The author’s family photos.
This first-person narrative is part of Detour Detroit’s economic mobility series. Read other essays and stories here.
If reminiscing was an Olympic category, my dad, James Thomas, would be the Usain Bolt of the sport. My childhood is stuffed to the brim with stories about how he was required to share a single hand towel, cut into four squares so he and his siblings could each have their own washcloth.
I can tell you that he grew up Lilac Street on Detroit’s west side, where there were so many abandoned houses in his neighborhood that he and his friends would climb onto the dilapidated roofs, rip the shingles off, and use them as projectiles in block wide games of manhunt.
“Make a dime last for a day” and “stretch a dollar for a week” were his mottoes.
My mother, Celia Thomas, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, was stush (a Jamaican colloquialism that means posh or snobbish), studious, and sophisticated compared to my dad’s scrappy street smart ways. My dad proudly admits that he married up when he married my mom.
Their story, of struggle, perseverance, and a commitment to higher education’s long-term rewards, shaped my upbringing — and imparted in me that same commitment.
They met at a party in college when she came to the U.S. to further her education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and take care of a younger cousin. They dated for three years and got married while my dad was still in school. It took him three years to get his associate’s degree from Henry Ford Community College and another five after that to get his bachelor’s from Wayne State University.
My dad credits going to Jamaica to meet my mom’s family when he was engaged as fuel for the fire of economic mobility in his life. For the first time, he saw a different kind of society, where the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor — everyone — was Black like him.
Once they individually finished their bachelor’s degrees, my parents hit the ground running, got jobs, had a few kids, and started living what they were promised was the American dream. But dreams don’t always hold up next to reality. Black households headed by a college graduate are still less wealthy than less-educated white households.
So as an ambitious immigrant woman with four kids at home, my mom started her master’s in Public Administration in 2007.
She said she went back to school because that’s what her upbringing told her to do.
While she was pursuing her degree, my father lost his job at Chrysler during the 2008 recession and we moved into a smaller house on Burns and Gratiot. We became a one-income family of six surviving off of less than $40,000 a year. I remember going from private school in the second grade to public school in the third grade.
I remember being overjoyed that I was spending more time than ever with my dad. He started coaching my soccer team and was always there to pick me up after school. The more I saw him though, the less I saw my mom. If she wasn’t working she was studying, and if she wasn’t studying she was sleeping.
After months of unemployment, my college-educated father finally got a job waiting tables at Seldom Blues, an upscale restaurant in downtown Detroit. He waited tables for two years while scouring Michigan for a job during the severe economic crisis of the Great Recession.
While he was searching, he came to the conclusion that a bachelor’s degree was not enough to make him competitive enough in the job market, prompting his decision to get a master’s degree.
So while working as a waiter, supporting my mom through her schooling and raising four children, he went back to get his Master’s in Science in Administration.
In 2010, his strategy paid off, and he found a new job with Ford. We moved into a new home where I was finally able to get my own bedroom after sharing one with my brother for 11 years.
Watching my parents doggedly pursue higher education during my formative years had a profound impact on me. I witnessed firsthand the link between education and our family’s increasing financial success. I remember getting a new car for the first time in the 8th grade, one that didn’t smell like somebody else’s dog and had windows that didn’t get stuck every time you tried to roll them down.
You might think that five degrees in our family would be enough for my mother. No, she wanted more, and she returned to school in 2011 to pursue her Doctorate of Health Administration.
I sometimes resented my parents’ drive for education growing up. I remember thinking:
“If only I didn’t have so many siblings we would have more money.”
“If only my parents didn’t keep taking out loans for school.”
“My parents don’t have enough time for me and we still don’t have enough money so what’s the point.”
But I saw over time, that parents are people too, and that they have dreams just as much as I do.
From my dad, I learned how to strive, that sometimes you are the tortoise, not the hare, and that’s okay. I’ve also learned that attaining higher education is not always accessible and with America’s crippling student debt crisis, people are debating if the high risk is worth the reward.
When I was younger, I directed anger at my parents; today I see the absurdly high cost of education as a systemic problem.
Despite ongoing systemic racism and because of their fortitude, my family has survived and ultimately thrived.
My father now works for Ford as a vehicle engineer and uses his master’s degree to do business with other engineers in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Australia, and other states across America.
Last summer my mom finished her doctorate after 10 long years of school. She is now Dr. Thomas and works as the chief operating officer for the Detroit nonprofit Alternatives for Girls.
Although I’ve seen struggle, this is not a struggle story. That story belongs to my paternal great-grandmother, Mildred Smith, who eventually got a doctorate from a Bible College.
Although I’ve been taught how to survive, this is not a survival story. That story belongs to my grandmother, Barbara Thomas, who got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and then went on to earn a Master’s.
This is a success story. This story belongs to my parents and their parents.
It’s the result of my ancestors doing it for their descendants and lifting as they climbed. I’m a fifth-generation Detroiter and fourth-generation college graduate.
My mother and father both punched through glass ceilings and used the shards to build me a floor. I’m just the griot who has the privilege of telling their story. Now I’m off to write my own.
This story was produced through Detour’s economic mobility fellows program, with coaching support from the Detroit Writing Room and funding from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Camille Simone Thomas is a Detroit/NYC-based artist, creative actor, writer, deviser and sometimes producer who believes it is her duty and her honor to tell the stories of all the various generations contained inside of her. Her one-woman show “yOU CaN TAke ouT a PArEnT pLUS lOaN” has been performed/developed with The Red Curtain International Good The@Tre Festival (Best Script winner), The National Women’s Theatre Festival (Jury Selection for Best Performance winner), American Slavery Project as part of their women’s month series and with BlackBoard Play Reading Series.