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Living with Class in Charlotte

by Uzzie Cannon

February 7,2008

As a part of Generation X, I grew up in America when integration had taken place, and Martin Luther King’s “little black boys and black girls” could “join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” I fortunately did not have to struggle with the “double consciousness” that Du Bois claimed plagued “the souls of black folk.” I could easily traverse the hills and valleys that mainstream America had created while also maintaining a connection to my Afrocentic culture. At one point, I believed that I harbored no internal conflicts of any sort – that was before I came to Charlotte. Since living in Charlotte, I have come to battle another socially constructed issue for African Americans: classism. Charlotte certainly is not the only city in America where a class system exists. But I don’t live in another city, so no other city has awakened in me a perplexing, visceral concern about my economic status in society.

Growing up in the South Carolina, in the little neighborhood of Gateway Village, I never once perceived that my family was right on the cusp of the underclass. We had what we needed to survive even though we may have been one paycheck away from poverty. My mother simply focused on insuring her children had what was necessary. I was fine with that because that meant I had food, clothing, shelter, and the ever important family and community.

I have since moved on in life and have arrived at another Gateway Village in Uptown Charlotte. Working in this Gateway Village, a financial district, reminded me of the near poverty that I lived in as a child. More significantly, it created a nagging “uncomfortableness” within because I realized that I had become a part of the class that I often criticized for its inability to reach back to help uplift those in the underclass. Therein lies the warring identities. I feel proud of myself for rising above and achieving my dreams in American society while never forgetting my roots. With my accomplishments, I never claimed a position in the Black middle-class. However, when attempting to connect with those who help define my roots, those hovering about poverty or engulfed by it in Charlotte, I am reminded of my economic station. The very class of individuals I want to help reach new heights see me as an embodiment of the unattainable economic dreams they have deferred because of their economic plight. Consequently I question, “Can I ever be a beacon of hope for the underclass when I am not walking in their proverbial shoes?”

Civic involvement requires a sincerity and candor that one must possess in order to be a galvanizing force in any community. I must approach any civic project that involves ridding Charlotte of poverty with the fact that I am the outsider and thus have no real or perceived understanding of what the underclass’s struggles might be at this point. Deep down inside I want to tell them that I was once there; however, I often receive the blank gaze of incredulity once those words “I’ve been there” slip apologetically from my lips. No, I do not long for financial hardships ever again; it would be foolish to even remotely think I am seeking that economic pressure. What I do long for is the opportunity to help others rise up without being reminded of my station in life. The clear class distinction in Charlotte makes my desire quite challenging.

I chose to move back to Charlotte because I thought I could be of use, I could give back to those who are where I used to be, hovering on the class-line between barely living and slowly dying. This sojourn back unfortunately has become a rude awakening to the internal battle of class consciousness I have begun to live with, a class consciousness forced upon me by the economic disparity I have so long fought to end. I just hope my civic engagement does not become an exercise in futility. It would be a shame in such a classy city like Charlotte.

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