I wasn’t always the Fresh Professor. At one point, I was just another starving actor trying to make a living. But stories change over time, as do professional desires.

This is Part Two of my story. Enjoy the ride.

August 2000. Waltham, MA

Her name was Maggie, and she was badass.

I met her at Brandeis University, at the beginning of my second year as a grad actor. She was a first-year MFA, costume design.

For at least a week I’d caught only glimpses of this woman — from the back. Every time I tried to see her face she’d turn a corner or become inexplicably obscured.

Then one day, she sat in plain sight, eating her lunch in the common area, and I just stared in wonderment. She’s gorgeous — the moment I saw her face I was smitten. And when she turned my way, all I could think to do was smile the most charming Miles smile in the Miles repertoire. She looked at me and nodded her head in the “what up, pahtner” way I’ve only ever seen Black men do. That was the moment I fell in love … but don’t tell her that, or let her read this story — she hates when I write about her.

But I need to rewind.

One Year Earlier …

My first year at Brandeis was complete culture shock. Morehouse College, my undergrad, is an all-Black, all-male institution in southwest Atlanta, GA. Brandeis, however, is a predominantly Jewish institution founded in the same year as the State of Israel and located 10 miles west of Boston, MA. Up to this point, I had never lived anyplace smaller than Atlanta. Suddenly I found myself immersed in the suburbs of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts …

Though it’s among the most liberal of our states, it is widely known that White Bostonians hate Black people. And yes, that hatred extends 10 miles west.

As I was looking for work to supplement my scholarship, I was turned away by employer after employer, most of whom didn’t bother to look at my résumé. Luckily, when I applied at the independent movie theatre two blocks from my house, the interviewer was a film student from New York. His interview single question was, “What did you think of Eyes Wide Shut?”

One night on my walk home from work, two police officers pulled up and blocked my path with their cruiser.

“I dug it, but you could see Sydney Pollack’s hands on it. The masquerade was reminiscent of Barry Lyndon’s card game scene.”

I was hired on the spot.

Our uniform consisted of a white shirt, black tie, slacks, and dress shoes. Although it was a laid-back work environment,
we were all avid film fans and therefore took our work very seriously. We often argued over whether The Godfather or The Godfather II was the best movie ever made; we resoundingly hated The Blair Witch Project, which, unfortunately, was showing on two screens — our distaste stemmed from the fact that before patrons could acclimate to its handheld camera work they would vomit in the aisles, leaving us to take turns sweeping up human bile in the darkened theatres. Luckily, I had experience (see Part One).

One night on my walk home from work, two police officers pulled up and blocked my path with their cruiser.

“Where you going?”

“Home.”

“Oh really? And where, pray tell, might you live?” (I pointed at my house, which was across the street.)

“And where were you before … if you’re going home now?” (I turned around and pointed at the movie theatre, 20 feet from where I stood.)

“You sure you didn’t rape anybody? We got a call that there’s a rapist matching your profile.”

“My profile? In Waltham? I’m the only person in Waltham that looks like me. I work twenty feet in that direction and live twenty yards in that direction. I know that can’t be true … sirs.”

“Watch yourself. Don’t want you getting into trouble. We suggest you go inside and don’t come out.”

I walked away from the cruiser and toward my house. My three roommates
were hanging out in the kitchen, and I told them what happened. They were outraged but not surprised — they were also Black,
and two of them were from Boston proper. During the school-sponsored “House Hunting Weekend,” we were the only Black grad students in attendance. Understanding that it was Boston, and that we were definitely “other,” we figured there was strength in numbers. And somehow we were able to find a place not too far from campus, though if I remember correctly only the other light- skinned roommate and I ever met the realtors in person — she was accompanied by her parents and I wore a shirt and tie … the same shirt and tie I had on when confronted by police and accused of rape.

Thankfully, nothing else too exciting happened that first year of grad school. We had class every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 4 days a week I worked at the movie theatre, selling tickets and popcorn. At that point I was just trying to find my groove. … I couldn’t decide if I was a comedic actor, a dramatic actor, or both. I also found that I defied categories often prescribed for Black actors: I didn’t like August Wilson, I hated most TV shows that featured Black ensembles, and I was bored by stories of our past as slaves and civil rights activists. I pretty much kept to myself, both in and out of class, choosing instead to hang out with the employees of the movie theatre.

Anyway, the months rolled by. I drank a lot of beer, went to the gym, and hooked up with a lot of women. That summer, I got a job at a bar and continued working at the movie theater. It was a busy time. I shot
a few commercials and met with casting directors in Boston. In fact, I auditioned to be the cohost of a brand-new show called American Idol. (I didn’t even make it past the first round, but after watching one episode it was clear the producers got it right.) Anyway, before I knew it August had arrived.

This was when I met Maggie.

But before I get into that, you should know why she was different.

Winter 1982. Chicago, IL

“OK boys and girls, please grab your mats for naptime.” Naptime was my favorite part of school day.

Now, people know me as an extroverted guy who can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. Although this is true today, it definitely wasn’t in 1982. I had a speech impediment growing up, which meant the only people I spoke to were adults.

My parents had me in their early twenties, so they were young and playful … excellent grown-ups who were always down to run and skip or pretend we were superheroes.

So, as prompted, Darien and I arranged our sleeping mats next to one another and promptly started making out.

They shaped the nascent Fresh Professor by encouraging me to ask questions and inviting me to explore.

That said, they really were young and they needed to party. Once or twice a week, they would drop me at Aunt Zelma’s on 79th and Stoney Island (South Side of Chicago). She was somewhere in the neighborhood
of 80 years old (no one knows her birth year because she was born before accurate records of Black folks were kept). Anyway, whenever I was over she let me do whatever I wanted, as long as I was happy and didn’t interrupt her “stories.”

Aunt Zelma loved watching soap operas… all of them. My personal favorite was General Hospital because I liked Luke and Laura — this might’ve been because of the actors’ interactions, their storylines, or the alliterative nature of their names; whatever the reason, I watched every episode possible and even requested it at home.

Oftentimes, Aunt Zelma’s female neighbors would pop by with their young nieces or granddaughters, many of whom were close to my age. I was happy to have these women in my life. … They never made fun of my speech and they always wanted to play fun or unusual games. I just loved it.

Spending most of my youth with older ladies and female playmates defined the man I am today and directly informed my adult interactions with women. I played house and dolls as much as I played Star Wars or jumped off of furniture. I never thought girls were icky. In fact, I only remember thinking girls were cute and wanting to be their friends (though I didn’t necessarily understand why).

Not to worry … I would find out during naptime.

“James, why don’t you put your mat here, next to your reading buddy?”

Darien was my reading buddy. She was also my new best friend (after all, she liked Star Wars and watched soap operas too).

She also liked to hug me. And I liked to hug her.

So, as prompted, Darien and I arranged our sleeping mats next to one another and promptly started making out.

Yes, it happened that fast. We may have been young, but we knew what we were doing. (Thank you, soap operas!)I remember our lips touching, then our tongues, and then we each began to gently touch the other’s face. It was an amazing 60 seconds. The teacher, a former nun, witnessed the action and wasted no time in pulling us apart. She reprimanded us and said she would have to tell our parents.

I was confused by everything—I thought this was exactly how boys and girls went about being friends: you played, you talked, you kissed, and then you ate lunch in the General Hospital cafeteria.

Thankfully, Darien and I remained friends through high school, though we never made out again. But since that naptime back in 1982, it’s been clear I have an easy way with women. I rarely struggled to find someone with whom I wanted to spend time. Sure… I considered settling down or finding a soul mate, but not until I was old and had experienced “life.”

Then I met Maggie.

 

She was, and still is, clearly, out of my league

 

September 2001. Waltham, MA

Goddamn, I’ve always hated arguing with Maggie.

It was a bright sunny day, and for some reason we were arguing. I don’t remember why, but we were both upset. I wanted to be alone and so did she, so I grabbed my sneakers and went to the gym. It was 7:45 a.m. on September 11th.

Two weeks prior, I’d started my final year of the MFA and my first appointment as an adjunct, teaching undergraduate improvisation at Brandeis. Maggie and I had been dating for almost a year.

Kinda …

When she nodded her head at me in the common area, 11 months prior, I immediately asked her out.

“Alrighty then … wassup, pahdner?”

“Nothing. I’m Maggie.”

“James.”

“Where you from?”

“Chicago. You?”

“Seattle.”

“What you up to, later?”

“Ha. I have a boyfriend.”

“Cool. Wanna see a movie?”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“So you wanna go this weekend?”

“OK.”

“Solid. I’ll pick you up at your crib.”

And that’s how we began.

Maggie gave me her number and directions to her house (this was well before we all had GPS on our phones). I picked her up the next night, we drove to the movie theater, and we saw Almost Famous. I could tell we were both having fun and digging the movie, so I held her hand. She looked at my hand on hers. I felt her indecision. And then, an almost imperceptible jolt of energy pulsated through her knuckles. … She left our hands as they were — and that’s how they stayed the rest of the movie.

“Dope movie.”

“Yeah, I love Frances McDormand.”

“Word … since Fargo.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Wanna grab a drink?”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“Cool. I worked at this one bar over the summer …”

“I live with my boyfriend.”

“… ”

“He’s moving back to Seattle for a bit.” “… just one drink.”

“OK.”

It was our first date, and though we couldn’t be certain, we hoped we’d be together forever.

That doesn’t mean it was always smooth sailing. Sometimes we argued, and of course most of the time our quarrels could have been avoided. … Such was the case for our argument that Tuesday, back in 2001.

Ugh — I hate this part.

By 2 p.m. I still hadn’t seen or spoken to Maggie.

I decided that taking my frustrations out in the weight room was a solid idea. Back in 2001 I had a portable CD player too bulky to carry around the gym, so I was forced to listen to whatever drivel poured out of the gym’s stereo. I began with bench presses, and by set number three I’d found my stride, the argument with Maggie all but forgotten. I was in the zone, obnoxious radio DJs be damned. And then …

“Apparently a plane just crashed into a building in New York City.”

“Ha-ha, how do you hit a building?”

“I know, right?! Don’t they have flight exams?”

“Yo, what if the line to get your pilot’s license was like the line at the DMV? Just mad waiting. …”

“Ha, no wonder this idiot flew a plane into a building.”

I looked around the gym, but no one else appeared to have heard the news. And while I know the DJs couldn’t possibly have understood the gravity of what was taking place, I vividly remember being taken aback as they joked, so dismissive.

I finished my workout and drove home, where I found my roommates gathered around our television set. Another plane had hit, and both towers of the World Trade Center were ablaze. Hundreds of New Yorkers were already presumed dead.

It was a Tuesday, so we all had class. Everyone hurriedly showered and changed clothes, but we all returned to the living room. I reentered as the first tower collapsed and a ticker ran across the screen, indicating that a plane had just flown into the Pentagon. The United States was under attack, but I wasn’t worried … I was in Waltham, MA.

I called my parents in Chicago — they were okay. My brother had just started at Morehouse, so I called him in Atlanta — he was fine, too

Not long after the second building fell, I walked into the classroom assigned to my undergrad improv class and just stared at the floor. This would be our third meeting. Students entered visibly upset, a few of them crying, as they had family members in New York; and, though everyone was physically fine, these young people were shaken up.

So I led them through some breathing and movement exercises before we took our seats. To my mind, we had two options: We could leave class early or we could attempt improvisation. The students chose the latter, and for the rest of that sad morning we struggled to make one another laugh.

By 2 p.m. I still hadn’t seen or spoken to Maggie. Our argument seemed twenty years in the past, so I ran to find her at the graduate drama building. She was on the steps outside.

We stared at each other for a while. We didn’t speak, just stared. Slowly, we walked toward one another and hugged. Then we held hands and walked into the building, saying only, “I love you.” Those words were all we needed.

The United States will never be the same.

We were attacked by people who despised our values and our way of life. They believed their mission was to blight all that was evil in the world. They felt the nation’s hubris was its downfall. They said we lived grandiose lives and were unworthy of redemption. Hate overpowered love that day.

This was an act of terrorism on U.S. soil, but it was not the first time.

June 1921. Tulsa, OK: An Imagined Account of a Very Real Story

Runing the Negro Out. Tulsa. June.

I was just a kid, but I remember it. Like yesterday.

We moved to Tulsa after World War One. It was a good place for us colored people. Yes, it was segregated, but hell, it’s America, what place ain’t?! There was oil boom and more than enough land, so our people set
up shop in Greenwood — some called it “Black Wall Street” and others “Little Africa.” Me? I preferred Greenwood … because that is that.

After we moved, people managed to establish storefronts, hotels, banks, and movie theaters. Businesses and homes had indoor plumbing — which White folks didn’t even have in their neighborhoods. And we created a wonderful school system for the young’uns. We was doing alright. … I guess we should’ve known how successful we looked to all those White folks.

Cause then something terrible happened.

Sarah Page, a White woman, accused Dick Rowland, a Black man, of assault. Law enforcement come over to arrest Dick and, not long after, a lynch mob formed. Black folks gathered and headed for the courthouse to stop the mob, but that just didn’t sit right with White folks … so they went into our neighborhood and attacked.

They weren’t alone.

The local sheriff deputized all White citizens; he went on to ask both local and national law enforcement agencies to put us in our place. Planes shot at us from the sky. Our houses were burned. And our people were slaughtered. For 24 hours, they looted and torched 40 square blocks of Greenwood—destroying more than 150 businesses, along with hospitals, schools, churches, and 1,256 African American homes.

The death toll was over 300, with several thousand injured and thousands more left homeless; we would live in makeshift tents for the next year.

The people of Greenwood were terrorized for living a life we shouldn’t’ve been living: the American Dream. Maybe things will change in the future. I hope so.

So much love in our community was destroyed by so much hate. (Sulzberger, 2011)

February 2012. New York, NY

 

Jamel and I rocking the Apollo together in 2016

 

Maggie is working on Blue Bloods and I’m on Are We There Yet? We moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 2009, right before our twins were born. It’s a mostly West Indian and Ghanaian community with Black-owned shops, homes, and restaurants. We feel very lucky to have found each other and this neighborhood. Here, we see the potential for a future that isn’t filled with hate but with mutual respect and admiration. 2001 and 1921 are not forgotten, but it seems like we’ve learned from history. I feel optimistic.

Anyway, I have downtime between episodes, and I need to be teaching again. It always rejuvenates me — I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m about to start working with a new program that uses hip- hop to help high school students pass the Regents Exams they’ve previously failed. That program is Fresh Prep, and prior to teaching, I observe a Fresh Prep vet.

“Wassup, I’m Jamel.”

“Yo, I’m James.”

This meeting marks the beginning of my friendship with a man I now call my brother, yet another partnership that feeds me.

And this is the official beginning of the Fresh Professor.

Almost …

James Miles is a Master Teaching Artist who has worked in arts education for more than 15 years. He has facilitated workshops and designed curriculum for the New Victory Theater, Roundabout Theatre, Disney Theatrical Group, Theatre for a New Audience, Center of Arts Education, BAX, Brooklyn Arts Council, Opening Act, and (Out)Laws & Justice. He has worked as an actor, an accountant, a comedian, and a model. James is an adjunct professor at NYU and the Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership.

Reference
• Sulzberger, A. G. (2011, June 19). As survivors dwindle, Tulsa confronts past. The New York Times, p. A16.

 

 

Guest Post by: James Miles

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