I don’t usually discuss politics on my blog (although, in today’s world, even something as essential to life as paying for medical care has become political). So, I hesitated to speak out when one of the men vying for the GOP nomination for president said something so wrongheaded and racist that it made me ill.
But, on reflection, I realized that this isn’t about politics simply because the person making the comments is a politician. It’s about dignity. It’s about respect for other human beings. And it’s about the truth.
Here are some of the comments made by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:
“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habit of working and have nobody around them that works… They have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of, ‘I do this and you give me cash.’ Unless it’s illegal.”
Mr. Gingrich’s answer to his made-up “facts”? Get rid of child labor laws. Get rid of unionized janitors. Instead of teaching children in schools, put poor children to work as the schools’ janitors, cleaning the toilets.
Let me speak as the daughter of a ditchdigger and a domestic. They were poor, but that didn’t mean they didn’t work. My daddy worked two jobs — 16 hours a day — and took side jobs on the weekends. My mother cleaned other people’s houses because a lack of money for tuition forced her to drop out of teacher’s college in her senior year. Together, they probably worked more hours in their lives than people like Mr. Gingrich would or could survive. And they didn’t do it so that my sisters and I could be janitors, but so that we could become doctors. And you know what? Three of us did become doctors, and one became a lawyer.
That’s what my two memoirs are all about. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters tells the story of hard-working impoverished parents with a dream for their daughters to do better. Something to Prove is the story of how I passed down that dream and work ethic down to my own children. Woody, my son, a neurosurgical resident and a cum laude Harvard graduate, is the grandson of a ditchdigger.
There were plenty of racists around when my sisters and I were growing up. They wrote us off and expected us poor little black girls never to leave the housing projects. But our parents convinced us to dream the big dreams.
Maybe I should send Mr. Gingrich copies of my books. Maybe it would open his eyes. Because if Mr. Gingrich had his way, my son would be cleaning toilets like his grandmother, and digging ditches like his grandfather. I’m not saying that hard, manual labor is something to be ashamed of, but we can do better.
Sadly, it becomes more difficult for young people when racists in high places can’t see our children aspiring to anything more than a plunger, a shovel, or a broom.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the blog of another formerly poor black child, Travon Free, whose hardworking parents made sure he had the tools to make a success of himself, and who has a few choice words in rebuttal to Mr. Gingrich’s:
“As a child who grew up in Compton in the early 90s, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America at that time, I watched my mother work tirelessly, sometimes juggling multiple jobs to provide for myself and my sister. Day in and day out, like many other parents in poor neighborhoods, she did what she had to do in order to provide for us.
You know what that turned into Mr. Gingrich? “A son who received academic and athletic scholarship offers from three Ivy League schools and countless other universities, a son with a college degree in Criminal Justice who graduated with honors from every school he attended, and a daughter who not only attended a Gifted and Talented Education high school, but is one year away from completing a degree at UCLA.”
Bravo to Travon Free. And to all those who haven’t yet escaped poverty, keep working. Keep believing in yourself. Don’t let people who know nothing about you discourage you, or pull you down. Pick yourself up and set yourself on the path to realizing your dreams, no matter how impossible others might say those dreams are. If I could do it, you can do it.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH