The Assets of Home
“He’s not your son,” pronounced Uncle Hotsy. “I am.”
It was an ultimatum to the nearly eighty-year-old Elsie Mae Boyd.
“I’m your flesh and blood.” Looking through me, he continued. “He can’t stay here.”
Elsie Mae may not have been my mom by blood, but that’s what we called her—me, a scrawny, nappy-headed boy, and a dozen other kids who had found refuge in her yellow brick single-family home. She was in her sixties when I was born, and she had raised me since birth.
Mom listened to her eldest daughter Dot and the son she gave birth to make their case that spring day. She was too old to “watch” a house full of kids, they said, especially when one of them was as boisterous, freewheeling, and insolent as me. I did get suspended from school on occasion, mainly for mouthing off to teachers and students. Mom prepared her share of ice packs because of the “scraps” I found myself in. To Hotsy and Dot, I represented trouble. To Mom, I represented her son.
I can’t remember if I had gotten into a fight that day or if a teacher had sent me home from school for bad behavior or if any specific incident triggered the intervention by Mom’s grown children. She positioned herself in the doorway of the room where I had slept for most of my life and in which I now stood, frozen, petrified by anger and shame. She gripped both sides of the white, paint-chipped doorframe. The creases in her brown hands were reminders of their strength. Her well-manicured bouffant wig put her just above five feet tall. Still, she made a formidable barrier, her body between me and Uncle Hotsy—protecting me, as she always did.
The year was 1986. I was nearly sixteen. It was the first time I had to reckon with the possibility of losing my home—and my mother. “He belongs in foster care,” Dot said calmly.
It is said that home is where our stories begin. The story of how this book came about also begins at home, and from what I learned from Mom. She defended her home so that it included not just her biological kin but kids from the neighborhood like me, whose families couldn’t look after them for various reasons. Now, I can see that Mom rightly defined our home and family based on our circumstances, and she vigorously defended her definition of family against people and systems who would not accept it—even if those people were her children. I survived Hotsy and Dot’s campaign and managed to stay in that home until I left for college at the age of eighteen.
Before that day in 1986, I didn’t know what it was to be devalued as a human being. Until that day, I understood rejection only in terms of the dates with girls I couldn’t get. Nothing had prepared me for that moment. Our very presence on 1320 Hill Avenue, in the small city of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, was a testimonial to acceptance. I lived in a Black-majority city that we bragged about; we weren’t like “those other Blacks” we looked down on, the ones who lived in neighboring Pittsburgh, because folks who lived in the city were somehow lesser. Calling Wilkinsburg home made us feel special during a time when the region was anything but.
Wilkinsburg was once a part of Pittsburgh, until its powerful White residents seceded in 1876, setting up an antagonistic relationship with the bigger municipality early on. In the late 1960s, though, when work disappeared and demographics shifted, Whites fled Wilkinsburg, too, leaving the town half empty. Black folk trickled in, and this new Black majority eventually adopted Wilkinsburg, just as Mom had adopted me.
The adage goes that when White folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia. When work disappears for White people, as it did in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area in the 1980s, Black people suffered even more, and Black women adjusted their families in ways to keep children from feeling the effects of extremely high unemployment. “In January 1983, the regional economy officially—that is, numerically—bottomed out,” wrote journalist Bill Toland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.1 “Unemployment in Allegheny County [where Pittsburgh is located] hit 13.9 percent, a rosy figure compared to the rest of the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, where the adjusted unemployment rate hit an astonishing 17.1 percent (unadjusted, the number was actually higher, 18.2 percent).” Many families struggled to realize the American Dream in Pittsburgh, but Black families, including my own, found it especially hard.
When Hotsy and Dot talked with Mom about sending me to foster care, I didn’t feel I could turn to my biological family. My father, Floyd Criswell, had been killed at the age of twenty-seven in Jackson State Prison, about seventy-five minutes west of Detroit, when I was eight years old. He wasn’t involved in my life prior to his death. I don’t remember ever meeting him. My biological mother, Karen Perry, lived in Garfield, a low-income Pittsburgh neighborhood at the time, about four miles away, where she raised my half-sister Danielle, the youngest of her four children. Karen gave birth to my older brother Kevin when she was sixteen, me at eighteen, my younger brother Dorian at twenty, and my sister Danielle at twenty-two.
Kevin and Dorian lived in Wilkinsburg with Mom and me. Growing up, I didn’t have much interaction with Karen, who I call by her first name. Every summer, a few weeks before the start of the school year, Kevin, Dorian, and I got excited about the prospect of Karen taking us back-to-school shopping. Then, taking us clothes shopping seemed to be her most important role in my life. And I was just fine with that.
Karen never talked to me about why she gave me into Mom’s keeping. Mom told me Karen handed me to her at Magee-Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, where I was born. Even as a kid who knew nothing other than our home on Hill Avenue, I always knew that the senior citizen Elsie Mae couldn’t be my biological mother. Though I was quick to fight anyone who challenged my calling her Mom, I came to know through my surroundings who and what a godparent was in relation to a biological mother. I grew up knowing my “cuz,” “auntie,” and “brotha” could be the kin of my heart or of my blood. The similar backgrounds of many of my friends reinforced this understanding of family. In Wilkinsburg, many in my peer group lived with their grandmothers, aunties, or other surrogates. The African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is especially true when you factor in the economic and social realities Black people face. From our village, Black folk had developed an informal foster care system long before I became the beneficiary of that support. That system was as familiar to me as the texture of Mom’s hands.
I came of age seeing how various hardships made parents give their children to surrogate parents for safekeeping. I bore witness to mothers who, to make ends meet, worked endless hours on multiple jobs as domestic workers and janitors. Mom used to be a domestic worker in the homes of wealthy White families, but she stopped her cleaning jobs around the time I was born and began watching children full-time to earn money.
Mom was the first entrepreneur and business owner I ever met. She filled a vital need in the market. Mom had help with her makeshift family; her daughter, Mary, lived with us. Mothers in our neighborhood had little choice but to entrust someone like Mom and Mary to love their children when, often, those Black women were taking care of White people’s kids in their roles as domestic workers.
Mary and (from left) Kevin, Dorian, me, and Angie
Mary also had cleaned people’s homes, but she suffered a stroke, and after her recovery she assisted Mom with us kids. We called Mary our aunt, which was more believable than Elsie being our mom because Mary looked like most of the women who dropped kids off at elementary school.
Mom was married to Theodore Boyd until his death in 1977. Teddy, who served in the Second World War, was the first father figure in my life. I have fond memories of Teddy sitting on the grassy knolls outside of a nearby shopping mall. I remember him leaving for work in the mornings to go to his job as a security guard before we kids went to school. After he died from “black lung,” Hotsy, also a veteran, moved into our house. But his was no benign presence—Hotsy’s name was on the deed of the home we lived in, and he eventually pushed to kick us kids out (or, at least, me). Compounding matters, Hotsy had “nervous breakdowns”—psychotic breaks—every few years, something I always attributed to his involvement in the war. Now I see that the post-traumatic stress from racism in Pittsburgh may have compounded the damaging effects of war.
More than a dozen children of varying ages spent significant chunks of time in our house. Some came just when they needed to be babysat, after school every day. Others would spend long stretches with us—days, even weeks—sleeping over. Six to seven of us lived in the 2,260 square foot home at any given time. Kevin and Dorian shared the master bedroom, where other children were also occasionally housed. They would share beds, if needed, or use pillows from the couches downstairs as a makeshift mattress. I slept with Mom in her bed until Kevin and Dorian moved up to the attic, whereupon I moved into their room. Hotsy and Mary had their own bedrooms.
The condition of the house reflected its numerous, active occupants. Fallen plaster and eroded drywall left the walls pockmarked, the wood frame exposed. The house went through a paneling phase when Hotsy did his best to cover the damage we did, but sections of it eventually came down, adding to the variations and blemishes. The roof bowed and the external brickwork buckled in places. The house needed significant repairs, but it was good enough for Kevin, Dorian, me, and others until we graduated from high school.
Mom and Mary made $5 a day per child, $25 per week for babysitting—if people paid. I don’t recall Karen paying Mom for my brothers and me. Instead, she helped out by purchasing back-to-school clothes and Christmas gifts. Though Mom and Mary also received Social Security and Disability, the government subsidies and babysitting revenue wasn’t always enough. I recall families owing money to Mom and Mary for babysitting their kids, just as Mom and Mary owed the local drug and grocery stores. When their Social Security checks arrived, Mom would have us kids pay various bills across town.
Mom, me, and Mary in Wilkinsburg
Still, I never felt poor, at least not until I went to Allegheny College, a private liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania ninety minutes north of Pittsburgh, where so many of my peers owned their own cars and had bank accounts that always seemed to have money in them. In comparison, my grandfather “Twenty” gave me $50 and a “Good luck!” when he dropped me off at the steps of my dorm. And I couldn’t have had a happier upbringing—at least, not until that day when Uncle Hotsy and Dot made me realize that my belonging was conditional and that, in their eyes, I belonged in foster care.
Insecurities about not belonging never quite go away. I couldn’t ignore the bell Hotsy rang. The belief that I had to fight to be included followed me to college and all the colleges where I ever worked, from my first, humble job as a camp counselor, helping the children of migrant workers, to the boardrooms of the Brookings Institution, where my cushy office has a nice view and my name is garnished with a flashy title. Yet I haven’t outgrown my roots: I work in a unit of Brookings dedicated to making sure our economic growth includes all racial and ethnic groups. And over the weekends, I write a weekly column for the education website the Hechinger Report about how race impacts education.
But my sense of (in)security in where I live and work does not completely stem from unresolved family issues. In my office, which overlooks a main drag of one of the wealthiest areas of Washington, D.C., I constantly read insulting and infantilizing research and commentary about how Black people cause their own poverty by not getting married or by having too many children. For those writers, family planning strictly means that low-income women must figure out how to not have children. I look over my shoulder as I read these articles, thinking, “Is the researcher talking about me and my upbringing?” Well—yeah.
Privileged eyes constantly remove their gaze from root causes of social and economic despair to myopically perceive positive family adaptations as dysfunction or as causing poverty. You’d think people intuitively would know that Black people don’t deliberately choose their family arrangements so they will be worse off. To be clear, we shape and create family configurations to protect children and adults. I don’t think Karen, who had four children before her twenty-third birthday, could have overcome the obstacles she faced early in life to become a social worker if Mom hadn’t taken in her three boys. In Black communities, it’s fairly common to have women plan family based on a more expansive understanding of what a family is. A lack of opportunities for Black men and women demands innovation, creativity, and more options for family—not fewer.
The fact that many of my friends grew up with one female breadwinner doesn’t mean Black people don’t want to be married or that Black men are unwilling to work. Instead, maternal caregivers stepped into the breach when an economy that didn’t pay women fairly, denied Black men and women job opportunities, and criminalized labor in the underground economy made it harder to form nuclear family units—if they wanted to do so. But those aren’t the stories you read in much of the research on Black communities that ends up recommending changes in individual behaviors rather than endorsing anti-racism policy. Theorists who posited that poverty was mainly about individual choices produced the foundational studies undergirding family planning research. First popularized in the 1960s by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, culture of poverty theories argued that low-income people share inherent characteristics and values that keep them impoverished. Thus, children who grow up in poor communities fall victim to the decisions of their parents, replicating the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Subsequently, low-income mothers were—are—rendered culpable for putting their children in poverty. Culture of poverty theories manifest themselves in a seemingly constant focus on how Black folk aren’t living up to White norms instead of probing how to dismantle systems that privilege White people at Black people’s expense. I now know that my existence is a manifestation of Black women’s resistance against the criminalization of poverty and the devaluing of Black lives. For me, family planning research has mostly been a thinly veiled negative reinforcement campaign that attempts to punish Black people for poverty we didn’t create.
Since 1965, when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, better known as the Moynihan Report, researchers and journalists have continued framing poverty mainly as a function of individual choices—that is, mothers form families that put children in harm’s way. Moynihan also offered a robust structural analysis of the economic and social conditions that help shape Black family structures. However, he set a dangerous example by identifying the main problem as Black people not living up to White middle-class ideals. This is a mold that researchers of Black people and cities willfully maintain to this day. One of the major goals of this book is to show that there is nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.
What Hotsy and some researchers called a no-parent home I called family. I had multiple mothers, guardians, and father figures whose love didn’t fit in a neat little nuclear family structure. In that Hill Avenue home, I learned to read, write, share, love, and accept others who didn’t share my genes. Mom regularly said, “I took you from the hospital, and you were born into love.” It was her way of making the single Black mother debate irrelevant for me.
Still, my struggles with Hotsy, Dot, and Patrick Moynihan are with me and manifested in my work on Black-majority cities.
In the U.S. context, we, as researchers and as residents, are bombarded with studies that project how bad Black families, students, and residents are compared to an assumed White norm. Researchers rarely ask these analytic questions: What is good about Black families? Where are the assets of Black communities? According to the research nonprofit the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, “Assets provide the tangible resources that help individuals move out of and stay out of poverty.”2 Assets include the material and nonmaterial, such as physical property, federal treasury notes, cash, stocks, bonds, brand names, savings, copyrights, and more. Assets are the physical, nonphysical, and behavioral resources that can be exchanged for quality of life improvements. People are the most important asset of all. My upbringing was an asset.
Our relentless pursuit of disparities between Black and White people often omits the policies that were designed to devalue Black assets. Those omissions help foster a sense of superiority among Whites while minimizing financial and social privileges gained from not acknowledging root policy causes of disparities.
As a way of moving toward research frameworks that look for assets in Black communities, I spoke with several of my Black colleagues who grew up in Black-majority places. I asked them two basic questions: “What are the benefits to living in a Black-majority city?” and, “Why do so many of us choose to stay in them?”
One of my peers, the Brookings fellow Makada Henry-Nickie, responded, “Home feels safe.” She leaned back, sprouting a smile that spoke of relief and comfort, and added, “I don’t have to explain myself.” However, much of the research that is motivated to bring about equity or fairness amounts to making a case of why we should belong.
Though Henry-Nickie currently lives in Washington, D.C., home for Henry-Nickie is the Black-majority island country of Trinidad and Tobago. She acknowledges that being a Black woman and an immigrant from a Black-majority country gives her a particular appreciation of Black-majority cities in the United States. Henry-Nickie is a researcher who works with data every day. She, like many Black immigrants, feels the collateral damage of negative expectations, stereotypes, and assumptions she didn’t grow up with but now has to live with in her adopted country. The expectations of Blacks in America spill over onto those who haven’t been reared in our context.
Adding insult to injury, we’re professionally trained and rewarded to make White people the default referent group that Blacks are measured against. In doing so, we acquire a tendency to center White people in our work.
I was first introduced to the practice of White centering later in life as a graduate researcher, when I first learned how to carry out a regression analysis, a staple of quantitative research. Regression analyses examine the relationship between two or more variables—say, the impact of race on academic achievement. For a category like race, one must pick a referent group for the purposes of comparison. I was taught to make White men (not White women) the default referent in most of my models. In the aforementioned example, achievement test scores of White women, Black women and men, as well as their Hispanic non-White, Asian, and Native American counterparts are measured against White men. Regression models are mathematically most stable if the referent group is the largest within the sample you are drawing from. For that reason, in the United States, data sources that make note of racial categories are generally presented sequentially, with “White,” the largest single racial group, listed first.
But if we really are interested in improving Black communities, it’s much less useful to select Whites as the referent. Historical discrimination categorically leveled against Black people makes it difficult for many research projects to make a true apples-to-apples comparison with White people. For instance, to compare a Black person’s income to that of a White person without accounting for wealth that was systematically denied to Black people by federal policy is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the roles of racism and White privilege. Racism is a common denominator for Black people; it’s a given. It’s much more useful, in many cases, to examine the variation within the Black population to see what factors and conditions can be attributed to differences.
In leading up to my study on devaluation (presented in chapter 2), I examined incomes of Black families living in Black-majority cities. It was a very simple study that simply asked, “Where are Blacks with high incomes living?” Incomes are proxies for decent job opportunities, good schools, and safe living environments. Figure I-1, a national map of Black-majority cities ranked by median household incomes of Black families, shows that 124 communities outpace the national median household income for all races ($53,889), according to data from the 2015 American Community Survey.3 Black families are especially thriving in various city/suburbs in Maryland, which hosts more than half the top 124 Black-majority cities. The DMV—that is, the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area—is Black bougie heaven.
Using median income as a proxy for financial status is a very imperfect practice. Measuring the middle of an income distribution—median income—of a particular city often masks the earning and labor disparities of particular groups that are not employed by the dominant industries in a market. That’s especially the case for Black families when popular publications put out various lists for the wealthiest places to live. Not everyone benefits from a thriving economy. That’s why colleagues of mine within the Brookings Metro program encourage more robust measures of economic health that include growth, inclusion, and prosperity.4 However, detailing strength among Black populations within Black cities offers a vantage point to opportunities that may lead to investments.