“Y’all ass so ungrateful.”
I remember my sisters and I walking into a City Sports on Madison and Central on the West-side of Chicago, headed straight toward the selection of shoes labeled “on sale,”this selection had Reeboks, Filas, Champions and post-Jordan Jordans.
In this scene: our faces were all twisted up, in sync, all three of us abstained from poking out our lips, as we held in our huffs-and-puffs and lip smashes, lest we get popped in the mouth.
It was not vain materialism that made us uncomfortable with the selection in front of us, it was an unconscious rebellion against the poverty that was imposed upon us. Even as children we understood there was little we could control, but one thing that we knew we could control, was how we dressed. “Looking poor” just didn’t sit right with ten year old me — being poor was quite normal, most people were poor in Austin, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Chicago, but “looking poor’’ was unseemingly — it was ghetto.
So, even as a ten year old I knew there was something transcendent, something otherworldly, about dressing to impress: a fresh white tee; Rocawear shorts; a New-Era snapback; and white g-fazzos, brought order — temporal organization — to our entropic world. What was poverty in the face of being fly? The stares when one had the latest Jordans, the glimmer of my Robin Jeans, the true in my True Religions, did something to re-enchant us.
In consequence, walking into the sale’s selection reinforced the immediacy of our material conditions, snapping us out of our enchanted world, disenchanting us. The sale’s selection reminded us just how disorganized our worlds were, how temporal organization was in a world of poverty induced by racial capitalism and white supremacy. Even as children we knew what the sale’s selection meant: we was broke.
And as if our mother could sense our rebellion against the poverty, against ourselves, against her inability to order our small Black worlds with quaint material charms, and as if to drench the flames of rebellion; she, like an imperial warhorn bringing in unneeded heavy cavalry, would say: “y’all ass so ungrateful.” Our faces still twisted up, we held back smacking our lips or rolling our eyes, and continued our rummage for enchantment.
Our mother was not completely wrong, but she was not completely right either. We were just kids who did not understand, who couldn’t accept, why we had to go without to survive; we had been without food, without new clothes, without our own space — we could not yet grasp why poverty was a necessity for our survival. I will never grasp it. Nevertheless, even as a child we were forced to understand that our Blackness came with trade-offs; trade-offs that were much deeper than buying a pair of cheap Nike’s from the dreaded sales selection. Our mother thought it was only about the shoes, she did not understand our youthful search for romanticism; well, perhaps she could, but she pushed it deep into a forgotten part of herself. And as if, to convince herself just as much as she wanted to convince us, she would repeat the phrase again.
I doubt my mother understood what calling us ungrateful reinforced, how it did nothing to quench one of few things this world allowed us to thirst for. Calling us ungrateful reinforced the “reality” that we lived in, killing the romanticism inherent to youthful bliss, it murdered the desire to inspire for more than what lies in the on sale selection. Unknowingly, it relegated our material existence to the sales selection; we learned to take what we could got (don’t get me wrong this is a valuable trait when learned autonomously, the problem lies in when it is thrusted upon Black children who have little choice but to accept it). We learned to accept what “life” handed us and make due (and by “life”, l mean the illegitimate settler-colonial State that distorts reality into a grotesque scene from a bland white horror film).
We learned how to make due, that much has always been true, but making due is not enough, making due should not be the wind that steers our existence. There is more to life than the acceptance of what the conditions we live in. As children we weren’t taught to only acknowledge these conditions, but we were taught this is how life is, we were taught a passive pessimistic acceptance of our conditions ( we were taught “it is what it is”).
However, the problem does not simply lay in the statement itself, that would assume that statement is inherently wrong, the problem lies in the normalcy of an inhumane fatalism that reinforces our assigned social status. If we are grateful for what “life” gives us (the State gives us very little for free, the State demands our undying obedience, our lives, in return); for our status; for our small two bed apartment that houses six people; for running water; for heat, quite frankly for our very existence, when does this gratitude turn into an acceptance of hopelessness? Is this gratitude not the configuration of a fatalism that concedes that fighting against white supremacy is futile? Is this gratitude not inhumane ?
Even as a child I could not accept the inhumanity of what the State “gives” me. I could not be grateful, there was simply little to actually be grateful about. What dignity did I have, if I couldn’t transcend the grotesque material conditions that were seemingly inescapable, if I could control the clothes I wore? The shame I felt walking into City Sports was not solely a shame that would come from vain communal shaming, it was a shame that, even if I wasn’t fully cognizant of it at the time, reinforced what little in life there was to look forward to if the State maintains power.
My mother was not consciously reinforcing a form of anti-Blackness labeled poor people undeserving of nice things; it was internalized, it was a real emotional reaction that was rooted in how little we actually had. My mother’s concern was not with how we looked, her concern was that we had our basic needs met — my mother, like so many others Black folk, was concerned with our survival. For as long as there was no absolute deprivation my mother could sleep fine; however, we could not sleep fine knowing that our poverty was relative. We grew up watching rich white kids on TV never having to experience the life we knew it: we saw Bling-Bling from Johnny Test, Mom from Futurama, Carter from Family Guy, Mr. Krabs from Spongebob. Even through watching cartoons we grasped that our poverty was not normal. We, soon, grew up to understand that we would never have excess, because it was impossible for us to ever have enough. Our survival became more absolute, more poignant, than any other desire we could ever have.
Ten year old me, like present day me, did not want to simply survive; I yearned for something beyond survival. I yearned for the spirit that has always invigorated Black communities: that which lies in a du-rag, gogo boots, Fubu or Baby Phat — I yearned for the sublime transfiguration of fatalism that has always been at the forefront of my ancestors’ survival.
So, yes I am as ungrateful as I was as I sat twisting my face — beady-beads in my high-right low-left, shorts to my ankles, bottom lip hanging — in City Sports; perhaps, even more so today than then. I understand now where my discontent came from, it was not rooted in a rebellion against what little means our mother had for us; instead, it was rooted in how my youthful eyes could not comprehend how tyrannical, how anti-Black, our country was. It was the “idealistic” response of a child who saw the world with fresh eyes; I am just as “idealistic” now. A twenty-one year old Black boy who desires a world that is governed by principles and not people, a world of mutual association, a world free of the State; and thus, free of white supremacy, the cisheteropatriarchy rule and capitalism. It is always idealistic for a Black boy to dream, my gratitude will always be rooted in my dream for a world that exists beyond the world we live in now.
This gratitude will be nothing like the gratitude beat into me with the phrase “y’all ass so ungrateful.” I have learned this form of gratitude is not rooted in our humanity as Black folk, it’s rooted in a form of “survival” that looks back at how little (materially) our ancestors had and draws a comparison between two completely different social contexts. This form of gratitude is inhumane and as a community we have to move beyond simply being content with what’s in front of us, we have to be willing to transcend the material in search of a garden of romanticism, an idealistic Afro-future, that we create for ourselves.
So, yes it is true we were, indeed, ungrateful. We saw what gratefulness had left our mothers and grandmothers and we refused to give in to that form of pessimism; we refused to work forty hours a week to be tired, to be frugal, to concede to a life under capitalism, we refused to live a life that nobody deserved. And my hope is that our ungratefulness frees us from the shackles that once tethered many of those who came before us to lives of deprivation and alienation.
About the Author:
Dontay Givens is a poet, writer, creative, native to the West-side of Chicago. Dontay is a junior at Wheaton college studying sociology, english writing and art history.