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.


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