CONTRIBUTING WRITERS DEP’T.
How Did You Sleep Last Night?
By Lori Teresa Yearwood
IN THE SLEEPLESSNESS of the late nights, Joe Vaughn, 40, leaves his sleeping wife and heads outside, where he immerses himself in something he calls “my own enlightenment”—a kind of life review, he says. Here, he tries to figure out how to escape the matrix of his life as a Black man, a life in which he feels he is constantly struggling to make progress.
A physical education teacher with the Montgomery Public Schools, Vaughn is the father of three children. The family lives in a four-bedroom house, a rental in a working-class neighborhood.
People tell Vaughn that he has come so far, overcome so much. And that is true. But Vaughn’s focus is on the future, which with his hard-earned logic, inevitably brings him to thoughts of death.
His own death. The people he watched die violent deaths throughout his childhood. His brother’s murder three years ago.
“He was out on the front porch cleaning his refrigerator when someone shot him,” Vaughn said. “That broke me.”
These are the thoughts that keep Vaughn up at night. Vaughn’s parents both struggled with substance abuse, he says, and as one of six siblings, he grew up in a housing project where he was faced with drugs and violence and prostitution. His mother had been sexually assaulted when she was a child and never received the emotional support she needed to break free from that trauma, he says. Then she was exposed to drugs. His father, Vaughn says, was never a permanent part of the picture. At 5, Vaughn went to live with his maternal grandmother, in the Trenholm Court housing projects of Montgomery. At 8, Vaughn was nearly killed by a young man who used a broken bottle to cut him on the neck, less than a centimeter away from a major artery.
“I didn’t think I would live to be 40,” Vaughn said, matter of factly.
Vaughn says he followed the rules people told him to follow—he stayed in school, he got decent grades and played sports—but his main motivators were that he did not want to die and he did not want to spend his life in prison.
Now Vaughn wants to overcome the systematic barriers that keep him and so many Black people he knows from thriving: the knowledge of how to attain good credit; the financial leverage to secure a decent bank loan; the knowledge of how, when the time comes, to help his children do the same.
“My son asked me a couple of years ago: ‘Do we have a college fund set up for me?’” Vaughn said. “I told him, ‘No son, but I am doing the best I can.’ ”
That exchange continues to keep Vaughn awake at night.
“I feel if I die, I want to have an inheritance to leave behind. I wasn’t put here on this earth to say ‘I overcame drugs.’"
In addition to his job as a teacher, Vaughn is also the founder of Underdog Consultants, a company through which he aspires to help youths lead their best possible lives. He carries the company’s program, “Aspire DREAM BIG,” to audiences and groups that invite him to speak.
“I want to move thousands of people forward like I have seen W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Dr. Eric Thomas. Then I will know that I have succeeded. That is something that causes me not to sleep. Because that is the thing about death. You have to stay ahead of it.”
Vaughn has gotten life insurance, he says. But he doesn’t own any property, he points out, and that’s another fact that keeps him awake.
He worked for years to clean up credit problems after his mother used his personal information to get her electric service and then did not pay the bill. “My mom was not given opportunities. Because she was not given opportunities, she robbed me of opportunities,” Vaughn said.
Despite his solidity and steady employment—Vaughn has been with the Montgomery schools for 16 years—the banks continue to deny him low-interest credit and low-interest loans, he says.
“I don’t have the generational foundation to break out of the rat race,” Vaughn said.
There is a huge tree outside his home, Vaughn says, a tree he has dubbed “the limbs of life.” During the sleepless nights, Vaughn stares at that tree, thinking about how, after four decades of life, he is only beginning to learn things that could have moved him and his family forward if he had known about them earlier. One of his most recent findings, for example: that it is possible to assist your child in building credit by adding them to a parent’s credit card.
“A white lady at the bank told me that. I was like, ‘You can do that?’ ”
In addition to taking classes on intergenerational wealth, Vaughn says he is just beginning to learn who he is—beyond what his own elementary school teachers taught him about how he comes from a lineage of slaves.
“I felt for so long like I wasn’t anybody. Now I feel so inept culturally—like, as a Black person I don’t really know who I am,” Vaughn said. “I had not heard about the Tulsa riot or the Black Wall Street until two or three years ago. I was blown away. There are so many Black pioneers.
“And here is the thing: If I don’t have a cultural identity and I don’t know who I am, I am going to go forth in the world with blinders on. This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.”
“How Did You Sleep Last Night?” is an ongoing series.
Ask The Sophist
Dear The Sophist,
This ethical quandary arrives from Scotland, so while I appreciate there may be some cultural nuances unfamiliar to you I am hopeful that an outsider's perspective will provide the clarity I need to see through this murky situation.
Two years ago, we moved to a small block of flats with a communal back garden and drying green. (Basically, a few metal poles stuck in the ground for residents to string a rope around and hang their wet laundry on.) After waiting about several weeks to discern the existent etiquette (no one used them at all), we brought our own rope down and tied it around three of the eight poles, which we have used on biweekly basis ever since without issue. Until yesterday.
I was making use of our setup as normal when a neighbor we've been friendly enough with approached without diplomatic preamble or self-effacement of any kind to demand that we take our rope in each time we finished using it. It's true we had noticed lockdown bringing out an enthusiasm for line-dried laundry hitherto unseen, and that the few others who made use of the poles would take their ropes with them, but space still wasn't an issue and we didn't intend on changing our routine for what was most likely a passing fad. I was polite but firm as I explained that it would simply be too time-consuming to string up and take down a new rope every time we needed something dry, but that we were very happy for our rope to serve others whenever free.
At this suggestion, she changed tacks and said that, really, it would be to our benefit because leaving the rope exposed to the elements can make it "manky". She then touched our rope and made a face. As you won't be surprised to hear, I didn't find this point particularly persuasive. I said that the best I could offer her was to go around to the other flats and let them know our rope may be used by all, and she left disagreeably.
My wife is inclined to just get along to go along. But I believe a point of principle is at stake, in addition to precious minutes on this Earth doing anything other than laundry! We're a youngish couple relatively new to an established community and I can't help but feel that this is less about drying space and more about control. I also feel like she hasn't thought this through: if we're no longer sequestered to our three poles in the semi-shade, we can take over as much space in the sun as we like at will. I'm not a vindictive person, and yet...
Can you help out here?
Hung Out To Dry
Dear Scots Pilgrim,
How should you engage, as a foreigner, with the customs and crotchets of your neighbors? When in Rome, the saying goes, do as the Romans do. But what did the Romans do, and where was Rome, when they did it? At their maximum, you could find the Romans being Roman along a nearly 3,000-mile stretch from Berenike on the Red Sea coast to the Antonine Wall on the Firth of Forth.
Bear in mind, however, that the Romans did not hold onto their piece of Scotland for very long. And the American empire is not exactly addressing the rest of the world from a position of strength and authority anymore. So you should think carefully about what you wish to accomplish on the battlefield of the..."drying green," they call it? How picturesque!
You are almost certainly correct that your neighbor is trying to push you around, and she is violating the NATO spirit of mutual aid and cooperation. Naturally you feel the urge to push back. But the way you describe it, you are going about it all wrong. It's one thing to fight over a principle; the key is not to lose the fight by focusing on the incorrect principle.
Wasting time is not the issue here. However long it would take you to tie and untie the ropes is surely within the margin of variation between how long it might take to hang up different loads of laundry anyway. It's hard to imagine that going around door-to-door to invite all the neighbors to use your pre-hung clothesline would be a net time savings for you, and that's before factoring in the sitcom chaos that might break out if your neighbors ever took you up on it, so that you walked out the back door with a load of wet washing to find the clothesline you need occupied by somebody else's troosers or sporran or whatever Scottish people wear.
No, what really bothers you is a different petty injustice. Your bossy neighbor has generously given you the clue: If you leave your clothesline hanging up where it is, she tells you, it will get "manky." Now why would a nice fresh clothesline, suspended in the heathery breezes of Scotland, end up manky? Because you have hung it up in the shade.
One misconception that Americans and foreigners alike have about the American people is that we are shamelessly, constantly grabby and assertive. In fact, quite often, the true American nature is to be passive-aggressive, to an extent rarely seen outside of Canada. (Are your roots in the Midwest, by any chance?) Sure, we operate the most expensive and extensive killing machinery the world has ever seen, but we call it the Department of Defense and insist we're only doing it for everyone else's benefit.
It had never occurred to The Sophist that there was any sunshine to be found in Scotland. But you testify that there is, and that it can be found in your communal backyard, and that you are choosing not to take advantage of it. You've hung up your laundry in the "semi-shade," where it will stay damp, so as not to trouble anybody.
In your mind, you have already made a unilateral concession to your neighbors, and this neighbor doesn't even have the decency to appreciate it. Why should she? Look at how your neighbor approached you, without apology or indirection. What you see as politeness and deference, she sees as weakness and laziness. And she correctly sees your current course of action as a seizure of communal territory, even though you chose to seize the least desirable portion.
Your fear of being a greedy Yankee has led you to hoard something you don't even want, and to deny yourself the real prize. You have bound your hands with your own musty rope. Take it down, and next washing day, hang it up on four or five of the sunniest poles in the whole drying green. Take as much space as you need, and then take some more, just in case. Hang out an XXXL Randy White jersey and six pairs of wide cargo shorts and the Star-Spangled Banner. Your neighbor invited you to use the whole yard. It would be selfish not to accept.
Enjoy the sausage-covered eggs,
Got something you need to justify to yourself, or to the world at large? Other columnists are here to judge you, but The Sophist is here to tell you why you're right. Send your questions to AskTheSophist@hmmweekly.com, and get the answers you want.
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WE KEEP TELLING you, and we’re not kidding, we will soon exhaust our selection of recipes for eldritch and esoteric sandwiches, taken from The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, by Eva Greene Fuller; 1909; McClurg and Co., Chicago, found in the public domain for the delectation of all.
LOBSTER AND MUSHROOM SANDWICH
Cook one-half pound of mushrooms in a little butter until tender, then add one small sliced onion, moisten with a little stock and let simmer until done. Remove from the fire and chop fine; press through a sieve and season with salt and pepper and a dash of tomato catsup. When cool, add a little lobster meat pounded smooth, mix and spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Garnish with an olive.
SHAD-ROE AND CUCUMBER SANDWICH
Marinate one cup each of cucumber and cooked shad-roe, and a dash of mayonnaise and place on a crisp lettuce leaf between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread.
BEET AND CHEESE SANDWICH
Chop cold boiled beets fine, season with salt and pepper and a dash of vinegar. On this slices of lightly buttered white bread, spread cream cheese. On top of thin sprinkle the chopped beets. Cover with another slice of bread.
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