Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America

Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America

by C. Nicole Mason


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250069924
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 166,715
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dr. C. Nicole Mason is the Executive Director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest (CR2PI) and she has taught at Spelman College and New York University. Her writing and commentary has appeared in major newspapers and outlets across the country including MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, Real Clear Politics, the Nation, the Huffington Post, the Progressive, ESSENCE Magazine, the Root, the Grio, the Miami Herald, Democracy Now, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Born Bright

A Young Girl's Journey From Nothing to Something in America

By C. Nicole Mason

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 C. Nicole Mason
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7902-7


what do you want to be?

I got to school early and found Ms. Ward in our empty classroom erasing the chalkboard and shuffling papers at her desk. I had never had a conversation with her that was not related to an assignment, so I crept to my desk, pulled out a book, and began to read silently, hoping she would not notice me.

Ms. Ward, a brawny woman with silver wires in her mouth, was my second-grade teacher at Abbott Elementary, a predominantly Black and Latino school in Lynwood, California. Whenever we misbehaved, her voice rolled like thunder and bounced off the walls. My sole purpose in class, besides trying to impress her with my reading skills, was to keep from getting my ear twisted and my arm pinched or from being told to stand next to her desk while she continued to teach as if I were a lamppost. In horror, I watched the other kids squirm as she grabbed hold of their body parts and lectured them about the need to follow directions, stay in their seats, or not talk out of turn. It looked painful.

"Chataquoa, come here," she said.

Oh no, I thought. This was it. She was going to twist my ear for coming to school early. I knew I should have waited for the bell to ring. Now, it was too late. I pushed my chair from underneath the desk and carried the book with me to the front of the classroom.

"Where do you live?" she asked.

"Down the street," I said, exhaling. Our little pink house at the foot of a cul-de-sac was not far from the school. I walked the short distance alone.

"With who?"

"My mother, my brother, and grandfather."

She continued to write in her grade book as I stood fully prepared to answer any question she threw my way. To keep from getting pinched, I would tell her anything she wanted to know. She dropped her pen and looked up at me.

"You're smart. Do you know that? What do you want to be when you grow up?" Her unblinking eyes were trained on mine. She wanted me to understand what she was saying.

I shrugged. No one had ever asked me that question before and I did not have an answer.

"It doesn't matter if you don't know now. You're a smart little girl and you can go far, just keep it up."

I stood there, feet glued to the floor, waiting for her to say more, but she did not. She returned to her grade book. After a few moments, I retreated back to my desk. What did she mean by "keep it up" or that I could "go far," I wondered. Go where?

I remembered my conversation with Ms. Ward decades later, when I came across a study revealing that when inner-city kids were asked to draw the world, they drew their immediate neighborhoods — the corner stores, the local carryouts, and their houses. Conversely, when middle-class and affluent kids were asked to do the same, they drew countries such as China or those in Europe. I believe if I had been given the task of drawing the world as a young child, I would have drawn my neighborhood, too. That was my world, and I could not see beyond it.


day of reckoning

The chandelier with its dangling diamond-shaped cut glass seemed brighter than usual as I looked up at it from the stage. I surveyed the audience, consisting of the usual lot of do-gooders, social workers, politicians, and policy advocates. I jotted "SYSTEMS" down in all caps and underlined it twice. The oversized room was elegant, the tables dressed in white linens, and it had good chairs, the ones with cushiony, carpet-like bottoms.

I was there to talk about poverty. I had delivered some version of the same speech nearly a dozen times in the past year. I barely had to prepare. Each time I gave a talk, polite applause circled the room and I was flooded with invitations to speak at the next event. I knew just what to say to not ruffle any feathers — stronger programs, more money, stricter rules, and the development of life skills for the impoverished. However, I was growing uneasy with the lie. What we were saying worked, did not.

When my turn came, rather than give my usual spiel, I wondered aloud whether or not it was the systems that were broken rather than the people. I spoke about the need to examine the institutions and structures in society and in the communities that impede rather than support self-sufficiency and economic mobility for individuals and families.

Standing behind the podium in my nicely tailored suit, I felt safe saying what I had been thinking for so long. I was the director of a research center at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. I felt comforted by the position and believed perhaps I would be heard. I was an authority.

During the question-and-answer segment of the program, a woman stood and identified herself as a social worker employed at one of the many agencies scattered throughout the city that supported poor and low-income individuals. "This comment is for you, Dr. Mason," she said. While she agreed that the systems did need some tinkering, she opined that what was really missing from the equation was individual responsibility and that people needed to help themselves.

A flash of heat washed over my body as I realized she was talking about me. In that moment, I was transported back to the countless hours I spent as a child waiting with my mother for social services in oversized rooms in unmarked city buildings. At the break of dawn, we rose to catch several buses only to be told to come back on another day because we were missing some document or that our application was still under review. For their part, the social workers seemed contemptuous and treated us as if they were doing us a favor by allowing us to receiveration-sized aid. Undeterred, we would repeat the trip the following day.

"That's not true," is all I could muster before a skinny White man with wiry glasses began to speak.

"I agree with the woman over there," he said, pointing in the direction of the woman who had challenged me. "There are programs out there, and the women — I mean families — are not doing their part to better their situations. I see it every day."

As I scanned the room, the sea of White faces, with specks of color here and there, seemed to agree with them. There was no dissent, only stillness. My stomach churned as I shuffled my papers. My eyes darted across the panel for help. Was anyone else going to say something? Why hadn't I just stuck to my notes? When I did, everything went well, and the narrative remained intact, cohesive, and unquestioned.

By "narrative," I mean the stories we all have in our heads about the lives of poor people, their behavior, and the reasons for their circumstances. In this forum, I was not only disrupting that narrative, but also challenging the financial investments, institutions, and structures predicated upon an understanding of the poor as lazy, infantile, morally corrupt, and in need of direction and supervision. It was the narrative that, consciously or subconsciously, most of us in the room were responsible for perpetuating in some form or another through our work as advocates, practitioners, and legislators.

I swallowed hard.

"I did the right thing. I am the beneficiary of many of the programs that we are talking about here today. I attended Head Start. I was involved in afterschool programs. I'm the first person in my family to graduate from high school, to attend college, and to receive a PhD."

By now, my voice was shaking, but I could not stop. I was having in public the private conversation I reserved for my first-generation Black and Latino colleagues who had also successfully navigated their way out of poverty and into the middle class and who have a deep understanding of the journey from there to here. These people, in this room, were strangers.

"But, I'm only one person," I continued. "Growing up, I knew many kids in my neighborhood who were smarter and more capable than me, and they didn't make it out. Many have been killed, gone to prison, are living hand to mouth or otherwise on the margins of society. Should I blame them or the system that only allows a few of us at a time to escape?"

The room was pregnant with silence. I couldn't take it back.

I felt like an intruder and exposed. In these types of professional settings, my personal experiences with hunger, poverty, and episodic homelessness often go undetected. It is assumed that I am just like everyone else, an advocate, a policy expert, or an academic.

Typically, when a woman is invited to tell her story during these panels or meetings, it feels voyeuristic and slimy, like a performance. Her story has a perfect, predictable arc — she was lost then found by one of the many social service agencies in the city. She changed her behavior, became a better mother, and, although she still struggles to make ends meet, is on her way to economic prosperity — Hallelujah, THE END. Her story is meant to inspire, to whip up emotion, and to make the people in the audience feel good about their work and themselves. It is not meant to challenge or change how we make policies or to shift how poor people in our communities, our cities, or the larger society are perceived.

There is also a clear separation between her and the experts on the stage. They, not she, are deciding what should be done. Here I was, blurring that line. I was both the subject and the authority on the matter. I had firsthand knowledge of the messiness of poverty and the feelings the poor internalize from birth — like the belief that our very existence is a burden on society. The collapse of this boundary made me uncomfortable. I had worked hard to disguise my beginning in life — from the decision to change my name during my first week of college to the effort of erasing words and phrases like "cain't" and "finsta go" from my vocabulary. I had succeeded in creating the perfect, impenetrable middle-class mask. Now, it was off.


a crack in the foundation

In the United States there is no shortage of belief in the possible or, in the case of the nearly forty-seven million people living in poverty, the seemingly impossible. The idea is that through hard work, ambition, and dogged persistence, all people can overcome where they began in life to enjoy middle-class success — a home, steady income, a healthy family, and a comfortable retirement. According to this narrative, when individuals fail to attain this level of success, it is because they did not try hard enough.

The truth is that only about 4 percent of those born into poverty, or in the bottom 20 percent of Americans economically, will ever make it to the top fifth of income earners in the U.S. For most, regardless of race, escaping poverty is akin to winning the lottery.

Why is this? Why, in a nation overflowing with riches and teeming with opportunity, are the odds of escaping poverty on par with the odds of being struck by lightning?

Over the years, I have turned this question over and over in my mind even as I have safely navigated my way to a comfortable middle-class existence where the poor are mostly out of sight. I now live in a neighborhood with great public schools, low levels of crime and unemployment, and high levels of civic engagement. My children, twins, have been enrolled in a Mandarin immersion program since they were eighteen months old and have tested years beyond their age intellectually. My son plays soccer and my daughter takes ballet lessons. All signs read: "You're doing the right thing. Your children will go on to college and become successful, productive members of society."

When President Barack Obama said in his historic second-term inaugural speech that we all believe in the same promise that says, "[America] is a place where you can make it if you try regardless of who you are or where you start," he was speaking about himself — he was also talking about me and others who started out with very little and ended up winning big in the game of life. Similarly, I suppose that when conservatives speak of hardworking Americans and the givers supporting the takers who are draining our collective pockets, they are also talking about me. For Democrats, I am proof that as a society, we have achieved some modicum of equality. For Republicans, my formative years support their claims that racial and ethnic minorities are poor because of bad choices, laziness, and intergenerational pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, and high rates of single motherhood. I am a winner no matter which side of the aisle you occupy.

Yet, I do not feel like a winner.

Since I left my childhood community, more than two decades ago, very little has changed about the way it looks and feels and the individuals and families who still live there. In fact, I would argue that things have gotten progressively worse. The inequality gap, measured not only by income but by access to opportunity and resources as well, has become a chasm far too wide to cross for most people living in poverty, including many in my old neighborhoods.

Ironically, the emergence of a solid middle class, beginning in the 1930s, expanding in the 1960s to include some African-Americans, and created through employment, education, housing, and tax policies, allowed some individuals and families to obtain higher wages, buy homes, and access a solid post-secondary education — while hurting poor people and communities. This upward mobility created a new class of citizens as well as a new set of policy priorities and concerns for this group, which were no longer connected to the concerns of those who were considered poor. These developments continued to create and build suspicion in the minds of the American public regarding poor people and their personal failure to reach the middle class.

Today, the public schools in poor neighborhoods are in far worse condition than before the passage of Brown v. the Board of Education, and the growth and privatization of U.S. prisons have robbed many communities of vital human and economic resources. Double-digit unemployment continues to threaten the day-to-day survival of families, and entire neighborhoods have been ripped apart by neglect, decay, and the predatory lending practices of large banks and lending institutions.

Many of the cities and neighborhoods that I called home during my childhood in San Bernardino, Compton, and Inglewood, California, are bankrupt or do not have the resources, either institutionally or structurally, that are necessary to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at the American Dream. These are facts, not conjectures or postulations.

In public conversations about poverty, very little consideration is given to the preconditions for success or the maximization of opportunity in society. These preconditions include quality schools and institutions in neighborhoods, sufficient food, safety, access to adequate health care, stable housing, and the resources and critical information needed to negotiate complex social and political institutions. When these necessities are absent from communities, individuals and families are rightfully preoccupied with basic survival. And those who are able to succeed despite the lack of these foundational conditions are likely to be perceived as extraordinary orexceptional — superhumans of a sort.

Poverty cannot be defined solely by the lack of income or material wealth. It is also characterized by a severe lack of access to opportunities, resources, and vital networks, which, taken together, make it nearly impossible for individuals and entire generations of families to escape. Over time, individuals living in poverty learn to negotiate these systems. They adapt, make do, go without, rationalize, or internalize the attitudes of the structures that are failing them in bulk. They, too, have come to believe that they are the problem.

Middle-class and upper-income individuals and families have a different set of rules that govern their lives and that speak to their capabilities and aspirations. They feel a sense of entitlement and assume systems will respond to their needs. Their daily engagement with groups, institutions, and communities is very different from that of families living in poverty.

By "rules," I mean the practices that allow individuals to succeed in any given society. For the most part, the institutional, social, and political rules that govern our many systems — from the education system to the criminal legal system — are invisible to most poor people. These systems and structures are connected, and a particular disadvantage in one system is sometimes compounded by another disadvantage reflecting a separate system or structure.

These rules can be as simple as knowing that you must take the SAT to apply to a four-year institution, knowing how to prepare a résumé and dress for a job interview, or knowing where to go to access information that can help one gain citizenship status or obtain a loan for the purchase of a new home. Without knowledge of or experience with negotiating these codes or rules, most poor people will remain impoverished, or their incremental gains will be diminished by losses reflected in a separate but connected system.


Excerpted from Born Bright by C. Nicole Mason. Copyright © 2016 C. Nicole Mason. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

What Do You Want to Be? 1

Day of Reckoning 3

A Crack in the Foundation 7

Origins 12

The End of Things 21

Starved 41

Putting Out the Fire 45

Free Today 58

A Home of Our Own 67

Only One Rule 84

54 Out of 54 88

Death Is Here 104

Wedding Day 108

Home Street 116

Seeing with Only These Eyes 121

Away 123

Not Poor, Poor 142

Sonnies Got a Baby 148

Cell Block High 153

A Place Called Home 159

A Light 164

Food for All 175

New Mission 178

Gone 184

In the Desert 194

Brighter 201

Little Brother 206

Accepted 208

Graduation 212

I'll Fly Away 217

What Should Be Done? 224

Epilogue 235

Acknowledgments 239

Notes 241

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