Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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In the woebegone days of Jim Crow in the dusty and dirty lowdown South, my mother was a teenager in Boomer, West Virginia. Not only was she a teenager at the conception of the word “teenager”—a species birthed into society by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause—she was a Black teenager. Not only was she a Black teenager, she was a female teenager when the most anyone expected from a girl was marriage and babies. Not only was she a Black teenager, she was a female, Black, born-again, tent-revival Baptist teenager, which meant, as far as God and the Bible were concerned, the words “prophylactic” and “contraceptive” were fire-and-brimstone sins. So not only was she a Black female teenager, a cornucopia of carnal hormones, aroused by just the stirring of a gentle wind (her words, not mine), she was a poor teenager, left without any other choice but to marry at the tender age of sixteen. Marry or burn in hell after she and my father “stirred the wind” on her parents’ kitchen counter, and she came up pregnant.

My mother was a Black teenage bride—but not only was she a Black teenage bride in Boomer, West Virginia (a 2010 census reported Boomer had a population of 615), in the dusty and dirty lowdown Jim Crow South, she was poor—poor as dirt, poor as a ditch, poor as a gutter. My mother was as poor as the deferred dreams of Langston Hughes. She was as poor as a broke wallet, her cupboards empty, her prospects as limited as a beggar’s.

A Matthew Desmond quote from his book Poverty, by America, helps me understand my mother and her bereft existence: “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”

Another quote of his helps me forgive my mother for not being more forthright about our generational destitution: “Poverty might consume your life, but it’s rarely embraced as an identity. It’s more socially acceptable today to disclose a mental illness than to tell someone you’re broke.”

Not only was my mother a Black teenage pregnant bride who migrated North from the “colored” back door entrances and “whites-only” signs in Boomer, West Virginia, to Cleveland, Ohio, she was harboring an undiagnosed mental illness: schizoaffective disorder. She was undiagnosed for nearly all of her adult years, because the poor can’t afford diagnoses, especially those from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Throughout my childhood, I visited my mother in psych wards and welcomed her home from private and state institutions. But I never visited my mother in the poor house or a pauper’s prison. Her home, if not her working-class neighborhood, was quaint enough to be featured in an issue of Better Homes & Gardens or, at the very least, Good Housekeeping. I grew up never understanding how poor we were. I didn’t even know “poor” and I were intimately acquainted. Didn’t know poor’s label adorned me throughout my coming-of-age years in the ’70s and ‘80s. Didn’t understand how it branded me as much as the gold-stitched horse on my Jordache jeans and the swoop on my Nikes. I didn’t know, because my mother never said, and as far as I was concerned, our home was a horn of plenty.

One Easter, instead of prepackaged, cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, my mother ordered gigantic piñatas from the JCPenney’s catalog for my siblings and me. They arrived the week before Good Friday, and we showed them off to all the kids in the neighborhood. Imagine, piñatas shipped right to our Black neighborhood in 1978! This feat was as migratory as the Great Migration. Unprecedented ’cause none of us had ever heard of, let alone seen, a piñata. None of us had ever so much as eaten a taco or tasted salsa. None of us knew a thing about the Mexican heritage delivered right to our doorstep. We opened the box and pulled out a red, orange, and gold donkey and a pink, purple, and blue elephant. We sat them on our dining room table, right there in the picture window for all the neighbors to behold. We were the richest kids on my mother’s block. We were the Jones’s the other families’ Easters could not keep up with. You see? Does that sound poor to you? How could I have known we were as skint as a dollar food stamp with my Easter dress from Montgomery Ward, shoes from Buster Brown, and beautiful piñata?

In his book The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump told readers: “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it ‘truthful hyperbole.’ It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.” I think he might’ve learned this from my mother. My mother knew “truthful hyperbole” wasn’t only an effective form of social posturing, it was also an effective form of self-preservation. My mother placing our piñatas front and center in our picture window was no different than a millionaire pretending he’s worth billions.

When Easter morning came, with all the neighborhood kids gathered round, my mother carefully cut a large hole in the bottom of the elephant piñata, ’cause what did we know about the proper way to bust open a piñata? She slowly reached inside and found our piñatas were as empty as Jesus’s tomb Easter morning.

The good thing about not knowing you’re poor is you live without fretting about saving or planning or budgeting. You live and let live. You buy piñatas because at least you can afford them, even if you can’t afford to pay your light bill. And it’s fine and exciting to have something. It’s a “truthful hyperbole” of your circumstances, a harmless exaggeration that’s hurting no one.

The terrible thing about not knowing you’re poor is you live without knowing your piñatas are empty. You’re oblivious to the fine print in the catalog: “Candy and toys sold separately.”

My kid is a college senior, graduating this fall with a BFA. They know they’re Black, queer, and nonbinary, and everything that each of those labels carries. But also, they know they’re poor. At least, I’ve told them a “truthful hyperbole,” repeatedly claiming we’re broke, strapped for cash, hard up—poor. Even though we’re not Boomer, West Virginia, poor, I don’t want them to find out BFAs are piñatas that need filling. I want them to know exactly what they’re getting with their purchase. I want them to read the fine print so they don’t end up looking foolish and disappointed. I don’t want them to get taken by a bedazzling, enriched “truthful hyperbole.” I don’t want them to be taken advantage of by daydreams or to believe their degree offers a billionaires’ worth of choices.

When Donald Trump lost his New York civil fraud case and was ordered to pay a $454 million penalty, the whole world found out his piñata was empty. How embarrassing.

Do you know how hard it is to go outside and play after the entire neighborhood finds out your piñata was full of nothing? I do. And while I can’t stand the guy, I have to acknowledge that my mother and he both knew how to gild the lily.

Being a multimillionaire who’s practically a billionaire needs no embellishment. And neither does being a Black woman with schizoaffective disorder who married at sixteen years old, left the blackface of Jim Crow in her rearview mirror, and bought a house in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was dirt poor. Both stories are already “the biggest, the greatest, and the most spectacular.” All truth, no hyperbole.