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Read an excerpt from Michael Arceneaux's new essay collection, 'I Finally Bought Some Jordans'

Michael Arceneaux wrote a book about his personal debt. Then, people started asking him about it.
Michael Arceneaux
Courtesy Michael Arceneaux

Essayist Michael Arceneaux wrote about his life in his previous two collections, "I Can't Date Jesus" and "I Don't Want to Die Poor." In his third book, "I Finally Bought Some Jordans," out March 12, Arceneaux confronts the ramifications of making the private public.

After sharing burden of student loan debt and the idea of economic anxiety, people know about his finances — and are willing to ask. In the below essay excerpt, Arceneaux recounts how he responded to an awkward conversation that began with something along the lines of, "Are you still poor?"

Other essays in "I Finally Bought Some Jordans" expand on the idea of being a Black working creative — plus touch on success, family, race and, of course, Beyoncé. Arceneaux is making his voice heard with funny and vulnerable essays, and writing about the consequences in real time, too.

Read an excerpt of 'I Finally Bought Some Jordans'

There is no nice way of asking a person, “Are you still poor?”

Not that some people won’t try.

Admittedly, she didn’t phrase it that way exactly, but I picked up on what was being put down.

She wanted to know how poor I felt that day.

I was doing a promotional interview for my second book with a radio station based in Amsterdam.

As she explained over Zoom, she was surprised to read that my student loan debt remained such a financial burden in my life after the release of my first book.

She wanted to know the status of my debt now that I have another one out and maybe a TV show coming (heavy emphasis on the “maybe”).

Following a couple of other interviews with the European press, I have gotten used to their pity masked as questions. Say, “What’s it like to worry about getting shot in a mass shooting every day of your life?” Or “Why is your healthcare system so stupid and evil?” Student loan debt existed where she lived, but not at the scale I wrote about. She said as much, hence her worry.

But folks worried over here, too.

After the release of that book, people have written to me about their own struggles with student loan debt. I got a few nobody-told-you-to-do-that responses, too. Generally, though, those who read the book and reached out to me were hoping that I no longer felt like my life was being strangled by my student loans. 

So she was coming from a good place, albeit I wasn’t sure how I wanted to answer.

Writing about it is one thing; speaking openly about it with a stranger is another. 

I answer questions honestly, but while I didn’t write the book to be pitied, I didn’t share my story to be scolded, either. That happened in one particular radio interview. As amusing as it is to be lectured by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, it’s a waste of minutes better spent just trying to gauge interest in the book. I can’t control the people underselling me and the industries designed to undercut me. I do the best I can with the conditions that I have been dealt. That was the point of the book—reaching that place in my life. 

After that experience, I learned to be more selective with which questions to answer.

 In this case, I answered in a way I felt most comfortable with at that moment. 

The loans don’t have me in the poorhouse like they used to. 

It was a satisfying-enough answer for the both of us.

She followed by asking about capitalism in the age of the pandemic. Something about whether I felt socialism is a better model and some other questions that felt way too early in the day in my time zone to talk about. I said that I understood and agreed with the underlying point in the framing of her question—capitalism is bad—but noted that as far as facilitating death goes, if you look around, various nations with different types of governments are equally guilty of lying to their people and letting their citizens die. I found it genuinely depressing to think about and wanted to shift away from the topic and other questions that reminded me of those college debate scenes in Power Book II: Ghost. It’s no shade; she did a fine interview. I don’t like the system as it is, either, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon. 

I ended by pivoting back to the book, saying my best way to deal with capitalism at this point in my life was to crawl out of debt as fast as possible.

The plague did impact me financially, as I wasn’t able to physically go outside and make money as I had planned to, but I was fortunate to be able to continue working from home. 

It was not the year I planned for, but the end result was feeling more financially secure in that I was able to make my payments, big as they remained, on time. That was only comforting to me for a few months. Unless I dropped a sizable portion of that debt, my life wouldn’t change much. I’d always have that in the back of my head. I decided to take on as much work as possible for as long as I could manage. 

I took on as many writing assignments as I could find. I was also doing speaking engagements when I could. I was not sure how well I performed from my living room. There’s only so much you can glean from the corner of your eye as you talk and people leave comments.

I first started to pay off my credit card debt and then moved to my student loans one by one.

These were not small amounts of money. I still owed tens of thousands in student loans.

Little by little I knocked the smallest loans out, and in spite of providing some nominal relief, I didn’t make a real difference until I was paid for the pilot of my first failed TV development project. I did not hit the lottery, but the check for that script was the largest check I had ever received for a single bit of work. Even if I was disappointed by the outcome, this was enough to get me past the biggest financial burden of my life. 

I am not totally debt-free. I have one private loan left with a low balance and two government loans. But as far as the nuisance in my life, my main lender, Citibank, and later, Discover Student Loans, I was done with them forever. 

No more of their calls, letters, emails, and texts. No more reminders of what might happen to me (and my mama) if I didn’t find the money to settle the balance before the loan went into default. No more worries of that happening and confirming my suspicions that my career was a selfish pursuit.

Excerpted from I Finally Bought Some Jordans. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2024 by Michael Arceneaux.