Education: Living Young, Gifted And Black by Kyle Phoenix

I grew up in New York City and by my twenties had lived in all 5 boroughs and Long Island.  I'm pretty well educated both formally and through my own curiosity  this blog being one expression of that education.  I've also been not only aware of the races I'm comprised of but how the most apparent one, is perceived, especially when combined with my age and intellect.

I was out on a date with a gentleman and he and I were in that fun, exciting getting to know you phase.  Do you like this movie?  How about that music?  Where have you been on vacation?  I brought up just casually that I hoped to be able to provide my children with a certain kind of education.  He then bounced back that "these kids today didn't know better" and that corporal punishment was perfectly acceptable, in fact it was the only way.

I was chatting with a television producer the other day about pet peeves, pet intellectual peeves and I revealed my annoyance at the mitigation of the word "like" in conversation, "to a certain extent", "things of that nature" and "it is what it is".  Being a teacher doesn't help with hearing these words and phrases being misused and an inner cringe is created.  Sometimes it's the constant repetition, other times it's used in such a grossly construed context that it literally screws up everything said around it to my ear.  Students I correct, the general populace, I consider it my time off, and nod politely.

I was coming from a really fantastic dinner with a friend, at one of my favorite restaurants, Plataforma here in NYC, and we were chatting away about the 2012 election.  I threw out---the real battleground is going to be 2016, 2020.  Then we started bandying about candidates names.  Condoleezza Rice came up and I asked could Romney have won if he'd put her onto his VP slot?  Was she a viable Republican candidate in the future?  While playing with the what if's my friend then said Rice was a sell-out.  I questioned to whom and what had she sold out from?.  She said to Bush and I, who have another friend who went to Stanford where Rice teaches and passingly knows her, said I didn't think she quite "sold out" as much as just has a different belief and value system.  My friend stood adamantly to Rice as a sell out and I came at it from a different tact---I'd read a biography on Rice a year or so ago---she's a classically trained pianist, studied ice skating at a near professional level, speaks and understands Russian culture and history as a world class expert---wherein Harlem was she to take those skills and drive?  In fact, if I threw some of my qualifications up against a wall like al dente pasta---where would I stick?  Wasn't Civil Rights about the right to move freely through society?  To chart and choose one's own path?  To be fully human?  When would I personally have the space/right to be simply fully human and not have the projected expectation of racial solidarity and monolithic, slave based, hegemonic thought projected onto me like the conversation was doing to Ms. Rice?

I grew up right as computers were hitting every home, so I had a Commodore 64 and 128.  I'm an only child so I've generally had my own bedroom/space since I can remember so I've been able to hibernate, isolate, entombed myself into a form of solitude.  Also because my parents were the progressives in their own families, the youngest, they were often moving and going about and trying things out and I was brought along so I got acclimated to the adult world much faster.  I didn't feel uncomfortable with children my own age, I just often sat with them with a knowing of the outcome of the game, their thoughts, etc..  I was advanced by my experiences with my parents.  Looking back I can't think of any question about sex, politics, drugs, religion, other family members that was off limits to my parents.  In fact, they encouraged my pushing the boundaries of wanting a deeper understanding of what was occurring around me and the world.  The projection is that only children are spoiled, no, at least in my case we're simply allowed a certain passport between the adult and child worlds that I notice others didn't have.  I got to be the fly on the wall most times if I would sit quietly.

Hence, I grew up slightly older than my physical appearance.  With tastes that are a bit more refined.  One of my mentors, the world renowned author, Carlene Hatcher Polite and I would sit and discuss blues and jazz music.  I was 22, she was in her mid-60's.  She would say to me, you remember such and such by Coltrane or Mingus or something from the deeper Be Bop era, she was a huge  Be Bop fan.  And I would rave on about Holiday or Perkins or James.  In fact my other mentors, the one's over a certain age, my grandmother, Dorothy who gave me a steady diet of books, and two others, Dr. William Hunter and Raymond Federman, our discussion would center around works that were far beyond my age range.  Dr. Hunter introduced me to Toni Morrison in high school and later it would turn out, Carlene was cousins with her and I would meet Morrison on several occasions.  Federman, having coincidentally gone to high school with Carlene before they both became professors at the University of Buffalo, opened my mind to experimental fiction and writing.  To Samuel Beckett and the concept of the page not being limited by it's margins---the day he casually pointed that out in class, I remember being literally blown apart mentally.  I had mastered after a decade prose writing, scripts, poetry, essays, comic book scripts, long form into manuscripts but he radically altered my sense of the very page and what that meant.  I was about 22 then too.

I started writing when I was 12, on September 8th at about 5pm.  It's so vivid because I wrote it in my journal and marked that day as officially "writing".    In middle school I wrote the most torrid, suggestive, wild piece of an almost novel called The Hemmingways.  Part Dynasty, part more Dynasty I hand wrote it in five or six spiral notebooks that then got passed around JHS 80 in the Bronx and got me a trip to the Dean's office.  I thought I was done for but he said that he'd read it and it was good, I just should make sure it didn't interrupt classtime.  Then came starting businesses and thrill of making/creating money.

At 7, with a $5 loan from my mother ( I had to sign a contract of repayment) I started a newspaper delivery business and it blossomed so fast that I had to hire my babysitter's children a month later.  (They were also the first employees I've fired when they misunderstood employees vs. ownership.  I would fire quite a few more people before I was 8.)

At 14, my best friend and I started a national comic book company/fan production.  We would scour the back of comics and role playing game association membership lists, send out letters of invitation and for $20 a year people could become members of a the company and we would produce comic books.  That last for about 5 years and I learned a lot about production, computers, typesetting, layout, the comic book business, editing, managing a business---my mother giving me my first tax ID number at 14 for my birthday so I could deposit all the money orders that came in.  Did I mention that at least half of the membership never knew the President and Vice President were half their ages?

The way the national company got started was from selling pictures of comic book characters in the lunch room and then shattering all copyright laws and reselling copies of role playing games (Dungeons and Dragons and Marvel Superheroes was BIG!).  Because of that facility of training by adults I could travel the city at 11 or 12 and my peers couldn't, so I could track down all the Marvel RPG books, buy them and then photocopy them at my mother's job (I have a level of skill with photocopiers that is unrivaled by anything but professionals).  It cost $6 new, I would sell the copy for $3.  I then had a stable of artists who would draw a picture of the Hulk in a certain way for you or if you liked a certain panel in a comic I would blow it up to poster size at my mother's job and sell for $1.

At 16 I wrote my first screenplay and directed and produced it in high school for two years, subsequently getting accepted into a film program at Long Island University, under the teaching of Harold Williams.  No one was more shocked than I when Monty Ross, Spike Lee's production partner saw one of my pieces and remembered me a year later.  In many ways the current television show is a reiteration of those skills and interests. I actually did a 30 minute film product called Erotica about the variety of things that people find sexy or turn on's---it was so comedic and over the top that it made my peers and the adults watching aghast, titillated and delighted all in one viewing.  Then I directed a music video from Lisa Standtfield's song Poison that needed more time to come to fruition but I was on to something, to something creative.

Michael J. Foster, one of the most
brilliant men I've met, d. 2012
I love the mechanics of business, the sexiness of it, the patterns and merging and separations and moldings and concepts and workarounds.  I find tax time erotic.  I took the H&R Block class, I'd recommend it for everyone, for kicks after undergrad and a few years after that was well into an MBA, my facility for finances and reading realized.  On the side I started working on a Masters in Education, while working on a 10th manuscript/novel.  I'd started the first novel after the Hemmingways in high school as a short story----that turned into 75 pages under the stewardship of two other high school mentors, Debbie Freeman and Denise Donnelly---then finally a 125 page novella by the time I got to Carlene and Federman.  That novella became a full book with Federman's referring me to Professor Ronald Sukenick in Colorado, who suggested that the other short stories (some of them appear on this blog) were ready to be published and he would, but that the novella was a book, a full length book, find the full length book in it.

All along this path, in junior high school, high school and then college I'd joined the poetry clubs, the school newspapers,the chapbook literature society's plus by high school/college attending multiple classes a day in just writing.

I first met Carlene Polite when a friend said we "sounded alike" to her but that Freshmen weren't allowed to take Carlene's writing classes.  Luckily I didn't get to undergraduate studies until I was 21 and had been working and contributing to the household bills since I was 14.  I thought such a concept was balderdash!  I dragged a duffel bag---the HUGE one full of binders and notebooks to Carlene's first class where everyone was required to read a piece of writing to audition to get in.  I read a portion of a manuscript called Stay (after the Bette Midler song) about a memory of sexual abuse from one of the main characters.  She signed me up personally for both of her classes that day and made me her first Teacher's Assistant in 22 years a semester later---she broke the rules of the university for me, as TA's were suppose to be graduate students and I using the adult tactics and business skills, finagled a way for the university to pay me a graduate student stipend fr my work with her (and later Federman).  Yes, I would've done it for free but if there's a way to get paid for it too, I thought go for it!

I bartered deals with the college newspaper and magazine to write simultaneously for both, while contributing as a writer and editor for the undergraduate and graduate literature magazines.  Plus taking every single class at the university that was writing related.  The only two I didn't really deeply love were the journalism class and the playwriting classes.  I think because they were in a bubble of just those stand alone classes so they didn't naturally advance like the others did.  I once figured out that I was writing about 500 to 1000 pages a year ( I had a steadfast rule to never recycle anything in another professor's class, everything had to be fresh and new, even if it were dreck).

After all that writing , I turned to my other love business and worked my way up and through a commercial real estate company, an insurance company, an investment company, a healthcare company, a bank, and several non-profits finally circling and then landing back into teaching.  It never honestly occurred to me to teach.  Though I was a TA in college for 4 1/2 years and now that he's dead I can say, taught Federman's class one time for the first 2 weeks of a semester so he could tour Europe for a conference.  It came to me from an HR manager at Amaranth, a hedge fund company who was interviewing me for a managing paralegal position, $100k a year and she said the job was mine but she felt in her bones that I was a teacher.  I was aghast!  There was a 100k on the table and my contract was up in a month at the nonprofit I'd been at---no longer would I have the perks of nearly 80k a year and she was chattering on about teaching.  She sat with me for an hour and we talked and she said to consider it because the attorneys wanted me for at least 4 to 5 years and in that time I could have no consideration for law school.  Another, really small non-profit that only had 35k for a salary for me had said, when I left my other job give them a shot, a thought.  I went there for 2 years to teach, creatively.  Yup, taking a 50% pay cut.

When I look back on this menagerie of work and school and creativity, I can see now my gifts at work.  I can see where I was intimidating to lovers and confounding to peers and alien to extended family members.  My parents and grandparents though never treated me as odd though, in fact I remember telling an aunt who questioned my reading so much as unhealthy that she preferred my nose buried in Sophocles because my aunt's son was working on his second decade in and out of prison and rehabs.

When I read Gladwell's Outliers I finally had a context for understanding myself for contextualizing my abilities, for understanding their origin.  A lover once told me that when he was 7 years old he was working out how to ride a bike and I was managing a neighborhood business.  When he was 12 he was playing baseball and I was starting a decade long class of intensive writing.  I used to write late into the night and Dr. Hunter eventually had my AP class scheduled at 8am and arranged a tutoring job for me at 7 so I'd show up.)  Debbie Freeman and Denise Donnelly became like intensive coaches to me as I whizzed through their classes and demanded more and more.  Then of course Ms. Campbell allowing me to take a shot at writing a screenplay, I turned in a 100 page draft three days later, all of those people making room, pushing and pulling me, when he was just bouncing a ball so that by our twenties, he was working his way through novice while I was hanging out with Polite and Federman and Morrison and working on not one but several manuscripts   To me it was clear, the process, the arc of giftedness, the work involved but to him it was staggering 

Of course it probably had to do also with his being White.

I've been Black a long time.  In fact, most of my life.  I tell people about my self racial perception this way to illustrate how the me-ness of Kyle, is only Black in the projection from others.  Rarely do I turn the TV on Black or use a fork in a Black way or scratch my arm with Black intent.  Race is a projection.  Most times I'm just bopping along, humming a sound and others in reality push Blackness at me.  I'd even go so far as to suggest that most humans feel that way about themselves---the demarcations the rest of us make at and to them, they aren't always consciously thinking of themselves as.  But some of that thinking is from being a generation or two away from purely a Civil Rights era way of thinking about self and race.  Most because of social integration but also because of racial mixing and accepting race as a category means that I have to look at what being racially mixed by the same categorizing system suggests.

When I think about race and ethnicity and culture, I think about being visibly African American but I'm also 1/4 Narragansett Indian from my grandmother and 1/4 Scottish/White from my grandfather.  I like all the bits and parts, all the fragments of history and cultures to examine and display.  I once bought a kilt and considered getting a family crest done.  I have lots of Native art and materials around my house.  I believe and have studied many African things from culture to history to religion.  My age makes race less of the only thing I identify myself as first.  In fact it's one of the last ways I see myself even as yes, racially discriminatory things happen to and around me and I teach race and race theory.  Over the past decade, particularly after undergrad, I wanted to make more Black friends, find more Black mentors in the business and social worlds so I ventured into that here in Manhattan, with mixed results.

I've found that where I can hold race as one of the things about me, hold sexuality as one of the things about me, and even hold intelligence as an element of myself, knowing yes, that they all meld and overlap, others can't or don't or won't for me nor for themselves.  I've often challenged that the deepest marks of mental slavery have been that we, the descendants of slaves, keep reminding one another that you come form slave stock---when instead we should remind each other that you come from the kind of stock that slavery couldn't destroy.  That we triumphed.  Simply the de-emphasis on being chattel product and instead seeing the glorious power it took to survive such a generational experience.  But no, alas, slavery is addictive.  I see it in public schools, in how parents treat their children, how teachers do, I see it in HIV numbers when one man can call Black men around him "brother" and then practice unsafe sex with a orgasmic shrug, I see it in my own students confounded by the fact that I read a book or that I don't know the words to a Rihanna song or from those slightly older than me that I think  Black people will think differently and will vote Republican, Independent, Communist  Socialist, Green, Democrat because isn't freedom, not allegiance what the end of slavery was about?  I think it's more dangerous that 7 people were running for President and the majority of Black people only knew the names of 2 of them.

Honestly, I don't know what it means to be just Black because I don't think Black people can entirely know what it means to be Black because race is a projection. So if a White person four hundred years ago pointed at an African and said nigger and that evolved into the pointing having the word Black attached to it---is that what that person is?  I accept the reality of the pointing and the need to exist in society by moving in that definition but I also, contradictorily, accept the reality and the inherent, autonomous right to move into other spheres of self-definition.  My identity is not suppose to be easy for you to understand or encapsulate to a word.  Because it's mine.
Not yours.

Now I'm speaking of autonomy and sovereignty.  I am, and always will be, sovereign unto myself. Perhaps that's a product of the generation I belong to, not the Civil Rights one where identity was merged into a monolithic "Black" for power, or it has to do with being gifted and sitting on the floor at 10 years old scrawling hundreds of pages of stick figures to represent superheroes and creating detailed comic books and story lines that only I could discern while reading to and through and beyond my age range in solitude.  Or perhaps the encouragement of mentors, some male, some female, some Black, some White, some gay, some straight  some old, some young, some now dead, who from all sides pushed me to Mastery of my crafts.  And yes, even the business people I worked for, when I specifically situated myself to work for several Black male executives, vice presidents and owners (I just missed out on working with Reginald Lewis!) to see how with all the weight of gender, race, sexuality and intelligence, one could operate in that world.  My parents are both college educated to advanced degrees but they're also previous members of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army so there is a strain that I grew up with of revolutionary and radical self-conception.

But I am.  I have only willingly allowed people to harm me and when I knew better, I chose better.  I'm not that impressed with myself now, back in school for two more advanced degrees, because I don't see myself through the lenses of the projectors, about what a law degree and doctorate will be or mean.  I of course have some thoughts and aspirations of how to use it but just this past Wednesday I was in one of the law classes, we have to do a short presentation on a case/article every week, and it got around to me.  Now if you check out stuff on YouTube or my CV or know me or have been in workshops I've facilitated, you'll be shocked that I feel nervous during these 5 minute presentations.  I record my classes, type notes during class, add post notes to pages and highlight sections of passages all to get to a deeper understanding of the material.  I'm presenting and I brought up that the article I was to share for the class was biased, I'd gone and gotten the books from Amazon of all the books that the cases reference----yeah, that's when I realize I'm a little odd.
The professor says, "You went and got the books?"
I say yes, and hold up one and go on about my presentation.
Yeah, I'm that kind of student.

Now where did I get that from?
The Cosby Show.
Theo was having trouble in his first of college and couldn't understand why.  Clair and Cliff ask how can his rather wacky friend Cockroach be doing so well and Theo explains that Cockroach not only reads what's assigned but also gets and reads all of the books in the bibliography of what's assigned.  He knows a subject/topic from all angles.  When I left high school, it being suggested that I'd have to do an extra semester after graduation to make up missed credits, I went and got my GED and then spent almost two years working to help my family before we were in a financially strong enough position for me to leave and go off to school full time.  During that interim though I was frantic about college  working at the Antique Boutique across from NYU and serving young, mostly White, blithe students, I took the police test, considered the military, and more important went to the Barnes & Noble on 8th Street and 6th Avenue and started at A, figuring that if I could read through as much as possible, by the time I got to college I'd be ready.  When I got to college a friend let me copy Where There's a Will There's An A, a study system and I learned to buy my class books a semester ahead of time, read them and thereby be basically in review during class.  Yes, there are tricks even I use to absorb so much, to be prepared, to be over-prepared as people have pointed out to me.  But more intrinsically, I have a fundamental, Kunte Kinte responsibility to myself, to my ancestors, who couldn't, who were beaten, and killed for reading, to read every damned book I can get near.  As revenge.  As retribution.

Lorraines Hansberry, author of Young, Gifted and Black
I'm reading this week Mastery by Robert Greene and Creating Minds by Howard Gardner and Cold Hard Truth by Kevin O'Leary, Learning In The Future by two authors and two books by Stedman Graham----I read a lot---but I'm learning to see what it means to be young, gifted and Black and I'm now considering what another 50 tears will look like in my own growth and education, if I've come so far from grade school/adolescence to adulthood.  I've got a contract to do the TV show for another 7 years, and that brings with it E-books, print books, a magazine E-newsletters, blogs, podcasts---lots of great stuff revving up.  I used to feel like I wasn't working hard enough, I always feel that way truth be told, but now I'm more studied to outcomes, to value of time.  In January of 2013, all my mentees will have to sign a contract with me to get my time anymore.  I need to know that we're really doing good work, advanced work after several years and not just meandering.  I envision my path as Free My People.  It chants in my ears, crescendos in my dreams, thunders impatiently in the center of my forehead during dull or listless or senseless meetings, pointedly with Black people.  That those of use who are young, gifted and Black must, must, must, turn and without reservation nor hesitation, free others.

CANI from Tony Robbins  another mentor derived from Johnathan Deming  who restructured Japan after Word War II---Constant And Neverending Improvement, I think that's what being young, gifted and Black means to me.

And that's a fact.

Thank you,
Kyle Phoenix
Thanks and enjoy! You can Like Us on FaceBook or Follow Us on Twitter! Don't forget to watch The Kyle Phoenix Show on Channel 56 (Time Warner), 83 (RCN), 34 (Verizon) and the Thursday/Friday 12am/midnight simulcast on

1 comment: