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I Went from Selling Crack to College — Thanks to the Work Ethic of My Poor Black Community

I came from a place where everyone hustled. The work ethic that helped me sell drugs also got me to college.

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There’s a tattered house in the same community where Darnell works. It looks like it’s impatiently waiting to be torn down and could easily pass for abandoned. An anonymous woman in a crinkled shower cap tilts half of her head out of the second story window all day — overlooking Darnell and me, drug transactions, police brutality, kids playing, plump rats, hoop tournaments, teen pregnancy, city workers, dancing fiends, Christians evangelizing and everything else that goes on in our hood or any hood.

I don’t know if she has a disability or some sort of ailment, but I know she works all day. I saw her shower cap at 8 a.m., and I also saw the moon reflection bouncing off the same cap around midnight as well. Any time between those hours, you’ll see kids walk up to her window and use hand signals to show the amount of candy they want. She then reels down an old cloudy pencil pack attached to about 8 feet of tied together shoestrings. The kids dump their loose change into the pack and anxiously wait as she reels it up and then sends the stuffed pouch of goodies back down to them. She creates the same feeling for adults with loose cigarettes. And the list goes on and on.

The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off.

Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles.  Even people like me with college degrees need multiple streams of revenue to survive, and I gained that work ethic from living in the inner city. Seeing my grandma work 10-hour shifts showed me I could do the same.

There are a million grinding grandmas like mine, and Darnell Baylor isn’t the only person who gets paid for 40 hours a week but works 80. Every person I know is on his schedule and gained that work ethic from the inner city. If Duncan were exposed to a different way of life, he’d probably be running a Fortune 500 company.

Lenny and Loraine didn’t beg for drugs, they performed for them. And Lenny continued to work hard years after his crack addiction faded. The Candy and Cigarette lady should be celebrated for her innovation. And I’d bet that even if the cops rushed and ended her industry, work ethic and creativity would lead to her creating a new one.

She still works hard but will be only judged for not following traditional rules, which is unfortunate because there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why employment inequality for African-Americans is always identified as laziness?

Hire us.


D. Watkins is a writer whose work has been published in Huffington Post, StopBeingFamous, 1729mag, and Salon. Watkins has been featured on NPR’s Monday Morning, The Marc Steiner Show, and Huff Post Live. Watkins holds a Masters in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is an adjunct professor at Coppin State University and runs a creative writing workshop at the Baltimore Free School.
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