by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Debt is spelled with a silent ‘b’. (I mean to use the passive voice.) Debt is spelled with a silent ‘b’, an empty letter holding space next to unopened bills. Debt is spelled with a silent ‘be’. As in “be quiet, feign ignorance and master the timing of smiling and leaving.” But I learned this before I learned to spell.
My mother learned from my father that debt was the American way. A $9 trillion US deficit backs this lesson up. From letters dropped out of my mother’s mouth I learned that money was something we never had enough of, something we needed urgently. From cards dropped out of my father’s hands I learned that money was not real. From the hypocritical narrative of consumer capital I learned shame and silence. I learned that we were less than empty, that we were less than zero.
The game that our family was playing, and mostly losing, was a monthly gamble of everything, a never ending grind against our word. The financial term for this game is “credit”, and we had to tell stories, pawn our respectability, and the faith of our loved ones, to build a case for our transcendent worthiness. We were using and losing something I would later come to call “credibility”. Our debt was unbelievable. We could not be/ as good as/ our word.
Buy One. Get One. Half off.
While I learned to read, I discovered that stories were more important that facts. Lived experiences were struggles to be hidden, flaws to be painted over or evidence to be crumbled into glitter for the facade. So I read everything. I learned that a story was a place that I could live, less fictional than the house that we might lose this month. I learned that books took me places, just as real as the should-have-already been repossessed car. I learned that life was about building a livable fiction. I learned that faith meant convincing everyone else I deserved to exist, with the hope that I could someday earn belief in my own paper thin privilege.
My story was embattled on all sides by rival myths with bigger budgets. I was the perpetual only black girl at prestigious white schools. My parents had to smile when the other parents gushed about how shocked they must be that I outscored their kids on standardized tests. As if they too couldn’t understand how this little black girl had learned how read. As if they had not sat there reading to me until I memorized the stories. As if they had not taught me to speak English with their own mouths. “What a lovely surprise!” the sweetly ignorant said, shaking my father’s hand, pressing on my mother’s shoulder. My parents’ smiles didn’t move, but their eyes were on me. My parents’ eyes made it clear that I should not tell these people to “get used to it already”. Their eyes taught me more than their mouths could. Their eyes also made it clear that they expected me to prove these racist rich people wrong everyday, all day, for the rest of my life.
Buy One. Get One.
I won scholarships like it was my job. And it was. And it still is. The story surrounding my skin was that I could not have been smart enough, refined enough to learn. The story in the media was that I should not be affirmed. The story was that I was a threat to national welfare. The story was not about this type of princess, the story was about an evil black welfare queen, birthing ravenous problems that looked like me. The story that everyone dreamt and woke up in was that smart people were too smart to be broke, and that therefore broke people were not smart. The story that I had to live to deserve every scholarship was the lie that I didn’t need it. I had to prove, with a bright-eyed vocabulary and testable proficiency that my documented financial need was a less true story than my inner shine. I had to prove that under the skin I was “normal”, which somehow meant upper-middle class. I had to disavow all relation to those other black people. I had to promise that I would not taint their white walls with a culture of poverty. The title of my story was Exceptional: Gifted Negress on Dissplay. I was the star. I unknowingly marketed myself as a token. “Get your own brilliant black oddity. She reads! She writes! She speaks English! Get her for your very own. She’s probably the only one.”
Buy one. Get one.
And indeed, they cast me as Phillis Wheatley in the primary school Black History Month play. And I wore my construction paper chains proudly. Draw a line from the slave-girl poet genius to me. Allow me one ancestor and one only. Draw the line and I will (have to) sign it like a loan.
But if I inherited a hustle born of lies and striving it was not because my parents created it. It did not start with us. Our financial debt and our social capital both emerge within the bigger lie of capital and US supremacy. I am not an economist, but if you pay attention to words closely enough the numbers in the story of the global economy become irrelevant.
The founding image for the stock market, name for the game of business and the graph of investment, is the situation of black people locked in stockades as chattel, but even this is not the greatest crime in the story. The greatest tragedy in the story of capital is the way it depends upon and colonizes our belief in something other than ourselves.1 The English teacher in me writes an “equal” sign on the chalkboard explaining the colloquialism: to “put stock” in something is to believe it. And I will always remember winning our month-long mock/stock market investment competition without a lick of numerical or statistical calculation. The stock market is a name for the price put on belief. It is the program that charts the way we believe in brand names (again the enslaving image of burning flesh) more than we believe in ourselves, more than we believe in each other, more than we believe in any of the gods we’ve noticed. Such and Such corporation goes up in value, because we believe it more, love it more trust it more this week to save us. My victory in the stock market game was a narrative victory. My classmates struggled with their calculators, they figured out probabilities. But my intuition was a homegrown intimacy with fear. I circled my choices automatically. The value of McDonald’s goes up if we are afraid of being hungry, the value of arms go up when we are afraid of being killed, the value of Timberland goes up when we are afraid of being cold, afraid of being stepped on, or both. And I was afraid of all of these things. Which is why I spent time I had and money I didn’t have at malls, trying to hide my scholarship status before Monday came again. But I wasn’t the only one who was afraid. I knew it had something to do with the old stories on the nightly news. And I actually made more imaginary money than my rich classmates that term. If I could have afforded to think about it then, the irony would have made me cry.
Debt is spelled with a silent ‘be’. This is still a game of words. A value is a belief. Therefore “American Values” are the belief that the United States exists, is a belief in a particular type of currency, an agreement in a certain form of now. I am a writer, educated in capitalism. I do not have to be an economist to know that the value of a piece of paper does not come from the number of words on that paper, or even from which words they are, but rather from how much you believe it, from how many people will admit to believing it at once. This applies to the diploma and degree that haven’t made it into frames on my walls. This applies to my checkbook and the crumpled green and white portraits in my purse. This is the game that has sacrificed the planet.
I remember the day I learned what it meant to be an American. I simply had to realize that, just like me, the United States itself, global superpower, monster of my dreams had less than no money. Trillions less than zero. The United States treasury was less than worthless. I remember pestering an economist Teaching Assistant in a dark wood hallway in an Ivy League building. But which country is not in debt? But where is all this money I have been positioning myself to receive? That was when I got the moral of the story. It was like the twist at the end of all the glamourous white boy crime caper flicks I had watched in the 1990’s. There was no money. There IS no money. There is only a shared belief in differential worthlessness. The economist to be explained to me, that yes, the United States was in debt, but that “third world countries” were in infinitely more debt. “I get it,” I said, and the questions stopped. No one believes that Americans are worth anything, but they believe that Jamaicans, Rwandans, Ugandans, they believe that everyone else is even more worthless than that.
I remember that day because it taught me that my worthlessness was not real. My worthlessness became a story I refused to comply with. But that didn’t make this worthless any less lived, or my family’s flight from the development of non-valued territories. Like Encyclopedia Brown, I relished the satisfaction of knowing the trick, but like in that other well-funded story, knowledge was dangerous, good and evil. I ate this new consciousness of the lie of the system with a bittersweet understanding of what my family had been doing all along.
The family members that I have names for all live a story that starts in the (British) West Indies. Because the rest of the story has been erased. They come from places where colonialism, one system for insisting that the labor of other people was worth less than the labor of some, has been replaced with “structural adjustment”, the sequel. Although the World Bank will tell you that Jamaica (for example) is in incredible debt, this is simply a result of which costs count. If we count the human, environmental and social resources that European and North American nation-states have cheated out of Jamaica (since slavery and before) we realize that England (for example) owes its financial supremacy to the silenced suffering of Jamaica, much in the way that the uncountable and compounded “child support” monetary and otherwise that my father has owed my mother since their divorce only shows up on her credit report in the form of bills she couldn’t pay. And even before this, my mother was bereaved by this system of international thefts. Growing up as a young girl my mother could not afford the presence of her own mother. My grandmother had to work as a domestic worker in England and the United States in order to send money to her children in Jamaica for school and clothes. My mother still has not counted her loss.
And I am not an accountant. I am an English teacher. The predicament that my Afro-Caribbean family faced in the United States was not simply a matter of monetary capital; it was matter of credibility. If no one believes you deserve to be here (here in this country or here on this planet) you have no credit. We were in engaged in a high stakes gamble where money and social capital were deficient game pieces we tried to maneuver. I was raised in the double-edged art of being unbelievable.
Get one Free.
For example, my “What I Did this Summer Vacation” stories, written and spoken were always unbelievable. How could the scholarship kid, the token black negress, afford to go to fancy academic summer programs at the best universities in the country, travel to the Caribbean, to Europe, to 9 cities in three months? The truth was, we couldn’t afford it. And the truth was, we still did it. Unbelievable. (Look at the black girl, she reads in 5 languages. Get that one!) My family’s strategy was always to privilege social capital, experiences that would expand our minds, connect us with connected people, and look good on college and job applications. The way we spent our time was real. The money we spent was not. Time was something that could always be bought (on credit). Money was nothing if no one believed you deserved it. Going crazy with debt was a risk my family took, was faith in the possibility that I would one day be free. They believed that all the fake money might add up to real money (but the real money was fake already). They believed I could earn freedom through my performance. The way we spent our time was real. They money we spent was not. I affirm this, the primary lesson that I learned in my family. Time is the only resource any of us actually have. Time may not be linear or objectively measureable, but the way we fill it up is the sum of our lives. I thank my loved ones for teaching me to make life out of treasured and sacred moments. I know now that this was/is their way of leveraging my freedom.
And to a certain extent, stealing privilege, ignoring bank statements and satirizing the mythology of paper money for all it is worth is a radical stance. However, the strategy my family raised me in also had costs beyond the financial. It costs something to spend decades in elite private institutions in fear that your “best friends” will overhear your mother on the phone deflecting creditors because the car might be repossessed again. It costs something to keep everyone at a distance so they don’t see the scaffold behind your smile. It costs something to learn that the truth of your family is something to be hidden. It costs something to paint your history in rotting candy, to spin your experience until even you are dizzy. The name of this cost is shame. Or sham. Under the burden of credit the language cringes. Debt is spelled with a silent ‘be’.
Get one Free.
But I can’t deny the privileges, passwords and skills I’ve received on borrowed time. I think I may have learned some of these lessons too well, and now scholarship upon scholarship (and I still apply for fellowships at least once a month) has granted me a place among what my grandfather (who walked a hundred blocks to commute to night school and a high school diploma in his late twenties) wistfully called the “society of arts and letters”2.
Now I live and work among the narrators, those us of us who know how to use words to force anything (however unacceptable) to make sense.
And I have learned here that theoretical capital plays by the same rules as all of the other kinds. In her book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Gayatri Spivak explains something called the “foreclosure of the native informant”, which is basically the process by which the experiences of oppressed people become unbelievable, impossible, worthless and invisible to the people and systems that oppress them. I understand Spivak’s argument to be that the production of knowledge and the production of wealth operate on the same terms, such that the eternal debt of the formerly colonized world (now known as the ‘global south’) and the belief that women working in garment factories in the Jamaican “free (trade) zones” (who are basically working for free..as in not getting paid even subsistence wages) cannot speak for themselves are linked. We are back to credit and credibility.
When I first read this book in a graduate seminar, a classmate of mine unwittingly proved Spivak’s point. Despite the fact that we were all taking a seminar named after Spivak and one other theorist, despite the fact that this reader had signed up to read almost everything that Spivak has written (a task I discourage anyone from taking up lightly), this particular student refused to grant Spivak enough credibility to take her argument seriously. Spivak, this student explained, had borrowed the term foreclosure from the French pyschoanalyst Jacques Lacan and was not using it the way that Lacan had outlined. This improper use of the term meant that Spivak’s argument was worthless.
Well. I was not aware of Jacques Lacan’s monopoly on the term foreclosure, or else I would have passed on that copyright issue to the bank that owned my childhood home in the hopes that this technicality made their claims worthless as well. I have my own theories as to what makes Lacan’s use of the term “foreclosure” valuable in the mind of this student and many others (who I often see applying this man’s charts and formulas as if they have found a way around the need to think for themselves at all), but what I said in that classroom was, “That’s it. You are doing exactly what Spivak said you would. You=world bank, she=third world. You are policing her for improper use of terms that you think can somehow be owned. Thank you. I didn’t realize how right she was until you opened your mouth.” And later, much later, when no one was around, the tenured professor of the class, a woman of color told me that she agreed. Much later, when no one was around. And my heart races even at the memory of my bravado. Despite Spivak’s British education, Ivy League named professorship, and award-winning books, she is never safe from the charge of worthlessness, never free from specter of debt. How much more vulnerable then am I, wandering the halls of academe with much less social capital than she?
And of course this is only one example. I myself find myself looking for “white male back-up” to provide theoretical weight to my own work all the time. I fear that it will not be considered “scholarly enough” if I don’t spend at least a few paragraphs talking about one or more dead white men. I’ve even been encouraged by more established members of the field to cite living white men for ideas that dead people of color clearly published first. I am continuing to learn about whose word can be valued when and how, and mine is still only valued at the circus (Look at the black girl. She uses theory like salt in the arguments she brews. She can’t even be limited to “identity politics”. If we have to hire a black woman, and they are so difficult, it should at least be that one. She’s learned our tricks so well. Step right up.)
Get one. Free.
And now, in my role teaching introductory courses in the English Department I find myself passing on the tricks of the trade to exceptional young black women who have made it into the prestigious halls of top-tier academe. I teach them the pretense of credibility. I hand back their papers pleading, “This is unacceptable, you have to step up to the next level. I know you can do it.” I say. But I am thinking No one will believe you if you say it like this. You have to say like they say it. You have to learn these tricks. lest you be discovered. Do really think they will take you at your word? Please hurry; learn the game. What I teach as “proper use” of the English language, proper narrative structure, proper argumentative flow, is cruelly crucial. I teach them the pass-codes that they must reproduce like rosaries if they are to earn their academic keep. I imagine the free colored women who taught enslaved people to write their own passes to freedom clasping their hands behind me as I teach. When I meet my students they are beautiful, they are wide-eyed, they are confident, they are unbelievable. I am worried that I will be the only person to believe in them. When they leave me they have to be ready. Introductory English is an important form of credit. I try not to think about the collateral damage.
One. Get Free.
But there must be another way of learning. There must be a pedagogy less laden with fear. I am committed to making time something I produce, not something I buy on credit. The first step to autonomous living is a shift from consuming stories of worth and worthlessness, accumulating relics of our own emptiness to the production of time, love, community and space on our own terms. If we have the tools to survive such holistic lies, then we know how to tell a different story too. Right now I am working a relationship to the university that allows me to apply the inflated value of my time teaching college students to open myself for unpaid labor on behalf of underfunded community organizations in the Southeastern United States. While I am still a tokenized, sweet-talking, freak within the structure of the academy, I see myself as a thief or a maroon. I have always been complicit in my families striving narrative of debt. Even today I used my house-negress language skills to up the credit of my brother’s early decision Ivy League application and my mother’s next job application. But a literary analysis of capital, the story that casts most of us as extras, superficial to our own lives, lines my faith. With broken sentences, and remixed slogans I am building another place for us to live, and the foundation is my belief in you. I still believe that there is something I can tell you that will steal us all into freedom.