The aspirational story of a young African-American woman’s rise from poverty.
“I considered myself fortunate, but in no way exceptional.” So, toward the end of her memoir, writes Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest executive director Mason of finding herself safely in academia and away from the fraught streets of the inner city. Getting there, she remarks, was a “herculean” matter of working past a host of obstacles—including, she suggests, the whole welfare establishment—that have been set up as if to make sure that children like her do not leave the ghetto for better lives. She levels the charge with such reasonableness that it seems unobjectionable, but of course, her memoir reveals her to be exceptional indeed. Even so, being exceptional, it seems, is not enough: in our Horatio Alger–like conception of wealth and poverty, we imagine that hard work, ambition, and perseverance will see us through and that poor people are that way by choice. Mason puts the lie to such notions, though she also provides ammunition for those who condemn generational welfare with her portrait of her mother, adept at working the system while making money on the side in the drug trade. (At the same time, her mother emerges as a good citizen of a kind, taking care of those even less fortunate.) A key for escape from poverty, by Mason’s account, is education. More than that, there is the kind of social encouragement that her white peers seem to enjoy, with their “different way of being in the world, entitled and less fearful.” Though without that cloying sense of entitlement, Mason’s memoir also proves the power of assertive networking, for once she figured out that others were in positions to help her, she wasn’t shy of asking.
A thoughtful, well-crafted rejoinder to Claude Brown’s half-century-old Manchild in the Promised Land, speaking to the power of hope and the institutional changes needed to make hope possible.