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.
Once, I enrolled in a first-time homebuyers program and got a sip of reality from the unsympathetic counselor sitting across from me during my intake. “Your debt-to-income ratio is too high,” she mumbled, wheeling crazily on her mouse to scroll through the pages of my credit report. Then she squinted over her glasses at me. “How many degrees do you even have?” I just chuckled, which was apparently all I could afford to do. I definitely couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I’m still only halfway finished my master’s.
After that, I decided to put the dream of homeownership on pause until I pay off the great burden of post-secondary education-related loans. That epic, open-handed slap of reality makes me feel like I’m caught in a matrix of arrested development. I can’t buy a home because I have too many loans but I have so many loans because of the education that was supposed to ultimately help me buy a home.
Forty percent of households headed by African-Americans 35 or younger are saddled with student loan debt that, according to a study by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, can be upwards of $30,500 or more. We didn’t just go to school. We did the whole darn thing. We joined fraternities and sororities, dove into philanthropy and community activism, went on to earn advanced degrees. We’re living, breathing, upwardly mobilizing versions of our foremothers’ sweet dreams and W.E.B. DuBois’ adopted vision of The Talented Tenth. And we’re paying dearly for it. At least I know I am.
I’ve complained about student loans before. Forgive me if you’re tired of hearing it. But in just two short years, I’ll be packing Girl Child up and sending her off to some yet-unknown campus. Depending on what day it is and how much I’ve irked her nerves in it determines how far she plans to go from home. On a good day, she vows to all but sit in my lap at Howard, which is a cool 10 minutes away; on a not-so-good one, she threatens to enroll at Florida A&M and only show her face for Christmas dinner.
Either way, I’m prepared to foot her bill. I know firsthand how difficult it is to start life at a deficit when that six-month grace period rockets by and you’re confronted too quickly with that abstract math that makes your education plead its worth against things like mortgages, advanced degrees and, in some cases, the hopes of the women who came before you.