Am I Really Better Off Than My Mama and Them?

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From Essence

Between the 28 days of February and these first seven in March, it’s been several weeks of heightened homage to Black history and women’s history and, in combination, Black women’s history. Inside of that, I’ve made special effort to honor not only the famous figures, but the everyday women who’ve collectively constructed the soul of our culture.

I was born to a Baby Boomer on the tail end of what some call Gen X, making me part of that fraternity of Black children raised by Black mamas who put their hope for our future in the schools integrated in their generation. If they had anything at all to say about it, the accoutrements of success that weren’t easily accessible to them were going to be for us.

In our two-person household, conversations about college didn’t include aspirational language. It wasn’t if I went, but when. My mother was careful to speak her vision into existence. I come from a long line of blue-collar Harrises, mostly factory workers, who’ve forged a living standing on their feet eight, nine, sometimes 10 or 11 hours a day if they were blessed with a shot at overtime. Because I showed an early interest in learning, I became the Great Black Hope in my family. I was going to make a career of using my brain, not my hands, and spend my days laboring in an office, not an assembly line.

I’m deeply thankful for the four years I invested at my beloved Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. They sharpened my analytical thinking and prepped me for the career in journalism I’d wanted since I was a kid stapling extra sheets of paper to the backs of my English homework. I am the first and only person in my family to go to college. I did it. I lived my mother and grandmother’s dream.

But some days, honey boo boo chile, when Sallie Mae is blowing up my phone for the $598 monthly payment I sometimes struggle to scrape together, I have my doubts that I’m any better off than the women who came before me. Deferment and forbearance options have long been exhausted because, despite all of the hoopla around the benefits of college, it took me quite some time to find a job when I was finished. No one told me about that part when I was standing bewildered in the financial aid office and counselors were shoving forms under my nose to sign. The degree was part of the African-American come-up. But its purchase price has put me under the boot heel of debt that my forebears dodged.

Read more about author Janelle Harris’s struggles with Sallie Mae on Essence.

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