Elbow Grease and Sweat Equity, by Jimmie Lee Hollis

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When television news reports show homes located in poor neighborhoods, you often see a lot of trash, litter and other debris strewn about in the yards and on the porches. A well-dressed commentator usually stands in front of these homes with microphone in hand and a phony look of concern on his or her face. With a pained expression, they lament about how white racism and poverty are the major causes of such conditions.

Not one word is said about the responsibility of those living in the homes. Not one word is uttered about “elbow grease” and “sweat equity.” I’m not blaming the poor for being poor, but I do think people should be held accountable for the common personal cleanliness of themselves and their living areas. A little basic soap, water, trash pick-up and disposal can do wonders for a home – and it only costs a little time, elbow grease and sweat equity.

How do I know this?

I grew up in a financially poor household in a segregated neighborhood in southern Illinois. It was a time when racism was openly restrictive and there was not a lot of “help” for poor blacks or whites. Yet I never saw homes in my neighborhood with trash like discarded sofas and broken toys lying about the property. Mr. Jones, our neighborhood drunk who was nicknamed “Hack-Daddy,” however, could occasionally be found lying in someone’s yard after a night of “socializing.” But even he was conscious of his appearance. While many of our homes were sub-standard and most had no inside plumbing, the way residents treated them would make you think these people were living in palaces.

I remember mowing weeds. Yes, weeds! We called it a lawn. It was green and, when mowed, it looked pretty good to us. So, with a broken-down lawn mower, I went to it every weekend (with a little guidance from mom, of course). Our “lawn” was neat and contained no litter. No old broken down-cars and sofas in our yard, no sir! Mom wouldn’t have it! She taught my sister and me that there was never a reason for filth and being dirty because cleanliness was next to godliness – and she meant it.

We were financially poor, but we were very rich in love – and we were clean. I can’t count the number of times my sister and I scrubbed, dusted, cleaned and waxed those old aging floors and furniture. Imagine dusting a house in a neighborhood where cars went by on unpaved roads, leaving clouds of dust to get on everything. My sister and I dusted at least two or three times a day. That old house was not much, but it was our home.

We did not see ourselves as victims. In fact, we felt very proud of the fact that we could do so much with so little and still prosper in spite of oppressive racism. And prosper we did because of great teachers, honorable parents, an enforced work ethic, learned self-responsibility and, above all, faith and trust in God.

So when I see homes in poor areas being shown with litter, trash and debris strewn around and other horrible conditions, I wonder whatever happened to good old-fashioned elbow grease and sweat equity?

Racism can’t stop people from picking up trash and garbage from their own living areas. Poverty does not prevent one from dusting and cleaning. Racism can affect and hinder a lot of things, but being clean is not one of them. Elbow grease and sweat equity work as well today as they did many years ago.


(Jimmie Lee Hollis, a retired U.S. Air Force Senior NCO, is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)

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