*An essay a week in 2017*
It is the fall semester of first year at Columbia University. I am 17. I am in the lounge of the 9th Floor of John Jay, the dorm I live in.
We are talking about our latest assignment in Logic & Rhetoric class, the required writing course all first years had to take. I have just completed my response to the assignment question: “What do you see outside your window…” I write about the poverty I grew up in my neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. I write about the rubble and the crack. I write about the slum lords who wouldn’t repair the falling walls, the powder that gave so many lead poisoning and gave me and my brother asthma. I write about the despair. I also write about the love. I share this with the people in the lounge. All first years like me. An Indian guy from California laughs mockingly at me. He says: “From my window I see our tennis court and the basketball court. I see my pool.” He gets up, laughs again in my direction and walks out. I shrink into myself. I go to my room to rewrite the assignment.
Excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings:
The day we left to Turkey, we had to meet a bus outside the school where we had practices. We were there before the sun rose, me and my mom and the other 15 kids and their parents. The bus took us to JFK airport for our flight to Switzerland, where you could see the Alps from the airport, then on to Ankara. I held onto mom the entire bus ride to the airport. I barely looked out the window. I buried my face into her arm, inhaling her, the aroma a combination of Avon’s 24 Hour deodorant, Newport cigarettes and Estes Lauder perfume. When we arrived to the airport, I didn’t want to let her go. I cried as I watched them remove the luggage from the storage beneath the bus. “I don’t wanna go, mommy.” She hugged me tight, then cupped my face in her hands and said, “Go see the world, Vanessa.”
This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere without my family. I remember walking through Ankara with my host sister Asli, a blonde haired, blue eyed girl my age, who lived in a high rise condominium. From the windows in the apartment, you could see the entire city, the buildings with huge banners of the national hero Ataturk flapping in the wind, and the green covered mountains in the distance.
They had a live-in maid who I rarely saw. One day, I walked into the bathroom which was the size of the room I shared with my sister in New York. Asli’s period soaked underwear were in the tub. When I asked her to move them so I could shower, she sneered at me, “That’s the maid’s job.” One of the few times I saw the maid was that day, as I watched her grab the underwear and rinse them before taking them, still wet, into her room through a side door in the long hallway.
One day, towards the end of my weeklong stay there, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The women turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.
I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew I was ready to leave Brooklyn, but I came back knowing I was definitely going to do it: I was going to boarding school.
I workshopped this chapter at Tin House in January, where I worked with Lidia Yuknavitch. She asked: What’s the story behind the story? The writers in my group of six asked: What was it exactly that made me decide to leave? What was it about this trip that did it for me–made me say: Yes. Me voy. I’m out. I’m going to boarding school.?
I’ve felt that acrid taste in my throat since that day way back in 1989. It was in Turkey that I first learned shame. Shame of where I was from. Shame for being from the people I was from. For being poor and brown and from the hood.
I felt that shame again in boarding school. When I took out the lunch tickets I got to pay for lunch when everyone else was taking out their cash and buying extras that my lunch ticket didn’t cover. Lunch tickets got you whatever burger or chicken patty or soggy pizza was on the menu. Lunch tickets didn’t cover cookies or ice cream. Not even juice. A lunch ticket got you the milk and a cup of fruit dripping in sugar water or a soft plum.
I felt it again when I couldn’t afford to go to the movies or out to lunch when I got the pass to leave campus my senior year.
I felt it when the girl I became friends with showed up every week with a new pair of sneakers and Guess jeans. One time, she said: “Do you want this pair? I know you’ve been wearing those for years.” She pointed at the Reebok sneakers my brother had bought me with the little money he made at The Gap. I never wore those sneakers again.
I felt it when I was invited to do a student exchange program in Spain but couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. In all honesty, I didn’t ask my mother. How could I? She couldn’t afford it. I had to start working when I got there, babysitting until I turned 14 and could get my working papers. Then I started working at the local supermarket. I worked most of the time I was there in Wellesley, Massachusetts; at an ice cream parlor for a spell, at an accounting firm, and again at the local supermarket, countless babysitting jobs. I bought my own winter coat. I bought my clothes and my pencils and notebooks. How could I afford $2500 for a student exchange program? I couldn’t, so I didn’t.
I felt that shame when I was invited to the house of the president of the board and saw the statue by the door of the monkey in a tux holding out a tray. We, all the scholarship kids who were invited, stopped and stared. We understood what it meant. We didn’t have the language to express our rage and hurt, but we knew. We knew we didn’t belong there, but we swam in that woman’s pool and we ate her food and the ice cream she made in that ice cream maker that she took so much pride in. I didn’t have one of those at home. I still don’t.
Over the past few months, I’ve seen various FB posts shaming folks who crowdfund. The language is very “you should have planned for this”/”take care of your own shit”/”the world should not have to carry you”/”you’re irresponsible/don’t know how to adult, etc. etc. etc.” I always think about my mother and the kind of poverty she grew up in in Honduras. I think about the stories she told us about how she didn’t have a doll until she was eight. She had one pair of shoes so she went to school barefoot, and how her grandmother Tinita made sure to get them to school early so they could have the powdered milk the school provided them in the morning. It was yellow and chalky and there were bugs floating in it, but they drank it because it was the only milk they had.
I grew up poor. We didn’t have the latest kicks and we couldn’t go on vacation often, but we always had a roof over our heads, even if the crumbling walls gave me and my brother asthma, and we always had food, even if it was just a can of corned beef with white rice. But my family in Honduras knows the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. My family knows hunger and war and death. My family knows what it is to lose children to diseases that could have been easily treated had they the money and the resources.
My mother once told me the story of a classmate in La Ceiba who died suddenly. As they were watching her body, parasites started climbing out of her nose and poking at the inside of her cheeks, so they had to open the dead girl’s mouth so they could squirm out. This is the kind of poverty my family knows. These stories live in me. All of them.
I know that much of how my family (and maybe yours?) survived was due to the kindness of a neighbor who saw the children hungry and offered a gallina to roast or a bit of frijoles and tortillas. My family still sends huge barrels of food and clothes back to Honduras a few times a year. This is why I react viscerally to people shaming others for asking for help. We’ve forgotten about what community means. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in this American individualism and capitalism that we’ve turned ourselves away from the generosity our ancestors taught us.
During my baby shower, there was a man in rags outside the hall begging for food. The custodian cursed and shamed him. My Millie screamed at the custodian, telling him: “A la gente no se le niega comida.” Millie limped inside (she already needed a cane to get around and would die months later). She filled a huge aluminum pan with food, two kinds of rice and chicken and pernil and salad and bread, and she took that food out to that man in rags. She said, “Donde hay uno con hambre, hay otros.” I will always remember this lesson. So should you.
Poverty is a cycle, and it is a cycle that is nearly impossible to break. There are tons of studies that prove this. I could cite sources for days and still there will be folks who will insist that there’s a way out. I was made to believe that my ticket out was education, so I went that route, attending a prestigious boarding program and then going on to an ivy league. I am still struggling. Let’s not even talk about the debt I’m in as a result of this education people claim is the way to get out of poverty. College debt is indentured servitude.
These students are often being loaded up with staggering debt that is completely out of whack with the earnings boost they’ll likely get from a degree at a nonselective or less selective college. Already, average student loan debt is higher in Boston than any other metro area in the country, 44 percent above the national average, according to Credit Karma. But more troubling, many of these low-income students — and, at some colleges, most of them — are not graduating. That means these non-completers are leaving campus saddled with lots of debt but none of the salary gains that traditionally come with a bachelor’s degree. Source: Boston Globe
I have worked my ass off to make this writing and teaching life happen. That has meant an incredible amount of sacrifice. I have gotten eviction notices and three day notices. I have wondered how I will buy a metrocard to get to a gig or interview. I have spent my last pennies on a gallon of milk and bread. I know what it is to grind. I know what it is to save money and see it go on unexpected expenses. Shit is hard out here for all of us.
I’ve raised money numerous times to attend workshops. I raised money as recently as this past December so I could go to Tin House. Asking for help is hard. It is the epitome of letting oneself be vulnerable. We do it because we know this work we’re doing is necessary. I raised more than enough money in under 24 hours and paid it forward with the $1000+ I got over the amount I requested, offering extra scholarships for my Writing Our Lives spring semester class and donating money to different causes. I know folks helped because I stay helping others. I am incredibly generous with my time and resources. I teach. I mentor. I work and work and work. So, yes, when I see folks shaming others for asking their communities for help, it rubs me the wrong way. Folks will always say they aren’t shaming. Some go as far as saying that they are just offering advice. But if it looks like shaming, it’s shaming. I call a spade a spade.
If you don’t want to contribute, don’t. But shaming someone is not what community is about. Ever.
Mi gente, if you don’t want to support someone’s adventures, don’t. If you don’t want to donate to a gofundme or what have you to help a person get to a workshop or catch up on bills, don’t. We’re all fighting our own private wars. We don’t know what people are going through emotionally or spiritually or financially. We don’t know what they’ve endured to get where they are. Shaming them does nothing to help them or you. It’s also an asshole thing to do. We’ve all been in a rut. We’ve all fallen on hard times. Have some compassion. And, yes, check your privilege.
Poverty shaming insinuates that there is something inherently wrong with people who are poor. It says that they simply don’t work or don’t want to work; that they want the system to take care of them; that they are not self-reliant.
According to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer:
“Contrary to the criticism that the poor are just lazy, Edin and Shaefer found people who don’t want a government handout. They just wanted to work. And many do.
“Yet even when working full time, these jobs often fail to lift a family above the poverty line,” the authors write.
The narratives give context to the complexity of how people end up living on almost nothing. They often come from situations of sexual or physical abuse, addiction, or parental abandonment. And yes, their stories are also rife with bad decisions that keep them down.
Nonetheless, Edin and Shaefer provide a perspective that should stop us from telling poor folks that all they have to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What if you don’t even have a boot? Source: Boston Globe
“According to a 2015 report (press release) from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the “large majority of households receiving SNAP include children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and working adults,” and “two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children.” Here’s more:
SNAP benefits lifted at least 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted more than 1.3 million children out of deep poverty, or above half of the poverty line (for example, $11,925 for a family of four). Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/01/food-stamps-snap-soda-nyt
Why am I including these statistics? Because I was a Sociology major at Columbia who studied poverty in depth so I know this shit. I know the reek of poverty shaming both personally and through my extensive studies.
Also, because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t always think people realize that they’re being fucked up and parroting the shaming many of us have experienced and witnessed as folks who grew up in poverty. Shit becomes easily internalized. I get that because I too am guilty of having done this.
Here’s the thing: I grew up on food stamps. This was when they came in little booklets and looked like fake money. I also applied for and received food stamps for six months a few years back when I was struggling as a single mom and couldn’t make ends meet despite working so much and so hard. And I was ashamed of it. I feel the bile of that shame in my throat as I type this.
When I took the card out at the market or the store, I looked around hoping no one I knew was around. I also tried to be discreet when taking it out, blocking the bright blue lettering and my picture in the corner with my hand. And when I swiped the card, I avoided looking at the cashier in the eye. I didn’t want her to see me…or my shame.
I had to re-certify after six months. That means I had to go back to the SNAP office with evidence that I still needed the assistance. I never went back though I know I would have easily qualified. Why didn’t I go back? Because of shame.
I look back now and cringe at myself. I was just trying to feed my kid while I got through a rough patch. Why is this wrong?
It’s all of this that has made me who I am: someone who gives so generously, who offers a free one day five hour personal essay class, because I know not everyone has the resources to pay for my nine week class.
The other day in class, a student said: “You can charge so much more for this class than you do.” This student is in a PhD program. He talked about the classes he’s taken, what people pay thousands of dollars for, where he says they never learn the craft elements of writing that I teach for $620 for nine five hour classes. Other students chimed in, echoing the sentiment. I felt that familiar shame lean in. I said: “I want to keep the class accessible to my community.” And I do mean that. I mean that with my entire heart. But I also hear the echo of the message I’ve been told so many times: that I don’t deserve to ask for or expect more. How do you balance this? I’m still figuring it out. I want to keep this class accessible to the communities that I write for and to, but I also need to live, feed my family, pay my bills, etc.
Logically I know I am worthy. Logically I know that this shame is not mine. It is poison. It is vitriol…but the heart is another matter, and it’s hard to push back on these things that have been ingrained in us for so damn long.
I can’t tell you the times people told me that the only reason I made it to Columbia was because of affirmative action. How could someone like me, who comes from where I come from, who looks like me and talks like me, have possibly earned her seat at an Ivy League?
This is what shaming looks like.
While at AWP in March, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, writer of more than 32 books. In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, she wrote about the Bushwick we both grew up in in the 70s and 80s. During her lecture she spoke about how in her research, she only found tragedy when looking for stories of the neighborhood in that era. She said she wanted to honor Bushwick, that neighborhood that shaped so much of who she is.
During the Q&A, I thanked Woodson for writing about our hood. She asked where I was from, and it turns out we grew up just blocks from one another. I asked: “How did you get past the shame that is imposed on us for being where we’re from?” She said: “that shame grew to rage.” She knew she didn’t learn that rage at home. At home she learned love and pride and hard work. She learned quickly that that shame was from the “outside gaze,” and that was how she was able to transform it to rage. “Who was that person who made me feel that shame?”
“To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun. What is it you see then?” —Margaret Atwood
There were so many places and people who made me feel that shame. I’m writing this to them. I am holding up a mirror and daring them to stare. I am challenging them to really look at themselves and the shit they’ve internalized. I am daring them to look at their privilege, to check themselves. I am here, with all my rage, saying: I dare you to look. Do you cringe? What will you do with that reflection? How will you change?
I’m staring at that mirror too. Are you willing? How else can we change the world if not by first working on ourselves? #perspective