From South-Central To Suburbia, The Hard Way

Four trophies sit on the living-room shelf in the Carson, Calif., home of Milton and Regina Jenkins. There's a pair of cheerleading awards for 13-year-old Risha and another for her skill at math. Next to them is a trophy that Milton and 8-year-old Marques won at a father-son day sponsored by the children's church-run school. There's room on the shelf for more when 4-year-old Reana enters school. But the point is not to impress visitors. It's to remind the children that the world sometimes honors the tethic of hard work their parents are trying to teach.

At the dinner table, Marques perches on Milton's knee and practices handwriting. "That's no good,"Marques complains, scratching out the words. Milton takes his son's hand and traces the letters, then Marques tries it again. "That's fine," Regina says. "You're just learning." In the Jenkins household, studying is a must because college is the goal. On the fridge, Regina posts newspaper stories about successful black kids. If the children have setbacks, Regina tells them, "Don't let it be something that makes you turn to drugs, turn to drinking, things that you know are negative." Even the kids' fashion statements are subject to parental veto. Like most boys his age, Marques wants baggy clothes and a trendy haircut with parts shaved into his scalp. "If you don't see me with it," says his father, "believe me, you're not going to get it." Regina says of Marques, "I want to raise him to be more sensitive to women, and not be so concerned with that machoism stuff. But Dad is like, 'I want you to be a man.' So, we're knocking a little."

The Jenkinses are proud of what they've achieved. Milton was making minimum wage when they first met 17 years ago. Now, at 36, he is the supervisor of the repair shop at an armored-car company. Regina, 34, is an administrative assistant at Southern California Gas Co. Last year they were able to move from South-Central Los Angeles to suburban Carson and buy a two-story, four-bedroom tract house dubbed "Jenkins Plavyouse" by neighborhood kids who like to hang out there after Milton comes home at 4 each afternoon. Both parents are active in the Baptist church--the choir, the Men's Fellowship and the youth group. "We may not have everything we want, but it's not out of reach," says Regina.

Building this life hasn't been easy. If it had been up to their relatives, Milton and Regina might not have married. The Jenkins clan back in Mississippi worried that Regina was too citified for young Milton, who had just moved to L.A.: Regina's family declared that she was too young to get married. When Regina persisted, her mother suggested she live with Milton rather than marry right away. So Milton and Regina "Moved out" together. But they knew they wanted marriage. "If we get married, I don't plan on getting a divorce," Milton told her. For her part, Regina wanted marriage before children. Otherwise, she told him, "I wouldn't know if you married me for me, or married me because we bad babies."

Like most middle-class blacks, Milton and Regina have had to battle to maintain their status. Both have lost their jobs at different times--Milton "wasn't easy to live with" when wasn't he lost his, says Regina--and have seen friends and neighbors fall apart. One neighbor lost first his job and then his house because of his drinking and moved his family into public housing in Watts. One night on the news, the Jenkinses saw these former neighbors again: the children were being interviewed as witnesses to a drive-by killing.

So far, Milton and Regina haven't had to talk much about the perils of being black in America. But they know the day will come. When Risha goes to the racially mixed public high school, Regina fears "she'll probably be faced with some of that racism." Mom frets, too, about her daughters' longer-term future: college, career and, most problematic of all, marriage. "My biggest fear with the girls is they may not be able to find husbands," Regina says. She warns the girls about the life of a single mother "How would you feel if your dad wasn't here?"--but both parents know the world will press even harder on Marques. "Boys," says Regina, "particularly African-American boys, have a more difficult time growing up."

Milton and Regina know that they cannot raise their kids alone. Their neighborhood is full of families who work together and watch out for the kids. At church, the pastor directs many sermons to the children of the congregation, warning them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol and teenage pregnancy "I can see that their lives are forming already," Milton says of his children. Ana like Regina, he likes what he sees,