During my interview taping a couple of weeks back for a cable access channel (see blog from two weeks ago), I answered a question about the contrast between what can typically happen to impoverished Black males (anybody, really) exposed to familial and community instability and what it takes for folks like me to overcome it. The host commented, “You’re an outlier,” as if my experience overcoming abuse and poverty didn’t matter. In a way, I guess, she was right. I am unusual. That’s the sad reality in a nation that loves saying, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you can be anything you want to be.” For too many people, though, hard work and following the rules is hardly enough. In some communities and families, doing those things will just leave one bitter and depressed, although not necessarily in the ways that are typical of ex-steel and automobile workers in the Rustbelt.
Yes, I am an outlier, and in more ways than one. Not only because I bucked long odds to escape Mount Vernon, New York, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, welfare poverty, domestic violence, and the Hebrew-Israelite religion to get to the University of Pittsburgh. Not only because I went on to become a history and education foundations professor, a freelance writer, and a nonprofit manager. I’m an outlier because I’ve met maybe one person with a kind-of-sort-of background like mine in the two-plus-decades since I went off to college.
Over the past twenty-one years, I’ve met thousands of people. College classmates, dorm mates, acquaintances, friends, foes, colleagues, professors, deans, provosts, and department chairs. Not to mention doctors, co-workers, bosses, supervisors, directors, foundation program officers, editors, authors, writers, teachers, students, social justice workers and community organizers. Out of all of those people, only a handful revealed anything about themselves that would’ve indicated some sense of understanding of serious poverty. The kind where you’re not sure if there will be food in the house when you come home from school. Or if you’ll have to heat the apartment for the next few days with the kitchen oven because the landlord decided to forego this week’s heating oil delivery. Or knowing that you won’t be able to bring classmates over to see your place because they won’t have a place to sit even if they wanted to come over. These are relatively small things, but they represent mind-numbing poverty, the kind of thing that no one talks about in the public arena, because they don’t understand it or care for it.
Almost no one I’ve met, at least until Boy At The Window, had even come close to discussing or even hinting at experiences with domestic violence growing up. I’ve met one person who had been molested, and one who would eventually become a rape victim. As terrible as their experiences were, neither of them came from poverty, and both went on to earn advanced degrees.
Why is this important? Because it gets at the heart of the matter about being an outlier. People who experience a fall into welfare poverty, malnutrition, domestic violence, betrayal, and bizarre religious practices, and are surrounded by folks who themselves are in poverty or “just barely makin‘ it,” don’t normally make it to their high school graduation. And if they somehow do graduate, they certainly don’t think about going to college. And if they go to college, graduate school or become a professor or writer isn’t the next step. Making money is.
As a result, someone like me has spent years having conversations with colleagues, hanging out with friends and acquaintances, dating or in casual relationships with women who couldn’t get my past even if they wanted to. About a week before I began dating my wife of eight-and-a-half years (the first weekend of December ’95), I bumped into a woman I’d been interested in at a party in a Black section of Pittsburgh. She was working on her doctorate in psychology, her focus on developmental psychology. Even though I was now a Spencer Foundation Fellow (meaning no money worries for a whole year), I knew that I didn’t have enough money to take a vacation from my 500-page thesis. I’d been sending about a tenth of my fellowship money to my mother to help her and my younger siblings out after a fire at 616 had left them homeless. Of course, the woman who I had been talking with didn’t know about my family. Nor did she know how much money was part of the Spencer fellowship.
What she did say, though, reflected the insensitivity of those of us who are truly middle class. “Why don’t you just take out a student loan and use it to go on vacation. That’s what I did. I took out $6,000 and used it to go to the Bahamas last spring,” she said. I was in shock after hearing that revelation. Not only did I think it irresponsible. Her response showed her sense of middle class American entitlement that has consumed anyone with enough income to have a credit card. But her response also told me that I may never meet anyone in my life who has succeeded against similar odds to have a successful life.
The strange thing is, there are plenty of people like me in America and all over this world. They are a silent minority, bucking the odds of their socio-cultural-economic mobility into a middle or even a privileged class. Yet, because there are so few people like us in our circles, our stories are muted, and are treated as if no one else could possibly do what we’ve done. Rather than encouraging us to share our stories, most folks in our lives inadvertently suppress our urge to share ourselves in that way. There is a real point here, though. That even though I may be an outlier — and my story original and unusual — there are lessons to be learned from my and others’ stories about hard work, smart work, serendipity, faith, seeking and getting help, and so many other things that may be helpful. To poor urban Black males, poor Whites, policy makers, and others who could easily give up on this world. Yes I am an outlier. But that doesn’t mean that everyone else has to be typical.