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.
Though no one had said otherwise, my mother felt it necessary to regularly and relentlessly remind me and my siblings that there was more Black representation in the ’90s and early ’00s, when we all came of age, than there was when she did in the ’50s and early ’60s.
We were blessed, and she needed us to admit it. She needed us to acknowledge that we grew up not only with the privilege of indoor plumbing, cable television, microwaves, and VCRs, but also with a healthy display of Black excellence dazzling before us. She needed us to know that while she only had neck-snapping Sapphire on Amos ’n’ Andy to look up to, we had a parade of “strong, Black women,” conquering every accolade from Miss America to Wimbledon. She needed us to see the glaring inequities between us.
“Back in my day, Jackie Robinson was the only rich Black person we knew. But all you lot have to do is turn on the TV and lookie there! Black folks as far as the eye can see,” she’d say whenever she climbed onto this particular soapbox, which was always before, during, and after every episode of The Cosby Show.
It would’ve been useless for us to speak any kind of truth to her power. But… we were her kids, and “whataboutism” was our inheritance. “Oh, I don’t know about that, Ma. What about Nat King Cole, Jesse Owens, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, Jack Johnson…?”
Our mother would raise her chin, close her weary eyes, and sigh. “You fools are missing the point. Those are all men.”
“But Mama, what about Cicely Tyson, Althea Gibson, Hazel Cook, Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday…?”
“You all just don’t get it. Look at this!” She would fling her hand at the TV like a prosecutor pointing to a defendant on a witness stand, as if the TV was evidence of a crime committed in daylight. “See? You have Clair Huxtable! Phylicia Ayers-Allen! An educated Black woman playing an educated Black woman!”
She’d rest our case. Who could argue with that? There’d been articles about Ayers-Allen in every recent issue of Essence, Ebony and Jet, and my mother had always been a note-taking kind of reader.
She would go on during the commercials: “And who did you watch when you came home from school today? I’ll tell you who I didn’t watch when I came home from school: Oprah Winfrey—another educated Black woman.”
Our mother had made her case and issued us a guilty verdict. Our generation had robbed hers (though even now, I can’t think how) of everything they needed to be wealthy and successful. We’d stolen their Mr. and Mrs. Huxatable. We’d kidnapped their Oprah. How dare we not go to college to make up for all we’d done? How dare we not become doctors or lawyers who married doctors or lawyers who bought New York brownstones and covered their walls with original Black art while donning Koos Van Den Akker sweaters and listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia”?
We’d stolen all their possibilities. How? Again, I still don’t know. Even our Aunt Jemima had evolved from a head-wrap-wearing “mamie” to a June Cleaver–inspired Black homemaker flaunting perfectly coifed hair, pearl earrings, and a white lace collar. So, there we were, without a single excuse for not out-doing, out-living, out-earning our representation-depleted parents.
We couldn’t even say, “But you had Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Dorothy Height…” Nope. They would only shoot right back at us, “Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Carol Moseley Braun…” The message was clear: their generation sowed the seeds; ours reaped the harvest.
Yet there was one small seed my mother’s generation hadn’t believed would ever blossom—the seed of integration. I’m certain my mother, along with the rest of America, had heard Dr. King’s words, “One day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls,” less as a dream and more like a fantasy. They couldn’t have imagined that not only would little Black and white boys and girls hold each other’s hands, but they’d also dream right alongside one another.
My best friend in high school, Sheila Marcoccia, and I would watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, wanting the same champagne wishes and caviar dreams of every celebrity guest. We plotted and schemed without any knowledge of things such as the racial wealth gap or glass ceilings. We didn’t know about things like legacy admissions. And what did we know about net worth? Nothin’. So when the Lee Iacoccas, Warren Buffets, and Donald Trumps of the world said they were self-made, why wouldn’t we believe them?
We weren’t entirely stupid. As my mother had once said, “Those are all men.” Neither of us ever dreamed of becoming Gordon Gekko. His kind—rich and ruthless—simply inspired us. I was inspired to write stories about such men. Danielle Steel–meets–Terry McMillian was gonna be my genre. But Shelly had a different plan altogether. Her plan was to marry into wealth and stardom like Princess Diana.
It wasn’t hard to imagine. She was six feet tall with bright blue eyes, perfect skin, long legs, and waves of chestnut hair. She’d been told she was beautiful the moment she appeared in the world. Got her first modeling gig at the age of six.
When we were seniors, over lunch one day, she shared her plans for her life after graduation. “You only have so many years to be a model,” she explained. “So I’m gonna model and travel for a while, and then I’ll be a stripper. Did you see that Jenny Jones episode with that one stripper? They make thousands of dollars in one week. Some of them can make a couple of thousand in just one night.” She took another sip of her Diet Coke. “My ass won’t always look this good. I might as well make some money off it while I can.” All I could do was nod and blink. But after hearing her dreams, mine didn’t seem so far-fetched. I could at least name a few millionaire writers. I doubted she could name one millionaire stripper.
Now, guess whose dream came to fruition? Well, true to her word, Shelly modeled and traveled throughout Europe, then lived in Japan for a few years before moving to LA, where she dated a movie star who was old enough to be her father. After they broke up and her modeling gigs dried up, she moved back to our little hometown. And yes… she became a stripper at an upscale gentlemen’s club where she met her first husband, a tech millionaire. He bought her a mansion on the condition that she paid for all the furniture, which wasn’t a problem. Her tips from stripping filled every single room with Ethan Allen. After they divorced, she married her divorce attorney. Yep, just like Charlotte in Sex and the City, only her man was the handsome, blueblood, bigwig, great-grandson of some major business tycoon. They had two kids—a son and a daughter—and they all lived happily ever after.
And me? Well, I did publish a book. It’s not a bestseller. I’m not even sure it’ll earn back its $20K advance. I doubt I could afford to buy one original piece of Black art. But I do have a really nice jazz collection on vinyl—and if I wanted, I think I could buy at least one vintage Koos Van Den Akker sweater. But who would really want to look like Heathcliff Huxtable these days?
If I’m really honest, I’m bitter that Shelly got the brass ring, and I didn’t. But I no longer judge her for grabbing hold of her G-string rather than her bootstraps. These days, I’m not sure any of that matters at all. Is there really much of a difference between her stripping for actual dollars and me word-twerking on Instagram for preorders? Trust me, I’d rather strip. I think I might have felt less naked and exposed wearing a G-string. At least a stripper plays to an audience who came wanting to do nothing more than throw money at her. Instagram followers? Hmmm… not so much.
And too bad that my mother didn’t recognize that the Huxtables weren’t the only example of Black excellence for us. There was also the character Khadijah James on Living Single, played by Queen Latifah. She was a writer with her own magazine. She wasn’t a millionaire like Danielle Steel or Terry McMillan. She couldn’t afford to buy original Black art or ugly, overpriced sweaters. But she did rent an apartment in a brownstone with two other working, educated Black women. Plus, her best friend was a Black lawyer, just like Mrs. Huxtable, except without the doctor-married-to-lawyer duel income.
I actually loved each and every single one of the characters on that show more than I did any of the Huxtables. They laughed more. They hoped more. But mainly, they better represented how hard it was to be part of the young, gifted, and Black generation of Gen-Xers who’d inherited their parents’ high hopes and deferred dreams. Parents who did indeed reap what they sowed, a crop of hardworking dreamers, bold and bright on our TV screens—but offscreen is invisible to the naked eye.