By Damon Young
June 9, 2018
A spate of late paychecks from the publication where I was employed as a full-time freelancer catalyzed a series of events that forced me to prioritize payments on food, rent, electricity and car insurance. My car payments and cable bill went unpaid for three months.
I ignored the dozens of calls from the folks at Ally — perhaps thinking that if I just pretended I didn’t owe them money, they’d forget. They didn’t.
It took a week to scrounge together the money needed to get my car back. I joined a local church’s credit union. I borrowed cash from three friends, telling each the same lie: “The city towed my car because of unpaid parking tickets.” That was less embarrassing than the truth.
For four years afterward, my financial circumstances improved, but in moderate increments. And in the fall of 2016, a stretch of professional fortune — a very generous book deal and the purchase of my blog by a network — changed things so sharply I still have whiplash.
I don’t have Oprah money. I doubt I even have enough to ride with her in an Uber pool. But I do have enough that I didn’t have to check my balance before treating my wife to brunch on Mother’s Day. (“Get waffles with all the maple syrup you want, babe!”) I no longer have to wait for payday to shop or pay bills or do … anything. I even discovered $20 in the inside breast pocket of a blazer I hadn’t worn in a month.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But losing $20 and not missing it enough to tear my home apart looking for it is a relatively new privilege. Five years ago, I could account for every quarter belonging to me.
And yet I still feel the same as I did that morning my car was taken. I don’t have impostor syndrome. I believe I deserve my success. I am, however, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m so used to mundane financial setbacks — an overdraft fee here, a cellphone temporarily disconnected there — that my new status is too surreal for my brain to accept.
Even admitting aloud that I’m not struggling, but thriving, feels egregious, like I’m taunting those sentinels of brokeness, daring them to snatch me from my stoop.
My money-related angst isn’t some sort of performative modesty. I wish it were, because then I wouldn’t have any qualms about doing what I dreamed of when I was broke — make Kanye West’s mantra from “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (“Wait till I get my money right/Then you can’t tell me nothing, right?”) my personal edict, a tattoo sleeve, and a yard sign I’d haul around with me. Instead, it’s earned.
I will be 40 in December. And for my first 35 or so years, I was either broke or broke-adjacent, which is another way of saying still broke-ish, but temporarily held together with duct tape.
I’ve never been poor. At least, I’ve never felt poor. But perhaps that’s only because I equate poverty with hunger, and I’ve never experienced that type of pain. Maybe I’ve actually been poor, and I’m just loath to admit it because it would unlock another level of the shame America casts on people bold enough to not have money.
But I am well acquainted with payday loans and check-cashing spots; with food stamps and utility bills in my name as a toddler; with Rent-A-Center and “riding dirty” for so long you forget how it feels to be clean; with bright red shut-off notices taped to front doors, knowing that when you’re evicted, landlords don’t usually throw your things out on the sidewalk like in the movies. Instead, you’ll just come home and the locks will be changed.
I’m so familiar with the myriad signals of brokeness, and the sub-economy that feeds off the desperation it cultivates, that I can detect when someone is lying to conceal the shame of not having as much money as he or she believes is appropriate. I know it because I’ve done it repeatedly.
Some people believe they possess gaydar. I have brokedar.
Even now, as I’ve evolved from ashy to nasty to classy enough to shop at Whole Foods instead of going there only for the free samples, I’m the sole person in my immediate family to experience such a change. This makes my new status even more surreal, as if I’m getting Punk’d, which is not an uncommon feeling among black people who’ve undergone similar financial changes.
Hundreds of years of structural and intentional anti-black bias have left us with a race-based financial dichotomy so stark that the racial wealth gap looks like a typo. For every $100 in white family wealth, for instance, black families hold just $5.04. (Those four cents feel insulting. We couldn’t even get a full nickel?)
In this context, success feels fake. And also tenuous, because it’s often accompanied by an expectation that you have to assist friends and family who are less fortunate.
Of course, I’m happy to help when I can. I want to help. I want to be the person they can rely on instead of Money Mart. I recognize that professional and financial success, for black people in America, is often a function of luck. We’re all susceptible to the same tsunami of racism. The only difference between the lucky and the rest is that the lucky just live a little farther inland.
But these pressures and angsts just keep the feeling of brokeness fresh and unshakable, stuck to your skin and planted in your head.
That said, to quote Marlo Stansfield, my favorite sociopathic drug kingpin from my favorite television show, “The Wire”: This is “one of them good problems.” If “broke” and “anxiety about still feeling broke” were choices at a buffet, I’d stay parked at the second station. I’ve sampled the broke station enough now to know that I’m broketose intolerant. Still, I can’t help feeling that this is a big practical joke.
America shames people who have the audacity to struggle, fastening a scarlet letter to those of us forced to stretch and bend and cheat and break resources just to stay afloat. These days, that’s most of us.
But then if you happen to experience some moderate financial fortune (and you also happen to be black), you’re marooned on a paradoxical terra firma where you’re doing much better but somehow left feeling a bit worse. Where the “beep … beep” still stirs you in a way it shouldn’t.
Maybe this is a good thing. It tethers you to reality and forces you to remain cognizant of how delicate success can be.
But damn, man. I’ve had enough reminders already. Now I just want to sleep through the beeps.
Damon Young (@DamonYoungVSB) is the founder and editor in chief of the online magazine/blog/website Very Smart Brothas and the author of the forthcoming essay collection “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.”