A Steel Magnolia in Brooklyn
At my age: sassy and independent 23, my mother was the typical “single Black female addicted to retail.” So much so, that it pushed her into bankruptcy. Furs, cars, gold press-on nails, hair, and trips. Keeping up with the Joneses, literally.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, my grandmother was a fashion fiend’s wet dream. Cazal shades, patchwork rabbit coats, and Farrah Fawcett inspired half wigs, secured under her own natural inches, with light skin and pretty eyes to match. She was a church mouse and a homemaker.
My deep chocolate granddad was fatherless and country. Boyhood in the 1930’s Deep South meant little brown Gene Jones had to endure much more than his light-skinned baby sister. He shopped, gambled, and then drank, trying to give my grandmother the world, because representation matters.
Growing up in Laurelton, Queens, my mom and her brothers were always dressed to the nines: new robes for Christmas, chicks and bunnies along with new dresses and spring coats for Easter. White picket fence, German Shepherd, and luxury cars in the driveway: The American Dream.
Adulting for my mom first came in, like a wrecking ball, crushing her Delta dreams and forcing her to kiss Hampton University goodbye. My grandfather could no longer afford to maintain the lie. When she packed to go home for Christmas, my mother didn’t even know that she would be packing for good.
So, she did what us Steel Magnolias do: stepped into her heels and pulled it all together. A college dropoutwent on to make six figures and drive a new car every couple of years.
Eventually, she settled down to start a family and buy a house in the Black Belt of Long Island, with my father. Although they were able to secure financial stability, neither of my parents would go on to pursue a passion in life. Spending 40+ hours a week in a prison, even as an officer, would probably help you forget about your dreams too. So, they settled for security.
The millennial in my sister and me has had us addicted to music videos, our whole childhood, glued to the TV on Saturday afternoons in the South Bronx or in South side Jamaica, Queens, while my parents were on “the island”. 106 and Park, Rap City, and occasionally TRL, gave us LIFE!
We couldn’t get enough of perfectly polished celebrities in brand new everything EXPENSIVE. Not a hair out of place. Not a frayed hem in sight. What we watched daily blended with the imagery in the stories my mother shared of her youth and it produced my and my sister’s ambition.
Way back to when the hot new things were jersey dresses and bandannas, all the way up to when it became Future’s topless Maybach, my contemporaries have always wanted to wear the clothes, and the make up, and the hair that the media has dangled in front our faces, just out of reach. We want to be flown out to Santorini, Greece. We want to wear Balenciagas, even when we’re on the bus. And maybe we could, if we were paid our worth.
On my 21st birthday, I graduated from Temple University, after only eight semesters AND while working up to 25 hours a week, with a 3.81 GPA. My lowest grade in my early academic career, even through High School, which I graduated six months early, was a B+. Every day after school since Kindergarten, which I started a year early, it was my own routine to come straight home, change, do my homework, and THEN get a snack.
My reward for this: $45,000+ in student loan debt, even after a couple of grants and whatever deal my father worked out with Sallie Mae. A shitty 1-bedroom in West Bubble Fuck, Brooklyn that I can barely afford to keep. And my dream career which challenges me, scares me, makes me cry laughing every week, and doesn’t receive the funding to pay me my worth.
And I’ll be honest, I think I’m worth at least the cost of my degree.
So, I write for all of us. Because no one’s going to believe our struggle stories once we’ve figured out how to make it in America.
By A Steel Magnolia in Brooklyn