One of my favorite aunts was desperately poor, like many people I knew in rural north Louisiana. I don’t know how much money she had or made. I only know the shadow of need that stalked her. She seemed, like many members of my family, one paycheck or severe injury away from insolvency.
She had been a fixture in my life since I was born. Sweet as pie, as we say in the South. A too-good woman whose generosity others — including her own family — took advantage of.
I visited her once when my children were young. Her house was old and teetering, in need of painting, surrounded on three sides by an unkept yard of chest-high weeds.
Dogs that looked half-starved roamed freely in the yard.
It is hard to describe this kind of poverty. The house was incredibly dark, with a wide center hallway that ran from front to back. In the dim light, I could tell that the walls were made of horizontal wood planks. Some remnants of an old wallpaper still clung to them in spots, but I couldn’t make out if they had ever been painted.
As my aunt led me in and the light receded, I passed room after room that I dared not peer into, some of them emitting odors that offended. It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
We reached the back of the house, what I would call the den. My aunt, her family and I sat around an old wood-burning stove in the center of the room, talking, laughing and telling stories. The heat of the oven did battle with the wind that came in from every direction.
Some of the boards in the walls were missing or separated to such a degree that I could see outside as fully and clearly as if I was looking out of a window.
I sat there thinking about the great divide among us, about how far removed I now was from this life, but also about how very connected I was, spiritually, to it.
And I was conflicted. How much could I or should I help? I have had long talks with my mother about this. Other than a little money in greeting cards, there wasn’t much that I could do for all the people I knew in need.
The problem was not about personal generosity, but rather public policy and indifference. The best thing I could do was to advocate for all.
When I visited my aunt, I was working at The New York Times. I had been poor, but I no longer was. And yet, it was important to me then, and remains important to me now, that I remained connected to that poverty, so that I could write about it from a genuine place.
My aunt died in hock to payday lenders, having taken out loans to get the men in her life out of trouble and keep them out, but all the while she sank further and further into debt and despair. And the lenders profited from that pain.
Multiple systems conspired against her — patriarchy, racism, mass incarceration, craven capitalism — and as a journalist, I believe it’s my job to make sure that her story is seen and heard. I need to make sure that the stories of all those who struggle in this country are seen and heard.
There were two bits of advice I remember receiving when I first became a columnist, although I don’t recall from whom they came.
One was to write what you know. Write about some of your most intimate experiences, the things that you can’t stop thinking about no matter how hard you try.
The other was that columnists should be like an orchestra, each playing a different instrument, but together making music.
I decided that in that orchestra I was going to play the banjo. I was not a big-city writer. I was a small-town country boy from the South. I had not grown up with wealth and privilege. I had struggled, and at times, my family had barely scraped by. I had not gone to fancy prep schools or Ivy League colleges, but a small high school that had served Black students since the late 1800s and to a historically Black college, Grambling State University, the closest university to my hometown.
What I knew was that otherness, that outsiderness, that sense of being left behind and left out, that sense of being the world’s disposable people because you had little money and wielded little power.
What I also knew, or came to know, was that there was a value, as a writer, in having access to a different instrument than others in this orchestra, this one born of the poor South. When I write, I often consider how I would explain something to the old people I grew up around — all of them poor.
They weren’t highly educated, but their use of metaphor was exquisite and their ability to reduce a complex idea into a compact phrase was unmatched.
Maya Angelou once said that whenever she embarked on a project, she brought everyone who had ever been kind to her with her, not physically, but spiritually. In the same way, whenever I sit down to write, everyone who has ever struggled as I have sits down with me.