This profile is part of a series of stories that examines the persistence of the racial wealth gap in America, which has dramatically increased in recent decades, and its relationship to income inequality.
The transmission recently failed on J Vibez’s warhorse of a 2007 white Chevy Impala, a setback the young nonbinary native of Jackson, Mississippi, has taken in stride and is “pushing through” with a little help from their friends and the Uber app, while saving for a new ride.
It was the car that J had slept in for a cold three months in the early days of the COVID lockdown, unhoused because their status as an independent contractor rendered them ineligible for unemployment benefits. But J Vibez, 24, says that being born into a generation that’s already suffered two recessions, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, nonstop police violence against Black youth, a global pandemic and a fresh wave of ongoing climate disasters, helps them have a sense of perspective about this particular hardship.
“I had to give that old car away,” J deadpans. “Time for a fresh one.”
Born Jasmine Wells in 1997, J Vibez lived with their mother and two siblings in what they describe as a lower class household. It was paycheck to paycheck when J Vibez’s mother worked at Popeyes or at Gail Pittman Design in Ridgeland, Mississippi, painting ceramic pots to decorate the homes and gardens of the more well-off. There were periods when they moved in with an auntie or J Vibez’s maternal grandmother.
J Vibez says their mother operated from a stance that viewed poverty as a transitory condition and that, if they persevered, it would pass and be replaced by abundance.
While some land held by J Vibez’s granddaddy may eventually pass down to the next generation, there was no money to cushion them in lean times. The young family typically slept on bedrolls on the floor until J Vibez was 7, when their fortunes improved after their mother remarried. Their stepdad was a union electrician. While J Vibez doesn’t know what his exact salary was 20 years ago, in 2021, the average hourly pay in Mississippi for journeymen electricians is $23.20. Despite occasional layoffs, sometimes lasting for multiple months, the family eventually elevated its economic status to lower middle class, living in an apartment complex in proximity to the better public schools in the area.
“After that, I shared a bed with my sister,” they say. “The first time I had a bed of my own was when I went away to college.”
J Vibez says their mother, who later became a volunteer coordinator for the American Red Cross, raised “strong soldiers,” largely because she instilled in them the values of honesty and authenticity — to always be themselves, to know their worth, to know that they had a voice and that their voice mattered, and to be in service to others. She operated from a stance that viewed poverty as a transitory condition and that, if they persevered, it would pass and be replaced by abundance.
“We did things together,” J Vibez explains. “We made sure we had adventures.” Such as trekking on the forest trails; making a contest out of foraging for edible plants; or playing games of strategy with their granddaddy, a math wiz who taught them chess and checkers. At school, where their intellectual skills were observed, J Vibez was admitted to the “Open Door” program for gifted students.
“I’ve always had a vision for my life,” J Vibez says. “As a child, I wanted to become a lawyer and a judge; I was sure I was gonna go to Vanderbilt or Harvard.” Later they became interested in psychology and, more recently, visual storytelling. The dream of the Ivy League was supplanted by notions of attending one of the more culturally supportive Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but given the family’s financial reality, even affording in-state HBCUs proved challenging. For J, the path to Alcorn State University (current tuition: just under $8,000 per semester) and later Jackson State (current tuition just under $8,500 per semester) was full of low wage service jobs that often involved double shifts and 80-hour work weeks, resulting in scholastic hiatuses that have made it hard to earn a degree.
“I’ve always had a vision for my life. As a child, I wanted to become a lawyer and a judge; I was sure I was gonna go to Vanderbilt or Harvard.”
At 17, J Vibez became a server at Logan’s Roadhouse in Pearl, Mississippi, arriving daily after high school at around 4-4:30 p.m. and working until somewhere between 11 p.m. and midnight for a paycheck that averaged $150 a week, reflecting the hourly wage of $2.13 for restaurant workers, minus income taxes. The federal subminimum wage, a legacy of slavery, is legal if, combined with tips, it aggregates to the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour and has been unchanged since 2009.
“I didn’t get a lot of tips, maybe around $40 a shift,” recalls J, adding that they were the youngest server at the restaurant.
Those proceeds plus a band scholarship (they play alto and baritone saxophone) covered tuition, room and board in their freshman year, but they borrowed $18,000 to pay for their sophomore year — a debt that’s been partially repaid, and is currently in forbearance.
“I really hope Joe Biden will cancel it,” J Vibez says, noting reports that the White House is considering several different student debt forgiveness proposals.
Unwilling to take on more loans, J left school and worked the third shift at a Waffle House for two years, often working doubles for about $600 a week. Then there was a stint on the third shift as a package handler at UPS for $10.45 an hour; time spent dishwashing at a hospital for just over $9 an hour; and staffing the concession at Cinemark for $8.25 an hour. Their highest starting wage was at FedEx, where they worked the third shift as a package handler for $11.45 an hour. A few months as a juicer at Mama Nature’s at $8.25 an hour led to a manager slot for $12 an hour.
By their nature, J Vibez seems incapable of complaining about these low-paying, dead-end jobs. “I enjoy it all,” they say. “I take away the lessons I learn and use them to make me stronger, or better. I always appreciate life. But none of it was what I wanted or where I was going.”
Putting it another way, they say: “Y’all leaving us a shit show, but we’re going to dance with it.”
“I’m not asking America for any money reparations right now, but if they want to provide that 40 acres and a mule, I’ll take that for a buck two eighty.”
Since COVID-19 surged in Mississippi, J Vibez has applied their outsized work ethic to serving their community. As a consequence, their vision for their future professional life has expanded accordingly. They’re now torn among several possible directions: wanting to grow a communications and media business dedicated to supporting social justice nonprofits like the Mississippi Rapid Response & Relief Coalition and Black Youth Project 100; availing themselves of several opportunities to help organize urgent grassroots campaigns in Mobile, Atlanta and in Jackson; or making films that “bring awareness of the queerness in the land.” They’re pursuing grants to support queer and Black storytelling, attracting angel investors to the film projects, and actively participating in mutual aid networks that emphasize bartering, sharing and cooperation. They hope their 9-5 shift working days are behind them and have forsworn any additional loans beyond the current burden.
“I’m not asking America for any money reparations right now,” they say, playfully adding, “but if they want to provide that 40 acres and a mule, I’ll take that for a buck two eighty.”
Part of their ambition is to ease the way for their younger siblings who, following their example, have already begun earning their way. Their brother, now 19, sold snacks in high school and has been working hard at service jobs for the last two years; and their 15-year-old sister just got her first slot as a server, with a schedule similar to the one J Vibez worked, at Logan’s Roadhouse.
Their vision for life at 30, six years in the future, is starting to take shape now.
“I’ll be thanking the Most High for allowing me to make it to 30. Either I’ll be traveling somewhere on a campaign, or I’ll be a director with three to four films out, or I’m a director of communications for BYP 100. Hopefully, we’ll be building not protesting. We’ll have our own banks, a Black Wall Street. And if y’all try to burn it, we’ll burn y’all’s right back.”
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