‘I Have To Make These Years Count’
This article is part of Ambition Diaries; read the full series here.
Growing up in West Pullman on Chicago’s South Side in the 70s, Tanya Perry, 58, watched her mother work multiple jobs to provide for the family. As the oldest of three girls, Tanya pitched in, getting a job at 13 and feeding dinner to her younger sisters each night. She always dreamed of a life beyond her neighborhood, a life of higher education, international travel and creative ambition.
Tanya married and had her daughter Nikki, when she was 21 years old. After her marriage ended, when Nikki was 7 years old, mother and daughter forged a new life together, first in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood and later, when Nikki turned 12, in suburban Homewood. The transition from a Black city neighborhood to a white suburb came with its own hazards—from culture shock and an identity crisis to hurled racial slurs—but it also set Nikki up for the future of Tanya’s dreams: a college degree, friendships across cultures, trips abroad, an expanded worldview and an acting career.
Today Nikki at 37, is a writer, actor and director of communications for her church. She had a role on “The Big Leap” on Fox and wrote a series of Black monologues, which were performed at the Victory Garden Theater in Chicago. After years of working in door-to-door sales, Tanya launched a custom craft and design business called Black Coffee Bling.
As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the pair spoke with Fast Company about their family’s multi-generational, matriarchal narrative, and how work, motherhood, faith and the pandemic has shaped the pursuit of their dreams.
The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.
“IT WAS A SEASON OF JUST US”
Nikki: Ma, how would you describe growing up here in Chicago?
Tanya: The South Side Chicago back in the ’70s was the best place to grow up. But there were struggles. My mom would work, sometimes two, three jobs just to make ends meet. She worked at Duncan YMCA, then at the cleaners, where there was no air conditioning.
Nikki: You got married at 20 and had me at 21. How did life change when you and my dad got a divorce and you became a single mom?
Tanya: Me and your dad, we always loved each other, but I was young, he was young. He worked three jobs…[at] the meat factory, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. It was just depressing because I was in the house by myself with a child. We did last eight years. We always remained friends. We always knew how to co-parent.
What was that experience like for you as a little girl?
Nikki: I have memories of you and me living in Roseland; we had a mattress on the floor. It was a season of just us. I remember walking through the streets of Chicago at night by ourselves, just vulnerable out there. Then I got older [after you got remarried] and [I] realized I’m the poster [child] for a blended family. [But when it first happened] You getting remarried, you having another child. I was just like, “What is happening?”
“WE WERE THE FIRST BLACK FAMILY IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD”
Nikki: Throughout my childhood, you did a lot of door-to-door sales. What were some of the greatest challenges you faced?
Tanya:I remember working for Chicago HMO. I was a supervisor. I don’t know if you remember the [housing] projects.
Nikki: I can’t forget those buildings. I can’t forget the reputation.
Tanya: Imagine yourself, door-to-door sales, the projects. I remember one time leaving and the police telling us to go back in. It was right in the middle of a gang fight.
I worked for Comcast in Tinley Park [a mostly white neighborhood]. I would go to this man’s house – a customer. He would never answer the door. One time I noticed him in the garage. I’m walking towards his house and he’s like, “Get off of my property, you n—.” And so I said, “I’m somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter.” Within five minutes, the Tinley Park Police was there, like I had really did something bad. They told me to leave, to not to come back to Tinley Park.
Nikki: How did that experience shape your hopes for me?
Tanya: That experience really, really hurt. It’s hard being a parent, knowing what your children are going to have to encounter. When we moved to Homewood, we were the first Black family. You encountered people driving down the street saying racial slurs.
But I wanted you to go to a blue ribbon school. Seeing you transition to a blue ribbon school and being the first generation to go to college…that was a proud mommy moment for me.
How did moving to Homewood affect you?
Nikki: It was a huge culture shift. All of our family in the city said, “You talk white.” I liked NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. I’m watching BET and MTV.
I definitely have to shout out my father, because the foundation he set, him joining the Nation of Islam, just making it plain: You are Black, and you are proud. I’m sort of in my own right a historian, a race relationist.
“I HAVE TO MAKE THESE YEARS COUNT.”
Tanya: I always lived with some regrets…I felt so bad that you weren’t able to finish Columbia College.
Nikki: Yeah, I went for theater, [then] financial aid started to run out. When I had to drop out, it was the most depressing season. I would lay in bed, watching Oprah, bawling like, “God, I want to be like Oprah. Now I have to drop out of college and my life is over.”
After that, I did a little work as a makeup artist. Then I went to a small liberal arts evangelical college, North Park University. I majored in media studies and minored in Africana studies. I graduated. God worked it out.
Tanya: It’s never over. God is always writing our story. How has the pandemic impacted your relationship to work and ambition?
Nikki: I’ve stopped going out to theater for auditions. I’ve missed opportunities. [My daughter] India is four. She should be in pre-K but I’ve been homeschooling. I have her registered for camp. I’m nervous, but at this point I have to go to work. Her dad has to go to work.
Tanya: So you have your ambition back?
Nikki: Being an actor in the midst of COVID definitely pulled out a lot of creativity. It made me a beast. We’ve lost so many people. Now when I’m auditioning, I have some depth in me because I’ve experienced life. What about you?
Tanya: It’s funny you should say that word. Beast. Because now I’m an entrepreneur beast. I’m not going back to sales unless I’m selling my own stuff through Black Coffee Bling. My ambition is more now. I’m getting older, so I have to make these years count.
When your brother Braxton had COVID, he had blood clots in his lungs and heart and needed open-heart surgery. After he survived, my aunt and sister-in-law ended up passing from COVID. The pandemic has really taught me that life is fragile.
“I FEEL LIKE I HAVE BARELY ESCAPED THE POVERTY THAT PLAGUED MY ANCESTORS.”
Tanya: Nikki, each of us built on the hard work of our mothers. Do you feel like things have gotten better throughout the years?
Nikki: Things are getting better, but there’s still so much work to do, because a lot of [our success] is individual—not a communal shift.
I think of Grandma working in the cleaners, and you working in sales. It’s allowed me to go to college and give my daughter greater opportunities. [Still], I feel like I have barely escaped the poverty that plagued my ancestors. I think the pandemic taught me that it’s time to step it up, to invest, to create generational wealth.
Tanya: When I look at you, I see a strong Black woman who is determined to write her own story. I’m so grateful that the Lord gave me you.
Nikki: When I look at you, I see endurance. I’m sure you had dreams. You put them down to pick up being a mom and a provider. I thank you for doing that for us.
Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer and author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism.
Akilah Townsend is a photographer and art director who was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois.
Co-published with Fast Company.