Roses have a knack for sprouting in the strangest places. Likewise, humans are adept at subverting their surroundings and turning out to be exactly what society said they shouldn’t and wouldn’t be. There are scores of people who grow up living like the Cosbys but turn out to be felons and lost souls, as there are scores from less-resourced environs who end up becoming public policy planners, doctors, and generally productive members of society.
We should no longer be surprised when Black people from the ghetto escape and touch the world in avenues outside of entertainment. But just because a story is common doesn’t make it less powerful; the rags-to-riches theme is always a triumphant tale. The plotlines tend to be homogenized though, allowing the same stories to pervade our consciousness.
The main plots in this theme fall under two dominant categories (give or take a couple of elements):
1) The child who grows up in the ghetto or in close proximity to dilapidated neighborhoods. The household is headed by a single mom who does everything (well, most things) in her power to make sure her children get opportunities that she either squandered or never had. She works double time; shuffling multiple jobs, running back and forth to her progeny’s athletic and scholastic duties. She’s not infallible, but her heart is generally committed to the advancement of her chillun.
2) The child grows up in the ghetto, or any urban community. Anarchy is an understatement; dysfunction rules in this atmosphere. A single matriarch, again, is generally in charge—and I say “in charge” loosely. Her head and nose is elsewhere. The progress of her children aren’t a concern. She is not a mama. She is a woman who simply had a child. And the father? Who knows where he is. These are precisely the type of surroundings that make you think people should have licenses before they procreate.
The first one gathers most of the space in our collective, most likely because it provides hope for the family who is sincere and steadfast about progress, despite being dealt a bad hand. The upward mobility of a family that has fallen on hard times has been synonymous with the American Way. In many respects, this is true. America’s economic system has always allowed the smart and persistent soul (with a plan) to forge a better way of being.
In American lore, the media’s depiction of struggle and triumph is a package deal. More people tend to come out better in the first category. Surely, there’s more room for other types of non-fiction parables. This is where the second category comes into play. There are pockets of this country where parents do everything they can (purposely, inadvertently, doesn’t matter) to make sure their children don’t usurp their horrid upbringing.
Rampant drug use. Abuse of all kinds. No supports for scholastic activities. No buttress for extra-curricular endeavors. Little installation of a moral or metaphysical code. And sure as the sun shows everyday, throngs of children fall into a hole too deep to overcome.
But there are more than a few that make it out. The story of Khadijah Williams is an example. Williams graduated from high school last year and is now a Harvard student after years of poverty. The reason she was in poverty is unknown, as she refused to badmouth her mother in the Times piece, which, given her age, is remarkable.
As is the case with many others in similar situations, Williams’ upbringing will undoubtedly force her to reconcile why her primary life-giver acted with neglect toward her. Williams will have a lifetime of sorting out whatever issues she has with her mother (or father). If life is cyclical, it bears the weight of many unanswered questions taking an effect on future generations.
It’s one thing to say Williams “made it” despite the oppressive milieu of her background; it’s another to say she made it because of it. The phrase, “leaving parents behind,” doesn’t just take on a pecuniary or physical connotation; it also has emotional and cognitive implications. If a lifetime of letdown and disappointment breeds contempt or indifference toward your parents, what exactly does that mean? Society teaches us that apathy toward parents is self-destructive, and even a curse, a way of shortening one’s lifespan (“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you”).
How can one show honor to someone who has disappointed countless times? Doesn’t this engender ambivalence (hence, more confusion) on the part of the child?
For our purposes, a good story is a good story. We read it. We see it. We go about our day. For Williams and her ilk, being a character in a story isn’t at the whim of a bookmark.