Writing Black Characters Dealing with the Culture of Poverty

Last year at the Colorado Gold Conference I taught a class entitled Writing Authentic African-American Characters. A lot of that discussion had to deal with the culture of poverty within the Black community. Today, I want to talk to you about specific things your African-American characters can struggle with because of the culture of poverty.

What about Black characters who aren’t poor?

Poverty is a part of the lives of many African-Americans. Even if your Black character is not poor, the chances are they are affected by neighbors, friends, or relatives who are. This is a conflict that awesome writers, like yourselves, can exploit for great story telling.

There is a lot of tension within the African-American community about what is the proper role of African-Americans who have made it. Do they owe anybody anything? Are they obligated to support their extended families? And how do we define Support? (Incidentally, Showtime has a funny show based on this premise called “Survivors guilt.” Its executive producer is NBA player LeBron James.)

If your black character is middle class or wealthy—and they do not come from this socio-economic group—having them financially support or guide their poorer relatives and friends would be a great way to bring in a dose of authenticity into your characters. Your character could do everything from taking in a cousin or nephew to host the family picnic to co-sign on a car loan. Or, they could absolutely refuse to participate in any of these activities, gaining the respect or condemnation of their family. Or, maybe they only support others in grand, showy events, like at a birthday party, or a graduation. As if they are flaunting their disposable income.

Writing Black characters who are poor

How do you write about poor Black characters? Here’s the trick I’ve learned as I struggled with the culture of poverty myself.

Rich people want money for its own sake, while many poor people want money to buy things.

I have been fortunate enough to get to know five millionaires. But none of them are what you call the silver spoon type. They do all have two things in common: They horde cash and assets and they are extremely cheap.

My experience with most poor people (and remember, that includes me) is that they principally want money to buy things. It took me years to figure this out. But even as a child, I can remember wanting things desperately and knowing I would probably never get them. That feeling that you’re not going to get something you want permeates you as you grow up. That hunger to be just as good as everyone else, by buying those expensive jeans, or that expensive phone.

I can remember when I got into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. I did all of the paperwork myself. I double checked my financial aid package, what dorm I was going to stay in, everything. When I left, I had everything I needed - except a personal computer to type papers on. (This was pre-internet)

One day my mom comes home to tell me that she got a $2000 signature loan. She was going to buy me a top of the line computer. Now, this confused me because I had resigned myself to using the computer labs on campus, like everyone else. My mother had other ideas. She was not going to let her son be perceived as disenfranchised, or somehow not good enough because I didn’t have a computer.

I hope you see what’s going on here. Having possession of that computer meant I was just as good as those rich, white boys I was going to school with in the fall. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t afford it; it didn’t matter that the interest rate on the loan was ridiculous. It was about being just as good as everyone else.

This is why you see some poor Black people driving expensive cars, carrying Gucci purses, or wearing expensive shoes; they are keeping up with the Joneses.

The culture of poverty effects your ability to plan for emergencies.

I was well into my mid-twenties before I heard the term emergency fund/account. The people I knew and grew up with were all busy trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Extra money was seen as an opportunity to get ahead of another bill. The idea that you could just leave it in the bank, just in case, was weird. In fact, when I taught in Denver Public Schools, I would talk to high school kids about personal finances. Just like me, many of my students found the concept bizarre.

How could this affect your African-American characters? What stress could you pile on to your characters because of their upbringing?

Poverty Lends Itself to Immediate Gratification.

Many people living in poverty see no way out. They don’t believe they’ll ever get ahead or beat the system. When in a situation where you believe your situation is hopeless, why deny yourself anything?

I am one of the few homeowners in my family. I am also one of the few family members with a master’s degree. Both achievements took discipline and the ability to delay personal gratification. I was able to get both because I desperately wanted them. I wanted those things more than I wanted to hang out, go on vacation, or buy a big TV.

For many people of color in poverty, buying a house, having nice things, getting an education seems pointless and out of reach. Also, there is a desperation of circumstance that supersedes everything else. This idea that this moment will not come again, and that I should live to the fullest, now. That this opportunity might never come again, so I have to take advantage of it now.

Being Poor Sucks

Poverty spans the gambit from simply annoying to plain old horrible on any given day. There is a stress associated with poverty. A stress that can be temporarily relieved by spending money—thus perpetuating the cycle.

Writing exercise.

#1.) Is your character poor? Why or why not? Would changing their socio-economic status give you new insights into their motivations, values, and beliefs? If your Black character is in a supporting role, would changing their economic status create more tension in the story? Why or why not?

#2.) How does the poverty of the Black community effect your Black character? Are they guilty for being successful? Do they feel obligated to give back? Are they uncomfortable in the Black community?

#3.) Write a scene where your Black character—who may or may not be the Point of View character—comments on the difference between how his family does something mundane and how his new friends do something. Show/describe the different values associated with each event.