On the verge of perhaps the most commercial and capitalistic holiday in the world and amidst the usual retrospective thinking about how to do 2008 better, I came to a rather enlightening yet disturbing conclusion about myself. Money makes my world go round! I grew up dirt poor, and despite degrees from some of our nation's premier institutions, have decided to live a life of service to the community as an educator, and a pursuit of happiness reflected in my creative talents: poetry, public speaking, Hip Hop and Spoken Word performance. This dis-identification with wealth is not just driven by some sort of discomfort with prosperity. To be sure, in my mid-30's the life of being a struggling artist has lost all but a sliver of its bohemian flair. By 40 I'd like to own a home, have a solid enough financial grounding to be able to adopt young children, and not have to stress about college loans and debt. Far from a capitalist, I have come to a conclusion, not unlike a recent declaration by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that capitalism is likely very alive and here to stay. So while I'd like to dream of a day where school teachers are valued (in their pay) as much as professional athletes, I've accepted that our national priorities are clearly aligned with keeping the status quo. I'm left to accept then, like Wu Tang, that if Cash Rules Everything Around Me, I can take the cards dealt and play as best I can. Problem is, I haven't seriously looked at my deck until recently.
In the summer of 2007 as I turned 35, and having found some relative comfort in a good, non-profit job with benefits and health insurance, I decided to leave Washington, DC for ANYWHERE but DC USA. The emotional aftermath of a failed relationship and the related memories in DC left me hungry for change. To be sure, this change was complemented by a re-examination of my professionalism. I'd always been the guy with a job who did my art on the side; so the move to Atlanta came to represent an opportunity to live as an artist and make it work. I didn't want to be the 45 year old who talked about how I "could have been a famous artist or writer back in the day, but..." So I approached the summer having already secured some educational consulting gigs that would be enough to support the move and first months in Atlanta. Then it became clear to me that the artist "hustle" was a bit too taxing and volatile for me not to have some steady flow of income. A few occasions of going into the red to fill the gas tank or to eat for the week, moved me to get a job.
Ready to date again, I was reminded in everything personal ads that having your own car and place were prerequisites for partnership with the supposed relationship oriented. To magnify the challenges that come with financial struggle, I'd lost health insurance with the job I gave up and wasn't making enough to extend health insurance. Being uninsured, as a person with AIDS on medication (if doing well, health-wise), along with loan payments still threatening to deepen debt, I decided to seek a part time job that would allow for some security, though I would not be able to secure the kinds of benefits that come with a fuller-time job. I refuse to backtrack on my commitment to creating a life for myself through my creative pursuits. I sometimes wish that more of my fans understood the sacrifices and how their support of everything from shows to CDs not only goes to extend my impress on the world, but ensure that I eat and take care of health concerns. People invest more easily in things that give us nothing back at all. The value of my work has become more apparent to me in the struggle. That's been a blessing. Perhaps my hope is to also reimagine capitalism as something that, to some degree, can be aligned with revolutionary change. What if people only spent money on things that offered the kinds of systemic changes needed in our community? What if they held people and organizations accountable for following through on certain promises?
Since July 2007, I've had a few good months doing this arts thing, only to absorb the debt and economic edging during those $300 months where gigs didn't pay on time or were hard to come by. At the top of 2008, I'm making some great steady strides artistically, but the financial sacrifices have been extremely stressful; which leads me to my awakening: Regardless of what job, family, or relationship drama is happening at any given moment, I cope best when my financial situation is stable. When I'm broke, the intensity of emotional drama is magnified; so much that the common denominator to my happiness is financial security. This isn't to say, for example, that the breakdown of my relationship becomes a non-issue when there's plenty of money, but I suppose the money to spend for comfort food and pleasure trips soften the blow a bit. And realizing this, I've decided to do a bit more to focus on re-examining my relationship to the almighty dollar. Am I truly committed to finding ways to embody a consciousness of prosperity as an artist in the current capitalism; and if so, what changes or sacrifices am I willing to make to ensure that I can continue to feel good about my commitment to following my dream? If being almost famous translated into dollars, I probably wouldn't be having this conversation. Still, I think that the dilemma illuminates an awareness of deeper issues that might be a light to others as well.
The realization of my interconnectedness between money and happiness is, itself, a first step. I've been a bit more rigorous about book-keeping and about honoring my creative work enough to ask vendors to pay sufficiently for a variety of services rendered: lectures, performances, consulting, and workshops. I suppose my willingness to make personal financial sacrifices for the greater good, has now come to an end. I have to eat, clothe myself, pay my bills, and afford medical care. This is especially important in one of the only first world nations where education and health care-- two of my greatest points of financial distress-- are not free. I don't have the means to overhaul the system at present, so playing inside of our capitalism means operating a bit more selfishly to secure my livelihood, while remaining cognizant that we live in a flawed system designed to ensure that a small percentage of people thrive, while the majority of Americans struggle for basic necessities (or worse, live in the kind of destitute poverty that I grew up with as a kid).
The anxiety about being poor is deepened by the resources and education I have to acquire more...if I was willing to just "go corporate" and forsake being and becoming the change I wish to see. Because of my education and relative social success as an artist, I'm invited to the table with people whose success is reflected in their capital. It's odd being seen as part of elite company when the reality of my economic situation is depressing. I've mingled and associated with such celebrities at Don Cheadle, Rosie O'Donnell, and Mario Van Peebles, among others. The reality remains that I've acquired a social worth that isn't reflected in my bank account. In 2008, this will have to change. As I approach 40, I know that some changes need to be made. But whatever the outcome, I hope to never lose sight of the days growing up or even currently when my drive for change is also inspired by my personal and financial struggles. The system is set up to reward those who "make it" by having them be complicit in a class system that secures their wealth at the expense of the working class and poor. When black people make it, we celebrate the success and less often than some other groups do we find ways to invest the excess back into our communities.
On the more bleak days as an person living with AIDS, I sometimes wonder how important any of this stuff is, if I'm not going to be around to enjoy the prosperity. The reality of my mortality is connected to my developing consciousness of prosperity. For a long time, as a black man, a black gay man, a black gay man with AIDS, I'd internalized feelings of not deserving a life of comfort afforded to my educated straight counterparts. I've had to examine the consciousness of poverty and scarcity that I've lived with some 30 some odd years. I'm also aware that a shift in consciousness won't happen overnight. But I will begin to examine how I spend critically. What do I deserve, given my experience, as an employee? Might there be a better way to balance my creative strides with the kind of professional career that would ensure a more comfortable lifestyle? And whatever gains I make personally, is there a way to press politicians and policy stakeholders about the stress that health care and education places on Americans who haven't had a consciousness shift?
Yes... I have a lot of work to do on myself in 2008. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. But I'm also of the belief that this is not just about me, but embodying and providing an example for other brothas like myself who haven't made the connection between low self-worth and their financial picture; from the consumerism of many black gay men who spend but do not invest, to those artists and activists like myself who simply give far too much of ourselves at the expense of taking care of "home". I offer no preachy answers or conclusions here, yet a call for all Brave Souls to think seriously about how valuing our bodies and lives might be reflected in our financial picture. It's no longer acceptable to be a poor but brave soul. Change (and yes dollars) is gonna come! (pun very much intended)