I Grew Up Poor. How Am I Supposed to Raise My Middle-Class Kids?
Every year on Thanksgiving, my children experience something I rarely did when I was growing up. They see their father, mother and siblings all gathered around a family meal with plenty of food to spare. It is so utterly normal to them that they do not even note it. Thanksgiving is just another day of warmth and security.
I have many happy memories of the meals prepared by my single mother and my extended family during the holidays. I know well the debate between turkey and ham as the central dish. I was taught to recognize the difference between good and mediocre macaroni and cheese. I remember spades tournaments, games of dominoes and the rich tenor of Black male laughter. My family found happiness even when it was hard to come by.
The difference between my childhood Thanksgivings and those of my kids is the world that existed around the holiday. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was in elementary school; she couldn’t work full time, so we lived mostly on government assistance. Our home was in Huntsville, Ala., some 100 miles northeast of Birmingham, the site of so many pivotal events of the civil rights movement. My little corner of the city, Northwest Huntsville, still bears the scars from redlining and the inadequate desegregation of its schools during the civil rights era.
Violence complicated school, parties and sporting events. As far back as I can remember, I’ve known how to look into a person’s eyes and tell the difference between someone who is willing to fight and someone who is comfortable with much worse.
I loved my neighborhood and fought anyone who tried to reduce us to a series of stereotypes. But the violence exhausted me. I felt as if it would kill me if I didn’t leave — maybe not physically but spiritually. I needed more. I needed space.
Education was a path toward finding that space, and, in some sense, I succeeded. I made it to college and graduate school, and then became a professor. But now I find myself in a difficult, bewildering position: My children do not know how to read a room, observe the set of a jaw or assess the determination of a glare. They wave at strangers and are apt to start up conversations, assuming that the other person bears them good will. They speak about college and futures as lawyers, doctors and teachers as a matter of course. They open the refrigerator and expect to find food. And I sometimes find that I don’t know how to be their father.
This tension is pressing, because this fall, after years as nomads — first because of my wife’s military career and later because of the rough and tumble world of academia — we purchased a beautiful home that we expect to live in for a while. Two of our children entered a private Christian school. We have obtained what many consider to be the American dream. I’m not sure what comes next for me or for them. What has been lost among all the things we have gained?
I can tell them stories of growing up without enough to eat and moving from home to home because we couldn’t afford to pay our rent. I can speak to them about having classmates killed. I can teach them about living in areas defined by redlining and food deserts, but they’ve never had white bread, government cheese or fruit punch as steady parts of their diets. These sound like things experienced by a character in a play, not a part of the life lived by their father.
My children do not understand my world, and I do not understand theirs. I do not know what it’s like to be a child waking up in a home with two college graduates at the helm. I do not know what it’s like to expect birthday parties, Christmas trees (real, not plastic) and tons of presents. I don’t know how things like family vacations or trips overseas spark young imaginations. I didn’t take my first plane trip until college.
I don’t know what it’s like to spend so much time unafraid. Sometimes, I go to my children’s rooms at night and watch them sleep, just to see what it looks like to have dreams that are seemingly so free of nightmares.
I am who I am because I had to struggle and suffer. I came from the mud, and even now I remember how the dirt tastes. When my mother told me that my grandfather grew up as a tenant farmer, I could drive past cotton fields in Alabama and imagine what his life was like. The land was bursting with memory. My children and I have returned to the South and to the very neighborhood where I grew up. I once drove my two oldest kids to the home I used to live in. But the land, the dirt and the concrete don’t speak to them the way they do to me. The ghosts do not haunt them.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of treating poverty as some kind of learning experience. Black and brown people need to have paths to success that don’t involve overcoming a legacy of racism and structural injustice. We need more ordinary roads to flourishing.
And yet, I cannot help believing that my children have lost something: the determination born of suffering. I wish that I could give them that feeling. That suffering was the context within which my mother taught me about the value of education. It formed the background of my pastors’ sermons in the Black churches of my youth. The only God that I have ever known was one who cared about my Black body and my Black soul. That suffering was a unifying factor in all my deepest friendships. Those bonds are special because of what we survived.
How do you parent when you were raised in a context of fear and your children are not afraid? (It’s an odd dilemma when you’ve worked your entire life to ensure that they will not be.) I am not sure. Ask me in a couple of decades. I do know that I can begin by realizing that I don’t have to parent them out of my own fear. Not everything Northwest Huntsville taught me was good for me. To this day, I find it difficult to trust and relax. The hard exterior that I developed is of little use when my daughter or son needs a hug.
Still, I can teach my children the most important lesson my mother taught me: Our circumstances do not determine our worth. My kids are not in some ontologically different category than poor kids. If they are ever tempted to look down upon others, I remind them to see the face of their father on the visages of the poor.
The life I live is the complicated legacy of a survivor. I want to instill in my children the sense of Black possibility and responsibility that arises in the hearts of those who escaped the fire. It’s the fierce urgency born of a gratitude to God that we survived, coupled with the knowledge that it shouldn’t be that hard. It is a message that I needed when my belly was empty. I hope that my children listen now that their bellies are full.
At my family’s Thanksgiving, we go around the table and everyone names something they are grateful for. I am thankful for my wife and children. I am thankful for the life that they live. But I am also thankful for the things I suffered that made me who I am and for the ways that such suffering does not let you go. It ties you to all the other hurting people of the world. It gives your success a vocation and a purpose to create more happy families gathering for family meals.