For the Love of Susan
Susan had the perfect smile. Nice teeth, yes. But, it was the way her cheeks drew up high and her eyes brightened. It made you happy, too.
She came into my office in 2006 as a woman nearly fifty years old seeking to complete her college degree. She looked like she was in her late twenties so I was initially caught off guard when she revealed the ages of her children which ranged from five to eighteen.
Susan turned out to be a few years older than me. So were Phyllis* and Patrice,* two more black women I worked with extensively in the TRIO Program at Metropolitan State University.
TRIO is federally-funded to work with low-income and first generation students as well as students with disabilities to finish college.
I was hired to be the counselor, but I was also the director for almost a year at this time. It meant working almost around the clock to keep the program running. I believed in the cause, but I was tired and increasingly grouchy.
I’d slog to work, and remember just what it meant to give back for what I had been given, and my whole attitude would improve. That’s probably why the program likes to hire veterans of the program. They knew we’d dedicate our lives to TRIO for relatively little pay.
Students kept coming to my office with questions. Day after day. Hour after hour. Assignment after assignment. Class after class. So I went from being a counselor to being a tutor.
I could try and put that in professional speak. “After conducting a needs assessment of the community, it became clear that what everyone needed the most was tutoring.”
The university offered tutoring in writing and math. These students needed tutoring in criminal justice, social work, research methods, and business. Not a lot of tutoring in most cases. Just enough to keep people on track.
I did do a lot of counseling. We talked about past molestation, religion (Patrice revealed she was Buddhist and that could be hard as a black woman; Phyllis felt alienated at her own black church for a whole host of reasons), things that are annoying about being poor, men, etc.
But just as there were gaps in my own education due to poverty and trauma, the same was true for these women. I was fortunate to have doused myself in heavy doses of education. I mean I slathered it on thick, so I did my best to pass on what I knew to these women in my office.
Susan didn’t need much tutoring at all. She had mostly As and Bs already. There was still plenty our program could offer to her. A national scholarship was available to worthy students to go to Europe for an educational trip. She wrote an outstanding essay. I wrote a letter of support. She was astounded when she was accepted. Again, her smile was contagious.
It took some doing, but she managed to arrange childcare for her three children who still lived at home for the six weeks she was gone over the summer to Europe.
Once she returned, I knew she would never be the same. The leader inside of her was born. Susan was always meant to be an achiever, but life circumstances and poverty had held her back.
Susan became the secretary, and then the president of the TRIO Student Union. She worked in concert with Patrice and Phyllis and other black women to lead on campus. She joined other student organizations. She was always on campus for one event or another. Her daughters would be with her.
Her children were the sweetest girls. Highly intelligent and polite. Susan went out of her way to enroll them in a Spanish immersion school. They were becoming fluent in Spanish from a young age in preparation for their futures. They were mature for their ages. Exposing them to campus life certainly was not hurting them either.
Near her graduation, Susan came to me in panic. She was going to lose everything. She was deeply ashamed when she whispered her problem to me.
Her boyfriend, who was actually more of common-law husband and father of three of her children, used marijuana for his back pain. He had been a hard laborer and construction worker throughout their time together.
Now, he was mistaken for a burglar in their neighborhood, and the police followed him home and searched their place. They found the marijuana. It wasn’t a legal search, so her boyfriend wasn’t going to be charged.
But she was losing custody of her children.
She expected me to have a judgmental reaction. There was no way that was going to happen. I was furious this was happening to her. If we lived in another state, things may be different. If she were a different race, things could well have been different. The whole situation would probably have never happened if her boyfriend was a different race.
I was furious this was happening to her. Helpless to do anything about it. I listened as Susan cried about losing her children. I listened as long as she needed me. Thirty-some years ago my parents lost custody of their children — of me — for poverty-related reasons. My parents were even falsely accused of using marijuana.
As white people, my parents were able to use their network to get an attorney who got back their children. They had the social capital and privilege to do that. Susan did not. As a black woman without economic privilege, she didn’t have means to get a good attorney to get her children back. She didn’t know anyone who could help.
I wanted to hire an attorney, but “professional ethics” meant I couldn’t cross that boundary. I didn’t really have the money at that stage of my life anyway. If we had had crowdfunding at that time, I would have known what to do. Susan was already my favorite student. It was easy for my past issues to influence my sympathies for her situation. Child welfare forced her boyfriend to move out before she could get her children back. All of this was going on as she tried to complete her undergraduate degree.
She continued to be superhuman. College classes. Extracurricular activities. Managing the child welfare system. Losing her partner of over fifteen years in order to get her kids back. Outdated marijuana laws that disproportionately impact black families weighing on hers.
Susan persevered. She earned the coveted cap & gown. Her smile was beaming. So was mine. There were tears in my eyes, too. She did it!
Susan died of a heart attack shortly after she graduated.
Her little girls were going to have to grow up without a mother after enduring foster care. Smart, traumatized, little girls.
White male rage is at once ridiculous and tragic.
As the group with the greatest share of the power, wealth, and voice, they shouldn’t have anything to be angry about. But putting aside Tucker Carlson’s factually inaccurate news segments, white men show all kinds of stress.
They do have the highest suicide rates. They do have this persistent tendency to be violent with their guns. But the right wing has pointed out with some accuracy that men of all races are violent with their guns.
The people passing around this picture don’t realize that if we actually included all the white men with just six or seven victims, we would be scrolling for pages and pages. With white men, we tend to only remember the ones who had the highest body counts, 25 victims, 50. The actual statistic is that 4 out of 5 mass shooters is white when race is known. That is the statistic.
White men clearly grow up in a toxic culture. It doesn’t teach empathy for others or for self.
Susan had every reason to pick up a gun and take it to campus if anger is a reason to spray bullets at people. The State took her children. Forced her to give up the man she loved over racially-coded marijuana laws.
For many years, I have not told Susan’s story, because I feared I would be exploiting her. Instead, I have relied on telling my own family’s story of dealing with child welfare as poor white people. Then, I would talk about black people I knew growing up that didn’t have the privileges my family had.
I’ve had racist white people say some of the following things to me:
- Doesn’t your family prove that it is just as hard for white people to get out of poverty?
- Doesn’t your family prove that white people are being harassed by the government just like black people?
- Doesn’t your family prove that white people are falsely accused of criminal activity just like black people?
This is why I am finally telling Susan’s story. I believe, as her mentor and her friend, that she would have wanted me to use her life story in this way.
You see, my parents prove something critical in American society that I am endlessly trying to see identified. Classism is real and underappreciated. My father is dead by age 61. My brother is dead from suicide by age 23.
But Susan is dead years earlier than she should be in her early 50s. Another favorite student who is black and in her mid-fifties, Clarice*, has such high blood pressure that they were reading numbers in the 240s. My own mentor, another strong, black woman, Phyllis Gray, is gone years before she should be in her mid-60s.
Susan’s story is one of never finding justice. My parents eventually found a kind of restoration. For my parents, their children have pathways out of poverty. For Susan’s children, I am not confident. The statistics suggest I should not be.
Our culture is shortening lives. Whether it is by depriving black women of their health by weighing them down with stress. Or creating a toxic lack of empathy for white males that drives them to suicide and oppressive behaviors toward others, including their own loved ones. No one as coldly applied the rules of classism to my parents as their family members.
To be a poor white person is be a neglected person. A lot of white liberals have a hard time dealing with reality. White conservatives don’t even think the group exists. It creates misplaced resentments. My mentor, a black woman from the South side of Chicago whose people came from Mississippi, knew this was true. That is why she moved to a small Iowa town and counseled poor children for over thirty years. She could take on both racism and classism at once.
Common sense just tells a person that if you have to deal with an “ism” such as classism which a whole host of our black and brown population does, it is going to be at least twice as hard when you add in racism on top of that. This seems to be a fact huge swaths of the country cannot acknowledge.
Susan had to deal with both racism and classism. There’s no question when people have to cope with both at once they are overwhelmed. I believe it killed her. White people have got to realize that racism is always there. It is always a factor. It operates above and beyond classism. Susan had a lot to offer the world. I’m sorry you’ll never get to see that.
*I’ve changed the names of the students who are still living.