Those were hard times, after slavery days. Much of the South was scarred by the Civil War and there wasn't much food or supplies among the whites, let alone the N****es. (2.5.12)
The hardships experienced in the South following the Civil War likely sowed the seeds for the social unrest that would follow. After all, it was wealthy Southerners who had the most to gain out of keeping the slave trade going, yet it is the poor folk (both white and black) that are left to suffer.
Most of the slaves, when they were freed, wandered about the countryside like shell-shocked soldiers. Papa said everywhere you went, it seemed you saw N****es asking, begging for something. (2.5.12)
The people in charge rigged the system so newly freed slaves would have few opportunities to get on their feet. Although the Delany family is able to avoid this for the most part, they still feel the effect of these harsh conditions.
It always seemed like somebody was knocking on the door, looking for food. Mama never turned anyone away. (3.7.19)
Although the Delanys don't have a lot, they're always willing to help the less fortunate. Nanny's example will serve her kids well, as Sadie and Bessie continue to help the poor after moving to Harlem.
This was forty-five years after the Surrender, and most of these N****es were in bad shape, child. It was like the ghetto is today. (4.13.13)
Although our country has come a long way since the Civil War, it's important to remember that poverty remains a serious problem to this day. It's also worth remembering that even modern problems have deep-seated historical roots.
Most of the students at the dental school were self-assured city folk, and their families were paying their tuition. I never had the luxury of focusing completely on my studies. (5.17.5)
Although Bessie is too strong-willed to give up, you can easily imagine another disadvantaged student being unable to juggle both work and school. How many poor kids were unable to achieve their dreams because they had to overcome twice as many hurdles as their wealthier peers?
Imagine not knowing that your child's neck is dirty. Well, there are a lot of people who weren't raised properly themselves, how can they teach their children right? (5.22.5)
Sadie hits the nail on the head. Not only does she rightly observe that poverty is cyclical, but she also identifies education as the best way out. To stop poverty, you have to break the cycle.
I'll tell you another thing about Jamaica that I learned: It was a poor place, a very poor place. The poor folks were the poorest I'd ever seen, and that includes those backwoods folks in the South (5.25.14)
There's poverty and then there's poverty—Bessie never really realized the difference until she went on this trip. This helps Bessie appreciate not only the relative ease of her own upbringing, but the well-being of her people back home.
Us N****es, well, we knew what it was like to hit bottom, anyway. For my people, hardship was a way of life. The Great Depression was just another crisis. (5.25.22)
If there's one advantage to living through hard times, it's that it helps you better handle things going down the toilet. That's little consolation for an individual, but there's no doubt that hardship—if overcome—can ultimately strengthen a community.
You can't just take people who don't have anything, don't know what they're doing, pack them in a bunch of buildings, and expect it's going to all work out somehow. (6.29.11)
The book emphasizes a single point again and again—that education is the first step up the economic ladder. You're certainly not helping people by treating them like replaceable gears in a giant machine.