It’s not easy to follow up your first New York Times best-selling book with work that’s wittier, sharper and more hilarious, but with I Don’t Want To Die Poor that’s exactly what ESSENCE contributor Michael Arceneaux has done. In his new collection of essays that will have you in tears, the prolific journalist doesn’t just tackle money, but the financial and emotional debt we take on to live our dreams of being part of the illustrious black middle class.
Centering the book on those pesky and burdensome student loans, Arceneaux’s new side-splitting set of life stories range from trying to make a nickel out of two cents as a college student at Howard University, to trying to pay back those loans by considering being on a black gay reality show, to addressing the trauma he’s endured over the years. Anyone can tell these types of stories, but not as relatable, as real or as effortless as he can.
ESSENCE sat down with Arceneaux to talk about his struggles paying off his student loans, why loan officers call you on the holidays and the importance of centering his book on blackness.
ESSENCE: This is your second book. This time around was the writing process easier or harder than I Can’t Date Jesus?
Michael Arceneaux: I went into it thinking it would be a much easier process, but it ended up being more difficult to write. During that time, I lost an uncle, my dad’s mother and a close friend. That, and some of the issues I thought I had gotten over in my last book, I hadn’t. So, it was frustrating and there were times when I hated writing this book. But I had to get it out and in that, I realized I was angry, but I’m glad I leaned into that anger because it turned out to be cathartic.
ESSENCE: There are so many topics you could have covered? Why student debt and money?
MA: I’m not completely Type A, but I’ve had a vision and I knew where I wanted to go this time around. In I Can’t Date Jesus, I talked about religion, sexuality and intimacy, but in this, I wanted to talk about debt and social mobility, especially what it was like to for me to go to Howard University. Taking on those student loans to working in and being in the media is a privilege and the debt is what I took on so I could be this “middle-class Black person.”
ESSENCE: Yet, so many Black folks can’t be open about the debt they take on and struggles they face to achieve this life, which for a lot of us, only looks like middle class from the outside.
MA: You have to afford to be in this space, and I was not able to afford that, honestly. I didn’t have it like that and talking about it makes me uncomfortable, but we need to be more honest about it.
ESSENCE: Well, Instagram is a great place to stunt. [Laughs]
MA: When I was growing up in 1984, I used to watch Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, meanwhile we were at the height of a crack epidemic. Now, everyone on IG looks so happy and you know some of these people and no one is really presenting the truth. I often wonder if I was guilty of that too.
ESSENCE: I felt so seen reading this book, especially the chapter, “Quit Playing On My Phone.” I laughed so hard because these student loan people really do call on the holidays!
MA: They don’t care, and it annoys me, especially how some of them talk to you. People get a little power, like folks at the TSA, and they want to harass you. Like they really did call me on Christmas Eve.
ESSENCE: At times, people have this misconception that because you have a blue checkmark on Twitter and you write for places like GQ that you must be making money, when that just isn’t how it works. Thank you for busting up that myth in the book.
MA: I understand how people get irritated with [verified] folks who play into that celebrity culture and further perpetuate that into people’s minds. But for a queer Black person who is already undervalued for no money, that check doesn’t mean anything. That check is literally about people who might work in media and it doesn’t add any dollar signs to any real checks.
ESSENCE: There seems to be this growing trend of books written by us, but they don’t feel like they are for us because they center whiteness or they try to be “so woke.” Your book, the tone, your voice, it feels real, authentic.
MA: I write for Black people, and if white people like it, cool, but I grew up around a bunch of working-class people. [Laughs]. No shade, I didn’t have to learn it at 32 and I don’t have to perform blackness. I am just being myself and have an appreciation for myself and my folks.
ESSENCE: But there’s also a price you pay for that.
MA: I may explore in another book, but there is a cost to that when you don’t pathologize the story. Now that doesn’t negate anyone’s work, but serving up some little poor Black boy on a platter for white consumption, will be easily rewarded.
That’s how they see us, which is why we need to fight back because when we center them, we muddy up our own stories. But I bet if I had written how I wanted some white man, I would have gotten a bigger advance. [Laughs]
ESSENCE: So I Don’t Want To Die Poor is so funny, but it also digs deep, especially the chapters about your father, his alcoholism and his abusive behavior. Were you worried what your family was going to say?
MA: No. I think it’s important to keep in mind that in a memoir you are not just telling your story, but you’re telling someone else’s. I am open in the book, but I have some restraint. So I wasn’t as worried, because I was mindful. My two aunts read the book and told me that I was honest but respectful.
ESSENCE: In the chapter “This Is A Story About Control” you talk about battling an eating disorder, but never call it that. Was that intentional? And why was it important to share this struggle?
MA: I purposely didn’t use the term eating disorder. It’s a little dicey and I wanted to mindful about people. In terms of talking about it, the book is about debt, and it’s not just about financial debt. It’s also about the emotional debt and the debt of the stress we carry and how it manifests. You grow up with trauma and don’t have control in your life, so one way for me to have control was with food. How I ate food, held it down, or not. It was one way to control something in my life.
Now, do I feel great about sharing? No. Do I believe it’s important? Yes.
ESSENCE: You end the book talking about not being worried about being canceled. Why?
MA: It’s so funny because people have begged me to delete tweets, I have a slick mouth, but I don’t use slurs or attack people. But I will say that I have learned that jokes will get you blocked from folks like Jhené Aiko and Toni Braxton. [Laughs] I’ve also been in meeting with people I have dragged online, and we’ve talked about it. I’m not a fake, so I have told them this is why I said this. But am I worried about getting canceled? No, because no one is really gets canceled.
ESSENCE: Finally, what’s going on with your student loans?
MA: I mean, they ain’t paid off, but I’ll just say, that the loan that has ruined my life is whittled down. I may be able to pay it off soon.