Back in my thirties, when I was on welfare for five years, before I got my bachelor's degree and my Master's degree and the additional 82 graduate level hours I earned at FSU working toward my Ph.D., when somebody asked me how I was making it, somebody African-American usually, since a European-American wouldn't ask, I used to reply, "I hustle." And they would invariably laugh out loud. Not like they found it funny, but like they found it funny that I would use that word. It seemed as if maybe they thought I wouldn't know how to hustle. Or maybe that a White person wouldn't ever really have to hustle--even a White person on welfare. Or at least that if I was, in fact, somehow "hustling," that they couldn't imagine me using the word appropriately. They laughed as if the word itself sounded funny coming out of my mouth.
But I knew the word. By that time, I had been fully bi-cultural for at least several years and crossing the color line back and forth for more than a decade. I meant "hustle." I was living on barely over $300 per month and a handful of food stamps, after all, and even after I moved into subsidized housing (which was just one part of my hustle, once my friend Esther showed me how to get in), I was endlessly living on the edge. So any given day, I was liable to be "working it" one way or the other. Because I had to. White or not. My kids needed shoes. My son needed money for school projects. There were birthdays and Christmases and Easter baskets. Not to mention laundry to be done and toilet paper and toothpaste to be bought. Three hundred dollars just wasn't gonna do it. So I hustled.
Sometimes, I hustled a man, somebody I was dating who wanted my undivided attention. I didn't think of it as degrading. I just needed to cover all my bases, that's all. The utility company didn't want to hear about my rickety old junker breaking down. Heck! The car itself had been the result of a hustle. And God knows, I needed it, even if the driver's seat was tipped hard to the left as the floor disintegrated underneath it. I had responsibilities just like every other adult, Black or White. And whatever it took within reason, I met them.
It didn't stop when I got off welfare either. For seven years of grad school, I hustled my way through student loans and financial aid and assistantships and summer jobs and endlessly through family and friends and boyfriends and even a husband or two. Even after I left school and went to work full-time, it seemed as if I was always a dollar or two (or more) shy of where I wanted--and often needed--to be. I had teenagers to support and inflation to deal with, of course, as well as the tendency to make an odd choice from time to time. And everybody gets a bad break now and then, such as being laid off from a great job after only six months because of programmatic cut-backs--two days after my druggie son and his girlfriend "had to" move in without jobs themselves. I mean, it was always something.
And for the most part, it still is. Granted, I chose to quit my day-job eighteen months ago to write, a choice that a number of my friends and acquaintances considered crazy. But I'm used to living on a wing and a prayer most of the time anyway and I was just taking a calculated risk, trying to hustle my way into the place I think I really belong, if you catch my drift.
Still, I remember one winter in northern Illinois back in the day going to a Community Action Agency to ask for help with my utility bill. I was crying the blues, I guess, whining about whatever my current struggle was (hustling, hustling) when the European-American woman caseworker on the other side of the desk said abruptly, "Well, at least you're White, so you don't have racism to deal with, too."
I was shocked. Shocked that she would speak to me like that when she was supposed to be a "social worker." Shocked that she would speak to me about how being White makes you special when she was White, too. Shocked, as a matter of fact, that she would talk about Whiteness at all, since only Black folks talked about White folks being White back then. And shocked, I think, that she did this with no apparent emotional investment at all. She was just saying it straight out. It shut down my hustle like a glass of cold water in the face.
Anyway, all this went through my mind a few weeks ago, after I had a conversation with a young African-American student who was telling me about his fledgling business in the entertainment field. He was explaining how it's against the law to post flyers in public, but that the cops will allow them in the Black community if you don't get caught putting them up. So they go out after dark to post advertisements about their next event. They dress in black, in cheap shoes, and without a watch or a wallet or even a jacket, so as not to tempt the local roadboys, who might be out marauding.
"You can't look like you have anything or they'll getcha," he said. "And you can't ride a bike after dark or you'll wind up in a fight. The rule is: if you can't defend what you have, you don't deserve it."
I looked into his eyes, as he matter-of-factly recounted the adventure. "In a capitalist society," he finished, "money is the equalizer." I didn't know if he was talking about himself or the roadboys...or both. And I was busy processing what he and his friends have to do to take their shot at getting a piece of the pie when he added the clencher, the follow-up to the social worker's challenge to me so long ago: "Bein' Black," he said, "is a hustle."
And suddenly, I got it. Why they always laughed when I used the word, I mean.
See, I work hard. Everybody works hard. We really don't have a choice. Even hustling is hard, hard work because you have to stay on top of so many things at once and the pay-off is frequently disproportionately low and sometimes nonexistent. But the difference for this young man and most of the other young Black males in their senior year of college in 2006 in the United States is that, as they pass the major milestone of college graduation, a milestone that regularly puts White youths on the track to success immediately, they're still having to skulk around their neighborhoods in the dark, hedging their bets against an unsure future. Something I've never had to do before. And might well never have to do in my life. Even when I'm on welfare. It's all about options and, while Black may be beautiful ("Say it loud: I'm Black and proud!"), being Black is still a serious hustle.