"The underclass exists even when they don't rise to the level of
making trouble, fomenting rebellions, joining in riots, or fleeing the
ranks of the Confederacy and hiding out in swamps, where they create
an underground economy. Those who do not disappear into the
wilderness are present in the towns and cities and along paved and
unpaved roads in every state. Seeing the poor, whether it is in the
photographs of a Walker Evans or a Dorothea Lange, or in comical form
on 'reality TV,' we have to wonder how such people exist amid plenty.
As she cast her eyes upon southern trailer trash in the middle of
World War II, the Washington Post columnist Agnes Meyer asked, 'Is
When my husband and I moved into a trailer park right before the
birth of our first child I had no idea what we were getting ourselves
into. I just thought it was affordable housing. I assumed that after
the late pregnancy fatigue and armed with an adorable new baby I would
be welcomed into the community. The baby was adorable; the welcome
never happened despite my efforts to make friends. People said things
like, "Your children look so much alike you'd almost think they had
the same father". I've been called trailer park trash to my face.
What hurt the most, though, was how the neighborhood children were, if
not untouchables, unvisitables. I saw the pain and confusion in the
eyes of kids whose best chums from school were not allowed to go to
their sixth birthday party.
Anyone who claims that America is a classless society has never
lived on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, has never existed in
a town where people think they know all there is to know about you
(all bad) based on one factor, say your address.
Needless to say, one day when I was enjoying the ambiance of one
of my favorite sanctuaries, Orono Public Library, and came across
Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in
America (from whence I gleaned the lead quote) I practically heard a
chorus of angels singing the Hallalujah Chorus. There it was in black
and white: 321 pages of scholarly research butressed by over 100 of
end notes. Vindication.
Isenberg starts off by getting readers to look at the classic
movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, in a different way. In her mind there
are not one, but two "disturbing messages." Racism and classism are
on full ugly display. Recall the Ewell family? She then goes on to
give us pictures of white trash images in the real and television
"These white trash snapshots offer an incomplete picture of a
problem that is actually quite old and regularly goes unrecognized.
In their conversations about viral events such as those noted above,
Americans lack any deeper appreciation of class. Beyond white anger
and ignorance is a far more complicated history of class identity that
dates back to America's colonial period and British notions of
poverty. In many ways, our class system has hinged on the evolving
political rationales used to dismiss or demonize (or occasionally
redeem) those white rural outcasts seemingly incapable of becoming
part of the mainstream society."
Forget what you've been learning about our nation's beginnings
from those days when you created paper turkeys or played the part of a
Pilgrim in grade school Thanksgiving celebrations. America's alleged
start as classless society is pure myth. England saw the New World as
a convenient dumping ground for her less than desirables: one of four
options that also included death by disease or starvation, execution
for crime, and cannon fodder for foreign wars.
"...On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and
criminal classes. Among those unheroic transplants were rogueish
highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an
assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or
other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows.
Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured
servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to
former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts..."
Hardly sounds like those religious freedom seeking Pilgrims to me.
We think of the Civil War in terms of black and white--skin that
is. We forget that classism is very much a part of the narrative.
Northerners saw a slave economy as debilitating to poor whites as well
as blacks. While the rich were enabled to snatch up and use all the
best land, the poor had to struggle to scratch out a living on less
farmable soil. Southerners, in contrast, saw both blacks and whites
as congenitally inferior. But poor whites were more dangerous. Given
the chance to climb above their station and (heaven forbid!) vote,
they could foment class revolution that would threaten the system
seriously rigged in favor of the wealthy elite. I bet I don't have to
tell you which men were exempt from fighting in the Civil War and
which were forced to serve as cannon fodder.
We've been studying on another less than pretty chapter in
America's classism book. Recall our two books on Buck v. Bell?
Remember Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring that three generations of
imbeciles were enough? Yep, we're back to eugenics. It was believed
nature was not doing enough to ensure survival of the fittest; people
had to step in to make sure those of superior stock outbred lesser
beings, including the poor who were blamed by their poverty, to the
extent of forcibly sterilizing the latter.
That is just a smattering of the content served up in this
fascinating volume. If, like me, you are at least hesitant about
buying into the classless society myth, get on down to your public
library and check it out. Make sure they acquire it if they don't yet
On a personal note, the Counselling Center up to UMaine put on their
annual carnival early this year, billing it as a cabin fever
reliever. It was, as usual, amazing. There was lots of yummy food.
There were crafts opportunities. There were games and prizes. People
had so much fun! I was given the perfect role for someone with a big
mouth and no fear of conversing with strangers. I got to be the
carnival barker and send people in the right direction. I had a
wonderful time. And all that talking gave me a ravenous thirst for
A great big shout out goes out to the counselling center folks and all
their minions who put a lot of work every year into creating such a
space of fun and enchantment.
Sent from my iPod