Those of you who’ve been following me on twitter (at @bgg2wl, if you’re so inclined, but be warned – I’m much more casual, there) might’ve caught me mentioning the latest project I’m working on, a series exploring how poverty affects wellness.
It’s an arduous process, something that’s led me down a broad and winding path of understanding not only American history, but world history. Understanding economics, and economic history.
It’s hard to read this research and not cry. To look at not only systemic oppression, but also direct apathy and how it has affected so many people to this day, is overwhelmingly painful. There is no other word.
We’ve grown up in these systems, these cultures – sub- and otherwise – and this society, and it has changed rapidly. So rapidly, that even those of us who are willing and active participants get swept up in the tide and can only hope to stay above water.
And, much like that effort to avoid sinking into the current, it takes a fighter to not sink into the sludge of it all.
What is the “it,” so to speak?
I’m so glad you asked.
We are asked to believe the absolute worst of ourselves, in ourselves. We grow up believing that, without X product or X service or X marker of status, we are nothing. We shame others for not complying, we bully them into submission, and we laugh and those who try to be different. We ostracize them. We look down on them. It’s our reward for complying – berating others for not doing so.
So many of us – myself included – grew up with the TV raising us, or grew up in a household that was just as dysfunctional as it was loving. So many people who wanted to be good, morally upstanding people, failed at every turn. My mother caught five buses every morning and every evening to take me to my grandmother’s house in the Cleveland projects, where there was a constant flurry of bodies in and out – her sons and my uncles, various grandchildren, various neighbor children. Some were always in trouble, some were in need of the kind of love and support that only a mother can give, and some quite possibly needed a hiding spot.
I spent much of my time with a plate of my grandma’s food, watching TV. And, in-between Tom and Jerry cartoons, there were always commercials. Some targeted the “Mommy” of the house, and some targeted the kids, but the message was always clear: YOU NEED WHAT I’M SELLING IN YOUR LIFE.
My mother, with her ten-total bus trips getting home at super late hours of the day with me, had little time to talk to her daughter about what she was seeing. She was so tired, she barely had time to ask me had I eaten dinner, but she always made sure I had it available. She’d been sold on the merits of keeping Kid Cuisines in the freezer, and how much of a time-saver they could be. No longer would she need to spend hours cooking a Sunday-dinner-sized meal every night – I could feed myself and she could sit for a minute and breathe.
I grew up learning bright and early that I could trust the commercials, and that was further reinforced by the number of kids in my school who were trusting them, too. When everybody got shoes that lit up in the back, I wanted them, too. And when everybody got Starter jackets with their favorite sports team’s name splayed across the back, I wanted them, too. I just couldn’t afford them.
For that, I was punished greatly. I was clowned for my “bobos” – slang for “generic sneakers” – and learned even quicker that I should be ashamed of not complying, because buying things – even when you have no money to buy things – buys you status among your community.
I hated the prospect of having company, for fear that people would realize that we shopped at a generic foods store and didn’t buy brand name foods. When I visited friends’ houses and they had big bright boxes with tigers and rabbits on the cover, I looked on in awe. What did it taste like? Did it taste like magic? I’d ask for a bowl, and melt in my seat. It did taste like magic to my poor-ass taste buds. I loved it.
My mother, as a reward for her dedication and hard work, received an offer that changed our lives. The company was relocating to Indiana – the suburbs – and wanted to pay to move her entire family. Since I, at this time, had just been suspended from school for three days for pissing off three teachers in three different classrooms all in the same day – no, really… they literally went to one another’s classrooms and said “What the hell is wrong with Erika? She needs to go home for a few days,” and so my suspension was sealed – and had just asked one of my friends, a member of a well-known gang in the area if I should be down, Mom jumped at the chance. (Why did I ask? Because, at age 12, I’d had a gun pulled on me by another kid – he held it up to the window of my apartment, pointed it directly at me. What was my response? I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a chef’s knife, and darted out my front door after him. That’s a story for another day.)
She didn’t even pack much more than a van’s worth of stuff. Our clothes, her shoes, and a few trinkets, and we were off to the suburbs of Carmel.
And the first day of school, grade 8, I got into a fight with a white girl who insulted me for nominating myself for class president. I lunged at her across three rows of desks, and was held back by two other classmates. The other girl was rightly terrified. I was enraged.
The school counselor took pity on me, and snatched me up before I could get snatched up by the principal. He said to me, that Carmel was a completely different world from Cleveland, and I needed to “take it easy.” I didn’t know what he meant then, but I know now – the suburbs ain’t the hood, but even that has its own subtext: we don’t behave like this. “We” meaning just about everything you think it does, whether “we” now includes me or not.
The suburbs were a very different world for me. My mother was able to buy all-new furniture, and eventually have a home built for us on the outskirts of town. Our home was finally filled with all of the name brands I’d grown up fantasizing about, but I learned quickly that the brands the hood loved, the suburbs frowned upon. I was so proud of my outfit for my first day of school – a Nautica polo with a jean skort, and matching blue and white socks with new white sneakers – not realizing I’d moved into Abercrombie world.
Compliance – assimilation – was hard.
I didn’t know anything about bank accounts, but so many of these kids already had them. My first day of show choir (What’s “show choir?” Do you sing Whitney Houston like we did?) resulted in my choir director telling me, “God, why do you stand like a truck driver? Are you airing out or something? Close your legs.”
I navigated high school – barely, might I add – but constantly received messaging that pathologized who I was, my past, and where I came from.
“You’re in the ‘burbs, now, Erika.”
“This ain’t the hood.”
“You’re not back in Cleveland.”
“….well, you know, ’cause you’re black, right?”
“You’re so ghetto, Erika!”
And, because my assimilation was dependent upon compliance, and I’d learned early on the benefits – emotionally and otherwise – of compliance, I bought into it with both barrels.
When people painted me and my assimilation into being the “exception,” I gleefully agreed and accepted it as a compliment. I was proud to not be who I was anymore, and abandoned that personality as quickly as I could. I couldn’t wait to move up the ranks of popularity, even though it came with a hefty cost: accepting one microaggression – an otherwise minor offense that quickly turns a piece of you into a pejorative, a problem, or an otherwise negative thing – after another, without reacting like I did that first day of 8th grade.
The day graduation arrived, I was excited – five years in this environment, where 93% of the students go on to college directly after graduation, had paid off. Caps, gowns, certificates, and class trips. Proms, carnivals, celebrations, parties. Every last bit of this was foreign to my mother, who told me “Honestly, I’m just thankful that you’re graduating. I didn’t even expect that.” And, that makes sense. I’m the second in the family to attend college, the first being my Uncle Casimere, attending The Ohio State University on an athletic scholarship.
When I entered college, there were a few girls from Haughville – a downtown Indianapolis neighborhood – on my dorm room floor. They hated my motherf– guts. Every thing I said, every thing I did, I couldn’t win. If I sneezed, it was a “bourgie-ass sneeze.” When I went into my room, I was a “bourgie-ass Carmel girl” leaving behind “bourgie-ass Carmel air.” The lobby for our floor was outside my dorm room, and all the girls from the hood – the same kind of hood I once came from – sat one day and talked alll the trash about me, not knowing I was in my room and heard every bit. I laughed and wrote it off. They were haters, mad because they didn’t go to the best school in the state.
That wasn’t it at all – they hated me because I was a jerk. Of course. When you believe the worst in yourself, thinking that being something other than yourself is your only grace, you look down on others who have not – consciously or otherwise. And they, in turn, learn to avoid you and people like you – you only live to make them feel bad about who they are; why would they embrace you with kindness? You’re a jerk.
Somewhere around my junior year, I realized that another one of the prices of assimilation was the kind of history you’re taught for foundational study in your degree program. Two years of music history, six hundred years of study regarding how people make sounds with things, and the only coverage of black sound was “call and response?” You mean to tell me that we’re going to learn Gregorian chant, Classical, Baroque, Romantic era music…. and then skip from 1914 to 1947 to cover atonal music, the uppity version of sitting your entire behind on a piano and twerking on it, calling the resulting sounds “music?” We’re going to completely ignore the origins of American music — black performers?
In a span of weeks, I fell out with two choir directors and my adviser. Musical theatre – largely influenced by black music, standards largely performed by black artists – was what brought me to study, and the academe was shitting on it. This was when I realized something was wrong.
It’s also when I transferred to my HBCU, Florida Memorial University. And I started to learn differently, and think differently. And it’d take years for me to realize where I’d gone wrong.
There’s a term that’s been floating around the Internet, and it pains me to see it. The idea that a person can be “damaged beyond repair,” incapable of being helped, being understood, understanding you, changing themselves, or even changing the world they live in, is cruel and unusual. When a piece of equipment – what we usually refer to as “damaged” – is so badly damaged that it can’t be “fixed,” we throw it out. We abandon it.
I hate this mentality.
When we attach the shame and stigma of “being damaged, unable to be repaired,” we justify “abandoning” whomever or whatever is “the problem” because – as we’ve discussed ad nauseum, shame is isolation. It is silence. It is punishment for being different, and that kind of punishment translates into both treating The Damaged differently, and justification for choosing to not support them through public policy. It is justification for denigrating their positive contributions to society, justification for ignoring society’s contributions to their station in life. They’re damaged. What do you expect from them?
We never seek to understand those differences or why they exist. We just look at a person, judge them where they stand, and either quickly punish them for non-compliance or reward them with our companionship.
We look at poor communities and presume “those people” just can’t get themselves together. We assume the worst in others, in ourselves, in people like us. We look at inner-city businesses and wonder why “those neighborhoods” only have liquor stores and convenience marts, and assume it’s because “that’s all they’ll buy.” We wonder out loud why only certain nationalities open businesses in the hood. We never think about how decades of faulty and flawed lending practices affected the number of businesses that could open, and who could open them. We never think about how or why these communities are full of people who don’t “value” school, we merely say they “don’t care.”
We look at their existence – their frequent entanglements with police (that ultimately carry the risk of injury or even, nowadays, death) and their insistence on being felons and their obsession with not marrying and being merely baby mamas and god knows what else – as “pathological,” never asking questions, never doing the digging, always presuming that “culture” is the problem. Their culture, their music, their everything.
If anyone has the history to be considered damaged beyond repair, it would be me.
And yet, here I stand – healing, growing, changing, and loving. From the projects of Cleveland, to being married with two dogs and a kid and living as a professional writer in New York City. I am privileged, I am thankful, but I am for damn sure damaged.
I’m a survivor of kidnapping. I’m a survival of sexual assault. I’ve bashed a girl’s head into a mailbox, and felt proud of it. I’ve been a violent person, I’ve been an idiot, and by the grace of every God on the planet I’ve never had a run in with the police because I surely should’ve been put away at least twice. I have been loved in spite of my damage, I’ve been supported, encouraged, left alone when I clearly needed to rebel and overwhelmed with resources when I asked for them.
Just like the status quo contributes to the “pathological presence of the hood,” the status quo contributes to how we feel about ourselves. It contributes to what we consider desirable – in people and in things – and it contributes to how we feel about who we are. And, without the active and present resources to help guide us through, we’ll be swept in with the current, away with the tide.
There’s no such thing as being damaged beyond repair. People, communities, all of it is easily repairable, with or without you. It doesn’t require your physical presence. It just requires your hope. It requires your ability to display compassion for the people caught in the rip tide. It requires mercy, and asking for it on their behalf. It could really require changes in policy but apparently saying that makes you a radical leftist, so I’ll just digress.
Repair happens with research. With reading. With learning. With loving – not just others, but yourself. And, when you see what has taught you what you think you know about the world around you – usually, just a gang of commercials and staged media – you begin to find your own story. You find out why you don’t appreciate your skin, your hair, your full lips and beautiful smile. You read, you learn, and you learn to fight that constant state of rage. You learn to stop accepting the messaging that says you’re bad, people like you are bad and need to be tamed [with tanks] and fixed [with products]. You learn to stop hating yourself and people like you, shaming yourself and people like you, and you begin to heal. Your compassion begins to extend beyond yourself, and changes the way you look at the world.
No, it’s not people like you. You might be damaged, but we all are. In one way or another, we’re all swept up in the tide.