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  • Writer's pictureJulian S. Miles

What do you do?

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

I recently picked up Jane Pittman’s autobiography from the library and couldn’t put it down once I started reading. I had often heard of her, but never was interested enough to actually read the book, but for some reason I did that day. At the beginning of the book Jane is freed. But she doesn’t have anywhere to go to. Her mother is dead and she never knew who her father was. She is free and has nothing. She doesn’t even have clothes. All she has is two potato sacks (dresses), not even shoes.
Maybe because I was 31 with 3 children to raise, I could appreciate and understood where African Americans had come from. Maybe it served the purpose to make me want to do more. More for myself. More for my family. More for others. I don’t know, but who she was humbled me. Most of my earlier journey through abuse and depression I shared through my writings last year, but that had nothing to do with knowing my history. It had nothing to do with how I felt when I read that book. What stuck out to me was, what do you do when you’ve done all that you could?
Jane lived on that plantation her entire life because it took another 100 + years for AA to be able to purchase the same things that others could purchase.  How could America set us free, and give us our potato sacks and tell us to survive? I guess in the same way the government stops helping you as soon as you make over $200 a week? It is clear that in America you are expected to survive to the best of your ability no matter how. This brings me to my next point. I recently read a blog about survival vs. morality and in the article, the writer talks about the realities of being poor. Such as having to make decisions that are not always moral.
What does poverty do to your soul? Is it fair to believe that if you want something bad enough you can do it? If you work hard enough, you can have it? If you just keep going, it’ll come? What do you do in the meantime? You know that place where you want to make better choices, but you have so much on your plate that you still think its okay to do a lil somethin’ on the side. What is the answer?
How could most African Americans have a chance? I don’t blame anyone for the state of this world because for one, I wouldn’t know where to start pointing fingers, but secondly what does it matter? The mental effects of not having enough are far worse than most people imagine. I hurt now thinking of things that I don’t have provision for that are coming up. Can you imagine it being 1865 and you literally have nowhere to go? It almost seems as if it has been in our blood to not have anything and not be worthy of having anything.
I didn’t grow up in a family that had much, but back then I didn’t know what much was. No one told me to reach for the stars or aim high except my teachers at school. I used to blame the men and women who did or didn’t raise me until I realized that they were more than likely going off of what they knew themselves. Which was to work hard, wait until payday, make a payment arrangement and do the best you could.
Social Darwinism claims that “only the strong survive” but at what cost? I’ll tell you, I have had a long life. But it’s been no longer than the other people in this world who have survived countless horrors and pain during their lives and still survived. I read page after page as people who loved Jane died or got killed. And she had to keep going. She had to keep living. Isn’t that one of the things about life that has not changed? We must go on. For most of us, it does not matter the dilemma or issue, we don’t have a choice but to keep going. So what do you do when you are faced with decisions that may not be life or death to the law but to you and your family it is?
What do you do to keep your sanity? Your situation may not be like mine and mine may not be like yours but we both may be fighting for the same thing, survival? I am religious and I believe in God, but what do you do when you didn’t learn who God was until you were older and had already lived half of your life leading yourself? Who’s to blame? Your parents? Their parents? God himself?
So you get high instead? You get drunk instead? You take pills instead? You steal money instead? You steal clothes, shoes, credit cards, anything you can get your hands on. Who’s to blame and are you wrong? Is the problem that you are stealing or that you have to steal to survive?  Funny thing is, the person that is stealing, getting high or both often live better than the person who is “trying to do the right thing.” How is that so? How could America possibly glamorize doing what you have to do at all costs, even if it means hurting other people?
I am in no way condemning breaking the law nor am I offering my opinion on anyone else’s life except my own. But what do you do? How do you judge those people? If you made a mistake at 18 and you’re poor you go to prison? If you make a mistake and you have money, you get probation and you get it expunged from your record? Is it because your mom had money to go to college and my mom didn’t? Or is it because your parents were thieves and embezzled money from other people? Stole things?
Yet I wonder after you have been to prison and you come home and try to better yourself, you can’t find a job. Just like that, America tells you that if you are a felon, I can’t hire you. But your probation officer tells you, I don’t care what happens, I need my money next week? What do you do? How are these people supposed to survive? The pressure to provide is real and I do believe it can cause you to feel out of control of your life and emotions.
How do you survive in a world that didn’t give you a chance from the start? I wonder what Jane was feeling or thinking? I know that she was only one of millions of people who didn’t know what they were going to do once they were freed. It may be a bit easier for us because even if the conditions are not what we would want, we still would have somewhere to go. But Jane had nowhere to go. No family or friends to save her.
I used to look at drug addicts and alcoholics and say, “how could they just do that to themselves?” Of course this was before I experienced what I perceived to be one of the most painful experiences of my life. Then I realized that I was just like them only I picked a different poison. Maybe what I did wasn’t self-destructive to my body, but it was still mentally holding me back.
I never asked the questions of what led them there? What happened to make them stop caring? Why isn’t anyone trying to save them? Where’s God in this forsaken world? But again my question, what do you do? What do you do when your back is against the wall and you have to make a choice? How do you manage? What do you turn to?
I think that poverty does something different to the people that want to be better and the people that don’t. Most of it is ignorance. Most people just don’t know how to live a different life because they have never saw a different life and fear makes us believe that the other side of life may be worse than the side we are on, so we play it safe and stay where we are. But then who’s to blame for that? Our parents again? Their parents?
Throughout the book Jane’s character never changed. She would say things like so and so passed away and she would say that they “knowed” it was going to happen eventually they just didn’t know when. The author of the book never mentioned Jane wanting more. He never mentioned Jane being spiteful of her life, he just showed her persevering through life, the way people always do.
Although it is never mentioned in the book, I am sure there were people who were able to get all the way North and experience full freedom, while others like Jane lived on the plantation years after they were freed. Where could they go? Maybe Jane didn’t know the people that they knew. By the time Dr. King came along, Jane was too old to fight. She said, she just wanted to enjoy the rest of her days. So she never ventured off far from where she was born and raised her entire life.
I guess my question is not so much as what happens next, rather what do you do to fix something that was created by society? Poverty. What do we do when we are glamorized for committing one immoral act, but condemned for committing another one? Where is the line drawn in the sand for the people who were born into a life that didn’t even give them a fair shot? It wasn’t so much about Jane’s parents dying, but to be orphaned at age 11 (she never knew her birthday or true age for sure) and forced to pick up the pieces to a life that was way too much for the years you had lived on this earth is all too familiar to me.
The fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t care what happened when you were 7 or that you are doing the best you can. The world will judge you by where you are, and honestly condemn you because you could have made better decisions but you didn’t. The world looks at you as, “not doing it right.” I wish I knew the answer. I read a lot of books about self-help and how to feel better, be better and do better, but I haven’t found the one that tells me how to do all of that while trying to be a great employee, mother, friend and family member. I haven’t read one that tells you how to have a breakdown and still get up and go to work the next day. Or to look at others in life and not feel like you’re not doing it right. Or even to look at the people who stole your innocence live happily ever after? Perhaps forgiveness helps with some of the issues, but I imagine, the man that just got out of prison, the single mom who doesn’t know how she’s going to pay rent, the married woman who is tired of her husband not coming home to even the grandma who can’t get over her husband’s death can all relate to “that look” or “that voice” that people give you when they see where you are and what you are doing. Their refrigerator may be just as empty as yours or perhaps their husbands didn’t come home either, but they’ll never tell it.
This post started off as being about life and what we make of it. It was supposed to be about the true reality that life is hard and if you find a way to go through it gracefully consider yourself lucky. It was supposed to highlight that most of us, me included, didn’t have the easy route in life.   God chose us to be soldiers for him because we have nowhere to look except to him. But sometimes when I allow myself to write with no apprehension –this comes out.
I don’t know what Jane thought. But I wish I could have met her. I wish she could have told me the secret to survival after so much pain. It’s hard to see yourself somewhere else sometimes when you are going through so much pain, but this woman found a way to survive while everything else around her died. God took everything that she loved away and she still managed to love him without spite.
So again I ask:
What do you do? You keep going.
How? I don’t know, but just don’t stop.
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