All her life, Sugar Turner has had to hustle to survive. An African American woman living in the inner city, she has been a single mother juggling welfare checks, food stamps, boyfriends and husbands, illegal jobs, and home businesses to make ends meet for herself and her five children. Her life's path has also wandered through the wilderness of crack addiction and prostitution, but her strong faith in God and her willingness to work hard for a better life pulled her through. Today, Turner is off welfare and is completing her education. She is computer literate, holds a job in the local school system, has sent three of her children to college, and is happily married.
In this engrossing book, Sugar Turner collaborates with anthropologist Tracy Bachrach Ehlers in telling her story. Through conversations with Ehlers, diary entries, and letters, Turner vividly and openly describes all aspects of her life, including motherhood, relationships with men, welfare and work, and her attachment to her friends, family, and life in the "hood." Ehlers also gives her reactions to Turner's story, discussing not only how it belies the "welfare queen" stereotype, but also how it forced her to confront her own lingering confusions about race, her own bigotry.
What emerges from this book is a fascinating story of two women from radically different backgrounds becoming equal witnesses to each other's lives. By allowing us into the real world of an inner-city African American mother, they replace with compassion and insight the stereotypes, half-truths, and scorn that too often dominate public discourse.
Foreword by Molly Ivins
Chapter One: The List of Men
Chapter Two: The Hustle: Welfare and Work
Chapter Three: The Mr. Lester Chronicles
Chapter Four: Mother, Daughter, Sister, Woman
Chapter Five: Feeling Blessed
Once there was a young woman named Sugar, who met a young woman named Tracy. The actual chronological "youth" of these two broads may be questionable, but within each was an innocence and a vigor that could only be termed "young." Now the two have aged and grown, and I hope I might shed some light on this process.
Sugar was a woman from a dubious background who, like many whores and saints before her, possessed a heart of gold. Also within her was a burning ember of a desire to know "Who am I and why am I?" and "When did I become who I am, and what will I be?" and "What does who I am have to do with what I will be?" Inherent in all these convoluted questions of the Id and the Ego were the questions of "Who were the people I came from?" and "Who helped make me who I am?" It was like being in a round room with many, many doors that would not open...and then one day, one of the doors cracked open, and peering in from behind it was Tracy. Sugar saw an opportunity to peek into the answers to some of her questions when she met Tracy. She found a person who would listen, and Sugar wanted to talk, to question, to shout "I want to know who I am!"
The reasons for writing this book have changed in many ways. I, Sugar, really can't speak for Tracy, but I am sure she feels the same. My goal at first was to begin the first step in a journey that would end in a movie of my life. This movie would bust open the closet doors of all my family's deep, dark secrets and give me and the world answers. It would expose all my kinfolk for the selfish charlatans they were, having hoarded the past from me and my siblings. I was so angry at them for not telling us the truth about ourselves, and I was jealous of people who had family histories that they knew and could recite, whether good or bad. At least they had a history, and I had none. My history was no more than whispered slips of non-stories and half-truths that got more fragile and elusive with time.
Also, I wanted answers for my siblings who did not have words for their questions. I wanted to speak for one and ask: "Why have I not had a life? Did someone take that from me or was it just my fate? Why was I chosen to be abused? Was I the likely candidate or did I do something wrong? Why the lies about all those years? Why did someone prey on me and hurt me?" And I wanted to shout for another: "Was I a child of shame? Why am I addicted and addicted and addicted? Why did people open my body to secrets that only adults should know and sometimes not even them?"
You know, Elton John once said that "sorry" seems to be the hardest word, but I think the hardest word is "why." But through the process of writing this book, I found out that my family is human and that I can't look to them to give me my answers. 'Cause family may never tell. No one will ever come forward and say, yes, it was me who messed with you. I learned that forgiveness is for the forgiver, and I have become rich in that knowledge. I learned that hurting people hurt people, and that's just the way it is. I learned that mistakes don't go away. They stay to make you strong and to remind you not to make them again. I learned that I am worthy of love and capable of some really funky choices, but they are my choices.
So the book, my perspective, myself, and even my reasons have changed. My real desire, besides making a lot of money to fulfill my dream of helping others, is to tell people that God can change anyone. I want prostitutes to know that God can bring you out of prostitution. I want drug addicts to know that the Lord will be your rock. I want young mothers to know that they are doing a great thing by raising their kids. I want young girls to know that they are princesses, even if they never hear it from anyone but me. I want young men to know that they are destined for greatness. I want parents to know that it's okay to let your kids know that you are human. I want ghetto folks to know that there is a whole world out there beyond the "hood." I want single people to never give up on love. I want white people to know that it's okay to try and know a black person. And I want black people to know that it's okay if a white person has questions about us. How else will we bridge the gap?
Me and Tracy
One of my rotten men once said, "All you are is a specimen to her." At that time I didn't want to believe it. I like to think that everyone likes me, is as genuine and honest as me, and wants to see me do well. However, that is not the case, and in many ways, he was right, the bastard. My sister said that Tracy was exploiting me, and I acknowledged that she might be, but she couldn't have screwed me any worse than any of the countless fools I had chosen in my life. Just another screw, but it would be a good one because of what came out of it.
What a pleasant surprise that I got to study Tracy almost as much as she studied me, that our original relationship splintered into a number of others, not like broken glass in the street but more like broken colors in a kaleidoscope. Kind of the same thing but not--both broken glass, but one is useless, swept away, and the other is pretty, amusing, soothing, something you treasure and keep. We now have the multiplicity of being ethnographer and subject, girlfriend and girlfriend, colleagues and partners, kinfolks and loved ones. Who could ask for more from a chance meeting of a bigmouth girl and a nosy professor?
One Saturday morning in September, Sugar came to my house in Las Callas for a final day of taping. After five years, we had come to the end of our interview sessions chronicling the story of her life.
Before she arrived, I sat musing about the first time she had come to my house. It was December 1994. We had just begun our work and had decided to get the ball rolling with a marathon interview session at my house over the weekend. She called herself Shugie then, the stage name she had kept from her days as a whore and a model. She was thirty-five, had three children of her own, and was guardian for her cousin's two boys. Over the past seventeen years, she had worked some and had been on welfare. She was a reformed crack addict. There was a constant stream of men through her life; the latest one's name was Reggie.
The trip to Las Callas, which had seemed like a simple plan to me, proved to be an expedition for Sugar. She had never been much of anywhere. She was excited about coming to a white university town an hour from Springfield that was well outside her comfort zone of her hood in Springfield. Looking back on it, the trip proved to be a very big step indeed: an adventure was beginning.
She didn't have a car then, so she was taking the bus. I picked her up at the bus station when she missed my stop and had to ride all the way to the end of the line. In the car, she related the forty-five-minute trip, mile by mile. I was surprised at her wide-eyed, almost childlike enthusiasm. She had talked to this person, that person, seen some cows. It was all so different! Going to Las Callas cemented for Sugar the reality of what we were undertaking. It was scary and, at the same time, liberating.
She was hungry, so before we got down to work, we headed for the refrigerator. Ever faithful to the legions of good Jewish mothers in my family, I had stocked up on goodies in preparation for our two-day session: all kinds of fruit, cheeses, breads and bagels, turkey, carrots to munch on, and so forth. She opened the door, peered inside at all the food, and announced, "There's nothing to eat in here!"
This was not so much a slap in the face as it was a pronouncement of the cultural gulf we were trying to bridge. We looked at each other, both recognized the significance of the moment, and started laughing uproariously. Then we headed for the 7-Eleven and bought enough junk food to satisfy Sugar's appetite for sugar, salt, and carbohydrates.
From that day on we knew we had a problem when it came to food. She doesn't like the healthy food that I eat, and I don't eat the junk food she keeps in her house. We joke about this, but food is one of the most tangible and telling representations of culture. I live in a town with five natural-food supermarkets. I have the money to buy organic produce, while Sugar's shopping has always been guided by what her food stamps would buy, so she specializes in the convenience foods that I don't ever have in my house.
Given this conflict, it's ironic that at almost every taping session we were eating. Sharing food was a medium for conversation. And just because I don't have junk food in my kitchen doesn't mean I eschew eating most of a jar of jelly beans at Sugar's.
We ate out a lot, and the restaurants we went to pulled us into each other's worlds. We sat for hours in coffeehouses I knew. I introduced her to lattes and to scones. And she took me to Popeye's, to Kentucky Fried, and to a local rib place where she ran into a lot of her old gangster friends. For her birthday one year, I took her to a French restaurant where she asked the waiter if it would be okay if she ate her dessert first. This young man was so entranced with her, he forgot his own name.
I am embarrassed to say that sometimes I felt like Prof. Henry Higgins to Sugar's Eliza Doolittle.Yes, the elitist and patronizing selfcongratulatory sense of "lifting" a woman up out of the gutter occasionally floated through my mind, especially when I took her some where she had never been... like the time we went to the Mongolia Exhibit at the Springfield Art Museum.
ST: I haven't been to the art museum since second grade. All the kids were laughin' and tittering at the—what do I want to say?—Rubenesque figure of this nude, this naked woman.
TBE: You have not been back to the art museum since you were in second grade?
ST: It's just that I rarely have time. It's always in my consciousness to go. I even put it on my calendar to take my kids, but Saturday's my workday, when I do hair. And that's the free day around town for museums and stuff. It just clashes. Or Saturday's the day when you've worked late Friday and you're just lazin' around. It's never a priority. So it was cool to be there today. It made my stomach feel funny. It feels strange. It's similar to what I feel in the library. It's a feeling of spirits bein' around you. Where other people have touched and done and made.
ST: Yeah, that: history.
But such thoughts of Pygmalion were fleeting. First of all, she didn't want to be part of my world. Certainly, she took what she could, drinking in what she determined to be meaningful and useful to her. But whatever we experienced together she integrated back into her life in the hood. She sincerely likes who she is and doesn't aspire to a life among the middle class, either black or white. Once, when we were fantasizing about having lots of money, I asked her if she would ever buy a big house in a fancy Springfield neighborhood.
ST: No, I love my hood. I wanna stay in my hood. It's flavorful. I feel safe there. I know it like the back of my hand. My boon coons are there. They love me. I wouldn't want to live with white people. They may not love me. They don't know me. And they're afraid of me. So I would want a bigger house right here that I could renovate and make it look like a house in a fancy neighborhood. And you can bet I'd put up a serious security system!
Secondly, Sugar was no passive informant. She actively read, edited, and corrected transcripts and chapters. During that first year, Sugar accused me of "niggerizing" her voice. And although I defensively pointed out that I had it all on tape, when I went back to investigate, I found she was right. I couldn't completely understand what she was saying. All over the first transcripts I had written "clarify," or "ask Sugar." But worse, I had transcribed some words or phrases "down," making them more idiomatic or introducing more grammatical mistakes. I was unconsciously inserting stereotyped black speech. It wasn't until the second year that I had enough familiarity with her use of English and ebonics to no longer need her help translating. And by then, she had pointed out my "hearing" problem enough that I had stopped "niggerizing" her.
In addition, although my entry into her life created some adjustments, I was not the agent of change in Sugar's life. Sugar was. When I bought a new computer, I did give her the old one. But she didn't need any encouragement from me to become computer literate. She signed up for courses, asked every techie in the hood for advice, and just played around on the keyboard. In a remarkably brief period of time, she had transformed her back room into an efficient home office and immediately transferred to disk the documents and papers that had been in piles around the house.
Although traveling by herself to Las Callas had been a new adventure, Sugar is actually an oddly confident, even idiosyncratic, cultural explorer. She loves the challenge of the world outside the hood, but on her own terms. Her life, and what she expects from herself, is circumscribed by her worldview. She has been both hemmed in by those cultural parameters and able to, as Sugar says, "fly away" farther than her family or friends. But she also knows her life has to be firmly planted in the urban scene.
At the same time, she has always been an agile trekker through the wider Springfield scene. When she was a welfare mother, she regularly took herself out of the normal routine of the hood just to see what the bigger world looked like. She volunteered at the Springfield Marathon, handing water to the runners. She served on a cultural resources board that gave grants to art institutions. So, I think it is fair to say that Sugar has taken good advantage of what our partnership offers. Minimally, this means an occasional used computer. More important, however, just as I have had a front-seat tour of one woman's life in the hood, she has been privy to the less exciting but still challenging reality of the life of a middle-class academic.
To me, it has honestly never seemed an odd pairing. Of course, when we were taping in restaurants or at my university office, people couldn't really figure out what we were doing together, the red-haired black woman and the white fifty-something anthropologist. My friends were curious too, and they were just as befuddled by her as if she had been a huipil-wearing, Cakchiquel-speaking Mayan woman who had built a fire in the corner of my kitchen for making tortillas.
But to us, our collaboration is the logical extension of who we are. I had always been a curious, some might even say "nosy," sort of social scientist. Being in the field in highland Guatemalan villages and towns had been immensely satisfying to me partly because women allowed me to ask them absolutely anything about their lives. No one had ever been as interested in them as I was, so they seriously wanted to talk to me, simply to be heard. And, as a result, despite the strangeness of having a privileged professional American woman spending months among them without her husband, the locals befriended me, cared for me, and made me a part of their families.
So, for me, working with an African American woman who wanted me to write the story of her life seemed a natural research project. She wanted to tell me everything. She wanted me to listen and write it all down. I wanted to know all about her. It seemed pretty straightforward. What I didn't expect is that in documenting her life, I would learn so much about myself. The process of working with Sugar blurred the lines between subject and friend, and caused me to examine some uncomfortable realities, both about myself and about the world I come from. For years I had been researching women in poverty thousands of miles from home. Working with Sugar made me wonder what had prevented me from doing fieldwork among African American women. After all, despite seeming alien and a bit exotic, Sugar's world, unlike the world of the highland Maya, is my world, only a forty-five-minute drive away.
Sugar and I knew that in spite of our geographical proximity, we were from different planets, so we were constantly amazed at what we discovered about each other's habits and lives. But we gave each other the space we needed, although, for my part, sometimes the learning curve was pretty steep.
There was the time I brought my dog, Alma, with me to Sugar's house. Alma is the model golden retriever: playful, mellow, and loving. She hangs out at my office at the university, comes to class, runs around with students. People are always stopping me to admire and pet her. So when Alma and I walked into Sugar's house and her kids screamed in terror, I was surprised.
But the anthropologist in me spotted this as a cultural trait, something you learn growing up. I had been scared of dogs as a child growing up in urban Newark, New Jersey, where few people had big pets. But in Wisconsin, dogs are as common as hockey sticks and bratwurst. There are 25,000 dogs in Las Callas, about one per family. Most of them are well trained, or at least under the control of their owners. Thus many children have dogs and learn how to be comfortable with them.
In contrast, when I went to Guatemala for my dissertation research, I learned that dogs aren't pets. They are flea-ridden security systems who spend their lives on short chains, sounding the alarm if strangers approach. Most people there cannot afford to feed a dog, so many dogs become street scavengers competing with other animals for scraps of food. Little affection is directed toward these creatures. In fact, children learn to kick them or throw stones at them when they bark.
So when Sugar's children and their visiting friends ran upstairs in fear, I explained it as a cultural difference. I hadn't seen more than one or two dogs in the neighborhood, so being frightened of this big animal was, I thought, understandable. However, later, when Sugar's son hit Alma hard with a wooden toy and his mother laughed and thought it "cool," I stopped being complacently intellectual about dogs, children, and culture. I was in the field again, trying to identify with the folk and finding it difficult.
If Sugar was uncomfortable in any of the settings I chose, she never showed it. On the other hand, I always felt like an anxious interloper touring the cultural reality of the hood in an air-conditioned bus. This paranoia has been a troublesome handicap, one I couldn't seem to get around. But no matter how much fun we had at times, this odd partnership made us each feel awkward. We knew we were slowly overcoming our sense of being personal strangers; the cultural strangers, though, were harder to change. We were entering foreign worlds that we little understood: she, the white academic middle-class culture, and I, the reality of a poor black urban hustler. The partnership and the process evolved slowly. At first, we kept our distance. Our lives rarely intersected but for taping sessions.
I had never heard of Sugar's neighborhood, nor had I even driven through it. Once I became a regular visitor, I saw few white people on the streets. In fact, people who met me couldn't figure out what I was doing there. Often I imagined the neighbors thought I was Sugar's caseworker or the county home health care provider. Given the trajectory of my life, I didn't belong in Sugar's world.
Similarly, Sugar knew almost nothing about me or where I lived. She had never been to Las Callas and considered it the far-flung outskirts of Springfield, a place filled with boring white people. Although she had at one time considered going to college, she didn't know what an anthropologist did. But that was quickly rectified. On my first visit to her microenterprise class at the Coretta King Center for Women, I gave a slide show on my Guatemalan research. She was startled by her own ignorance of these Mayan women, but she quickly saw the connection and immediately began referring to them as her "sisters."
I had been dropping by Sugar's for five years, confidently chipping away at our agenda, when it became clear that our cultural gulf hadn't been entirely bridged. The work had made us good friends. That was true. But in spite of this bond, I still felt like a question mark. My self-imposed outsider status became clear to me around Sugar's fortieth birthday.
As her fortieth birthday approached, Sugar planned a huge extravaganza to which everyone she knew, including her third-grade classmates, would be invited by a billboard announcing the party. It was clearly an important milestone to her. Of course, she couldn't afford such a fete, so, eventually, the party ended up being an informal gathering at her favorite bar. I took her out to lunch on her birthday and gave her a gift, but I didn't go to the party. I had my list of excuses that I didn't share with her. I thought about the time when I had met Sugar's friends at her house. They were distant and wary with me, as if I weren't in the room. I saw this as a message. To my mind, the party would be the same kind of thing; I wouldn't fit in. I wasn't cool enough to hang with her set, I guess. I saw myself as this old boring white woman who didn't have the flashy clothes or cool dance steps that everyone else at the party would have. I wasn't snubbing her, I thought. I'm saving her from the embarrassment of having asked me.
Several days after the party, she showed me the photographs. There were all these people having fun mugging for the camera, and a lot of them were white teachers from the school where Sugar now works. They obviously didn't see themselves as unwanted party crashers; they were having a good time celebrating a colleague's birthday! I felt like a fool. It wasn't that I would have opted to hang out with these white people had I gone. But seeing their pictures, I knew that my being a cultural isolate in the hood was not just a problem associated with social scientific methods. I still had racial tensions to resolve. Ironically, my cultural comfort level was clearly more problematic than Sugar's. And, by giving into an unconscious need to distance myself, I had hurt a friend on her fortieth birthday.
For our last Las Callas taping session Sugar drove up in her little "hoopdy," the junker car that now got her around more efficiently. She again got lost, even though by now she had been to Las Callas many times. Sugar has no sense of direction and therefore drives by instinct. This isn't an exaggeration. She can't tell right from left. When our work started, and I was giving her rides home, she had to direct me. When I asked, "Which way at the corner?" there would be long pauses while she got her brain to say right or left. She ended up giving right and left names that came to mind quickly: Righty Tighty and Lefty Lucy. This problem has been partially addressed by her finally being able to afford a car and having to make fast directional decisions.
Once we got settled in my office, and I had turned on the heat so she wouldn't complain about it being "winter in here," we spent the afternoon reminiscing about our time together writing the story of her life. We clarified some material, but basically we laughed together and remembered. And she taught me her "I am a queen" mantra, something both of us now use on ourselves when we're feeling bad, or with students when they need some reinforcement. We went out for Japanese noodles, snacked on tortillas, cheese, and homegrown tomatoes, and drank some wine.
Just before she left, we were looking at a little shrine I had put together for a dear friend who had just died. I idly asked her if she had ever thought about her funeral. She was startled. No, she had never gone there, thank you. But it was a compelling idea. She started planning, and she had very quickly come up with specific ideas for the music, her clothes, an open coffin, which funeral home. She decided she wanted three people to eulogize her: one of her sisters, her dearest friend, and, much to my surprise, me.
I was touched and, at first, demurred. But the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the logic and the sentiment of her choice. This was no empty gesture on Sugar's part. She understood by this point that I knew her better than many of her family or friends did. The process of writing her life story had allowed me to ask intimate and probing questions that propriety denies us even in our most important relationships. She had shared it all with me. And I had listened. In the course of our work, we had come to love each other. So, even though I knew I would feel awkward and white and uncool at the Pitkin Funeral Home in the hood, yes, I would speak about her when she was gone.
I consider myself an anthropologist of the Margaret Mead variety. Like Mead, an early anthropological pioneer, I study living peoples and cultures. And as Mead did, I try to connect the conditions of their lives to broader world problems. For more than twenty years, my research has focused on highland Guatemala and the women living in two communities there. Mostly, I've written about the strategies poor women must utilize in order to feed their children while unresponsive and often abusive men hover over their lives.
Three days a week I leave the sanctuary Las Callas provides to go to my office in Springfield. In spite of its stodgy reputation, Springfield is a real city. As have most US. cities over the last few decades, Springfield has experienced a rapid growth in the numbers of its citizens in poverty. According to the 1990 US. census, Springfield's poverty rate jumped to 17.1 percent from 13.7 percent a decade before. Outwardly, Springfield's poor neighborhoods do not resemble the bleak ghettos of cities like NewYork or Chicago. Nonetheless, Springfield's central city has one of the highest poverty rates in this part of the country. This is partially explained by the fact that during the 1980s the shift of jobs trickling away from the urban center and into the suburbs became a stampede. Springfield lost more than 15,000 manufacturing jobs, which contributed to an escalating poverty rate, especially among minorities with fewer skills and less education. Although the city's African American population remained stable during the 1980s, the number of poor blacks increased by 15 percent. Consistent with the national average, nearly 30 percent of African Americans in Springfield are now considered poor, compared with 9 percent of whites.
In 1994, inspired by the ethnic diversity around me, I decided to temporarily redirect my research interests from Guatemala to Springfield. I had written about women's small business efforts among the Maya, and I wanted to do some cross-cultural comparisons among minority women in the United States. I began a research stint at the Coretta King Center for Women, examining and evaluating their female microenterprise training programs. The newest and most exciting of these, A Step Ahead, was designed to move women off the welfare rolls and into small businesses. That's where I met Sugar. She was enrolled in A Step Ahead, which she had determined was the most logical route from welfare dependency to entrepreneurial legitimacy.
I saw right away that Sugar was smart and that she was talkative. She had a lot to say about being a black welfare mother. Clearly, she and the system had been at loggerheads for years. Consequently, she was not ashamed of being a scammer and, in fact, touted her home beauty salon as the best in Springfield. She was eager and entrepreneurial. The modeling business she wanted to start was ready to go, she said, and she wanted to be a businesswoman now!
She was opinionated. She was funny. Her beauty and outrageously false red Afro only added to her charisma. We got to know each other a little. I started giving her rides home. I was mesmerized by her stories, her language, her enthusiasm. I knew immediately that she was an ethnographer's dream informant; that if I ever got her in front of a tape recorder, she would be dynamite. So when she asked me to write the story of her life, I immediately agreed.
Once we began, it was clear the book was not a welfare book. After each of us had read a few books about women on welfare, we figured there were sufficient experts who had covered the topic better than we could. Furthermore, we both found welfare much too narrow a focus to contain Sugar's story. Too often, welfare mothers are assumed to personify the daily grind of poverty and little else. That wasn't what either of us had in mind.
Sugar is far too multifaceted to be pigeonholed as a welfare queen. Beneath her flamboyant hustler skin is an extremely moral, thoughtful, righteous woman who runs her life almost along scriptural lines. She's made a lot of poor choices or downright mistakes in her life, but somehow she sees each one of them as a lesson. She almost died on crack, but she viewed this as God's thunderbolt, a not-too-subtle warning about the need to clean up her act. She was a whore for a couple of years, which she saw as an entrepreneurial start-up more than as a dangerous occupation. Men come and go in her life, and they've pretty much all been losers. The lessons they embodied are painful and complex, but she goes on after each of these affairs because of her certainty that God's got something better planned for her one day.
My reasons for working with her were not limited to the issue of welfare. I also wanted to attend to certain public policy issues. Then there was a scholarly goal that grew out of those. Finally, I had a personal agenda for spending time with Sugar in the hood.
Let me explain: I'm a 1960s progressive who grew up to be a "save the world" anthropologist and a feminist. As an anthropologist, I have been lucky enough to be able to combine my political perspective with a theoretical orientation, cultural materialism, which I feel nicely complements it. This approach downplays explanations based entirely on what people think or believe. Instead, cultural materialists search for explanations that emerge from the conditions in which people live. This idea becomes clear if you think about Karl Marx's contention that it is not people's mode of thinking that influences their social conditions, but the other way around.
As a cultural materialist, I've written that women's desperate economic vulnerability in highland Guatemala explains why they tolerate irresponsible husbands, even if the husband's economic contribution is small. The Mayan women I have studied do not believe they will ever have good husbands. They expect men to betray them in any number of ways, the worst one being that they will not be good providers. As such, they prepare themselves for that eventuality by developing their own small businesses. But these tiny cottage industries never yield enough to feed the family. So women accept beatings and infidelity because, materially, they need male income, however meager. And, in the long run, women want the children that a man can provide, for children turn out to be reliable workers from an early age. For all those reasons, survival depends on keeping a man around. The gravity of this situation is reflected in the Guatemalan saying: "How is a man like an avocado? A good one is hard to find."
What people think and the values they hold come into this model as a means to motivate and reinforce adaptive behavior. For example, Guatemalan socialization emphasizes subordination and passivity as appropriate for women. From an early age, women are taught to blame themselves for male shortcomings. If your husband is straying, it must be because you haven't been treating him right. If he deserts the family, relatives will say you failed in your duty to accommodate your husband's every wish. Perhaps he grew tired of your shrewish demands for more money and time at home. Girls are taught that women are strong while men are like children. Thus, women must endure men's irresponsibility and abuse, not only for the support the men provide but because the women believe that suffering at the hands of men is their destiny.
Similarly, when I see poverty in America, I immediately begin my analysis with the circumstances in which the poor are living. I examine institutional reasons for poverty that have proven to be almost impervious to change—lack of educational and economic opportunities or social inequities like racism and the concentration of wealth. In my university classes, I have tried to explain the feminization of poverty by examining the conditions that foster and support it, particularly the marginalization of poor blacks, both men and women.
I am particularly skeptical about those policymakers who blame single mothers for the disadvantaged and unfortunate lives their children are leading. Although cultural pathologies and dysfunctional mother-centered homes are consistent features of life among the socalled urban underclass, from where I sit, female-headed households are not the causes of poverty, but merely a symptom.
Outside the classroom, I have been more than a little impatient with the public policy rhetoric on welfare. But for years I had grumbled from the sidelines about White House or congressional missteps, feeling that because I had no research experience in urban America, I couldn't participate in the debate at the scholarly level as I would have liked.
When I met Sugar, however, I saw my entry point. I could have a firsthand look at the life of one single mother and, at the same time, learn whether the strategies black women used in their relations with men were anything like what I had seen in Guatemala. I believed that the conditions of poverty were likely the common variable in marital instability; that African American men mistreated economically marginalized women, who in turn accepted this abuse in hopes of whatever money they could eke out of their men. I suspected that because black women had a stronger sense of community and a better-developed state-level support system than did the more isolated Mayan women, they could more easily reject impossible men who were merely siphoning resources from the family. But how much did this happen?
What I learned from Sugar was that a mate was a very valuable commodity. Although men gave women little economic support, and they denied them long-term emotional satisfaction, what they did offer was romance, however fleeting, and, more important, the children that legitimated women by making them into mothers in the black community. I guessed that, like a good avocado in Guatemala, black men were scarce resources who were treasured far beyond their real worth. Little did I realize how right I was.
When Sugar and I began, I was just plain curious about this zany red-haired black woman. In my work in Central America, I have learned that women rarely have the chance to speak about themselves. Attentive listeners are hard to come by. So when I settled in for a long conversation in the home of a Mayan woman, and then came back repeatedly over the next year, I got an earful. The same proved to be true with Sugar.
She started out as a source, an informant. But as she talked to me, little by little the traditional social-scientific distance from the subject disappeared. It became evident that I was not writing a book about her so much as I was writing one with her. I think it was the familiarity Sugar encouraged that initially broke down the professional and personal barriers, not so much the unexpurgated nature of the material, but her eagerness to talk about it, to answer my questions, to fill out her life for me. Together we were reliving her childhood, the years on welfare, kicking crack—all of it.
Indeed, the intimate tenor of our conversations was a far cry from the kind of interviews either of us might have conducted with strangers, whichever side of the microphone we were on. We later found that our "girlfriend" status sometimes caused Sugar to reveal more about herself than she had originally intended. Later reflection on the content of the transcripts could be painful and at times embarrassing.
Over the years, we also worked through Sugar's latest realities: what was going on with the men she loved, the courses she was taking, or the jobs she wanted. This added a dynamic and decidedly different dimension to our sessions. The past is the past, but getting today's news on tape has palpable drama attached to it because the story develops while you watch. I once wrote that you don't need to have a television in highland Guatemala because every woman's life is a soap opera. The same goes for Sugar's little house in the hood.
People like to talk to me, to tell me things about their lives. It's partly why I'm a good ethnographer. I'd like to say that the basis of this confiding is trust, but sometimes it happens in the first interview. It may be that no one has ever offered them the opportunity to talk about their lives. Or perhaps it's that I am honestly interested in what they are saying, and it shows on my face. Just the other day, Sugar found something in the Bible about "the good listener" that reminded her of me. Perhaps people sense that. In any case, for five years I've been listening to Sugar. Apart from the substance of her story, her telling and my being a witness to that telling have brought us together as friends. We share a dedication to this process and to the level of honest oral narrative it elicits. But Sugar insists that the next time we do this, she'll be asking the questions and I'll be telling my story.
Giving Sugar a Voice
For the past decade, Sugar has been renting a big ranch house in a black neighborhood in Springfield. To get there from my home in Las Callas, it takes only forty-five minutes. The trip has become fairly routine. I get off the highway, drive five minutes past the foul-smelling factories, the cheap burger place, and the check-cashing store. When I turn onto Sugar's street, I've entered a sprawling residential area of single-family homes on small, neat lots. By now, I've locked my car doors, feeling ashamed of myself, even though I know she locks her doors too.
The Marvin neighborhood is poor, and it shows in the old, rundown houses and the boarded-up stores. But it isn't one of Springfield's worst. Seventy percent black, its poverty rate is about 38 percent, which represents an 11 percent rise from the decade before, but is still better than other (largely Latino) Springfield areas where two-thirds of the residents live below the poverty line. While 71 percent of the Marvin district is made up of single-parent families, fewer than 20 percent of households receive public assistance. In poorer areas, this percentage is as high as 48. Still, the indicators aren't optimistic for the future. Last year, for example, more than half the Marvin births were to single mothers with less than a high school education. Clearly, these young, uneducated mothers will have a very difficult time supporting their children on low-paying jobs and increasingly inaccessible public assistance.
Sugar loves the Marvin hood. She adores her house and has even dreamed of buying it one day. The place is old and in disrepair, but to Sugar's way of thinking, it's practically posh. The house is decidedly bigger than anywhere she has lived before. The older kids have the run of the basement, with four bedrooms, a bath, and two phones, one for the boys and one for the girls. Sugar's bedroom and bath are off to one side, where she has carved out some quiet and some privacy amid the teenage bustle that blows through the rest of the house. In the kitchen, the appliances are old, but everything works. Her favorite room is the pristine living room with its red couch, black-and-white carpet, and big, engaging aquarium. One room has been set up for her hairdressing business. When there are no appointments, the teenage boys tend to gravitate there, dozing on the old couch and watching TV.
For me, there are two things that stand out about Sugar's house. First, it is always hot. She likes to "make winter go away," so the thermometer is usually set at 80 degrees. That makes it cozy for her, but uncomfortably overheated for me. Second, Sugar's home is cluttered. This woman has more stuff than she knows what to do with, and there are piles of it everywhere: clothes in the bedroom, toiletries in the bath, masses of papers on her kitchen table, magazines and bills piled up everywhere. Every surface of her tiny office nook is stacked with books and papers. It's not mounds of filthy laundry, but a "neat" kind of clutter, much like my own office.
My use of the word "clutter" in describing Sugar's home has become a standing joke between us. Obsessively organized, she objects to my choice of the word. When she was on welfare, I wrote in my notes that her defensiveness about her housekeeping was occasioned by her fervent need to avoid being stereotyped as a welfare queen, one who's too lazy to get up from the soap operas and talk shows to clean her own house.
Since getting to know her better, I understand that the ever-present piles can be explained by the fact that she has to be a worker, a student, a mother, and a businesswoman all at the same time. She's saving hundreds of clippings for future projects, sorting the clothes to give away to charity, and amassing books and activities for the students at her school. And she knows where everything is in that warren of papers. Once I had to drop off a transcript that she didn't want the children to see. She was away from home, but she was able to give me careful telephone directions to her hiding place, identifying each pile as it went by in her mind.
Over the last five years, Sugar and I have been able to clear a flat surface in Sugar's busy house to record her memories and her thoughts. This was usually accomplished when the four teenagers were at school and the youngest was at the baby-sitter's. Basically, our sessions were long oddball chats: the white anthropologist and the black welfare mother eat leftover Halloween candy bars and talk about Sugar's life. I select a topic. She talks. I ask questions. She talks some more. We laugh together at her obscenely candid description of old boyfriends or tricks and what they wanted from her. Or we get "deep" when she remembers the bittersweet fleeting delights of her youth, as when she received an award in junior high school, or the painful moments when she describes her mother rarely being there.
Sugar loves to be the raconteur, and I, of course, encourage her by my continued presence and persistent interest. After all, this is what I do for a living. But what is ethnography if not indulging one's curiosity about what's behind a door different from one's own?
I am interested in Sugar. In fact, I didn't realize when we began this work how "exotic" her lifestyle would prove to be. And I'm not referring to the hard-core side of her story. Sugar's world is so different from mine that the smallest details intrigue me: what television programs she likes, where she shops, or how she makes coffee. After twenty years as an anthropologist, I find the same desire to understand the day-to-day in Springfield as I do among traditional Maya in Guatemala.
However, the anthropologist I am in the 1990s is different from the fieldworker I was when I started out in the late 1970s. My entry into Sugar Turner's life is not as an ethnographic participant-observer, but as the sympathetic chronicler of an oral history. I care about her and am concerned about the world her children will inherit. There is no pretense of value-free science here. The irony is that as I guide her through the narrative of her life, she guides me into a world I have long misunderstood but always wanted to know.
One of the issues social scientists deal with is the veracity of the material they are collecting. In ethnographic research, there are versions of truth that anthropologists never discover because informants lie to us. Either there are holes in their memory or they only know part of the story. Everyone loses chunks of their own lives, and we have to turn to others present at the time for verification or details. In the writing of this book, every so often I found that Sugar had only presented one version of a story and that there was evidence of others. I don't think she ever intentionally lied to me. She was ignoring or forgetting parts of her own life, nuances and details embellished or omitted in her narrative recounting.
For example, the breakup of her marriage to Ernie T. was told to me as a straightforward list of conflicts, fights, tears, and tantrums resulting in her finally kicking him out. How did you feel about ending your marriage? I asked. Good riddance! Never should have been married to him anyway. That's how I wrote it down. A year or two later, Sugar gave me a notebook of letters and diary entries from that period. I found several emotional letters despairing of never being with Ernie T. again. She dreamed about him and missed him terribly. For this reason, Ernie T.'s role was fleshed out a bit, reminding me of how elusive the truth about someone's life really is. But the chronicling of Sugar's life was not a process of digging through archives or contacting relatives in an attempt to capture that truth. The book is neither biography nor autobiography. I consider it a testimonio.
The process of telling and listening has become known as oral history, testimonial literature, or, because of its roots in the social movements of Latin America, testimonio. Recording a testimonio is a very different literary process than the writing of popular autobiography. Testimonio gives voice to nontraditional, previously silenced voices, be they those of women, the poor, or ethnic minorities. It allows those distanced from power to speak for themselves, to be witnesses to history and culture, to re-create their pasts. As such, testimonios break from the "high culture" of the memoir by featuring the lives of the ordinary and the disempowered rather than those of historical figures, political leaders, and media stars.
Additionally, a testimonio is distinct because the process of writing one is facilitated by another person, usually a social scientist, who, unlike many of the storytellers, is literate and an experienced writer. The listener (or interlocutor) has multiple roles in the process. She organizes and guides the interviews, records and transcribes the narrative, and then edits the text, making a life story into a book. When the book is in shape, she promotes it and sells it to a publisher.
Few testimonios are widely read, since they tend to appeal mostly to academics and their students as yet another source of information about a subject area. However, one testimonio,I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, has been immensely popular. The book is the life story of an ordinary Mayan woman whose suffering and resistance to oppression came to symbolize the indigenous condition in Guatemala. The book propelled Rigoberta into the international spotlight. Soon after its publication, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. To me, this sequence of events demonstrated the potential inherent in giving voice to the poor and the powerless through testimonios. Readers, my students among them, were surprised and devastated by the intimate details she offered about her life in a traditional community and its eventual destruction at the hands of the Guatemalan military.
Recently, questions have arisen about the veracity of the story and whether Rigoberta embellished her situation by drawing upon the experiences of other, even more unfortunate, Maya in order to make a political point. My sense of this controversy is that a testimonio gives voice to a life history previously hidden or ignored, and if more than one life is uncovered, so much the better.
In many ways, envisioning Sugar's story as a testimonio helped me focus my agenda. Why was I was working with Sugar to tell her story through her words? I was doing so in order to insert an insider's view into what had become a biased, uninformed picture of life in the hood. A few weeks at Sugar's demonstrated how my own image of the urban ghetto had been skewed by misinformation. Policymakers and analysts produce a constant stream of data, but the stereotype of the ghetto family remains firmly fixed in the minds of most Americans. Perhaps, I thought, one woman's oral history, honestly told, would be an opening to a better understanding of what it means to be a poor black woman in America. Would focusing on Sugar's gaze and voice create compassion and interest where there had previously been scorn and half-truths? I hoped it would. Is this improving on history? If so, then I have done my job as editor or interpreter. I feel no guilt about using my authority to bring the story to the attention of the public.
Of course, we hope her tale of one woman's life in the hood will resonate far beyond Sugar herself, there is meaning to be found here for each reader. At the same time, we cannot deny the inherently off-putting nature of much of what she has done in her life. For many readers, white or black, the world Sugar inhabits will seem an alien place, and her approach to navigating that world unfathomable at times.
Even to me, who came to know Sugar so well, many of the choices she has made, especially about men, remain a mystery. It's not only that the line of losers is so long, but why does she repeatedly make wedding arrangements after knowing a man for only a few weeks? And I continue to be aghast at her persistent failure to practice safe sex, even though she has lectured her own children about condoms and AIDS.
Another thing that has always baffled me is Sugar's fundamentalism. From the first day we met, her sign-off line has been "May God be with you." She is a fervent Bible reader and analyst, and not a day goes by that she doesn't sit down to read and seek guidance from the good book. Where I would confront a problem by analyzing it, she says she's going to "ask the Lord." And she waits for the Lord to speak to her before she goes ahead with anything important.
This works for her, but I am quite sure she would refute such a pragmatic analysis of her faith. Sugar's spirituality is based on a profound commitment to God and to the moral order associated with the best in any religion. I respect her very personal connection with God and the marvelous sense of charity toward everyone that goes with it. Nonetheless, her fervent adherence to this approach continues to elude me.
A few months ago, she announced that she had decided I needed salvation. I laughed and said I thought it was a futile plan. I was stuck in my Jewish ways. Why, I asked, had saving me suddenly occurred to her? "Well," she said very matter-of-factly, "I've decided I don't want to be in heaven without you."
Sugar, the Conservative Republican
When Sugar and I first talked about politics, I was confronted with one of my own stereotypes. I thought that if you lived in the hood, you would be conversant with the politics of poverty. Furthermore, I assumed that most residents of the hood would be liberal Democrats, since those candidates most clearly spoke to the issues of the poor and disenfranchised. Not Sugar. Sugar sees the world like a conservative Republican. She's not savvy in the ways of the two-party system, and when I called her a conservative, she asked me to explain what it meant. Clearly, it is her personal philosophy that bespeaks a conservative bent. While I'm concerned about the triple whammy of her being poor, black, and female, to Sugar, those characteristics don't matter much in how you see the world. After all, "people are people."
If Sugar has been treated differently because she's black, she doesn't take it personally. Some of her friends explain their difficult situations by pointing to what she calls "the white man this... and white people that" syndrome; Sugar doesn't buy it. She was proud of a high school speech her daughter gave in which she said, "We can't blame our problems on the white people. We're the ones destroyin' ourselves." This is not a popular view among many African Americans, or people on the left, but it's a classic example of Sugar's iconoclasm.
When the story broke about Denny's restaurant mistreating black customers, Sugar's response was, "Well, you can't force Denny's to treat you good. It's their place! If they don't want to serve you, get your ass out and go someplace else!" When I pressed her with an example of a country club or college refusing to admit women or minorities, she said,
it's not cool and it's not fair, but it's theirs. Now if you're a public thing, the machinery is already in place to make you change that. But the real deal is that they own it. When black people own colleges, we won't have to keep grovelin' and beggin', 'Please let us in your college.' Get you a college! Get somethin'! Own somethin'! Don't always be on the end of wanting to be a part of somebody else's thing.
Similarly, Sugar's not a feminist and, for a while, she wasn't even sure what the word meant. The black men who dominate and mistreat black women are welcomed one after the other into their female-headed welfare homes in spite of their reprehensible personal habits and consistently empty pockets. I argue that, given the abusive irresponsibility of so many poor black men, maybe solo parenting is the way to go. Thus, to my way of thinking, the absence of male income is the most problematic issue for the family. Sugar says it's men, period.
TBE: If someone asked me, how can we cure poverty in America's inner cities, I have one word: jobs. I believe decent jobs would change inner city culture.
ST: What you really mean is decent pay.
TBE: Yes, jobs that weren't dead-end jobs, jobs that had decent pay. And if there were decent jobs, it makes for an ever widening circle of the demand for decent education to train people for those jobs, etc. How do you feel about that?
ST: By now these men are so rotten that if you was to give them a good job, they're so into themselves that it wouldn't make a big change. Say this man got a raise, he would start doin' things for himself. A little might trickle down to the family, but most of it would stay in his pocket. He'd buy shoes, he'd fix his car, he'd get a better car, he'd flash money, he'd buy clothes, jewelry, but probably not books. There's a saying, if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book.
In the end, Sugar believes every individual is responsible for his or her own situation. Although she is knowledgeable about the broader socioeconomic factors impacting her life, she believes the most important factor is how the individual manipulates the situation he or she is given. This is one part of Sugar's hustler identity. Since no one else is going to get her out of a bad situation or solve a problem, she must do it. That attitude leads her, to some extent, to be scornful of those neighbors and friends who are not proactive. To Sugar, nonhustlers are passively accepting what is doled out to them, not striving to produce more. Thus, they have only themselves to blame for their downtrodden state. Don't get me wrong, Sugar is a kind and understanding woman, sympathetic to the pressures of everyone's poverty, but her solutions are still disarming to me.
I am a listener, but I also dole out advice. I am solution-oriented, and I know it's judgmental of me, but I have little patience for passivity in the face of personal challenges, even difficult ones. Though I understand that people just can't snap out of trying situations, I expect them to get past the whining stage in an appropriate amount of time and move toward taking action. I was therefore fascinated that although from time to time Sugar bitterly complained about and shed copious tears over the pressures of poverty, single motherhood, and the abusive boyfriends who stole her food stamps, she wasn't wallowing in these misfortunes. She had taken control of her life and repositioned herself toward a future in which she was legitimate and clean. I love that about her. Moreover, she wasn't ashamed of her past. It was Sugar who had initiated the documenting of the sordid and messy trail behind her. She did it for herself and she did it for what she sees as her ministry: to share what she is learning as a survivor.
Sugar's attitude about herself is so positive that she calls herself a "Pollyanna." Sometimes it's laughable how sunny the world looks to her. For example, she argues that closing down the welfare system could be a good thing in that everybody on welfare would have a chance to see what they're really made of! She accepts problems as challenges from which there is a lesson to be learned. I don't exactly roll my eyes when Sugar says things like that, but she knows me as a serious skeptic.
The History of Our Partnership
Beginning in 1995, Sugar and I worked together for a year or so, during which time we established a comfortable routine. Focusing on a particular issue or time period in her life, we would tape-record for two or three days in a row, until we had covered the topic to our satisfaction. Then I would transcribe the tapes and give the written transcriptions back to Sugar for her to correct or amend. Little by little a life emerged. I thought we were being productive, and we were. We had the tapes, and the transcripts were evolving. Then, Sugar broke up with her second husband, Mr. Lester. At that point, a whole new chapter in our relationship opened up.
Until the breakup, when I had asked Sugar how she was doing, her response had always been something like, "Oooooh! My man and I are soooo happy!" I accepted this, but was somewhat suspicious of the overexuberance in her voice. For two years, I was careful to say nothing as she painted a rosy picture of her marriage. Once free of Mr. Lester, however, Sugar finally allowed herself to be completely honest with me. She no longer needed to create the pretense of marital bliss out of loyalty to her new husband. Moreover, she wanted to complain about what she had endured! As a result, we were able to talk about the fact that she hadn't ever confided in me or to the tape recorder about the trials of living with a junkie. This marvelous turnaround in our friendship, and in our work, began one afternoon at a Mexican restaurant where we were having margaritas while we talked.
TBE: I told you Mr. Lester was a junkie when you first met him!
ST: You did not!
TBE: I most certainly did! Hello? I have this on tape!
TBE: Remember where you asked me, "What does it mean if a man is nodding during a conversation?" And I said to you, "It means he's a fucking heroin addict."
ST: No, you're not getting credit for that!
TBE: Oh, God Almighty! I can't believe you don't remember this! I told you from the first week I met the guy that his eyes were pinned!
ST: You did not! Oh, I'm shouting ...
TBE: In a public place. Just a little spat, people. Nothing to worry about. [Whispering now] Talk about denial. I even know the first time you fucked the guy!
ST: Do you?
TBE: Yes, I do! In his apartment, unless you did it earlier on some bus that I don't know about. The way you even described the guy's apartment ... it was definitely the apartment of a junkie! We said it then! You just don't remember.
ST: It was a fucking drug den. I remember. I just don't remember you telling me. I told you!
TBE: Okay, right, I never said it. She just knew it herself without any help from me!
ST: Not only that, but that fat track sittin' on his arm that he told me was an old track.
TBE: At that party, he was stoned out of his mind!
ST: Okay, I'm in denial. You think?
TBE: I swear I should be charging you for these sessions.
After that lunch, everything changed. The barriers between us collapsed. No holding back now, either on tape or in our relationship. I confessed that I had felt ridiculously embarrassed in front of her sister. She confronted me about holding back, being social scientific and distant sometimes. I jumped all over her for not using condoms when she was sleeping with a needle user. She chastised me for worrying too much and for being impatient. I finally told her I felt bad when she didn't invite me to her wedding. And even though I'm not sure I believe in it, I asked her to pray for a friend who had lymphoma. I came to rely on her for advice when I knew no one else could help me. We began to talk on the phone about everything, but I didn't tape those conversations, or even take notes.
The day we did the final taping we reminisced about our time together, crying a little:
ST: You were the first person that listened to me, the first person that was interested. You listened and you drove me to my home in the hood. You didn't drop me at the bus stop. You went that extra mile for me.
TBE: I wonder whether it was just, "Well, this is a person who needs a ride, I'll take her home," or the anthropologist eager to go anywhere. It doesn't matter. The world is a fascinating place to be.
ST: Can you separate those? I don't think you can. I think it was all of the above. Here's a wonderful specimen. And she's pretty nice.
TBE: I wonder when we got past the specimen to where we were partners.
ST: I remember Reggie used to say, "You're just an experiment to her." And I'd be like, "No, that's my friend." And he'd be, "Dream on, bitch."
Sugar's life in the hood has seeped into the deep structures of my mind. There is no book or library of books that could have made me see her world the way I have come to see it, firsthand, personal, committed. It may sound frivolous, but now I get Chris Rock. I have a much greater appreciation for his references to how black men and women interact as well as for the ethnic perspective underlying his humor. And I totally see where Terry McMillan's Stella was coming from, while she was trying to get her groove back. I loved spending time with Stella's voice (it was a book on tape) because it was so much like Sugar's voice. It had the music and the jargon, the words dancing from her lips as she told her tale. I could see Stella's head move about and her hands do their part as she played with this language so different from my own. It was magical, just like Sugar.
TBE: I'm jury-rigging this tape because we don't have any more tape.
ST: What does "jury-rigging" mean? Where'd you get that term from?
TBE: You know, improvising: taking something from here, something from there, sticking it together.
ST: Is that a real word?
ST: We call it "nigger-rigging."
TBE: Well, we don't!
ST: I thought we made it up.
By Sugar Turner and Tracy Bachrach Ehlers
Sugar Turner (not her real name) lives in an African American neighborhood in a midwestern city and works as a community outreach director for the local school system. Tracy Bachrach Ehlers is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver.