One of the many reasons discussing poverty can be difficult is that it is nearly impossible to define the term. Not being able to pay the electric bills may be considered poor in one area, however, this stands in stark contrast to folks lacking access to clean water. With these varying degrees of poverty come misconceptions about what it means to be poor, as well as discomfort among people of every class in engaging in discussion on the topic of poverty. Dr. George Henderson, civil rights activist, OU professor, and author, gave a lecture on growing up in what he calls “abject poverty,” in 2015 at OU, helping students understand the factors contributing to American classism and racism.
Unpacking his experiences as a black man during the Civil Rights Era, Dr. Henderson spoke about the multiplicity of oppression in his life, growing up both impoverished and black. A striking picture he then illustrated was of the incredible hope in the way low-income parents look at their children: “This is the one that will take us out of poverty,” he said. While this can be a huge pressure on low-income and first-generation college students, it is also an incredible privilege and honor knowing that your family and community are so deeply invested in your future.
Dr. Henderson reflected on being told growing up that “Black goes here, poor goes here,” and asked rhetorically, “Where’s my here?” Simply answering himself, “School.” Academia has historically been the place that ends the cycle of poverty for families. With the recent GOP tax proposal, including a provision which would consider graduate tuition waivers taxable income, one has to wonder if this space will continue to be there for low-income communities.
To learn more about Dr. Henderson’s work and story, you can purchase an affordable copy of his memoir: “Race and the University” here.