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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rich and Poor

I have an ambivalent relationship with privilege. My mother worked as the cafeteria cashier in the elite private school that I attended. My Irish grandmother worked as a maid in the neighborhood where I now worship and have many friends. Neither of my immigrant grandparents got as far as eighth grade, and my own parents graduated from high school, but not college. I, on the other hand, have an MA from Yale and a BA from Duke. When I was twenty, I thought my education made me smarter than the rest of my family. Now I know I was just luckier.

I’ve been thinking about my Duke education since receiving the most recent issue of the alumni magazine, which traces the recent controversy surrounding rape allegations against three members of the Duke lacrosse team. The additional allegations of racism, sexism, and elitism have kept the national media intoxicated for months. I must admit that many of the stereotypes of Duke as an elite bastion ring true, as do the descriptions of drunken obnoxious behavior. On the other hand, as the magazine points out, not every Duke student comes from a wealthy family, and I must add that not all those who do are obnoxious bigots. One of the nicest women I knew at Duke was the granddaughter of a famous American entrepreneur. Her town and her high school shared her last name, yet she was unassuming and down to earth.

Just as the media have often portrayed Duke as white and rich, they have often portrayed Durham as black and poor. That, too, is an overgeneralization, though like the stereotype of Duke, not without some truth. When I was in college, there was a chasm between Duke and Durham that apparently hasn’t narrowed any. Lately, though, I’ve been remembering one woman who bridged the divide. She was one of Duke’s lowest paid teachers, a dorm cleaner named Annie.

Annie was an African American woman who worked in the fraternity and male dorm nearest to my dorm. God only knows how many beer bottles and condom wrappers she picked up during her many years there. If anyone had reason to believe the worst of Duke students, it was probably Annie. But in addition to her paid work, Annie had a ministry: every semester she would pick a few undergraduates to invite to her Durham church. Because I had friends in one of the dorms she cleaned, I was lucky enough to be included one Sunday.

Our small group of white Duke students was ushered to the front of Annie’s large black Baptist congregation. Although it wasn’t my first experience of being in the racial minority, I had never before felt so conspicuous, as the people around us reached over to shake our hands and smile at us. Annie looked transformed in her choir robe, no longer a maid but a minister of the church. When the choir started singing, the congregation was electrified. It was a striking contrast to the church where I had grown up, a church where most people mumbled the songs and the most common prayer was for a short mass. This service was anything but short, but the spirit never lagged. I remember joy and a sense of community that I had never felt in my own church. I suspected that we (the privileged students) were the ones who were impoverished.

I had a similar experience when I joined the Peace Corps after graduation. Two and a half years of watching my students easily share their only pencils made me realize that people who have less education and less stuff have much to teach those of us who have more degrees and pencils than we can use. I remember coming back to Duke to speak about my African experience when I was still in severe culture shock. I was part of a panel addressing students interested in international issues, and the speaker ahead of me told the students that they were smarter than everyone else in the workforce, so they just needed to work hard and invest in a sharp suit. I winced when she said we were smarter than everyone else, but I didn’t yet have the words to explain why she was wrong. When it was my turn, I just told them that after living in Botswana, I doubted I would ever again wear the expensive suite I had bought for job interviews my senior year because I no longer wanted those kinds of jobs.

All this makes me think of the simplistic ways we categorize people as rich or poor, intelligent or not. Although the three Duke students accused of rape were all from financially wealthy families, their overall behavior reveals a spiritual poverty, even if they are not guilty of the brutal rape. That the media loves this type of story so much—with sex, violence, race, and money all mixed together—probably says something about the spiritual poverty of our society as well.

Remembering Annie has got me wondering about my grandmother, who worked as a maid for rich people herself. She reportedly used her savings to bring several relatives over from Ireland, thus building herself a rich community in Philadelphia. That sounds pretty smart, if you ask me.


Blogger Plain Foolish said...

Thank you. You've given me some words I have been needing to describe my own experience as an Appalachian woman who went for a couple of years to an Ivy League school. My own family has a rich oral heritage, which I've loved to be part of since childhood, but I've had to struggle with being both the bridge between two worlds, and the rope in a giant game of tug of war.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

I have really been struggling with these issues lately. Going from a career in social work to teacher-training, I have been surprised at values are from my fellow students vis a vis poverty. I guess I thought most helping professions had similar views but ...not so much. The premier education "expert' on poverty is a big believer in "generational" vs. "situational" poverty and much of what she writes makes me feel a need to be sick somewhere...I'm not being rude; it just upsets me rather viscerally... the whole "they are different from us" thing. The worst part maybe, is that her stuff is used to improve the tolerance of teachers...and it does. They seem much more tolerant now that they have heard it, but it is much less tolerant than my operating values system. Yikes. Since this writer has become wealthy and world-renowned with her theory, I think it will be awhile, if ever, before I can bring my new profession around to realizing that it is all situational and that the only places that have eradicated poverty haven't done it by teaching middle class values better. Ugh.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

What a beautiful post. I was just thinking about my grandmother today, (who was ashamed of her eighth grade education) and how smart she was to accomplish so much with so little. We truly ride on thier shoulders and I believe their spirits cheer us on.

9:31 PM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

Your comments about Annie reminded me of one of the housekeepers at Mount Holyoke College -- one of the ladies who kept my freshman dorm nice and tidy. Lorraine seemed to clean our common spaces as if they were used by her own children or grandchildren. She was not the "sweet grandmotherly" type, but she obviously cared about us nonetheless. I think she had a special spot in her heart for the first-year students, since so many of us were many miles from home for the first time. I'm happy to say that I think most of us were polite enough (and grateful enough!) to show her our appreciation. One student even wrote a letter to the student paper expressing her gratitude for Lorraine and all of the housekeeping staff that kept our space so pleasant. Lorraine tacked it to the bulletin board on her broom closet. :o)

Thanks for bringing back those memories this morning!

(I also like what you have to say about our spiritual poverty. I feel this more and more accutely every year.)


8:34 AM  
Blogger Anjali said...

Great post, Eileen. I didn't know you were a Dukie. I graduated in '95!

10:56 PM  

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