I grew up on the east end of Long Island, near the Hamptons, in a lower middle class family of five. When I started school, more than half my classmates were “colored,” as we called them in the 50s. They were children of Long Island’s large migrant population who worked on the duck and potato farms. The Long Island Railroad ran though our town and those tracks marked the divide between white and black residents’ homes. North of the tracks most homes were small, often unkempt shanties that usually had a shiny new car parked in the driveway. The “n” word was prevalent and we used to joke about those sparkling clean cars parked in weed-filled yards. The general attitude in my home and community was that black people were second-class citizens and I believed it.
Despite our financial difficulties, my mother was adamant that I attend college and I entered an upstate university to become an English teacher. Just a handful of black students attended and I vaguely wondered why. I didn’t yet tie that fact to another one: by the time we graduated from high school in 1959, less than 25% of us were black.
As I was journeying into “happily ever after,” working at my degree, marrying my high school sweetheart, becoming the mother of two sons, the dream suddenly shattered when he disappeared with another woman. I, not yet degreed, was now a single mother of two small children, with a mortgage and without a car or income. I got a job I could walk to but quickly saw the minimum income would not be enough, so I did the unthinkable: I applied for public assistance for my children. In our town, people on public assistance were in the same boat as blacks: we were second class, society’s leaches, looking for a handout.
I could barely breathe the day I applied for “welfare.” I felt so shamed, helpless, and angry. In time I pulled our life back together, returned to college, finished my degree. Yet I never forgot those eighteen months on public assistance. To this day, I vividly remember standing in lines for government surplus food. Each time my check arrived, my face burned with humiliation.
I never became an English teacher either, for having fully experienced the predicament of my fellow “second-class” peers had changed my life. Suddenly I had a passion to help others move ahead in their difficult journeys, as I had been fortunate to do.
Four years ago I retired from a varied human services career, where I often met myself daily in each new client. The challenge to assist remains, yet now we have a new spotlight: police violence. Ferguson and Manhattan blasted to the forefront our crisis of the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men.
When Eric Garner cried out to the police that he couldn’t breathe, beyond the tragedy of his death, he also poignantly articulated the plight of all his peers. When will we all be able to breathe?