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On Being Poor

To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in
a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.

-- W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Mother used to say that Reverend Ike was going to hell, but that he would look good on the trip. He was too pretty to be a preacher: smooth, copper colored skin, wavy hair flowing over Liberace-style fur coats or blowing in the front seat of a mink-upholstered Rolls Royce, his fingers flaunting diamond rings. "The lack of money is the root of all evil," he preached, and thousands of Americans, many black and poor, listened. He preached from a velvet throne. "The best thing you can do for poor people is not be one of them." That was an odd theology given that much of his money came from poor people. Reverend Ike invented the Blessing Plan, namely, give him money and God would return it -- with interest -- if you only believed. By the 1970s, Reverend Ike was receiving tens of thousands of dollars each week, again, much of it from poor people.

I don't know if Reverend Ike is going to hell -- though I have faith -- but I do know that my neighbors who followed him existed in a kind of earthly hell: misery, anguish, and trepidation: too many sleeping in wooden, dilapidated shotgun shacks.

I don't romanticize poverty and anyone who does has either never been poor or has not been poor in a long time. Poverty bites. Being poor means more than not having money; it means having people question your intelligence, your ambition, your morality, your "American-ness." Don't tell me that poverty builds character. Being poor means you die sooner, on average 10 years sooner, and your last years are not good: high blood pressure, diabetes, disease-related amputations. Poverty rots. Being poor means not having a dependable car, health insurance, or an emergency fund in the bank. I heard Reverend Ike say in one of his sermons, "Sisters and Brothers, don't be poor, Americans don't like poor people." Even the Devil tells the truth sometimes.

My students, many middle-class, say of the poor, "Why should they get scholarships and we have to pay for school?" Just once, I would like to take a bus of our students, or any college students, to Prichard, Alabama. Take them to Highway 45 and let them see a level of poverty that will make any reasonable person throw up. Show them what words cannot explain. Then, I would ask, what is good for America? Is it good for America to begin and end every discussion with "what about me," "what about mine?" Is it good for America to have people living like pigs? Patriotism is not having tears in your eyes when you stare at the flag; patriotism is loving your country enough to ask, "What is best for America?" It seems paradoxical -- maybe hypocritical -- to claim that the poor are lazy and lack ambition and then argue against programs that can help people escape poverty.

Two men, with expensive suits and cell phones, sat in a restaurant. The younger one said, "I'm so sick of the government helping people that don't want to work." The older man added, "Yeah, if you can't make it in this country you can't make it." Upstairs a poor person made the beds where the two men slept the night before. In the kitchen poor people cooked their food. A poor person brought their food and served it. A poor person cleaned their suits. And when they want illicit sex they don't look for wealthy women or men. Some people are poor not because they are lazy but because they make poverty wages.

Hurricane Katrina didn't destroy my neighborhood, America did.

"Hi, Mrs. Mattie. Yes, ma'am, I'm still at Jarvis Christian College." Bless her heart. Her husband left her last summer. Prostate cancer. What a horrible way to die. She swings alone on her porch. First a half, then a whole, now she's a half again. She gave me a dollar once. It was at St. Andrew's Octoberfest. Little children threw darts at balloons taped to the side of the church. Parents threw horseshoes. The clown had on bell-bottomed jeans. I wanted a candied apple, but I had no money. So I stood near a woman eating one and tried to look hungry and pitiful. Mrs. Mattie called to me -- "Come here, Baby" -- and, when I came, she pressed a crumpled dollar into my hand and winked. Bless her sweet heart. She always thought he would die in winter.

That man cutting his grass is Carl Pugh. He voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Folks still won't speak to him

The Ransoms live in the red brick house. The daddy is a foreman at the state docks, so he's always got a pocketful of money -- and he's always drunk. Folks call him 'That Drunk'. When he gets drunk, he just says, "You know what, you know what." It doesn't matter what you say, he answers, "You know what, you know what." It is not a question. His son, Freddie, is studying to be a preacher -- Baptist, so he can still hate his daddy a little. Mac, Freddie's brother, used to slap my head and take my money. He graduated to robbing white folks. Yeah, he's tough. He wasn't in jail a week before he was peeing sitting down. I don't want to explain that.

Bea Houston lives with her mother in that green house. She left for six months once. We didn't know if she was dead or pregnant. Neither. Everybody is from somewhere; she wanted to be from somewhere else.

My home is in that white house. That's my daddy stepping on my momma's flowers; she's watching him from the window. My momma moans when she sings Precious Lord and when she kisses my daddy. She was his first girlfriend. Sometimes he pinches her when he thinks no one is looking.

The field behind our house used to be slave cemetery. The weeds are as tall as two kneeling lovers. Paula McGabe. Have mercy. We touched in that field. She was my every good dream, my best fantasy. I was 16, she was older. I gave myself to her; she laughed. Said she thought I would be better. I wasn't. She found love in a Piggly Wiggly storage room. But, then, don't we all. Find love, I mean. Now, she has three babies and no husband. No longer peaches; no longer fine. I should not gloat. I should be better. She was my first love. I don't love like that anymore.

I'm home.

I'm here.

My friends are here. There's Lamonte Beasley. He's always borrowing money, so we call him J. Paul Ghetto. He doesn't mind. Sherman Hendricks claims that Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Santa Claus were all black folks. Don't argue with him. Kenny Rivers kills a stereotype every time he dances -- or sings. But he's having fun and that matters. His brother Sedrick loves to fish. He never catches anything, and he always smells like bait, but he'd rather fish than fall in love. I can see that.

Terri Butler is a beautician who wants to be mayor. You don't go to hell for fixing hair. Terri likes Sedrick, but she won't clean fish.

The Crenshaws live next to us on the left. The mother, Mrs. Lorraine, never comes outside. She keeps the blinds closed and the shades drawn. She's in her sixties, but she's been old for a long time. Big Mo, her husband, sits hunched over on a bench in front of Mike's Dew Drop Inn. He sits there with Mike. The Crenshaw's two children make it hard to believe in God. The youngest boy, David, was a thug and a dope fiend. He shot me with a BB gun. Now, he's a counselor at the High School. Sweet G, his brother, never drank, smoked, cursed, or chased women. His eyes grew weak from studying. Meharry Medical College gave him a scholarship. So, of course, he died from heart failure nine months after graduation. He wasn't supposed to be the patient. Makes you want to holler.

It's hard to be black and not be religious, but we try.

There's Bob Henry who claims that God is asleep at the wheel and black folks are riding in the back. And Chester Joyner claims to be an atheist, but, when he had a cyst on his neck, he made more promises to God than a Pentecostal congregation could keep. Lord, Sweet G makes it hard . . . Yes, he does. Mrs. Betty, my neighbor on the right, has no problems believing. Every Sunday morning her house is full of folks -- all saved, sanctified, set aside, and friendly with tambourines -- sweating like James Brown in a police station. My daddy puts on B.B. King, opens the side window, and aims a speaker at her house. Then he blasts, "The Thrill is Gone." Mrs. Betty says he is persecuting her, but it's all right since she's got a seat in the kingdom. My daddy says fat people love the Lord because it's not a sin to eat.

God, sex, food, and death: what else is there?

Nobody lives two doors down on the left. It's been vacant since the fire. Then there's Octavia Gray, who's a senior at Tuskegee. She'll leave and never come back. Her sister, Rosalynn, is a nurse, but she doesn't like people. Their brother, Antowain, died of AIDS. He wasn't gay, just curious. Some knowledge is expensive. AIDS sucked the life out of him and the love out of Rosalynn.

Everybody dies. What difference does it make when you die?

We are here.

We count.

There are others. Reverend Clay, whose stomach is a chicken graveyard; and Booger Stone, who was a communist until he found out they hated him, too; and C.J., who sleeps on the ground; and Kevin Jones, who does Stevie Wonder better than Stevie Wonder; and Bernadette Gaines, who loves men, but loves women better; and Jim Branson, who cleans the homes of people who say that he is lazy; and Peggy Trotter, who's too poor to have an eating disorder, though she, too, lacks power; and Stanford James, who is a mathematic genius; and Franklin Brooks, who tells everyone that he's Cherokee, even though he's black as a shoe; and Drucilla Harvey whose skin is bleached from too many Chicago winters -- her face is red but her heart is black; and Little Pettie, who won't wipe his nose; and Francine Hardiway, who loves life . . .

These are my memories; these are my neighbors, and they did not deserve Katrina -- or the condemnation that followed: the insinuation that they deserve to be poor, hurt, left behind; the characterization as worthless cultural parasites -- aliens to the American Dream, summarily dismissed as "refugees." Reverend Ike continues to preach and to claim, "The best thing that you can do for poor people is to not be one of them." He is wrong. The best thing we can do for poor people is to build a just society. Period.

David Pilgrim
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
March 30, 2006
Edited 2012