Education: Women, Limited To Motherhood By Poverty, Part 1 by Kyle Phoenix

 Awhile back, while pursuing my first degree, I moved in with a female roommate.  At first I thought she was around the same age as me as she was also a student according to the real estate agent.  Turns out she was well into her fifties, Dominican and very religious.  Like, no, no, I'll pray for you, you don't have to worry about your relationship with God, I'll handle it---yeah, she actually said that to me.  My silent staring wasn't a signal to her about what I thought of her or the comment but I kept it moving.  I really didn't think much about, or, of her, in the sense that I was so intensely focused on my academic work and internships and work that other than the envelope for bills and hearing her in her end of the apartment or a hi and bye in passing, I didn't give her much thought.

But one day, as one is want to do, during school breaks, I replayed my mental clips of her and really gave her some thought.  At first I thought we went to the same university, a conversation or two nixed that idea and I realized that when I assumed when she said she was studying religion, she meant a degree in theology.  In fact I think she sort of meant a lot of church services and some typings for whatever positional honors occur in churches.  Then she started babysitting a little girl, which I didn't really care about because by then I was back into my routine.  Other than hi and bye, she really didn't register until I started doing projects and essentially clinical work around poverty and race.  Suddenly my "academic lenses" were dropped in front of my eyes in a social situation.  This has happened to me once before in the past few years---I was with a friend visiting his family for Christmas.  And we went to The Projects.  No, the real New York Projects.  And I realized two things:

  1. All Black people, particularly me, didn't grow up the same way.  (I knew this of course but it really, really hit me how different I was as an educated man of color in a mixed race neighborhood.)
  2. There were books, articles and studies on poverty that my friend's family fit into to the point where I was sitting in a chair admiring how Ruby Payne, a noted educational expert on poverty was right about the lack of pictures on the walls and why.

This pushed me to consider that roommate and how her babysitting eventually turned into her explaining to me that she was helping out her daughter.  At first I thought the little girl was her daughter then I realized that no, it was her granddaughter.  But wait---she couldn't be that old, could she?  Then I was staring at her closer, paying attention to the hair dyes and the attempts at modern woman blouses, skirts and jackets.  I realized she either had 20 years on me or scarily, maybe she only had 10 years on me.  Then I thought about my friends' family visit, there were only women present in The Projects.   In most of his family stories, single mothers raising children, and I started thinking (and writing/teaching) about women and their relationship to education and poverty.

I then really started to think about the difference between generational and situational poverty.

Generational poverty is an unbroken cycle where the family, grandparents to parents to grandchildren, barring severe positive intervention will remain in financial, social, educational poverty---marked by Welfare, low wage jobs, never higher than a high school level degree in the family.

Situational poverty occurs when one is in school/college, or unemployed temporarily or when a child is born and then one of the parents stays home for a couple of years before returning to work.

I couldn't help but to reference the women in my family---my grandmother, Dorothy born in 1910, graduate of high school in 1928 and then a young woman on her own who moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. to work for an aunt before years later making her way to New York.  My grandmother was a very patrician woman, extremely refined.  She would tell us of her father's surprise gift to her of a grand piano when she was 16; she came around the corner with her best friend Shirley Bolden and they saw a group of men raising a piano through the window into her family's brownstone third floor window.  She bathed every day and wore simple house coats over a dress and fine slips through the day and her outside finery of a fur coat and pearls to see the doctor once a month.  One had dinner on Sundays and supper the other days.  The table was always basically set with silverware, flatware and a table cloth.

She had 5 children with my grandfather, the first, Jeannette, dying of sudden crib death,  My grandmother would tell me the story of how she dreamt the night before that Jeannette would die but with her stiff iron lip, she soldiered on to bear and raise 4 more, my mother, her last surprise child, 10 years after she thought her childbearing years were done.  My grandmother was a voracious reader---about 5 to 6 books a week and after her heart surgery I would come back from movies and tell them to her, scene by scene. (We only saw two movies in a theater together, we accidentally got locked out while she was visiting and had to wait for my mother at a movie theater.)  She would share March of The Wooden Soldiers with me every Christmas and then books, hundreds of books from when she thought I was ready for my first adult book when I was 10, a thriller named Entangled, until she died when I was 15.

It wasn't until I studied education for a Masters that I thought seriously about these different kinds of women.  My grandmother was stymied by her time, when she was born, even to some degree by marrying in her early twenties before she got a chance to explore who and what her rapacious intelligence could've taken her to be.  A sharp discordant point: my grandmother wasn't Black, she looked it but was White, Narragansett Indian and only a 1/16 Black.  She was raised in an upper middle class Protestant family, her father full Narragansett and her mother   1/8 Black from her mother, whose mother was half Black.  Marrying my extremely dark skinned West Indian grandfather is what racialized her to Black in New York's Harlem.  The tangled web of ludicrous sub-divisional racial designation and miscegenation at the roots of my family tree.

Just being able to discern how she was different suddenly explained why she was different.  She didn't particularly care for soul food, spoke proper English always, had the manners of someone used to a high class level, and would make fun of the first time she heard a Black woman order pork chops in a butcher "Gimme sum of dem dere po' chops!" she would imitate.  It never occurred to me until later, that my grandmother wasn't completely racially nor socially (nor socioeconomically) Black like the women surrounding her in Harlem.  Her hair had been straight and waist length until in her fifties her eldest daughter cut it for her because it was so heavy and ungainly.  But the time had regulated her to being a mother, a housewife for forty years until she tired of my grandfather's abusive temper and threw him out, a year later he died, and the next year I was born.  She was the inverse of Nella Larsen's Passing.

I looked at my roommate, a woman, a mother, a grandmother before fifty, the same as my grandmother but not my mother, and then back into the cycle of caring for a child all day with a few hours of church at night.  I began to think about her clothing all being polyester  the effort of a woman from poverty trying on a meager budget to look as sharp as the university professionals swirling around the neighborhood.  The way she often mentioned she was going to school or class but never asked me what I was studying.  (Social Note: Educated people ask what you're studying and when  I mention I'm a teacher the next question is, what do you teach?)  She never asked what I was studying nor what I taught.  I thought it was just polite distance but in fact the thousand of books I had spilling from my bedroom into the living room, probably seemed alien.

I then started thinking about what it must be like to be a woman of a certain age in a world that had based on ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status and gender, assigned her an iron cast role: mother.  And when she had raised her daughter to adulthood she was cast back into that role.  She would continue babysitting her granddaughter even as the younger went off to school and the cycle of mother beget daughter to only a minimal level of education would continue.  I used to watch my roommate and the little girl watch TV for eight hours, stopping only for the bathroom and canned, clock work meals.  No books, no trips out, just sitting and being without advancement, looking at women on television who had made familiar negative choices on daytime talk shows or vastly amazing positive strides that are beyond recognition.  I often wonder what people who are so far away from worlds---lifetime mothers see when they see a Kathryn Bigelow get an Oscar or a PBS special on Madame Curie or Robin Roberts interview a President.

I thought about my grandmother who carved out her intellectual cavern but never rode on an airplane.  I thought about my friends' female relatives who were literally textbook examples of women in poverty. I thought about my old roommate who was literally a generational cycle of mental and social poverty because a misogynistic culture got to her in the Dominican Republic before she could stop breeding and blossom into........into.......someone's cheaply fancy clothes that weren't an effort to appear more than costumes on her.

Conversely my mother, named Patrica, by her patrician mother, Dorothy and one of my mentors Carlene Hatcher Polite, exampled to me women who perhaps didn't try to equal themselves to men but lived as freely as any.  Yes, they had children but they traveled the world; educated themselves; taught at universities and started businesses.  In Polite's case, she was the first Black woman nominated for a Pulitzer for Fiction   When I looked at these other women, even my grandmother I couldn't help but see how women, mainly women of color were limited by poverty in ways that made it generational.  I often think about the little girl,  my former roommate's grandchild who is in a repeated cycle that I expect won't end in high school graduation, as neither her mother nor grandmother graduated.  And she'll have children and find herself cast aside, perhaps caught by a church for a time until she's called back on deck to be a mother figure again.

But I wonder, as brown women stand at stoves across a planet where it is more normal for them to be in poverty than not, stirring the same meals on Wednesday as they did a year ago on a Tuesday, for a child only slightly bigger, what are they thinking?  What do they want?  Are they thinking this is good enough?  How did I get here?  How do I get out of here?

Or, if the child is male, are they thinking that they were but a conduit for one man to come into, another to come out of and then a third to be begat from him---but why do the males get to be free?  Why are the boys going to leave, to roam, to become and she, whose literally given her life, will just go from standing to huddled as she gets older.

Coming Soon: Part Two: How Women Can Get Out/Why Women Are The Vanguards of Socioeconomic Change In Families

Thank you,
Kyle Phoenix
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