This unusual novel features identical twin sisters, inseparable as children, living in a small town in rural Louisiana. The town’s founder, a light skinned Black man, insisted on maintaining a certain character for the town–only light skinned Black people should live there. At sixteen the sisters run away to New Orleans where they ultimately choose diametrically opposed lives, one passing as white, marrying a wealthy white man who knows nothing of her true past. In spite of the deception and lies, years later their lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. The novel not only addresses themes of race but also sexual identity and who we are as individuals and a country.
Afternoon at the Library
Usually at the library I checkout and return books. Because my grandson is taking art classes at a nearby college for three hours in the afternoons, I go to read and observe. The same older men show up everyday. Some, acquaintances or friends, quietly chat. They look scruffy with dirty, stringy hair. Are they homeless? Does the library provide an air conditioned refuge? They read, look at magazines.
One man in a tan Alaska cap takes notes from a large book. He appears well groomed, clean, with a sculpted, small beard. Another alternates reading and checking his cell phone. At a separate round oak table a man sits in a dark heavy coat–it said 102 on my car temperature gage when I arrived. He never looks up, concentrates on the black laptop in front of him. The white earbuds stand out against his heavy dark beard. His fingernails are dirty. A white haired man approaches the round table I occupy and asks if he can sit there. I reply, “Sure.” His dark skin shows the heavy creases of outside work and age. His fingernails are clean. He focuses on filling out an application for a commercial driver’s license.
In the several days I have stayed here to read and wait, I have seen only one woman where they allow adults to sit. Do these men, day after day, come here because they have no place else to go?
White Trash and Rednecks
Nearly everyone lies about an important aspect of US history even historians. School history books avoid the discussion totally, this significant part of US history, much of which explains past and current racism.
Americans pretend that social class does not matter, that anyone can rise to the top given enough effort. This myth depends on the continuation of a very selective historical memory, indeed, a lie.
It began with the British and those who intentionally left there to come here. Even colonists divided the classes with poor people and criminals at the bottom–whores, discharged English soldiers, robbers, highwaymen; the saddest of the lot were the orphans, rounded up, loaded on ships bound for America, sold as indentured servants. Often these contracts were repeatedly resold with no routes for the individuals to escape. The rigid English class conditions continued here. People of higher classes in the colonies referred to the poor as waste, rubbish, and trash.
John Locke, often considered the father of constitutional government, favored slavery and aristocratic society. He endorsed an aristocratic constitutional government and called the poor, landless, lazy lubbers. Because the southern colonies lacked sufficient land lubbers and land owners believed Africans more suitable for hot, humid swamp clearance, they petitioned for slaves–previously illegal in Georgia, for example. These wealthy landowners also viewed poor whites as too lazy to work.
Even the esteemed Ben Franklin believed in the concept of class as inevitable. Both he and Jefferson saw expansion westward as the solution to potential class conflict. Franklin thought the new colonies needed more people and advocated for the freedom of slave women who bred many children and for white women to be allowed to gain property rights for the same. More people would move west and alleviate class conflict. Franklin was not an advocate for the poor, whom he considered lazy, slothful. He even endorsed their forced migration westward and referred to them as “the meaner Sort, i.e. the Mob, or the Rable”.
If this sounds shocking, Jefferson went even further, calling the poor, “rubbish”. He did feel they could improve, given land and education. He did not include slaves in this theory.
If you ever wondered about the origin of the term “cracker”, look back to the era of Andrew Jackson, the era of “squatters” in a log cabin in the thickly forested frontier, people who squatted on land they did not even own. Many saw them in both positive and negative terms: half strong, hard working pioneers and half robbers. Two terms applied to these people, “cracker” and “squatter”, none of whom legally owned the land where they lived, troublemakers with no hope of upward mobility, people who championed crudity, distrust of civil society and city dwellers, and held on to a kind of crude arrogance. Both terms came from England where such people were considered lazy vagrants. The more educated and “civilized” viewed them as degenerate, low class fornicators. These squatters saw Andrew Jackson as their champion and Davy Crockett as their hero.
The phrase “white trash” became common in the 1860s and after. These were the southern poor with dirty faces, ragged clothing, distended bellies without possibility of improvement, who for a brief time were viewed as even lower than slaves. Southern aristocrats pushed the concept of bloodlines for people as well as livestock. They advocated a criteria for human as well as livestock breeding to justify slavery and Anglo-Saxon superiority. Native Indians were a biologically inferior, degraded race, doomed to extinction. Later Texans used similar arguments to deter intermarriage with Mexicans. Sam Houston championed this cause apparently ignoring his own personal history. He had lived with Natives and married two of them. In the long run these beliefs did not help poor whites or raise their status. They lived off the worst land and were continually referred to in derogatory terms, e.g. white trash, sand eaters.
Just before the Civil War some elite Southerners advocated to keep certain classes ignorant. They defended the planter class as having the best bloodlines, whose destiny was to rule over poor whites and black slaves. When they realized they needed poor white support to secede, and that many did not support them, they convinced them the war was necessary to save them from a state worse than slavery. Some were promised land and other rewards. Since most were illiterate, they remained unaware that they were referred to as “perfect drones”, “the swinish multitude”, and other pejorative terms; and that some saw them as trash who contaminated whatever they touched. It was not the Southern elite who died in masses during the Civil War; it was the poor, recruited with Davis’ rhetoric about the superiority of the white race.
Later, during Reconstruction, William Percy wrote a description of poor whites as those who lynch Negroes, lack intelligence, attend religious revivals then fornicate in the bushes afterwards. He also explicitly referred to them as Anglo-Saxons. Teddy Roosevelt saw this a bit differently. He wanted Anglo-Saxons to work, to join the military, and breed, but he excluded poor whites from this group and his plan.
The term “rednecks” came into use in the South during the 1890s. It referred to people who lived in the swamps and mill towns, wore overalls, heckled at political rallies.
The Great Depression exacerbated the situation for poor whites and increased their numbers dramatically. Those who had never been considered white trash joined the ranks of the poor. Many Southern writers went back to discussions about the Civil War and argued about the current poverty and how to solve the problem. One, Jonathan Daniels, even wrote that Rebel pride blindfolded all classes.
Later, one way to overcome the prejudices against the poor was through music and TV shows, e.g. Elvis Presley and “The Beverly Hillbillies”. It allowed the country to feel better about prejudices and pretend they did not exist.
Today this manifests itself through politicians who “pretend” to be white trash and rednecks to gain votes, but in reality live the lifestyle of the upper class.
Note: For those who wish to read more about class and the writings of the individuals mentioned above here is a partial list.
Writings and speeches of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson
Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”
Writings of John Locke
Works of James Agee
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”
Speeches of Jefferson Davis
White Privilege: Confessions of a Poor White Girl by Cynthia Garrity-Bond
Worth the read. I am a white mother with a 1/2 Nigerian daughter who is not very dark and who many think is Polynesian because of the way she looks. My grandson’s father is Mexican and Spanish. My grandson also is part Nigerian, Swiss German (from me), a little of other European, and Navaho. He has straight black hair, light skin, and obsidian eyes. When people ask what he is and he answers, they often think he is lying. I did not grow up in poverty. My daughter is educated. She has a Masters Degree in Nursing and I have a Ph.D. Nevertheless, she has experienced discrimination and people have made comments to me such as, “Your daughter is really doing well for a Black girl”. Seriously!! In this country both class and race matter and get intertwined in all sorts of complex ways. No one says to an educated white woman with a good job, “You are really doing well for a white girl.”
Recently FAR contributor Sara Frykenberg posted an article to Facebook that caused me to think again about the now-famous essay by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” Gina Crosley-Corcoran does an excellent job of including issues of class, meaning poverty, into the discourse about race and privilege using the theory of intersectionality. If I am honest, the tensions between race and poverty have made the owning my white privilege challenging.
Like Crosley-Corcoran, I was raised in poverty. After my parents divorced in the early 1960s, our fall into poverty was pronounced. My mother liked to move, so much so that I attended no less than 15 different schools before high school. We lived in one house for two years without hot water. I learned early on the stigma of poverty, when even a Catholic school uniform could not…
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Blank, white paper
Blank, white paper
stares at me,
sitting here eating a
left over Subway sandwich,
reading Sky Bridge by
avoiding my writing commitment.
This book surprises me,
makes me think of my students,
some poor, trailer housed,
gun toting, hard scrabble,
simultaneously smart and ignorant.
Their idea of rich includes
any house over 2000 square feet,
stylish, elegant clothes, land.
My brain swirls thoughts, images:
What can it all mean, this life?
Joy, a hurting beauty?
Looking out the windows,
listening to the West Texas wind,
I ask myself again:
What can it all mean?
Proofs sent to the library at work–a high school–cannot legally be used on the shelves so they end up in various places. Somehow I end up where they reside and read them. My latest, The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert provides abundant food for hard core thinking. The setting, a Caribbean island, reeks of political turmoil and the legacy of slavery. Unless you are totally ignorant of Caribbean history and the various cultures there, it does not take long to figure out the setting is Haiti. In case you want to read the book, I will give you only a cursory introduction. The main character grows up in basically what we call here a slum. His mom dies of malaria when he is quite young and his dad owns a small store. He hates it and focuses most of his life on getting out of these circumstances. He gets a job and a place to live with a senator, meets important people, and eventually discovers an abandoned estate out in the country. He moves there after it is bought by a wealthy foreign white woman who hires him to restore it. He absolutely loves the place. It is an island of beauty and peace in the middle of squalor, poverty, and strife.
The details you can read for yourself. It’s focus is the dilemma many who grow up poor and want to better themselves face: if you progress, are you abandoning your roots, to whom do you owe loyalty. And, indeed, what is progress? Civil war breaks out and the main character is torn between his desire for peace and a more elegant lifestyle in this beautiful place and the needs of the poverty stricken people who surround it and who at one point work there. Is he a free person or just a fancier slave for the rich who own the place? Has he deluded himself into thinking because he worked hard to get where he is that he is better?
Although the book’s setting is a particular place, the theme remains universal. I think of individuals I personally know who could not cope with success and riches, who felt they must “save” all their relatives and then were left with nothing themselves. The thinking is this: if you come into money, you must share it with everyone; to keep it for yourself is morally wrong. If this is the case, how can the cycle ever break? This sort of thinking is very difficult for those of use who work hard and save for the future to understand. We question why we should help them when they hit the bottom.
Yesterday my hard working, single mom, going to graduate school daughter went on a rant about people she knows who get food stamps, Medicaid, etc. while she works and goes to school and gets nothing. They have fancier cars, better TVs, etc. than she does. I do understand both viewpoints although I admit I am the frugal without being austere. I remember a time several years ago when several of my poorer students–I teach at a Title 1 school–wore jeans more expensive than I would ever buy–its jeans. We got into a discussion about this. I informed them that all the clothing I had on except for underwear and socks came from a thrift store. When I take things to the thrift store, I actually shop. Thrift stores are full of “finds”. The response of one student was echoed by others, “I would never go into a thrift store. Someone might see me go in there.” Because they were poor, they wanted to avoid anyone seeing them do anything they thought might confirm this.
Although fraud exists in programs for the poor, it also exists in high end banking and just about everything. The solution is to work hard to investigate and prevent it. I keep wondering what is the solution for the people truly in need? Do we punish everyone to prevent the fraudulent acts of the few? And what about the children? What happens to the dependent young? Obviously, the world has not found answers. I wonder if we ever will.