The Me Nobody Knew Then

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“When I first get up in the morning I feel fresh and it feels like it would be a good day to me. But after I get in school, things change and they seem to turn into problems for me. And by the end of the day I don’t even feel like I’m young. I feel tired.”

John, 13

The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices From the Ghetto, Stephen M. Joseph, ed.  (first printed in 1970, reprinted in 2003)

The word that I had been admitted to Masterman, a public school for gifted children, came not a moment too soon. It was April, 1967, I was 10 years old,  I was considered one of the top students at Kearny Elementary School, but socially and emotionally, I was failing badly. Had I not been transferred to Masterman when I was, I am not sure how I would have coped with my growing sense of loneliness and isolation. Reflecting upon these experiences leads me to think about how a child’s interactions with home, school, neighborhood and the larger environment affects her perceptions of her place in the world, and her chances of overcoming its obstacles and seizing its opportunities.

In recent years, psychologists have advocated for models of child development that give central consideration to the role of culture and socio-economic status in shaping the way a child views the world and functions within it. Yvette Harris and James Graham, author of the 2007 book: The African American Child: Development and Challenges (Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY.) argue that this is especially important for understanding children of color.

I had never been accepted in Penn Town, the neighborhood in which I had lived since moving to Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey at the age of six. To begin with, I soon learned that only a few of my peers had ever been to New Jersey, so I was something of a foreigner. Even though Camden was only a few minutes away by car, and we lived fairly close to the Benjamin Franklin bridge, not many families owned a car, and the public transportation services that shuttle between the two cities now hadn’t yet been built. I must have talked about Camden too much, because I remember a boy telling me that he had been to New Jersey once, and it wasn’t so special, so there!

My  father’s second-hand Chevy and my outsider origins weren’t the only problems. I lacked the social qualities that would have given me some currency among my peers. I was a slow, awkward runner, I couldn’t fight, and I had left Camden before I learned to jump double-dutch. Worse yet, I was double-handed, which meant that I couldn’t turn the ropes with a sufficiently reliable rhythm. To make matters worse, I was an only child, so I had no natural allies, and I had my own room. My father and stepmother wore second-hand clothes, but I had a new school wardrobe from Sears every year, and the latest toys. Worst of all, I was the teachers; pet.

I might as well have had a kick me sign tattooed on my forehead. As is true in every neighborhood, we had our designated bullies, and I was a favorite target for teasing and occasional beat-downs. For the longest time, I didn’t fight back; I’m not sure why. Nor did I know how to play the dozens, the ritual game of  insults built on race, class and gender stereotypes. I also had the annoying habit of questioning the logic of the taunts directed at me and others during an argument. It was common, for example, for a girl to say that she would “beat the black off” another girl. I couldn’t help wondering about that, because they also went around saying there was something wrong with looking too black. Following that logic, wouldn’t they consider it an improvement to have some of the “black” removed? Like the robot in “Lost in Space,” I spent a lot of time saying, “That does not compute.”

Eventually, there was a girl who declared that she would beat me up after school that day. She had been threatening to fight me since summer camp, and now the weather was cold enough for a coat. She had been a constant menacing presence. We met at the appointed hour, and, thinking that I would stand up for myself for once, I took a swing at her. She pulled my coat over my head and pulled my hair out  An excited crowd ringed around us and made enough noise that eventually some neighbor heard and got my stepmother to come rescue me.

Her response to the incident is telling. She brought me and the other girl into our apartment and told us that we were letting down the race by fighting like dogs in the street. She extracted apologies from us, and a promise to try to get along. I think a conversation with the girl’s mother followed, or at least attempted – that would have been the norm.  I think it was not long after that when my birthday coincided with the date of our regular Girl Scout meeting and she decided to host it at our place, complete with cake and ice cream. My tormentors were part of the troop. I can’t say we became friends after that, but I don’t recall any more beat-downs.

But by then, I carried the terror inside of me. Not just the fear of the neighborhood bullies, but the spectre of even worse violence. There were the tales of the tackheads, dark–skinned black girls with (snap fingers) that much hair who would supposedly grab girls, beat them, and carve up their faces to make them ugly. There were the gangs – in our neighborhood, there was 12th and Wallace and the Valley – gang geography was a required survival course in in everyone’s curriculum. During my childhood, the gangs went from zip guns to real guns, and before I left high school, some of my childhood neighbors, schoolmates and relatives were dead, or had suffered near-fatal injuries.

These dangers were mostly visited on boys, of course. In her book, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality and Gendered Violence (NYU Press, 2010), sociologist Jody Miller described the violence and threats of violence routinely visited up African American girls and women in urban neigbborhoods.

Without going into detail, I will say that by the time I was ten years old, I witnessed or experienced actions that I now recognize as acts of assault and sexual harassment, and coercion, and I know that I was not alone. One did not talk about having been the victim of such experiences, although it was not unusual to hear a boy brag about having “felt somebody up,” or to hear that some group of boys, “ran a train” (gang-raped) a girl. That was usually told without sympathy for the girl, who was thought to have allowed herself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Layered on top of all of this was the violence in the adult world – the real and rumored incidents of police brutality, the arrest of a neighbor’s father for killing someone in a bar fight, the occasional sight of a violent domestic argument that spilled out into the street.

I write of these things now because I recognize them as experiences that could have derailed me, and that did, over time, derail some of my peers. I also recognize that today, I could easily have met with the fate that befell Derrion Albert, the  16-year-old Chicago honor student who was stomped to death in September, 2009 as he was trying to escape a street fight that erupted as he was leaving school.

If we are serious about getting more young people from under-represented backgrounds into computing-dependent professions, our interventions must be sensitive the lived reality of children’s lives.

In another section of this work, I will explore these culturally sensitive models of child development and their implications in more detail. For now, I want to close with a presentation by Dr. John Rich, a trauma physician who heads the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University. Dr. Rich’s work focuses on young black men who are victims and perpetrators of violence. Using an ethnographic approach, he tries to help us see and understand the human hurt at the heart of behavior that is beyond the comprehension of most people.

“What we investigate is linked to who we are”

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

Phliadelphia: 1963-67

Literary scholars of the Freudian sort sometimes speak of the fantasmatic, a kind of archetypal drama etched into a writer’s subconscious, rooted in childhood experience, that finds expression in the structural elements of that writer’s work. In her groundbreaking 1998 tome, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, Claudia Tate (pictured below, left) used to concept to explain WEB DuBois’ penchant for eroticizing the quest for freedom in his creative writing. I recall a conversation with Tate not long after the book was published in which we speculated that writers would probably do well not to dig too deeply into the oedipal roots of their creations.

Nevertheless, this work would be incomplete without some exploration of the ways in which personal experience and social location helped shape my way of doing journalism and thinking about journalism education. Research related to the effort to enlarge and diversify the computing pipeline discloses that young people’s career choices are heavily influenced by parents, teachers and guidance counselors. (References) In plumbing my childhood experiences, I see evidence how I began to think of myself as a writer, and the values I began to internalize that would shape the kind of writer I ultimately became.

Investigative journalist Florence George Graves alluded to the impact of the personal on the professional in her May 2003 Columbia Journalism Review essay, “The Connection: What We Investigate Is Linked to Who We Are.”(.pdf) Graves speculates that her penchant for uncovering secrets was probably affected by the coded rituals of segregated life in the Waco Texas of her childhood,

“I couldn’t stop wondering about certain aspects of life in Texas. Why were there separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in public places? Why did my close friend’s parents treat her decision to marry a Catholic as if there had been a death in the family? Why weren’t Jews allowed to join the country club? Why should girls bother to excel in school if they were not entitled to use their knowledge in the world beyond the home?”

I was born in 1957 – the year of revolution in Ghana, federally-enforced integration in Little Rock, and the first human foray into outer space – accomplished by a Soviet regime considered the West’s chief global adversary. It was, in other words, a time when old orders were under siege, new power equations were being drawn and no one seemed sure whether the future held hope or annihilation. My childhood was lived in the space between the restrictive past and future possibility. On one occasion, my parents and I stood in one long line at an armory to receive a vaccine-laced sugar cube that promised protection against polio. On another, we stood in another long line to see the desk and other effects that had belonged to Pres. John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in a Dallas street while I sat in my first-grade class and made a paper turkey to decorate our Thanksgiving table.

Unlike Graves, the adults around me openly discussed the reasons behind the inequalities that she observed in silence. The questions revolved around how those inequalities might be eliminated – or at the very least, how their destructive impact might be minimized. Racial justice and the quest for enlightened governance had been matters of vital concern in Philadelphia since the 18th century, when the Quakers debated the morality of slavery, and black freemen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones protested segregation within the Philadelphia Methodist conference by founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From a sociologist’s perspective, I suppose my family’s prospects seemed fairly fixed in 1957.  My paternal grandparents had been part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the de facto segregated north. Their parents had been slaves. The men in my family mostly worked with their hands, mostly in construction. My father had done that kind of work as well, although by the time I started school, he had landed at the Post Office, and there he saw other black men who were going to college. With the help of his veteran’s benefits, he enrolled first in trade school, and then Temple University, fitting his classes around his swing shifts at work.

We weren’t the kind of people whose lives and concerns took up much space in the daily newspaper. The scholar VP Franklin (pictured, left) notes WEB Du Bois’ pointed critique of American journalism as he experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries:

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

Philadelphia, where I spent most of my childhood, was no exception to this general rule. In her 2008 doctoral dissertation, communications historian Nicole Maurantonio supplied the scholarly support for the sense of invisibility and alienation that I and so many others experienced as we searched for some reflection of our reality in the Philadelphia newspapers. Maurantonio argues that in the years between the end of World War II and the fatal 1985 attack on the headquarters of the radical group MOVE:

“[N]ews organizations were not merely impartial storytellers providing a language with which to narrate crises. Journalists inscribed a rhetoric of racial marginalization that shaped discourses surrounding race and ‘radicalism’ within the city.”

It was of course, the black press who tried to cater to the needs of African Americans in those years. From the time of its founding in the early 19th century, the black press had, as scholar Matthew Holden puts it, “facilitated the umbrella issues of freedom, racial uplift and the emancipation of the slaves.” My family, and most my peers regularly read the Philadelphia Tribune (which billed itself as  “The Constructive Newspaper” in those days) and Ebony magazine alongside the Philadelphia Bulletin. Many of us listened to black radio stations, where DJs such as Georgie Woods (“The Guy With the Goods”) would become indispensable allies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Maurantonio recounts how the Tribune tried to counter this dominant “rhetoric of marginalization”  by calling for police restraint during such moments of crisis as the Columbia Avenue riot of 1964 – a series of violent clashes set off by false rumors that the police had killed a pregnant black woman.  Maurantonio discusses the ways in which the Tribune and the other local newspapers framed their coverage  in the following video segment (from 9:12 to 15:03):


My teachers created what I now recognize as a hidden curriculum designed to reinforce our belief in our own humanity in the face of segregationist school district policies and a a culture that, as Du Bois had explained decades before, constructed us as a problem. Between school, the neighborhood library where I discovered Carter G. Woodson’s magical Encyclopedia of Negro history, the devotion to learning that my parents modeled, I came to understand education as a pre-requisite for personal and racial advancement.

When my parents and teachers noted my curiosity about certain aspects of science and writing, they shepherded me into Saturday morning writing workshops and science classes. My stepmother folded lined paper into little booklets that I filled with short stories.

When I was 8, I appeared as a panelist on a children’s version of the popular College Bowl television quiz show. The show ran on WHYY, our local public television station, and was hosted by Philadelphia’s answer to Mr. Wizard, Bess Boggs. (At least that’s her name as i remember it; having failed to find a record of the show during my research, I’ve posted a Facebook query to fact-check my memory.)  My parents dressed me in my Easter outfit for that year (a powder-blue tailleur with a faux-fur collar, don’t you know) and put my hair in a bob instead of the usual school-day pigtails. They cleared their work schedules to accompany me to the studio (no small feat, especially since my father worked swing shifts full time and went to school full time).

It will tell you something of who I was in those days to know that when Bess Boggs entered the studio, I jumped up and down and started tugging on my parents as if the Beatles and the entire Motown Revue had just strolled by. (Or maybe more – two years later, on a summer camp field trip, I was quite calm when we ran into Marvin Gaye in the Philadelphia International airport. It did please me mightily, of course, when he held my hand and planted a kiss on my cheek.) In any event, my admiration for Bess Boggs was in keeping with the fact that one of my other hobbies in those days was keeping journals on the Gemini space flights.

I don’t remember the show much, other than the fact that I was Kearny’s only representative. Kearny was not known for its academic prowess. The neighborhood it served included the Sunday Breakfast Mission, then at 6th and Vine. The tow-headed brother and sister in my class,  the only white children in the school, if memory serves, were the missionaries’ children. They had transferred in from somewhere, and I don’t think they stayed long.

Kearny was old school. We lined up on the concrete playground by class in the morning and stood at attention in the stairwells once we were marched inside. Two or our more imposing teachers, Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. McCoy, patrolled our ranks to ensure that we kept our mouths closed and our hands to ourselves while we awaited the class bell. Any transgression would require that you step out of line to have them smack you with a ruler. The school day began with a salute to the flag, the pledge of allegiance, and a moment of silent meditation. (We were told that the silent meditation was a substitute for the prayer that had been required until the Supreme Court banned the practice.)

My teachers exhorted us to be a credit to our race. A local historian, Ed Robinson, spoke at one of our assemblies about the glories of our African past. They were also steeped in art and culture – the crossing guard taught piano, and one of the teachers sang opera. One of the few white teachers taught us about Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter. They got us some instruments to start a small string ensemble, and had us learn two pieces for my one and only instrumental recital: an aria from Verdi’s “Aida” and “Go Down Moses.”

In Mrs. Moore’s class in second and third grade, I sat next to a handsome, sharply-dressed, husky-voiced and mischievous boy named William Cook. His brother, Wesley, who was three years older, was a fixture at the Friends’ Neighborhood Guild, whose library was one of my favorite haunts. My clearest memory of Wesley, whose neighborhood nickname was “Scout,” was of him sitting at a table at the Guild, telling another older boy, “Listen Up! Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin!” If I was 8 or 9, then, he was 11 or 12.

Two years after that, in November, 1967, after Wesley went to Stoddard-Fleischer Junior High School, we heard about the police cutting loose on a throng of high school and junior high school students who had gone down to school district administration building to petition for black history classes in the curriculum. We heard that Frank Rizzo, the inspector to whom mild-mannered George Fencl’s civil disobedience reported, had reportedly unleashed his men on the peaceful crowd with the command to, “Get their black asses!”   (The year before, Time magazine had cited Fencl’s unit as an innovative way of managing protests with minimal conflict.) In later life, after he changed his name to Mumia Abu Jamal, embarked on a career as a journalist and activist, and ultimately landed on death row.

By the way, the city’s new superintendent of schools, Mark Shedd, earned the enmity of Fencl’s supervisor, Frank Rizzo, when he criticized the aggressiveness of police response to the demonstration, leading to Shedd’s ouster when Rizzo became mayor in 1971. In a subsequent section of this work, I will treat Shedd’s legacy in more detail, but for now, I merely want to note the controversy over the police action.

All of that would be later. Suffice it to say that by 1967, I had internalized my parents’ and teachers’ messages about the power of the pen, the fun and necessity of learning, and the certainty that Lord have mercy, we were moving on up!


Endnotes

  1. 1. Franklin, VP. “W.E.B. Du Bois as Journalist,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 56, No. 2 (1987). P. 240-244
  2. Philadelphia Tribune page one flag, Sept. 1, 1964
  3. For example, see: Cohoon, J. M. and W. Aspray, (eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006; Barker, L. J., E. Snow, K. Garvin-Doxas, T. Weston, Recruiting Middle School Girls into IT: Data on Girls’ Perceptions and Experiences from a Mixed-Demographic Group, in Women and Information Technology: Research on Under-representation, Cohoon & Aspray, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006. pp113-136;
  4. References on the black press during this periodFor an on overview of the black press generally, see the PBS website for Stanley Nelson’s documentary: The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Pamela Newkirk’s Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2000) offers a comprehensive and concise overview of the process of integrating white newsrooms and its impact on the black press.

Remembering Paul Robeson

I first learned of Paul Robeson when I was 15 years old. I was in Temple University’s Paley Library helping my father with his research, and I was looking for something to read in my free time. I found his autobiography, Here I Stand. I started asking questions in my classes about why Robeson had been blacklisted by the US government, causing my teachers some discomfort. At Princeton University, I met his cousin and had an opportunity to meet him, but I was told that his health was greatly diminished, so I declined. Even before Princeton acknowledged its native son, the impact of Robeson and his family on the town was evident. His mother’s monograph on the history of the black community of Princeton was still available, and his father’s church, Witherspoon Presbyterian was and still is and active part of the community. Through the efforts of a coalition led largely by Princeton student Adrien Wing, (who is now an internationally-renowned law professor) a street and community center was named for him.  Unfortunately, he died in 1976 without the acknowledgment that he deserved.

Although I concluded that Robeson was sadly naive about the dangers of Stalinism, I found his talent, intellect and dedication to human rights inspiring.

This isn’t my favorite documentary of Robeson – it doesn’t recognize that not all of his critics were self-serving, for one thing — but you hear his words and voice, and that’s a good thing. I was fascinated by this clip about baseball great Jackie Robinson’s testimony against Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities committee.

I am partial to the documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier that focuses more on Robeson’s stage and concert work, including his groundbreaking performances of Othello. His meticulous preparation for his performances included learning the original languages and studying the cultural context of the music he sang. I remember a clip of him explaining to an interviewer about how doing this in preparation for Othello affected his pronunciation of certain words

That film also traces his transformation of one of his signature songs, Ol’ Man River in an affirmation of the struggle for human rights:

Here he is doing that amazing final monologue from Othello

Here is Robeson in a scene with actress Elizabeth Welch, “The River of Dreams.” I don’t know the film, but I’m guessing it must have been made in England, where Robeson could escape the stereotypical parts offered by Hollywood.

There are lingering questions about some episodes of Robeseon’s life — especially, whether his reputed 1961 suicide attempt and subsequent psychiatricPaul Robeson, Jr. hospitalization was really a CIA assassination attempt. His son, Paul Jr., thinks it very likely. Here’s  a photo I took of Paul Jr when he spoke about his father at Princeton University. (I think it was during the fall semester of 1977, which would have been not long after Robeson, Sr.’s death.)


Here is Robeson, Jr. explaining to Democracy Now! why he thinks his father was most likely drugged.