For The Love of Money

Photo: Jamara Wakefield
America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

My friend Toni and I text a lot and for good reason. We are the same age. We divorced young. We have small children. We work together.

The element that makes our black girl magic texting unique is we talk about money all the time. We talk about having it, not having it, hustling for it and how it makes us feel. We talk about books and podcasts and YouTube videos about money. The O’Jays song “For the Love of Money” is the soundtrack of our texts. Money money money money, money. Some people got to have it. Some people really need it. Talk about cash money, money dollar bills, y’all.

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We talk about money daily, despite living in a larger Western culture that remains shamefully mum on the subject. Spouses struggle to discuss it. Parents are afraid to reveal their financials to their children (this is true of the wealthy, the middle class and the poor). Roommates battle over it. Co-workers never talk about it. Clergy people only talk about it in relation to giving tithes or building funds. Within black communities, money remains a touchy subject because our respectability, exploitation, and disparities are so closely related to securing the bag no matter how we secure it.

When I get the app notification that my credit score goes up I text Toni “Girrrrrrrrl” with a screen shot. When she lowers the principal on a loan, we celebrate with the black girl cartwheel and dance emoji. Between celebrations we are texting about the sacrifices of sticking to budgets and using coupons. We reminisce about the times when we were on food stamps and how we maximized those benefits to help us get over. We are swapping stories about taxes and refunds. We exhale the less ecstatic moments, as family members lean on us for loans. This tightens our budgets even further but we still talk about it.

Having a money buddy with whom I can keep it real, forces me to rethink the American Dream especially in relationship to my blackness.

I am the granddaughter of the Great Migration. My grandmother Jonell Madison was one of the six million African Americans who left the rural Southern United States heading to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970. The physical movement was chosen as a grand rejection of the white supremacist, colonial history of chattel slavery in the South. My grandmother was escaping for obvious reasons: Jim Crow, lynching, daily violence and lack of economic opportunity. She and the 6 million wanted to not only survive but to live better. They not only wanted their children to live better but for their grandchildren to thrive. The African-AmericanAmerican Dream” has always been a combination of two liberation movements (that too often are separated for political convenience): the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for labor justice. As a result, there is no way for me to consider the American Dream a reality unless it fully factors in the sensibilities of my blackness in daily tangible ways.

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My grandmother left the South only to be met with the dark verity of racist labor and housing practices. She was welcomed in to the North by way of de jure segregation and the ghettoization of urban spaces as a result of suburbanization and post-industrialization. What kind of American Dream was possible for my grandmother, a young uneducated domestic worker, with these realities looming over her daily life? The baton that she passed to me is the sober truth that the fight for equal pay and equal access is a systemic and generational fight, not an individual one, despite the boot straps ideologies perpetrated in Capitalist culture.

And yet the beauty of our blackness allows us to do what we’ve always done: black people make a glorious life out of whatever circumstance we are given. My grandmother did that then. I do that. Toni does that. Everyone I know does that.

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There are days when I struggle to apply this black radical tradition of ongoing hope, to the numbers and cents of my life. After all, the American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the families and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. What kind of American Dream is possible for me when I have over $282,692 in student loan debt? This is the question I ask myself between texts, podcasts, books and workshops about money. I am a first generation college graduate. My grandmother would be proud of my degrees, but as a woman who lived through the Great Depression, she would be upset at how much I owe. She did not leave a Jim Crow South so I could bare educational debt slavery in the North.

According to my Instagram, I am hashtag #livingmybestlife, #myblackisbeautiful, and #teamnatural. These affirmations are important because of the long history of anti-blackness that questions our worth, and beauty. Meanwhile there seem to be few spaces or hashtags related to my deepest fears: My ability to sustain myself financially in a world constantly opposed to my blackness. Honest conversations in safe spaces about the economic well-being of black people are not happening enough publicly or privately.

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The money self-help books I read give me tips on saving and encourage me to open Roth IRAs. They offer cookie cutter suggestions like set up automatic transfers to build savings or put $5,000 a year aside for retirement. These are cute tips but these books never address the economics of my blackness and how I navigate it daily in my life as a woman, a writer or mother. Where is the book that addresses the needs of a single parent of color on WIC who is trying to save, or the middle class family struggling to pay mortgages, auto loans or insurance at higher rates than their white counterparts of equal income or credit scores, or the black professional, who despite having all the degree receipts, is struggling to convince an employer that they are as valuable as their white colleagues. It is as if American culture expects black people to divide themselves in half, dealing with our blackness on one day and dealing with our class status another day. This is an unfair expectation that we are expected to carry while pursuing a supposedly universal American Dream.

As I check my credit score, and pay my bills and text Toni, I am slowly releasing the ideals of the American Dream. The American Dream is too deeply connected to my denial of my black liberation. I am searching for something else that is even hard for me to articulate. I am looking for mobility, horizontally and vertically. I want to decrease my debt. I want to increase my savings. This will give me more options than my grandparents and my parents had. They couldn’t move when they wanted to. They couldn’t switch jobs when they wanted to. They were locked in to limited choices and as children we felt the brunt of their resentment for their own lives. I want to be able to move through society without economic or social restraint. My African American American Dream means I don’t fear dying at the hand of violence, and I don’t worry about being denied access to resources because of my blackness. My dream for my life is rooted is decolonization and liberation and honest conversations about blackness, money, debt and generational wealth. Like Curtis Mayfield, I plan to stay a believer that this is possible but like Funkadelic I have tasted the maggots in the mind of these times and I know the type of liberated reality I yearn for is far from the political climate we currently live in.

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In the meantime, I will continue to start conversations about money and blackness wherever I land my feet. I won’t be ashamed of my debt or the feelings I attach to it. I will continue to text my friend for support. I’ll burn candles to honor my grandmother. I will be unapologetically black and unapologetically apply pressure to any system that does not value our labor or our lives.

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