I’ve never felt more helpless than when I heard my dad tell me that he was selling the house where I was raised. After using my student loans to help cover the overdue mortgage payments, we were still unable to stave off the inevitable. Facing the prospect of the bank foreclosing on the house, my father was forced to sell my childhood home. And despite my knowledge of the precarious position of middle and working class black people and the enduring nature of poverty, particularly in an area like the Mississippi Delta, I still feel like it’s at least partially my fault.
The sociologist in me says that divorce often plunges black families into poverty. My parents divorced in 2009. The sociologist in me says that the economic downturn disproportionately damaged black people. My dad lost his job soon after the divorce. The sociologist in me says that the unemployment rate in Mississippi is three times higher for blacks than for whites. Dad lives in Mississippi. The sociologist in me says that the housing market is poor and blacks rarely see a fair return on their housing investments, so I know there’s no way he ever would have made a profit on this house. But guilt doesn’t give a damn about my sociological training.
In black communities and black families like the mine, where social mobility only comes to a lucky few, kids are cherry-picked for success. Knowing that the odds are against us, kids that show promise (not always academic, but also athletic, musical, etc.) at an early age are infused with the hopes of their families and communities. These fortunate children are nursed and encouraged while their classmates fall behind. The fortunate ones are supposed to defy the statistics, to get out, to become doctors and lawyers. They’re supposed to earn enough money to send home to Mom, Dad, and Grandma. They’re supposed to become a symbol that the local high school can hold out as proof that anything is possible.
I was one of those kids. Labeled a big fish in a small pond, I never got into any real trouble, maintained good grades with relative ease, and somehow managed to perform well on the ACT despite my school’s terrible preparatory program. I fell into a full scholarship at my state’s flagship university despite having zero knowledge of how to apply to college. I was on track to accomplish all of the things everyone had set out for me. I was on track to save us, to end our struggles. But somehow along the line something happened. I failed to meet my end of the bargain.
I didn’t lose my way in the kind of extravagant fashion that would make a good movie. I didn’t lose my scholarship because of a drug conviction. I didn’t even get anyone pregnant. My deviation was much more subtle. Rather than going to school to be an engineer or a pharmacist, or even a zoologist as I dreamed in high school, I chose to be a sociologist.
My family doesn’t understand what I do. (Shit, some days I wonder what I really do, and on many days I know it’s not what I want to do). They may not have completely understood my job even if I had become an engineer, but at least I would have a decent income to show for it. And there is something about those types of careers that conjures something with which my family could identify, even if they didn’t understand the specifics of engineering or law. Instead, four years ago, when I called my parents in excitement over my first academic publication — a chapter in an edited collection, no less — they asked me if I was going to get paid for it. I had to tell Mom and Dad no. When I called again about my second publication a year later, I had to face the soon-to-be-crushed enthusiasm in their voices all over again as they asked once more whether I’d be paid. Nope. Not this time, either. I’ve learned to keep the rest of my announcements to myself.
I look around and see my college classmates, my friends, and my fraternity brothers all seeing large returns on their degrees, many making over two times as much as me. I can’t help but think that if I’d gone down a different path, I wouldn’t have to watch my family’s only chance at a bit of wealth accumulation — what they worked so hard for — go down the drain. My parents, like all parents, worked tirelessly. At one point during my childhood, they both held two jobs. I have a vivid early memory of weeping as my dad prepared to leave home for his second job at the cotton gin. That day my tears meant more to him than our family’s finances and he called and quit as I clutched his legs. Since then, though, he has continued to work countless odd jobs. He has always had all the skills one develops when he can’t afford to pay “professionals.” He single-handedly built much of the furniture in the house (and in my younger sister’s new apartment at college), added two rooms, and remodeled the kitchen and bathroom. But when you’re from where we’re from and you look how we look, society knows all the fanciest ways to tell you that your hard work is meaningless, that you should have been born elsewhere, that you should have looked differently. And you’ll end up with nothing as if you never worked a day in your life.
I chose to be a sociologist so I could help people, and with every graduate seminar that I daydream through, every statistical model that I run, and every paper I submit to a journal, I hope I still can. But, shit, I can’t even help my own family. I chose to postpone my real earning potential for over half a decade, hoping to come out on the other end more prepared to meet both my social justice and financial goals. But, it turns out, my family couldn’t wait that long.
A few months ago, the edited collection that contains that very first publication was finally published after almost four years of waiting. When they had asked for an address so they could send my free copy of the book, I gave them my dad’s address — the house I grew up in. We were struggling to keep the house even then, but I had hoped that it could remain a permanent address for me. Hoping, I know now, doesn’t work. And it appears, at least in this case, neither does sociology.