For the first time in so very long, I entered this year confident that 2020 would not beat the everloving shit out of me the way so many recent years have.
I was confident that my student loan debt — this burden I have discussed every single day for well over a decade, this thing that has affected my life so much that I wrote an entire book about it — was no longer going to control me. That I was finally in the position to be able to afford the kind of freedom that’s been deprived of me my entire life. That shame and self-loathing would no longer engulf me whenever my student loans came up in conversations.
For the first time in so very long, I was beginning to feel like I had attained something within even driving distance of security. 2020 finally felt like my year.
And then came a pandemic.
Curiously, and with ever greater frequency, people have been telling me that my book, I Don’t Want to Die Poor, which was published yesterday, is “so timely.” The comment is meant as a compliment — a nod to the fact that by chronicling the toll that debt and a financial recession can take on you, the book speaks both to 2008 and the moment we are in, in which yet another Republican president seems destined to steamroll the nation into ruin.
But I take precisely zero comfort in that newfound relevance. And not just because inequality, the book’s real focus, ought to always be a fucking hot topic.
As I explain in the excerpt released last week, a lot of Black men die not so much because they don’t want to take care of themselves but because this country doesn’t provide the affordable, accessible means for many of us to do so. I know the book is timely because in the months between finishing it and its publication, my uncle became one of those men. On paper, I lost him to cancer — but I truly lost him to a lack of health insurance and him residing in the state of Texas, where the current governor won’t expand Medicaid to folks like him who could have used it. It happened before I could tell him that I may actually get my own television show, fulfilling his desire for me to go write for TV and film instead of “writing that bullshit on the internet.” (Sorry to my editors here. He ain’t know y’all pay well. R.I.P., Uncle Terry.)
I know the book is timely because I lost a few other people last year for a few other reasons — reasons that in the end, much like with my uncle, boil down to this country being structured in a way that makes it easier for folks to die than live.
I know the book is timely because I wrote much of it in 2019, one of the worst years of my life, a year in which I routinely sank under the question of why things were still so much harder than they should have been by that point. I wrote my book with commitment but also with utter misery.
I don’t ever want to go back to those feelings, so I am committed to hope. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was afraid, though. It’s hard not to be when all you hear are the sounds of sirens outside. I have felt stranger than usual asking people to buy my book at a time like this, subject matter or not, but what am I to do? This is my livelihood. I didn’t invent capitalism, but I don’t want to be further beaten down by it either.
And I’m just as afraid for everyone else.
I spoke with a good friend of mine last week. Like me, she went to Howard University. Like me, she took out private loans. Like me, she finally felt like she was making the kind of money that provided security. She no longer felt like she was just surviving anymore. She was enjoying the taste of thriving.
I know so many others like that. Another with similar debt struggles is finally starting her own business. Others making enough money to start feeling like they aren’t standing in quicksand — a luxury most Americans can’t even afford.
This is literally the first time many of us were beginning to feel the first real semblance of any sense of security. We have sacrificed not just homes, spouses, and parenthood as a result of these loans but, in many cases, our general well-being. We have worked tirelessly to not be damned for our entire lives by mistakes we made with the best intentions: getting a damn college degree.
Our fates are not totally up to us. If they were, we wouldn’t be scrolling through endless tutorials of how to turn old underwear and vacuum bags into masks just so we can go outside.
And now, that relative calm has been snatched away by chaos. Once again, we are in a nightmare not of our own making. I have close friends and family members who have been furloughed and fired. More worry about their fates as it gets all the more apparent that this virus will control our lives for a while because that fool in the White House can’t be brought to reason.
I’ve already been asked what kind of advice I can share with people about this moment. I find that both flattering and adorably naive. I can’t fix anyone’s life or credit, and right now, it’s mainly weed getting me through this shit. If I had more money to give, I’d give it. I know that’s what folks really need right now.
I know people hate to hear this, but unfortunately, some of us learn this sooner than others: Our fates are not totally up to us. If they were, we wouldn’t be scrolling through endless tutorials of how to turn old underwear and vacuum bags into masks just so we can go outside without contracting a deadly virus.
Donald Trump is president. We could all be dead by the end of this essay. I have no fucking clue how to tell any of you thots how to prepare for shit.
If there’s anything to take from my book, my life, or this essay, it’s that struggle doesn’t have to last forever. But if you allow your struggles to consume you, they will.
The fact is, I’m better off today than I used to be. While that doesn’t give me any glimmer into what tomorrow looks like, it’s a testament to one important fact: Even when I can’t control where life takes me, I can control how I respond to it. And if there’s anything that helps in difficult times, it’s gratitude. I would like to think that I am always grateful, but with age comes reflection, and in the past, I made the mistake of not taking comfort in what I had.
You might think that makes me sound like the end of a sitcom that originally aired on ABC’s TGIF lineup in the 1990s. Fuck you. I kind of do, but I swear on my past devotion to unattainable men, I mean it with everything in me.
I worry about what is to come, but I know that too much of my life has been controlled by fear. I will not let that happen again. This year will not beat the shit out of me, no matter how hard it gets. And I believe — truly believe — that the same can be true for all of us.