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.

 

 

Jason Evans
Author

Jason always wanted to be a writer, he just didn’t know it. He grew up in Southern California and taught high school social studies after college until he got married and moved to Denver in 2004. He continued in education until he realized his heart was in fiction. Since 2012 Jason published several short stories, ran an online magazine, and became a regular panelist at local conventions. He blogs regularly on his own website, in addition to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.


Jason earned a master’s in history in 2012 and is married to the fetching Mrs. Evans, his spouse, best friend and tax preparer.


8 thoughts on “Writing Black Characters Dealing with the Culture of Poverty

  1. Hi, Jason, and thank you for providing new insight into the impact of poverty in the black community, and the complex emotions attached to wealth — and the extreme lack of it. The story of your mom and the computer really touched me. 🙂

    • Hi Heather!

      Generally speaking though, my experience with “The Culture of Poverty,” leads me to believe that there are common threads that are true regardless of ethnicity.
      But I would be careful about describing Latin culture. Cubans are different from Panamanians. Panamanians are different from Mexicans. Mexicans who have immigrated to the US are different from Chicanos, whose parents immigrated two, three and four decades ago.
      With all things do your research. Ask respectful questions and try to get beta-readers from the cultures you want to represent.

      Good Luck!

  2. Great post Jason, thank you. Cultural experience, racial experience, is as rich and diverse as geographic, socioeconomic, or even age. You can’t write every character as a teenager – you can’t write every person of color as poor (please and thank you). Not every gay man is flamboyant. I always hit the slow down threading the needle – what visible cultural markers are vital, but how many are too many? How do I de-center difference to focus on ‘the universal’ without giving it short shrift or whitewashing? Good betas who can guide that – worth everything. If you don’t have that access, reading, reading, reading contemporary and historical primary source and #ownvoices, everything. Empowering insight in this post from you, thanks.

    • Great question, Amy!
      I believe it depends on your setting and the specific character. If you’re writing a novel about a headstrong businesswoman who happens to be white, but her best friend and confidant is a friend who happens to be black, then clearly the black character is supporting. You probably won’t have the space to go into a lot of depth about the supporting characters life, history and background. So show her through a window of authenticity. Let her mention her brother whose always in trouble. Maybe she has bad money habits? (I know Beth makes as much as I do, yet she’s always asking for money a week before payday?) Or, when your protagonist is in a hard spot, have her friend tell a story about her childhood, something the protagonist wouldn’t know. Give that character a spotlight, a window into her character. And, as always, remember you will never please everyone – so don’t try.
      I hope this was helpful.

  3. Great post and some excellent comments. The cultural background is not the character. The character is an individual who is influenced in certain ways by this cultural background. Heeding teachers like Jason and our particular contacts in any community can allow us to create authentic individuals–to my mind one of the most fun aspects of writing. Thanks!

  4. Great post, Jason. Thank you. I’m half-Mexican, and I work with the Mexican community, and I see similarities there for people who are low-income. People will often say to me, “if that family is so poor, why do they have a big, expensive TV?” Well, if, as you said, if you don’t see much of a future or a real path out of poverty, you go for things that can make your life better NOW. And in the Mexican community, looking good, especially for the girls, is important. But as you said, not every Latino is poor, of course, and not every one of them experiences life in the same way. So I agree wholeheartedly with your advice to see out beta readers. Also, I’ve noticed low-income people tend to be very generous, sometimes even more so than those who have money. As soon as they get money, they want to help their friends and family out, or they even want to donate to a good cause. And it isn’t just because they “owe” people something, although sometimes that is part of it, so I’m glad you brought that up.

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