“Struggling with the ‘Me’ Generation”

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I keep hoping that I’m not becoming one of those old folks who is constantly chastising the younger generation for the failure to live up to mine but recently I have been noticed something particularly disturbing about the next generation of scholars. They are truly self-involved!

Now I know that part of academic culture requires scholars to toot their own horns. We’re supposed to cite ourselves and try to publish singly authored books and articles. But, we were also taught a bit of ancestor worship. I first came across that notion as a graduate student. As I was working on a literature review my anthropology adviser quipped, “We’re not that different from traditional cultures; we believe in ancestor worship, too. We just call it reviewing the literature!” However, it was not merely remembering to cite my Stanford professors to which I am referring. It was remembering all of those senior scholars who gave me a push of encouragement or who literally pulled me along.

I remember the senior scholar who I once had lunch with who told me, “You’re going to have to come up with an ‘original’ idea, word, or concept to get tenure at a research intensive university. Just make sure you give proper attribution to all of those who helped you come up with the idea…no matter how incidental their contribution.” I never forgot that piece of advice and whenever I write something I try to acknowledge the work of those scholars…particularly those Black scholars who were much more constrained than I was in the development of their work. They were the trailblazers, the forerunners, the pioneers who were often the “one and only” in their departments, schools, and colleges.

The other thing I learned from a senior Black scholar was that my only REAL legacy would be the students I helped to nurture through the doctoral gauntlet. I will not be an active scholar forever. I will move out of the academy and my real legacy will be all of those students who can look at their dissertation and see my name on the front page next to the word “adviser.” When I think of all of the “hot shot” scholars that are out here trying to make a name for themselves I always ask, “Who is studying with him/her? Who are they bringing up behind them?” For many of the biggest names of New Jack scholars I cannot call to mind any young scholars they are bringing along.

I am weary of all of the Young Turks who stand up in professional settings and basically declare themselves “self-made” and self-sufficient. They are not actually nurturing the next generation; the are marketing themselves. For the most part they are careerists whose only interest is in how many seminars and consultancies they can headline. Their role as advisers and teachers is of a lower priority than advancing their names. One of their trademarks is the self-referential nature of their work. Typically they don’t bother me…no they’re more likely to ignore me. But I’ve watched them cut each other down publicly in ways that are destructive and in the end counter-productive.
I’ve been able to have a good career because I had a cohort of scholars who helped one another. We pulled each other in on every major project we proposed. We not only helped our students, we helped each other’s students. We created a sense of family in the midst of the hostility of the academy. Because our students saw us do that, many of their students came to us because what they saw among the generation we raised up was cutthroat and more reminiscent of the way dominant, oppressive scholars did their work.

Every generation of Black people talks about how Black people “need to work together.” We have never been successful following the “Lone Ranger” route. Each of us in the academy needs to evaluate our behavior and ask ourselves who we have helped (in the past), who we are helping (right now), and what our plan is for helping someone (in the future). It can’t just be about me, me, me!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“Moving Past the Mammy Moment”

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In general I think I have a good—actually great—job. I love working with students to push them toward excellence and who do the same for me. I love researching and writing about things that matter to me and hopefully have an impact on serious issues confronting our communities. I love that I pretty much set my own hours and work on a schedule conducive to my needs. I love the fact that I have been able to travel to 6 of the 7 continents and share ideas and perspectives with colleagues both locally and internationally. As I have said regularly being a full professor at a research-intensive university is one of the best jobs in higher education. But there is one aspect of my job I cannot stand and over the past few years it has been occurring with increasing frequency. I call it the “Mammy Moment.”

The Mammy Moment happens when other colleagues—especially White women—expect the Black woman (it’s almost always just one of us) to be of service to them. For me, it rarely happens with White men. My White male colleagues typically just recruit me to be on their “team” when they mount a fight. They don’t expect me to fight for them. But, I have recognized that many White women colleagues want me to FIX things for them! I am not talking about folks who come to you with life’s problems—tragic illnesses, death, problems with their spouses and partners, or with their children. I am talking about grown women who believe the fact that they didn’t get a promotion or elected to a position requires a major intervention from me. I’m somehow Mammy and Oprah all wrapped up in one and somehow I should march into the “offender’s” office and demand that my White woman colleague be avenged. I am talking about White women colleagues who know they are being lowdown and cut throat but expect you to look at mess and called it blessed!

The Mammy Moment happens when no matter how hard I work my opinion is discounted and/or ignored. After all, Mammies are all but invisible. They take care of everybody but they remain in the background. What they have to say is nothing more than some “Black” noise. But why this is starting to bother me is that when I entered the academy White women worked hard to convince me that we were “sisters”—a part of a sacred sisterhood who would help dismantle patriarchy and attack male privilege. How foolish was I?

The myth of the feminist movement was that for far too many of us it only included White middle class women AND instead of working for a more equitable and humane society many of these women just wanted to occupy the positions of power and prestige of the White men. They did not want to remake institutions; they wanted institutions to make them the ones in charge. My role in this institutional change was to be available to mother them and be grateful that I am there to support and aid them.

As my career winds down I am so much less patient or content with the Mammy moments that keep arising. I understand that my relationship with White women peers is fraught with tension and asymmetry. What I thought was going to be a feminist “revolution” has become just another set of oppressive relationships but this time my oppressor wears a bra. Mammy is tired of comforting Missy Ann cause Mammy got her own “chillen” to take care of!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Welcome to the State-Sanctioned Beat-Down”

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By now you’ve seen it…the Black Baltimore mother who chased her son down the street yelling at him (cursing him out actually) and slapping him as she admonished him to get home and away from his planned participation in the street uprisings that took place the afternoon of Freddie Gray’s funeral service. Her name is Toya Graham and the mainstream media is calling her “Mom of the Year.” To be clear I am not judging her. As a mother of 4, three of whom are young men, I know EXACTLY what that mother was feeling. It is a fear so deep that it drives you to a place of rage and madness. The very thought that your child is doing something that might cost him his life is enough to make you go crazy. So you scream, you yell, you punch, and you slap. You threaten him within an inch of his life because you are so afraid that the authorities that do not love him will not hesitate to kill him just for how he looks.
But we know that had that mother engaged in that very same behavior in a different context she would not be celebrated…she would be arrested. And, she still might be. The celebration of her public behind-whipping is ONLY because she was keeping him from destroying White property—White interests.
In the Black community we celebrate her because her actions resemble our romanticized view of a time when our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, and our neighbors all had permission to discipline us. We physically punished our children because that was the tool we had in our arsenal. We didn’t take away privileges because they didn’t have any privileges. We didn’t send them to their rooms because they had no rooms to themselves. We didn’t ground them because they didn’t go anywhere in the first place and grounding them meant grounding ourselves. Also, the ritual of spanking and whipping we experienced was different from what is being celebrated in Toya Graham’s behavior.
Many of us remember hearing, “Go get a switch and it better be a good one!” That long walk to the yard was punishment in itself. We cried our way to the yard wondering how we got ourselves in the predicament we were in and we cried all the way back to the house. Meanwhile our parent had an opportunity to calm down as we were selecting our instrument of punishment so that the discipline was not emanating from a place of anger but of perceived parental duty.
One of my better parenting moments came when my youngest son was cited for shooting a b-b gun that hit (but did not hurt) someone taking a walk. He did not tell me what happened but later than evening a police officer showed up at our house, explained what happened and issued him a citation. I wanted to knock his head off but I restrained myself. I looked at the day we were scheduled to show up for court and explained to my son that I would have to take off from work to take him to his hearing. When we got there I pointed out that he and I were the two Black people in the hearing. His White accomplices (and their parents) were nowhere to be found. Instead, their lawyers represented them and they received a fine and suspended sentences. My son got a “conviction” and 50 hours of community service. I turned to him and said, “Now do you understand what I have been trying to tell you about what it means to be a Black child in this community?” He turned to me with tears in his eyes and looked so sad and vulnerable. “Yes, mom, now I see.” That moment seemed to change the course of his life. For about a month he had to spend 2-3 hours cleaning out animal cages at the local humane society. His friends got off without even a slap on the wrist. I did not need to beat my son, castigate him, or humiliate him. He got to see how the system was more than prepared to do that to him. I had to show him that I still loved him in the midst of my disappointment.
But what is it about Toya Graham that so fascinates White mainstream media and simultaneously sickens me? Do you remember the scene in “12 Years a Slave” when the White slave owner has another enslaved African beat Patsy? It is that sense of “keeping a N-word in line” that has a striking similarity to Toya Graham’s actions. I am not saying her son should not have faced a consequence for disobeying his mother. My own mother’s last words to me as I left for college in the 1960s was “Don’t be in no protests!” She was afraid that me, with my brash mouth and sense of righteous indignation could not cross the Mason-Dixon Line without running afoul of the White authorities. Less than 2 weeks after landing in Maryland I was indeed in a street protest. I directly disobeyed my mother. If she had known I too may have experienced a beat down.
I am frustrated with the glorification of Toya Graham’s behavior toward her son. I’m angry that it seems to say that it is okay for Black women to beat their children as long as they are keeping their children from destroying or harming White interests. I am afraid of how many other young Black parents will see what she did and think that White America is saying it is just fine for us to discipline our children in that way. And, I am afraid that far too many of those parents will end up having their children taken from them while they face jail time, fines, and a set of useless “parenting classes.” I fear this for other Black parents and I fear that when they are through with Toya Graham this will be her fate also!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Freddie’s Dead…That’s What I Said!”

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One of the classic films in the genre known as “Blaxploitation” is “Super Fly” staring Ron O’Neal. The film details the conflicted life of a hustler, a pimp, and drug dealer in New York. The main character wore shoulder length hair, big fur coats, and drove a customized Rolls Royce with spinners. From a critical standpoint the film was of questionable artistic value but it quickly became a cult classic because of its glorification of Black street life and the challenge to “make it” in US society when one is an outcast. One of the powerful lines from the film for me comes when the protagonist agonizes over not being able to get out of the street life. His girlfriend implores him to “go legit” and he sighs, “I can’t even get a job at the Post Office.” His declaration underscores how far some people are from the mainstream and the unlikelihood of their ever succeeding in the alleged meritocracy.
The other powerful (and perhaps more lasting) impact of “Super Fly” was the sound track and album produced by music legend Curtis Mayfield. Songs like title track, “Super Fly,” “Pusherman,” and “Freddie’s Dead” pulsated through urban neighborhoods long after the film had run its course. Today, upon hearing the decision of Maryland’s District Attorney that Baltimore native Freddie Gray was a victim of homicide at the hands of police officers all I could think was, “Freddie’s dead…that’s what I said.”
My association of recent incidents with the Curtis Mayfield song is not merely the name similarity but rather the finality of what has happened and the point at which we have to come to terms with that finality. In a passage in the Bible, Jesus declares, “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14) to help his disciples understand his earlier pronouncement that Lazarus was asleep was a metaphor for the final sleep. However, unlike Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, Freddie Gray is dead…for real!
In the past week I have been unable to write very much about the uprising (and yes I said uprising rather than riot) in Baltimore. First and foremost, Baltimore is my adopted city. I came of age there as a college student. I loved its gritty, rough exterior and its soft, down home, almost southern interior. I was young and naïve enough to go to places like “North Avenue,” “Gay & Asquith,” and use a fake I.D. to frequent the “Lucky Number Club.” Second, I have been saddened by the portrayals of Baltimore, not just during the past week but, over the past decade in television shows like “Homicide” and “The Wire.” No matter how much we might enjoy such programs they told mainly of one segment of the Black community in the city. Indeed, if I were to select a more representative Baltimore show I’d choose, “Roc”—the story of a hard-working garbage man trying to make ends meet and hold his family together. His was the Baltimore I knew.
However, at the core of my sadness about Baltimore is my memory of being in the city on April 4, 1968, the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That event touched off days of rioting in Baltimore and in close to 100 cities across the nation. We had the unrest, the obligatory city-imposed curfews, and the ongoing questioning of “why Black people are tearing up their neighborhoods.” I am sad because little has been done in the almost 50 years since King was murdered. Statistically, things have gotten worst. When I was there East Baltimore was the trouble spot; West Baltimore was for Black “strivers.” Today both East and West Baltimore have been left to wither—abandoned homes, limited businesses (except convenience stores, pawn shops, check cashing places, and fast food joints). A ridiculously high proportion of the Black men in the city are unemployed because jobs like those previously offered by Maryland Glass Factory or the Bethlehem Steel Mill down in Dundalk (or Turner’s Station where Henrietta Lacks of medical malpractice fame lived) are closed. The city’s schools are abysmal at the same moment that its Inner Harbor area has been revitalized and gentrified. Its baseball and football franchises have state of the art facilities and Fell’s Point (off the Inner Harbor) is lined with high-end condos and townhouses.
The uprisings in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder are not the result of the murder they are the result of almost 5 decades of neglect since the last uprising. They are a logical outcome of a society’s total disregard for poor people—especially poor people of color. And, they will keep happening—Ferguson, MO, Oakland, CA, Baltimore, MD, and perhaps coming soon to a city near you! But, the marches, protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and yes, lawlessness will not change one difficult and heartbreaking fact…Freddie’s dead…that’s what I said!

Stay Black & Smart!