On Adulthood

Hunger is an inescapable aspect of my Black womanhood

Photo: Nsey Benajah/Unsplash

~ Nikki Giovanni, “Adulthood II” (from Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, 1978)

There is always something / of the child / in us that wants / a strong hand to hold / through the hungry season / of growing up

My heart is a lonely heart. It reflects the beginnings of a depression that I will learn will encompass much of my life. I live in a Black body that doesn’t know her womanhood, that doesn’t know how to see herself as herself, as a being worthy of love. I do not want to be White, but I do want to be cherished the way I imagine White girls are. I know myself only through how I believe others see me: the grown men leaning out the car while I walk to the store, the misplaced glares and words muttered under a breath of disappointment, the shame of being unable to escape the terror of the belt. I am hungry, denying myself food because my anxious gut will not allow it. I believe what others say about me, that I am sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes selfish, sometimes giving. I hunger for arms to gather me and whisper, “You are safe. You are loved.”

When she was a child / summer lasted forever / and christmas never seemed never / to come / now her bills from easter / usually are paid / by the 4th of july / in time to buy the ribs / and corn and extra big of potatoes / for salad

I arrive in New York City in early summer, my first year living on my own. Like many Black teenagers I know, I worked over the summer to buy clothes and a bus pass, but now I also need to pay too much rent for a 900-square-foot Upper East Side studio. I arrive with only $50 in my pocket, and I cannot afford a bus pass now because I need to wait two weeks to get my first paycheck, and there is nothing wrong with my legs. I start getting paid, buying gifts for myself to feed the hunger of being so alone in a city of millions. Still a prisoner in my mind’s self-imposed incarceration, I spend the first few months hardly eating as my stomach can never settle down. Even though I can (barely) afford it, I agonize over purchasing an expensive leather jacket, having never owned anything that costs so much. I use the credit cards offered by the vulture peddlers that prey on new graduates and Black people, thinking how wonderful it is that I only need to pay the minimum. I thought: I can finally have the things I hungered for.

the pit is cleaned / and labor day is near / time to tarpaulin / the above ground pool

I birth in Philadelphia and live in a lovely first-floor garden apartment with the love I chose and who chose me. My baby and I lay on soft blankets in the warm sun, until he grows, crawling and putting dirt in his mouth. We are moving to California with his sister growing inside me and have a cookout to bid us farewell. My husband is at the grill, cooking hot dogs and hamburgers, chicken thighs, and corn on the cob. “Why are you moving to California? Are there any Black people there?” family asks, and I do not know the answer. California is another country, another land. They say it is “just so far away.” That’s not a bad thing.

thanksgiving turkey / is no sooner soup / than the children’s shoes / wear thin saying / christmas is near again / bringing the february letters asking / “did you forget / us last month”

Photo: QuoteInspector.com

We live in Chicago with three kids but only one income. We buy furniture on credit knowing we cannot pay it back, but the living room needs a couch. I sob in my bed, hungry, only able to feed my children pasta and sauce alternated with quesadillas, glad that my kids aren’t big meat-eaters anyway. The day before payday, we scrounge for money in the car for change to buy a $1 iced coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts at the end of our block. Our friends and family help us pay our rent and buy Christmas gifts for my kids. The children need new everything, but their needs exceed our income. The phone rings constantly, a different strange number after another of debt collectors. I finally learn the lesson that broke people in debt know well — never answer an unknown number.

her life looks occasionally / as if it’s owed to some / machine / and the only winning point / she musters is to tear / mutilate and twist / the card demanding information / payment / and a review of her credit worthiness

Getting this Los Angeles apartment is hard with less than stellar credit. I write letters explaining our credit situation, in essence begging for a home. We have more than enough food, and we can pay our rent. We eat out a lot, a habit that needs to be broken but one that I delight in giving my children the food their stomachs long for. I will never be able to quit my job, to become the artist and writer and musician I’ve always longed to be. I don’t have a safety net. We are part of the Black history of centuries of being denied the privilege of amassing wealth. Still, I overcompensate for past failures on Christmas by giving my children everything they ask for and more. I choke on the memory of the lean years, and they remember them too; they write down the prices of everything to convince me of the value of what they are asking for. There is now a room in a building at a university that has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Those shelves are empty, but no worry. I have a budget to buy more books. On the door is my name permanently etched in metal.

She sits sometimes / in her cubicled desk / and recalls her mother / did the same things / what we have been given / we are now expected to return / and she smiles

The day before Thanksgiving, my mother calls me: “What are you cooking for dinner?”

chicken (we don’t like turkey)

greens yams beans

stuffing (yuck)

sweet potato pie

gingerbread for the kids

There will be leftovers.

I smile.


Law professor. Teach and write about the law of educational inequality, property and the family. Mom of 3. Amateur artist. All opinions my own.

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