The Color of Money
This is part of a package on how a sum of money can change your life. See 15 more stories here.
“I’ll give you money each month,” my mom interrupted as I talked about my search for an architect.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“For the apartment. I’ll give you money each month. I know it’s not much, but I could pay you what I pay now. Over $1,000.”
“I just want to let you know that I’ll pull my weight,” she insisted. “I won’t be a freeloader. I’ll help out.”
“Oh, mom,” I sighed. “Mom. The whole point of this is to get you to set that load down.”
“I’m just saying,” she said quietly. “I won’t be a burden.”
“STOP BEING SO WHITE!” I exclaimed, exhausted.
It was November 2018, and I had just gotten my first royalty check for my first book. The thing about publishing a book is that you have no idea how your book is doing until almost a year after the thing is published. You could be on the New York Times best-sellers list and discover that your book didn’t sell enough copies to pay back your advance (the amount of estimated sales royalties a publisher gives you to keep your lights on while you write your book). I have friends who wrote amazing books and considered themselves very lucky to be able to buy a Happy Meal with their first royalty payment. So I was shocked to find that my first royalty statement not only reported enough sales to cover my advance, but included a check, to boot.
A big check, for $70,000. No, we’re not talking a big Publishers Clearing House grand-prize check, but it was definitely the biggest check I’d ever held with my name on it.
I gazed at the statement, then closed my eyes for a moment and said to myself:
“I can build mom a home now.”
It was the first time I felt truly successful in every sense of the word.
It had been a lifelong dream to buy my mom a home. I used to fantasize about winning the lottery one day and then just driving her to a house with a bow wrapped around it and announcing, “Welcome home, mom.”
In fact, I had never imagined any kind of success that didn’t involve me being able to give my mom a place of her own to live. Giving her the opportunity to retire and garden and enjoy some hard-won rest.
So when I called her in 2018 and told her that I had enough money to start the process of building her a little home next to mine, I was surprised by her response. Yes, she sounded relieved, but she also sounded sad.
“Oh, but honey,” she said as I talked about my plans. “You shouldn’t have to take care of me.”
Have to? Couldn’t she tell how excited I was? This was the dream. To be able to give my 63-year-old momma a house. To be able to tell her that her working days were over. And it wasn’t just my dream; it was one that many of my friends, especially those who, like me, were kids of color who grew up in low-income single-parent households, shared. My mom worked nights at hard-labor jobs while attending classes during the day in order to provide for her three kids. Somehow in there she’d also find time to volunteer at our school, help with homework, and cook us dinner. We saw the struggle and sacrifices our moms made for us. We all had this image of success, of taking care of our mothers. Right now, I was close to living that dream and here was my mom, ruining the fun.
A few weeks later, a fellow black writer and I began talking about the house he bought his mom a few years prior, before he bought one for himself. “Yeah, I bought my mom a house,” he said with cool confidence the way someone might casually say that they’ve scaled Mount Kilimanjaro … again. He wasn’t bragging about it per se. He’d had a few years to get used to being the guy who had accomplished the ultimate goal that we were all working toward. The rest was gravy. I was so jealous that he was already living my dream.
“I’m so excited to start building my mom’s place,” I said. “But for some reason she’s not real excited about it.”
“Your mom’s white, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, still not getting it.
He nodded like I just answered my own question. “White people don’t buy their parents homes. They put their parents in homes.”
I laughed. Of course that wasn’t true. I had white friends who took care of their aging parents. Plenty of them. Furthermore, I was pretty sure that after 37 years, I had already encountered all of the different nuances of my mom’s whiteness.
But his words lingered in my head, and I began to understand what was at the heart of what he was saying. My mom wanted my siblings and me to be proud of our blackness, and she tried to make sure that we were not lacking in black culture because we had a white mom. We saw every movie with a black character, went to every black and West African community event, listened to all the most popular black musicians. So it is no surprise that my dream of walking my mom into a new home I had just bought was a scene straight from countless movies and hip-hop videos. Black success was a black family’s success. A black community’s success. You’d help your brother, your sister, your cousins—but first and foremost, you’d help your momma.
I didn’t get the same messaging about success from white American culture. What I learned about white success was that those who earned enough to be comfortable became not only independent, but isolated. They’d move to another town and set up their own families away from their old ones. They’d visit on holidays. They’d never borrow money, and the only money they’d share would be in the form of a loan to younger relatives to help them on their way to financial independence. (Eventually, when those younger relatives found success, they could fully pay you back and move away to their own home.)
I thought about whether any of my white friends were proud to be able to help their families financially. Few were. Many were embarrassed for themselves and their parents. I thought of my mom’s family. My mom had worked so hard to raise us. And even with all her hours of labor, we still struggled and often failed to keep the lights on. I thought of my grandparents, who lived 15 minutes away from us in a 3,500-square-foot house in a wealthy neighborhood. They ate steak and pork chops every night and went on vacation every year. My mom would take us to visit, and my brother and I would marvel at a pantry that seemed to be dedicated entirely to the storage of fancy snacks. Occasionally, when we were completely out of food, one of my grandparents would stop by our little apartment with a Costco box of ramen for us to eat. Sometimes they would lend my mom $50.
My mom never seemed angry that her parents let us struggle as much as we did. It was just the way things were. I don’t think that it was necessarily normal for white families to leave their kids hanging the way my grandparents did, but I know that my mom didn’t think it was something she had the right to be angry about, and nobody else in the family did either. When my grandparents lost all their money after retirement due to some very unwise financial decisions, my mom was in no fiscal situation to help them—how could she be? So they moved away. My grandpa died a few years ago halfway across the country (in Kansas, where they had grown up and which they could better afford) from the family that loved him.
My mom still doesn’t have money. She has no nest egg, and she struggles to make rent each month. But she struggles, in part, because she poured everything she had into us. Every extra minute, every extra dollar, went into trying to make sure that we would have what she didn’t. I can draw a direct line from her various sacrifices to my many accomplishments. I am so proud to see her efforts pay off.
A few weeks ago, my mom begrudgingly asked for a little extra money to help with rent. Even though I told her that I literally had a section in my budget called “money for mom” and that it was always there for her, she still hated asking.
“Mom, you just keep telling me whenever you need extra money,” I reminded her, trying to make her feel better. “You won’t have to worry about this forever. Once your apartment is built, you won’t have rent.”
She continued to grumble, to deny that it was okay to take the money that was rightfully hers.
“Mom,” I interrupted. “I know that you have this weird societal expectation that you will live fully independent from us and never need our help. I know that you were raised to think that it’s embarrassing that your kids would take care of you financially. But mom, I need you to remember something. You raised black kids. You struggled to raise black kids. You fought your family, you fought society to raise us. To raise proudly black kids. And black kids help their mommas. You may be white, but your kids are black and we are proud to take care of you. So you’re going to have to find a way to deal with it.”
My mom chuckled a bit. “Thanks, honey, but that doesn’t make any sense.”
And maybe it doesn’t make sense to her. But it does to me and to so many other black kids who dream of paying their mommas back for all their years of struggle. And the day that I move my mom into her own place will be the proudest day of my life—it’s how she raised us, whether she knows it or not.