by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
“Poor Black folks today just don’t know how to be po’!”
That was the revelation uttered by one of the guests during a hard fought game of Bid Whist at former Milwaukee Mayor Marvin Pratt’s house last week.
Bid Whist is the adult version of Spades and frequently provides a platform for discussions on everything from civil rights to the mating habits of elk at the North Pole. On this particular evening, the discussion had evolved from Tiger Wood’s nationality to how po’ Black folks today navigate their impoverishment, versus how we negotiated through that economic maze back in the 60s and 70s.
One of the more interesting comments came from a sister waiting her turn to play the game. She reminisced about a recent trip to the grocery store where she witnessed a young sister with three small children in tow stacking her grocery cart with expensive meats and junk food, and then paying for those items with food stamps.
Someone responded that too many of today’s young mothers neither have an appreciation or knowledge of how to live within their means, or how to provide their children with nutritious meals while on the public dole.
I was in deep concentration trying to sort my hand for the “Boston” I was about to lay down on my opponents, so I didn’t see who made the comment, but I did look up to hear another on-looker say something to the effect of, “back in the day, poor folks knew how to squeeze a dollar out of 15 cents, and no one ever went without a meal. We could thinly spread out that government cheese when all else failed.”
Chances are you can ask anyone of my generation to verify that statement, and most could.
Like most folks of my generation, we were what you would consider “po’,” but we were never without. Most of us were brought up in two parent households, which meant there were generally two incomes–however small.
Personal responsibility was instilled in us, thus it was expected that young boys, in particular, would contribute to the household income, or at least take responsibility for their personal needs, as soon as they were old enough to “push the plow.”
I started a paper route as soon as I turned 12, and for consecutive summers I worked on my grandfather’s scrap metal truck, at a car wash on 9th and Center Street, and in the evenings earned a few bucks working for my uncle’s janitorial business, cleaning up the Glendale police department and city hall.
My grandparents moved to Milwaukee in the 1940s from the Deeper than Deep South. They lived on farms, probably as sharecroppers, and knew poverty that few of us can even comprehend. They grew many of their own crops, raised animals for food and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to make ends meet. They moved up North for better opportunities, and brought with them strong work ethics.
Equally important, they brought to urban centers throughout the North a sense of community, much akin to the cultural paradigm of our African ancestors. That meant they shared with neighbors, and our community was just that: a community.
My family took pride in never succumbing to welfare, but I do remember us getting that government cheese, a foot-long block of American that would be a staple of our diet. Cheese sandwiches with salad dressing, grilled cheese, or melted cheese over a variety of meats and vegetables were common.
We had no compulsion against supplementing those meals with a syrup sandwich and a glass of sugar water (Kool Aid was five cents) to wash it down. Of course we had plenty of fruit, some from grocery stores, others from our backyards.
I remember relatives going to neighborhood grocery stores on certain days where Black folks were lined up to get cheap meats, often the left-overs from butchering, like the neck bones, ham hocks and yes, even chitterlings.
I also remember some chickens running around in our backyard on 8th and Locust Street; my father snapping a neck and mother plucking feathers before the bird was roasted or deep-fried with oil or grease that sat atop the stove for reuse.
Kentucky Fried? Naw, we ate Georgia Fried, and it tasted better and cost a lot less.
How much does the average young mother spend these days on fast food? Who is around to tell them there are options, most of which are much healthier, and far less expensive? (Over the years we replaced neck bones and salt pork with smoked turkey.)
Beans were a mainstay in my house—white, northern, pinto, you name it, we ate it, not realizing at the time it was not only good tasting, but also nutritious.
My mother was raised in a small town in Illinois, so she wasn’t as well versed in ‘southern cooking’ as many others in the neighborhood, but my grandmother passed on her knowledge of not just how to prepare wholesome, nutritious and tasty meals with a minimum of ingredients, but also how to stretch those meals for several days.
One thing we had back then that many young folks don’t have today is a family network, grandparents, aunts and uncles who passed down vital information from generation to generation.
Being po’ wasn’t easy, but for most Black folks growing up in Milwaukee when I did, it wasn’t a lifestyle or a culture, but an experience that inspired and empowered us. In the back of our minds was the thought—which isn’t the case today—that poverty was a way station en route to a better life. It was not the final destination.
Many poor young folks today buy expensive meats and sugar laden cereals for the same reason they buy—or rent—an expensive television set even though they don’t have a table to put it on.
I can’t imagine what my mother or father’s response would have been if I asked them to buy me a pair of $150 Jordan’s. We shopped at the Discount Store on Third Street, and were lucky if we had a pair of tennis shoes to go along with the one pair of dress shoes that seemed to come in one style and color.
I can’t count how many po’ babies I’ve seen in recent years wearing expensive, name brand shoes. For what? They are going to grow out of the shoes, which poor mothers today falsely believe somehow think the infant’s appreciate. That wasted money could be better allocated for food, clothing or maybe a book.
Growing up po’ back in the day didn’t mean we suffered, it meant we were creative. We couldn’t go to the Hampton’s, or on winter cruises. On warm nights my father would pack us in the family car and we would go for a drive.
Milwaukee was hyper segregated back then, thus a trip down Lake Drive was an event we cherished. Along the way, we would look at the big houses and manicured lawns and dream big dreams, reinforced by lectures from our parents who explained through hard work and discipline we could achieve whatever goals we set for ourselves.
That’s in sharp contrast to what many poor Black children are told today, if they are told anything at all.
I can still remember our annual summer vacations. If we didn’t drive to Georgia, we went to the Salvation Army camp. We really enjoyed ourselves, and for us it was like a European vacation, away from our segregated urban community. It didn’t cost much, if anything, and it cemented memories that have lasted a lifetime.
Back in the day, the church was more than a place of worship, it was a family gathering spot, a social service center and the cultural foundation of the Black community.
Outreach was a paramount tenet of the church, and when a family was in need, the church—and congregation—was there to help out, whether that entailed providing food, clothing, or help paying a bill.
I also remember attending several ‘rent’ parties. A desperate family would orchestrate a rent party when times were particularly bad. Everyone in the neighborhood would show up. People brought food and beverages, and offered what they could to help the family out. These parties were fun, but they also represented the essence of “community.”
Being poor wasn’t a stigma back in my day, probably because we knew every one was a paycheck away from economic crisis. What made that possibility easier was that we lived under the umbrella of an African cultural paradigm, where families were part of the collective. We took care of each other; we shared with each other and uplifted members of the extended Black family in times of grief, turmoil or economic struggle.
I guess the reason why that paradigm has all but died is rooted in three sad realities:
First, the Black nuclear family today is more a rarity than a reality, and the extended family linkages that held us together have been severed.
Secondly, we allowed Uncle Sam and patronizing Missionaries to infuse a new cultural paradigm. Uncle Sam told us we could live off the public dole, but only if we broke up our nuclear families.
As a condition of this new system of slavery, mothers had to throw their husbands out the door. Uncle Sam became the new ‘Daddy,’ and he was an abusive bastard that not only controlled the finances, but also the mindset of his ill-treated wife and children. He replaced the church with a crutch, and created a new culture of poverty that stripped all sense of dignity and motivation from his victims.
Missionaries and poverty pimps became rich off our poverty as they put shackles around young Black mothers’ wrists and minds.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, my generation viewed poverty as a launching pad, a plantation to escape from.
We had a culture, a spiritual guide and strong nuclear families that sacrificed and instilled in us the determination and wherewithal to move beyond our status to a better life.
Yeah, today’s Black poor don’t know how to be po’. Too many of today’s poor think it’s a lifelong illness, when in fact it’s a curable disease you can treat with a teaspoon of self respect and two doses of self determination.