Yesterday, my mother asked me to borrow money. She also did a few days prior. I make this statement of fact not to embarrass her, though if she were to become aware of my public declaration she would be embarrassed. It would pain her, so deeply, that I made her financial situation a talking point, because she is a proud, prideful woman. A woman who did it all on her own: immigrated to a new country and created a space for herself in it, single-handedly raised three children, moved from state to state to afford us access to the education that would eventually help us all become college graduates. Like so many Black women, she was superwoman.
My mother first worked as a live-in nanny, taking care of wealthy white children and then became a hospice nurse taking care of mostly the White dying. She still works to this day as a hospice nurse, typically doing the night shift. Yet, yesterday– like many other days this year and years prior– my mother had to ask me, her youngest child, for money.
Not for a shopping spree. Or a vacation. Or to pay the cable bill. My mother needed money for gas to get to work. To pay tolls in order to arrive at a patient’s house and coax them into comfort as they lay dying.
And I had to give it to her because her needs were greater and far more important than my wants. Or my desire to save.
This is a narrative far too common amongst Black people. Kevin Hartnett, at Braniac, explained:
“Middle-income blacks are more than twice as likely as middle-income whites to have a poor sibling and more than four times as likely to have parents below the poverty line. And because of these relationships, they’re called upon more often to provide financial assistance.”
I, personally, understand this narrative far too well. Despite being college graduates, my siblings are all saddled with debt, so they are slowly digging themselves out of a treacherous hole. As am I. I accrued both student loans and credit card debt in order to attend a university in New York City. On one hand, that school choice afforded me the opportunity to choose a career as a writer. On the other, it left me financially strained. So every individual in my family is under financial duress at some point or another throughout the year. And we are each other’s only bailout.
This makes saving a nearly impossible feat. Sometimes it even makes breaking even or affording to buy new clothes or shoes or goods a huge struggle. It means getting to work can be a struggle. Affording lunch can be a struggle. Hanging out with friends can be a struggle.
Struggle on, struggler.
Too many Black families are filled with strugglers struggling on. Intergenerational wealth is real, just as intergenerational poverty is as well. They can tell us to forget about the history that has made this struggle too real, but that reality hits my bank account with each withdrawal I make to help my mother purchase some gas to get to work. That reality makes my mother feel guilty and ashamed that she still is not financially secure and sometimes needs the help of her children. That reality is our burden to bare, as others try to convince us the load isn’t really that heavy.
Wealth was squeezed from generations of Black families. Capitalism manufactured the juicer and slavery, black oppression and inequality fueled it. We were squeezed dry and now still wonder why there is no juice left to suckle? We are ashamed that our families are the Western world’s strange fruit; juiceless and sucked?
There is no shame in poverty. There is no shame in fighting for survival. There is no shame in the struggle.
The only shame is in allowing narratives created to disempower or shame us. Neo-liberal narratives of meritocracy and individualism, which claim we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps into wealth, one-by-one, as we stare back at our families or communities that are left behind. We should feel no shame for offering a hand to our brothers, sisters, mothers and communities. For wanting to pull them up alongside of us, even if that means we cannot climb as far.
Though I know it to be true that the black woman and man are superwoman and superman, I understand capitalism is our kryptonite. It may empower other humans, it drains and weakens us. Yeah, we may be weakened, but we still fight. We ain’t no crabs in a barrel. We are superheroes fighting against our only weaknesses.
And most importantly, we are fighting together.