In previous chapters I argued that the progress we’ve made, to the extent we’ve made progress, comes from sustained engagement and institutional development rather than from “black leaders”. Some argue that the black family is the most important institution black communities have, and that it too is under siege. And that in order to protect the black family we’ve got to first and foremost protect the nuclear family—that is to say, somehow we’ve got to save the number of black “husband-wife-children” families we have and then somehow grow this number. By both saving the black husband-wife-children families we already have, and then growing that number, we will in turn solve a variety of ills we have as a black community.
Like many of the other subjects I’ve tackled so far, this speaks to a certain type of common sense. It’s common sense that two heads are better than one, whether we talk about problem solving, child raising, or money making. But I’d also argue that there are a whole set of myths embedded in this idea that we have to unpack, and here I’ll focus on two.
The first myth is that there are basically two types of families in black communities, broken ones and fixed ones. The broken ones are usually headed by single mothers, and these broken ones are the ones that hold black communities back.
The second myth flows from the first.
If the biggest problem we face as far as black families go, is the problem of single parenthood (really, single motherhood) and the reason this is a problem is because single mothers simply cannot raise black boys and turn them into men then the obvious solution is to mend black families by bringing black men back into the home.
Almost twenty years ago over one million men travelled to Washington D.C. to hear Minister Louis Farrakhan give this narrative. And it’s been repeated several times since then in various guises and by various black men and women, including the President of the United States.
Now to a certain extent I’ve dealt with the big picture already, with the effect of the Second Great Depression. And up until now although I’ve used the first person I haven’t really talked in depth about my own life. But this particular subject is one close to home for me, not only because I grew up in a black family, I have one of my own.
So what I’m going to do below is use a few examples from my own life to talk about the challenges these myths pose for us practically and politically. Although there are limits to how transparent public figures should make their lives, sometimes I think at least a bit of transparency about how those of us in the spotlight for one reason or another, can shed light about politics.
…. October 2006
It was 1:30am on a late Saturday night. I was in the office again., against my wife’s wishes. She thought (correctly) that being in the office so late made me less productive. She felt unsafe when I was away so late. And to the extent I was spending more and more time working I was spending too much time away from the children.
And again she was right.
Even when I was at home I was often absent, pounding away at my laptop.
Now I had reasons to go against my wife’s wishes. I thought I did my best writing late in the day and into the evening. And because I was a social scientist, I knew what the crime rates were. For all our fear of urban crime, the odds of me actually being a crime victim, the odds of them being crime victims while I was out, were slim. Furthermore I was a safe enough driver that I didn’t think I needed to be concerned about getting into even a minor fender bender much less a major accident.
That Saturday night I stayed about 45 minutes later than I should have, trying to pound out one more page, one more paragraph.
That 45 minutes ended up making all of the difference in the world, because as soon as I got in the car, turned the key on, and drove outside of the campus walls I was hit by a drunk driver.
Driving a white Jeep Cherokee he smashed into me on the driver’s side. After the accident the driver, dazed, opened the car door… and fled from the scene. I was ok, but the car wasn’t.
Turns out the driver had reason to flee, besides the fact he was drunk. When the campus police arrived and searched his car, they found drugs and malt liquor.
After making sure I was ok, one of them was kind enough to go home to tell my wife what happened. After I got over the shock of the crash, that I took stock.
The minivan was the only car we had. And it was just about to be paid off. We didn’t have savings (in fact, besides my retirement, we didn’t have any savings) for a down payment for another car. We didn’t even have enough money to get reimbursed for a car rental. And we had five children to shuttle back and forth. My wife and I spent the next day or so trying to figure out what we would do. It would take the insurance company time to figure out whether the car was salvageable. What to do in the meantime?
For a week local friends shuttled us back and forth. I bought a bus pass, and took the bus to work. Because we homeschooled our kids, we were part of a large black homeschool network. The parents in this network brought groceries and prepared meals. We were ok for a couple of weeks.
Then lightning struck for the second time. Every Saturday my family made the trek up to the YMCA. T-ball, soccer, basketball, dance, you name it our kids did it. Without the minivan we didn’t know how this would continue, but one of the homeschool parents came to our aid. She would drive to our house, pick up the kids in her minivan and would take them to the Y. Not two weeks after my accident, our friend picks up our kids.
Twenty minutes after she leaves we get a phone call. My friend’s minivan was struck by another minivan. The car flipped over in the crash.
Everyone was ok. Given the nature of the accident it was a miracle.
Being hit with these accidents within two weeks of each other was incredibly draining. It was crucial that we get back on sound footing, and the first part of that was finding a vehicle.
My fraternity came through here. One of my fraternity brothers worked at a car dealership. He emailed me and told me that he had a car for me. At first I thought he meant that he had a car for me to buy—something I couldn’t do because I didn’t have the money. No. He gave us a brand new SUV as a loaner. I didn’t have to pay a thing. All I had to do was bring it back like I found it.
Our Detroit network came through as well. My father-in-law had a working van that he no longer drove. And finally, another homeschool parent, recognizing that I needed my own vehicle (in case something else happened) gave us an older car to drive. Within a few weeks we had three cars to replace the one we’d lost.
Now let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s take this same series of events, and change three things. Change my job. Make me a low level WalMart employee. Take away our education—take away our college degrees. Finally, change our parents’ financial circumstances. What happens after that first car crash? I noted that I took the bus to work. But as a professor I only have to be on campus on the days I teach and hold office hours. I can work from home. If I have my laptop with me, I can work on the street. All that matters is that I am productive, that I am writing and publishing. Does not matter where I when I do it, only that I do it. The only clock I have is the tenure clock. But what if I worked at WalMart? If I worked at WalMart, the one bus I would normally take becomes two, plus a Metro ride.
And although I’m a big fan of public transportation Baltimore’s service is shaky at best. (One time I waited so long for the bus to come I ended up walking 3 miles home and beating the bus there.) If I worked at WalMart, every time I was late my pay would be docked, and I would be punished. And if I was late too many times, no matter whose fault it was, I would be fired. Relying on public transportation would have cost me my job.
If I didn’t have my educational background, I wouldn’t be in a fraternity or anything like it. If I’m not in the fraternity, what is the likelihood that a virtual stranger would let me use a new car off of the lot? How many people would I have had in my immediate network with a car to spare? All of the bills associated with our accident were covered, either by health insurance or by car insurance. What would I have had to pay if I didn’t have car insurance? If I didn’t have health insurance?
Now one response to this is that I worked hard to get to where I am, that my parents and my inlaws worked hard to put us in the position where getting into a car accident isn’t a life changing event. Favor isn’t fair. My parents and inlaws did work hard. I work hard. But the hardest working people I know are people who have to make ends meet working dead end jobs and still find a way to provide for their family. We play jedi-mind tricks on ourselves if we believe there is something inherent about what we do as middle and upper class black people that causes us to deserve the benefits we do receive. If favor isn’t fair, it should be.
Now one of the arguments people routinely make about working class single parent families is that adding that second parent would make all the difference. Not in the scenario I just posed. Being connected to the right networks, having the right level of education, is far more important in the thought experiment I just ran, than having two parents.
In fact I’d argue that while it’d be a lot tougher for me if my wife wasn’t around, and a lot tougher for her if I weren’t around, it’d be a lot easier for me to provide for my family on my own—given my class background—than it would be for a working class mother and father to provide for their family. But even given middle to upper class black families have challenges.
As I show in the second part of the story.
Although I was able to continue to work while dealing with the after effects of the two accidents, we were barely holding on. It was months before the insurance claims came through. And afterwards we had enough money to pay off the old car, but not enough to buy a new car outright. We were only 8 months away from paying off our car, freeing up money that we could use to begin saving to buy a house, or for the college tuition payments that were several years away (but looming). We had to purchase a new car, adding another six years of car payments.
The next year went by in a blur.
It seemed like we were consistently robbing Peter to pay Paul. Every month we were just a little bit short. Every month it seemed as if we were relying on our network a little bit more for money.
Now one obvious solution was for my wife to get a job right?
I mentioned that she was homeschooling the kids…she could easily get a job to supplement our income and help dig us out of the hole we were in. That wasn’t an option for us for one major reason. While we rented in one of the best black neighborhoods in Baltimore, the elementary school (supposedly one of the best in the city) was horrible. We’d tried it once when we moved to Baltimore in the beginning.
I knew we were in trouble the day my oldest daughter came home from school asking me to look over her math homework.
Me: Imani, this is wrong.
Imani: Daddy, what do you mean?
Me: You’ve got here that 1.0>1…this isn’t right. They’re the same number, only expressed differently.
Imani: Well that’s what my teacher told me.
Me: Well, Imani your teacher is wrong.
Imani: But Daddy, she’s my teacher.
Combine that with the various times her teacher misspelled words on homework assignments, I figured that the problem wasn’t my daughter. So public school wasn’t an option for us at that point because the schools were bad. Private school wasn’t an option for us because we didn’t have the money. Homeschool was the option we had left.
Unless we bought a house in a better neighborhood. Which we inevitably had to do, when because of skyrocketing energy prices, our landlord decided to make us pay a portion of the energy bill. We scraped up the money, again taking advantage both of our network and of my own retirement savings, and bought a house. Our kids could go to school right around the block. And my wife could begin to look for work.
But we were still living on fumes.
And money was even tighter because I not only had to pay back what I borrowed from my retirement, we were now responsible for the utility bill every month.
During all of this I was still expected to be productive.
To be a good teacher.
To publish in scholarly journals.
To write a book good enough to be published by the best academic presses.
To collaborate with colleagues.
I went into overdrive.
I would wake up at 5:30am, then write for hours.
Then go to work.
Then try to write some more.
Then come home at around 6:30pm.
Eat, talk to my wife and kids for about an hour, then go to bed. When I woke up I would repeat the process.
Come home for a bit.
Every day. No time for rest.
“Daddy want to play a videogame with me?” “No.” “Daddy want to make a smoothie with me?” “No.” “Les, do you want to go out? We can have someone else watch the kids.” “No. Don’t have time.”
I was on this pace for months. Work. Work. Work. After more than a year, it all caught up with me. One weekend after reading an innocuous work email, the weight of everything that we’d done, all the (in my mind, bad) choices we’d made, all of it came crashing down. And I collapsed. I didn’t get out of bed for three days. I considered myself strong enough to handle anything that the world could throw at me. Definitely strong enough to handle the pressures of being a big time college professor on the tenure track, while raising five children, and being the sole breadwinner with college tuition breathing down my neck.
But at that moment? I wasn’t.
My wife suggested I talk to our doctor. I hadn’t considered medication before. But again, I was still expected to come to work, to perform, to be on point, and to publish. So I got a prescription for an anti-depressant. I didn’t make me feel better…but for the month I took it I was more capable of doing what I had to do to survive at that point. I lost twenty pounds dropping from an already skinny 155 to a skeletal 135.
All of this happened as the presidential campaign kicked into high gear. When the possibility of a black man being elected to the White House seemed realer than it had ever been. And all of this happened as the housing market was beginning to tank, arguably bringing the rest of the economy along with it. As I began to talk to my close friends and colleagues about what I was dealing with, I also began to talk to them about their own circumstances, and about Obama.
What I found out was surprising but in hindsight it shouldn’t have been. Although the challenges I went through were very specific to me, most of the people I knew either had gone through a similar crisis, or were in the middle of it. In a weird way this made me feel good because I knew that I was not alone.
But it also made me really understand the stakes of buying into the successful/unsuccessful black family dynamic. Most black middle and upper income families are only one or two shocks away from poverty. Most of us are struggling. We are either trying to do everything we can to stay one check ahead of our bills, or we are already deep in debt. Few of us are happy with our schools, not just because of racism—although that’s important—but because of a sense that our schools are somehow missing something.
Our relationships with our spouses are strained because in order to get our children in the right schools we have either bought houses bigger than we can afford, or we are paying tuition bills that are sky high. And this combined with the everyday stressors of our job makes us far more prone to health problems than other populations.
These are the struggles that focusing on the supposed problems of the black poor ignore. And these are the problems and the struggles that no one talks about. We don’t talk about depression amongst ourselves, because that is a private issue. We don’t talk about how we don’t know how we’re going to make it to the next pay period because that is a private issue. We don’t talk about how we’re behind in our mortgage and don’t know how we can save ourselves from foreclosure, because that is a private issue. Now how poor black people act? That’s public.
But the stuff we deal with? That’s private.
We tell our therapist. We tell our closest friends. But in public?
We wear the mask:
WE wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties. Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask. We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile
But let the world dream otherwise
We wear the mask!
(Lawrence Dunbar We Wear the Mask)
Above, Dunbar writes of black men and women in the early part of the twentieth century forced to ‘wear the mask’ because of racism. We too wear the mask, but not the same one. Racism is still real. The reason that we had to homeschool our children was because our schools were horrible. The reason our schools were horrible was because of segregation. I didn’t tell all of my colleagues what I was dealing with because I was one of the few black professors on campus. But black middle class families don’t wear the mask solely because of racism. We wear the mask because we believe our problems are not supposed to be public. We are supposed to suffer in private. And the end result of this public private divide is that we feel alone and do not have the public language needed to transform all of this pain and suffering into something that can take all of this pressure off.