Seeds of Change:
A Dialogue with Jaydee QuinItchette
Black Ancestry, Resilience Through Hardship, & Hope Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
Published May 2021 in Collaboration with Duke's Farmworkers in NC Service Learning Class
Content by Florence Zhao, Duke University, Trinity College, Class of 2022
Design by Michelle Liang, Duke University, Trinity College, Class of 2023
Jaydee at the Serenity Community Garden by the bird feeder in the backyard of the Church of Philadelphia in Durham.
(This interview from March 10, 2021 was edited and condensed for clarity.)
The below audio files are also available in a continuous stream on Soundcloud here.
Q1: Who are you? What title would you give yourself?
A1: I'm JD Quinitchette, and my pronouns are she and her. And the way I classify myself by nomenclature? I am a person who is between houses. I guess I'm a homeless person. It's hard to get your mind around something like that, and I don't actually want to think of myself as homeless, because that is a recipe for despair. I'm just a person who COVID did a number on my life, and ... sometimes you're on a highwire in the best of times and it doesn't take that much to blow you off that highwire, and that's kind of what happened to me.
Q2: What’s your job now, and what other projects are you working on?
A2: What am I doing now? I’ve always been some sort of secretary. And what I’m doing now for Church of Philadelphia is some of the most fulfilling work that I’ve done. Just being able to distribute food to people, to invite them to church. So this is one of the most fulfilling jobs that I’ve done. I am a math idiot, so I have not finished college. I only want a BA degree, and I still am gonna finish. I’m gonna finish; I’m gonna finish! (I went to Johnson C. Smith; I went to an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities].) So I’m gonna finish, but right now … my dream is to do information system security, cyber security. So what I’m teaching myself now is essentials for the GSEC, the SANS cyber security certification. And I am wrestling with Python. I’m attempting to teach myself Python. And if less-than and greater-than signs make your head hurt [laughs] then you just keep at it and believe that you can learn to program… I’m gonna slay that dragon, I’m gonna slay it.
What I want to do, what this whole COVID pause has done for me, is given me the time to actually really study and to network. I have introduced myself to some people in the cybersecurity arena; I have applied for an immersion academy, it’s on diversity in cybersecurity, I haven’t heard yet, but it starts in July, and by December when I pass I will be fully certified … the international certification is the GSEC. And I have that, and I’ll be able to program, I’m also trying to get into the AI Academy at NC State because it comes with a stipend [thumbs up, laughs] so I’m waiting to hear if they’re gonna let me into that one!
"nothing about my life turned out the way
But if it had,
I probably would have been one of those people who always wanted to work and
Q3: What is the NCBA (National Caucus & Center on Black Aging) and how are you involved?
A3: Pastor Edwina actually introduced me to NCBA, and they're actually a really cool organization. NCBA has been a lifesaver for me. I don’t take it for granted. They got me the interview that I have tomorrow with Corning. Basically what they do is place people of a certain age in jobs and give them a stipend. It saves Church of Philadelphia a salary that they would need to pay a secretary, and it gives me, when I go to apply for jobs, I’m working. This is an employment gap that I don’t have to account for. And that is a blessing. The other thing is that they have job coaching. The way that the thing is set up is that you never stop looking for employment, you know, because this is something that is not designed to be a full time career, it is something to keep you busy while you figure out how you’re gonna support yourself in your latter years. And I like the fact that first of all that it exists, that is very important. Because a lot of black folk have to work long past retirement, or are not thinking about retirement, don’t wanna retire. And I’m pretty sure that I would’ve been one of those people had things gone along as I had expected — nothing about my life turned out the way I expected. But if it had, I probably would have been one of those people who always wanted to work and stay busy, ‘cause I’m from a family of people who were relatively long lived, but they all worked pretty much until they literally couldn’t get out of bed anymore. So that is my family work ethos. You could do a lot of things in my family, but be lazy wasn’t one of them, and I thank God for that.
Q4: Where are you from? How did you get to Durham, North Carolina?
"And it turns out that I am from a
long line of literate slaves."
A4: I am a native New Yorker! I'm from Long Island. I tell people I'm from the “516 that barely exists.” I am from what's called rural New York, with the potatoes and the cauliflower and the asparagus and the vineyards, they were just planting the vineyards when I left there in the 80s.
My mother and I moved to North Carolina when I was 13. It was me, my mother, my sister. And sometimes, Floey, I think about, I should've done more with my life, but we lost my sister in a car accident when she was 17 going on 18. And the last conversation she and I had was about what to get my mother for Mothers’ Day, and we were putting her in the ground on Mother's Day. Her prom dress came in the mail. Her graduation invitations came in the mail two weeks after she died. And my mother basically just fell apart. And I fell apart. But I have a very distinct memory of looking at the calendar, my birthday's in October, so I was 12, 12 and a half, and thinking, "you are looking over the edge." And it was the middle of August and I said, "you have until the end of August to be completely desolate. You have until the end of August to be out of your mind with grief, and then if you have to raise yourself, you need to get it together." And that's kind of how it was after that, because my mother had my sister when she was 15. And they were more like sisters than mother and daughter, and my sister was my mother's best friend. And she was never the same after she died. And so I say again that I look back over my life and I think, maybe you should've done more. And then if I look at it from that point, I think to myself, most people would not have survived with their sanity intact, so that's how I got here and the other thing that I always say when that comes up is that I live my life for two people. Not just one. I live. I'm trying. I am living the life. That maybe not that she would've lived, but I'm a person who doesn't give up, and I'm a person who can take more setbacks than the average person because my setbacks started so early. My sister raised me, Floey. It's not like it is now. There was no welfare. There was no foodstamps, really... My mom, she had three jobs. She was a headstart teacher, a waitress, and a housekeeper. And she used to sleep during the naptime with the kids for headstart, and we only saw our mother on Sunday afternoons, and my sister started taking care of me when she was 9, and I was 4.
My family are long time — way back — North Carolinians. I was raised in Vance County, North Carolina up by Kerr Lake. Vance and Warren County is basically my ancestral home. A lot of people don't think of African Americans as having ancestral homes, but literally there's a church, the Oak Level United Church of Christ. My ancestors and Ben Chavis, the Blood Done Sign My Name, his ancestors and my ancestors started that church in the brushy arbor, which is a place where the slaves would come and they would bend down saplings so it just looked like a bush from the outside, but they would be inside having church. And it turns out that I am from a long line of literate slaves. So my family, somebody from my family would literally lead the service because they could read. And that's basically where I came up.
Elizabeth Keckley, she's my forebear. She is my forebear. She was a Burwell. And she was the property of the Burwells, and my great grandmother who married Dick Coker was Jennie Burwell Coker. And that is a part of history that's kind of submerged because the Burwells educated their slaves; they have been wiped from history because they were farmers, but they were also builders… Not only were my family slave forebears literate, they could read blueprints and schematics as well.
Thomas Jefferson had a manservant called Burwell who’s also my forebear. We’re not all descended from Sally Hemings — I am a descendent of Thomas Jefferson’s manservant, Burwell. And one of the reasons that he wanted Burwell slaves was because they could read… My mother’s nickname, they called her “nickel nose,” because if you look at Thomas Jefferson, he is on the nickel and he has a pointy nose; my mom is a pointy-nosed lady, and her siblings called her “nickel nose!” [laughs] Because she had a nose like Thomas Jefferson!
The point that I want to make about Thomas Jefferson is, the reason that I believe he did not free his slaves is because it was treasonous to teach a slave to read, and all of his slaves just about — his Burwell slaves was literate — if you think about it, Thomas Jefferson was a scientist. What is the means that scientists used to keep their experience? Observation. What do you use to observe? You need to keep a journal. So when he was off in France with Ben Franklin, who kept his experiments going? My forebears. He could not free his slaves. They would’ve hung him high and stretched him wide. So that is my lil piece of American history. And I did the research, but some DNA … will tell the tale.
My great grandfather, Dick Coker, came to Durham, and I've always loved Durham and had an affinity for Durham, and I never knew why, until I started doing my genealogy and talking to my grandmother, and what he did, he refused to sharecrop. In the 40s and the 50s, he came here to Liggett & Myers, learned tobacco husbandry, and he went back to Warren County and told the big farmers, "I will not sharecrop. I will plant your tobacco on your land, and you will pay me. Or you can plant your tobacco on my land, but you're gonna pay me. I'm not going to pay you. There will be no sharecropping."
And the story with that is John Kerr hated my great grandfather. He eminent domained him three separate times. My great grandfather's farm is under Kerr Lake. And we hear a lot about different things that happened to disenfranchised black folk, but the one thing we haven't gotten to yet is how John Kerr inundated a thriving black community. It is under Kerr Lake. My mother told us about how, when they built the dam, and they flooded the community, people didn't have time to move their cars. Black people do not swim in Kerr Lake, because there are houses, there are cars, they just basically watched everything they worked for, slowly the water rose, rose, rose, and it was a deluge. It was inundated. And it is said that there are spots under Kerr Lake, there's a country legend about two twin boys who were walking along Kerr Lake, and one stepped in an uncovered well, he didn't even have time to scream, he just disappeared. So you don't swim in Kerr Lake.
"after what COVID did to his life, he was delivering pizza after he finished college to pay his bills. And he would call me up in tears because that’s not what he went to college for. But I was so proud of him."
Jaydee at the Serenity Community Garden by beds of lettuce.
Q5: How has COVID impacted your life or lives of people you know?
A5: My middle son … He finished A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. He is on track to be employed by Procter & Gamble, but after what COVID did to his life, he was delivering pizza after he finished college to pay his bills. And he would call me up in tears because that’s not what he went to college for. But I was so proud of him because sometimes he would call me while he was delivering pizza. “Thank you,” “have a great day,” “here ya go,” “thanks for the tip,” ya know? He was delivering pizza. And I think to myself, as a single mom, maybe I had something to do with that kind of perseverance. He humbled himself. He humbled himself because I couldn’t help him. In order to keep a roof over his head and pay his car note, he delivered pizza.
And now he is on track to have a kind of job that he deserves. And he did some couch surfing too. He couch surfed for his entire junior year of college. There’s a statistic, Floey, that says, at any given moment, a third of college students are functionally homeless. When they’re not in the dorm, on campus, they don’t have any place to be. And my kid was one of those people. And his grade point average — he graduated with a 3.5, never dropped below a 3.2.
Q6: Can you speak about your experience being a single mother and (re)starting a career in 2021?
A6: I believe the root cause of the life that I’m living at this moment happened when I lost my sister at the age of 13. My whole life was derailed. And there was no help for me. There’s nobody to blame, not even myself, but nobody helped me heal from that. I didn’t know I needed healing, probably until I was in my 30s. And by then, I had 3 kids.... because I was still looking toward the American dream of a nuclear family. It just didn’t happen for me. And I didn’t want to subject my children to any more bad romance than I had to, and so it caused me to spend much of my life alone as a single parent. And not to be able to build a relationship network of people. And once my children were grown, what I found out is that people will help your kids, people will help you if you have kids. But once you’re on your own, you’re on your own. Except for Pastor Edwina and Church of Philadelphia.
But even all good things come to a close, and at some point, you have to dig deep and figure out what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life. I decided a long time ago that I would not give my life to my children. But once they were grown, I would have the time that I needed for my own life. I didn’t think about ageism, I didn’t think about age discrimination. The unintended consequence of not giving my life to an employer is that I’m in better health than the average 56-year-old person because I was able to preserve my health to be at home for my children. And… I was forced by an incident to come to the conclusion that I needed to be home with my kids. I was working and Malachi was sent home from school, he was in kindergarten on a day that was 18 degrees, and if we hadn’t had a covered porch, he was locked out of the house in kindergarten, I was working making $6.25 an hour, selling those large-sized fashions. If he had frozen to death, they wouldn’t have blamed the social worker, they would not have blamed all the people who told me “get a job,” they would’ve blamed me. I would blame myself. And when I got home from work and he said, “Mommy you promised me this would never happen to me! You promised!” and I promised him from that day forward, that I would be at home when he got there. And I kept my promise. But now I don’t have a pension, I don’t have enough quarters for Social Security, I don’t have any of those things. If that had not happened to him, I would have done my best to just work my way up through any kind of job. But my leap of faith was, you’re not supposed to make deals with God, but the deal I made with God was that you help me take care of these children, I’m going to stay at home with them. And I will work. My retirement plan is to work until I can’t move.
Q7: What are the take-home messages that you want the audience to know?
A7: I have had probably the worst two years of my life. My self esteem and my self concept have taken a real beating. But I’m still standing.
And I have concern for people who are in structural poverty because it’s a mind prison sometimes. I also have real concern for the people who are facing the same things that I’m facing, but never thought that they would have to face something like homelessness or joblessness or not knowing where your next meal is coming from. There are more people who are suffering than we realize. And there was a certain point in this pandemic, Floey, where I thought, maybe it needs to get bad enough for it to spill over into the public discourse because people are suffering in silence. Middle class people are suffering in silence. One of my biggest complaints about this whole thing is that we bailed out the auto industry. We bailed them out! But it has been radio silence for them calling a moratorium on car loans. You have a $400 car payment and that’s the only thing between you and destitution; you’re gonna pay that car note before you buy groceries And if you are used to being able to pay your bills and not having to ask anybody for anything, unless you have small children, you are gonna go hungry. You’re not gonna do what you’re supposed to do to ask for help. I’m concerned for those people too.
"And not only for myself, not only for my kids, but for all the people who didn’t deserve to die, I have to keep it moving. I have to keep going. I have to keep going."
People who want to help: it’s not just like, what I call myself, the helpee, but the helpers. I think about the people who are doing the work that you’re doing to try to help people. Then you run into people and you think, I can’t help you, you won’t help yourself, those are the shackles on their minds that only they can dig deep and deal with. I have some of that work to do. But then there’s the other side of it where people who have always had what they needed want to help people who have never quite had what they needed. And they run into this brick wall of just not being able to help everybody or not being able to help enough. To my way of thinking, this whole thing has got to come together. The people who you seek to help, they gotta help you help them. And not from, “oh poor you,” but “no, I need to take a hard look at myself and see what I can do to dig deep,” and that’s where I am in my journey.
I’m not trying to retire at 62; I really just intend to be hitting my professional stride at 62. I call this my third adolescence. ‘Cause I don't feel old, I hope I don't look too old, and I’m in pretty good shape. I just need to find my niche, I need to find my spot, I need to find my team. And for the first time since I was 19 years old, I can work as hard as I want, I can learn what I want, I can go where I want, I can do what I want, I can stay as long as I like. And once the world opens back up again, that’s pretty much what I plan to be doing! So I am just so grateful to NCBA for giving me — between Pastor Edwina and my cot in the other room, and my little stipend, I have been able to survive the last six months. It’s time for a change, it’s time for me to move forward. I don’t know how that change is going to come about, Floey, I don’t know. But something is about to break for me. Just like this whole vaccination thing is becoming a quantum leap, as things start to get better. I’m so grateful to still be alive. There are over a half a million people who did not make it through this pandemic. And not only for myself, not only for my kids, but for all the people who didn’t deserve to die, I have to keep it moving. I have to keep going. I have to keep going.