The History (and Future) of Black Folks’ Opinion on Their Children Being Artists 

By Trelani Michelle

Maybe less these days, but, more often than not, black parents didn’t care for their children going off to college to take up art. Art to them was a hobby, not a career. Some defied their parents’ wishes and obtained BFAs and MFAs anyway. Others went the route that their guardians chose then swung back around later in life to do as they wished to begin with. Then there are those who unfortunately never got back to their love of painting, sculpting, photographing, dancing, designing, writing, etc.

Black people, all over the African diaspora, have an unbreakable grip around their belief in higher education. That’s not to say that art ain’t included in that, because it is. I’m alluding to the perspective of those holding these values. It reminds me of the time my own father asked me, after I’d published my second novel, “When you gon’ write a real book?”

Although my novel with its 200-something pages, front and back cover, and ISBN number was unquestionably a real book, I knew exactly what he meant. When was I was going to write something taking place in the real world versus my imagined one? I could argue all day long that my novels were real, consisting of real-life struggles, despite their made-up characters, but I wouldn’t change his mind. The same for Deborah Roberts, I’m sure, who said that “The idea of anybody being an artist didn’t make sense to [my parents]. And it wasn’t because they were ignorant. They just didn’t understand.” Their lack of understanding, I’m sure, aligned with Della Wells’ childhood belief that “artists didn’t make any money.”

Seteria Dorsey, “JR’s Shop” – 16 x 20 inches, acrylic painting on canvas — unframed –

One of a parent’s duties is to raise their children to be able to take care of themselves—and to hopefully do so with more ease and resources than they managed to. To do that, you need money. To get the money, you need the degree(s) and a job. A good job. A real job. Their intentions, of course, are good. They’re historically good. In addition to writing about worlds that I make up, I’m also an oral historian. I sit with elders and ask them beaucoup questions about back-in-the-day. I also research those back-then happenings for further context. And I’ve realized that, for black people in the Americas and the Caribbean especially, education is like religion. It’s seen as a key, a direct path to freedom.

As we know, it was illegal for us to be literate during slavery. Human traffickers (aka slave owners) feared that their hostages (aka slaves) would realize their position in life and rebel or escape by way of forged freedom papers. Meanwhile, plantation owners were sending their children off to college and those children were coming back home and adding more streams of revenue to the family’s portfolio. Even after slavery ended, gaining an education still proved to be difficult for many black folk. This was especially the case for sharecroppers, because the family needed as many hands as possible to help out in the fields. Meanwhile, the grandchildren of former plantation owners are coming home from college and adding more streams of revenue to the family’s portfolio.

Elizabeth Catlett “Sharecropper” 13 1/2″ x 11″ image size, offset lithograph, unsigned and unframed –

Then there were the literacy tests for voting, which were administered at the discretion of those in charge of the voter registration. The tests often consisted of more than 30 questions and had to be taken in 10 minutes, and you couldn’t get any questions wrong. If you failed, which most of our ancestors did, you couldn’t vote. And you’re hearing through the grapevine about how so and so down the road got their land taken from them because they signed a contract that they couldn’t read. Meanwhile…you get the point.

Garden Art – “Educated Black Woman” –

When one of my elders—Ms. Madie Underwood from both Savannah and Philly—shared how her parents were relegated to working jobs that didn’t pay enough to consistently cover their daily expenses, I understood even more why my parents and grandparents stressed my getting an education. I understood why they hesitated when I explained that I was taking my son out of school to homeschool him. Ms. Madie’s story reminded me of my mother wishing that her mother, who didn’t go past elementary school because she was too busy sharecropping down in the delta, could’ve seen her graduate from college. I remember her saying how proud my grandmother would’ve been to see me walk across two university stages. That’s because education for black folk ain’t a shrugging matter. Historically, it determined where on the ladder our livelihoods rested.

Yet, times have been and still are changing. I saw a post on Facebook a few days ago asking readers to share a scam they fell for. Most people, of all races, replied “college.” It’s become so expensive that many folk couldn’t work and pay for it themselves if they wanted to. Many of us get loans to get a degree to get a job that can (hopefully) afford to cover living expenses and repay the school loan. A friend recently shared that after analyzing her budget spreadsheet from 2014 until today, she realized that she’s put over $20,000 towards student loans and the balance is up $30,000 since 2014.

That’s exactly what my sharecropping ancestors went through. Quoting Ms. Madie, “Whatever the sharecroppers needed through the year, they’d go [to the land owner’s general store] and get it and the white man kept a tab on whatever they needed and bought. At harvest time, when the white man have sold all of his goods and everybody settled for the winter, they always came out owing the white man money. There was never a profit. You always was in debt, so that debt would ride over into the next year. And naturally it’s another debt to grow on top of that debt, so, little by little, they owning you again like slaves.”

College debt is feeling very much like sharecropping these days. As another elder of mine, Mr. Curt Williams—from Vidalia and Savannah, Georgia—said, “It ain’t getting no betta. They just getting mo slicka.” Might as well love your degree, if you going into debt for it.

Besides the money aspect, though, some of us just have different values. We’d rather risk being the struggling artist than being the chief clerk down at the railroad, struggling to get out of bed on a cold, Monday morning (word to Annie Lee). That’s not a diss to careers that ain’t in the arts, by the way. It’s just an example. Though there may be less black parents discouraging their children from an education/career in the arts these days, I’m hoping to turn that less into no black parents doing so.  

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Trelani Michelle at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Trelani Michelle is today’s Zora Neale Hurston, outchea recording history and culture by gathering the people’s stories. She earned a Bachelor’s of Political Science from SSU, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from SCAD, and interned with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. She specializes in ghostwriting memoirs and autobiographies. 

Crowned Savannah’s best local author, Trelani has written several bestselling titles, including Krak Teetan oral history of Savannah’s Gullah Geechee elders, and Women Who Ain’t Afraid to Curse When Communicating with God

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