What Does ‘Vex Money’ Do to Love?

Vex money. Noun. Origin: Anglophone Caribbean. Meaning: money stashed on your person or in a secret place (a brassiere, a bank account, your grandmother’s Bible, your sneakers). To be spent only in case of emergency brought upon by a once stable situation suddenly becoming vexed — usually, but not always, because of a man. See: the need for a swift exit in response to the threat of sexual assault. See also: the dissolution of a relationship, the loss of a job or being displaced from your home. Related to but not the same as the threat often uttered by an Afro-Caribbean woman: “Don’t get me vex.” Or “She/he/they get me vex, get me on my nerves.”

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about vex money. Like many things whispered by my mothers and grandmothers and aunties, I heard the phrase when I was a little girl, but I wasn’t sure what it was. As a child, I dared not ask too many questions about it for fear of being labeled “fast,” or its cousin, “too nuff.” To insert yourself into big people’s conversations was to welcome admonishment, a turned shoulder, a ferrying back out into the world of children where you belonged.

I grew up in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, splitting time between my West Indian parents, who divorced when I was young. In my Afro-Caribbean immigrant community, there were many married couples around, but I sensed tension within them. Few seemed truly happy to me. There were whispers about outside women and illegitimate children, clucked tongues about men who gambled away both their own earnings and their family’s savings. I was taught that it was preferable to remain married even in the face of profound betrayal. But I also came to understand that staying married didn’t mean foolishly depending on a man who was either incapable of or unwilling to provide for his family.

I saw women demand that their husbands hand over their paychecks before they went out to spend money on booze, betting and more. Others devotedly saved money through “susu,” an informal savings club. Some stashed money in secret bank accounts or carried substantial amounts of cash in their purses to keep it out of reach of their spouses.

Even as a child, I wondered about how these whispers about terrible husbands seemed to echo harmful stereotypes about Black men. They didn’t jibe with the father that I knew and loved — an honest, reliable provider who cooked dinner, shopped for groceries and changed his schedule to be more available for his children.

But even he reinforced a similar message. My father drilled home the idea that my sister and I should never wait on a man to provide for us financially. He fiercely encouraged us to attain advanced degrees (he had bachelor’s and master’s degrees and wanted even more for us both), take up meaningful careers, save our money, invest in property and more. In the words of Billie Holiday, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” In the words of a friend with an upbringing similar to my own, Columbia University historian Natasha Lightfoot, “You are your own safety net.”

When I was in high school, my father and stepmother bought a home in south Brooklyn — a comfortable three-bedroom home that felt palatial compared with the apartments we’d lived in before. We were one of the first Black families to buy a house on our block; our presence seemed to prompt the white flight of our neighbors. As homeowners, my family was part of the Black middle class, but I always felt the tenuous nature of our success.

My community believed in the gospels of education and work. They held fast to their faith in the American dream and in meritocracy, and to the myth of West Indian exceptionalism. Opportunities and advancement were always available, these gospels proclaimed, to people who were willing and able to work hard. Some members of my community wrongly believed that personal failings and a lack of ambition, rather than structural racism and a history of enslavement, were what held back the progress of other Black Americans.

The spring after my 14th birthday, my stepmother took me to get working papers at an office in Downtown Brooklyn lorded over by a legendarily cranky woman. I’d spent the previous summers with my family in Barbados, where my mother is from, and in Antigua, where my dad is from. Those carefree days of counting mosquito bites, telling ghost stories, playing video games, sucking flavored ice out of plastic bags sold by our neighbors and trading the penance of Sunday church service for the promise of Sunday beach afternoons came to a swift end with my coming-of-age as a worker.

My first job was through New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program. I was paid minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, to answer phones at a legal nonprofit, make copies and stay out of the way. My weekly paycheck was around $92 after taxes. With the roughly $1,000 I earned that summer, I bought myself a green Tommy Hilfiger jacket, an orange Nautica coat and Timberland boots. Other girls in our neighborhood wore clothes that were gifts from the guys they dated, but I was never allowed to accept gifts or money from anyone outside our family, especially not boys. My parents were keenly aware of the ways that boys and men might try to use money to control their girl children.

Being a chubby, nerdy and occasionally self-righteous teenager meant that I didn’t have to refuse many gifts. I was 17 by the time I went on my first date. The unlucky young man, a classmate from middle school whose name I’ve forgotten, invited me to a movie at the mall. My date knew that my stoic West Indian father would not appreciate his honking the horn to signal that I should meet him outside, so he came to the door and made polite, awkward conversation in our kitchen. Before I left that night, I stashed a $20 bill in my bra — some vex money of my own. I wanted to make sure that I had car fare home in case he tried any funny business that separated me from my purse, or my dignity.

Credit…Antoine Cossé

Stashing money in your bra when meeting a relatively unfamiliar young man for a first date still strikes me as a reasonable, harmless precaution. But as I got older, I began to see that the idea of vex money had an uncomfortable hold on me.

I met my husband in Harlem in the winter of 2017. Just before we got married, we moved into an apartment I’d bought in Brooklyn 11 years before, a modest studio. To afford it, I had cobbled together my savings, resources from first-time home-buyer programs and a $200 gift from my parents for the inspection. I felt protective and proprietary about the apartment, which had been both a sanctuary and a point of pride for me over the years. I bristled as he bought new cutlery and plates, as he insisted upon buying new bedding, even though there were perfectly good sheets and comforters I’d handpicked over the years. I tried to make more physical and emotional space for him, but I struggled to consider the apartment ours. I felt afraid to commit to the full intimacy of our bond lest he prove unreliable.

The self-sufficiency of West Indian women and their suspicion of others, particularly men, are bound up together. For many of us, marriage is a worthy ideal to aspire to, but a truly wise woman doesn’t count on it. She has to know how she’d make a way for herself and her children should a relationship go south. Part and parcel of this is making sure that you always work and hold back something for yourself. Vex money is the manifestation of our unwillingness to trust.

I rarely borrow even $20 from my husband or my friends because I hate feeling indebted to anyone. I still keep cash on hand at all times, even as it falls out of fashion. I am wary of unfamiliar people and the world at large, and I still believe that having a bit of cash to “keep my pocket alive,” as my friend’s grandmother often said, is a safeguard against the dangers of being Black and a woman — though I know it’s not enough. Often in my marriage I have argued for making a purchase by insisting that I’m using “my own money” to pay for it. I know that these disagreements open fissures between us that cannot be easily repaired.

There is something tragic about living like this, with one foot out the door of intimate relationships. But it is the only way I know how to live, a coping mechanism that helps me feel vulnerable enough to remain in a committed relationship but safe enough to know that staying isn’t my only option.

Every woman, every person, should have at least this: the ability to leave the table when, in the words of Nina Simone, “love’s no longer being served.” So many Americans do not have the resources to respond to emergencies, as we often live one missed paycheck or medical problem away from financial ruin. The Black middle class, which was always small, has struggled even more in recent years in response to factors like predatory lending, gentrification, the pandemic. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is poised to have devastating consequences for poor and working-class women who need abortions but don’t have the money to travel to a clinic out of state.

Credit…Antoine Cossé

Now as ever, safety is in short supply for Black women and girls. We must protect ourselves. Still, I wish I could relax into the plush comfort of a relationship; perhaps one day I won’t feel the need for vex money.

Recently, as I walked in the park with my son on a perfect Brooklyn day, I thought of my grandmothers, my beloved Ruth Jackson and Oriel Brewster. The women in my family were stalwart. I laughed remembering how they stashed money around their houses, ready to hide it from a burglar or offer it to a grandchild. I wondered whether it was vex money that had allowed Oriel to walk away from a marriage that was less than ideal. On that sunny day, I was glad to push those heavier thoughts aside as I looked in my purse for a few dollars to buy a cherry mango ice for me and my son. As we shared our first taste of summer, I allowed myself to appreciate the sweetness of a bit of cash to keep your pocket alive.

Naomi Jackson is the author of “The Star Side of Bird Hill”and an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark.

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