Monday, September 1, 2008


I supervised six units of social workers and several support personnel. They all worked very hard. Or most of them did. They took women (or men) who received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and helped them find ways to become self-sufficient. I learned in the 90’s that words were very important. People liked words like “self-sufficient” and “personal responsibility.”
Many white middle class Americans, many close to my own age, think these are magic words. If I tell one of the social workers to have a client sign a piece of paper that says she will not take drugs and she will be personally responsible for herself and her children, those people say “bravo.”
Of course, they don't realize that signing the statement was the only way she could get her check from that worker. Pay the rent, sign the paper. Need toilet paper, sign the statement. Does she mean it? Who knows. We don’t make her read it out loud so we don’t even know if she can read. Maybe she’d like to do all those things on that piece of paper, but chances are she’s only thinking about getting out of that damn office and getting home. After all, they don’t pay for baby-sitters so her five year old is looking after her two year old while she’s signing her personal responsibility statement.
They tell her that if she’s more than ten minutes late for her interview, they’ll have to deny her case. The letter telling her what extra information needed to complete her case also warns that if she’s late in gathering those things, her case will be denied.
But the worker is busy and has many clients to see. If she provides all the things needed right on time, it doesn’t mean she’ll get her benefits on time. When she calls the office, there is an automated voice that rambles off all the things she might be calling about. She’s calling from a pay phone and she only has one quarter. She pushes her worker’s extension. No one answers. It rings and rings but no one answers. She would call the supervisor but she has no more money.
After bumming her third quarter, she finally reaches her worker. He tells her he has ten more days to finish the case and he will when he gets time. She explains that they’re out of food. He says that so are a bunch of other people.
She remembers the personal responsibility statement she was forced to sign. She wonders if anyone made him sign one. But then, maybe that’s what personal responsibility means. After all, she’s never really seen it. Perhaps that word, personal, is what it’s all about.


My grandfather was a farmer. He loved the land. He would pick up a handful and let it run through his fingers. It made him smile. He said we never owned the land, we just borrowed it for a while. He treated it like a gift. Taking care of it himself. I would tag along some days. It was time to harvest the cotton.
It was in the 1950s and cotton was still picked by hand. I was just a kid. I sat under the big wagon that carried the cotton from the fields to the cotton gin. Next to the wagon was a big tub of water. It was hot that summer. I remember hearing the song Amazing Grace and then songs like Chicken Shack. I thought everyone knew about the blues.
The men and women who picked the cotton were all chocolate colored. Granddaddy called them all by name. I’m dark skinned and tan quickly so I never wondered much about the difference in our skin. Not then.
That was the year I learned what personal responsibility really meant. One hot day I sat under the wagon playing with my dolls and listening to the songs. One very tall, very dark lady came and sat down beside me. She took a checkered handkerchief and wiped her face. It was soaking wet. She poured some of the water on it and rubbed her face again. Then she smiled.
“Look out there at your grandfather.” She was talking to me so I did as she asked. There he was with his kackie shirt and overalls wearing his western styled straw hat. He wore thick gloves just like the lady sitting beside me.
“Are you looking?” She asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” I was always polite to older people. That was understood.
“Well, baby, what do you see?”
This was hard. I knew she wanted some special answer but I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what I was supposed to see.
“Granddaddy, picking cotton and putting it in his gunny sack.”
She smiled and patted my shoulder. “That’s exactly right. That’s what you see. That’s what I see too. Look at his shirt. What do you think about his shirt?”
Another hard question. “Well, it looks all wet.”
“Right again. You’re a real smart little girl. That’s sweat. See this old rag?” She held out the wet handkerchief.
“Yes, ma’am.” Grown ups can ask the silliest questions.
“This old rag was wet with sweat, too. Just like your Granddaddy’s shirt. He was here when we all drove up this morning and he’ll be here when we all go home. That’s why we work for him.”
She looked at me again and nodded her head slowly. “You need to remember that. There are six farms around here where we could work. All pay the same thing. We have to drive a little farther to get here but we come anyway.” She pointed at Granddaddy again. “In that cotton field, we’re all the same. We all work and we all sweat. In that field, it don’t make no difference what color your skin is, we all work. I guess we work just a little harder when we work for Mr. Dollar. He sweats, we sweat.”
Grandaddy’s been gone a long time now, but he taught me about personal responsibility. He showed me every day of his life. I knew what it meant before I could pronounce the words. I try to remember that when I face west.

No comments: