“The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.”” - Jay-Z
In a previous draft of my post about inequality sharing my experience with financial aid forms, I quoted this incredible NPR interview with Jay-Z, but I couldn’t fit it into the post, so I’ll share it here:
The worst thing about being poor in America isn’t the deprivation. In fact, I never associated Marcy with poverty when I was a kid. I just figured we lived in an apartment, that my brother and I shared a room and that we were close — whether we wanted to be or not — with our neighbors. It wasn’t until sixth grade, at P.S. 168, when my teacher took us on a field trip to her house that I realized we were poor. I have no idea what my teacher’s intentions were — whether she was trying to inspire us or if she actually thought visiting her Manhattan brownstone with her view of Central Park qualified as a school trip. But that’s when it registered to me that my family didn’t have as much. We definitely didn’t have the same refrigerator she had in her kitchen, one that had two levers on the outer door, one for water and the other for ice cubes. Poverty is relative.
One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. When you’re a kid, even in the projects, one kid will mercilessly snap on another kid over minor material differences, even though by the American standard, they’re both broke as shit.
The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden. As kids we didn’t complain about being poor; we talked about how rich we were going to be and made moves to get the lifestyle we aspired to by any means we could. And as soon as we had a little money, we were eager to show it.
I remember coming back home from doing work out of state with my boys in a caravan of Lexuses that we parked right in the middle of Marcy. I ran up to my mom’s apartment to get something and looked out the window and saw those three new Lexuses gleaming in the sun, and thought, “Man, we doin’ it.” In retrospect, yeah, that was kind of ignorant, but at the time I could just feel that stink and shame of being broke lifting off of me, and it felt beautiful. The sad shit is that you never really shake it all the way off, no matter how much money you get.
I love the phrase he uses here: “burden of poverty”— that feeling of being embarrassed about your humble origins, which you had and have absolutely no control over or power to change. And it can stick with you, even when you get to where Jay-Z is— if you let it, that is. Don’t.
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