I’ve been everywhere, man, especially when it comes to poverty. I’ve seen more kinds of poverty than I’d ever want to know. And ’01 was a banner year to see it all. President Bill Clinton might’ve gone on some form of a Southern poverty tour in his pre-presidential campaign in ’96. But I had the chance to see American poverty in all of its various forms in June ’01, and not just in the South. Although it did start for me in the South, up close and personal.
I took off a couple of days early for my social justice fellow site visit in Jackson, Mississippi. I flew into Shreveport, Louisiana — as part of an extended layover in the days before 9/11 — to do something I’d never done before. I was on my way to visiting my grandparents on my mother’s side in Bradley, Arkansas. I was there, once, physically, as a second-trimester fetus in the summer of ’69. I found myself both excited and in dread of what I’d find going there. I knew it would be poverty like I’d never seen it. And it was, even before I reached the Gill family in Bradley.
I called for and took a cab from my Holiday Inn Express next to the beat-up airport in Shreveport and paid for a forty-mile trip. If I’d been driving, I would’ve missed it. Bradley was a yellow-flashing, one-stoplight town. There was a bar, a laundromat, a church and a store on the four corners, with one side of town White, the other Black. As we drove deeper into the Black side, the houses looked more and more run-down, with corrugated rooftops and often outhouses. The section of houses that included the Gills were all shotgun ones. They had no running water and had not turned on the plumbing in their place for the past three decades, even though they were still using the toilet. The house was dirty, and not in a typical American sort of way. It was as if they lived on a garbage dump next to a toxic waste site. When I opened up a partially broken cabinet door to get a cup, I was hit in the face and head with what seemed like dozens of roaches.
I spent one long and desperate night with the Gill family in Bradley, waking up over and over because roaches crawled across my body and flies constantly buzzed. I couldn’t get myself to use their bathroom, and their outhouse didn’t work anymore. Luckily my Uncle Charles got his broken-down Chevy Cavalier to work. As soon as I returned to my hotel room, I took one of the longest showers of my life, somewhere near an hour. I was heartbroken to have seen so much poverty, especially since my grandparents were eighty-two and seventy-three at the time.
Jackson, Mississippi’s poverty wasn’t as obvious as the quasi-Global South/ Third World poverty I saw in Bradley. Still, it was all too sad. Even with a degree — albeit a tiny degree — of residential integration, the run-down Black side of town was just that. Jackson State University looked more like a cheap comprehensive high school than a major historically-Black or any other kind of university. The community around the campus varied from block to block. One block would have a series of fairly well-kept working-class and middle class homes. The next would have a half-torn-down house next to an empty lot next to another dilapidation. For all of the progress since the end of Jim Crow, Jackson might as well have been stuck in 1961.
Tulsa, Oklahoma was next, and it wasn’t pretty. I spent most of my time in its dead downtown or on its bombed-out North side. There, poor Blacks and extremely impoverished American Indians lived. There were even more monstrosities for homes, evil-looking projects and empty lots there than in Jackson. But what made it worse was getting in a car with a social justice fellow and seeing her side of town, the South side. It’s where Tiger Woods played in the US Open the following week. It’s where I saw stately mansions and an abundance of middle class homes. It’s the home of Oral Roberts University and the University of Tulsa. The contrast was greater than seeing the difference between high-priced, high-rise condos on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and where we lived at 616. It was absolutely disgusting.
After a two-week break, I flew out to Fairbanks, Alaska for the Summer Solstice. Twenty-three and a half hours of sunlight for three straight days. About half spent fifty miles of driving and thirty miles by boat away from Fairbanks, in a Athabascan fishing village. There, I did get to use the outhouse while being eaten alive by mosquitoes during central Alaska’s short but intense growing season. The kids all thought that I was either Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Even with the lack of technology or civilization, it was the least poor place I’d visit throughout that month.
A couple of days after Alaska, I went to Durham, North Carolina, to see the kind of poverty I had grown accustomed to growing up. It was Southern Latino immigrant poverty, but it wasn’t the grinding, never-ending poverty I had seen in Alaska, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas or Mississippi. Even with that, this relatively new community faced financial and other forms discrimination that could’ve had the effect of putting them into a hard-steel poverty, one that ages someone from the outside in. The best thing about that trip was the social justice fellow I met there, the rabbit stew I ate for dinner, and the Durham Bulls memorabilia I bought for my wife.
What made the month so depressing was the impoverished thinking I encountered throughout. From social justice workers, government officials, everyday people, the poor folks I met, including my grandparents. Despite all of the difficulties between me and my mother, I appreciated the strength it took for her to move from Bradley to the Bronx in ’66. It obviously took a lot of it. I only wished that so many others I met that month could’ve done the same.