by Kim Bailey Deal
I have been reading a compelling book by Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America Viking, New York, 2016.
In summary, Isenberg analyzes the true history of the pivotal role of the white poor in America, dating back to colonial times and up to the present. Her premise centers on the poor whites in the South, though it also includes those from the rest of the country. Essentially, despite loud objections from those in power and “the one percent,” Isenberg insists that we have ignored the “underclass” since the seventeenth century, and despite our acknowledgement of racial justice and the stain left on our nation as a result of bigotry, “we have to face the truth of the enduring underclass as well.”
As one of the “white trash underclass” from the South, I was taught that hard work in a thankless job was our lot. My family was blue-collar, descended from Appalachian poor whites, mostly, with a twist of Native American and some other yet-to-be established ancestry. On my dad’s side, we are mostly of Scottish descent but the rest is unknown—from my mom’s side, English and Cherokee, some French, and possibly other ancestry.
Reading Isenberg’s book has only confirmed for me what I’ve known all along. Upward mobility in our country, for most people, is a catchy phrase used mainly by politicians and those in power when they want to appear to give a damn about anyone but themselves. In reality, opportunity for any upward climb for most of the average poor and working poor is not only a myth, it’s an outright lie.
I have seen first-hand in my own family, and with people I served when I worked in social services, how pervasive poverty remains in America. Now, before anyone gets a hard on for me about how we Americans are one of the wealthiest nations in the world and we have more than most of the earth’s inhabitants, let me make clear I am speaking to the US scale of wealth—not the entire planet. My resources are: a) my own life; and b) my years working in social services. In both instances I have seen quite squalid conditions.
My mother grew up in a shithole of a shack on the side of a ridge not far from where I am now. When my dad met her, they had no indoor bathroom. They used an outhouse. A wooden tub was on the back porch for bathing, and my mom shared a bedroom with her sister—more of a closet, really—situated next to the bedroom occupied by her two brothers. There was no such thing as privacy, fancy televisions or cable, central heat and air, Netflix, cell phones, computers, or even some of the nicer things my dad grew up with—such as color television and his own bedroom.
Indeed, marrying my dad was a step-up in class and financial status for my mom. And here’s the real kicker, my dad’s family was working poor and persisted just above the conditions my mom grew up in.
The old colonial adage—one brought here by those who came from Europe—that hard work can improve a person’s station in life, was never realized by my ancestors. Hard work led to harder work.
According to Isenberg, poverty and class persisted due to elitist and egalitarian beliefs perpetrated by the colonists. Not only was slavery of blacks, Native Americans, and other non-white races held in high esteem by both the North and the South before the Civil War, indentured servitude of the “rubbish” from England and other European countries was utilized to help the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Those poor whites who tried to better themselves were considered “squatters” in the north and Midwest, and “crackers” in the south—by such lauded men as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.
For my family on both sides, there was never any accumulation of wealth, status, or power. Alcoholism was rampant. Teen marriage and pregnancy were the norm. No matter how some of my relatives tried, they could never rise above the stigma of “ignorant, southern white trash” in the eyes of the middle-class and upper-class in this area or beyond.
For instance, when I was growing up here, I made a friend across the street from our duplex. Her home was situated at the edge of the Valleybrook Golf Course subdivision. Her dad worked at TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) and her mom stayed home, tanned by the pool, got her hair and nails done at the salon, and kept an immaculate flower garden. My friend’s parents were not crazy about our friendship. Some of the kids at school teased her for hanging out with me. I was considered “lower class” in their eyes, from the poor side of the street. My dad worked at TVA as well, but as a construction worker. My mom worked at a mill doing shift work at Dixie Yarns.
Despite her family’s objections, we stayed friends until the inevitable move away, a frequent occurrence for our family. Like vagabonds or gypsies, we picked up and moved on when my dad had to find available construction work elsewhere.
Years later, when we were wives and mothers, we reconnected. However, her husband looked down on me. I wasn’t “living right” according to his Southern Baptist dogma. I had been married and divorced, with kids from three different men. (Never mind the men’s “sins,” I was the real sinner). The stink of my poor upbringing repulsed him. Even her son grew up to look down on me, and he now works at a local restaurant as a baker.
Eventually, after I moved back to this area a few years ago and had the ability to hang out with her, my friend drifted away. We live less than ten minutes from one another, but we never talk anymore. They live in an expensive home in a nice neighborhood, one she acquired after her mother got ill. My husband and I live in a trailer on a lot next to our landlord’s home on a quiet street where there is no homeowner’s association, nor are there any wealthy people.
I married a local guy. His father ran the Hixson Utility District Water Company for over 30 years. My husband grew up working hard, much like my dad and his family, but took some wrong roads with drugs and alcohol before he settled down. He wears a goatee and has several tattoos, rides a motorcycle, and works at Volkswagen as a painter. To some in his family, he doesn’t meet the standard of “class” because we live paycheck to paycheck, drive old vehicles, and again…we live in a trailer. His brother and mom live two miles away in half-million dollar homes, but we are questioned as to why we don’t just buy a house. I am questionable—period—in some of his family’s eyes for what I write and my blatant refusal to shut the fuck up about how things really are.
So, with all of this said, why is this so important?
Because “class” continues to matter to too many people, and the implications of class station affect many of us more than we realize.
I was one of the first people in my family to earn a college degree. My sister earned her Associate’s a couple of years before I completed mine, and I finished my Bachelor’s a few years before she earned her teaching degree. My dad’s brother, who lives in Georgia, has a degree as well, and works as a supervisor at a paper-manufacturer and recycling plant in Chattanooga.
Comparatively speaking, my mom, uncle, sister, and I have all appeared to move “up” and out of much of the hardship and poverty our parents and grandparents endured. However, looks are deceiving.
Despite my success in college, my degree has not paid off monetarily—not enough anyway. I incurred thousands of dollars in student loan debt to obtain that piece of paper, and any ability to obtain a high-paying job with my Bachelor of Liberal Studies is—well, a joke. I was able to use it to work in social services for several years, but now the requirements are stricter. I can no longer “grandfather” into a job with my degree in the field I used to work—where I gained exceptional knowledge, skill, and experience.
What I’ve observed since I returned to the Chattanooga area is that, more than ever, I’m an odd fit in most places. Where so many people strive for image, background, and prestige, I fail miserably. Though my work as a Case Manager for the State of Oklahoma for people with Developmental Disabilities was exemplary, most employers here don’t give two shits about that.
Even worse, I don’t socially fit in here. I have a few friends, people I can somewhat relate to and we occasionally hang out. More often, though, I find I shy away from many social settings because I don’t feel comfortable. Where I used to try and fit in, look the part, act “right” by saying and doing all the things everyone else did, I vehemently resist such assimilation today.
The most blatant form of my resistance comes in the form of my writing, especially my blog, column, and nonfiction. I have two grown children who resent every word I write in that regard. They don’t like for me to tell my stories, to examine the ups-and-downs of my life, and try to make sense of them on paper. Despite how this brutally honest writing connects me with myself and others who have travelled some crooked roads, I am derided by my own kids and some of my husband’s family for my words.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I have to be true to myself. I know my roots. I also know that I managed to change and break a lot of the dysfunctional cycles perpetrated by my ancestors. But the fact remains, I’m not rich or even middle-class in the eyes of America. I’m just a woman who tried to “better” her circumstances and failed most of the time.
I certainly don’t subscribe to the popular idea of how a woman should behave, especially around here! I’m not a Barbie doll or a former pageant queen. I don’t wear a lot of make-up, and some days I wear none at all. I don’t wear the latest brand clothing, shoes, or carry an expensive purse. I don’t drive the latest model car. My husband has calloused hands, thumbs his nose at “society types,” and has no interest in impressing anyone with so-called status symbols.
I am a liberal who cares about the underdog, the poor, the mentally ill, and the disabled who have few resources, those who have been marginalized.
I’m a feminist who believes women are just as worthy of men to earn equal pay, deserving of respect, and able to exercise authority.
I believe a woman has a right to have control over her own body. All people have this right.
I’m anti-racist. This one is huge, especially where I am now. I don’t believe any race, religion, ethnicity, or ideology is better or worse, they are simply what they are.
I have two transgender kids. I am pro-LGBTQ. I completely support and respect other’s rights to love whomever they choose.
I don’t like Donald Trump. In fact, I never have cared for him, long before he began his bid for the presidency. I could go on, but I’m saving that particular subject for another time.
Although Hillary Clinton is not my first choice for a “first female president,” she’s a hell of a lot better than some of the hand-puppet, mouthpieces of the established, patriarchal, Republican jackasses—to wit, Sarah Palin. She is most certainly a better choice than Trump, who to me is the embodiment of everything that has ever been wrong in our country. But I digress. Again, I’m saving that one for later.
I’ve taken Isenberg’s book with the proverbial grain of salt. Much of what she’s written in this book is true. However, I don’t have to feel trapped by my history.
I take pride in who I am today—a strong, intelligent, fearless woman who has no qualms about shaking up the stodgy status-quo and make them squirm, or even better, piss their name-branded pants.
My authenticity is my class status now.
My “friend” can have her fancy house and her husband’s piety.
My kids can grow the fuck up.
My in-laws can bite me.
I’m doing what I love. I’m writing. My husband loves me just the way I am and supports my writing more than anyone, even when the truth hurts. We don’t have a lot of the finer things, but we are rich in love, we have a roof over our heads, and more than enough to eat.
Maybe one day I can make a living doing this gig, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. All the so-called classy people, those who think they are better with or without their fat bank accounts and cookie-cutter homes, don’t have what I have.
What I have is something one cannot buy or inherit, or diabolically take from another, as the generations of conquerors have done since the first settler from Europe step foot on the soil of this country.
I have the unadulterated freedom to be me—a white trash warrior, a woman with a brain, an education, a tenacious spirit, and enough redneck resolve to bite your face if you even try putting me in what you consider to be my place.
I’m here as a voice for others, too. For those who have also been marginalized, abased, abused, and disrespected because they don’t fulfill the outward expectations by short-sighted people with no capacity to appreciate anything or anyone different.
So, with my pen for a sword, I sign off for this week. Stay tuned for my next column!
Kim Bailey Deal writes Women’s Fiction, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. She is currently revising her first novel and finishing her second, as well as co-editing an anthology. Publications: MORE Magazine’s Member Voices, The Pull of Strays; Issue 3 of Firefly Magazine, A Journal of Luminous Writing; Writer’s Digest as part of editor Robert Lee Brewer’s blog. She lives in Chattanooga, TN and is the mother of four grown children, three boys and one girl, and “Nim” to her husband’s grandchildren. To connect, she can be found at kimbaileydeal.net, Kim Bailey Deal Page on Facebook, @wordjunkie1966 on Twitter