Lessons from a virus: The political is personal…and the empire is crumbling

We are living in interesting times and I don’t mean that in a good way. This new coronavirus is spreading across the globe and here in the United States, it is safe to say that the current administration is uniquely unqualified to handle the threat that COVID-19 poses to our citizens and to our very way of life. 

As the number of infected people rises, we have an administration that is hell-bent on stumbling at every stage of this growing pandemic, and a leader who is steeped in ignorance, narcissism—with no one on his team who is willing to speak truth to power (even if they wanted to, which I presume at this point most do not). As Americans increasingly realize that they are on their own, we hold to the childish belief that our standing will protect us from the greatest harm along with a year’s supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

Of course, given the growing insanity around the handling of the pandemic and with this being an election year, many are focused on the idea that if we can just get rid of Trump and his bumbling group of sycophants that order will be restored. That if we can coalesce around a single person, we can return to when things were good and when we had a leader that didn’t legislate by tweet and who used his manners. 

Yet that belief, should it come to fruition, will leave millions of Americans out in the cold. In 2016, the year Trump was elected, the poverty rate in the United States was 12.7%, and the last figures that I can find for 2017-18 put the poverty rate at roughly the same rate, give or take a point or two. To be clear, the poverty guideline is $26,200 annually for a family of four in the United States. The wage that is truly needed to live in almost every corner of the United States is significantly higher than the poverty guidelines, which means a lot of Americans are living hand-to-mouth. 

Despite the media spin, the gig economy is not just something that young people finding their career path are participating in. Have you noticed the median age of your Uber drivers or  Grubhub delivery people? I have and increasingly, they are people who look a lot like me. Middle-aged and older people who are cobbling together a living with jobs and gigs where there are no benefits, no retirement, no raises and no futures. Even for those of us who are “making” it, many of us are working multiple jobs that are referred to as consulting or creating revenue streams. A nifty little way to hide the fact that our “comfort” requires a lot more than 40 hours a week. When my husband and I split up in 2015, BGIM Media was born out of the necessity that I could no longer afford to write and speak for free or the occasional honorarium or tip. 

While we have heard daily blathering for years about the strength of the markets, and social media most certainly presents an image of many Americans living well, the truth is, many of us are not living well and our lives are simply about daily survival. But self delusion and American’s naive faith in the possibility of everyone moving up keeps most of us from acknowledging this uncomfortable truth. 

In a country built on the myth of meritocracy and boot straps, personal failings are seen as singular and the result of the individual; as a result, we rarely hear about those people. Yet their numbers are reflected in the number of uninsured people, the increasing numbers of people who are putting off necessary healthcare, the rapid increase in crowdfunding for necessities, rising student loan debt and the proliferation of how student loan debt is squeezing people as schools continue to charge astronomical prices. 

A decade ago, when my son entered college, his school—a small Catholic college in northern Wisconsin—was charging $39,000 a year including room and board. The only way that he was able to attend was via a debate scholarship that shaved off half the price along with family help and loans. When I graduated from DePaul University in 2001, I left with a BA and $28,000 in student loan debt, and I thought that was bad enough.  Of course, that was before attending graduate school where my debt soared far beyond that. 

We have also created a society now where a high school diploma is virtually worthless and increasingly companies want applicants to have multiple degrees for positions that do not pay a living wage. I experienced this in 2008: With a graduate degree, I took a position where my starting wage was $14 an hour and at that point I had almost six figures worth of student loan debt. However, it was a position that would move my career and I had a husband who did earn a decent salary, so I could afford the gamble. It still hurt, it still left me falling behind, and most people don’t even have that “luxury” that I did.

I grew up poor. Occasionally, we had a good year and we could be considered working class but my childhood was not the stuff of middle-class memories. When I was in fifth grade, we spent six months living in a homeless shelter. My childhood memories have one common theme: material scarcity. Times so hard that occasionally we could not afford toilet paper and ate tuna mixed with mustard because there weren’t enough pennies in the sofa cushions to buy mayonnaise. 

My early adult years were marginally better because I married up. In fact, both of my marriages are what would be seen as marrying up. I married into families that were not poor. Thus, access to resources via marriage allowed me to chart a different course than what a poor, Black girl could ever usually imagine. 

However, as income inequality has grown, there are fewer opportunities to mix and mingle across class or economic lines. In other words, we live not only racially siloed lives, we also tend to live economically siloed lives in a country that feeds us a false narrative of what we could be, if only we worked harder. Rather than a country that actually provides a basic living to all people or at the very least, some healthcare that is accessible (not simply “affordable,” mind you, because affordable is often still not accessible). 

As a result, we have a country that is conditioned to vote against its own best interest under the guise of maintaining the status quo and what is realistic. Rather than what is in the best interest of our citizens. 

Therefore when people do speak up about inequity with any level of anger, it is off-putting. We don’t like angry people. Yet not feeling our anger and expressing it is yet another way that the system of whiteness keeps us all trapped, regardless of our respective races. 

Frankly, in a country with the level of resources that this nation has, there is no reason for the increasing homeless camps that proliferate in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. People should not have to put off healthcare because they cannot afford it. We live in a country where for millions of school-aged children, their only reliable source of meals occurs at school. 

This coronavirus only makes even more clear how large the class and economic gap is in this country. Americans are currently being advised to stay home if they don’t feel well, and to consider working remotely. Yet, paid time off is not universal and millions of low-wage service workers and gig workers, these very unseen and necessary people don’t have that luxury. 

I have friends in the service industry who are scared shitless about the coming weeks and months and yes, they go to work when they don’t feel well, because as a friend told me last week, she needed the shifts to pay her rent. While some of us have the luxury of stocking up on toilet paper and bleach wipes, others are scrambling just to pay the rent and keep the lights on. And honestly, if they don’t go to work because of illness it’s not just lost wages for a few days—it often means they get fired.

As someone who grew up with no pot to piss in or window to throw it out of—and as a first-generation college graduate who has had to financially help family countless times—I will stay angry about the way we treat our fellow Americans. As anyone who struggles financially knows, survival is day to day and while Trump may be a madman poised to destroy our nation, even the ability to worry about that threat is a matter of privilege. Your Uber drivers may not care for Trump but at the moment, they just hope to earn enough to make a profit today. 

This is a divided nation and it’s not just a matter of voting on the left or right. We are a nation where millions struggle and are not seen. We have created a country where, just like with racism, we can choose what to see or not see. Yet our inability to not see others harms everyone and has created a system of both racial and economic apartheid. Our collective survival and growth will require us to see everyone and to consider our shared needs as a society. 

Hard times and hard moments can destroy us, but they can also be the catalyst for great change if allowed. The challenge will be moving beyond the me to the we. 

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HIV/AIDS awareness for Black people…and all of us

Today is the 18th Annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. You might ask yourself, “Why do we need a special day just for Black people with or at risk of contracting HIV?” I ask you to consider the following:

  • In 2015, 3,379 African Americans died from HIV disease, accounting for 52% of total deaths attributed to the disease that year.
  • At the end of 2014, an estimated 471,500 African Americans were living with HIV (43% of everyone living with HIV in the United States), and 16% were unaware of their infection.
  • In 2016, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention predicted that HALF of all gay and bisexual Black men will contract HIV in their lifetime.
  • Young Black men between the ages of 13 and 24 face a particularly high risk, as they make up 54% of new infections among all men who have sex with men.
  • Black women account for 60% of new infections among all women and are 16 times more likely to contract the virus compared to their white counterparts.

In July 2016, Charlize Theron, who is UN Messenger of Peace and founder of an outreach project targeting South African youth affected by HIV, said something profound when speaking to a crowd at 21st International AIDS Conference. She said, “We value men more than women … straight love more than gay love … white skin more than black skin … and adults more than adolescents” and even though her frame of reference is based largely on situations in South Africa, it’s hard to deny the striking parallels between there and here in the United States. The risk factors for HIV/AIDS seem to be global.

With that said, there are significant geographical disparities within the United States. Even though it’s widely accepted that HIV is “no longer a death sentence,” that is not the case for many people, particularly those in the South. According to a New York Times article written in June 2017:

“2,952 people in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) died with HIV as an underlying cause, with the highest death rates in Mississippi and Louisiana. Among black men in this region, the HIV-related death rate was seven times as high as that of the United States population at large.”

(Take the time today to watch this short documentary about young black men dealing with HIV/AIDS in Jackson, Mississippi, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOSN1bKG3zQ)

The so-called Deep South is ground zero for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Each of the states this region encompasses (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) share other notable but seeming related characteristics:

  • They all have public school curriculums that teach abstinence-only sexual education;
  • They are among the top 15 most impoverished states;
  • They are collectively the home of 47% of the total Black population of the United States.

Even though statistics provide a sobering glimpse into this devastating epidemic, at the end of the day the numbers represent real people with unique stories, experiences, and perspectives.

Properly managing HIV/AIDS requires regular medical appointments, medication management, diet control, and major lifestyle changes.

For many people with HIV/AIDS, they also struggle with substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, and food insecurity.

Compound those challenges with misinformation, stigma, and discrimination, and you can see that fighting HIV/AIDS becomes more than an issue that can be solved with medicine, clean needles, and condoms alone. Attitudes have to change, and education is at the cornerstone.

The sooner everyone understands the risk factors and how the virus is spread, the sooner we as a society will get from under this daunting but preventable disease.

For more information about HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Southern Maine, contact the Frannie Peabody Center—the largest community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in Maine, providing prevention services for at-risk groups and direct services for people living with HIV/AIDS. They also offer free, confidential HIV testing every Wednesday and by appointment.

Get Tested. Know your status. End the stigma.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Life on the intersection of class and the shame

In a nation with growing income inequality, we rarely seem to talk about what that means on a personal and lived level. Instead we all call ourselves middle class never commenting on the fact that today’s middle class includes people in well heeled communities earning more than $150,000 a year as well as families scraping to get by and playing financial three card monte who bristle at the idea of not being middle class. No one wants to be poor and really no one wants to be rich, but the reality is some of us are closer to the ends than we are to the middle.

I live on the intersection, I am a Black woman, technically I am middle class according to the numbers reported annually on my 1040 but I prefer to consider myself working class. I am a class straddler, I am aware that my place in the middle class is tenuous at best and dependent on my ability to work and earn a certain amount of money. For those unfamiliar with the term class straddler, we are the people who were born working class or poor but who over our lifetimes have moved up the class ladder. America has always had its share of class straddlers, as a nation of upward aspirations, it’s hard to not know someone who is a class straddler. Some of us blend in well and some of us struggle with our place further up the class ladder; I would be the latter.

Like race, talking about class or even money is uncomfortable for many, so we coast along on our assumptions, never realizing that just like the assumptions made about race and racial matters, assumptions about class also hurt.

Growing up, my parents were working class when times were good and when times were bad, I knew the miracles of government cheese and butter. Like many from similar backgrounds, who live life as a class straddler, I have often at times tried to distance myself from my childhood because of the shame. Yet shame is a powerful and destructive force because it keeps us locked in a dance of inauthenticity where we fear being ourselves, we fear sharing our truth and that fear is a destructive force.

In the past year, while I have talked more openly and honestly about race in this space than ever before, I have sidestepped the class issue entirely due to a misguided sense that with my change in professional positions, it would be harmful to share. Yet it’s tiring to pretend and as I get older, I just don’t do artifice well. In fact it’s antithetical to the life I am striving to lead and the person I want to be.

A series of recent conversations sent me in a spiral and I realized that my downward spiral was a result of personal shame…shame because I have never traveled abroad. A well meaning person suggested that I should travel abroad to gain a better perspective on anti-black bias and racism. I would love to travel abroad but I cannot afford to do so at this stage in my life. Hell, I couldn’t even afford to visit my dad this summer which was very shameful…but I digress. For many first generation removed from broke folks like myself, we often carry a heavy financial burden, often comprised of family members in need of help and other obligations that our peers who were born higher up the class ladder may never face. In my case, parents who never had more than two nickels to rub together as well as early parenthood have meant that my ascent up the class ladder has come with baggage, baggage that weighs me down at times.

My story though is not unique, I know far too many other straddlers in the same place, juggling the professional face of success and the financial rewards that are reaped yet at the same time helping out family members, paying off astronomical student loans often the same loans that allowed us to gain access to the world that changed our class status. It’s a lonely place at times because never are you fully comfortable in your new world or your old world. Friends and loved ones in your old world make assumptions and often assume your life to be what it isn’t….if I had a dollar for every distant family member who assumes I am rich. Chuckle. Or for new friends who I must hide my life from. I am tired of it all. Tired of wearing a mask that isn’t real, we cannot help the circumstances to which we are born, we can only do better if the opportunities and resources present themselves to us.

There is no shame in being who we are and as I journey in this middle stage of my life, I finally see that the cost to pretend or not be fully authentic is more than I wish to pay. So, yes, traveling to see the world is a great idea yet in a country where only 2 out of 5 Americans regularly fly, I am hardly alone in staying close to home. That said, if you want to pack me in your bag, the next time you are off to see the world just let me know. Until then, I am joyful for what I have and always mindful that in a world where many struggle to make ends meet and toil at jobs where human respect and dignity is lacking that I have a chance to make a difference in this everchanging upside down world and that my kids have never known the miracles of government cheese and butter or the horrors of spoiled food from the food pantry.