ended up contacting Bruce for help, either in finding work or in lending me money until I could pay him back.
Bruce returned my call, and was very stern on the phone with me. “I usually don’t lend students money,” he said, as if I was just some random person who reached out to him out of nowhere. But he offered to write me a check for $100. “Now I expect you to pay me back,” Bruce said, as if he was being magnanimous. That was when I finally, really, truly understood. My time with Bruce was about making him feel like a powerful person in academia. It was never about mentoring or helping me at all.
Between 1997 and 2000, I continued writing my own letters of recommendation with Bruce’s name on them, a practice we had developed while I was still a grad student. Only, I also used one of Bruce’s old signatures and some University of Missouri-Columbia letterhead to make his letters written by me on my behalf look more authentic. After I turned down a job at Howard in June 2000, I wrote Bruce a check for $100 and wondered, Should I include interest in the total, and if so, how much? That was the last time I used Bruce’s letter, the last time I contacted him.
In the years since, I’ve worked jobs that paid $70,000 and $80,000 a year, charged as much as $550-per-day as a consultant, and turned down jobs paying $100K in areas that were too expensive for that salary (like the Bay Area, for example). I’ve also had a couple of years where I’ve barely earned $20,000 as an adjunct (those were years I also consulted, so). I know damn fucking well what a real poverty wage looks like. The closest Bruce has been to socioeconomic poverty was probably the night he sat across from me at dinner all those years ago. Intellectual, social, and spiritual poverty have been Bruce’s close companions, I’d bet, for many years. For such are the wages of narcissism.