The Gift

My racial biases developed in layers with attitudes and perceptions accreting from my earliest years. My parents’ behavior—their words and body language—when encountering someone different in color or features or accent, swayed me in a patronizing direction. Playmates, teachers, relatives, and other adults, through their conduct, instilled an intolerant bent in me. I held disdainful assumptions as truth. Similarity was attractive; I viewed the dissimilarities in the thick lips, broad noses, and kinked hair of African Americans as unattractive. Many spoke with an accent or in a dialect I regarded as signs of being unschooled. My desire to be esteemed by my kind bolstered my distorted sentiments. My posture toward blacks was condescending and smug at best, unreasonable and hateful at worst. A product of surroundings and disposition, I was not unique.

My biases were formed in a setting, the rural Midwest, in which I had little exposure to African Americans. I remember one or two trips, with my mom and dad, to a black neighborhood in a small town. We visited an older African American lady who had looked after my mother and her preadolescent siblings, and who lived in a tiny abode with tar paper-like siding. My parents brought her the leftovers from a hog they’d slaughtered—the head and feet.

I also recollect a handful of outings to Kansas City, riding with my family through black business and residential areas on our way to the zoo or some other destination. We stared through the car windows at the bleak little houses and the alien faces; when picnicking at Swope Park or visiting its zoo, we watched but didn’t interact with families in every way like ours, except for the color of their skin.

The Doll Test

In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, plaintiffs made a compelling argument that segregation had harmful effects on black children. In their doll test, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, using black and white dolls, asked African American preschool and elementary school children from the South and North to choose the doll they preferred. Two-thirds selected the white doll, and a majority indicated the black doll “looks bad.” In another study, they asked the test subjects to “color line drawings of a child” with a hue closest to their own skin. The youngsters often used a shade lighter than their complexion, with some displaying “emotional conflict” when asked for a color preference. The Clarks found that black children, on the whole, “viewed white as good and pretty, but black as bad and ugly.” Their conclusion was “the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status. A child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group.” These findings “illustrated the effect of prejudice and discrimination on personality development,” allowing the plaintiffs in the Brown case “to show that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional.”

Freedom of Choice, Not Full-Scale Desegregation

“It was a pamphlet that was sent out from the school district to all parents,” Hull Franklin recalled. During the 1960s, households throughout the South received information about the freedom-of-choice plans, giving students and their families the opportunity to choose their schools—without regard to race. Another pupil from that era, Ruth Carter, chose to go to the white school because she thought she’d get a better education, and for another reason: “Everything in the city, everywhere you go it was signs ‘White Only’…And I thought this would be the first step towards change…by us going to the all white school.”

In response to the Supreme Court’s striking down of mandated school segregation in the Brown ruling, Southern states cleaned up their statutes and constitutions by removing education clauses, and did nothing else. But with the threat of losing federal financial assistance, school boards began implementing freedom-of-choice plans instead of full-scale desegregation.

Despite the flaws in freedom-of-choice plans, a small cohort of black children and adolescents chose to attend white schools. They entered a crucible in which their courage and determination were on trial. Forty to fifty years later, some of these pioneers depicted their efforts in oral histories collected by the College of Charleston. “They wouldn’t sit with us in the cafeteria, they…called us names, they’d throw spitballs, they’d throw chalk. You’d walk down the hall they’d jump to the other side of the hall. You’d sit at a table in the library [and] you’d be the only one at the table…and then they got so bad at the cafeteria, not only did they not want to sit at the same table, they didn’t want to sit on the same isle,” Gloria Carter remembered. At home, “Each child would share and talk about their day at school,” her sister Ruth noted. “There was no pleasant day.”

“I became paranoid about lunchtime,” recounted Carlton Wilson. “I would want to get to the cafeteria early so I could get me a table…if all of the seats were taken, or if everybody was sitting at every table, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, because…when I went to the table people would get up and leave…So I would automatically go to an empty table so no one would sit with me. And the other part of the day when I became very nervous was…when school ended, going to the bus, because the fear was that you would get to the bus and not have a seat, because you couldn’t sit beside a white person because you didn’t want to feel that…if you couldn’t get there and have a seat, then you would have to stand up.”

“We were either not there or we were treated badly to say the least,” said Lucy Frinks. “We were taunted and, from the other white students, what would be considered nice treatment would be that someone smiled at you. Certainly nobody spoke to you about anything. It was like you were invisible. Nobody talked to you. Nobody touched you. Rather than touch you people would move to the side. It was like we were pariah.”

Millicent Brown, one of two African American students in a school of eight hundred, described the isolation: “[W]e didn’t have lunch together. We didn’t have any classes together. And I always knew [the other black student] was going through it alone and I was going through it alone.” Besides the white kids, African American pupils had to deal with the adults—the teachers and administrators.

 “The whole atmosphere is, ‘You’re here and we have to do our job.’ Pretty much that’s what it felt like,” Emma Harvin declared, “[they had] no choice” but to teach the black children. Ruth Carter told of how her sister Pearl was treated by one teacher: “[S]he would move the [white] child that’s sitting next to her each week. That child wouldn’t have to sit there all the time. She would rotate the kids around Pearl because she didn’t want to punish [them]…when she’d work with Pearl, she’d hold her nose when she’d stand over her. She was mean to her.” 

Lucy Frinks gave other examples of how authority was administered: “There were rules in the student handbook where you could not carry [an Afro] pick.” She adds that black pupils couldn’t sing “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” without being “expelled…but we could have ‘Dixie’ played at the pep-rally…You could wear confederate flags and what not, but you couldn’t wear a t-shirt with Angela Davis on it.”

For Millicent Brown, each day was humiliating: “[A]fter a year or so [white] people did sit with me and talk. They accepted some things, but they never wanted to be seen walking with [me] coming out of the assembly.” She said, “[A]s soon as you started thinking folks were kind of cool with you then something would happen and you’d be reminded that, ‘no, [they’re] not really.’”

Bigotry Accretes

I assumed black people chose to be separate until a chance occurrence at a hall of justice. I was ten years old and with my mother at the courthouse in neighboring Clay County. In keeping with the pro-Southern leanings of western Missouri, the courthouse had separate restrooms for whites and blacks. Seeing the “whites only” sign at the entry to the ladies’ room, my mother became angry, though she downplayed it by saying, “I’d like to see them try to stop someone who needed to use it from going into that restroom.” I was disturbed by her reaction; it was the earliest moment I recall grappling with the notion that public decrees can hurt individuals. 

At the age of fifteen, I along with half a dozen kids from our parish attended a mini retreat of teenagers from four Catholic congregations. After introductions, the facilitator asked for volunteers to read a biblical verse to the gathering. One of our faction—a slender girl with lank, light-brown hair, a year older than me, and popular with the others in our clutch—volunteered.  Our suburban group comprised white members except for one guy from India, but participants in the other groups, all from the city, were black. Four presentations were given by two girls and two boys. Three of the performances were embarrassing: Each of the black readers stumbled over the words—words we white pupils came across, in school or our middle-class settings, on a routine basis. The white girl read her verse without hesitation, making no errors. When the readings concluded, the audience stared at the floor as if meditating on the spoken messages. I sensed unease in the room and guessed others were reacting as I was: These high school students couldn’t read at a fourth-grade level.  

Compared to Midwestern norms of the time, I lived in an “enlightened” household. Our mother told us not to call blacks the common epithet many in our family and most of our neighbors used; they are Negroes or colored. We should ignore denigrating remarks; although, she said they ate inedible food such as pigs’ feet and hog jowls, and some had a disagreeable odor. And we should not be mean to them. 

Despite what I was taught, I accepted the offensive words and malevolent attitudes of family and friends lest they shun me. I rationalized there were grounds for looking down on people of color.  In my childhood, my limited acquaintance with African Americans led me to think there was an innate difference between us. Even though I knew abusing them was wrong, I felt they were inferior. No one—not parents, not teachers, not priests nor nuns—made a contrary argument. Never a loud bigot, I was a complacent member of the herd, a quiet and insidious enabler of loud bigots. 

Follow-Up Doll Test

Child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer redid the Clarks’s doll test, but unlike the first study, she included white children. There were two age groups, four to five and nine to ten, who were asked a series of questions. The children responded to the questions by pointing to one of five cartoon pictures displaying variations in skin color from light to dark. Additional queries about a color bar with light to dark skin shades were put to the older children. As a group, the white children associated “the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes.” Although less pronounced, the African American children also “had some bias toward whiteness.” In a surprising result, perceptions of race didn’t shift with age—the findings were similar for both the five-year-old and ten-year-old children. In Spencer’s words, “We are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.” Her study was done over six decades after the Clarks’s research.

Cultural Impact on Students

Several of the freedom-of-choice interviewees remembered how they were treated by peers remaining at the black schools. Theodore Adams recalled the disrespect he received from those who felt: “[Y]ou want to be white, you think you [are] better than we are, we don’t want to associate with you.” A parent, Arlonial DeLaine Bradford, whose children were in the first group to integrate the classrooms in a small South Carolina town, described the response she received in the community: “[T]he Black folk said that I thought that my children were white, and they were better than the other children, and that there were no teachers in the Black schools fit to teach them, and so they gave me a rough way about that.” 

Erstwhile classmates refused to sit by the desegregation firsts during basketball and football games played at the black institutions. “[O]ne would think by doing what we did that maybe we would have been lifted up in our community,” Theodore Adams exclaimed, “but we weren’t. As a matter of fact, we lost friends. Some of the young people that we grew up with didn’t hang out with us anymore. It was like we were caught in the middle of a no-man’s-land…we were hated by the students we were going to school with and not trusted by a lot of the ones that we would’ve been going to school with at the Black high school.” He went on to say he attended some events in the community and at the black school, but they had to be chaperoned—no backyard parties—because “when you fight all day, you don’t want to have to fight all night too.” 

Some of these pioneers, who were “marginalized in their communities” and ostracized in the schools, became quiet, “withdrawn.” Decades later, Lucy Frinks lamented, “It’s like this piece of us that nobody speaks about.” She and her cousins were among the ten black students who integrated a rural South Carolina school system. “[W]e haven’t talked about it and I know it had a very profound impact on my life. And I’m sure on the lives of my cousins.” After giving an account of the dread, anger, and sadness she felt during the desegregation effort, Ruth Carter said it’s a topic she doesn’t bring up with young people, “I don’t talk to them about my life as a child and growing up in Mississippi…I don’t even talk to my own kids about it.” 

Three years of the stressful environment sickened Millicent Brown: “[T]hey thought I had a heart condition because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t walk five feet without just being totally out of breath…we found out that I had a nervous condition.” Besides the abuse from whites, she adds, “I became afraid…of what it is that Black people think about me in a way that I wasn’t conscious of before…I really believe that discomfort stings today.”

But another desegregation first differed in his perspective. “You hurt. Let me tell you about the hurt. You hurt in the moment that [it] was happening. You hurt you feel as a child, but one thing about being an adult,” Hull Franklin averred, “you grow up, you get over it. Let it pass. It passes…I cannot hold that against anyone because it’s not about them. It’s about me now making myself better…[I] have a positive attitude on life.”

“All White People Are Racists”

While African American pupils integrating schools were haunted by futility, Martin Luther King, Jr., offered hope. He spoke of fulfilling the dream for equality: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though optimistic, he asserted success will require courage and persistence. With hard work by both races, he believed justice would prevail. “We will overcome.” 

One race has been negligent. “[T]he statement ‘all white people are racist’ doesn’t make me angry. It makes me sad, because I believe it’s probably true,” said Katherine Craig, a white human rights lawyer. “[I]f you grow up in a racist society,” she maintained “through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick subconsciously. It’s…[a] conspiracy in which we are all complicit, unless we fight it.”

Blemishes Remain      

I left home at age twenty. While my views had been evolving for several years, they solidified when, in my new surroundings, I encountered people who held that racial disparities were anathema to a healthy society. Many of my colleagues were black, and on occasion, we socialized. I began to voice a conviction that racism was unjust. I deemed my deeds mirrored how a good person behaved and my words echoed what a good person said. On the surface, I was spotless; beneath it, I was blemished.

In my sixties, as a volunteer advocate for residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, I’ve had to fend off more than one woman (two, to be precise) attempting to entice me into her bed. Their profile: dementia or mental illness, between sixty and seventy, thin, and aggressive. One woman, with an emaciated look and pale white skin, intent on more than talking, gave me her phone number and asked for mine (she got the program’s office number). While I stayed a couple of feet away from her, I was flattered. On another occasion, a woman whose shoulders had a slight stoop, and whose skin was a coffee-with-cream hue, said on seeing me, “My, you’re fine looking,” and reached out to me. I stepped back beyond the range of her outstretched hand, a reaction impelled by distaste. 

How do I continue to fight my racism? My attitudes toward those different from me are hard to control, yet I can resolve to manage them. I can choose to denounce racist comments by acquaintances; I can choose to listen to the stories of persons oppressed in our society and to learn more about them; and I can choose to offer assistance, meager though it might be. Over time, such choices will reshape my nature. 

I have a friend who was among the first African Americans to integrate a high school in the South. Five decades after battling iniquity—the merciless animosity scarring her childhood and adolescence—she wonders what benefits were attained by the fight for an interracial education. While public facilities, including learning institutions, dropped “whites only” restrictions, we failed to dull the sharp edges of racism. Was it all for naught? Did we miss an opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe? If we give an affirmative answer to these questions, we are disregarding the struggle these pioneers waged. We would be making a mistake.

Treated as untouchables no white person would sit with or talk to, spit on, kicked, ignored by uncaring educators, and snubbed in their own neighborhoods, my friend and others held their tempers and their tears, ignored the epithets, and concentrated on their studies. They offered us a gift: In their dignity and integrity, their sacrifice and courage, they exemplified what we are capable of. It’s an offering we can accept or reject.



Interviews are part of the oral history collection of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston: 

Photo at the top of the page:  “Southern Desegregation (0045)” by Ron of the Desert is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Election 2016: A Lyric Essay


*The Spatial Election*

More than anything, this election seemed to be about space. A black man occupied the White House for two terms, and now a white woman has a serious chance of doing the same. Should it be surprising that The Donald won the Republican nomination? If a Negro or a Broad can rule the empire, surely a Wealthy White Man by virtue of his colonial legacy can too—personal background be damned. The rebellion might have achieved a minor progressive parade, but now The Empire Strikes Back. With no actual applicable experience to cite for his fifty-state job interview, Trump made it about space. The Oval Office is obviously too easy to obtain, and this corruption bores into every facet of the American Experience. It’s too easy for Mexicans to enter our climate-changed deserts, and so we need a goddamn wall to uppercut them back. It’s too easy for Syrian refugees to wait two years as they toss tarnished souls into a bureaucratic penny fountain, and so we need to outlaw Islam just to be safe. A matronly diplomat is within reach of Pennsylvania Avenue? She needs to be relocated to a prison with other nasty women. Law & Order, Law & Order, Law & Order. We are a country without laws if a white man’s ass is not on the throne. This order has been disrupted by these imposters, these Others.

Donald never led in general election polls, and so he countered published statistics with observations of space. Look at this rally! Look at all these people! Look at how much space is occupied when I come to your town. Obviously this means peer-reviewed, published information must be wrong. The economy is good? I say it’s bad and watch the trash people flock. A non-white participant protests my crude language? Throw ’em out! Punch ’em! Remove ’em! Look at how a cultural critic has been ejected from my space, by virtue of my finger jabbing in their direction! I command this space for you, my frothing mass, my white bread yeast. The restoration of space has begun!

Women from his past began to come forward to share their stories of how Trump invaded their space. Beauty contestants recalled how he’d barge into their dressing rooms unannounced, reporters and associates were fondled without consent, and his magpie lips stole off-camera kisses. Trump responded with charges that the women were not attractive and, therefore, held space that was not valuable enough for him to occupy. He only invades the best space. The most luxurious space.

The second debate became the space apex. Trump’s campaign was spiraling down a long hollow shaft, à la the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, and so came the space attack. He invited Slick Willy’s former victims for a balcony cameo to unsettle the wife who was cheated on. Instead of allowing Hillary to command the floor during her answers, he loomed over her as much as he could get away with. This crone might be allowed on stage, but I will relinquish only so much of it. The Trump surrogates all cheered after about how “rattled” she seemed and that she was on the “defensive.” He might lose and lose badly, but he stole as much space as he could in the election’s final moments.


Over the spring of 2016 I played the game Persona 4. I had never played any of the Persona games previously, and, in fact, my love of Role Playing Games has dwindled a bit as I’ve come into my own as an adult. Role Playing Games are the ultimate adventure fantasy for young adults, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that protagonists are almost always men in their early adolescence.

In Persona 4, you play a young man from Tokyo who moves to the suburbs to live with his uncle and young cousin. The main storyline of the game involves a series of unsolved murders that occupy your detective uncle late into the night. You discover that someone is kidnapping the town’s denizens and imprisoning them inside a television world. You and your new friends can enter this television world and summon demons to destroy surreal monsters, making the game feel like an interactive Haruki Murakami novel.

You eventually discover that Mitsuo, an awkward, socially rejected transfer student has taken part in the murder spree. He disappears into the television world and when you confront him, he turns out to be a levitating infant hiding inside a skyscraper-sized knight. He says in a broken vocoder monotone, “I am…a shadow…Come…I’ll end your emptiness.” When he attacks your party, you see yourself from his perspective as he selects different options from a video game menu. He assumes that he is doing you a favor by destroying you because he is nothing more than a hollow baby raging against a culture that rejects him and, therefore, assumes everyone must feel the same way. If you are able to demolish his knight’s outer shell, he quickly recites gibberish language to conjure its return, rather than communicate with you directly.

Persona 4 thus critiques the traditional Role Playing Game tropes of using the genre to project a power fantasy. This need comes from feeling like an entitled infant as young men begin constructing their own masculinity. These games force you to use your maturing power to assist the weak and save humanity from its darker impulses, teaching young men that power requires a structural outlet if it’s to be wielded correctly.

The supernatural evil in Persona 4 is a desire to lash out indiscriminately at a culture that dares downplay your strength, and the game ultimately makes the argument that resentful men would end the planet if they could. The character of Mitsuo also demonstrates that a root cause for craving news coverage is a total lack of empathy for actual human beings. It’s also got a toe-tapping, J-Pop soundtrack.


Nothing depresses me more than a great singer in a karaoke bar. Karaoke is for below-average vocalists belting out nostalgia hits. But when a customer perfectly replicates Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey in some drafty dive, I just feel sad. Here is someone with a legitimate gift, and the only time that gift gets exercised is on Saturday nights between rounds of Jack. Why can’t the wealthiest empire in human history do more with its talented citizens? I’m more impressed with music than capital markets.

One Christmas at Shenanigans in Brooklyn, a non-regular took the microphone and requested Luciano Pavarotti. What came forth through the crackling speakers was the most powerful voice I’d ever heard. All conversations disintegrated as he rattled old-fashioned glasses with the finale of “O Sole Mio.” The bartenders held their phones aloft so that their wives could experience his human spirit reverberate. The applause went on for minutes. He thanked everyone and said he performs at the Met and desired a night of fun.

I had to follow him. Luckily, it was the pub singalong favorite of “Fairytale of New York.” I can’t sing particularly well, but I do come from a long line of Scottish drinkers, so I can do a mean Shane MacGowan. The Met Singer clapped and whistled as I slurred the opening bars.

I’ve always thought of “Fairytale of New York” as one of our more patriotic songs. It describes the wonder of the American Christmas: the season when a little too much neighborly booze and reconciliation is welcome. It only makes sense that it’s scheduled for a month after elections.

*The Secret of the Ooze*

The day my sister got married was the only day I didn’t have anxiety over this election. It took place in our hometown of Auburn, New York, a colossal paradox for a city of only thirty thousand. Home of William H. Seward, abolitionist. Home of Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad Captain and Twenty-Dollar Bill Cover Girl. Home of Auburn Correctional Facility AKA Auburn Prison AKA Auburn Penal Colony. You see the cognitive dissonance embedded in the city’s neural pathways. Auburn’s brain is a dark storm of crows striking lifeless trees in feathery Vs throughout its black winters—a democratic Siberia.

My neighborhood growing up was filled with nobodies going nowhere good. There was the drug dealer across the street, the Baptist family that locked their daughters indoors during Halloween, and a whole lot of screaming domestic disputes fueled by the local brewery. Most people either worked for the prison or were incarcerated by it.

As I rose through the ranks of academia, the more my origin story made little sense to me, and, therefore, I wouldn’t acknowledge it. My writing gets published by Ivy League Universities! I’ve been invited to give readings at literature conferences! Facts like these made me want to workshop my past. “I really like how this speaker is driven and goal-oriented, but does he have to come from an upstate prison town where overdoses are prevalent? Neither of his parents is creative, so where does the writing gene come from? That’s not fully explained. Why not an artistic family from Chelsea? That seems more consistent with how the story unfolds.”

In Ninja Turtles II, Donatello discovers that they mutated into anthropomorphic reptiles from an ecological disaster and cover-up by a company called Techno Global Research Industries. It’s by far the most interesting part of an otherwise stupid movie. While other superheroes have elaborate origin stories that conveniently require feature-length films to narrate, the Ninja Turtles were simply created from capitalism’s exploitation of the natural world. The side effects of the company’s malfeasance were amazing physical specimens who lived in sewers and honed their skills to better a world that never wished them to surface. Although the film was panned for its lukewarm action and Vanilla Ice lyrics, their genesis gave hope to all the misfits out there. Unregulated capitalism created these weirdos and then did nothing to help them succeed, but, through sheer determination, the Ninja Turtles were able to succeed on their own terms. If a mutant sewer turtle can become a grandmaster in martial arts, surely a white trash kid can become a grandmaster in language.

*I Heart Huckabees*

I love the way Mike Huckabee’s jowls slide left to right when he speaks like a fleshy typewriter scripting bullshit. I love the way he considers himself a Christian and supports an honorable man of the cloth such as Donald J. Trump. I love how he compares Hillary Clinton to Jaws. I love how sharks are always the villains in movies when the human characters go out to sea. If anything, Mike Huckabee should support Jaws as he stands his ground against an alien assault.

I also love his daughter Sarah. When she speaks, I love that it isn’t just the usual bullshit like her father. It’s the terrifying chemical manure that infects the tributaries and waterfalls that surround her home state of Satan’s drab crater.

I love how when her daughters ask her what she does for a living, she says, “What does Proverbs 6:16 say again, girls?” Then to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus,” her darling offspring answer in song. “There are six things that the Lord dislikes, / seven that are abomination / to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, / and hands that shed innocent blood, / a heart that devises wicked plans, / feet that make haste to run / to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, / and one who sows discord among brothers.”

That’s right, girls! Mommy is responsible for dropping baby Jesus. Maybe someday, you’ll defy his guidelines for redemption! Money Changers always need Spin Doctors to hypnotize the flock! That’s what the Gospel writes in holy fine print!

*The Goldberg Myth*

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, there was a popular wrestler named Bill Goldberg. He wasn’t much of a wrestler, as his matches rarely lasted for more than a minute. But the major component of the Goldberg act was his entrance. His music consisted of a martial drum pattern while a menacing melody ricocheted between beats. Then the chants began. “Goooooooold-berg!” The audience would repeat this chant for several minutes before he even came out to the arena. For several minutes it was only drums, melody, chants. This spectacle created a rhythmic, hypnotic sound that made it seem as if tens of thousands of young men could conjure a demon if only they were loud enough, a kind of rock concert Bloody Mary.

The audience’s patience was then rewarded with the monster Goldberg. At six feet four and a muscular two ninety, liquid dripping from shredded abdominals, Goldberg looked like a gladiator surfaced from the depths of Styx. Flanked by a security escort on all sides, the message was clear: this is no mere athlete, but a lethal predator who requires handling by the State until released into the safe confines of a wrestling ring. The State knew that inequalities exist, and this was its answer to satiate proletariat bloodlust.

A tornado of fireworks and pyrotechnics was then released from the ground, and Goldberg slipped within its curtain of lightning. As he withstood the fury of pyro, it gave a visual effect of buzz saws trimming his goatee, only to be repelled from his face as loose sparks. Working-class machines, which require a novella of safety guidelines on the factory floor, can only rattle and skip across Goldberg’s chiseled jaw.

When the pyro subsided, there stood Goldberg, unfazed. When the next set of drums looped around, he would then exhale the pyro exhaust like a hero of draconic lineage. The chants now exploded into a monster truck rally. The Gladiator’s entrance was nearly complete, and the crowd would not allow it to fall short now. As the noise rumbled the cameras, Goldberg roared, shadowboxed, and snorted before stepping through the ropes. The music ended, but the chants continued. Sixty seconds later, his opponent was extinguished, so the music returned, and the chants grew louder until Goldberg finally marched into the backstage area with another recorded win.

The company who employed Goldberg, World Championship Wrestling, did not have any fundamental insights into the character and, therefore, ruined The Myth beyond repair. The audience didn’t care that he knew maybe five moves or that he was incapable of a technical clinic. Goldberg represented an American masculinity lost in the era of global trade. He never lost. He rarely spoke. His entire act was the entrance and the destruction. You witnessed the twilight of his victims’ lives: their value and meaning reduced to a lifeless tackling dummy.

Goldberg beat up mostly nobodies. But that was the whole point. His opponents represented for the audience all of their real world frustrations—dead-end jobs, layoffs, corporate bankers, declining health benefits, unpaid loans. If we all link our voices together in the name of Goldberg, the supernatural realm will have no choice but to offer up The Myth to avenge economic forces that cannot be corralled.

Then Goldberg lost. He lost by getting tased. Not only was the Goldberg Myth exposed as illusion, but also by a weapon of the State. The Goldberg Myth immediately took on a new meaning: even otherworldly monsters cannot survive the State’s power. He had been allowed to disrupt the system for too long and needed to be humbled into subservience. Soon after, people began booing Goldberg. His very presence reminded them of their own mortality and economic position. Today, the Goldberg chant is one of mockery by wrestling fans. It is directed at combatants who are perceived as puppets of upper management. The Goldberg Myth will never be duplicated, but those seeking votes can still replicate its intoxicating power.

*And When You’re a Star, They Let You Do It*

Like put politicians on blast. I’ll origami a thesaurus scimitar and swipe away white spots from Donald’s tangerine smears, filet his face so he resembles Freddie Kruger after several horror dreams. This isn’t the fight you wanted, old man, but you’re staring down the Poetry Sith Lord fused with Sayian DNA, and there you sit, sad, blowing on your alphabet soup. Got nothing to say? I just Force Lightning’d your toupee with sentences conducted by my fingertips. Fine. Tag in Kellyanne. I was just getting warmed up anyway. Come at me with your Jersey nonsense, free shot at the chin. Oops, wiffed again. Well, allow me to counterstrike the best I can by summoning his assault victims reborn as sorceresses, led by Summer Zervos. They cast Ballot Upheaval, zooming Don & Con, lips first, to Polaris, smooching electrical skin before its detonation.

*The Revenge of the Sith*

Let me make something clear: if you voted for Donald J. Trump, I will never forgive you. Politicians always speak of forgiving rhetoric after elections conclude. We are all Americans. We need to come together to face mutual challenges. We have more in common than we think. Yeah, fuck that. Voting for Trump means you desire to smash democracy into a thousand orange Tic Tacs. Garry Wills described the act of voting for Trump as “acting alone through him.” Well, I’m here to grant your wish. You are now alone and, statistically, near death. Sayonara.

I want to shred the whiteness from my skin. I want nothing to do with an America who would rather elect a sexist reality star than the world’s most qualified woman. I find myself at a crossroads. I’ve always hated Yoda because I thought he was a coward and a loser for what he did in Episode III (Revenge of the Sith). An illiterate galaxy elects the Emperor, and Yoda exiles himself to some swamp planet to dick around until Luke arrives twenty years later. I now understand him a bit more. This country’s Force Users are now the hunted. The Republican Party swept all three branches of government by the uneducated garbage that is strewn about the empire’s hinterlands. What incentive does the GOP have to expand education now?

I definitely will not move to another country, but now, my brain begins its self-imposed Yoda Exile from all forms of news and social media. I will only study scholarship and poetry for the time being. An orange shadow has fallen upon our nation’s rainbow coalition. But there will be a new hope.

As the election returns came in that November Night, I sobbed uncontrollably in frenetic heaves. How could I face my female students the next day? How can I promise them a bright future if they follow the rules but say nothing when the rules get violated? I had an afternoon appointment with my creative writing honors student, and I began to cry again. That’s when I realized that even if my brain will enter the Yoda Exile, my heart remains here, fighting.

The first academic award I ever received was in preschool for “Most Caring.” It’s a distinction that I’ve spent the rest of my life running away from because I feared it interfered with my natural ambition. This left me conflicted while watching Star Wars because although I admired the wisdom and thoughtfulness of Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s the Dark Side Users whom I always felt more of an affinity for. Rather than conform to the Jedi Order’s institutionalized version of a Force User, the Sith mold the Force for their own purposes. While the Jedi live and work in a lush, fragrant campus, the Sith often emerge from the galaxy’s shadow lands, obsessed with acquiring the power they were denied from birth. As I read and read and read, I felt the knowledge flow from my brain down to my hands, tingling my fingertips, twitching for an academic battle. Reading became an addiction because of the dark energy it supplied my ego.

I am back into the light. The ultimate privilege of teaching isn’t having summers off (although I do enjoy that), but knowing my students will outlive me. Sure, my writing will also outlive me, and maybe someone will read one of my poems after I move on from this world, but it’s my former students who make this world a better place to inhabit. During the meeting with my creative writing student, I realized that my true power is the ability to foster empathetic writers and thinkers. Her rough draft featured great insights into the human condition, and, like many of my students, she is a much more sophisticated thinker than I was at her age. My Most Caring Heart has been awakened to shield my female and minority students from the ugliness creeping into American political life so that they can cultivate their gifts in peace. It’s through them that I will help save this country. Head, Heart: let’s get to work.


The Care and Keeping of Other People’s Pets

In the summer of 1977 in the small southern Georgia town of Valdosta, my mother stole the neighbor’s dog. I don’t remember much of Valdosta: wet, red clay dirt, snakes in the garden, everything green, everything humid, everything on the edge of rotting. Even voices had a sweet rind of decay. Years after we moved back north, I found a cassette recording my mother made of me counting. My “two” rhymed with “chew.” My “three” and “eight” lilted and stretched into two syllables. “Ten” could be confused for “tan.” By the time I discovered the tape, I no longer had an accent, and that recorded voice revealed a separate existence that was strange and gone.

My mother, Erika, also had an accent, but she didn’t lose it. Born in Hungary, she was ten when she came to the United States with her parents and sister. She was functionally deaf in one ear as the result of an accident with a sharp pencil. The hearing loss was never diagnosed, and when Erika had trouble learning English, her American teachers thought she was slow and put her in remedial classes. The deafness was eventually detected, and she was fitted for a hearing aid, but the mislabeling had an impact. To this day, she’ll be damned if she lets anyone call her stupid. But she never lost her Hungarian accent. Never lost the identifier that marked her as foreign.

As a child, I didn’t know my mother had an accent. My mother’s voice was my origin of sound. I still don’t hear the accent unless I listen hard. But in the 1970s in the deep south, in a city nine miles south of Moody Air Force Base, my mother’s accent defined her. She was a stranger, seen and treated as an “other,” often with perceptible distaste, something she felt acutely.

My father, a CPA who worked for ITT Corporation, was raised in upstate New York by an Italian-American father who worked for the railroad and an Irish-American mother who spent her days herding seven children. While labeled a Yankee, he was, at least, American. His presence served as a social bridge in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t around much, and when Erika went to the grocery store or hauled two kids to the public library, she was on her own in a hostile territory that, through southern charm and expert dissembling, pretended it wasn’t hostile.

I didn’t know or sense any of this as a child. It was only when I was a teenager, loading the dishwasher in the house my parents bought when we returned to New York, that my mother revealed what her years in Georgia were like. I don’t recall what we were talking about when something I said opened up a wound. She told me about the slights and snubs in Georgia that rubbed her so regularly they formed a callous that protected and numbed her.

“I was alone except for you and your brother. You two were all I had,” she said.

The confession made me uncomfortable. I turned back to the dishes and my mother left the room. I hadn’t known, up to that point, that my mother could be hurt. Of everything that she was, of every quality she embodied, I knew my mother primarily—often solely—as strong. I thought she could only be angered.


The neighbor’s dog was a toy poodle named Suzy. She was alternately cared for and neglected by the Studdards, who had a son named Dean whom my brother Mark and I played with occasionally. I don’t remember much about Dean except that I had a vague understanding that he could be mean, and once, he hit me on the head with a stick when I was climbing up to the tree house. I fell and landed hard. My father came out, and there was yelling. I think my mother tried to limit the amount of time we spent with him, especially after Dean and I were discovered half-undressed beneath the Studdards’ trampoline. I tried to find Dean Studdard on the internet. There are two living in Georgia—both in Valdosta.

The Studdards’ house was directly behind ours, backyards adjacent, no fence. In addition to Suzy, they had a large, aging mutt they didn’t let inside. I would creep to the back of their house to fill an old trough beneath a spigot that served as his water bowl. I often found it near empty and would fill it as quietly as I could. I thought I’d get in trouble if someone spotted me.

My mother loved Suzy. She loved all animals, though we didn’t have any pets in Georgia, probably because of our transience. We had moved from New York to Houston to Memphis to Valdosta in a little under two years following my father’s job. Eventually, after we left Georgia and landed in New Jersey, my mother adopted a dog named Mooch and a cat named Choo-Choo, but in our house on Sherwood Drive just a few miles north of the Florida border, she had only Mark and me, creatures who required a more complex and demanding affection.

Despite our lack of pets, my mom stocked Gaines Burgers in our kitchen pantry, moisturized dog food shaped like hamburgers and made, as the box claimed, “with real meat!” I loved the feel of them—soft and mushy beneath the cellophane. My mother used the dog food to lure Suzy to our back door, and I would help her crumble half a burger into a little bowl. Like my act of filling the water trough, I knew what we were doing was good, but there was something in my mother’s manner that made me understand that it was also something illicit.

“They don’t feed her enough,” my mother would tell me as she put the bowl on the steps leading up to the back door. And Suzy, who had the run of both backyards, would make her way over and take delicate little bites. Afterward, Suzy would follow us into the house where she jumped onto the sofa and napped as my mother petted her. A little while later, she’d jump down and head back to the Studdards.

Suzy began to follow my mom around the yard, then into the house and around the kitchen as she prepared meals, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone, a long twisted cord giving her access to the stove, refrigerator and counter. The click-click-click of Suzy’s nails on the kitchen linoleum became the soundtrack of quiet afternoons in an air-conditioned house shuttered and dark against the heat. I was confused and grew to think that Suzy was our dog, and my mother did little to clear up my confusion. The Studdards own Suzy, she’d tell me, but we take care of her, and she loves us more.

Eventually, Suzy started following Erika around the neighborhood. One afternoon, my mother took me across the street on a rare visit with a neighbor. She served us iced tea at a table next to a large, above-ground pool that I found incredibly luxurious. We were barely settled when Suzy came around the corner of the house. The neighbor’s dog, large and brutish, lunged and caught Suzy in its jaws, shaking her like a toy then flinging her across the yard. Suzy lay where she landed, not moving, bent and bloody.

My mother called the Studdards from the veterinarian’s office, told them what happened, told them how much it would cost to get Suzy fixed up. The Studdards refused to pay, telling my mom it was her fault, telling her to let the dog die. After she hung up with the Studdards, my mother called my father at the office. He said no. Hell, no, we’re not paying $300 for the neighbor’s dog. My mom cried. She hung up. Then my dad called her back at the vet’s office. He said okay. Go ahead. Get the damn surgery.

My mother loves to tell this story. She loves to talk about how my father pretended to hate animals but was really a softie. She credits him with a change of heart tied to his conscience. But I know my father was not a softie. He was a large, difficult man with a temper and whose rage was often terrifying. My mother just always got what she wanted. She still does.


A few years back, before my brother got divorced, his then wife called me in exasperation.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Your brother is a grown-ass adult man, and he can’t make a single decision without talking to your mama first and getting her blessing. He has got to cut the apron strings.”

It’s funny to think about it. How my mother rules my brother. She’s a tiny woman—five feet, two inches and my brother is a huge, ball-busting, tough guy. Barrel-chested and muscular, he worked as a bouncer through college. He shoots guns. He can scare most people without trying too hard. And my mother can cripple him with a disapproving look. She owns him. There was very little comfort I could offer my sister-in-law because my mother owns me, too. And I suspect, back in 1976 when Suzy was mauled by the neighbor’s dog and wasn’t going to live without emergency surgery, my mother owned my father, as well.

I have always been in awe of my mother’s strength. In a certain light, it could be perceived as hard-headed stubbornness and self-righteousness. In a different light, her strength is born from a clear sense of justice and a refusal to be shamed. I suspect it is a mix of both. In 2007, when Mark and I were what passes for adults, my mother was working for the State of New York in a midlevel government job surrounded by people who watched TV at their desks. She forwarded a viral email to a group of coworkers. It contained a collection of cartoons, one of which featured a snowman with a carrot erection next to a snowwoman with large snowballs for breasts. There was probably a risqué quip beneath it. When my mom forwarded the message, she cut off the tail that showed the string of state employees who received it and forwarded it on before her.

One of her coworkers reported Erika for sexual harassment. I feel like I need to write that again. My 62-year-old mother was accused of sexual harassment. She was called into Human Resources (HR) with her supervisor and union representative. She was reprimanded and given an agreement that outlined disciplinary actions: a loss of two weeks’ vacation, probation, and a letter in her permanent file. Her supervisor and union representative counseled her to sign it. She refused and explained that she merely forwarded a stupid email that had been forwarded to her. HR asked her for the name of the person who sent it to her. She refused to name names. They explained that there was nothing else they could do. Erika still refused to sign the paper and asked for a hearing. Everyone left the room.

A few days later, her union representative called her and said that HR has decided to change the disciplinary action: one week of lost vacation instead of two. The representative urged her to accept the deal. Erika refused. She demanded a hearing. A few more days passed, and they offered a new deal: no vacation loss and a letter in her file. Still, Erika said no. Eventually, the case was dismissed with no action taken. My mother had waited them out and worn them down.

I often thought about how I would have responded, the acute shame of being accused, the stacked power differential of the people in the room, the risk of losing my job. Throughout the negotiations, my mom would laugh as she recounted the latest developments, but I was scandalized. Embarrassed. I thought her disregard for consequences was short-sighted. At the same time, I liked to think I would have fought it just as she did, would have advocated for myself, would have loudly proclaimed the ridiculousness of the situation and made a stink. Or maybe I would have been just as successful in my own way, using diplomacy and reason, appeasing the offended without acknowledging the offense. But even then I knew better. In many ways, I was not my mother’s daughter. I was meek. I rolled over. I would not have fared well.


When my mother brought Suzy back from the veterinarian, the dog had a cast around her entire torso. I was delighted by the cast, the contrast between the hard, cool shell of the plaster and Suzy’s warm, wriggly body inside it. Suzy stayed with us, and my mother nursed her, made a little bed for her that she carried from room to room, so Suzy wouldn’t be alone. Nobody heard from the Studdards.

Suzy recovered quickly and was soon up and about, carefully making her way down the back patio steps to sniff around the backyard as my mother gardened. The cast was removed after a few weeks, along with the stitches. My mom brought Suzy home, and we fed her Gaines Burgers as she pranced in and out of the kitchen, jumping on and off the couch in pleasure. Later that day, we heard a knock at the back door. Dean Studdard stood there, his face set in a grimace.

“We want our dog back,” he said.

“You tell your parents that they can have Suzy back when they pay me for the vet bills,” my mom answered.

Dean glared and turned away, and we watched him walk across the backyards to his house. Shortly after, the phone rang, and my mom launched into a heated exchange with Dean’s mom who slung xenophobic slurs and threats involving the police. My mom called my dad. He talked about the neighborhood, not wanting to make enemies, not wanting to involve law enforcement, especially when, he suspected, we wouldn’t win.

“Give the dog back,” he said. “She’s not our dog.”

My mom gave Suzy back.


A few months later, my dad was transferred to New Jersey. My parents flew north to look at houses, and my grandmother flew south to watch Mark and me. My dad stayed north while my mother returned to pack up the house and to send my grandmother back home. In the last few days of boxes and moving vans and goodbyes, the Studdards called my mom to see if she had Suzy. The dog was missing. My mom said no and offered to look, saying with wicked pleasure that Suzy may be more likely to come if she heard my mom calling. We all wandered the neighborhood for hours calling for Suzy. No one could find her. Mark and I worried that she had gotten attacked by a large dog or hit by a car or that she would return to find our house empty and that we left without saying goodbye. Our mother told us there wasn’t much else she could do.

We left Georgia a few days later. My father flew back and we all drove north to my grandparents’ house in New York where my brother and I would stay until the new house was ready. It was a 20-hour drive and we were all hot, grumpy, hungry and tired when we arrived. My brother and I ran through the mudroom, burst through the kitchen door, and were astounded to see Suzy prancing around my grandmother’s feet in excitement.

“Suzy!” we shouted.

“Not Suzy,” my mother said, following us. “Susie.”

We looked at her in confusion.

“Grandma loved Suzy so much, she decided to get a toy poodle that looked just like her,” my mother explained. “And she named her ‘Susie,’ which is Hungarian for ‘Suzy.’”

We looked from my mother’s face to my grandmother’s and back to my mother’s. They both nodded.

“Susie!” we cried.

“Her nails are blue!” I shouted. “They match her ribbon!”

“I took her to the dog groomer,” Grandma said.

Mark and I understood completely. We thought Suzy was great, but Susie was ours, and no one was going to take her away.


It wasn’t until I was a teenager and both my father and Susie had long since died that I realized that Susie and Suzy were the same dog. I don’t remember what prompted the connection, but when I asked my mom, she laughed and said, “Of course! I wasn’t going to leave Suzy behind. She would have died.”

“But how did you do it,” I asked.

“Oh, it was a pain in the ass. We shipped her by plane to New York. It was really expensive. Your father almost had a stroke. We had to buy the crate, pay special fees. I worked it all out with your grandmother in advance. She picked her up at the airport in Albany.”

“So when Suzy was missing and we were all looking for her, you knew she was on a plane to New York?”

“Oh, by that time, I think she was already in New York.” She laughed again and pulled impish faces at the memory.

“Mom, you stole a dog,” I said.

“I did!” She leaned back and laughed. “But she was our dog. We loved her. She loved us. Love made her ours.”


I am still, in many ways, not my mother’s daughter. I am still meek. I often do not get my way, and almost as often don’t mind. I usually think of my pliancy as a good quality, but as an old friend once told me, there’s a dark side to every mountain. But the dark side is hard to see.

Last year, I found myself struggling in my job after a new executive director took over. In my first job review with her, she failed me in every category. Two of the categories I had “substantially failed.” The level-headed part of my brain knew this was ludicrous. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a smidge of work ethic couldn’t fail everything. I knew something was up. I got angry. Like my mother, I refused to sign the review. And then I crumpled.

The executive director emailed me a note saying that I should submit a detailed outline describing the actions I would take to meet all expectations. She wrote as if to an incompetent idiot. The next day, I diligently toiled on a work plan to address my inadequacies and shortcomings. I addressed my communication problems that included things like “too many sentences.” I acknowledged my inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and owned it all. It was a humiliating process. I saved the document and planned to send it on Monday. Then I left for the weekend.

I spent two days crying randomly in public places. The job wasn’t ideal, but it was a work-from-home position with flexible hours, and I was a one-parent household struggling to be the type of mother I thought I should be. I was terrified of losing my job, couldn’t imagine anyone else hiring me. I couldn’t fathom how I failed so spectacularly. I didn’t know what to do.

When I sat back down at my desk on Monday and opened up the document, I thought about my mother. Her stubbornness that was sometimes brave, sometimes foolish. Her anger that was sometimes ugly but always strong. I looked at all the steps I outlined to show my boss how I would do my job better. I felt gross and ashamed. It was time to feel something else. It was time to be my mother’s daughter. It was time to steal the goddamn dog.