The Story of Our Talent for Survival

I remember exactly when I learned that reading in the hood is a revolutionary act.

It was at the heavy hands of Michelle, the largest sixth grader I’d ever seen, who was one of the Bronx girls around the way who liked to chase me to deliver a beat down as punishment for not letting her cheat off of my spelling test.

Reading was dangerous because it sent a signal to hood residents that you did not intend to stay, even if they were not considering a way out. Books seemed to suggest that even if your body was stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind was on the path to freedom.

That’s why I became a professional reader long before I was a writer. Books gave me hope when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. They helped me shape a future for myself that was beyond the limits of poverty, neglect and my mother’s mental illness.

Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Even the presence of the elegant, poised, brilliant President and First Family does not negate the long shadow of prevalent biases about all black people as subject to abject poverty and dysfunction. But that was the real life that I led, even if it wasn’t particularly attractive.

I read to cope. I found solace at the library. Especially from Michelle, because you couldn’t get in the West Farms public library branch without a library card and she definitely didn’t have one.

I inhaled whatever was in the new book section. Self-help books, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. Because as a third or fourth grader in and out of public schools in each of the five boroughs because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf fed my spirit. Resting my mind in black girl poetry and prose gave me hope when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born only came after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old — a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation.

I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer empathy and community to those who know what it is like to live with anything like a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless. We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors.

Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar — all variations of what I have heard. But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere.

This book is for her.

On Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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As unreliable as memory can be, some things never leave you. When my mother and I were locked out of apartments and houses when I was a little girl, I do not remember the times or the dates, but I remember loss. I remember my favorite pink bunny sweater, the one with miniature white bunnies with green sunglasses printed on the inside of the sleeves – trashed – along with the only picture of my brother Jose my mother had in her possession, my namesake, who died a year or so before I was born.

The blue house in Chester where I spent the first 6 years of my life with my mother and the street and the giant tree in the front yard have all stayed with me. I only remember that the water was shut off and we had to use the bathroom and kitchen sink at our neighbor Kim’s house, nothing more. The bank probably took that house, but I don’t know the details, then we moved to New York, to live with relatives.

Our first eviction was not the locked door on our own apartment, but a loving push into the winter by older relatives who could not care for a kid and her mentally ill mother in a building for old folks. So, we went to a shelter that would later be condemned, Roberto Clemente, an open gymnasium floor with cots side by side like the site of natural disaster. One morning, as I ate breakfast, a roach in my cereal made it impossible to keep eating.

We were evicted by strangers a year or so after that. It became such a regular occurrence that I remember feeling that God was ignoring our prayers, punishing us for something I couldn’t name. I also remember feeling that I had inherited what Matthew Desmond describes in his powerfully affecting book, Evicted, a “traumatic rejection” of myself and human dignity.

My things were inside of the apartments we were evicted from,  but they were no longer mine. If I could not belong to this place, this home, and I could not have my things, as few of them as there were, who was I? Why did I matter?

I have carried these questions around with me for more than three decades, trying to make sense of how difficult it is for me to be settled, to relax. To be able to put any kind of rejection in perspective instead of feeling the familiar overwhelming sadness that can overtake my spirit.

I remember the locations – Burnside Avenue, the lower East Side of Manhattan, Tiebout Avenue, Daly. There are a couple of displacements that I can’t recall. Over time, they have all accumulated into a single wound that has scabbed over. It is a wound that I sometimes look at, acknowledge and write about. I have picked at it over the years so it has not fully healed.

Reading this book was a way for me to bandage it, to give it the attention it has needed to stop haunting me. 

I read a lot about poverty, because I try to understand it from an intellectual distance. The feelings that it invokes in me make me nauseous, uncomfortable, drained. This is because extreme poverty is psychological assault. It is emotionally gutting and transformative is the worst ways. What Desmond captures in this seminal book explains perfectly that if we believe in fairness and extending human dignity to the poor where we have to start is looking at the importance and availability and affordability of housing.

He writes about families that are mostly black and poor though he does include whites. He writes about landlords in roach-infested apartments and houses where sinks are broken and conditions are filthy and sometimes dangerous; trailer park owners and managers who are largely apathetic about the ways in which they exploit the poor to make money. Desmond writes: 

Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.

Millions of Americans, though we don’t know how many millions because no one really ever studies or writes about eviction, was an astounding phrase to read at this age. That means that millions of Americans experience the shame that comes with not having enough for even a basic, fundamental need.

For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting and mass incarceration. No one can deny the importance of these issues, but something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.

The thing about shame is that it is isolating. It feels like you are part of a targeted, afflicted minority. The shame invoked by poverty in particular does not feel widespread when you are experiencing it. So to read that millions are affected every year was a revelation. It helped me put the old pain of internalizing the trauma of eviction in perspective. To let that part of me die.

There were sections of the book that deepened my understanding of other things, too. Here’s another passage:

Larraine threw money away because she was poor…People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps. If Larraine spent her money unwisely, it was not because her benefits left her with so much but because they left her with so little.

It is one thing to understand our parents and to give them grace as we grow older for things that we previously did not understand the fullness of — slights, or things we were deprived of, or ways that they were short and stern with us when we needed them to be different. It’s another to see, through the lives of others, the full view of everything that they had to endure.

Reading the phrase “compounded limitations” made me pause and reflect on the limited evidence I used to judge my mother for the challenges she faced when I was growing up. That’s probably true for all kids, but I think I also failed to implicate poverty instead of or in addition to her bipolar and borderline personality disorders. I just didn’t understand the full spectrum of everything that she faced and had to cope with without medication and without a support system. I did not know about everything that we survived together.

Desmond’s book is an authentic achievement in several ways. He illuminates the face of deep, traumatic poverty with the deft ability of a gifted writer and a skilled ethnographer and sociologist. He does not try to ignore or apologize for white privilege and ways that it impacted his reporting, writing and research. He does not write with pity, but with respect. He is abundantly clear and honest and unequivocal about the importance of the problem over his own personal inconveniences or narratives or notions.

It is an approach that, to me, as an adult survivor of extreme poverty and eviction in childhood is deeply affirming, healing and moving. There are few accounts of poverty that I have read that explain the far reaching psychological effects of eviction and extreme poverty on one’s person. Here is how Desmond puts it:

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers. When several patients committed suicide in the days leading up to their eviction, a group of psychiatrists published a letter in Psychiatric Services, identifying eviction as a ‘significant precursor of suicide.’ The letter emphasized that none of the patients were facing homelessness, leading the psychiatrists to attribute the suicides to eviction itself. ‘Eviction must be considered a traumatic rejection,’ they wrote, ‘a denial of one’s most basic human needs and an exquisitely shameful experience.’ Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010, years when housing costs soared.

And then this:

Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty…Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. Walk into just about any urban housing court in America, and you can see them waiting on hard benches for their cases to be called. Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared with 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.

That he acknowledges the importance of home in the construction of the self, in how we are in the world and connects the brokenness of our American housing system as a way that continues to keep black women and their children shut out of the personal edification that is essential to participation in public life is what moves me most.

I was heartbroken to see Martin Luther King Jr. quoted here, saying “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” Desmond expounds on this by reminding us that exploitation is a word “that has been scrubbed out of poverty debate.”

For the poor, he goes on to explain, grossly overpriced items like, say, Payday loans, are not for luxury but for the basics we need. Also, housing vouchers are currently overpriced simply because landlords are allowed to overcharge voucher holders. The nationwide Housing Choice Voucher Program likely costs “not millions but billions of dollars more than it should, resulting in the unnecessary denial of help to hundreds of thousands of families.”

What made me so nauseous reading the book was how easy it is to recognize that there are many ways to avoid the suffering of the poor and the deep psychological and economic despair that poverty inflicts on the poor. But we live in a society that is skilled at looking away and ignoring the problem. Because poverty does not affect the powerful. It is not a sexy cause. It does not impact every one of us equally so we choose not to care.

I was obsessed with this book as soon as I read the New York Times excerpt, although I didn’t know why. When I saw that Desmond was coming to Politics and Prose to give a reading, I took a Lyft from U Street to his standing room only reading on a Friday night. I was surprised that so many other people were in the room — it was a largely white audience. I am not a person who is given to participating in Q&A portions of public events, but I was compelled by the statistics that he laid out about the overwhelming majority of black women with children who he saw evicted in Milwaukee, the deep humanity of them that he witnessed over the course of writing the book and so much more that I had to thank him.

I said something like, “I wanted to thank you for writing this book. My mother and I were evicted a few times in the 1980s and 1990s in New York and it is very meaningful to hear you talk about what that experience is like in this way.” I had some questions about any information he may have had or read about the impact of eviction on children, and also what he thought the future of the research would be on homelessness in other cities.

Before he answered my questions, he thanked me for my strength and courage for mentioning my history in the room. A few people applauded, which also surprised me.

What I think I know now is that the process of eviction makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel like all attention is equal — the attention you get when all of your things are in garbage bags on the curb is just as uncomfortable as being applauded for enduring it without breaking down in the street. Then you realize that there are people like Desmond who see you. They acknowledge that you are not just a statistic, or a failure, or defined by your inability to afford to live like most people want to. That acknowledgment is a powerful affirmation that changing our broken American housing system is possible, even if change might be slow. 

Seeing the way to a solution sometimes takes as long as it does to really look at and heal an old wound.