This piece originally appeared in Vox Populi Public Sphere on February 10, 2021
To the Sumlins, whose generosity will never be forgotten
Money stresses. Read that as a subject and verb as well as a general, ever-present thought. Michael Arceneaux, my fellow Howard alum, writes about this subject with painful eloquence in I Don’t Want To Die Poor, inspiring me to lay out here my own complicated relationship with money.
Throughout my adult life, money has always been there – or should I say my fixation on my lack of money is perennially there. As a child, I didn’t consider money that much, if at all. My mother worked in corporate America, and my father engaged in ministry work; they created and sustained a very comfortable childhood for me and my sister, beginning with our births in 1991 and 1996 in North Carolina, respectively. We took several trips to Disney World, lived in spacious homes across the Midwest as we moved for my parents’ various work opportunities, and never seemed to experience any delay when requesting the video game system or popular toy of the day. We were a young Black family, and my parents undoubtedly faced the racial discrimination that defines America; my sister and I just felt like our material and spiritual needs were met by the world our parents forged for us.
In 2009, I enrolled at Howard University, and my parents and sister moved to Oklahoma. My father assumed the senior pastorship of a historically Black church in east Oklahoma City – – the historically Black section of the city. Although my parents and I never discussed the specifics of their income, I had every indication that we were pretty well off. I began my college career, opened a college checking account that October, and settled into a plane of possibilities. Fully controlling money was certainly a new experience for my 18-year old self. I worked only one job during my time in high school; I was a junior barista for a Black-owned coffee shop in downtown Columbus, Ohio. During this short-lived period of brewing espresso and preparing chai tea lattes, I deposited my earnings in a pre-existing bank account that my mother had. I couldn’t have made over $150, and, after I quit, I largely reverted to requesting money from my parents when I wanted to hang out with my friends. Just a couple years later, I was in D.C. with a bonafide debit card, using scholarship money and contributions from family to assert my independence in any way I could.
I considered myself to be relatively engaged in politics during this period of my life, but the reality of the Great Recession likely didn’t fully register in my mind. As the Obama Administration settled into power and ensured that corporations were shielded from bankruptcy, I remained blissful in simply moving the few hundred dollars in my bank account at any given time from this restaurant on U Street to that Howard swag from the bookstore. As I went through my upper years at Howard, I came to deepen my interest in politics by running for and working in student government. As a bonus, I learned that the positions paid modest stipends over the course of the academic year. This policy partially paved the path for me to study abroad in South Africa during the summer of 2011. Between steady family support and additions to my bank account from student government roles, I rarely thought about money. During that time, enough of it was at my disposal.
Then in 2012, in a moment likely felt by nearly all Black Americans at some point in their lives, the finite nature of money steadily took up all the energy it could. My parents faced a church split, and my father’s income vanished for a time. Although my mother later became a teacher, she didn’t have a salaried job when they first moved to Oklahoma. Although my father started another church soon after his official ouster from his previous role, the instability of that period pushed my parents to seek bankruptcy protections. At the same time, as I entered my senior year of college, I lost the merit scholarship that I’d held the previous three years. I thankfully got a paid internship that defrayed some of the costs, but I had to rely on private loans, university grants, and generous contributions from my community. I generally had enough money to see me through to my graduation, but that nine-month time frame made me reconsider just how aware of money I was. I went from thinking about money occasionally to reflecting on every dime I had pretty much hourly.
I ended up moving to Louisiana after college to attend law school. I used a similar combination of scholarship money and federal student loans to fund my time in Baton Rouge. Even as some factors improved across my family’s financial station, I began to comprehend during this time in my life that solvency would likely elude me for some time. For one, I knew that I would pursue a career as a public interest lawyer fairly early on in law school, with the incredibly modest pay to accompany it. Over the course of this period, primarily 2013-2016, I benefited from the benevolence of family, friends, and church members in the form of gifts and small loans — tangible, selfless investments in me and the future I sought to pave for myself.
I got to the end of law school and began my career both deeply indebted to my community and the U.S. government. I returned to D.C. for this purpose, and it quickly became evident just how expensive the city is without the safety net that college provides. I made $42,500 in my first job out of law school in 2016, not including bar prep fees and a small loan repayment stipend. This number is right up the alley of many public service jobs that are available to recent graduates. I soon understood why D.C. ranks among the most expensive U.S. cities, and why it’s prohibitive for so many folks. I rented a room in a large row house in Columbia Heights – just a few blocks away from Howard. I attempted to keep expenses to the necessities of groceries, my car note, and insurance, and I strived to save even a little money. At that point, I was still in the forgiveness period of my student loans, but they loomed. I barely broke even every month.
After ten months, I was pushed to the financial brink. I had to reach out to a wealthy friend from law school to ask for a formal loan in the amount of $2500. I hated to put her and her husband in that position, but, given my knowledge of U.S. history, I didn’t feel comfortable asking another Black person for that sum of money. I typed up a contract to indicate that I would pay them back $250 a month for twelve months — bringing that interest rate to a decent 20% — and they agreed. Soon after, I took another job that conferred a nearly $20,000 increase. I paid them back on time, but that entire first year in D.C. made me fully aware of how America’s legacy of anti-Blackness was playing out in my life.
I did everything right, but I perpetually had very little money. I found time to travel to places that I wanted to go, such as Mexico City, but a sentiment resembling guilt often settled in my mind. During this time, if I had a disposable $500, I was doing excellently. Toward the middle of 2018, I was almost a year into my new role, and my sister, now a recent college graduate, decided to come to D.C. to get a master’s degree from Georgetown. I found a new apartment to accommodate us. I liked what I saw when I toured it, but it was a two-bedroom apartment within D.C. limits — an inherently expensive thing. As I prepared to move out of my old residence and welcome my sister to the District, cash dwindled.
I sat in my car one morning that summer, about a month prior to her scheduled arrival. I was stressed by the math of money that constantly made little sense, and then it dawned on me to download the Uber Driver app. I provided all the information it required — driver’s license number, a background check, and car insurance info — and began when it all got approved. This commenced a grueling schedule. I woke up at 6 a.m. or earlier to drive Uber before my salaried job began each day. If I could get an airport run in, I usually could make $35 for the day. I grabbed coffee from the neighborhood 7-11 to get the energy I needed each morning, then I prayed it would carry me several hours ahead in the day to 5 p.m., when I usually left work.
Perhaps, more than any prior epoch in my life, this time period solidified my anti-capitalist politics. I worked hard balancing two jobs; it still wasn’t enough to achieve financial stability in a meaningful way.
I appreciated having a little cushion as my sister and I settled into our new home, and we established our collaborative dynamic as adult siblings. However, I realized that the childhood days of obliviousness about money were certainly relics of the past. I thought about money every second – covering bills, sending money to family if I could, saving for vacations with friends. It took up virtually all the space, even as I learned and grew more at my job, where I combatted the school-to-prison pipeline and attacked felony disenfranchisement laws.
It is clear how I viewed the world, then and now: through an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, abolitionist lens. Still, money practically dominated all aspects of my life.
That year in D.C. with my sister, cherished as it was, moved very swiftly. I took a job in Texas as she graduated from Georgetown; she charted a path back to Oklahoma to become a high school chemistry teacher. The South called us home, seemingly offering stability. I got an apartment in Austin, started my new job, and tipped my hat to my highest salary to date. I learned I would become an uncle right before I moved to Texas; I could use the wiggle room of a higher salary to dote on my niece. Then, old student loan debts came due, ill-advised romantic pursuits materialized — with the financial requests to boot — and I found myself downloading the Lyft Driver app in February 2020.
I completed approximately 30 trips over the course of that month, having no idea what the next ten months would have in store.