Sunday, May 25, 2008

Richard Wright, Paris, and Memories

I am going to the Richard Wright conference in Paris next month. Whenever I'm preparing a paper for a conference, I tend to re-read as much of the writer's work as I can. I decided to re-read biographies on Wright by Walker and Fabre. I'm always intrigued by writer's lives, wishing that I had had the nerve to take the risks that some of them took in order to live their unique vision of their life. For awhile, I was headed on that path. Then I capitulated for security: got married, settled down, and had a child.

But I was combing my memory trying to remember how Richard Wright entered my life. Trust me, it was not from my institutionalized education. I am certain that my mother gave me a copy of "Black Boy" to read when I was thirteen years old or so, because I have given each one of my nephews as well as my son a copy of "Black Boy" to read when they turned thirteen, and I know that this tradition did not originate with me.

This past Friday, my son sent me a text message: "Mom, do we have a copy of 'Black Boy' in the house?" Although the books whose authors' last names begin with W are not shelved (I've run out of shelf space), I was certain that all of my books by and about Richard Wright were accessible. When I combed through a stack of books, I realized that I own six copies of "Black Boy," including two hardback copies from my childhood. I sent my son a text message, and he responded by asking me to bring the book to school at 12:30 p.m. Oh, it must be nice to have a mom who is readily available to drop off a book at school in the middle of the day.

I was puzzled as to why he was asking for Wright's autobiography, for I was certain that he had read it before. When my son arrived home I queried him, and yes, he had read "Black Boy" before, which is why he asked me to bring it to school. Evidently he needs a book to read for English class: the last two weeks of school. In my opinion, his English teacher should have taught "Black Boy" in 12th grade English as a prerequisite for graduating. But hey, I don't select the books for Fairfax County Schools, and I have met some of the folks who do. Don't ask me about them. It was quite a revelation when I served on the committee with these folks and wrote reviews for "School Library Journal." I quickly gained insight into why the public and school libraries in Fairfax County are replete with mysteries and romance novels. Oh, and yes, I was the only African American on the committee. Uh, hum.

Unlike my relationship with my mother wherein we discussed nearly every book I read, my son will not discuss literature with me. My son was an avid reader when I homeschooled him. He had no choice. I designed his lessons so that he read in all discipines, and wrote across the curriculum. No worksheets in my house; however,when he entered school in the 7th grade in Ann Arbor, he came home with a stack of worksheets, and he quickly realized that he could not finish all of the worksheets if he took time to read the material in his textbooks. He stopped reading. When he entered the 7th grade, he was tested and his reading level was at the college level. Each year that he was in school, his reading comprehension level dropped, so that by the time he was in the 10th grade, he was reading only at a 10th grade level. Work sheets and busy work decreased his enthusiasm for reading literature and likewise lowered his comprehension level. My mother always warned me that public schools can ruin a bright child, which is why I homeschooled my son in the first place. Oh, well, I am hoping that he will one day revisit his love for reading and understand why I made the educational choices for him that I did.

In the meantime, I miss that my mother is not alive to talk literature with me. This is one of the greatest losses for me in her death: the ability to call her and talk about any book because more likely than not she had read it. My mother and I talked about Wright, and many other writers, at length. And I so miss her stories and insight. My mother grew up in the same neighborhood as Paule Marshall and June Jordan. In fact, once my mother and I attended one of Paule Marshall's readings when Marshall's novel "Daughter" was published. Afterwards my mother and Marshall talked at length about people whom they knew from their neighborhood. Marshall is older than my mother, however, she remembered some of my mother's older siblings.

So I forge ahead without her insight and conversation, but with memories of our debates, and a house full of books to prove that I am truly her daughter.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Commuting on Public Transporation

I always forget how much I love to ride public transportation and walk the city streets until I consciously choose to park my car and get on the bus and train. Since Monday rather than drive into Washington, DC to attend a professional development workshop, I drove to the metro station and hopped on the train.

As a native Michigander (or Michiganian if you regard the other demonym as pejorative), riding public transportation after you got your driver's license, in some circles, was downright shameful, particularly for boys. However, I never felt the need to own a vehicle. When I think about it, I have only purchased two vehicles in my entire life. I suppose that my native Detroit status needs to be revoked for not supporting the automobile industry all these years.

I fell in love with riding trains first as a child when my mother would take my siblings and me to New York City to visit her family. There was something very magical about the swaying and clanging of the train moving up the track: a behemoth of steel, an over-sized cradle to me when I was child.

As a teenager, I was permitted to ride the New York subway as long as I stayed with my cousins, Timothy and Robin, whose city sophistication was much more than mine, both cousins having grown up and spent substantive time in Brooklyn, even after they relocated to upstate New York. My cousins had been riding the subway most of their lives. I was from a town where you learned to pull the car in the driveway while sitting in your father's lap as soon as your legs could reach the gas pedal or your arms the steering wheel, whichever came first.

My adventure with public transportation and strolling up Georgia Avenue in the early morning reminded me of the absolute urbanity I love when I am catching trains and walking, as well as how it makes environmental and sense for me to ride public transportation rather than get in my car. The trains in metro DC are clean, timely, and efficient. The only drawback to riding metro is that a premium is charged on fares during commuting hours, so that to commute during the rush hour from Northern Virginia and into the District can cost as much as $3.80 one way. I know that the folks in Long Island who commute into Manhattan are laughing at me. Hey, sorry, I'm still in shock. Why should it cost me nearly $4.00 to travel eight miles to the District line, and $4.50 to park my car? Yes, Ethelbert, we need free public transportation.

But I am not complaining. For when I am riding mass transit--instead of being sequestered in the private space of my car listening to music, whizzing by people and places, and ignoring on some level that my body is moving through space--I am forced to pay attention to my environment, to be conscious of how I am traversing the landscape, and to interact with people.

Two little boys wearing similar red and yellow jackets scream; exchange coded recriminations with gapped-tooth smiles; and scoot along the bench at the bus stop on the corner of Georgia and Florida, Ave. N.W. Their energy catches my attention; I can't help but chuckle because most of the adults in the vicinity are dragging their behinds on the pavement. It's 7:00 a.m. How can these boys be so wide awake? Presumably the woman who smiles back at me is their mother; she shakes her head in wonderment, too. We don't have to exchange words. It is a mother thing.

I pass the Howard hospital, I see the personnel in blue scrubs headed toward the entrance. An eerie silence permeates the cold, morning air. Calmness slices me to the quick. Later that afternoon when I walk past the hospital en route to the metro station, the silence and calm have been subjugated by throngs of people, blaring ambulances, and a general sense of controlled chaos.

So content am I with the swaying of train while riding home this afternoon, I fall asleep. I am listening to Thelonius Monk on my ipod. I barely hear a woman say, "Miss, Miss. I'm sorry to bother you, but we are at the end of the line." I rais my head, smile, thank her, and disembark the train. When I finally arrive home, rather than being worn out from navigating the gauntlet inherent in traveling on the highways in metro DC, I am refreshed and ready to commit myself to doing something productive. Later that evening while I am driving my son to the barbershop, he laughs at me for having fallen asleep on the train.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Archives, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Capitol Hill

I now know that I have adult ADHD. If you ask me to sit down and focus on a subject for longer than 15 minutes, I will scream. But if you ask me to multi-task five projects and have everything done by the end of the day, I will do that and do it well. I know this because this is the second summer that I have attended training seminars, and I simply can no longer learn in a classroom setting. I went online to verify what my learning style is, and after taking three assessments I confirmed what I have recently discovered about myself: I am a visual learner. Give me the material and leave me alone, because after five minutes of hearing your voice drone on and on, I have tuned out. When I teach, I always stop talking after a few minutes and do an exercise to get the students to interact, give them time to reflect, and allow them an opportunity to ask questions.

But, I didn't use to predominately be a visual learner. I think that I was equally balanced between the three dominate learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic and tactile. However, I suspect that the birth of my son, more than 18 years ago, changed me from the person who could sit for hours listening to a lecture, or needed absolute silence to read and write, to a mom who could read and write with "Thomas the Tank Engine" on the television, the telephone ringing, the dishwasher whirring, and the handyman banging at the door. So I tell my students, if I move from topic to topic every five minutes, blame it on the birth of my son. No, I'm really not that bad, I do stay on topic when I lecture and teach.

After the training session this morning, I spent the afternoon at the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University going through the Georgia Douglas Johnson collection. Johnson ran a salon affectionately referred to as "The Half-Way House," on 14th and S St., N.W., Washington, DC, during the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and perhaps even longer. Johnson became a mentor and friend to some of the writers who would later become primary voices in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bruce Nugent. In addition to letters in the collection from Toomer, Hurston, Nugent, and Stanley Braithwaite, there is a sexually suggestive letter from W. E. B. Du Bois that I had heard about from my mentor, Claudia Tate, and finally had an opportunity to view with my own eyes (although some researcher swiped the original, and now a photocopy is in the file). I always contend that if I had been Du Bois's contemporary, he would have been my man. Some of my students have harangued me for admitting this: they tell me that "Du Bois was an elitist, he was not black enough." However, none of them ever say to me: "he was really smart." And I have to confess, I have a weakness for really smart men. Hey, what can I say, my dad is really smart.

Still searching for property in Capitol Hill, and I may have to face the hard cold fact that I may not be able to live there. Back in 1996, I recall yearning to live in Capitol Hill. I was married then, and it seemed like an unrealistic move: small child, gentrifying neighborhood, higher than average crime rate, bad parking, blah, blah, blah... or so I was convinced by my child's father. Now that I am single and just yearning to be within a stone's throw of the Library of Congress, I am priced out from purchasing anything large enough to hold my books.

Now I have thought about getting rid of my books and finding a small place that I can afford. Hey, but the problem is that too many books in African American literature that I need for my research and teaching are "missing" or "lost" at the Library of Congress. Therefore, my personal library is becoming increasingly more valuable to me. It is really a problem for scholars, writers, and students when the Library of Congress does not have the books you need. Oh, well, it's time to start compiling my list and send out the formal letter. If any of you are also finding that books are "missing" or "lost" at the Library of Congress, send the bibliographic information to me at I will add your books to my list and send it to someone who is in a position to investigate why so many doggone books are missing.

Peace to all. I hope that you are finally experiencing some warm weather. It's raining far too much in metro DC. I found myself also looking for real estate in Florida this past weekend because I was so tired of the rain and clouds.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Summer Break

Oh, summer is coming, and my academic year has yielded to a screeching halt. I am done grading papers, fielding e-mail queries, and posting grades. I believe I was the last person out of my department yesterday, but I was determined to start my break today and not have to be on campus filing grades at the last hour.

I picked up my stack of books from interlibrary loan, and couldn't resist going through them despite the fact that I was dogged tired yesterday. I'm preparing to write an essay on Richard Wright for the conference in Paris next month. I hope to see some of you there.

Leisurely had my cup of coffee this morning that was momentarily interrupted by the Fairfax County Police stopping and interrogating one of the regular customers, and former Starbucks employee. Yes, he was young, black and male; he was sitting at a table outside sipping his coffee and reading the newspaper. I had to rise from my seat and go outside and observe what was transpiring. The police in my neighborhood have a habit of stopping minority male youths without probable cause or an articulable fact. The threshold according to Internal Affairs is "reasonable suspicion." Well that's too broad for me, and leaves far too many black, hispanic, and arabic males, in particular, susceptible to being harassed.

Some of our youth are not trained in the basic operating procedures that our parents trained us in during the days of overt police brutality in Detroit before the Coleman Young years. The young man this morning at Starbucks did not even ask the officer's name, and I am certain that he was too shaken up to note the officer's name and badge number. As polite as I could be I got the officer's name, business card, and badge number. But something was up because the officer told me that "you can call my boss if you want to." Hum, total lack of respect. But I will do just that. However, the officer did call for back up. And an unmarked car with a black officer pulled up. Neither one of the police said anything to me or the young man. Wow, what a way to start one's day. You can be sitting at a Starbucks and have a police officer demand to see your identification without telling you why.

Of course I am concerned because of the incident that I experienced last month, to which Internal Affairs has still not sent me a communication regarding their investigation, like promised. And my son and his friends are always noting how the police harass them throughout the neighborhood. I recall similar incidents of police harassment in this neighborhood during the 90s when the minority boys got around 14 years old. I suppose nothing has changed, but I will continue to be vigilant in protecting myself and the youth in this community.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Friday Night in Metro DC

So it's Friday night, and I hadn't intended to leave the house at all hoping to connect with a colleague so that we could chat about an upcoming conference in Paris that she and I are attending. But she didn't place the call and my son needed a ride, so I dressed and left the house.

I'm sitting in Busboys and Poets in Shirlington. It's not as nice as the one in DC, but I didn't have the energy to drive into the District and hunt, and then fight, for a parking space, so I've kept my behind in the dreaded suburbs of northern Virginia. (My friends in Maryland and the District will not cross the Potomac river into Virginia).

Just saw a gentleman who reminded me so much of a high school sweetheart. Almost spoke to the gentleman, but decided that being forward is so out of character for me, so I let him pass by. Besides, he only reminded me of a high school sweetheart which would have been the only reason why I would have spoken. Oh, well.

My son tells me that I need to get a life, that is, "mom, I'm going soon, what will you do with yourself?" I've contemplated this question before, and I thought that I was cool with him leaving, but suddenly the house seems too large, too quiet, and too empty. Oh, no, what's happening to all of my plans about being free and single?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Digital Humanities and African American and African Diaspora Studies

It has been more than one week since I last posted on my blog. Sorry, I am inudated with "end-of-the-semester fiascos." Plagiarized essays, reappearing bodies that have been absent from the classroom for weeks, and grade-begging students have tested my last nerve. I realize that somewhere on my forehead there must be stamped the phrases "mom," "she's easy," and "push back and she'll collapse" because my students are really pushing the envelope this semester. They are attempting to get away with as much as possible without putting forth the least amount of effort.

To relieve the end of the semester doldrums, I attended the Digital Humanities and African American and African Diaspora Studies Conference at the University of Maryland this past weekend. It was fantastic to see humanities scholars conducting courses in virtual world using "Second Life," digitizing film footage from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, and communicating with a product developer from ProQuest about the need to digitize Black World/Negro Digest and The Michigan Chronicle. The conference reinvigorated my desire fully to integrate technology into my teaching, and not just Blackboard and the internet, but also developing digitized course sites.

But there was one comment that left me a little concerned. The comment dealt with the purported absence of blacks in technology. Specifically, one scholar argued that she organized the first Afro Geek conference to create a space for African American technology Geeks to exchange ideas because they needed to reinforce that Blacks were engaged in technology. Now, maybe I'm old and there is a generational disconnect (no, I'm not that old, uh hum) but I am surprised that although this scholar acknowledged the origins of the internet from "the military-industrial complex," I am certain that her insistence on the absence of blacks in technology speaks loudly to her ability to utter academic buzz words without understanding the meaning behind those words.

The military industrial complex, among many things, also represents a critical mass of Black engineers and computer scientists who worked on the internet and other aspects of bringing documents into the purview of digitization. Because Black engineers and computer scientists coming out of college before the 1970s met widespread discrimination in private industry, they often had to accept positions with the federal government and with the defense department and related branches of the armed forces. So when humanities scholars assert that there was, and continues to be, an absence of African Americans in technology, this reinforces for me the disconnect between the humanities and technology. I think that it would behoove someone (not me,I'm too busy) to investigate those anonymous black technologists who worked in various branches of government to develop the internet and other apparatus related to our current digital age.

As an aside, when I was a child because I was raised in a racially segregated, but highly technological environment in Detroit, ALL of the computer scientists and engineers that I knew were, not white, but African American. Although my self-referentialty is not reality, a scholar's blatant statement that there is a digital divide between blacks and whites, ignoring the contributions of blacks to the development of technology, frightens me and reinforces the purported absence of Blacks in a field in which they have had a substantive contribution. And all by a black scholar who has not bothered to do her homework, but has used her own self-referentiality as a basis for reality.