Why Should we Care? Connecting Native Son to Today’s Generational Poverty

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status

Schools have strong cultures, and because of this, it can be very difficult to bring new awareness to students  when the ideas are so alien to that school culture.   Instructing affluent middle-class students on generational poverty last week, Pattie introduced Richard Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, from  Native Son.  Bigger and his family are victims of generational poverty, a poverty so entrenched that it is impossible to escape.  As Pattie attempted to explain the depth of poverty that existed in Bigger’s world and exists today in the world of the students, she saw the confusion in her students’ eyes because they were taught and believe that we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Grateful for a life of rich, complex experiences, Pattie related the personal story of the three years she and her husband existed on $25.00 a week, dining on fried eggs for days  at a time, sleeping in twin beds tied together.  Working in the projects of San Antonio, she recounted those wonderfully rewarding days to her wide-eyed students, and she referred to them  as some of the best years in their married life.  Confused, a student blurted, “But how?  You were so poor.” ( The word poor was laden with fear and horror.)  Pattie responded, “Ah, but I had options.”  Options separate the situational poor from the generational poor and without options, poverty is nearly impossible to escape.poverty education sign

Challenge your knowledge of  poverty with this  test.  How did you do, or an even more important question is how do you feel after reading the stats?  Yes, it is a little daunting.  What is even more daunting, is the pervasiveness of poverty, and how little we understand or even care.  And we have to be continually aware of what poverty looks like in our students.

Eric Jensen’s article demonstrates the effects of poverty on the classroom, effects that every teacher needs to know so they can modify their teaching.words of poverty

Without understanding poverty, it is it impossible to bring the character of Bigger to life.  And if we do not breathe life into the character and his circumstances, the invading rat with its crushing end and Bigger’s destructive life with its death row conclusion remain simply a story about a rat and a poor black man from the wrong side of the tracks who probably got what he deserved; that is clearly not the story Wright intended to tell.

The poverty Bigger and his family and peers experience is generational poverty, different from the  situational poverty Pattie and her husband experienced.  Situational poverty  generally  occurs because of circumstances beyond our control such as the loss of a job or  a death whereas generational poverty, defined by Ruby Payne, is  “people who have lived in poverty for at least two generations, meaning children of parents in poverty grow up to live in poverty themselves.” Generational poverty becomes more challenging because it becomes an actual culture with its own set of norms, causing people to live by different standards than the middle class.  Payne and  Koebler created a list of qualities students in culture exhibit, but the most telling is:

People of poverty have a survival orientation. People who are barely getting by talk about people and relationships, not abstract or academic topics. A job is about making enough money to survive, not building a career.

little boy in poverty

Dr. Donna Beegle of Portland State University is a survivor of generational poverty and an expert on the subject and an advocate for the people in poverty.  Her book, See Poverty…Be the Difference, and her many interviews on You Tube are important for both students and teachers to read and watch.

In  the classroom, Pattie remained perplexed by her students’ apathy on the subject of poverty and its consequences during the time spent on Native Son.  Asking them to honestly respond, their thoughts were extremely telling and encapsulate the general public’s thoughts on the subject:

“America is seen ‘the greatest country’ of prosperity, so it’s hard for citizens to understand that there’s poverty occurring within the country, so they think that helping a Third World country would somehow benefit them more.”   ~McKenna Davis

“We do not want to see what is going on in our own country; we would rather help someone miles away than see and the accept the horrors here.”  ~Brianna Clayton

“We understand sickness and disease, but we do not understand poverty.”  ~Kate Hercher

“People assume people in poverty can just use government funding or just find in a job.  In reality, it’s not that simple.”   ~Tabi Thompson

“People think it is out of their control-they don’t see how easy it is to help.”  ~ Kirbey Geisler

“We as a society he become desensitized to poverty…We think, oh, if they would just work harder.”  ~ DPoverty Mandelaarby Estes

Honest conversation began to foster understanding.  When given the writing assignment to  explain  the role Wright intends Bigger to actually play in the book, is Bigger a human being or is he a symbol of oppressive social and political forces?, the students began to critically observe the destructive force of poverty.

After serious classrooms conversations and students sharing from their own life experiences, Bigger became a different kind of protagonist;  he became not one that the class studied to dissect and discover  his intricate workings,  rather he became a  one that made the class examine themselves more closely and acknowledge that what they found out about themselves and their attitude toward people of poverty was the heart of the novel.


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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2 Responses to Why Should we Care? Connecting Native Son to Today’s Generational Poverty

  1. Pingback: Giving Poverty a Voice: West Salem HS Students for Change | Teaching it Forward

  2. Anonymous says:

    It is not just students who harbor misconceptions about generational poverty. Thank you for reminding this adult about her own (willful?) bias. Who likes to think about poverty in their own backyard?

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