The Press Republican

Wiley Wandering

« April 2008 | Main | June 2008 »

May 14, 2008

Wandering While Dressed Differently…Thinking Differently

I wandered into a few different thoughts and conversations lately that I thought I would share with you to see what you thought. Perhaps it was the fact that this is graduation week for many colleges around the country (including SUNY Plattsburgh). Perhaps it was an easing of tremendous tension from having approximately seven significant weights lifted from my shoulders over the last couple of weeks. Perhaps it is just my nature! Anyway, let’s get this party started….

Finally, the summer has arrived (okay, I know technically that it’s spring, but after our long winters up here in the North Country of NY, any hint of sun has me putting on suntan lotion, and I’m Black). So, I am ready to wear less clothes and tighten up the body. Am I alone in struggling with exactly how much I celebrate the change in the weather with how much I can actually reveal? I look at women in the workforce wearing shoes that show their toes, sundresses that allow their bodies to benefit from fewer constraints, blouses that do the same. Yes, if I wear shoes that show my toes, clothing that allows my body to benefit from fewer constraints, etc. I feel like I am doing something wrong. Am I tripping? Is this a double standard? Is this sexism in some form that we just don’t discuss? Should I settle for the rationalization that women have been oppressed in such a sundry of ways within our society that they deserve these little societal perks that are off limits to men? Or, should I wear my plaid shorts, sandals, and open collar shirts and get over my anxiety that people won’t take me seriously because men just don’t show their toes in the workplace. What are your thoughts?

When is the last time you considered your mortality? I remember first considering mine when I read an article in the Los Angeles Sentinel (a Black owned newspaper that addressed Black folks’ reality). The article stated something about a Black male youth having more of a chance of surviving on the front of WWII than reaching the age of 21 in South Central L.A. From that point on, I became somewhat fixated on this thing called “death.” Then I became preoccupied with the fact that my father, who had been murdered, died at 37 years of age. His father died young, and his grandfather died young. All of their deaths were violent. Couple that with a dream I had that I was never able to shake which had me dying at age 27. Well, suffice it to say as I approached 27 I was freaking out, paranoid, essentially immobilized in fear that if I ventured too far from the safety of my residence I would be increasing the possibility of something drastic occurring. I got through that period then really didn’t think about it again until I was about 36 looking at 37. Yes, there I went again. Suffice it to say, I experienced my 37th birthday with no major incidents and as Elton John once sang in a song, I’m still standing. Have any of you ever experienced these types of thoughts before. Did you experience your thoughts as a result of your life situation(s)? Do you think our diverse realities contribute to our sense of awareness of our fragile mortality? I wonder if younger men and women look down the road and engage, at any level, the fact that the road ends at some point, at least in the context of life as we know it. It would seem apparent that poverty might contribute to someone asking themselves one of those big questions “is it worth it all?” I’m curious though does wealth breed the same thoughts, albeit for different reasons? Do you think thoughts about our mortality might differ along ability and racial lines? It might seem like a far-fetched question, but if you look around you and see most of the adults in your life who reflect a reality similar to yours, dying at 45-50 from ill health, even though some of it may appear to be self-imposed (though the reasons we drink alcohol, eat the foods we eat, etc. may be worthy of discussion themselves) or genetic, it may have an effect on your perspective on mortality.

Lastly, as I wander away to enjoy this beautiful summer day (I know, I know, its spring) is it okay if I play my way if it doesn’t get in your way in any way? Whose to say your morality should keep me at bay. Should I allow other’s shortsightedness to prevent me from entering the fray, undercutting the pay I can receive from life if I dare to see it my way and muster the energy to not succumb or stay locked into what could be for me a dysfunctional mode of behavior. Or, should I listen to what they say because it actually might sway J (W that is) if he takes the time to contextualize what they say, after all, it just may make sense, if I’m not dense! I know, this was too immense, perhaps too intense, made no sense, and you read it all with no recompense. What can I say, this is what you get sometimes when you wander with J (W that is). Hey, I'm human and prone to bouts of silliness as well!

May 2, 2008

In Memory of a Class Act!

The other day in the Examining Diversity through Film (EDTF) course I co-teach at SUNY-Plattsburgh we watched a film clip from a movie that showed a supervisor, a man in a position of power, taking advantage of a younger man who wasn’t necessarily sure of himself and was looking to be mentored. Because of his lack of confidence, the young man presented himself as someone who could be manipulated easily. He was manipulated by the man in power and it made for one of the most humiliating scenes the class and I have seen in a movie this semester, if ever. The scene itself, gripping with intensity for most, was nonetheless greeted by some in the classroom with snickers and laughter. I was caught off guard and appalled at the same time. I had seen this scene over and over again, even used it in different workshops from time to time. So it is no understatement to say that witnessing this reaction to someone being so thoroughly denigrated was not easy. A bit thereafter in unpacking the film clip—which was centered on the often problematic notion of privilege—our discussion eventually turned a certain corner and I asked the classroom of 100 plus students what was so funny. I am a passionate communicator who thinks somehow that being passionate isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as it is managed. In this case I may have mismanaged my moment.

I have heard people talk about how there is nothing more painful than losing a child. As most of you know I have children, and can’t imagine any of them out of my life. But as a college professor, I never thought my connection with students could be profound enough to make me feel tremendous grief over one of my students, until recently.

When I returned from my winter holidays I was overwhelmed to discover that a young man who had taken my African American Culture course, Joshua Szostak, was missing. Unfortunately I came to this realization when I entered Kehoe and saw his picture on one of the doors. I can’t begin to tell you how devastated I was. A few weeks later I went to Albany on business and was again greatly thrown off balance when I saw posters of Josh posted on walls all around the Albany train station.

It is a funny thing that we as humans do when we know something is amiss, but try to deny it. In my heart I was terrified for Josh, and his family. Over the next few months images of him occasionally visited me, but like most people, my life took over and I found my way back into my flow. And then it happened! Two weeks ago, I was over in Burlington at UVM and my phone beeped. I recognized the text from one of the EDTF Teacher’s assistants, but almost didn’t look at it because I was in class. Earlier that day, right before our class, she and I had spoken of Josh (whom as one of her best friends she affectionately called Stag), her pointing out to me that one of the reasons she had taken the EDTF class was his recommendation. Well, her text message simply said

“You know how we were talking about Stag today …they found his body in the Hudson today.”

I was so overwhelmed with grief, pain, shock, angst, anger, loss, and emotion. I just wanted to get up and leave the classroom. I was immobilized for a moment and then realized that I probably should respond to the young woman who had been kind enough to fight through her emotion to share with me what had happened to her friend and my student. Through holding back tears amidst my doctoral cohort I responded to her text with one word,

“Damn!”

I am trying to fight back tears as I retell this story to you and I am not winning. It hurt to think he was missing and that some foul play might have happened. It hurt to hear that he was actually gone. It hurt to focus on the fact that this young man wouldn’t be seen again on this earth by anyone, especially those who loved him.

Imagine fast forwarding from that Tuesday when I received the text, to three days later, and it’s now Friday. The students have laughed at one person getting oppressed by another, and for the first time ever, I couldn’t take this level of insensitivity. I went to inquire about the reason why some of them laughed, and couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, nor could I see a single one of the 100 plus students because of how heavily I was sobbing. It must have shocked all the students and my colleague, but there was nothing I could do, except try to explain the sudden outburst of tears, which took me a moment to do because I literally couldn’t speak for about ten seconds, which feels like an eternity when 100 people are staring into your face.

I told the students that I was crying because listening to some of them laughing at one individual inflicting pain on another was extremely disappointing to me as one of their professors. With my eyes completely drenched I told the class of a young man whose body had just been found in the Hudson River only days before. I asked how many of them knew him, or of him. I told them how this young man was made of different stuff. I shared with them how he was one of only a few young white males who had ever taken my African American Culture course. From what I understand more don’t take it due to their inability to see a need to know more about African Americans. I am told by many of my white students that the prevailing question that comes from their white peers is: Why are you taking an African American Culture course? This question is so fascinating to me that it has often inspired me to ask my students why they take the class.

Josh took the course because he was interested in learning about people. He was not the best student in terms of the quality of his work. However, in terms of his intellectual curiosity to explore differences outside of himself, he was phenomenal. On numerous occasions he stayed after class just to talk. We would talk about his perspective on a reading, or an observation of black folk that was consistent/inconsistent with something he had previously thought. We basically just rapped. I remember on one occasion he handed me a CD he had burnt for me on some old school African American artists, almost as if to better acquaint me with my own culture. It was the contrast between thoughts of this endearing young man who left us far too early and thoughts of a class laughing at someone’s torment that took me into my emotional turmoil. Looking back on it, it wasn’t fair of me to compare anyone to someone else. Somehow in that moment in class when I cried deeply for the loss of one of the classiest young people I had ever had the pleasure of teaching, all my perspective exited my body and all I wanted was to let everyone know that in some major way we needed to collectively pause and acknowledge the passing of someone who was truly capable of caring. As I slowly regained my composure I noticed that my class was eerily silent. I realized then that most of them had probably never seen one of their professors crying. I also realized that a great many of them were caught up in my emotion. They also may have been crying for the loss of one of their own, or perhaps crying for a professor that they somewhat care for, or perhaps crying because they recognized how fragile life is, and that with a sleight twist of fate, that could have been any of them. Regardless of the reason, for a fleeting moment I was ashamed of myself. Just as shame threatened to dominate me I caught my breath, and ended the emotional onslaught. Later during the screening of a film clip I would have to leave class because my emotions got the best of me once again. I thought I had it all under control finally only to have tears race down my face repeatedly as I wrote this blog posting. Perhaps my strategy is to talk about it to the point where it provides me closure. Or perhaps subconsciously it is to entice my community to wander with me into a very different space that even I don’t often go to. I will end my rambling now and thank those of you who took the time to read this lengthy homage to one of my youngbloods, one of our youngbloods.

May he rest in peace!