My family and I have been trapped at the bottom before. I’m talking one small pack of ground beef to feed four mouths; I’m talking grandmother, coming home, dripping in sweat, after 40 hours of cleaning white folks’ homes and raising their kids for less than $100 a week. I’m talking rats and roaches helping you clean the kitchen. I’m talking only “cheese and crackers” in my X-Men lunchbox…no meat, no friends, no “tradesies.”
Trapped in the rat race, I know middle-class people trapped in the middle-class. Trapped in the rat race, I know wealthy people with everything in their houses but nothing in their hearts. I know Americans, like myself, consumed by consumerism. I know Americans, like myself, some delusional, others disillusioned by materialism just to be displaced, replaced, and disposed like materials.
I’ve lived in the trap. I’ve known the trap. I’ve made it out the trap, or so I think. I got family trapped in the pen (penitentiary). And here I am with a pen, listening to “Pain Away” by Meek Mill and Lil’ Durk—trap music, if you will. I am very familiar with the trap, the entrapments, the trappings of the contrived, prescribed "American Dream."
“And I've been tryna save my money for a rainy day.”
In my ongoing illusive journey toward financial freedom or the “American Dream,” I remember doing hours of psych studies at Stanford University, feeling claustrophobic in MRI machines, all in the name of science. I remember roaming that big ol’ campus, lurking for paid studies, just to make a quick buck as a broke, scholarship kid.
My Sophomore year I eventually landed a dope work-study job, during which I learned to write and teach resume and cover-letter writing to undergraduate and graduate students. I did that job pretty much all the way through my fifth year as a Master’s student. When I wasn’t cranking out essays for my Black Studies courses, I was sitting in my student office, late at night, working on resumes and vision-boarding. I had a dream, but I also knew the reality.
Looking to pay off my student loans, I remember shivering in the cold morning hours, directing cars to parking spaces at the Oakland Coliseum, hours before the start of Oakland Raider games. Stanford degrees and all, I pushed aside my pride and endured the yelling and verbal assault of my Arabic and Spanish-speaking supervisor, who told me that I was “over-qualified” for a minimum wage job that I shared with high school students, people fresh-out of jail, and people who needed quick, consistent money.
My degrees, my upbringing, my ability to use big words—none of that mattered. I was just another worker in my off-brand, black shoes from Wal-Mart, trying to make ends meet as a teacher making between $40k and $50k in the costly San Francisco Bay Area. I had a dream, but this was my reality check.
In my mid-twenties, I remember spending hours completing online surveys just to be entered in sweepstakes for exotic trips and potential big checks. At best, I got some store credit for online shops I had never heard of.
Also in my mid-twenties, I remember thrifting at Goodwill, trying to flip clothes and antiques for some profit on Craigslist. Funny, over the course of six months, I ended up with an apartment of random stuff from snow boots and high heels to old trinkets and "rare" books. Turns out I had a terrible eye for flipping, so I eventually returned the stuff or gave it away.
To save money on a teacher’s salary, I remember cooking frozen fried rice for days and eating peanut-butter banana sandwiches for dinner. Snacks were meals. No worries, I am the same kid who split McDonald's dollar-menu items with my private school homies back in the day, so I know how to get by.
I did everything that America told me to do. I went to school, got the degrees, from a prestigious school at that, and worked really, really hard to save money and put toward my debt.
“Don’t judge my pain if you don’t know the shit I’m against.”
I was raised working-class, so all I knew was work; no days off. “If you don’t grind, you don’t shine.” “If you don’t grind, you do not eat.” These were daily affirmations that supported my work ethic. All I knew was work, work, work. No excuses.
I had another grandmother who loved to flex, floss, and flaunt her money or lack thereof. Rocking her signature 90s gold tooth crown, my paternal grandmother was by no means rich, but rather “hood-rich,” meaning she could keep up the appearance of someone with money.
Who am I to judge? She made her money however she could, and so she wanted to indulge herself and “show her money” as she put it. When you survive the government-sponsored crack-era, government-sanctioned violence via police brutality, and the daily threat of your life being taken in the streets by the police, your own community, or natural causes, then you have every right to indulge and splurge.
What you know about going from scratching lottery tickets to hustling bingo? What you know about going from layaway at Payless and JC Penny's to getting fitted and dipped in Ross? What you know about getting Air Jordans but can’t make child support? What you know about having presents in the face of your (biological) father’s absence? What you know about the thought of shop-lifting candy bars just to be reminded that your dad’s behind bars? What you know about black skin, red eyes, dirty-brown beige syringes? What you know about being dopamine rich and financially poor? What you know about being broke and fighting brokenness? You wouldn't understand if you ain't never had shit...
I remember many rainy days, saving up the words to say to my drug-using, drug-abusing, repeat-offender father. A black body, off-white meant dark days for a young brown-eyed boy bearing the last name “White.” I was making my way through well-known educational institutions while he was being institutionalized. I avoided the traps, right? What could possibly be the connection between the American school system and the American prison system? If pressure breaks pipes, then pipelines make profits for the privately-owned.
Like father, like son. I told you I know the trap.
“I just hope this money take the pain away.”
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