From rural poverty to Ivy League professor: Carol Swain’s life lessons

As a black American who grew up in the rural South in the 1950s, I have witnessed firsthand systemic racism and the tremendous progress we have made in America in terms of race relations and opportunities. 

I lived in the country woods of southwestern Virginia, in a family that eventually included 12 children. I was the second oldest. My earliest childhood memories include living in a tar paper-covered, two-room shack without indoor plumbing or running water. The shack had a tin roof, wood cooking stove, and walls without insulation. And for a few years, the children slept on the kitchen floor. 

The poverty I experienced meant that water for bathing each morning had to be heated on the stove and shared with others. Water for cooking, bathing, and cleaning came from a spring located downhill from a cemetery. We lacked proper clothes and adequate food. Whenever the snow was deep, my siblings and I stayed home from school until it melted. Once we missed 80 of 180 school days, and my siblings and I failed.

Eventually, we each reached the eighth grade and dropped out of school. I dropped out in the ninth grade, married at 16, had my first child at 17, and by the age of 20, I had three small children. This could have defined my life. I could have stayed on welfare after my divorce and repeated the cycle of poverty. After all, I had witnessed real systemic racism. 

But I had a mother who was too proud for her children to accept free lunches or free school books. Despite our poverty, my mother never spoke about racism or about societal limitations.   We all believed only rich people could go to college. Early marriage and starting a family seemed desirable.

I was hopeless and trapped. But people entered my life who encouraged me by telling me I was intelligent, and I could do more with my life. These people included an African orderly from Sierra Leone and a 25-year-old doctor completing his residency at a local hospital. Many of my mentors and encouragers have been white men and women. These became role models.

Despite the poverty, I believed I could make good things happen and that I was not destined to remain poor. Eventually, I divorced, earned a high school equivalency, and entered a community college, where I earned the first of five college and university degrees.

A brief stint on welfare convinced me I needed to get an education so I could get a “good” job. It never occurred to me as I was studying, working, and rearing my children that the world was stacked against me or that it owed me a better break because of my race, impoverished roots, female gender, or family status. I believed I could achieve the American Dream, and I did.

It would take graduate school and studies of oppression to reveal to me that people from my background were “doomed to poverty” because of oppression and systemic racism. Fortunately, I was successful and thriving before I heard these depressing messages.

My belief in the American Dream and its possibilities inspired me to aim high. I made the dean’s list at Virginia Western Community College and graduated magna cum laude from Roanoke College while working 40 hours a week, nights and weekends, at Virginia Western where I earned my first degree. As a senior at Roanoke College I spearheaded the establishment of the Constance J. Hamlar Scholarship[1]  for minorities. Today, it is an endowed fund that has helped support hundreds of minorities.

Although I was not a declared conservative, I have always had conservative values. I was determined to be married before I had children. I believed and still believe in America and the promise it offers people from every race and ethnicity.

Ingrained in me was not hatred or bitterness. I was optimistic about the future, despite periods of despair. My civic education instilled in me a strong appreciation for America and the state of Virginia, the home of U.S. presidents and of Booker T. Washington, a former slave and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. His autobiography “Up from Slavery” continues to inspire me and anyone who takes the time to read it. 

There is hope for America. As a strong individualist, I reject groupthink and I question the behaviors and thought patterns of those who complain about systemic racism as being a limiting factor for blacks. It is the internalization of the false narrative that the world is stacked against blacks and that nothing has changed much that limits possibilities and keeps people trapped in cycles of poverty and hopelessness.

Here are some life lessons I learned from my journey from rural poverty to success as a tenured professor at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities, and now as a public intellectual:  

● Everyone has the potential to overcome life’s disadvantages.

● Where you start your life does not determine where you end up.

● Your attitude toward life, and what you believe about reality, are far more important than your race, gender, or social class in determining what you will accomplish in life.

● Everyone is unique and special. If you do your part with what you have been given, God will do the rest.

Because I learned these lessons and tried to hold onto them, I did not let being black, female, and my birth in an underprivileged family become stumbling blocks. None of these so-called societal disadvantages became a crippling factor for me. What has been more challenging for me than the alleged systemic racism we hear about daily is the discrimination people who think like me face in the world of academia and the mainstream media because we dare to be different.  Indeed, we march to the tune of a different drummer.

Dr. Carol Swain is the host of the podcast “Be the People” and an author or editor of nine books, one of which (“Black Faces: Black Interests”) has won three national awards. Another of her books, “The New White Nationalism in America,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is a former university professor of political science and law at Princeton and Vanderbilt Universities, and a nationally known political commentator who has appeared on Fox News, ABC Headline News, CNN, BBC Radio and NPR, among other outlets. Her opinion pieces have been published in the The New York Times, USA Today, CNN Online, the Epoch Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.