The famous Norman Rockwell painting above depicts perhaps one of America’s youngest civil rights activists, Ruby Nell Bridges. At the age of five, Ruby participate in the desegregation of the New Orleans School system. Ruby is bravely known as the first African-American child to attend William Frantz Elementary School, and the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in the South. Ruby was in kindergarten when all of this happened and I would often look at this painting as a child and wonder what was next for her. Did she have dreams of going off to college to become a doctor or a lawyer? You know when you grow up in an African American home, particularly one where your parent did not finish high school, there is always this push to ‘”stay in school” . During the 1970’s this usually did not imply high school. I remember many people in my neighborhood who dropped out at the age of 16. They had babies, they got tired of the teachers, they want to be free. Most of these people were women and they were on public assistance. Of course living this life had it’s advantages. You got to be a stay at home mom. You could watch Erica Kane on All My Children while your kids were outside playing hopscotch and making babies of their own. The alternative, was working for the federal government or the city. Every woman perked up at the thought of dating a postal carrier, or a CTA bus driver those were all respectable jobs. Staying not depressed, in shape and focused on finding a job was mentally exasperating for both my mother and I. Her “success mode” was sporadic and short lived. When my mother was not spiraling down the self-pity rabbit hole, she could surprisingly respond to life’s difficulties with great consternation. She would temporarily halt her criticism of the work force by taking the B train downtown. I don’t know exactly were she would go- it was a federal building- most likely the Daley Center and she would take a test to obtain her dream job as a caseworker for the welfare department. A caseworker, I would think is the person that occasionally would visit our apartment in order to:
1. make sure that we deserved welfare.
2.make sure that I am really my mother’s child.
3. Make sure that we did not own anything; and finally
4. to make sure that my mother was not shacked up with a man.
My recollection of welfare caseworkers were that these were usually very uppity black women with big Afros and nice clothing. They made us fill out a lot of paperwork. Some were mean, especially the whites ones. Looking in our bedrooms for signs of…oh I don’t know men sleeping in our bed. Sometimes they would ask us about other neighbors who were on welfare by repeating rumors about Barbara Ann had a new Cadillac and possibly was double dipping. In ghetto speak “double dipping” is when a person is on welfare and working at the same time. This was quite easy to do if you were lucky enough to get a hold of a deceased person’s social security number. Those times were all very “Claudine -esque”. Claudine was a 70’s film in which Diahann Carrol portrayed a single mother raising six children in the projects of Harlem. James Earl Jones played the role of her frustrated boyfriend. The following scene is a quite revealing about the welfare system and the black male’s role as a provider.
A typical schism of caseworkers was to pit one recipient against another in return for extra food stamps or in my mother’s case, overlooking that my grandmother was paying for me to go to parochial school. Yes how did Afrocity managed to attend private school first through fifth grade while on welfare?
Our caseworker allowed this somewhat minor transgression and pretended that I was attending a free Chicago Public School. Before I go any further, I want you to know that that was the worst thing my mother ever did as far as sordid ADC welfare fraud was concerned. She never doubled dipped, or gave birth to children who oddly disappeared to a distant aunt, never to be seen again until the caseworker showed up.
Okay, I was “borrowed” once by a welfare queen that was sleeping with my brother. Her name was Debbie and she was a Cook County welfare legend, she had ten kids on state assistance and only 5 were really hers. My brother paid me two ice cream truck visits to keep my mouth shut about it to mother, and stand in as a Debbie’s daughter Fay.
Fay was supposedly born in 1967 so I was younger. Who actually were the real Little Debbie’s and the fake ones, I could not discern. We were all black kids between the ages of newborn and fourteen.
The caseworker that day was a John Boy- white male. Debbie’s home , if you can call it that was a housing project on Chicago’s South side. I had just mapped my way to her bathroom when John Boy caseworker shows up. Five year old Afrocity had business to do but Debbie dragged me out into the living room before I could pull down my bloomers.
Everything was fine until John Boy asked me where I slept.
“In the bed.” I said with snark. WTF?
“Which bed?” he asked.
No one told me that a pop quiz was involved. Being a five year old who slept in the same bed as my mother, I looked at Deb and answered: “In her bed.”
Passing that test with flying colors earned me a bag of ghetto snacks and an ass whooping from mother. She found out because my brother should have told Debbie that I was not able to hold my pee for very long. I wet myself when the case worker was there. Good thing Deb was as classless as she was a lying gutter skank, because her green paisley sofa was covered in plastic. I hated that but at least it was not soiled due to my momentary incontinence. Mother knew something had gone awry in a flash when she saw that my pink ruffled panties had somehow turned into toddler’s training pants. My brother was the real culprit so why did I get a spanking? My major offense: taking candy and canned Dinty Moore beef stew from a stranger.
Needless to say, I had no idea why my mother wanted to be a welfare caseworker because they caused so much trouble for people like us. I never had to worry about it because mother never became a caseworker. She failed the test on four occasions, taking it for the last time in 1978. My brother was in the army, she had no babysitter for me and would leave me home alone with the TV on while she took the test in a room with 200 or so other people. Her last try was probably her most emotional. There was a blizzard and she trudged in over 10 feet of snow only to find that the test site was closed. Silly kid as I was, I dumbly asked her if she had brought me anything from downtown, perhaps some candy from Marshall Fields.
“Is that all you can think about? Is candy?” Her face told me the story. “I hope your teeth fall out.”
I believe it was about two years later when I first asked her why didn’t she work like the people she watched in the soap operas? She was always a bit defensive about it and explained that blacks could never get a fair shake…without going to college. This explained the most pronounced of her life’s agendas: Afrocity would be a college graduate and indeed I would be after a long struggle. Ironically, beyond verbal encouragement, my mother did not do much to help me get into college. There was no nest (we had just been evicted again and living with my uncle Gavin), let alone a nest egg that was put away for my post secondary education. The only major presence in my life was a woman who had spent most of my life thus far on welfare. In 1988 with high school graduation fast approaching, I knew that my life was about to turn a sharp corner. Welfare typically ends once a child turns 18 or leaves high school- which ever comes first. Adherence to my mother’s words of wisdom was undying , even at the age of 17 when most teenagers become more of a pain than a joy. However here it was the eleventh hour of filing college applications and FAFSA forms, she was suddenly AWOL. She was obviously interested in my success but she did not know how to tell me to get there beyond high school. I would be in my thirties before I forgave her coldness as I struggled to fill out the forms for financial aid all on my own. It became complicated to get her to sign anything. Soon, I gave up and missed the deadline. The first year after graduation, I was sitting in the bedroom with mother watching the Oprah Winfrey show and getting food stamps in my own name. By my own definition, I was a loser. Admittedly, it was fun for a while. hanging out with mom, catching up on the soaps, going to the public library to pass away the time. Being a bibliophile, I checked out classics that I was never assigned by my teachers. Hard Times by Dickens, War and Peace, Sons and Lovers – all in my tote bag and read on the North Ave. bus as I went to career education class. This was some bogus thing that the state made you do when you were over 18 and on welfare without children. Caseworkers would tell us how to dress to find a job at McDonald’s.
I would get put back in my inferior place when I asked if there was anything to help us get pay for college. Within this class was a mixture of former drug addicts and girls who wanted to become hair dressers. This “scene” reminded me of sitcoms about recent immigrants in those citizenship classes. The only difference was that I was already American but in a foreign land. The fun of hanging out melted away when I had to lie to my white classmates that went to college. Holiday breaks would bring calls from returning friends. It would also bring a self deprecating awkwardness to my demeanor whenever they would discuss the fun they were having at college. With college comes freedom, exciting trips to Cancun, sororities, intellectual confidence and a future. Time to get off your ass Afrocity. Time to go to school. How else would I overcome the restrictions of a racist and patriarchal society? Questions still remained. How would I pay for it? Would I stay in Chicago or leave my mother behind. I was all she had. Would she hate me for abandoning her to a life of financial uncertainty. Mother was only getting general assistance because I was her daughter. If I left, she would have no form of income.
Eventually I made the right choice and thanks to a Democrat named Claiborne Pell, I receieved a federal grant that helped pay for school.
Today, I still owe $120,000 in loans for both my undergrad and graduate degrees. I pay it off month by month. Because of this, I will never own a home but my education is far more valuable to me. Yes, I am a conservative but I do have the humility to admit when a Democrat has helped me. I am not totally against government aid, I simply believe that the helping hand of Uncle Sam should teach individuals self-reliance.
I was using the Pell grant to ensure my future success. I believe that this is different from welfare. Like the black elitist Ivy League culture that President Obama is a part of, you would think that ensuring the college education of more African Americans is something that would be on his agenda. Not so fast. Barry never fails to bring an element of mystic and WTF? to his actions. I was browsing the Black Agenda Report and found this interesting piece of information from a radio transcript of commentary by executive editor Glen Ford:
First Black President Cuts Funds for Black Higher EducationA Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford“Obama should be given a brief refresher course in the history that makes direct aid to Black schools necessary.”Barack Obama encourages people to believe that he deserves to be remembered as the “Education President.” However, Obama will definitely not go down as a friend of historically Black higher education. Historically Black colleges and universities – HBCUs – take a $73 million hit in Obama’s educational budget. The cuts are even more disturbing, since education as a general category is a big winner in the president’s economic stimulus plan.Obama’s people claim that an increase in maximum Pell Grant monies for low-income students will help all educational institutions, including historically Black ones. But that’s not quite true. Even if every one of the 132,000 Pell Grant students that attend HBCUs collected the maximum $200 extra dollars in Obama’s budget, that would only make up for one-third of the administration’s cuts to the Black schools. In other words, Obama’s slightly rising tide of Pell Grants will not sufficiently lift historically Black higher education boats.The $73 million loss would have an outsized impact on the 105 Black institutions, many of which are on perennially shaky financial ground, and all of which have been hit hard by the current economic crisis. Although Black schools make up only three percent of total U.S. college enrollment, they account for one out of every five undergraduate degrees awarded to African Americans. It would be difficult to find anyplace in the federal budget where $73 million has a more concentrated impact on the fortunes of a particular ethnic group.
“The Obama budget actually increased direct federal aid to heavily Hispanic schools, from $93 million to $98 million.”A direct comparison might be made with colleges that traditionally serve large numbers of Hispanic students. However,the Obama budget actually increased direct federal aid to these schools, from $93 million to $98 million. Native American higher education, on the other hand, gets the “Black” treatment: a decrease in federal funding to Indian schools.
The Obama administration’s callous disregard for Black colleges is even more curious, considering the president’s constant quest for areas of bipartisan consensus.
Who would have thought that Obama and his mantra of “CHANGE” would include throwing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) under the bus? I thought the tour ended in 2008. It obviously continues in 2009.
Autographed Letter Signed,