opinion | I grew up poor. How am I supposed to raise my middle-class kids?
Every year on Thanksgiving, my kids experience something I rarely did when I was growing up. They see their father, mother, and siblings all gathering around a family meal with plenty of food to spare. It’s totally normal for them to not even notice. Thanksgiving is just another day of warmth and security.
I have many happy memories of the meals my mother and extended family prepared during the holidays. I know very well the controversy between turkey and pork as the central dish. I have learned to recognize the difference between good and medium macaroni and cheese. I remember tournaments of spades and dominoes and the rich content of the black man’s laughter. My family found happiness even when it was hard to come by.
The difference between Thanksgiving in my childhood and those of my children is the world around the holiday. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was in elementary school; She couldn’t work full time, so we were mostly subsisting on government assistance. Our house was in Huntsville, Ala. , about 100 miles northeast of Birmingham, the site of many pivotal events of the civil rights movement. My little corner of town, northwest of Huntsville, still bears scars from the red lines and inadequate desegregation of its schools during the civil rights era.
Violence complicated school, parties, and sporting events. As far as I can remember, I knew how to look a person’s eyes and know the difference between someone who is ready to fight and someone who is comfortable with much worse.
I loved my neighborhood and would fight anyone who tried to reduce us to a chain of stereotypes. But the violence exhausted me. I felt as if I hadn’t left – maybe not physically but spiritually it would kill me. I needed more. You need space.
Education was a path toward finding that space, and in a way it worked. I got to college and high school, then became a professor. But now I find myself in a difficult and confusing situation: My children don’t know how to read a room, notice a jaw set or assess glare identification. They wave to strangers and tend to start conversations, assuming the other person is carrying goodwill with them. They talk about college and the future as lawyers, doctors and teachers as normal. They open the fridge and expect to find food. And sometimes I find that I don’t know how to be their father.
This tension is urgent, because this fall, after years of wandering–first because of my wife’s military work and later because of the harsh and volatile world of academia–we’ve bought a beautiful house we expect to live in for a while. Two of our children attended a private Christian school. We’ve got what many consider the American Dream. Not sure what’s coming next for me or them. What is lost of all the things we have gained?
I can tell them stories about growing up without enough food and going from house to house because we couldn’t pay the rent. I can talk to them about the murder of my classmates. I could teach them about living in areas marked by red lines and food deserts, but they didn’t have white bread, government cheese, or fruit as constant parts of their diets. These things look like things a character went through in a play, and are not part of her father’s life.
My kids don’t understand my world, and I don’t understand theirs. I don’t know what it feels like to be a kid waking up in a house with two college grads on its head. I don’t know what it’s like to expect birthday parties, Christmas trees (real, not plastic) and tons of gifts. I don’t know how things like family vacations or foreign trips excite young people’s imaginations. I didn’t take my first flight until college.
I don’t know what it’s like to spend so much time unafraid. Sometimes I go into my children’s rooms at night and watch them sleep, only to see what dreams seem to be completely devoid of nightmares.
I am what I am because I had to suffer and suffer. I come from mud, and even now I remember how dirt tasted like. When my mother told me that my grandfather grew up as a renter farmer, I could drive past the cotton fields in Alabama and imagine what his life was like. The earth was teeming with memory. My children and I have returned to the south and to the same neighborhood in which I grew up. I once drove my oldest child to the house where I lived. But earth, dirt, and concrete don’t speak to them the way they do to me. Ghosts do not haunt them.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of treating poverty as a kind of educational experience. People of color and black people need pathways to success that do not involve overcoming a legacy of racism and structural injustice. We need more ordinary ways to thrive.
However, I can’t help but believe that my children have lost something: determination caused by suffering. I wish I could give them that feeling. That suffering was the context in which my mother taught me the value of education. It formed the background for pastors’ sermons in black churches in my youth. The only god I knew was the one who cared about my black body and my black soul. That suffering was a unifying factor in all of my deep friendships. These links are private because of what we have survived.
How to be a parent when you grew up in a context of fear and your children are not afraid? (It’s a strange dilemma when you’ve been working your whole life to make sure it doesn’t.) I’m not sure. Ask me in two decades. I know I can start to realize that I don’t have to raise them out of my fear. Not everything Northwest Huntsville taught me has worked well for me. To this day, I find it hard to trust and relax. The tough exterior I developed is of little use when my daughter or son needs a hug.
However, I can teach my children the most important lesson my mother taught me: Our circumstances do not define our value. My children are not in a different existential category than poor children. If they tend to look down on others, I remind them to see their father’s face over visions of the poor.
The life I live is the complex legacy of a survivor. I want to instill in my children the black sense of possibility and responsibility that arises in the hearts of those who have survived the fire. It’s the intense urgency born of gratitude to God that we survived, along with the knowledge that it shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a message I needed when my stomach was empty. I hope my kids are listening now that their stomachs are full.
On my family’s Thanksgiving, we all walk around the table and say something we’re grateful for. I am grateful to my wife and children. I am grateful for the life they lead. But I’m also grateful for the things I’ve experienced that made me who I am and the ways that suffering doesn’t let you go. It connects you with all the others who are hurting people in the world. Your success gives a calling and a purpose: to create more happy families that gather for family meals.