I was a poor black kid once. But I eventually went on to earn a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Russian, an M.S. in multimedia journalism, acceptance into the Peace Corps, and a Fulbright Scholarship.
And trust me. It took more than a TED talk and a primer in Google Scholar to achieve it.
What Gene Marks’ column and his legion of detractors failed to touch on is that overcoming poverty is not only about access and citing statistics. It is a major — sometimes painful — cultural shift, both mentally and socially. For me, it meant that I had to shut off large parts of my family whose behavior wasn’t conducive for my intellectual growth and spiritual well-being.
I grew up in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan, in a neighborhood so rife with violence that not being a member of a gang relegated you to being a victim of one. Prostitution was so open it seemed legal. And shootouts were such a regular occurrence I stopped flinching at the sound of gunfire. Twice, I was caught in the middle of shootouts between rival drug dealers. And fighting off gangs walking to and from school was a weekly, and sometimes daily exercise. To top it off, I had two live-in uncles who sold drugs. It wasn’t unusual for me to boil a hotdog on one eye of the stove while my uncles cooked crack on the adjacent one.
My schools had the best technology available. But sometimes I was too scared to take advantage of it for fear of getting jumped by one of the many gangs that roamed between my house and middle school. Sometimes I won a few fights. Many times I lost. One kid who bullied me even threatened to kill me. This 13-year-old was part of a notorious neighborhood gang and was known to carry a gun, so my worries were not exaggerated.
It made me too frightened attend the free summer school courses at my middle school that offered sports and computer programs. My grandmother’s response to my fear: “You better not let that thug scare you. At least you’ll die getting your education!” Trust me, she wasn’t joking. May that tough, pistol-packing woman rest in peace. She died soon after I graduated from high school.
So, at the tender age of 13, I had the resolute mindset that I’d die learning how to type and shoot 20-footers in defiance of neighborhood thuggery. Some of my friends were not as strong, however, and simply dropped out all together.
(The bully I mentioned eventually killed himself playing Russian roulette, and most of the gangs that menaced me died off or relocated to Zip Codes throughout the penal system.)
As wonderful as my grandmother was and as much as she instilled in me the value of education, she lacked the cultural depth and class access needed to make me more than just a “good kid.” Moreover, my home was a drug house where crack deals took place as often as stock purchases on Wall Street for at least half of my teen life. No matter how hard I worked in school, I had to go home to a sometimes unsafe environment and an aunt who once physically abused me when she grew tired of my presence. My grades slumped and my mind was not focused on school. I was trying to survive.
And, as a 14-year-old, I wasn’t reading Forbes, either. Nor did I need a primer in technology. I needed someone to tell me that I could escape the “effed up” life in which I hadn’t chosen to be born. My high school English teacher, Rosa, did that. Not only did she show me I had a knack for public speaking; she visited my grandmother and me in our dangerous neighborhood weekly at the risk of her own safety. She taught me to write thank you cards when people did something nice for me. She exposed me to the foreign concept of eating dinner around an actual table and not in front of a television set. When it wasn’t Rosa teaching me the intricacies social etiquette and high culture, it was my high school football coach comforting me with his cell phone number to call if my crack head uncle decided to put his hands on my grandmother or me.
It was these people who risked their own safety that helped me out of the poverty I was destined to live in. Not some pompous white man from Forbes peddling armchair advice to the natives on how to be like “his kids.”
“Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.”
Don’t have brains like his kids? What did he read before writing his column, “The Bell Curve?”
The tone with which he wrote about the ills of black kids while exalting the advantages of his own reeks with an air of entitlement and prejudice that continues to fortify the institutions of racism he casually excludes himself from. And even while I hold a host of academic and professional accolades (some of which are in technology), my skin tone still relegates me to the associations of poverty I labored so intensely to overcome.
During a get-together of more than a dozen of my white friends a year ago, one of them suggested that we go, one-by-one, around the room and share our first experience with drug use. Some of the stuff they mentioned was foreign to this “poor, black kid” from inner city Detroit. To their utter amazement, I had nothing to report when my turn came.
“Come on,” one of them said in disbelief. “Not even once?”
“Nope,” I replied to pin-dropping silence.
Marks’ article is equally as prejudice and assumptive. And what is worse is that, like my drug-experimenting friends, I am sure he doesn’t even feel his assumptions have an ounce of prejudice. It is this lack of self-recognition, not the digital divide, which further insulates the societal institutions of racism that poor, black kids find so strenuous to penetrate.
When I look back on my days of being a poor, black kid and all of the technological access I had, I cannot help but wonder how useless it would have all been if my football coach, high school teacher and steely grandmother had not been there to tell me that I had to make painful life changes.
I have cut myself off from family and friends who meant me no good. I never, ever go back to my neighborhood in Detroit. There have been too many stories of young black kids home from college going back to the hood to see tha’ homies only to catch a bullet.
If Marks’ really cared about helping poor, black kids, he’d actually go to an inner city school himself and lead technology courses since he is so well-known and sought after.
For it is this kind of technology advice I, a former poor, black kid, would have truly preferred.