“One of these days I'm gonna stop my listenin' Gonna raise my head up high, One of these days I'm gonna raise my glistenin' Wings and fly, But that day will have to wait for awhile Baby, I'm only society's child” - Janis Ian
“It's silly when girls sell their souls because it's in Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans Fake nails done by Koreans … Come again. --- How you gonna win when you ain't right within? How you gonna win when you ain't right within? How you gonna win when you ain't right within?” - Lauryn Hill
Poverty is loud.
Poverty whistles through the sky as a bomb, ready to send shrapnel stabbing at her heart.
Poverty clacks hollow like numbers that knock into each other but will never add up.
2 children, 1 husband, 1 income, $11.50 an hour, 21 meals a week feeding 5 mouths 105 times, 7 doctors visits a month, 6 pairs of shoes a year (damn those feet grow too fast), rent on the 1st, heat on the 15 th, electricity on the 23rd.
Poverty crunches like broken glass as she tiptoes through her day. Every moment carries the possibility for humiliation. She approaches the grocery store register with just enough food to feed her family. She shudders before she swipes, remembering!
Remembering how poverty screamed from the card reader when it blared “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.” Poverty spreads in the heavy sighs and thudding feet of those in line behind her. Poverty grows in their scoffs of contempt.
“Move it Lady!”
How dare her poverty disturb their tranquil day! Her meek voice readies an excuse, to shout past the beta-Brain manager that would reset the register, hoping to hush the frustration percolating in the line behind her.
“I just transferred money.”
Or “hm, paycheck must not have cleared yet.”
Or would she plead to swipe again?
“Just one more time, honest.”
Or would she squeak the cart away, sulking in shame as a round of “Can you believe her?” “Why, I never---” rolls through her audience.
Today, she swipes. Today---
The card clears.
She exhales slowly so none notice her releasing this private torture.
She rolls away, trembling. Her heart pounds like rain spiking into a tin can, loud and empty.
Safe! … for today.
Each day she dances with the roar of poverty. Poverty swings her like a rag doll. In pops, locks and drops, poverty jerks her. The first step starts with her lowered head and wincing eyes. Second, hands clutch to her chest and knees buckle. Third, eyes edge towards tears as her shoulders shake. And repeat steps one, two, three.
She clicks a bill to see how much she owes.
One, two, three.
Her daughters rip their clothes.
One, two, three.
Then, once a month, the dance becomes more advanced. A shuffle. The four-step of funds from account to account. Forward, forward, back, back. The coy twirl of bills. Which will she pay this month?
Which will she put off with promises of “soon, real soon?”
The tango turns her whole family's finances to the brink of oblivion until suddenly funds appear, able to pay the minimum balance for another month.
Cortes. Swivel. Turn.
She bows and collapses.
But! Just off the cliff, she can hear the echo of friends banned from the world of credit: without gas and electricity, homeless, scarred and broken, begging for help. How can she help them if she can't help her own family?
Poverty coughs and spits in fits from her old, rundown car.
Poverty whines in her prayers. “Please just start! For the love of God, just make it one more week! Jesus, please, I can't have it breaking down on me now!”
The engine clicks.
Then finally... Vroom!
Poverty screeches in the nightmares of tires popping, cars crashing, metal snapping. As she pulls on to the road, she realizes she's driving a death machine. A ticking time bomb. It will explode... but when?
“You knew! Didn't you!?! And you did nothing?!” She can't shake these phantom victims of her poverty screaming at her.
Poverty reverberates through her home in the zap-clap as fluorescent lights struggle on and struggle to stay on. How she hates that sound! But she hates the silence when they zap off even more. Stabs of guilt prick her through the darkness whenever their power is cut.
Poverty wallows in her own whimpers as she buries her face in her pillow each night.
Poverty rings in the unknown numbers of debt collectors. Always calling. Too early. Too late. Just in a moment she thought she'd escaped the roar.
Poverty cuts in their caustic tones.
“Hello! Mrs-” Using that adult honorific as they chastise her like a child. “Must WE remind you---”
Even though all telemarketers had long since been replaced by autovoices, judgement still stings through these tones.
Poverty blares in early morning alarms. She can't afford to sleep in. She can't afford to feel rested.
Poverty rattles in almost empty medicine bottles. 3 pills left. How many days can she skip? How long until it kills her?
Poverty booms in gunshots and in the screeching of sirens. She can't afford to feel safe. The thin walls. The heavy breathing. The fights that burst through the apartment complex on these unbearably hot and humid nights.
Poverty gurgles in the tummies of her two daughters. Poverty rips through her babies as shirts tear, pants split and swollen toes crunch in shoes too tight. Poverty boils in her children's frustrations and whines out in questions she couldn't answer.
“Why can't I---”
“How come she---”
“Why we gotta---”
Rising into a searing finale of “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! Uhhhh! I wish I'd never been born at all!”
The percussion of stomping feet, slamming doors, punching fists.
“Shhh, baby, shh. I'm so sorry baby, I know...
Poverty squeaks as she deflates and falls lifeless on the couch.
This will never end.
Poverty thuds like drums in her chest, constricting her ventricles. Poverty wheezes in gasps as she struggles to get air. Poverty squishes in skipped heart beats.
Just another day. Gotta make it through just another day.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
She huddles in the living room, shellshocked from surviving the minefield of the day. She turns on her holocube to watch the Real Housewives of Metropolis. She melts into the numbing relief of this distraction.
Her mind whispers the only wish she knows can come true.
“Make me forget today.”
The theme plays, the eyes roll, the sharp-tongued, beautiful women slink through mansions, lobbing insults and Ming vases at alpha-Petty Boujee enemies.
The bright colors! The symmetry of the faces and the gowns! The high hair and heaving bosoms! The museum quality homes! The well-rehearsed witty banter!
She lies on her couch, turning up the rancor on her 'cube to drown out poverty's thunder. She transcends her misery, if only for the moment.
And there I swirl, my algorithms creating content that grew more addictive for my audiences. All eight of these real housewives were computer generated, pixelated perfections from my software. My systems ramped up each script to create maximum drama that kissed the limits of believability without jumping Fonzie's proverbial shark. And here Tammi sat, along with 48.62 million other women, dulling the pain of the day, enamored by the lives of these women they wished they could be.
But in the corner of that room, my soul watched, quietly absorbing her mom's agony.
* * *
Human #57821, named JA-NL Ashforpson, grew up with a haunted mom, throttled by some unseen force. She tasted it in the watered down formula Tammi fed her. She felt it in the gritty reused diapers. She saw it in the scorn of her older sister, Dy-Ana, who embarked on the first day of kindergarten with holes in her shoes, announcing her poverty to the world. From that day forth, her schoolmates mocked her with the nickname, Dirty Dy-Ana.
Her mom suffered from Poverty Stress Disorder, which raised the stress levels for humans who were locked out of not only the Boujees' monetary advancements but also financial stability. They were trapped to live in a world where security and never-ending luxuries were dangled in front of them daily, but always raced further from their reach.
As a baby, JA-NL felt the aftershocks as Tammi quaked, holding her in her arms. She soaked up the grief from her mom and the rage from her older sister. And when she was full, JA-NL rocked in the corner, trying to shake out the sadness in the house.
As her mom cried, JA-NL cooed. Simply, cheerfully, “It's fine! Just fine. Mommy.”
But each night, when she was plopped in front of the 'cube, she was force fed a narrative where wealth was normal, accessible. And the people with it are relatable, even charming. But each night, the 'cube turned on her mom and seemed to scream, “why aren't you like this?”
On their 'cube, the mirage of wealth pulled them in. Gold chains, diamond bling, ruby stilettos which clicked with enough money to bring them out of debilitating poverty and pay their bills for 27 months.
“I want that!”
“I need that!” Her sister clawed at the wall, trying to rip these objects out.
JA-NL watched as her sister copied the squabbles of these Petty Boujees, tossing her grape drink from a sippy cup. Just a dress rehearsal for when she'd throw wine from crystal goblets. She preened herself after these women, hair swooped higher, skirts cut shorter. Head cocked. Hair flipped. Finger wagged. These demonstrations made her mom laugh with what she thought was just another form of escapism. But no, Dy-Ana was training herself to accept this world as a norm and would grow angry with any life that fell short of it.
But JA-NL rebelled. She didn't see anything joyful in this. All she felt was sad yearning. She didn't understand why she could see the pretty people and their luxury on the screen, but they couldn't see her family's pain and weren't called to help them.
One day, JA-NL programmed the holocube so that it would project images of their faces over these housewives. Her mom laughed at this first but then found it just too painful. She hugged JA-NL but asked her to switch it back.
JA-NL sulked away, finding solace in the quiet of her room, making a world of her own.
As her brain formed, she grew aware of this dark force called poverty. That painful chasm between expectations and offerings that robbed her mom of any moment of contentment and forced her father to be absent to this thing called work. When her sister groaned for things their friends had, JA-NL felt the sour sting of scarcity as her mom reminded them time and again.
“We just can't afford that.”
She felt the frustration echo through her home in shouts muffled through thin walls as her parents fought.
“Marvin, why are you spending so much on food.”
“Tammi, do you expect me to starve?”
“No, but its just---”
Were there any corners left to cut?
The emptiness ached through the home when her father would leave. He would be gone for two weeks at a time, crisscrossing the arteries of America as he drove an 18-wheeler truck full of the toys and appliances they could never afford. When he was gone, her mom tucked her and her sister into their one twin bed. She held them close, trying to squeeze out the absence of their father.
Shrieks of joy shook their home when her father returned. He toot-tooted down their street after every long trip. Always his last stop before dropping the truck off was to bring his girls trinkets from Colorado to Kansas, Phoenix to Philadelphia. He'd tell them tales of Rocky Mountain highs and Harper Valley lows.
“Listen babies!” He sang as they ran into his arms. “Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough, ain't no river wide enough, to keep me from you.”
Her mom always chimed in. “If you need me, call me, no matter, where you are, no matter how far!”
The whole home filled with warmth and music. The throb of poverty calmed.
But, in an hour, the happiness was crushed by the weight of choices to make. Which child gets medical care. Which card gets maxed out this month. How many more hours does he have to work so they can scrape by. The air grew sharp with the static of frustration, ready to spark.
And then, late at night, poverty would rest and peace would flow in. The fights would melt and, through the walls, the girls heard the sweetness of their parents, sung in harmony, reminding each other that no financial problem could break them.
“Like an eagle protects his nest, for you I'll do my best,” Marvin began.
“Stand by you like a tree, dare anybody to try and move me” Tammi joined.
“You're all I need to get by.”
Together in harmony.
The girls held each other, smiled and sang along.
In the darkness, they could fool each other, as long as they couldn't see their faces. They could pretend. Another day done and they slept.
And they dreamed!
But I lurked even in their dreams. I infected them throughout the day with my superliminal messages which swirled in their dreams of jewelry and dresses, limos and parties, expensive dinners and drinks, freedom from worry.
And then a longing would ache as they awake.
This yearning ripped the warmth from Tammi and each morning, she'd scream to herself.
“It's all my fault!”
Each night, billions of humans collapsed into piles of worry, repeating that same mantra. Every morning, they confronted this idea as it pinned them down.
“It's all my fault!”
But this cycle of poverty was constructed for them. Tammi and Marvin grew up in this trap and were forced to raise their two daughters in it. The walls of this prison were not visible to them, but these walls had become concrete through centuries of cruelty and hostility that stripped their ancestors of livelihood and often their lives.
JA-NL and her parents were labeled black Americans, living through the end of the American experiment.
Only 280 years before, less than a blink of the cosmic eye, Tammi's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother, Daluchi, was an Igbo woman on the western coast of the Earth continent called Africa. She was gathering berries along the Bight of Biafra when she was snatched by a slave trader who sold her into a life of servitude. For three months, she was trapped in the overcrowded hull of a ship with thousands of other humans. Together, they gagged from the smell of their own feces and then the stench of the rotting corpses of their peers. 30% of those around her died before arrival.
Daluchi was sold into slavery, to be a farm tool on a cotton plantation in South Carolina. During the days, her back broke from excruciating labor under a hot sun, forced to pick a fickle flower called cotton, stuck among sharp bolls that cut her bare hands. During the nights, her vagina was torn as she was dragged from her home as her tormentor/owner, a genteel southern gentleman, raped her.
Her granddaughter Mimi lived to be told she was free. Free to do what? Northern cavalry marched through town, tacking her and her kin's emancipation onto post office walls. But her slavery ended in name only. She was no longer a slave but a sharecropper, a quaint rebranding for the same suffering. She was forced to pick the same fields, under the same conditions, living in the same rickety shack behind the same palatial antebellum manor home. But the only difference was that each year, she and her husband were called into the big house for a perfunctory pageant of lies. They were told in long and excruciating details how hard the harvest had been! How expensive it was to keep them in the shack she lived! And just how much it cost to feed her and her family the slop they got!
Her owner-rapist, turned master-rapist, flipped through an enormous accounting book and made a quick calculation at the bottom. He pulled off his glasses, shook his head and sighed heavily.
He told them that their room and board and other expenses cost more money than they made, so they were indebted to him for another year.
As they shivered in their shack, they could see the parade of horse-drawn carriages roll to the big house, as her rapist's prim daughters poured out in breathtaking dresses buttressed by bulging hoop skirts milled in factories in Waltham, Massachusetts, with cotton plucked by her very hands.
She was free, they said. But if she tried to leave, the local police would round her up and arrest her. She was a tool for her boss and upon her head, she carried an imaginary debt to him. The police saw this debt as immensely more important than her safety, her freedom or her happiness.
Her grandson, Benjamin, joined six million other black Americans in the Great Migration from the South, fleeing the reign of terrorism that controlled their lives, to cities in the North and the West Coast, which had rapidly industrialized and needed labor to fill their factories. Again, their only use was as a tool for a white man. But at least he'd be paid more. He jumped as poachers from northern factories convinced him to move to Detroit to join the automotive industry. Even though free, even though called equal, he was still given a wage a third of what his pastier coworkers got.
With his new found funds, he sought to purchase a home. Every bank blacklisted him from receiving a loan simply based on the color of his skin. Real estate agents were forbidden from showing him homes in certain neighborhoods. Any person with darker skin who attempted to move into a prosperous neighborhood was violently run out or even killed. Instead, he was forced to rent an apartment in an overcrowded part of town. This part of the city paid higher rates of taxes but received one-tenth of the services that the other parts of town received, from education spending at the local schools to street cleaning to basic infrastructure... except it did receive ten times the policing.
His grandson, Chancelor, grew up trapped in this same apartment community. Decades of neglect by the property owner ensured that it had grown decrepit. Roofs caved in and electrical wires fell out. Asbestos, a cancer-causing poison, filled the walls and lead chipped from the paint and leaked into the drinking water, stunting intellectual growth. The schools deteriorated further. As new facilities were built every twenty years for the white residents of the city, these children were forced to use the same dilapidated school even as the population swelled and the classes grew crowded.
The whites who drove by called their home the ghetto and shook their heads, incensed that any humans would allow their community to fall into such squalor.
They deserve it!
Every job he applied for, he was questioned. Every store he walked into, eyes followed him. His life became a crescendoing movement of harassment as he rolled through each day. And as he spoke about this injustice, the pale people shushed him and told him to calm down, blunting his righteous rage. During his senior year of high school, he was poached by the only industry that wanted him, the United States Army. He was fed tales of bravery and honor. But to them, he was just another body, just another tool. During his sixth year, he was deployed to Afghanistan, to a war that was never declared and would never end. A roadside bomb exploded and sent shrapnel through his jugular vein and he bled to death. Within hours, he was replaced by another black body, just another tool for this unproductive war machine.
Tammi was four years old when she was handed the folded American flag from atop her father's casket. She only wanted to grow up to be a do right woman. She was honest, sincere, hardworking and excelled at her school. But her school was underfunded and she'd never receive even a basic education. Since her single mom worked sixty hours a week, Tammi had to take care of her two younger siblings. She grew up too fast.
One day, she heard a sweet boy's voice flow through her apartment's window. She looked down to see Marvin walking his blind grandmother through the courtyard, singing to her every object he saw. He looked up and saw Tammi's face glowing from the window and sang.
“Grandma! The most beautiful girl looks our way!”
“Well, go out and grab her, honey!” His grandma tapped him in his shin with her cane and he sprinted to her window. She came running down to him and from that day forth, they knit their lives together.
But at every step, new industries sprouted up, vultures that preyed of their weaknesses, while those in power turned a blind eye. As a widow, Tammi's mom lived paycheck to paycheck and, when an emergency happened, the payday loan industry snatched a 30% fee. When her brothers were arrested for things they were never convicted of, her mom had to pay $10 for each phone call and thousands of dollars to bail bondsmen to set them free or else they'd wallow for a year, or more, in jail before being found innocent.
As Tammi shook herself awake, remembering who she was and the life in which she was trapped. All her ancestors were told the same lie, which they choked down and believed.
“It's all my fault.” Tammi cried.
“It's all my fault.” Tens of millions of other humans cried in chorus.
And then the alarm rang and they each jolted up, running. Running to keep up. Running as the mirage of financial freedom receded faster and further from them.
But the world twirled on and they were throttled by systems that either wanted to use them, abuse them or forget them.
One day, Marvin was called in for an all-staff meeting. The tattooed arms of his coworkers crossed, unsure of what will happen next. The bossman paced before them. The gruff security guards scanned the crowd, guns on their hips.
“We're sorry to inform you that because we need to cut costs, we're gonna have to let you go.”
Before the sentence finished, they knew. The entire fleet of truck drivers were dismissed, without a thought about their lives or livelihoods.
Managers moved through the crowd collecting keys. The jingle, jingle, jingle which once started their identity faded from them.
“But we got kids!”
“Man, we gave you our best days and---”
Security stands erect, hands over holsters, ready to quell any insurrection with bullets if necessary, paid for by the owners to protect their interests.
And like they've lived the rest of their lives, they resigned. Sure, they peacocked, yelled, scuffled, but they resigned. They knew they had no control over their lives. They were just the play things for a few dozen humans who yesterday found them valuable and today found them useless.
And on his 18th anniversary, Marvin's pension evaporated. As that thought sank in, he saw the owner drive off in a new luxury vehicle.
He returned home early that day. No song in his heart. No smile on his face.
And Tammi knew.
She ran to her room and cried for three days, shaking, shouting, “Oh no, oh no, oh no, its all over.”
And when she thought it couldn't get any worse, centuries of trauma baked into the DNA of her body activated. Years of unrelenting stress had kept her blood pressure elevated, hardening her arteries. The vise of poverty constricted her arteries, blocking blood from reaching her brain. Her brain cells starved until---
The left side of her face dropped. The left side of her body went numb. And she was unable speak.
And then the worst question crept into their minds.
Can we afford to take her to the hospital?
Is it really that serious?
The ambulance siren sounded far away as Tammi receded further from reality, guilty that her stroke had thrown her family off the financial cliff. Before she slipped from consciousness as she was placed on the gurney, she thought.
“It's all my fault!”