The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
When I first taught this class at Pikes Peak Write Brain, the thing that resonated the most was my discussion of the culture of poverty. It’s controversial to say this, but poverty, at least in the industrialized world, is also a set of values, assumptions and beliefs about yourself and the world around you. To understand African-American culture is to understand how the culture of poverty pervades and influences our families, our communities, and our greater culture. To do that, I am going to reflect on a personal experience from my twenties.
My mother’s name was Carolyn Ann Walker. She was born at the University of Kansas Hospital, in Kansas City, Kansas in 1942. She lived her early life in Kansas, then moved to Pasadena, Ca in the mid-1950s, along with her extended family and her local church. (Yes, the entire church migrated to California. Another blog, to be sure.)
She graduated from Cal-State Northridge with a B.A. in Psychology. She graduated from Pacific Oaks College with an M.A. in Human Development, and earned an MFCC license. She worked as child social worker for the county of Los Angeles for over twelve years before she died in 1996.
By all accounts, we should have been a well-adjusted and stable Black middle class family in the 1980s. We should have been, but we weren’t.
My mother always had money problems. She was always stressed, upset, or plain angry about something related to money. Why? Let me get to that in a moment.
Meeting People of Wealth
I have been very fortunate in my life. I have met and became friends with five millionaires. Now, I’m not talking about the superrich. I’m talking about people whose assets, in total, are worth over 1 million dollars. A couple I used to work for was the first. I met a university professor and her husband, who were the second. A dear friend of mine who I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with, was the third. A public school nurse was the fourth, and a programmer who frequents local geek conventions is the 5th. I have gotten to know these people, asked these people questions about wealth and how to acquire it. They all have one thing in common: They are really cheap.
These people don’t care about fancy cars, or clothes, or dinners out. All of them prefer to cook at home. All of them buy used cars. They are millionaires because they all had relatively high paying jobs (except the high school nurse,) and they didn’t spin their money, frivolously. They were all in their late forties or older when I met them. (Except the programmer.) They all had spent at least a decade saving their money and investing conservatively. They are all very frugal.
This was when I really discovered the difference between a culture of wealth and a culture of poverty. The poor want money to buy things, while the wealthy just want the money.
Now don’t misunderstand me! Rich people clearly buy nice things. However if they want to stay rich, they will never put themselves in a position where the things they buy effects their bottom line. The Rich people I know don’t empty the bank account for a blowout Christmas or birthday party. They don’t buy expensive gifts frivolously.
Where the Money Went
In my mother’s house however, the bank account was empty a week after payday. This was odd because she made really good money. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day we lived like kings! As soon as January 1st was over, we tightened our belts and lived hand-to-mouth.
It was very common for my mother to borrow money from friends to pay the light bill, or make rent. In Southern California we had the St. Vincent DePaul Charity, which gave out free bags of groceries to the poor. Well, we got St. Vincent DePaul at least twice a year, when she couldn’t buy groceries.
I bet you’re wondering where the money went?
My mother had an intense belief in what being middle class was supposed to look like. To her, being middle class meant driving a nice car, living in a neighborhood without violence. It meant her kids wore name brand shoes and clothes. It meant going out to dinner frequently.
Mom used to joke she was going to get me braces. My teeth have always been straight, I’ve never needed braces. Whether I needed them or not wasn’t important – the white kids had braces, so her son was going to have braces, too.
To my mother, being middle class meant have access to the possessions middle class people had. Even if it meant we did without in other areas. It was all about conspicuous consumption. She was trying to access and maintain a social status based on her spending. She was using her money to buy respectability.
Why did money run out?
- Because my mother bought a G20 Infinity in 1996. (Her car payment alone was other people’s rent.)
- Because she rented a house with four bedrooms and a swimming pool. (There were only three of us! Also, we would only go swimming in the summer – the water was too cold, otherwise.) A smaller home in a smaller neighborhood would have provided a cushion, financially. But she loved that house – we all did.
- My mother Never brown bagged lunch. When she worked, she ate lunch out. That meant a local sit down restaurant, not fast food.
A Story about School
I got accepted into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. My old Tandy computer from Radio Shak was on its last legs. I didn’t care though. I knew there were several computer labs on campus. I just figured I would write and print my papers in the labs.
I will always remember my mother coming home from work one day. She honked her horn for me to come outside. When I got there she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong. She said she had qualified for a loan to get me a computer to take to school. She thought this was a miracle.
I never asked for a computer. But that was never the issue. No son of hers was going to go to college without his own computer. Her son was going to be just as good as those white boys.
I shudder to think what the payments were on that computer.
In many ways my mother worked herself into the grave trying to pay for all of this. She died in October of 1996, a few weeks short of her 54th birthday and a few months after I walked.
The culture of poverty tells us that we must consume conspicuously. Everyone must see that new car, the diamond ring, or the 50 inch television. Being middle class, or even rich, isn’t about having the money to travel or take care of sick loved ones, or even securing the future of children. It’s about having the things they have.
- This is why poor kids will have high end smart phones.
- This is why everyone has a 40+ inch television.
- This is why kids walks around in $300+ shoes.
I have been fortunate enough not to buy into conspicuous consumption too much. I do have some nice things, but I don’t go overboard. Every day I see more African-Americans who choose not to buy into this culture, too.
I hope this has been blog has been helpful to you.
Now, I want to leave you with a little exercise. If you’re writing a novel where the protagonist or one of the supporting characters is African-American, think about the unconscious conspicuous consumption they participate in. Is it a woman who must have the latest Fendi bag? Does he buy a new $500 watch every 3 months on a teacher’s salary? Does she lease her car? Does he own three video game systems and buys new $60.00 games once a week?
Settle on a spending weakness and figure out why they spend this way. Does it make them feel better? Superior? Is it a form of affection? (Things = Love,) Is it therapy? (an entirely different subject!) Whatever the reason, figure it out and add it to your character.
See you next month.
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