Attempting to describe growing up in Detroit is [sometimes] a tricky thing. There is a pressure from growing outside interest in Detroit, to either delve into a poverty porn-esque description of how difficult it was to be a quirky [magical] black girl in Detroit; or to slide to the other extreme, and focus in on a respectable and righteous description of myself as a member of the black middle class. Instead, as I get ready to submit my dissertation to my committee for the final read prior to the defense, I am consumed with what it means to represent black women in the academy in a way that pushes them forward.
Let me start from the beginning.
I was born to [I think], middle class parents in Detroit (both whom are activists in their own right). My father is a Haitian-born engineer, who grew up in intense poverty in Haiti. My mother, the executive-director of an adoption agency, has lived in Detroit since birth, born to a school-teacher and a taxi driver (who later went on to work in the factories). As most academics will tell you, the factories in the Midwest were an avenue towards middle-class mobility for post-migration era blacks in Detroit. So because of the financial support from her parents my mother was able to go to college and get a degree (as has every woman in her family post emancipation).
So on paper, I think I could solidly say that my upbringing was/is pretty solidly middle class.
Growing up my sister and I traveled the world, went to Jack and Jill meetings and went to majority white, private institutions from pre-kindergarten to present. We took horseback riding, skiing and music lessons for most of our childhoods. Kids in the surrounding neighborhoods, at school and at practice [for various sports], told us that we were “boughie,” “rich” and so on…
While that sucked, generally it didn’t bother me much, I was lucky to escape high-school relatively unscathed by the various economic hierarchies present in the institutions I attended (probably a whole other post). I worked 1-2 jobs from the time I was 17, through 27 (up until I began a fellowship where the contract didn’t allow me to work).
Then came graduate school.
Of course, whenever you mention Detroit, people automatically scrunch up their noses. While younger me attempted to cover the ugliness that automatically became present in their eyes, with tales of trips to the Caribbean, and Norway, my moms activism and my trip to Haiti with my father when I graduated. Older me, rolls my eyes and stares blankly while they tell me about that one time they drove through Detroit and saw nothing but abandoned buildings.
Then I moved to the South.
While all [or maybe most] of this didn’t bother me, I was unprepared for how the class dynamics of the south, and of black studies has hurt my confidence.
I was prepared for the push and pull within a majority white discipline around whether or not the study of race could be objective social science. To some degree, I was even prepared for the occasional bouts of racism that popped up along the way. What I was unprepared for, was a politics of respectability within black studies, that has pushed me to doubt not only whether or not I was “representing black women” in my work in the best possible way, but also whether I, as an individual was undoing decades worth of successes on the part of black women within the academy.
In the Midwest (Chicago, Detroit), I never had anyone push back against my speech patterns, or my particular style of writing. While faculty at Michigan and UChicago continue to take both in stride, that has not been the case for other folks.
I’ve been told that my style of speech and writing is to casual, informal, not academic enough, and that it uses entirely too much dialect. I’ve had folks take issues with things in my writing as small as the number of contractions I use, to as big as debates around whether or not I can/should keep the interviews written in the dialect that my respondents use in their interviews (black women living below the poverty line on the south side of Chicago).
Of course my advisor told me to shake it off, as did my mother. My mom is a major Zora Neale Hurston fan, so the idea that anyone should change their speech patterns for anybody sends her into a tail spin.
But if I am going to be honest, on the night before I turn in my dissertation to my committee prior to my defense, I find myself really wondering, Do I have what it takes?
In a round-about-way, I guess this is what gets me back to my original question: what does it mean to be black and middle class?
As I mentioned, in Detroit, I was pretty averagely middle-class. My friends and I traveled to Europe, and then came home and hung out at Fairlane and Northland Mall. We went to private school all week, and then went roller-skating on the weekend. We went to golf lessons on early Saturday morning and then sat on somebody’s stoop for the rest of the evening. It was the type of criss-cross of inter-class exchange that made up most of our lives.
We are told that if you have a certain number of experiences, you will be prepared for the professional experiences to come. The truth is, that could not be further from the truth. Whether you are deep in poverty, or part of the 1%, the yard stick that measures what makes you “OK” and “acceptable” will always continue to move. While this piece asks “what does it mean to be middle class,” maybe in some ways, it is actually asking “am I middle-class enough to make it in my chosen profession?” The reality is, that even if your parent’s do everything they know how to do, a lot of times it won’t be enough [especially if you’re a woman, young and a dark-skinned black person].
Despite being very aware of the messed up class-dynamics within the academy, yet and still, I find myself feeling self-conscious. My colleagues are brilliant and use language that runs circles around me. I find myself wondering, am I capable?
While my politics dictate accessibility in my written and verbal modes of communication. I sometimes wonder if I am simply not capable of what I came here to do. Is it my politics that dictate my speech/writing style, or is it simply that I lack the capacity to do otherwise?
Yes I have the job, and [hopefully I will soon] have the degree from a top of institution. But I have to wonder if that is enough?
My politics push back against a respectability demand that requires that I speak, dress and perform in such a way that makes others feel as though I am “lifting the race.” But, what are these politics if we are never vulnerable?
Well here I am at my most vulnerable.
I have to say, that late at night, while my mom is sleeping and one of my closest friends is in Munich, I find myself wondering… what if they are right? What if I simply got my job through “smoke and mirrors?” What if my work doesn’t make sense, and can’t be read due to indiscernible dialect?
What if, what if, what if?
While I will never really know if I am “respectable” or “middle-class” enough for the academy, I can remember my beliefs; at the end of the day, it is more important to me that I represent the women that I interview, as they are, not as others wish them to be. Just as critically, it will continue to be important to be who I am, “Detroit-style” and all, inside the academy and out.