I was a poor black kid…

I am never ashamed to let someone know up front that I am from Newark, NJ. That wasn’t always the case. From 1987 to 1989, I attended a very supportive, nurturing, forward-thinking junior high school: Link Community School (then known as Project Link). With the support of the principal, Susan Schlesser, Sr. Trudy Dunham, and many other wonderful teachers, many of them Jesuit, I found a loving and encouraging environment in which to thrive. Link was a special place. It fostered in me a raw desire to pursue my wildest dreams. At 13, my wildest dream was to go to boarding school. These were the days of “The Facts of Life.” I would become the real “Tootie.” I pursued this against my mother’s wishes because, frankly, as she saw it, “only white people who don’t love their children send their kids to boarding school.” I secured a four-year scholarship from the Wight Foundation, and off I went! Going to Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut from Newark, New Jersey, was a big leap–socially, economically, and educationally. That’s why I wasn’t always proud to state up front: “I am from Newark, New Jersey.” Why? Because I knew then, as I know now, many people think like Mr. Gene Marks of Forbes magazine: “Oh, she’s a poor black kid.”

So, in the article, “If I was a Poor Black Kid,” Gene Marks, a middle-aged, middle-class white man apparently has all the answers for poor black youth. As a “poor black kid” myself once, I’m confused by his apparent confidence in getting to the heart of the woes of the struggles of black children and education. I get it. Technology is key. But, man, his condescension is scrawled over this article. It’s like he’s learned about black America speeding through Chestnut & Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia. Mr. Marks, it’s just not that simple. To think that you could easily relate to what a poor black kid from West Philly goes through in order to thrive, is preposterous! I challenge you–or one of your children–to spend one week living on 52nd Street, attending school, shopping for groceries, and the rest (and I don’t mean on the periphery of UPenn’s campus). Then, I’d like to see you opine poetically about what you’d do as a poor black kid.

While my family did not have to worry about whether we’d have food on the table or whether we’d go to college (that was not negotiable), we did struggle. My mother, a Shaw University graduate, was often sick and unable to work. My father worked, but struggled with alcoholism. Yep, we spent a couple of years on welfare, too. I was what shrinks call a “parentified child.” Basically, I raised myself, and, at times, I had to raise my parents. Unfortunately, I knew a lot of kids in my shoes. If they weren’t dealing with chronic sicknesses or alcoholism, other issues put undue pressure on them as well. You know the biggies: drugs, crime, and, of course, poverty. Does Mr. Marks really think he understands what it’s like to have your meals at school be the only meals available? Does Mr. Marks get that when you are scared to walk down the street on your way home that reading “Google Scholar” and “Cliff Notes” is not your top priority? Does he really think that just because computers are available at a school or library that every student has access to them? Or that the computers have the most up-to-date software or technical support to help navigate locating and implementing the study tools he suggests? In Philadelphia (a place I’ve lived around for 11 years before moving to Boston), the government has struggled for the last couple of years to keep libraries open, especially during the summer, when children have the most idle time. How, then, are students supposed to “get technical…learn software…and learn how to write code” if their local library branch is closed? Mr. Marks mentions part-time work. Many poor black kids work (when they can find it), not always to secure the latest iPhone or to go to the movies, but rather to keep clothes on their backs or to help out with household bills. Remember, these are often “parentified children” who have a whole lot more on their plates (and minds) than “watch(ing) relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.”

grad photo 1
With my husband, Simeon, and my daughter after graduation from the University of Delaware with my Ph.D. in Art History in 2009. 

Ok, so, yes, I did the private school thing, as Mr. Marks suggests that black families pursue. Nevertheless, while at Taft, my father lost his job (a fact that few of my white friends knew). Without the financial support of the Wight Foundation, I’m not sure I could have stayed at Taft or study and live abroad my junior year (School Year Abroad, Barcelona, Spain from 1991-1992). I was lucky. I survived boarding school even with limited funds to do much of anything outside of what the school could provide. Getting back and forth to Newark during the breaks was at times a financial hardship ($25-35 each trip). I shared this struggle at school with very few students, except for other poor students of color. How’d I make it? I used Mr. Marks’ formula: Brains. Hard work. Luck. Help from others. Much of my drive came from within, yes. However, I also grew up in a community of women, men, and children who were loved, looked after, and conscious of the need to keep everyone in check. It indeed “took a village.” But, mostly, I was lucky. My brother, an accountant who still lives in Newark, was lucky, too. Though we struggled, we had both of our parents in the home. My parents were educated. We grew up in a safe environment. We had a loving and caring extended family. My mother, despite being sick, was very involved in our education. With any of those factors out of the equation, who knows what would have happened to me and my brother? I could go on, but I have to use all these brains, hard work, luck and help from others to write my Art History next article.

But before I go: I’m married to a black software programmer who taught himself code (as Mr. Marks suggests). He’d tell you about his own rocky road. Again, it’s just not that simple. But, you’d know that if you were a poor black kid.

Update: I teach at the highly competitive Wellesley College now. I guess I did ok for myself.

15 thoughts on “I was a poor black kid…

Add yours

  1. Thank you for writing this; I am sharing it with all who were appalled by the Forbes article. I, too, have spent a great deal of my life in and around the city of Philadelphia, and it amazed me how astoundingly little the author understood about the hardships faced by kids in the school system. Thank you for articulating that here.

  2. Thanks for your responses. The oversimplification of a complex way of living in poor America (black or otherwise) is dangerous territory. Gene Marks’ article should be a cautionary tale for anyone who claims to be able to embody “the Other.” BOOKS have been written about this type of misplaced soapbox speechifying. Hopefully, from now on, he will tread lightly. Very lightly.

  3. Marks surprisingly leaves out the long road from poor kid to boarding school to successful adult. As a fellow poor kid and Taft alum who was also lucky enough to attend a well-funded and supportive public middle school and was pushed by a supportive teacher to apply, I cannot imagine the challenges that face the children of Philadelphia schools, many of whom no doubt lack such support.

    I work in software today and ended up there because even though I was never able to afford a computer of my own, they captured my imagination and allowed me to transport myself out of my surroundings and into a world that I could create. Whether it was the library computer, the school lab or a neighbor or roommate’s machine I always found a way.

    I hope that readers of Marks’ piece do at least come away from it appreciating the potential of hungry minds and satisfy that hunger by ensuring equal access to technology and network resources.

  4. Travis,
    You hit the nail on the head. There is no question that the true issue is that every kid should have equal access to the technology and network resources available in the 21st century. Those kids who may not have the hunger like you, may just simply need the exposure. The difference between growing up poor and middle or upperclass in America? Access, access, access! That’s what we were provided at Taft. We had resources at our fingertips that no longer required us to hustle for what needed. Don’t get me wrong. There is value in the hustle. We build a resilience and confidence in what we do because we know that it does not necessarily come easily. l’m glad that you are yet another example of excellence regardless of race or socioeconomic background.

  5. Nikki,
    Your comments/blog are/is helpful. Thanks so much for sharing. I wanted to work for the Wight Foundation -I love it! I realize now why I was not the right person. Link was a special place and I think color or race was seen through a different lens- at least some of the time…outside the walls of Link I was not the right person. I admire all that was provided by the Foundation. It is such a gift to know that you have achieved your dream.

  6. Hi, Professor Greene. I liked your reponse to the Forbes’ article and how you related it to your own personal life. I feel like Marks knew what he was getting into when he wrote an article titled ‘If I were a Poor Black Kid’ as a middle class white man. He knew it would spark controversy with his suggestions of how he would act as a poor black child altough he is an old man with an established middle class mindset. Your article helps point out the numerous external factors which he did not consider. Thank you.

    1. Tanekwah, I think you’re right on point. I think that Marks was being very strategic in putting forth a ridiculous argument. I just couldn’t let it go though. Thanks for reading the post!

  7. Nikki, I don’t remember too personally, but I knew Simeon from my Philly Church single days. I did not know u were from Newark! I am too! Love your story and your blog. My goal in life was to always get up out of Newark! I did just that. I love hearing stories like yours and mine. Not that we left Newark, but that we went on to live successful lives. Have a great time abroad!

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