Last month, at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Washington Post columnist and financial adviser Michelle Singletary was one of three panelists to respond to our new report, Black Men Making It In America. As she explained during the panel discussion, Michelle grew up with four siblings in Baltimore in a low-income household headed by her grandmother. We wanted to hear more of Michelle's story and the factors that influenced her success. What she shares in the following interview is a testament to the key roles that family, faith, mentoring, and hard work play in helping women and men from at-risk communities overcome incredible obstacles to achieve their dreams.
Alysse ElHage: We’d love to hear more about your childhood, and especially your grandmother. Tell us about the impact she had on your life.
Michelle Singletary: My grandmother was affectionately known as “Big Mama.” When I was about four years old, there was a major incident with my parents, and my grandmother took in me and my four siblings. My oldest sister was eight, and I was four. I had a sister who was three, and twin brothers, who were just under two years old. The plan was to see if any younger relatives could take us all in so that we would not be split up. My grandmother wanted to keep us together. But no one wanted us all, so she took us in. At the time, she was a nursing assistant in a Baltimore City hospital. She wasn’t making much money. I don’t believe she made more than $13,000 a year.
Big Mama was a very proud woman. We came from a family of landowners in North Carolina. Because she was our guardian, she was entitled to monthly financial checks from the state for our care, but she did not take the money. She took the healthcare benefit because we all had some health issues. There’s always been this misconception that the poor are all lazy and not doing all they can to help themselves. My grandmother didn’t want to be viewed that way. So, she didn’t take the money [from the state], which meant it was a struggle. Even though there wasn’t a lot of money, and my grandfather wasn’t always in the house because he had a drinking problem, she managed to raise us on her salary alone, still saving, and still paying off her house before she retired. I just look back in awe at how she was able to do that with five grandchildren.
Alysse ElHage: Wow, she sounds like an amazing woman! As you mentioned, you grew up without your parents in your life. And I wondered what was it like for you to grow up without your father specifically, and were there other men who served as key father figures who stepped into that role for you and made a difference?
Michelle Singletary: Unfortunately, my life was primarily influenced by the maternal part of my family, my grandmother, and, every now and then, some aunts. I did not have a male influence in my life. My father never did come back. My grandfather was there, and he was kind to me, but he had a very limited role in raising us and disciplining us. It was difficult emotionally because you don’t know what it’s like to have a father. I don’t know what it’s like to have the love of a father, the care of a father, the advice of a father. I did not get financial wisdom from any guy. The primary and only parent I had was my grandmother, Big Mama. She taught me everything.
Things were the hardest when I went away to college because back in Baltimore, I was living in a bubble. You don’t know what you don’t have. It just was normal for me not to have a father around. Then I got to college, and I saw all these fathers picking their daughters up and taking them to dinner or shopping. And I thought, wow! It was like a whole foreign world to me. That’s when I probably got the most depressed about not having a father. It’s when I felt the most deprived. It was very difficult emotionally.
But the thing that my grandmother instilled in me is a sense of self-preservation. You couldn’t have a pity party around her. She would say, “You are smart. You need to save your money. You don’t have time to pity yourself.”
So, even though it was hard for me not being raised by my father, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do what I need to do to do well in school and get a good job.” And my faith helped me a great deal. Although I didn’t have a physical father, I always knew that I had a celestial Father. I always knew that I had Someone who had my back and was looking out for me.
Alysse ElHage: Thank you so much for sharing that. And you are certainly someone who has overcome great loss and thrived in spite of it. Even though you grew up in a lower-income family, where your parents were not a part of your life, you ended up graduating college and later graduate school and went on to become a successful journalist and author. You're also happily married. You’ve talked about your grandmother’s influence on your life, but what other factors made a difference for you in terms of upward mobility? And how did you avoid some of the obstacles that can derail success?
Michelle Singletary: I think the biggest difference was that I learned to live my life with purpose. I never felt lost. I was always crystal clear on what I wanted out of my life. I knew I didn’t want a husband who would abandon me. I didn’t want someone who I couldn’t rely on. So, I started to make a personal list of what I wanted in life and how could I get there. And along the way, because I didn’t do this by myself, there were people who spoke into my life, even if they didn’t know me personally. Obviously, there was my grandmother. She was an amazing person and an amazing money manager. I had her as inspiration.
But I also had teachers and counselors who helped me. I won a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, College Park, primarily because a counselor at my high school hounded me and harassed me to apply for it. That scholarship changed the trajectory of my life. It was a full scholarship that also came with a summer job at the Baltimore Sunpapers for all four years of college. I didn’t have to worry about paying for college.
Still, I had to find a part-time job and send money home to my grandmother to help with my other siblings. That taught me another lesson: even as I was rising, I had to reach back and help my siblings. It wasn’t all about me. It’s never been about me.
Although I didn’t have a physical father, I always knew that I had a celestial Father. I always knew that I had Someone who had my back and was looking out for me.
When I worked for the Baltimore Evening Sun, I had people who were there for me, and they would counsel me and give me advice about things that my grandmother couldn’t help me with. For example, I wanted to study abroad. One of the reporters at the paper said, “Oh, I studied abroad, let me show you how to do it.” I spent the spring semester of my junior year in college studying in London.
I bought a car, and I overpaid for it. And I remember I went to the newsroom, and I was all excited about buying my first new car. But one of the reporters said, “You paid too much for the car! You need to go back to the dealership.” And so I took it back and got another, less expensive car.
In college, I’ll never forget this one professor, Dr. Joyce Joyce, who taught African American Literature. She was just fantastic. When I got back a paper, it would have all these red marks on it. And she’d say at the top, “I know you’re better than this.” She inspired me to excellence.
I think one way out of poverty is that you just have to have people helping you and you must have a purpose. I remember the Reverend Jesse Jackson coming to my elementary school, and he gave his “I Am Somebody” speech. He kept saying, “You are somebody. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you’re not.” He said, “You might have come from a broken home, your parents might have abandoned you, you might have been abused, but you are still somebody.”
I kept that one phrase, “I Am Somebody,” as my personal mantra. So, when people try to say that I can’t do something because I’m a woman, or that I got my job because I’m African American, I say to myself, “I am somebody. I deserve to be here, and you’re not going to derail me from my purpose by trying to attack me.”
Even when I was dating, I knew I didn’t want to have children out of wedlock, because—and it’s not even a moral thing for me—it was practical. I knew I couldn’t afford to raise children, nor did I want to, by myself. I know what it’s like to be raised in a household where there aren’t two loving parents. I did not want that for my children. In college, I saw people who grew up with both their parents, and they had a support system. I didn’t want to take that away from any future children.
I dated in a way that helped keep me from a) having kids out of wedlock, and b) marrying the wrong person. I was very purposeful in who I chose as a mate. He couldn’t drink, he couldn’t smoke. I wanted him to be good with his money. He had to be a churchgoer, and he had to go, not because I was going, but because he wanted to go. He had to have his own belief in God and walk with God. Those are the boxes I ticked off. I wanted to make sure we had similar values. I always thought about my future children. I wanted to find a good father for them. It sounds so weird, but even in my 20s, I was looking at guys like, “What kind of father are you going to be?” With my husband, one of the key questions I asked to determine whether I would continue seeing him was, “Where do you see yourself when you’re retired?” And my husband, who was also in his early 20s, said, “My ideal retirement is me sitting on the back porch of my house watching my grandchildren play in the yard.” I knew right then and there that he would be a strong family guy. And he is! He is a wonderful father—committed and involved and patient and loving. He is that father that I saw coming to visit his daughter in college.
"When people try to say that I can’t do something because I’m a woman, or that I got my job because I’m African American, I say to myself, 'I am somebody. I deserve to be here, and you’re not going to derail me from my purpose by trying to attack me.'"
Alysse ElHage: Looking back at your life, how do the findings in the IFS/AEI Black Men Making It in America report, especially regarding the factors associated with success for black men (marriage, church attendance, and personal agency), square with your experience growing up?
Michelle Singletary: When you get reports like this, the findings sound so common sense. But we need the data to back up what we know anecdotally works. The report found that young men in their early and late teens who go to church do better than those who aren’t involved in church. Church was the key for me. It kept me stable. It kept me from doing some things I shouldn’t have done.
Marriage is the key for a number of reasons. We know studies show that when you’re married, you have more net worth, you have more retirement savings because two are better than one. That’s not an indictment on people who choose to be or are single; it’s just the numbers add up more when you have a solid marriage. And we have to make sure that we say a “good” marriage. Because a bad marriage takes you the other direction into divorce and acrimony in the house.
Lastly, there is personal agency. That’s such a wonky phrase. But what that means is having some personal goals. It’s so easy to get distracted from your goals. There’s peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, and sex. All of that can derail you. But if you have a laser focus on what you want out of your life, you can tune out a lot the things that will derail you from your goals.
Alysse ElHage: Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Michelle Singletary: The only thing I would add is that whenever you do things like this, people feel like their lifestyle is being indicted. We talk about the importance of marriage and church and personal agency, and when you bring up these things, people feel judged. I would never want people to feel bad about their choices based on things that I’ve said. What I say is that we do know that certain paths are better. They’re better for you, and they’re better for your children.
But if you’ve gone down a different path, just recognize that you can still do well and still have a good life. But we’re just saying that the easier road, the road that may not have as many bumps and potholes, is doing the things that this recent IFS/AEI report found and what we’ve talked about in this interview. When I teach, I try to say, “I’m not here to judge you. But I can tell you that based on my experience, based on the research, there is a path that creates less drama. And for me, I’d like to take that road.”
Michelle Singletary is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and an award-winning author of three books. She is also the founder and director of the Prosperity Partners Ministry program.