“Aloof Politics are Not Revolutionary”- The People Who Inspire Series: David B. Green Jr
The People Who Inspire series highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s Post features David B. Green Jr., Historian, Scholar, and Activist.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
The very idea of telling someone about my background puts me in an awkward and vulnerable position. I have to revisit aspects of my life that sometimes I’d rather not talk or write about, or share with the public– outside of my diary and memoir that’s in progress. But only for you, Relando.
Let’s see. I am the youngest of six children and a child of the wind—throughout my childhood and teen years I drifted from house-to-house hoping to find a home. My parents weren’t exactly the model parents. But when my mother wasn’t high or my dad wasn’t drunk, they were actually decent folks—my daddy was funny as all get out and my mother was this short sassy proud mother, for all of her babies was honors students and athletically gifted: we all ran track and stored somewhere we have boxes of trophies and medal for track, honor roll, and brain brawl super stars. Good times.
In those yesteryears, my mother was dangerously in love with crack and a man who beat her senseless. Shortly before the death of my grandfather—my mom’s dad and when I was around age ten (but I was in fourth grade)—my mother up and left. What I remember most about that day was the she cashed her “child support check” and promised to purchase me a Sonic the hedge-hog trapper-keeper folder—yes, trappers keepers were very much in vogue in the 90s, don’t act brand new). “I will get it baby.”
The day turned into a dusky evening that eventually transitioned into a cold and dark night—yet “Angel girl”—what my grandfather called his only biological daughter—was nowhere in sight. I had patience, my mother would return, she always did. However, that day turned into days…weeks…months. Years passed before I was to see my mother again. I was in seventh grade when she briefly returned. Left for school one day, and did not see her again until I was a graduating senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.
My father—“geech” they called him—was a fiery southern black man, who labored all of his life—he laid cement (a concrete engineer) and chewed tobacco like no bodies business. He was born in South Carolina in the year 1936, and let him tell it, he braved the winters with one pair of well-worn shoes and tattered jeans as a child. Honey, my father was the no-nonsense type—he’d (very much like my mother) let you have it in a minute (I guess that’s where I get it from); and when it came to the welfare and safety of his kids, he handled his business, feel me?
Yet and still,
My father and I had a tumultuous father-son relationship. We were too much alike—I mean he’d say something to me and I’d kindly back talk him. He only hit me once…and I hit his butt right back! He got the picture. But one day, the bickering got ugly—“you aint never gonna be shit,” he tells me. “What?” I said in shocking disbelief, looking at him dead in his eyes. After all my father had done for me—got me my first flute, walked to the school-house to attend a ceremony years earlier, listened to me wail on the clarinet on the front porch in the ghetto—that statement was the most disturbing. I say most disturbing because I was excelling in school and using that space to escape present my then realities in the hood—skinny black gay boy, sorta quiet. At the moment, I just knew I had to leave and nearly a month later I did…and never voluntarily moved back.
When I left my father’s house, I was merely continuing an already established precedent. As a child, I was in foster-care (to a loving woman). After moms left, I moved in with a host of relatives (who always tried to dump me back to my pops place). Shortly before graduating high school, I found a nice and comfy place with my now Godmother. A child of the wind I was indeed. It was not until I went off to college that I found the modicum of stability I longed for. Although the college dormitory was temporary, it provided me the opportunity to make a room of my own, to bend the words of Virginia Wolfe.
Belonging—I guess this what this narrative is about. As a child I longed to belong to my parents. I longed for that moment when I was performing, say my senior recital piece — Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G Major (for Flute) — and I could find them in the audience and smile knowing that their presence would assure me, my talents, my passion for music and the expressive arts. I never experienced that and yet I remain hopeful that I will experience parental joy someday.
How does my past connect to my work? In my current research, I study the literary and cultural history of black gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers who lived in the U.S. So in many ways, I’m trying to understand where their stories belong in histories of black freedom and liberation…where is their home?
My research is both personal and political. As a black gay man, with a feminine heir about himself, I’ve always wanted to know about those who’ve existed before me. Because I’ve always enjoyed writing, reading about, and listening to stories about people’s lives, I said, well why not make a career out of it?
Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Audre Lorde currently represent “canonical” black “queer” intellectual, literary, and political history. In my studies, I go beyond these important figures and unearth a multitude of writers whom all imagined freedom beyond racial equality.
But for me, this work goes beyond the historian’s craft—its goes beyond a perfunctory exercise that signal my mastering/ fulfilling degree requirements. This work is about humanity; it is about dignity, peace, social justice, and home!
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
I mentor young black women, because without black feminist educators (and black women in general), I’d prolly be a lost soul.
If social justice includes loving young black girls into beautiful black empowering women, then count me in.
In 2012, Black men have a social justice duty and that’s to love our black women—it’s that simple. Young black girls can be instructive. They can help men get in touch with their often-suppressed emotions. Young black women can learn to cultivate an important sense of self—where their worth is not defined by what a man (or anyone else) thinks of their sexual politics. Such relationships are about practicing self-respect and creating unconditional black love. I’m not eschewing other mentoring practices—when I see black men mentoring young black men, I smile. Yes, I say to myself. But to avoid instantiating an unconscious/ uncritical male privilege, we need to listen to our sister-mothers.
Black women, whether they are lesbian, bisexual, straight or transgender, should not be left alone with the violence, pain, and other social ills that often snake their way into their lives in a white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal society. That’s Bell Hooks speaking to me and through me.
Additionally, as a black gay male, I want to speak to the “brothers” — gay, straight, and bisexual — who enact a mythology of manhood via masculine embodiments. I will only say this once: Masculinity is a performance, while manhood is a state of conscience; a state of being. I am an effeminate black man! As a community in a community, black men need to love each other hard—in spite of our social differences. I cringe when I see how us effeminate brothers are treated in spaces dominated/ enshrined by a thick cloud of hetero-social “masculinity.” Such rhetoric is divisive and destructive. End it. Black men loving black men is still in need of a revolution.
Lastly, since the “queen is speaking,” to channel the great Dwight McBride, and since you got me talking about homophobia in the black community…we have a lot of work to do, folks—and I’m sure we know this!
But Dear White America, please use more specific word choice in your categorical generalizing, because the whole of the black community is not homophobic in ways portrayed in public discourses. Particular groups—notably the hetero-social black church—are indeed, homophobic, giving their sermons from the pulpit. However, my mother, sisters, aunts, uncles, colleagues, and everyday friends—are not homophobic! I AM NOT HOMOPHOBIC AND I’M A MEMBER OF THE BLACK COMMUNITY!!!!
Now that I’ve vented and aired that piece of information—lets get back to “the” black community.
Gay rights are civil rights and human rights—now run and tell that.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
Reading, writing, and thinking. Trial and error, which for me means playing with ideas. I enjoy working with and thinking with my colleagues. I enjoy the time I get to myself each day. There is a sense of autonomy, agency, and freedom as a grad student, para-academician. I would not trade the job for the world. Though shootin’ a playah-intellectual a lil more money wouldn’t hurt, either.
What aspects do you find challenging?
Well, even in the academy idiots exist. And by idiots I mean folks who are racially, culturally, and politically insensitive; those very folks who insist that racism no longer exists in this country and that barriers to entry in higher education exist no more. One would be a fool to believe the ill-forming opinions. We have a black president, yes—but structural inequalities exist yet and still in the U.S. and the academy serves as a fine example of such inequalities.
There are moments when I’m dealing with the children of America’s top 1% and at times, this can be challenging—nerve wrecking, even. Talk about embracing a teachable moment, sometimes, I want to give them the hand—“poof be gone.” However, my passion for teaching and social justice doesn’t allow me to do that, giving them the hand. Instead, I try my best to meet them where they are and hopefully provide critical perspectives that will help them see aspects of this world through a different lens.
What/Who Inspires you?
My sister’s — all three of them.
These young women, black and beautiful they are,
have been my rock/sword/shield for years.
They are my mother-sisters
In the blood.
Will stop the world to ensure my survival. Without them, I would not be
They protected me as a child from young in-the closet boys who confused their desires for me on the playground for hatred—I jest, but I do wonder about them now.
That violence though, was real.
My sisters, black and beautiful, they are,
fed me the love my parents did not. They supported me and loved me past my fears,
weirdness. They held my hand at night and in the homophobic
American (ghetto) streets.
The fellowships and footnotes
The paragraphs and conference papers
Beautiful black women
All three of them
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
To remain grounded in reality—this motto/philosophy/ key to success ultimately sustains me and led me to success.
But let’s think about the rather ambiguous, filled with promise, though empty term itself—success. If you are marking success by the number of earned awards, scholarships, and those material indicators of a hard worker worthy of recognition, then I’m very successful and damn proud of my accomplishments. My graduate education, here at Michigan, is fully funded—fall/ winter/spring/summer. I’m a McNair Scholar-Alum and a member of the distinguished Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Student Honor Society (Bouchet was the first African-American in this country to earn a PhD and he did so in Physics at Yale University). I hold degrees from some of the most distinguished universities in this country: BA in Econ (2007), University of Florida; MA in African-American studies (2009), University of Wisconsin-Madison; and currently, I am a work in process and “under construction” at the University of Michigan. So towards this end, I’m a pedigreed success story.
But, if we think about success along other lines—of loving folks that have longed hurt you—as a practice forgiveness, then I’m less successful. I’m a work in progress. For a period in my life, I was angry with the world, albeit very silently. I was angry with my parents and at the life that I was given. I was angry with family members for treading my like Wednesday’s trash—this, my dear, is a story for another blog); I was so mad! But then, I thought, what on earth can I do with this anger-energy? I began to write and play music. And the more I write and reflect, the more I discover that my success does mot make me infallible. I remain grounded in the reality that no matter what, I still need my family, I still need others to help me live in this vicious world.
My academic success does not make me better than street interlopers (i.e. commoners). I remain grounded in this philosophy because success often removes folks from reality. Aloof politics are not revolutionary—I remain grounded and humbled through this philosophy because at stake is the success of my people. This, my dear, is my key to success.
Oh, I try to live a well-balanced life. I work hard—this everybody knows. I’m a work horse. Writing and reading, always. But I do give myself plenty of me time. I exercise daily and find time to call my sisters and mothers weekly. I also continue eating chocolate chip cookies…at least once a week.
I try to, as Kanye West sings, live a very good lyfe, flaws and all, as my girl Beyonce croons.
Are there any special projects you’re working on currently?
Well, my dissertation—that’s very special. I’m also working on my memoir. Which, is challenging to do. I have to juggle finding time to write about my life with the demands of dissertation work.
Additionally, I’m planning to read as much literature written by black lesbian, gay, and bisexual writers. This might be a life long project, though.
There is, aside from the dissertation, a more immediate project—a documentary on higher education told from the perspective of graduate students. I find that whenever narrative are published about students of color in general, and black students in particular, enter public discourse there exist little to few perspectives from actual graduate students. This documentary can hopefully add to that discourse and provide newly critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and higher education.
Did you catch that — race, gender, sexuality, and ability? Diversity in higher education should do more to include other aspects of one’s identity, which can, I believe, influence a student’s experience with navigating the difficult and psychologically tryin’ terrain of higher education. By asking students to ponder the relationship between freedom, identity and higher education, this documentary will hopefully spark discussion on ways to improve our experiences with particular and contextual methods; not those weatherworn practices that have existed for years and still get us nowhere.
Is there anything Else you’d like to add?
Just that I appreciate you for inviting me to experience the camaraderie of this necessary, beautiful, and inspiring blog. I’m single, too! Rock out!
If you know any People Who Inspire that you would like to be featured in the series, fill out the contact form here.
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW