Black Metropolis: A Single Mother Bucks the System

Shaune Edwards is a tough-minded member of the black working class who’s figured out how to use the system: “I’ll start from one point and just keep on till I get what I need.”


Self Making Woman

“I haven’t been anywhere farther than Massachusetts. I went to Nantucket once on a hostel trip but I was too young to even ap­preciate it. I want to go to Califor­nia, Africa, the Caribbean. I’d like to travel deep, and far, and wide.” Shaune Edwards laughs. “But definitely next year I want to take my son to Disney World.”

Shaune Edwards can remember when she was leery of going to Crown Heights because it was a new neighborhood, and she recalls when she was frightened of quitting her job as a dental assistant and trying to get a college degree. “The first time I came to Troy Avenue I thought it was scary, a new place, so alien, but now I live there. I was even afraid to come here to school. You think you have security in your little piece of a job,” says Edwards. “But leav­ing was the best thing I ever did. You’re afraid, but you get used to it, and you keep going.”

Edwards is 30 years old and has a five­-year-old son, Howard, to support. The $200 a week she was bringing home after working in dentist offices for 10 years just wasn’t cutting it. So she sat down and made a plan to do something about it. Edwards, a satin-skinned walnut brown woman with dreadlocks swooped up to the crown of her head, is a picture of self-confidence and savvy. She looks the part of self-made woman, dresses in a self-made style.

Since she was 15, Shaune Edwards has been making various plans, and working her way through a maze of indifferent social-service bureaucracies, from anti­-poverty programs and EOC to Manpow­er, public assistance, and scholarship competitions. She is a tough-minded member of the black working class who’s figured out how to use the system. “Well, I’m good at searching out information. I’ll start from one point and just keep on till I get what I need.”

She is one of those black women you see on the bus or train early in the morn­ing, and late in the evening, almost al­ways with a bag of groceries, a satchel for the other pair of shoes, and usually a child. “If you go to the train station at Franklin Avenue in the morning,” she tells me, “there’s gobs and gobs of people going to work — black people. It seems to me that sometimes they pick out the worst problems we have and publicize that. They pick out the most unfortunate people among us and show them, but the trains are full of people who get up and go to work.” Women like Shaune don’t appreciate having to counteract every­thing their kids see on TV, particularly about black people.

They are women who don’t go to stores to “shop,” but to get what they need. On Saturday afternoon in downtown Brook­lyn there are legions of such women in the fabric stores, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, buying yard goods and patterns for something new. In black Brooklyn the women sport sculptured dos, dreadlocks, and an amazing array of braided and coiled hair styles crossbred from African and Caribbean inspiration. They are not Essence women, exactly­ — they’re more earthy, a few pounds more substantial around the hips. Neat and stylish for work everyday, they don’t go out much because discos aren’t fun any­more and men are scarce — men with jobs and their same kind of “get up in the world” outlook. At least that’s how it seems when you talk with them.

Black working women who are lucky have a network of friends and family, and this network makes the logistics of job, motherhood, and low pay work out just enough. Women like Shaune Edwards bear witness to all the cliches about flexi­bility and survival, keeping a tough exte­rior and a tender heart.

Edwards and her son live in the Albany Houses, tidy older projects on Troy Ave­nue near Atlantic, that look modest com­pared to the warehouses in Fort Greene or on the Manhattan side of the East River. She shares a two-bedroom apart­ment with her best friend’s mother, a 70- year-old widow, who is retired now. “Mama,” as Edwards calls her, is good company and a good friend; she’ll wait watching at the window if Edwards and her son are late getting home. The older woman has lived in the building for 30 years, and now their home is crammed with the furnishings of two apartments. “Mama” has been selling Tupperware for a number of years and Edwards jokes that plastic rains down on them every time they open a closet door.

I met Shaune one evening after I spoke at Medgar Evers College, where she is now a natural science major who hopes to go on to a state university to continue training to become a physical therapist. She introduced herself, we talked, and she began to tell me why she decided to get out of her last job. Her boss had demanded that she put in more overtime and Edwards had refused. “My son was in school darn near 50 hours a week as it was. It has nothing to do with the money or anything else, but I think I owe him better. I said to myself, I have to have more control over my life and my time. I had to tell him, ‘Look, you pay me for my time, it’s not your time.”

Nowadays Shaune goes to school and to a work-study job at Medgar Evers Col­lege in Crown Heights. She has won two scholarships for this year: one from the East Brooklyn Lioness Club, for being picked “single mother of the year” by the college’s Center for Women’s Develop­ment, and another renewable scholarship from New York Telephone.

On weekdays she and Howard Jr. — she split with Howard Sr. when their son was a few months old — are up about 6 a.m. While she is getting dressed she might catch the news on TV. Then she helps the boy get bathed and dressed. “If I wake up late and I’m rushing, I do everything,” she says. Some mornings she puts in a wash, which she hangs up when she gets back around seven. “We have a ritual to start the day on a good note,” she says. “We hug and kiss, and at night we do the same. I try to make sure neither of us starts the day wrong or goes to bed that way.”

She usually fixes him breakfast, but some days he eats at his school, the Nev­ins Day Care Center, run by Human Re­sources on Atlantic Avenue downtown, a half-hour bus ride from home. Howard has been at the center since he was two and a half and will go into the kindergar­ten there in September. Monday through Thursday she takes classes — everything from math to swimming — and reports to the office at 1:30 to do peer counseling.

On a Thursday morning she has been trying to juggle getting Howard to day care at eight, making a field trip with one class, and returning to Brooklyn for an­other. At her desk at 1:30, she looks se­rene despite it all, dressed head to ankle in flowing white cotton, finished off with red shoes. She never wears matching earrings, so today she a large silver number on one side and a little African continent on the other, accompanied by a small beaded piece, a dash of Rasta colors.

A radio is playing in the small room with four desks, and women are coming and going as their “shifts” change. Does she listen to the radio much? Sometimes they have on WLIB, the black news-and-­talk station, but, she says, “I can’t get any work done when that’s on because I get so involved in listening to what they’re talking about.” Children from a play group across the hall dart in and take a look every now and then.

Here she helps people work their way through the cumbersome and unfriendly bureaucracies that she herself has manip­ulated so well — the world where they al­ways want your “papers,” as black folks used to say. Most of the time, according to Shaune’s way of knowledge, it’s a mat­ter of what mood they’re in behind the desk you’re standing at.

“One woman stopped in and said she needed an official transcipt to send to the Board of Education. The woman in the registrar’s office was telling her that she couldn’t send an official transcript. I said, ‘Yes, she can,’ and told her how she had to do it. A lot of times I tell people, you know, you have to know your own busi­ness, ’cause we have a tendency to sit around waiting for people to tell us. You can’t do that because these people aren’t responsible for you.”

Shaune was born in New York City but raised on Philadelphia’s once bustling black North Side, most famous perhaps for doowop groups and a gym where Muhammad Ali trained. Like many other black neighbor­hoods it now looks wasted, bottomed out.

“The only new things that happen there are when somebody dies, gets killed, or a new baby is born. And crack is com­ing into the neighborhood, tearing a lot of people down. There’s no end to that but death — you die from it, or trying to get it, or you go to jail. The enterprising people want to sell drugs, and the people without hope want to buy.

“I guess I got out ’cause I was the one who went out of the neighborhood to the movies, or street fairs across town. I got to go on camping trips, hosteling trips. The antipoverty programs sponsored things, and these trips gave me insight that there were other things going on. I’ve been in New York 13 years and I’ve invited my friends, people I grew up with, to visit me and in all that space of time none of them have ever come.”

At 15 Shaune was headed for a 10th­-grade college-prep program when Phila­delphia had one of its famous teachers strikes. It lasted eight weeks and when school opened Shaune Edwards was not there. “I don’t know why,” she says now. “I don’t know — I just quit at that point.” She then went into the Neighborhood Youth Corps, where she took classes in the morning to prepare for the high school equivalency exam, and worked in the afternoons at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. She passed the test the second time around and at 16, headed for New York with her GED, and stayed.

“I came here and went to the South Bronx, a project on Cypress Avenue. It was horrible. All I did was come and go, ’cause I didn’t hang out in the neighbor­hood. But it all looks like a struggle to me. You live in these places, you see the young girls with the babies, people hang­ing on the corner. The one and only time I got robbed was up there. I had just come from the bank and I guess the guy must have seen me leaving there. He got in the elevator with me and pulled out a knife and asked me for my money. At the elevator I was just kind of daydreaming­ — I don’t do that anymore.

“But you know the one thing I like about New York is you can find what you want to find. I used to go different places. Me and my friends would go to Central Park and go on the rowboats. And I was going to school again.”

School was an EOC program operating out of the Theresa Hotel building in Har­lem. For two semesters Edwards took col­lege prep classes, beefing up basic skills in reading, writing, and math. In 1975 she enrolled in Medgar Evers in business ad­ministration, but stayed only a semester and a half. When she left school she got a job at Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, doing assembly work.

“I was screwing in stuff, you know, mechanical work, making Detecto-Lite voltage testers. You had to make like 2000 and stuff. You had a quota. I didn’t stay there long. I went to the Manpower Of­fice and they sent me to school because there were no openings. They told me I could come in for a test any day at one o’clock. So I went the next day; I just decided to go. I did pretty well on the test, so they told me they had something. They sent me to the New York School for Medical and Dental Assistants in Forest Hills and I went. They paid for uniforms, books, and you got a stipend.

“I went there every day — that was a 300-hour course. And I did very well. That was the first time I realized my potential for school. From there I couldn’t get a job right away as a medical assistant — there weren’t many listings in the paper. I was supposed to be a phys­cian’s office assistant. You take pressures, weigh the patients, and stuff.”

When she couldn’t find a job she had another one of her ideas, made another plan. “I went to the medical center around the corner from me on Eastern Parkway, the Park East Medical Center. I asked the pediatrician there, Dr. Ben­nett, could I work with him as a volun­teer, and would he write me a reference letter. And I worked for him for about a month and change. He was a good doctor, and he wrote the letter for me. Matter of fact, he gave me money too. I bought my mother and family Christmas presents. And I still couldn’t find a job.

“I went home for a while and Dr. Ben­nett called me and said the center needed a dental assistant. The dentists liked to train their assistants themselves, and so I got it. And that’s how I became a dental assistant for 10 years.”

Shaune worked at Park East for four and a half years, making $100 every two weeks, filling out insurance forms, taking care of office supplies, sterilizing instru­ments, and a little bit of everything. She left to have her baby and went a year without work, for a while living on public assistance. She has lived in a succession of apartments, mostly in Brooklyn, shar­ing quarters with an aunt, various girl­friends, a boyfriend’s family in Crown Heights.

“I had my own apartment when I was 19, on South Oxford Street. Then I took my friend’s apartment on Cumberland, a studio, and I stayed there a good while. From there, me and another friend lived in Park Slope — a six-room walk-through. It was nice. We were paying $275 and it went up to $300 — now I think those apartments go for about $800 or $1000.”

She also shared a one-bedroom with a friend who had four children. Shaune and Howard slept on the couch. She still would never consider trying to pay $400 rent and dreads the day the idea of having to live somewhere other than with “Mama” — unless she could go upstate to school.

Recently she visited a friend who lives in a black neighborhood in Laurelton, Queens. It surprised her to get off the bus and see the lawns and neat, tree-lined streets with houses sitting back off the street. “I said boy, oh boy, would I like to have my son out here. If I ever get a real good job and get straight, I’d like to get a place out there. I would definitely move out to Queens. Granted every place has its pitfalls, but there’s more stability out there. The kids seem nice.

“You know, kids know what they see. I don’t say anybody’s better than the next person, but they know what they see. If they come out and they’re all hanging on the street, and everything is to be big, bad, and macho, then they’ll be big, bad, and macho, ’cause they have to survive.”

When Shaune came back into the work force four or five years ago, she went to work for $190 a week at the Smile Center on West 72nd Street. When she quit her last job at the medical building on Hanson Place in downtown Brooklyn, she was bringing home between $200 and $225 a week. Living on that kind of in­come has sometimes meant taking two buses and a train every day to get her son to day care that cost $45, instead of $75. And working overtime frequently meant getting home at 10. She came home, ate, and went to bed. Most of all, she told me, she never had time to think about what she could do with her life. She didn’t have time. She was too tired.

At her last job she brought home $866 a month and paid $278 for rent on place she says was “a dump.” “It was still a dump when I left it and they raised the rent to $391.” Child care, now $27 a week, added up to $108 a month. She averaged $140 a month for carfare, and lunches, $200 for food. If you add only modest gas, electric, and phone bills, and something for laundry and dry cleaning, she would be left with about a $25 margin of error or mishap a month. A single illness, or trip to Philadelphia to see her mother, could put her in the soup.

Dental assistants generally don’t get medical coverage, or have pensions. The only time Edwards has had medical cov­erage was when she got Medicaid with welfare. Otherwise she and Howard went to the emergency room. In the summer she puts Howard’s winter clothes on lay­away, and in the winter she starts to lay away the summer things. She has no credit cards.

I wonder what she would do if she had enough money to do whatever she want­ed. “I’d set my mother up in a house and give her a lot of nice things she never had. I’d bribe my younger brothers and sisters to accomplish things. You know, like a car if my older brother got a GED, if my younger brother would finish high school, along with encouragement. But nowadays the kids are so material. I’d try to get them to help themselves.

“I’d finish school. And I would start some kind of community project for sin­gle parents, ’cause nobody understands that better than me. I come from a single parent family and I’m head of one. But even without all that, I want to help my son see where his strengths are. I want to let him try tennis, track. Sometimes he wants to be a pilot, sometimes a bus driver. That’s okay, but I’m just trying to put his hopes up high now.”

Now, to make it through without work­ing, she is once again on public assis­tance. Edwards applied to the NY State WIN program, which can provide funds for carfare, and day care for people in a two-year school program, but her science major does not fit into their categories, which are geared to filling job slots like secretarial work.

She has been on both sides of the lines of welfare clients trying to get medical treatment. She remembers how they were treated at offices she has worked in and once again finds herself on the receiving end. “A lot of the people who were on Medicaid were black, except for a few whites from Bay Ridge or whatever. But I notice anywhere you go when you come in with your Medicaid card, it’s like a problem. You don’t get the service you should get, they barely want to explain anything to you. If you ask too many questions, they get indignant.”

On a Friday morning she has been called for a “face-to-face” at the welfare office on Flatbush Avenue because her work-study job has come up on the computer as employment at CUNY. She has been down to this office about five times since she started receiving checks in December. Last time she had to come be­cause the computer came up with a $30 check for interest from the IRS on an old tax refund. They wanted to know why she had gotten the $30.

The somber beige offices are surpris­ingly cool and uncrowded. Shaune suspects that the workers schedule fewer people on Friday so that they can get out earlier. People in several short lines wait for phones on the lined along the wall in the first waiting room. Women with guarded faces stare from the lines at each newcomer. Men who look like recent im­migrants to the country sitting with their hands crossed, watching the proceedings. My only frame of reference is the visiting room of a prison, but I try to see it as a more cheerful situation. After all, it only took 15 minutes for Edwards to clear up the work-study problem.

“It was just regular. She wrote down everything that I brought and that was it.” What did she bring? “Birth certificate, a letter from my son’s school, a letter from the primary tenant of my apartment. There were no changes. It was quick. Actually we had a conversa­tion about other things.” I am still mysti­fied. “I just do what’s required of me, I bring the papers they want, and I don’t really have much trouble. I don’t think the system is designed to get you off. They’d rather pay for you for 50 years than pay for you 10 and have you get a college degree. If you get a piece of change, they investigate it.”

We go from Flatbush Avenue over to the Nevins Day Care Center and pick up Howard and his little friend James. Because there are no classes on Friday, that is the day for Shaune and Howard to spend time together. Usually they go to the movies, or to the zoo, or on some other adventure. “I just want to let him know there’s choices. You don’t have to just come stand outside. You come out, you go somewhere.” Shaune has a long list of places she’d like to take him, places like the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

Howard is all smiles, an amber-eyed boy with a thick brown Afro that Shaune is thinking of getting cut. James is skin­ny, wide-eyed, and talks very fast. Both boys are whooping with excitement and giving the stranger lots of information about school and their trip to the park. They’ve already seen Spaceballs so now they can’t think of a movie. Shaune jokes that she could take them to Adventures in Babysitting, but it might give them too many ideas for new ways to torture adults. She is only half kidding.

It’s decided that we’ll go to the barber­shop, and we head for Kinapps on Flat­bush. The home of the “sculpted” do and luxurious care for locks is packed on a Friday afternoon, so we head for the oth­er Kinapps on DeKalb. The Afrocentric decor — lots of Kente cloth, paintings by Nigerian artist Twin Seven-Seven, and hip cultural nationalist T-shirts — sug­gests something more than an $8 cut. It’s $12 (cuts can go up to $22), but Shaune says she only needs to bring him a couple of times a year. Howard admires himself in the chair and gets a cut that’s shaved on the sides and looks like a little bowl on top. He is right to admire himself because be looks impressively dap for a 5-year-­old. James wants a haircut too but his mother cuts his hair. He takes one look at Howard and says, “I don’t like it.”

For so long, Edwards says, it has just been a matter of survival. Shaune still likes to come in from a long day and watch sitcoms like The Cosby Show, or those PBS nature shows (she also tunes in Channel 13 for Howard, whose favorite shows are Sesa­me Street, Mister Rogers, and Reading Rainbow). Occasionally she binges on comic books. But she has also found that the time to breathe has made her aware of how she fits into the larger world. She has begun to realize too, that if she takes some actions on public concerns that af­fect the way she survives, she can help.

Shaune Edwards is one of those lucky people who got something out of the so­cial programs now so widely disparaged. By her own will she forced public services to serve her needs. But the Black and African studies she found in college teach something that cannot be learned even as one masters the intricacies of bureaucracy. Courses at Medgar Evers, her involvement with the Center for Women’s Development there, and no doubt, the activist atmosphere of the school, have heightened her political awareness. Shaune has begun to look at the people in the welfare office, whom she calls “distressed,” and see people caught up in socioeconomic realities. This kind of insight, which comes from learning about your history, is one of Malcolm X’s many threatened legacies — ­it creates involved citizens out of folks who have been immobilized by the myth of getting over.

“Now I have more support,” she says, “I can think about things. Before it was just go to work, come home, go to bed.” Most of the people she admires are wom­en, people like the journalist Ida B. Wells, who organized against lynchings at the beginning of the century, and women at Medgar Evers like the Center for Wom­en’s Development’s executive director Safiya Bandele, and Alice Turner, Advo­cate Counselor. “I want to do something like they’ve done. I want an economically stable life, and to do something that makes a difference. I want to be active now. I’m grooming for that now. I want to vote and get involved in the PTA when my son goes to school.”

Howard Beach also helped bring her feelings into focus. And for the rest of us, her experience can be very instructive. There is no small power in the effect of an incident like the death of Michael Griffith, and no small need to bring peo­ple into contact with political leadership. Shaune Edwards is the constituency of black Brooklyn leadership, a potential voter, block organizer, teacher, and con­sumer/boycotter. And yet she could not recall the name of her congressman. Gov­ernor Cuomo has made no impression on her whatsoever.

Shaune usually picks up the paper, ei­ther the Times or the Daily News, and makes a point to get the City Sun and the Amsterdam News. Has she ever voted before? “This is shameful. I have never voted. This year for the first time I used a voting machine at a school election. I’ve registered a few times, but never voted. I guess I didn’t have the faith. I am defi­nitely going to vote ’cause if there’s some­body I don’t want in there, I want to make my vote count.”

When I asked her if she’d ever seen anything positive for blacks coming out voting, she said, “Yes, when Rizzo tried to change the law so he could run for office again, they had a high turnout and stopped it. But even without that I can see it could work. And when you go downtown you see our economic power.” Who might she vote for? “Jesse Jackson and Lenora Fulani.”

The names Shaune Edwards knows in New York politics are names associated with recent racial tensions. She mentions Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, Brooklyn D.A. Liz Holtzman, Special Prosecutor Joe Hynes, adding, “and of course I know Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason, Reverend Herbert Daughtry, Fa­ther Lawrence Lucas, and Lisa William­son.” Those names come quickly because after Howard Beach, Shaune took herself to a number of the rallies concerned with racial violence — she either saw a flier or beard about them on WLIB and just went.

Shaune went to the community meet­ing at Boys and Girls High after Howard Beach, and a Malcolm X celebration at City College. “When I went to the rally for Malcolm X I knew of Malcolm X and that was it. So I read his autobiography, and I started By Any Means Necessary.

“When I heard about Michael Griffith, I sat in front of my TV and cried. It could have been my son. I cried for Michael Griffith’s mother. I wrote the Daily News a letter because I was so mad. They ran an interview where somebody said that could happen if a white person came to a black neighborhood. I’ve never read of anything like that. Some of the things they were saying were scary, very scary.

“There comes a time when you have to be conscious, get involved, if you’re aware of what’s going on around you.” Shaune Edwards has stepped that way. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 19, 2020