WHY IT MATTERS TO ME: CLASS

Troy D. Smith

October 29, 2010


Last time I talked about how a grad school assignment had inspired me to think seriously about when, and how, I had first become aware there was such a thing as race or class. That thought process was extremely valuable to me; the act of isolating the ways I became aware of those things helped me to understand how those awarenesses had affected my life from that point forward, and why I felt as I did about those topics. In that blog, I expounded on my experiences with race; now I’ll do the same with class. I do run the risk of repeating myself, because I have discussed some of these things in earlier posts –if so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’ll begin, as before, with a little background. I was born in the small town of Sparta, pop. 5,000, in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. The Upper Cumberland stretches across northern middle Tennessee and southern middle Kentucky; the Tennessee portion is comprised of ten counties. (At this point you are probably wondering why I have wandered into a geography lesson, and may be nodding off –I’ll try to control myself, I promise.)

I have a reason for bringing all that up. Tennessee became a state in 1796, and by that time the ancestors of all four of my grandparents were already living in the Upper Cumberland; there are cemeteries in White and Overton counties where I can visit the graves of multiple generations of them. The region has also been home to Civil War guerrillas (and archenemies) Champ Ferguson and Tinker Dave Beaty, World War I hero Alvin York, Louis L’Amour’s fictional Sackett clan, bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Benny Martin, and a couple of politicians named Albert Gore. There are a lot of families like mine, who have been there for a couple of centuries… and in that time, especially in the smaller towns (and the largest town, Cookeville, has a whopping population of about 20,000), there has not been a lot of social mobility among those families in all that time. If you are from there and your family has some wealth, odds are they had it before the Civil War; if your family is poor, they’ve probably been poor the whole time as well.

My paternal grandfather was a farmer –a sharecropper, really –and he did prison time in the 1940s for making moonshine. He later worked the fields many years for one of Sparta’s most prominent citizens. My maternal grandparents were townfolk, living in Sparta –my grandfather worked as a freelance gardener and handyman for several of the town’s wealthy families. My mom and her seven brothers and sisters grew up with hunger as a frequent companion. She was born in 1951 –a baby boomer. Everyone knows that baby boomers grew up in suburban houses with pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver dads in gray flannel suits, right? Not where I’m from. My mom did not have electricity or running water until the late 60s, when she was married to my soldier father (I was born in ‘68.) In the early 70s my grandma still heated with a cast-iron wood stove in the living room- I never saw that sort of thing on TV.

My mom and her siblings are all extremely intelligent, and love to read- go to my Aunt Essie’s house and you’ll see Faulkner and McCarthy lying about (their books, not them personally), my mother has an impressive library of her own (she particularly likes African American history and fiction, and historical fiction in general), and when my Uncle Gordon (the eldest) died, my mother found among his effects 1950s rejection letters for a novel manuscript. Those facts are especially significant when you consider that none of them graduated from high school. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, most of them never even attended high school. In fact, I am the first male in my family –on either side, ever, so far as I know –to graduate high school, let alone college and grad school (a couple of my older female cousins did so ahead of me, and to be fair my Aunt Essie’s son Stanton would have had he survived his senior year.)

Suffice it to say, even a town as small as Sparta had a set of tracks, and I was from the wrong side of them.

My earliest memories are of being three years old, and living in a small house (near one of the black communities I talked about last time, Black Bottom) with my (recently separated) mom, her sister Essie and her son, and two of their brothers. My mom got remarried when I was five- she and her husband, and many of their siblings, worked for minimum wage at one of the garment factories in town. There were several such factories- they’d moved into the area in the mid-20th century because labor was ridiculously cheap, since Appalachian Southerners tended not to unionize; some miners had made a go at a strong union during the Depression, which led to a good bit of murder and mayhem in Wilder. At any rate, none of us had very much in the economic department.

My Aunt Essie worked in the factory office –and ended up marrying the owner, a Czech Jew who was 20+ years her senior. Edgar Lebenhart was a kind, gentle man- the son of a Prague bureaucrat, he had escaped Europe during the Holocaust (many of his family did not.) He was educated and cultured –he spoke five languages and collected Palestinian artifacts –he was a huge influence on me. He provided me with a treasure trove of history books; no one had ever even mentioned college to me, and here was someone saying that I should be a professor someday. They bought a very nice house, and then a smaller one next door which my family rented from them. It was a nice set-up all around, especially for me: I had two families, really, and those years were a break from the poverty we had mostly known. It didn’t last long, though; Edgar died of a heart attack when I was 9, and a few months later Essie’s son Stanton –who had always been a big brother to me –died in a car wreck on his 18th birthday. Over time, Essie’s health problems ate away at the money Edgar had left her until it was all gone. The nice houses at the edge of the woods were gone (that place is still the home I go to in my dreams), and my family was back to moving from one rented trailer to another. Sometimes they had big holes in the floor that we covered with ply-board; one was so small that I slept on the ironing board built into the hallway wall. My step-father developed tuberculosis and was usually out of work, leaving us to get by on my mom’s minimum wage job. There were many days when I would not have eaten at all had I not had free lunch at school. Food stamps were a fact of life –but once Reagan’s trickle-down economics came into play, they were cut way back. To this day when I think of Ronald Reagan I think of the harsh growling in my stomach as I looked into the cupboard after a hard day of being a 7th grader and saw nothing but a small can of Crisco, and knew there’d be nothing there tomorrow either. And to this day when I hear people deride those less fortunate than themselves as lazy and undeserving welfare bums, I am enraged. My family did nothing to deserve the poverty they suffered, except be heirs to generations of it with no tools to get out.

The Upper Cumberland was one of the country’s most active moonshine-producing regions in the first half of the 20th century. In the 70s and 80s it was one of the country’s top marijuana producers; nowadays it is a center of meth dealing. Several of my relatives and friends have been in and out of prison. People need to stop crowing about how hard they are on crime and start asking themselves why people in this one region, for a century, have been turning to drugs and alcohol as both an escape and a career; is it because Appalachian people are naturally lazy and/or criminal? That is the image the rest of the country sometimes seems determined to focus on, but it is not true. There just aren’t very many opportunities there- and, with most of the factories I mentioned earlier having moved to Mexico in pursuit of even cheaper labor, it is getting worse.

So –sometimes my family had stuff (like adequate shelter and food) and sometimes they didn’t. That wasn’t hard to figure out, even for a kid. When, though, did I realize that there was more to it than that, and that there was such a thing as social class? I was forced to cast my memory back, for that grad school exercise, and I realized it was around the same age that I had started to recognize racialization.

I really wasn’t aware of class in elementary school. I went to one of the smallest schools in the county, and its location made it an interesting mix. It was near the black communities known as Black Bottom and Bluff City, and by extension was therefore near the poor white neighborhoods which bordered them. At the same time, though, it was also close to a neighborhood which included a place called Sugar Hill –a scenic area where many of the town’s well-to-do lived.

At this point, I have to clarify something. When you grow up in generational poverty in a small town, the people you view as “rich big shots” are really nothing of the kind. In any other setting, they would be considered as average middle class folks- small business owners, professionals and the like. But to poor people, middle class seems rich, and that’s how Sugar Hill denizens appeared to the rest of us. Or, more accurately, to our parents.

You see, the kids at Baker Elementary played together –black and white, poor and not-so-poor, and never thought anything about it. I had very close friends from all three neighborhoods, and there seemed to be no difference. But when I wanted to have some of my Sugar Hill friends over to the house, or go to theirs, my mom was always horrified at the prospect. She was still deeply hurt by the way kids of that class had tormented her as a child, and feared my experiencing something similar. Nevertheless, we played at one another’s houses, and I never thought anything about it.

Then, elementary school was over and middle school began. Without even realizing what was happening or how, we started self-segregating… the “popular” kids (and somehow you just never saw many poor “popular” kids) banded together, the black kids did the same, and the group known in some circles as white trash hung together. Many of my best friends had been a part of that “popular” group- and all of a sudden, none of them ever talked to me. They didn’t even seem to notice when I was close by, like I was a pigeon. It was like I ceased to exist altogether. It even seemed that many of the teachers knew who the “proper” kids were. I gradually realized that I was no longer considered an important person –because of who I was, and what I did or didn’t have. It also sunk in for the first time that those upper middle class types had things I did not, and never would, because of who my family was –not just physical things, but privileges. And the unfairness of it burned in me like a flame fed by a bellows. To this day, one of the worst things anyone can do, and the quickest way to arouse my fury, is to imply that I am intrinsically not good enough. The second worst thing you can do is to imply that poor people in general are not good enough- that they are automatically lazy and worthless, and imply that they deserve whatever they get (or don’t get.) I take it very personally. When you say that, even in a general sense, you are talking about my family. I also despise being ignored because of who I am or what I do. I was a janitor for many years, and most people never looked into my face or even seemed to realize I was there.

Both race and class issues cut straight to my sense of justice, which –because of the things I have discussed here and elsewhere –is one of the core parts of my psyche. The difference is, I approach racial issues from the perspective of someone on the privileged end of the social construct, recognizing its iniquity and trying my best to disown that privilege. With class, I approach things as the unprivileged one (even though, from what they tell me, I am now on the verge of being a middle class professional.) And unprivileged people react to the concept of privilege by –taking it personally, and getting pissed off. It is human nature.

There are people out there who will say that someone from my background isn’t really unprivileged at all –that I escaped poverty, and that proves anyone can if they really want to. To which I say, bullshit. I am extremely lucky. For every person who tried as hard as I did and succeeded, there were three more who tried just as hard and failed because the deck was stacked against them. And seven others who never tried at all –not because they were lazy, but because poverty creates fatalism. I am in no way better than my friends and kin who wound up in prison. I am fortunate. They are not. And a big part of my good fortune was having an influence early on –my Uncle Edgar –who could envision something better for me and make me believe in my potential.

Some people start in the basement and scale the walls of the tower, until they reach its peak. Very, very, very few. And some, once they are there, become smug; I am here because I am exceptional. Let those still in the basement do the same, if they can. But that’s not how I look at it. I want to do all I can to throw wide the doors that bar their way, and welcome them all. Because I know most of them deserve to be here just as much as I do. I do realize that opening those doors is a tall order, and not one I can realistically do- but maybe, if I really throw my weight into it, I can budge it a fraction of an inch, and other people can pitch in. At the very least, in the meantime, I can try to treat people like human beings –no matter who they are and what they do for a living.

Because that’s what I expect, and demand. Whether I should be a professor or a janitor- I am still me.

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