where we stand
1 Making the Personal Political
Class in the Family
2 Coming to Class Consciousness
3 Class and the Politics of Living Simply
4 Money Hungry
5 The Politics of Greed
6 Being Rich
7 The Me-Me Class
The Young and the Ruthless
8 Class and Race
The New Black Elite
9 Feminism and Class Power
10 White Poverty
The Politics of Invisibility
11 Solidarity with the Poor
12 Class Claims
Real Estate Racism
13 Crossing Class Boundaries
14 Living without Class Hierarchy
where we stand
Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender;
the uncool subject is class. It’s the subject that makes us all
tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand. In less than
twenty years our nation has become a place where the rich
truly rule. At one time wealth afforded prestige and power, but
the wealthy alone did not determine our nation’s values.While
greed has always been a part of American capitalism, it is only
recently that it has set the standard for how we live and interact
in everyday life.
Many citizens of this nation, myself included, have been
and are afraid to think about class. Affluent liberals concerned
with the plight of the poor and dispossessed are daily mocked
and ridiculed. They are blamed for all the problems of the
welfare state. Caring and sharing have come to be seen as
traits of the idealistic weak. Our nation is fast becoming a
class-segregated society where the plight of the poor is
forgotten and the greed of the rich is morally tolerated and
As a nation we are afraid to have a dialogue about class even
though the ever-widening gap between rich and poor has
already set the stage for ongoing and sustained class warfare. As
a citizen who moved from the working class to a world of
where we stand
affluence I have long struggled to make sense of class in my
life, to come to terms with what it means to have a lot when
many people have so little. In my case, among those who have
so little are my own family and friends. Like a vast majority of
women in this nation I believe in caring and sharing. I want to
live in a world where there is enough of everything basic and
necessary to go around. Applying these beliefs to everyday life
experience has not been an easy or simple matter.
These essays on class address the issues of both national and
personal responsibility. I write about the class issues that most
intimately affect my life and the lives of many other folks who
are trying to figure out how to be responsible, who believe in
justice, who want to take a stand. I write personally about my
journey from a working-class world to class consciousness,
about how classism has undermined feminism, about solidarity
with the poor and how we see the rich. Of course, these essays
address consumerism and the ways lust for affluence creates a
politics of greed.
Women of all races and black men are rapidly becoming
the poorest of the poor. Breaking the silence—talking about
class and coming to terms with where we stand—is a necessary
step if we are to live in a world where prosperity and plenty
can be shared, where justice can be realized in our public and
private lives. The time to talk about class, to know where we
stand, is now—before it is too late, before we are all trapped in
place and unable to change our class or our nation’s fate.
Everywhere we turn in our daily lives in this nation
we are confronted with the widening gap between rich and
poor.Whether it is the homeless person we walk by as we go
about daily chores in urban areas, the beggars whose cups
tinkle with the sound of a few coins, the middle-class family
member or friend who faces unemployment due to cutbacks,
plant closings, or relocation, or the increased cost of food
and housing, we are all aware of class.Yet there is no organized
class struggle, no daily in-your-face critique of capitalist greed
that stimulates thought and action—critique, reform, and
As a nation we have become passive, refusing to act
responsibly toward the more than thirty-eight million citizens
who live in poverty here and the working masses who labor
long and hard but still have difficulty making ends meet. The
rich are getting richer. And the poor are falling by the wayside.
At times it seems no one cares. Citizens in the middle who
live comfortable lives, luxurious lives in relation to the rest of
the world, often fear that challenging classism will be their
downfall, that simply by expressing concern for the poor they
will end up like them, lacking the basic necessities of life.
Defensively, they turn their backs on the poor and look to the
where we stand
rich for answers, convinced that the good life can exist only
when there is material affluence.
More and more, our nation is becoming class-segregated.
The poor live with and among the poor—confined in gated
communities without adequate shelter, food, or health care—
the victims of predatory greed. More and more poor
communities all over the country look like war zones, with
boarded-up bombed-out buildings, with either the evidence
of gunfire everywhere or the vacant silence of unsatisfied
hunger. In some neighborhoods, residents must wear name
tags to gain entrance to housing projects, gated camps that are
property of the nation-state. No one safeguards the interests of
citizens there; they are soon to be the victims of class genocide.
This is the passive way our country confronts the poor and
indigent, leaving them to die from street warfare, sugar, alcohol,
and drug addiction, AIDS, and/or starvation.
The rich, along with their upper-class neighbors, also live in
gated communities where they zealously protect their class
interests—their way of life—by surveillance, by security forces,
by direct links to the police, so that all danger can be kept at bay.
Strangers entering these neighborhoods who look like they do
not belong, meaning that they are the wrong color and/or have
the appearance of being lower class, are stopped and vetted. In my
affluent neighborhood in Greenwich Village, I am often stopped
by shopkeepers and asked where I work, whose children do I
keep, the message being you must not live here—you do not look
like you belong. To look young and black is to not belong.
Affluence, they believe, is always white. At times when I wander
around my neighborhood staring at the dark-skinned nannies,
hearing the accents that identify them as immigrants still, I
remember this is the world a plantation economy produces—a
world where some are bound and others are free,a world of extremes.
Most folks in my predominately white neighborhood see
themselves as open-minded; they believe in justice and support
the right causes. More often than not, they are social liberals and
fiscal conservatives. They may believe in recognizing
multiculturalism and celebrating diversity (our neighborhood is
full of white gay men and straight white people who have at
least one black, Asian, or Hispanic friend), but when it comes to
money and class they want to protect what they have, to
perpetuate and reproduce it—they want more. The fact that
they have so much while others have so little does not cause
moral anguish, for they see their good fortune as a sign they are
chosen, special, deserving. It enhances their feeling of prosperity
and well-being to know everyone cannot live as they do. They
scoff at overzealous liberals who are prone to feeling guilty.
Downward mobility is a thing of the past; in today’s world of
affluence, the message is “You got it, flaunt it.”
When longtime small family businesses close down because
the rents are too high and yet another high-priced gift shop or
hair salon opens, they may feel regret but understand this to
be the price of economic progress—the price of real estate
constantly zooming upward in cost. They have no memories
of the days when the West Village was the home of struggling
artists, musicians, and poets, a sanctuary for the sexually free
and transgressive, a place of rebellion. They have no memory
of days when black females could not rent a room or flat here
because white folks saw us all, no matter our class, as
prostitutes—as bad news. Nowadays we can have the keys to
the big house as long as we are coming to clean and do childcare.
Neighbors tell me the lack of diversity has nothing to do with
racism, it’s just a matter of class.
They really believe all black people are poor no matter how
many times they laugh at Bill Cosby, salute Colin Powell, mimic
Will Smith, dance to Brandy and Whitney Houston, or cheer
on Michael Jordan. Yet when the rich black people come to
live where they live, they worry that class does not matter
enough, for those black folks might have some poor relatives,
and there goes the neighborhood. Like the taxi drivers who
won’t stop because blackness means you are on your way out
where we stand
of the city to Brooklyn—to places that are not safe.They lump
all black people together. If rich black people come into the
neighborhood, then poor black people will not be far behind.
Black folks with money think about class more than most
people do in this society. They know that most of the white
people around them believe all black people are poor, even
the ones with fancy suits and tailored shirts wearing Rolex
watches and carrying leather briefcases. Poverty in the white
mind is always primarily black. Even though the white poor
are many, living in suburbs and rural areas, they remain invisible.
The black poor are everywhere, or so many white people think.
When I am shopping in Barneys, a fancy department store
in my neighborhood, and a well-dressed white woman turns
to me—even though I am wearing a coat, carrying my handbag,
and chatting with a similarly dressed friend—seeking assistance
from the first available shopgirl and demands my help, I wonder
who and what she sees looking at me. From her perspective
she thinks she knows who has class power, who has the right
to shop here; the look of the poor and working class is always
different from her own. Even if we had been dressed alike she
would have looked past attire to see the face of the
underprivileged she has been taught to recognize.
In my neighborhood everyone believes the face of poverty
is black. The white poor blend in, the black poor stand out.
Homeless black males entertain, sing songs, tell jokes, or court
attention with kind phrases hoping for money in their cup.
Usually white homeless men mumble to themselves or sit silent,
a cardboard sign naming their economic pain, separated when
they seek help in the mainstream world. At the end of the day
black and white indigents often pool earnings, sit side by side,
sharing the same bottle, breaking the same bread.At the end of
the day they inhabit a world where race and class no longer
mean very much.
My other home is in a small midwestern town, a liberal
place in the conservative state of Ohio, a state where the Nazi
party is growing strong and flags hang in the windows of the
patriotic haves and have-nots. It is a racially integrated town, a
town with a progressive history, and there is still a neighborly
world of caring and sharing. Here, class segregation has been
imported from the outside, from a professional-managerial
academic class who have come in from northern cities and
west coast states and have raised property values. Still,
neighborhoods in our small town have greater class and racial
diversity than most places in the United States. Racism and
sexism exist here, as everywhere. A changing class reality that
destabilizes and in some cases will irrevocably alter individual
lives is the political shift that threatens. Like everywhere in the
Midwest plants are closing; small universities and community
colleges are cutting back; full-time employees are “let go” and
part-time help is fast becoming a national norm. Class is the
pressing issue, but it is not talked about.
The closest most folks can come to talking about class in
this nation is to talk about money. For so long everyone has
wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a
class-free society—that anyone who works hard enough can
make it to the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free
society there would be no top.While it has always been obvious
that some folks have more money than other folks, class
difference and classism are rarely overtly apparent, or they are
not acknowledged when present.The evils of racism and, much
later, sexism, were easier to identify and challenge than the
evils of classism. We live in a society where the poor have no
public voice. No wonder it has taken so long for many citizens
to recognize class—to become class conscious.
Racial solidarity, particularly the solidarity of whiteness, has
historically always been used to obscure class, to make the white
poor see their interests as one with the world of white privilege.
Similarly, the black poor have always been told that class can
never matter as much as race. Nowadays the black and white
poor know better.They are not so easily duped by an appeal to
where we stand
unquestioned racial identification and solidarity, but they are
still uncertain about what all the changes mean; they are
uncertain about where they stand.
This uncertainty is shared by those who are not poor, but who
could be poor tomorrow if jobs are lost.They, too, are afraid to say
how much class matters.While the poor are offered addiction as a
way to escape thinking too much, working people are encouraged
to shop. Consumer culture silences working people and the middle
classes. They are busy buying or planning to buy. Although their
frag-ile hold on economic self-sufficiency is slipping, they still
cling to the dream of a class-free society where everyone can
make it to the top. They are afraid to face the significance of
dwindling resources, the high cost of education, housing, and health
care.They are afraid to think too deeply about class.
At the end of the day the threat of class warfare, of class
struggle, is just too dangerous to face.The neat binary categories
of white and black or male and female are not there when it
comes to class. How will they identify the enemy. How will
they know who to fear or who to challenge. They cannot see
the changing face of global labor—the faces of the women
and children whom transnational white supremacist capitalist
patriarchy exploits at home and abroad to do dirty work for
little pay. They do not speak the languages of the immigrants,
male and female, who work here in the meat industry, in
clothing sweat-shops, as farmworkers, as cooks and busboys, as
nannies and domestic workers. Even though the conservative
rich daily exploit mass media to teach them that immigrants
are the threat, that welfare is the threat, they are starting to
wonder about who really profits from poverty, about where
the money goes. And whether they like it or not, one day they
will have to face the reality: this is not a class-free society.
Oftentimes I too am afraid to think and write about class. I
began my journey to class consciousness as a college student
learning about the politics of the American left, reading Marx,
Fanon, Gramsci, Memmi, the little red book, and so on. But
when my studies ended, I still felt my language to be inadequate.
I still found it difficult to make sense of class in relation to race
and gender. Even now the intellectual left in this nation looks
down on anyone who does not speak the chosen jargon. The
domain of academic and/or intellectual discourse about class
is still mostly white, mostly male. While a few women get to
have their say, most of the time men do not really listen. Most
leftist men will not fully recognize the left politics of
revolutionary feminism: to them class remains the only issue.
Within revolutionary feminism a class analysis matters, but so
does an analysis of race and gender.
Class matters. Race and gender can be used as screens to
deflect attention away from the harsh realities class politics
exposes. Clearly, just when we should all be paying attention
to class, using race and gender to understand and explain its
new dimensions, society, even our government, says let’s talk
about race and racial injustice. It is impossible to talk
meaningfully about ending racism without talking about class.
Let us not be duped. Let us not be led by spectacles like the
O.J.Simpson trial to believe a mass media, which has always
betrayed the cause of racial justice, to think that it was all about
race, or it was about gender. Let us acknowledge that first and
foremost it was about class and the interlocking nature of race,
sex, and class. Let’s face the reality that if O.J.Simpson had
been poor or even lower-middle class there would have been
no media attention. Justice was never the central issue. Our
nation’s tabloid passion to know about the lives of the rich
made class the starting point. It began with money and became
a media spectacle that made more money—another case of
the rich getting richer. The Simpson trial is credited with
upping the GNP by two hundred million dollars. Racism and
sexism can be exploited in the interests of class power.Yet no
one wants to talk about class. It is not sexy or cute. Better to
make it seem that justice is class-free—that what happened to
O.J. could happen to any working man.
where we stand
It has been difficult for black folks to talk about class.
Acknowledging class difference destabilizes the notion that
racism affects us all in equal ways. It disturbs the illusion of
racial solidarity among blacks, used by those individuals with
class power to ensure that their class interests will be protected
even as they transcend race behind the scenes. When William
Julius Wilson first published The Declining Significance of Race,
his title enraged many readers, especially black folks. Without
reading the book, they thought he was saying that race did not
matter when what he was prophetically arguing, albeit from a
conservative and sometimes liberal standpoint, was that our
nation is fast becoming a place where class matters as much as
race and oftentimes more.
Feminist theorists acknowledged the overwhelming
significance of the interlocking systems of race, gender, and
class long before men decided to talk more about these issues
together.Yet mainstream culture, particularly mass media, was
not willing to tune into a radical political discourse that was
not privileging one issue over the other. Class is still often
kept separate from race. And while race is often linked with
gender, we still lack an ongoing collective public discourse
that puts the three together in ways that illuminate for everyone
how our nation is organized and what our class politics really
are. Women of all races and black people of both genders are
fast filling up the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised. It is in
our interest to face the issue of class, to become more conscious,
to know better so that we can know how best to struggle for
I began to write about class in an effort to clarify my own
personal journey from a working-class background to the world
of affluence, in an effort to be more class conscious. It has been
useful to begin with class and work from there. In much of my
other work, I have chosen gender or race as a starting point. I
choose class now because I believe class warfare will be our
nation’s fate if we do not collectively challenge classism, if we
do not attend to the widening gap between rich and poor, the
haves and have-nots.This class conflict is already racialized and
gendered. It is already creating division and separation. If the
citizens of this nation want to live in a society that is class-free,
then we must first work to create an economic system that is
just. To work for change, we need to know where we stand.
Making the Personal
Political: Class in
Living with many bodies in a small space, one is raised
with notions of property and privacy quite different from
those of people who have always had room. In our house,
rooms were shared. Our first house, a rental home, had three
bedrooms. It was a concrete block house that had been built
as a dwelling for working men who came briefly to this
secluded site to search the ground for oil. There were few
windows. Dark and cool like a cave, it was a house without
memory or history. We did not leave our imprint there. The
concrete was too solid to be moved by the details of a couple
with three small children and more on the way, trying to
create their first home. Situated at the top of a small hill, this
house was surrounded by thickets of greenery with wild
honeysuckle and blackberry bushes growing everywhere.
Behind these thickets rows and rows of crops spread out like
blankets. Their stillness and beauty stood out in contrast to
the leveled nature surrounding the concrete house—moweddown grass full of bits and pieces of cement.
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
Loneliness and fear surrounded this house. A fortress instead
of a shelter, it was the perfect place for a new husband, a new
father, to build his own patriarchal empire in the home—solid,
complete, cold. Architecturally, this house stands out in my
memory because of the coolness of the concrete floors. So cold
they often made one pull naked feet back under cover, recoiling,
like when flesh touches something hot and swiftly pulls away. In
a liminal space between the living room and kitchen where a
dining room might have been, bunk beds for children were
placed. And the children had to learn how to be careful. Falling
out of bed could crack one’s head wide open, could knock one
out cold, leaving flesh as cold as concrete floors. I fell once.
That’s my imprint: the memory that will not let me forget this
house even though we did not live there long.
It lacked too much. There was no bathtub. Water had to be
heated, carried, and poured into huge tin tubs. Bathing took
place in the kitchen to make this ritual of boiling and pouring
and washing take less time.There was no such thing as privacy.
Water was scarce, precious, to be used sparingly, and never
wasted. Or so the grown-ups told us. This was a better story
than the hidden fact that water costs, that too many children
running water meant more money to pay. As small children
we never thought of cost, of water as a resource. Primitive
ecology made us think of it always as magical. It was always
precious—to be appreciated and treated with care. We longed
to be naked in summer, splashing in plastic pools or playing
with hoses, but we knew better.We knew that to leave faucets
running was to waste. Water was not to be wasted.
It was a house of concrete blocks put together with stone
and cement, a cool house in summer, a cold house in winter—
already a harsh landscape.We tried to give this house memories,
but it refused to contain them. Impenetrable, the concrete would
not hold our stories. Ultimately, we left this house, more bleak
and forlorn than before we lived there—a house that would
soon be torn down to make way for new housing projects.
where we stand
There was always a lack of money in our house. As small
children we did not know this. Mama was a young fifties mom,
her notions of motherhood shaped by magazines and television
commercials. Children, she had learned, should not be privy
to grown-up concerns, especially grown-up worries. Husband
and wife did not discuss or argue in front of children. They
waited until children were asleep and talked in their marital
bed, voices low, hushed, full of hidden secrets.
I do not know if our mother ever thought of herself as
poor or working class. She had come to marriage with our
father as a teenage divorcée with two girl children. In those
years they lived with their biological father. On weekends they
visited with us. Daddy had probably married her because she
was pregnant. He was a longtime bachelor, an only child, a
mama’s boy who could have stayed home forever and used it
as the secure site from which to roam and play and be a boy
forever. Instead he was trapped by the lures and longings of a
beautiful eager young woman more than ten years his junior.
He had wanted her even if he had not been sure he wanted to
be tied down—unable to roam.
Mama, like her gorgeous sisters and the handsome man she
married, loved fun and freedom. She liked to roam. But she also
liked playing house. And the concrete box was for her the
fulfillment of deep-seated longings. She had finally truly left her
mother’s house. There would be no going back—no return, no
tears, no regret. She was in her second marriage to stay. It was to
be the site of her redemption—the second chance on love that
would let her dreams be born again. Only mama loved the start of
a new life in the concrete box, away from the eyes of a questioning
world. Even if the solitude of so much surrounding wilderness
threatened, she was secure in the knowledge that she would protect
her home—her world—by any means necessary. She was stranded
there, on top of a hill, at home with the children. Our daddy, a
working man, left early and came home late. His roaming had not
ceased. It had merely adjusted itself to the fact of wife and children.
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
Mama, who did not drive, who had no neighbors to chat with,
no money to spend, was the wild roaming one who would soon
be domesticated—her spirit tamed and broken.
Being poor and working class was never a topic in the
concrete box.We were too young to understand class, to share
our mother’s dreams of moving up and away from the house
and family of her origins. A girl without proper education,
without the right background, could only change her status
through marriage. As a wife she was entitled to respect. All her
dreams were about changing her material status, about entering
a world where she would have all the trappings of having made
it—of having escaped “over home” the tyranny of her mother’s
house and her mother’s ways. In the world’s eyes, the folks in
that house with their old ways who lived without social security
cards, who preferred radio to television, were poor.
Even as small children we knew our father was not pleased
with his mother-in-law. He felt she dominated her husband
and had taught her daughters that it was fine to do the same
thing with the men in their lives. Before marrying he let mama
know who would be wearing the pants in his house. It would
always be his house.
The house mama was coming from was a rambling twostory wood frame shack with rooms added on according to
the temperament of Baba, mama’s mother. Already old when
we were born, she lived in the house with her husband, our
beloved grandfather Daddy Gus. He was everything she was
not.A God-fearing, quiet man who followed orders, who never
raised his voice or his hand, he was our family saint. Baba was
the beloved devil, the fallen angel. Her word was law—a sharp
tongue, a quick temper, and the ruthless wit and will needed
to make everything go her way.
Unlike the concrete box, the house mama grew up in at 1200
Broad Street was the embodiment of the enchantment of memory.
Change was neither needed nor wanted.The old ways of living and
being in the world that had lasted were the only ways worth holding
where we stand
onto and sacrificing for. At Baba’s house everything that could be
made from scratch and not bought in a store was of greater value. It
was a house where self-sufficiency was the order of the day. The
earth was there for the growing of vegetables and flowers and for
the breeding of fishing worms. Little illegal sheds in the back housed
chickens for laying fresh eggs. Homegrown grapes grew for making
wine, and fruit trees for jam. Butter was churned in this house. Soap
was made, odd-shaped chunks made with lye. And cigarettes were
rolled with tobacco that had been grown, picked, cured, and made
ready for smoking and for twisting and braiding into wreaths by
the family, to serve as protection against moths.
This was a house where nothing was ever thrown away and
everything had a use. Crowded with objects and memories, there
was no way for a child to know that it was the home of grownups without social security numbers and regular jobs. Everybody
there was always busy. Idleness and self-sufficiency did not go
together. All the rooms in this house were crowded with
memories; every object had a story to be told by mouths that
had lived in the world a long time, mouths that remembered.
Baba’s wrath could be incurred by small things, a child
touching objects without permission, wanting anything before
it was offered by a grown-up. In this house everything was
ritual, even the manner of greeting. There was no modern
casualness.All rites of remem-brance had to be conducted with
awareness and respect. One’s elders spoke first. A child listened
but said nothing. A child waited to be given permission to
speak.And whenever a child was out of their place, punishment
was required to teach the lesson.
Going to visit or stay at this house was an adventure.There was
much to see and do but there was also much that could go wrong.
This was the house where everyone lived against the grain.They
created their own rules, their own forms of rough justice. It was
an unconventional house. That was as true of the architectural
plan as it was of the daily habits of its inhabitants. When I was a
girl, four people lived in this house of many rooms—Baba and
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
Daddy Gus, Aunt Margaret (mama’s unmarried and childless
sister), and Bo (the boy child of a daughter who had died).
Everybody had a room of their own—a room reflecting the
distinctiveness of their character and their being.
Bo’s space was a new addition at the back of the house, small
and private. Baba’s room was a huge space at the center of the
house. It contained her intimate treasures.There was no exploring
in this room; it was off limits to anyone save its owner. Then
there was the tiny room of Daddy Gus with a small single bed.
This was a room full of found treasures—a room with a mattress
where one could lie there and look out the window, which
went from ceiling to floor. This room was open to the public,
and children were the eager public waiting to see what new
objects our granddaddy had added to his store of lost and found
objects. Upstairs Aunt Margaret lived in a room with sloping
ceilings. Her bed was soft, a mound of feather mattresses stacked
on top of one another. From girlhood to womanhood all her
treasures lay recklessly tossed about. The bed was rarely made.
She liked mess—having everything where it could be seen, a
half-filled glass, a half-read letter, a book that had been turned to
the same page for more than ten years.
Over home at Baba’s house I learned old things were always
better than anything new. Found objects were everywhere.
Some were useful, others purely decorative. Every object had
a story. Nothing enchanted me more than to hear the history
of each everyday object—how it arrived at this particular place.
A quiltmaker, Baba was at her best sharing the story of cloth, a
quilt made from the cotton dresses of my mother and her
sisters, a quilt made from Daddy Gus’s suits. A dress first seen
in an old photo then the real thing pulled magically out of a
trunk somewhere. The object was looked and talked about in
two ways—from two perspectives.
Baba did not read or write.Telling a story, listening to a story
being told is where knowledge was for her. Conversation is not
a place of meaningless chitchat. It is the place where everything
where we stand
must be learned—the site of all epistemology. Over home,
everyone is always talking, explaining, illustrating and telling
stories with care and excitement. Over home, children can listen
to grown-up stories as long as they do not speak.We learn early
that there is no place for us in grown-up conversations.
More than any grown-up, Baba taught me about aesthetics,
how to really look at things, how to find the inherent beauty.
This was a rule in that house; everything, every object, has an
element of beauty. Looking deep one sees the beauty and hears
the story. Daddy Gus told me that all objects speak. When we
really look we can hear the object speak.They believe home is
a place where one is enclosed in endless stories. Like arms,
they hold and embrace memory.We are only alive in memory.
To remember together is the highest form of communion.
Communion with life begins with the earth, and these
people, my kin, are people of the earth. They grow things to
live. In the front yard herbs and flowers. Delphiniums, tulips,
marigolds—all these words I cannot keep inside my head. A
swirl of color seized my senses as I walked the stretch of the
garden with Baba, as she pushed me in the swing—a swing
made with huge braided rope and a board hanging from the
tallest tree. There was a story there, about the climbing of the
tree, the hanging of the rope, of the possibility of falling.
In the backyard vegetables grew. Scarecrows hung to chase
away birds who could clear a field of every crop. My task was to
learn how to walk the rows without stepping on growing things.
Life was everywhere, under my feet and over my head.The lure
of life was everywhere in everything. The first time I dug a
fishing worm and watched it move in my hand, feeling the sensual
grittiness of mingled dirt and wet, I knew that there is life below
and above—always life—that it lures and intoxicates.The chickens
laying eggs were such a mystery.We laughed at the way they sat.
We laughed at the sounds they made. And we relished being
chosen to gather eggs. One must have tender hands to hold
eggs, tender words to soothe chickens as they roost.
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
Everyone in our world talked about race and nobody talked
about class. Even though we knew that mama spent her teenage
years wanting to run away from this backwoods house and old
ways, to have new things, store-bought things, no one talked
about class. No one talked about the fact that no one had “real”
jobs at 1200 Broad Street, that no one made real money. No one
called their lifestyle “alternative” or Utopian. Even though it
was the 1960s, no one called them hippies. It was just this world
where the old ways remained supreme. It was the world of the
premodern, the world of poor agrarian southern black
landowners living under a regime of racial apartheid. In Baba’s
world she made the rules, uncaring about what the outside world
thought about race or class, or being poor. The first rule of the
backwoods is that everybody must think for themselves and
listen to what’s inside them and follow. That’s the reason we
have God, Baba used to say. God is above the law.
Living in a world above the absolutes of law and man-made
convention was what any black person in their right mind
needed to do if they wanted to keep a hold on life. Letting
white folks or anybody else control your mind and your body,
too, was a surefire way to fail in this life.That’s what Baba used
to say—may as well kill yourself and be done with it. As a girl
I wanted more than anything to live in this world of the old
ways. Instead I had to live with mama and the world of the
new. Inside me I felt brokenhearted and torn apart. I was an
old soul, and the world of the new could never claim me.
I was far away from home before I realized that my smart,
work-hard-as-a-janitor-at-the-post-office daddy (who had been
in the “colored infantry,” fought in wars, and traveled the world)
had nothing but stone-cold, hard contempt for these non-reading
black folks who lived above the law.A patriotic patriarch, he lived
within the law and was proud of it.To mama he openly expressed
his contempt of the world she had come from, intensifying her
class shame and her longing to move as far away from the old
ways as she could without severing all ties. She was always on
where we stand
guard to break the connection if any of her children were getting
the idea that they could live on the edge as her parents did, flouting
every convention. Lacking the inner strength to live within the
old ways, mama needed convention to feel secure. And it was
clear to everybody except the inhabitants of the house on Broad
Street that the old ways would soon be forgotten.To survive she
had to make her peace with the world of the modern and the
new.Turning her back on the old ways, she opened her heart and
soul to the cheaply made world of the store-bought.
Determined to move on up, mama moved us from the
country into the city, out of the concrete box into Mr. Porter’s
house. Now that was a house with history and memory. He
had lived to be an old, old man in this house and had died
there, his house kept just the way it was when he first moved
in, with only the bathroom added on.To mama this house was
paradise. A formal dining room, a guest room, a service porch,
a big kitchen, a master bedroom downstairs, and two big rooms
for the children upstairs. Uninsulated, attic-like rooms had short,
sloped ceilings and windows that went from wall to floor.They
were cold in winter, impossible to heat. None of that mattered
to mama. She was moving into a freshly painted big white
house with a lovely front porch.
Built in the early 1900s, Mr. Porter’s house was full of
possibilities—a house one could dream in. It was never clear
what our father thought about this house or the move. No matter
where we lived, it would always be his house. His wife and
children would always live there because he allowed them to do
so.This much was clear. He worked on the house because it was
a man’s job to do home improvement.We watched in awe as he
walled in the side porch, expanding and making a little room
that would be my brother’s room as well as a storage place.
Like all old houses of this period, there were few closets.
There were crawl spaces where stuff could be stored. Closets
were not needed in a world where folks possessed the clothes
on their backs and a few more items. Now that everyone bought
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
more, bureaus and armoires were needed so that clothing could
be stored properly. We had chests of drawers for everyone.
We lived with Mr. Porter’s ghosts and his memories in this
two-story house with its one added-on bedroom. By then we
were a family of six girls, one boy, mama and papa. Away from
the lonely house on the hill we had to learn to live with
neighbors with watching eyes and whispering tongues. Mama
was determined that there should be nothing said against her
or her children.We had moved on up into a neighborhood of
retired teachers and elderly women and men. We had to learn
to behave accordingly.
Still no one talked about class. Mama expressed her
appreciation for nice things, her pleasure in her new home,
but she did not voice her delight at leaving the old ways behind.
Backwoods folks who lived recklessly above the law were not
respectable citizens. Seen as crazy and strange, theirs was an
outlaw culture—a culture without the tidy rules of middleclass mannerisms, a culture on the edge. Mama refused to live
her life on the edge.
In Mr. Porter’s house we all became more aware of money.
Problems with money, having enough to do what was needed
and what was desired, were still never talked about in relation
to class. More than anything, like most of the black folks in
our neighborhood, we saw money problems as having to do
with race, with the fact that white folks kept the good jobs—
the well-paying jobs—for themselves. Even though our dad
made a decent salary at his job, racial apartheid meant that he
could never make the salary a white man made doing the same
job. As a black man in the apartheid south he was lucky to
have a job with a regular paycheck.
Being the man and making the money gave daddy the right
to rule, to decide everything, to overthrow mama’s authority
at any moment. More than anything else that he hated about
married life our dad hated having to share his money. He doled
small amounts of money out for household expenses and
where we stand
wanted everything to be accounted for. Determined that there
should be no excess for luxury or waste, he made sure that he
gave just barely enough to cover expenses. When it came to
the material needs of growing children, he took almost
everything to be a luxury—from schoolbooks to school clothes.
Constantly, we heard the mantra that he had not needed any
of these extras (money for band, for gym clothes) growing up.
Mostly, he behaved as though these were not his problems.
Mama heard all our material longings. She listened to the
pain of our lack. And it was she who tried to give us the desires
of our hearts, all the time never talking about class or about her
desires to see her children excel in ways that were not open to
her. More than class, mama saw sexuality—the threat of unwanted
pregnancy—as the path that closed all options for a female.While
she never encouraged her daughters to think about marrying
men with money, she used the threat of ruin as a way to warn us
away from sexuality. And she constantly urged us to keep our
minds on getting an education so we could get good jobs.
Her task was not easy. Daddy believed a woman with too
much education would never find a husband. In the dark when
they talked lying in bed, away from the ears of children, he warned
and berated her. She had to train her daughters to be the kind of
girls men would want to marry—quiet, obedient, good
homemakers—and at the same time secretly share with us that
we needed to prepare ourselves to work. Sex and race were the
dangers that made it possible for a girl to get off track, to get lost,
and never be found again; no one talked about class.
Women who received assistance from the state—women
on wel-fare—were to be pitied not because they did not have
jobs but because they did not have men to provide for them,
men who would make them respectable. During my sweet
sixteen years I began to feel in my flesh that being respectable
and getting respect were not one and the same.Anyone listening
to Aretha knew that. Respect was about being seen and treated
like you matter. Men like my daddy did not respect women.
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
To them a woman could be bought like any other object; what
was there to respect?
The only respectable women who lived alone in our
communities were schoolteachers. Nobody expected them to
marry. After all they were the women who had chosen mind
over matter.They had chosen to become women no man would
desire—women who think. While they lived in nice houses
and seemed not to suffer material want, they were still pitied.
Unlike women on welfare they had to remain childless to
maintain respect.They had to live alone in a world that believed
nothing was more tragic than a woman alone.
Mama taught me to admire these women and seek to be like
them, to cultivate my mind.And it was mama who let me know
that cultivating the mind could place one outside the boundaries
of desire. Inside the space of heterosexual desire a woman had to
be dependent on a man for everything. All the working black
women in our lives wanted to be able to stay home and spend
money—the money men would make for them working in the
tobacco fields, in the mines, doing hard labor. Men on our street
who worked in the coal mines came home covered in a thin
layer of grayish white dust that looked like ash.Women looked
at them and talked about how they made the only really good
money a working black man could make. No one talked of the
dangers; it was the money that mattered.
Even as we sat next to the children of black doctors, lawyers,
and undertakers in our segregated schoolrooms, no one talked
about class.When those children were treated better, we thought
it was because they were prettier, smarter, and just knew the
right way to act. Our mother was obsessed with teaching us
how to do things right, teaching us manners and bourgeois
decorum.Yet she had not been around enough middle-class black
people to know what to do. She fashioned a middle-class
sensibility by watching television, reading magazines, or looking
at the ways of the white folks she cleaned houses for now and
then. It was only now and then, and only after her children were
where we stand
in their teens, that she was allowed by daddy to work outside
the home. She slaved outside the home for extras, for icing on
the cake, to give her children the little special things we longed
for. Her work was sacrificial. It never counted as real work.Then
there were the middle-class black people she encountered at
church. Imitating them was one way to become like them. She
watched, observed, admired, then imposed these visions on her
children, all the while never men-tioning the word class.
Money was necessary and important. Everybody talked about
money, nobody talked about class. Like most southern cities
where racial apartheid remained the order of the day long after
laws were on the books championing desegregation, black people
lived on one side of the tracks and white folks on the other.
Legalized desegregation did not change that. No matter how
much money anybody black could make, they were still confined
to the black spaces. This arrangement made it seem that we
were truly living in a world where class did not matter; race
mattered. Money mattered. But no amount of money could
change the color of one’s skin. Everyone held on to the belief
that race was the factor that meant all black people shared the
same fate no matter how much their worth in dollars.
While class was never talked about in our household, the
importance of work—of working hard—was praised. Our father
worked hard at his job and mama worked hard in the home. Hard
work was a virtue. As children we heard again and again that
idleness was dangerous.At church we were told to “work while it
is day for the night cometh when no man can work.” My father
and his buddies talked about hierarchies in the world of work,
expressing their rage at bosses who did little but were better paid.
Overhearing these conversations in my teens I felt uneasy being a
witness to male pain. Even then, race was still the factor highlighted
most.The bosses were white. Unions were there to protect white
jobs and white workers. Nobody cared about black men.
Black men who could not find work could join the military.
Living near a military base meant that we were always aware
Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family
of the military as a place of employment. Black boys who were
wayward went into the military. Everyone was confident that
the discipline and hard work the military demanded would
straighten out any man-child walking a crooked path and give
him a good paycheck, one that would let him send money
home. A military man who had served his time, our father
believed that the military made a male disciplined and tough.
The useful lessons learned there could last a lifetime despite
the racism. Since one could spend a lifetime working in the
military, it was the one place where black males could count
on keeping a job. Black men left the military and found that it
was hard to find work. It took awhile for our daddy to find a
good job as a janitor at the post office. And when he did it was
a source of pride to be a hard worker, to be employed at the
same place for one’s entire working life. This is the legacy I
inherited from him, a belief in the integrity of hard work—a
respect for the worker.
Through his experience we learned to be proud of being
working class even though our conversations about class were
always tied to race.To know ourselves fully we had to find our
place in the world of work, and that, ultimately, meant
confronting race and class.
Coming to Class
As a child I often wanted things money could buy
that my parents could not afford and would not get. Rather
than tell us we did not get some material thing because money
was lacking, mama would frequently manipulate us in an effort
to make the desire go away. Sometimes she would belittle and
shame us about the object of our desire.That’s what I remember
most. That lovely yellow dress I wanted would become in her
storytelling mouth a really ugly mammy-made thing that no
girl who cared about her looks would desire. My desires were
often made to seem worthless and stupid. I learned to mistrust
and silence them. I learned that the more clearly I named my
desires, the more unlikely those desires would ever be fulfilled.
I learned that my inner life was more peaceful if I did not
think about money, or allow myself to indulge in any fantasy
of desire. I learned the art of sublimation and repression. I
learned it was better to make do with acceptable material desires
than to articulate the unacceptable. Before I knew money
mattered, I had often chosen objects to desire that were costly,
things a girl of my class would not ordinarily desire. But then
Coming to Class Consciousness
I was still a girl who was unaware of class, who did not think
my desires were stupid and wrong. And when I found they
were I let them go. I concentrated on survival, on making do.
When I was choosing a college to attend, the issue of money
surfaced and had to be talked about.While I would seek loans
and scholarships, even if everything related to school was paid
for, there would still be transportation to pay for, books, and a
host of other hidden costs. Letting me know that there was no
extra money to be had, mama urged me to attend any college
nearby that would offer financial aid. My first year of college I
went to a school close to home.A plain-looking white woman
recruiter had sat in our living room and explained to my parents
that everything would be taken care of, that I would be awarded
a full academic scholarship, that they would have to pay nothing.
They knew better. They knew there was still transportation,
clothes, all the hidden costs. Still they found this school
acceptable.They could drive me there and pick me up. I would
not need to come home for holidays. I could make do.
After my parents dropped me at the predominately white
women’s college, I saw the terror in my roommate’s face that
she was going to be housed with someone black, and I requested
a change. She had no doubt also voiced her concern. I was
given a tiny single room by the stairs—a room usually denied
a first-year student—but I was a first-year black student, a
scholarship girl who could never in a million years have afforded
to pay her way or absorb the cost of a single room. My fellow
students kept their distance from me. I ate in the cafeteria and
did not have to worry about who would pay for pizza and
drinks in the world outside. I kept my desires to myself, my
lacks and my loneliness; I made do.
I rarely shopped.Boxes came from home,with brand-new clothes
mama had purchased. Even though it was never spoken she did not
want me to feel ashamed among privileged white girls. I was the
only black girl in my dorm.There was no room in me for shame. I
felt contempt and disinterest.With their giggles and their obsession
where we stand
to marry, the white girls at the women’s college were aliens.We did
not reside on the same planet. I lived in the world of books. The
one white woman who became my close friend found me there
reading.I was hiding under the shadows of a tree with huge branches,
the kinds of trees that just seemed to grow effortlessly on well-todo college campuses. I sat on the “perfect” grass reading poetry,
wondering how the grass around me could be so lovely and yet
when daddy had tried to grow grass in the front yard of Mr. Porter’s
house it always turned yellow or brown and then died. Endlessly,
the yard defeated him, until finally he gave up.The outside of the
house looked good but the yard always hinted at the possibility of
endless neglect.The yard looked poor.
Foliage and trees on the college grounds flourished. Greens
were lush and deep. From my place in the shadows I saw a
fellow student sitting alone weeping. Her sadness had to do
with all the trivia that haunted our day’s classwork, the fear of
not being smart enough, of losing financial aid (like me she
had loans and scholarships, though her family paid some), and
boys. Coming from an Illinois family of Chechoslovakian
immigrants she understood class.
When she talked about the other girls who flaunted their wealth
and family background there was a hard edge of contempt, anger,
and envy in her voice. Envy was always something I pushed away
from my psyche. Kept too close for comfort envy could lead to
infatuation and on to desire. I desired nothing that they had. She
desired everything, speaking her desires openly without shame.
Growing up in the kind of community where there was constant
competition to see who could buy the bigger better whatever, in
a world of organized labor, of unions and strikes, she understood
a world of bosses and workers, of haves and have-nots.
White friends I had known in high school wore their class
privilege modestly. Raised, like myself, in church traditions that
taught us to identify only with the poor, we knew that there
was evil in excess. We knew rich people were rarely allowed
into heaven. God had given them a paradise of bounty on earth
Coming to Class Consciousness
and they had not shared. The rare ones, the rich people who
shared, were the only ones able to meet the divine in paradise,
and even then it was harder for them to find their way.According
to the high school friends we knew, flaunting wealth was frowned
upon in our world, frowned upon by God and community.
The few women I befriended my first year in college were
not wealthy. They were the ones who shared with me stories
of the other girls flaunting the fact that they could buy anything
expensive—clothes, food, vacations. There were not many of
us from working class backgrounds; we knew who we were.
Most girls from poor backgrounds tried to blend in, or fought
back by triumphing over wealth with beauty or style or some
combination of the above. Being black made me an automatic
outsider. Holding their world in contempt pushed me further
to the edge. One of the fun things the “in” girls did was choose
someone and trash their room. Like so much else deemed cute
by insiders, I dreaded the thought of strangers entering my
space and going through my things. Being outside the in crowd
made me an unlikely target. Being contemptuous made me
first on the list. I did not understand. And when my room was
trashed it unleashed my rage and deep grief over not being
able to protect my space from violation and invasion. I hated
that girls who had so much, took so much for granted, never
considered that those of us who did not have mad money
would not be able to replace broken things, perfume poured
out, or talcum powder spread everywhere—that we did not
know everything could be taken care of at the dry cleaner’s
because we never took our clothes there. My rage fueled by
contempt was deep, strong, and long lasting. Daily it stood as a
challenge to their fun, to their habits of being.
Nothing they did to win me over worked. It came as a
great surprise. They had always believed black girls wanted to
be white girls, wanted to possess their world. My stoney gaze,
silence, and absolute refusal to cross the threshold of their world
was total mystery; it was for them a violation they needed to
where we stand
avenge. After trashing my room, they tried to win me over
with apologies and urges to talk and understand. There was
nothing about me I wanted them to understand. Everything
about their world was overexposed, on the surface.
One of my English professors had attended Stanford
University. She felt that was the place for me to go—a place
where intellect was valued over foolish fun and games and dress
up, and finding a husband did not overshadow academic work.
She had gone to Stanford. I had never thought about the state of
California. Getting my parents to agree to my leaving Kentucky
to attend a college in a nearby state had been hard enough.They
had accepted a college they could reach by car, but a college
thousands of miles away was beyond their imagination. Even I
had difficulty grasping going that far away from home.The lure
for me was the promise of journeying and arriving at a destination
where I would be accepted and understood.
All the barely articulated understandings of class privilege
that I had learned my first year of college had not hipped me
to the reality of class shame. It still had not dawned on me that
my parents, especially mama, resolutely refused to acknowledge
any difficulties with money because her sense of shame around
class was deep and intense. And when this shame was coupled
with her need to feel that she had risen above the low-class
backwoods culture of her family, it was impossible for her to
talk in a straightforward manner about the strains it would put
on the family for me to attend Stanford.
All I knew then was that, as with all my desires, I was told
that this desire was impossible to fulfill.At first it was not talked
about in relation to money, it was talked about in relation to
sin. California was an evil place, a modern-day Babylon where
souls were easily seduced away from the path of righteousness.
It was not a place for an innocent young girl to go on her
own. Mama brought the message back that my father had
absolutely refused to give permission.
I expressed my disappointment through ongoing unrelenting
Coming to Class Consciousness
grief. I explained to mama that other parents wanted their
children to go to good schools. It still had not dawned on me
that my parents knew nothing about “good” schools. Even
though I knew mama had not graduated from high school I
still held her in awe. Mama and daddy were awesome authority
figures—family fascists of a very high order. As children we
knew that it was better not to doubt their word or their
knowledge. We blindly trusted them.
A crucial aspect of our family fascism was that we were not
allowed much contact with other families. We were rarely
allowed to go to someone’s house. We knew better than to
speak about our family in other people’s homes. While we
caught glimpses of different habits of being, different ways of
doing things in other families, we knew that to speak of those
ways at our home, to try to use them to influence or change
our parents, was to risk further confinement.
Our dad had traveled to foreign countries as a soldier but
he did not speak of these experiences. Safety, we had been
religiously taught in our household, was always to be found
close to home. We were not a family who went on vacations,
who went exploring. When relatives from large cities would
encourage mama to let us children go back with them, their
overtures were almost always politely refused. Once mama
agreed that I could go to Chicago to visit an elderly cousin,
Schuyler—a name strange and beautiful on our lips.
Retired Cousin Schuyler lived a solitary life in a basement
flat of the browns tone he shared with Lovie, his wife of many
years.Vocationally a painter, he did still lifes and nudes. When
they came to visit us, Mama had shown them the painting I
had done that won a school prize. It was a portrait of a poor
lonely boy with sad eyes. Despite our class background all of
us took art classes in school. By high school the disinterested
had forgotten about art and only those of us who were
committed to doing art, to staying close to an artistic
environment, remained. For some that closeness was just a
where we stand
kindly voyeurism. They had talent but were simply not
sufficiently interested to use it. Then there were folks like me,
full of passion and talent, but without the material resources
to do art. Making art was for people with money.
I understood this when my parents adamantly refused to have
my painting framed. Only framed work could be in the show. My
art teacher, an Italian immigrant who always wore black, showed
me how to make a frame from pieces of wood found in the trash.
Like my granddaddy he was a lover of found objects. Both of
them were men without resources who managed to love beauty
and survive. In high school art classes we talked about beauty—
about aesthetics. But it was after class that I told the teacher how
I had learned these things already from my grandmother.
Each year students would choose an artist and study their
work and then do work in that same tradition. I chose abstract
expressionism and the work of Willem de Kooning. Choosing
to paint a house in autumn, the kind of house I imagined
living in, with swirls of color—red, yellow, brown—I worked
for hours after class, trying to give this house the loneliness I
felt inside.This painting was my favorite. I showed it to Cousin
Schuyler along with the image of the lonely boy.
It remains a mystery how Schuyler and Lovie convinced
mama that it would be fine to let me spend some time with
them in Chicago—my first big city. Traveling to Chicago was
my first sojourn out of the apartheid south. It was my first
time in a world where I saw black people working at all types
of jobs. They worked at the post office delivering mail, in
factories, driving buses, collecting garbage—black people with
good jobs.This new world was awesome. It was a world where
black people had power. I worked in a little store owned by a
black male friend of my aunt. The wife of this friend had her
own beauty parlor but no children. They had money.
Lovie talked to me about class. There were low-class folks
one should not bother with. She insisted one should aim high.
These were big city ideas. In our small town community we
Coming to Class Consciousness
had been taught to see everyone as worthy. Mama especially
preached that you should never see yourself as better than anyone,
that no matter anyone’s lot in life they deserved respect. Mama
preached this even though she aimed high. These messages
confused me.The big city was too awesome and left me afraid.
Yet it also changed my perspective, for it had shown me a
world where black people could be artists. And what I saw was
that artists barely survived. No one in my family wanted me to
pursue art; they wanted me to get a good job, to be a teacher.
Painting was something to do when real work was done. Once,
maybe twice even, I expressed my desire to be an artist. That
became an occasion for dire warning and laughter, since like
so many desires it was foolish, hence the laughter. Since foolish
girls are likely to do foolish things dire warnings had to come
after the laughter. Black folks could not make a living as artists.
They pointed to the one example—the only grown-up black
artist they knew, Cousin Schuyler, living in a dark basement
like some kind of mole or rat.
Like everything else the choice to be an artist was talked
about in terms of race, not class.The substance of the warnings
was always to do with the untalked-about reality of class in
America. I did not think about being an artist anymore. I
struggled with the more immediate question of where to
continue college, of how to find a place where I would not
feel like such an alien.
When my parents refused to permit me to attend Stanford, I
accepted the verdict for awhile. Overwhelmed by grief, I could
barely speak for weeks. Mama intervened and tried to change
my father’s mind as folks she respected in the outside world told
her what a privilege it was for me to have this opportunity, that
Stanford University was a good school for a smart girl.Without
their permission I decided I would go.And even though she did
not give her approval mama was willing to help.
My decision made conversations about money necessary. Mama
explained that California was too far away, that it would always
where we stand
“cost” to get there, that if something went wrong they would not
be able to come and rescue me, that I would not be able to come
home for holidays. I heard all this but its meaning did not sink in.
I was just relieved I would not be returning to the women’s college,
to the place where I had truly been an outsider.
There were other black students at Stanford.There was even
a dormitory where many black students lived. I did not know I
could choose to live there. I went where I was assigned. Going
to Stanford was the first time I flew somewhere. Only mama
stood and waved farewell as I left to take the bus to the airport.
I left with a heavy heart, feeling both excitement and dread. I
knew nothing about the world I was journeying to. Not knowing
made me afraid but my fear of staying in place was greater.
Since we do not talk about class in this society and since
information is never shared or talked about freely in a fascist
family, I had no idea what was ahead of me. In small ways I was
ignorant. I had never been on an escalator, a city bus, an airplane,
or a subway. I arrived in San Francisco with no understanding
that Palo Alto was a long drive away—that it would take money
to find transportation there. I decided to take the city bus.With
all my cheap overpacked bags I must have seemed like just another
innocent immigrant when I struggled to board the bus.
This was a city bus with no racks for luggage. It was filled
with immigrants. English was not spoken. I felt lost and afraid.
Without words the strangers surrounding me understood the
universal language of need and distress. They reached for my
bags, holding and helping. In return I told them my story—
that I had left my village in the South to come to Stanford
University, that like them my family were workers, they worked
the land—they worked in the world.They were workers.They
understood workers. I would go to college and learn how to
make a world where they would not have to work so hard.
When I arrived at my destination, the grown-ups in charge
cautioned me about trusting strangers, telling me what I already
knew, that I was no longer in my town, that nothing was the
Coming to Class Consciousness
same. On arriving I called home. Before I could speak, I began
to weep as I heard the far-away sound of mama’s voice. I tried
to find the words, to slow down, to tell her how it felt to be a
stranger, to speak my uncertainty and longing. She told me
this is the lot I had chosen. I must live with it. After her words
there was only silence. She had hung up on me—let me go
into this world where I am a stranger still.
Stanford University was a place where one could learn about
class from the ground up. Built by a man who believed in hard
work, it was to have been a place where students of all classes
would come, women and men, to work together and learn. It was
to be a place of equality and communalism. His vision was seen
by many as almost communist.The fact that he was rich made it
all less threatening. Perhaps no one really believed the vision could
be realized.The university was named after his son who had died
young, a son who had carried his name but who had no future
money could buy. No amount of money can keep death away.
But it could keep memory alive. And so we work and learn in
buildings that remind us of a young son carried away by death
too soon, of a father’s unrelenting grief remembered.
Everything in the landscape of my new world fascinated me,
the plants brought from a rich man’s travels all over the world
back to this place of water and clay.At Stanford University adobe
buildings blend with Japanese plum trees and leaves of kumquat.
On my way to study medieval literature, I ate my first kumquat.
Surrounded by flowering cactus and a South American shrub
bougainvillea of such trailing beauty it took my breath away, I
was in a landscape of dreams, full of hope and possibility. If nothing
else would hold me, I would not remain a stranger to the earth.
The ground I stood on would know me.
Class was talked about behind the scenes.The sons and daughters
from rich, famous, or notorious families were identified. The
grownups in charge of us were always looking out for a family
who might give their millions to the college. At Stanford my
classmates wanted to know me, thought it hip, cute, and downright
where we stand
exciting to have a black friend.They invited me on the expensive
vacations and ski trips I could not afford. They offered to pay. I
never went. Along with other students who were not from
privileged families, I searched for places to go during the holiday
times when the dormitory was closed.We got together and talked
about the assumption that everyone had money to travel and
would necessarily be leaving. The staff would be on holiday as
well, so all students had to leave. Now and then the staff did not
leave and we were allowed to stick around. Once, I went home
with one of the women who cleaned for the college.
Now and then when she wanted to make extra money mama
would work as a maid. Her decision to work outside the home
was seen as an act of treason by our father. At Stanford I was
stunned to find that there were maids who came by regularly to
vacuum and tidy our rooms. No one had ever cleaned up behind
me and I did not want them to. At first I roomed with another
girl from a working-class background—a beautiful white girl
from Orange County who looked like pictures I had seen on
the cover of Seventeen magazine. Her mother had died of cancer
during her high school years and she had since been raised by
her father. She had been asked by the college officials if she
would find it problematic to have a black roommate.A scholarship
student like myself, she knew her preferences did not matter
and as she kept telling me, she did not really care.
Like my friend during freshman year she shared the
understanding of what it was like to be a have-not in a world
of haves. But unlike me she was determined to become one of
them. If it meant she had to steal nice clothes to look the same
as they did, she had no problem taking these risks. If it meant
having a privileged boyfriend who left bruises on her body
now and then, it was worth the risk. Cheating was worth it.
She believed the world the privileged had created was all
unfair—all one big cheat; to get ahead one had to play the
game. To her I was truly an innocent, a lamb being led to the
slaughter. It did not surprise her one bit when I began to
crack under the pressure of contradictory values and longings.
Coming to Class Consciousness
Like all students who did not have seniority, I had to see the
school psychiatrists to be given permission to live off campus.
Unaccustomed to being around strangers, especially strangers
who did not share or understand my values, I found the
experience of living in the dorms difficult. Indeed, almost
everyone around me believed working-class folks had no values.
At the university where the founder, Leland Stanford, had
imagined different classes meeting on common ground, I learned
how deeply individuals with class privilege feared and hated the
working classes. Hearing classmates express contempt and hatred
toward people who did not come from the right backgrounds
shocked me. Naively, I believed them to be so young to hold
those views, so devoid of life experiences that would serve to
uphold or make sense of these thoughts. I had always worked.
Working-class people had always encouraged and supported me.
To survive in this new world of divided classes, this world
where I was also encountering for the first time a black
bourgeois elite that was as contemptuous of working people
as their white counterparts were, I had to take a stand, to get
clear my own class affiliations.This was the most difficult truth
to face. Having been taught all my life to believe that black
people were inextricably bound in solidarity by our struggles
to end racism, I did not know how to respond to elitist black
people who were full of contempt for anyone who did not
share their class, their way of life.
At Stanford I encountered for the first time a black diaspora.
Of the few black professors present, the vast majority were
from African or Caribbean backgrounds. Elites themselves, they
were only interested in teaching other elites. Poor folks like
myself, with no background to speak of, were invisible. We
were not seen by them or anyone else. Initially, I went to all
meetings welcoming black students, but when I found no one
to connect with I retreated. In the shadows I had time and
books to teach me about the nature of class—about the ways
black people were divided from themselves.
where we stand
Despite this rude awakening, my disappointment at finding
myself estranged from the group of students I thought would
understand, I still looked for connections. I met an older black
male graduate student who also came from a working-class
background. Even though he had gone to the right high school,
a California school for gifted students, and then to Princeton as
an undergraduate, he understood intimately the intersections of
race and class. Good in sports and in the classroom, he had been
slotted early on to go far, to go where other black males had not
gone. He understood the system. Academically, he fit. Had he
wanted to, he could have been among the elite but he chose to be
on the margins, to hang with an intellectual artistic avant garde.
He wanted to live in a world of the mind where there was no race
or class. He wanted to worship at the throne of art and knowledge.
He became my mentor, comrade, and companion.
When we were not devoting ourselves to books and to
poetry we confronted a real world where we were in need of
jobs. Even though I taught an occasional class, I worked in the
world of the mundane. I worked at a bookstore, cooked at a
club, worked for the telephone company. My way out of being
a maid, of doing the dirty work of cleaning someone else’s
house, was to become a schoolteacher. The thought terrified
me. From grade school on I feared and hated the classroom. In
my imagination it was still the ultimate place of inclusion and
exclusion, discipline and punishment—worse than the fascist
family because there was no connection of blood to keep in
check impulses to search and destroy.
Now and then a committed college professor opened my
mind to the reality that the classroom could be a place of passion
and possibility, but, in general, at the various colleges I attended
it was the place where the social order was kept in place.
Throughout my graduate student years, I was told again and
again that I lacked the proper decorum of a graduate student,
that I did not understand my place. Slowly I began to
understand fully that there was no place in academe for folks
Coming to Class Consciousness
from working-class backgrounds who did not wish to leave
the past behind.That was the price of the ticket. Poor students
would be welcome at the best institutions of higher learning
only if they were willing to surrender memory, to forget the
past and claim the assimilated present as the only worthwhile
and meaningful reality.
Students from nonprivileged backgrounds who did not want
to forget often had nervous breakdowns. They could not bear
the weight of all the contradictions they had to confront. They
were crushed. More often than not they dropped out with no
trace of their inner anguish recorded, no institutional record of
the myriad ways their take on the world was assaulted by an
elite vision of class and privilege. The records merely indicated
that even after receiving financial aid and other support, these
students simply could not make it, simply were not good enough.
At no time in my years as a student did I march in a
graduation ceremony. I was not proud to hold degrees from
institutions where I had been constantly scorned and shamed.
I wanted to forget these experiences, to erase them from my
consciousness. Like a prisoner set free I did not want to
remember my years on the inside.When I finished my doctorate
I felt too much uncertainty about who I had become. Uncertain
about whether I had managed to make it through without
giving up the best of myself, the best of the values I had been
raised to believe in—hard work, honesty, and respect for
everyone no matter their class—I finished my education with
my allegiance to the working class intact. Even so, I had planted
my feet on the path leading in the direction of class privilege.
There would always be contradictions to face. There would
always be confrontations around the issue of class. I would
always have to reexamine where I stand.
Class and the
At church we were taught to identify with the poor.
This was the spoken narrative of class that dominated my
growing-up years. The poor were chosen and closer to the
heart of the divine because their lives embodied the wisdom
of living simply. By the time I was in junior high school, I was
reading to my church congregation during the morning
offering, choosing scriptures from the biblical Book of Matthew,
which admonished believers to recognize our oneness with
the poor and all who are lacking the means for material wellbeing. I read from the twenty-fifth book of Matthew passages
describing a day when we stand before the divine and all the
angels seated with him in heavenly glory.
On that day of reckoning, scriptures shared, “all the nations
will be gathered before him.” In the presence of witnesses, joined
in common community, those who had identified with and
cared for the poor and needy would be chosen to dwell among
the godly.Those who were not chosen were to be told: “Depart
from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for
Class and the Politics of Living Simply
the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me
nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes
and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did
not look after me.” Questioning this decision, the unchosen
answer: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a
stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help
you?” He replies: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do
for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” To not
identify with the poor and the downtrodden, to fail to attend to
their needs, was to suffer the pain of being disinherited.
I was not allowed to stand before my church community
and read these scriptures until it was clear that I understood in
mind and heart their meaning. Individuals who have declared
their faith, who walk on a spiritual path, choose identification
with the poor. In that same book of the Bible we were taught
to give to those less fortunate discreetly with no thought of
personal glory or gain. To not be discreet might call attention
to those who suffered lack and they might be ridiculed, scorned,
or shamed. The best way to give was to give secretly so there
could be no question of return or obligation.
Again and again we were told in church that once we crossed
the threshold of this holy place sanctified by divine spirit we were
all one. As a child I did not know who the poor were among us.
I did not understand that as a family of seven children and two
adults living on one working-class income, when it came to the
issue of material resources we were at times poor. Sharing resources
was commonplace in our world—a direct outcome of a belief in
the necessity of claiming the poor as ourselves.
Indeed showing solidarity with the poor was essential spiritual
work, a way to learn the true meaning of community and enact
the sharing of resources that would necessarily dismantle
hierarchy and difference. In the community of my upbringing
no one talked about capitalism. We knew the word communism
because keeping the world safe for democracy was discussed.
where we stand
And communism was the identified threat. No one talked about
the way capitalism worked, the fact that it demanded that there
be sur plus labor creating conditions for widespread
unemployment. No one talked about slavery as an institution
paving the way for advanced capitalist economic growth.
In his discussion of the impact of capitalism as a force shaping
our basic assumptions about life, “Naming Our Gods,” David
Hilfiker emphasizes the way in which commitment to Christian
ethics directly challenges allegiance to any economic system that
encourages one group to have and hoard material plenty while
others do without. Working as a physician caring for the inner
city poor he states: “Our work is grounded in the understanding
that God calls us to care for and move into solidarity with those
who have been—for whatever reason—excluded from society.”
Throughout my childhood I saw embodied in our home
and in the community as a whole the belief that resources should
be shared. When mama would send us to neighbors with food
or clothes we complained, just as we complained when she sent
us to collect the gifts that were sometimes given to us by caring
folks who recognized the material strains of raising a large family
on one income, especially since patriarchal heads of households,
like our dad, often kept much of their paycheck for their own
private use.Women in our community understood this and had
the best networks for figuring out ways to give and share with
others without causing embarrassment or shame.
There was necessarily a tension between the call to identify
with the poor and the recognition that in the secular world of
our everyday life, the poor were often subjected to harassments
and humiliations that generated shame. Despite the valorization
of the poor in religious life, no one really wanted to be poor.
No one wanted to be the object of pity or shame.Writing about
the impact of shame on our sense of self in Coming Out of Shame,
Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael share this insight:
“Unexamined shame on either the individual or societal level
becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle to the realization
Class and the Politics of Living Simply
of inner wholeness and true connection with others, because
shame reveals us all as lesser, worthless, deficient—in a word,
profoundly and unspeakably inferior.” On one hand, from a
spiritual perspective, we were taught to think of the poor as the
chosen ones, closer to the divine, ever worthy in the sight of
God, but on the other hand, we knew that in the real world
being poor was never considered a blessing.The fact that being
poor was seen as a cause for shame prevented it from being an
occasion for celebration.
Solidarity with the poor was the gesture that intervened on
shame. It was to be expressed not just by treating the poor well
and with generosity but by living as simply as one could. If
you were well off, choosing to live simply meant you had more
to share with those who were not as fortunate. David Hilfiker
describes an earlier time in our history as a nation when it was
just assumed that a physician would care for the poor. However,
in more recent times Hilfiker finds himself regarded almost as
a “saint” because he chooses to work with the poor. Yet he
shares this insight: “This perception of my extraordinary
sacrifice persists even though I’ve mentioned in my talk that
Marja’s and my combined income (around $45,000) puts us
well above the median income of this county, and I’ve made
clear that we reap the benefits of community and meaningful
vocations in ways most people only dream of.” The call to live
simply is regarded by most people as foolhardy. Most folks
think that to play it safe, one must strive to accumulate as
much material wealth as possible and hoard it.
In the late fifties and sixties, our nation had not yet become
a place where the poor would be regarded solely with contempt.
In the growing-up years of my life, my siblings and I were
constantly told that it was a sin to place ourselves above others.
We were taught that material possessions told you nothing
about the inner life of another human being, whether they
were loving, a person of courage and integrity. We were told
to look past material trappings and find the person inside. It
where we stand
was easy to do this in childhood, in the small community where
we were raised and knew our neighbors.
My college years were the time in my life where I was more
directly confronted with the issue of class. Like many students
from working-class backgrounds seeking upward mobility, prior
to this time I had no personal contact with rich people. All my
notions of higher education were informed by a romantic vision
of intellectual hard work and camaraderie. I, like most of my
working-class peers, was not prepared to face the class hierarchies
present in academia, or the way information in the classroom
was slanted to protect the interests of ruling class groups. Offering
testimony of a similar experience in the collection Strangers in
Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, Karl Anderson writes
about the shock he experienced in graduate school engendered
by his “discovery of the greed that dominated the consciousness
of the majority of my peers and professors.” Like many of us, he
remembers that “social class was, of course, almost never
mentioned,” even in classes with literature focusing on the poor
and working class. When class was mentioned at the school I
attended, negative stereotypes about poor and working-class
people were the only perspectives evoked.
When I went to fancy colleges where money and status
defined one’s place in the scheme of things, I found myself an
object of curiosity, ridicule, and even contempt from my
classmates because of my class background. At times I felt class
shame. Often, that shame arose around food—when I did not
know what certain foods were that everyone else was familiar
with. That shame came and went. But in its wake I was left
with the realization that my fellow students had no desire to
understand anything about the lives of working-class people.
They did not want to know or identify with the poor. And
they were, above all, not interested in solidarity with the poor.
Students who considered themselves socialists were not so
much interested in the poor as they were desirous of leading
the poor, of being their guides and saviors. It was just this
Class and the Politics of Living Simply
paternalism toward the poor that the vision of solidarity I had
learned in religious settings was meant to challenge. From a
spiritual perspective, the poor were there to guide and lead the
rest of us by example if not by outright action and testimony.
As a student I read Marx, Gramsci, and a host of other male
thinkers on the subject of class. These works provided
theoretical paradigms but rarely offered tools for confronting
the complexity of class in daily life.
The work of liberation theologists moved in a direction I
could understand. While leftist thought often provided the
theoretical backdrop for this work, it focused more pointedly
on the concrete relations between those who have and those
who have not. Progressive theology stressed the importance of
solidarity with the poor that I had learned growing up—a
solidarity that was to be expressed by word and deed. David
Hilfiker’s piece echoes this theology when he urges us to
consider the ways identification with wealth has produced a
culture where belief in an oppressive capitalism functions like
a religion. He contends: “It is important for us to understand
that we have chosen this. Neither modern capitalism nor
economic imperative requires that necessities be distributed
according to wealth. Today’s ‘capitalistic’ economic systems
can easily be modified through taxation and wealth-transfer
programs, such as Social Security, to provide necessities.”
Sharing resources is no longer deemed an important value by
most citizens of our nation. In his insightful book Freedom of
Simplicity, Richard Foster expresses the vision of solidarity at
the heart of Christian teachings about poverty. He writes: “In
the twelfth chapter of Romans, Paul sets forth a lovely picture
of a community of people living in simplicity. Placed in the
context of teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Paul provides
a profoundly practical understanding of how we are to live.
We are to give freely to the needs of the saints and to practice
ordinary hospitality. We are to enter into the needs of one
another—rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with
where we stand
those who weep.We are to deal with class and status distinction
to the extent that we can be freely among the lowly.” This
vision of living simply captured the imagination of Americans
who wanted to live in an alternative way during the sixties
and seventies but began to have less impact as an ethos of
hedonistic consumption swept the nation in the eighties.
At one time the vast majority of this nation’s citizens were
schooled in religious doctrine which emphasized the danger
of wealth, greed, and covetousness. Just as many of us were
raised to stand in solidarity with the poor, we were raised to
believe that the pursuit of wealth was dangerous, not because
riches made one bad but because they could lead one down a
path of self-interested pathological narcissism.Anyone walking
on such a path would necessarily be estranged from community.
Religious teaching reminds us that profit cannot be the sole
measure of value in life. In the biblical Book of Matthew we
were taught: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the
whole world, yet loses his soul?”
As a nation, a shift in attitudes toward the poor began to
happen in the seventies. Suddenly notions of communalism
were replaced with notions of self-interest. The idea that
everyone could become rich simply by working hard or finding
a gimmick gained public acceptance as contemptuous attitudes
toward the poor began to permeate all aspects of our culture.
Changing attitudes toward the poor corresponded with the
devaluation of traditional religious beliefs. While new age
spiritual thought gathered momentum, it too tended to
“blame” the poor for their plight and exonerate the rich.
Much new age thought actually reversed traditional Christian
condemnation of the hoarding of wealth by stressing not only
that the poor had freely chosen to be poor (since we live many
lives and choose our status and fate), but that economic prosperity
was a sign of divine blessing. A critique of greed does not enter
into much new age thinking about wealth. Discourses of greed
and exploitation are rarely evoked. In worst-case scenarios in
Class and the Politics of Living Simply
new age writing, the rich are encouraged to believe that they
have no responsibility for the fate of the poor and disenfranchised
since we have all chosen our lot in life.
Significantly, while the uncaring rich and powerful, especially
those in control of government, big business, and mass media,
were and are at the forefront of campaigns to place all
accountability for poverty on the poor and to equate being
poor with being worthless, lots of other nonwealthy citizens
have allied themselves with these groups. This denigration of
the poor has been most graphically expressed by ongoing attacks
on the welfare system and the plans to dismantle it without
providing economic alternatives. Many greedy upper- and
middle-class citizens share with their wealthy counterparts a
hatred and disdain for the poor that is so intense it borders on
pathological hysteria. It has served their class interests to
perpetuate the notion that the poor are mere parasites and
predators. And, of course, their greed has set up a situation
where many people must act in a parasitic manner in order to
meet basic needs—the need for food, clothing, and shelter.
More and more it is just an accepted “fact of life” that those
who are materially well off—who have more money—will have
more of everything else. Hilfiker reminds us that currently “this
assumption is so deeply embedded in our value system” that
most everyone assumes the individual is accountable for any
and all circumstance of material lack. As a consequence, “an
essential principle of the free-market system, then, is actually a
formulation of injustice.” Hilfiker continues: “Again, few of us
really believe that the world should operate this way. Some of us
might agree to distribute luxuries according to wealth, but does
anyone believe that food, shelter, basic education, health care, or
other necessities should be distributed according to private
wealth? Nonetheless, we have established a society in which
even those necessities are meted out mostly on the basis of how
much money people have.” Unlike Hilfiker, I find many people
do believe everything should be distributed according to wealth.
where we stand
It is not just folks with class privilege who think this way. Mass
media attempts to brainwash working-class and poor people so
that they, too, internalize these assumptions.
To be poor in the United States today is to be always at risk,
the object of scorn and shame. Without mass-based empathy
for the poor, it is possible for ruling class groups to mask class
terrorism and genocidal acts. Creating and maintaining social
conditions where individuals of all ages daily suffer malnutrition
and starvation is a form of class warfare that increasingly goes
unnoticed in this society.When huge housing projects in urban
cities are torn down and the folks who dwell therein are not
relocated, no one raises questions or protests. Television and
newspapers provide snippets of interviews with residents saying
these structures should be torn down. Of course, the public
does not hear these interviewees stress the need for new public
housing that is sound and affordable.
To stand in solidarity with the poor is no easy gesture at a
time when individuals of all classes are encouraged to fear for
their economic well-being. Certainly the fear of being taken
advantage of by those in need has led many people with class
privilege to turn their backs on the poor. As the gap between
rich and poor intensifies in this society, those voices that urge
solidarity with the poor are often drowned out by mainstream
conservative voices that deride, degrade, and devalue the poor.
Lack of concern for the poor is all the more possible when
voices on the left ignore this reality while focusing primary
attention on the machinations of the powerful. We need a
concerned left politics that continues to launch powerful
critique of ruling class groups even as it also addresses and
attends to the issue of strategic assault and demoralization of
the poor, a politics that can effectively intervene on class warfare.
Tragically, the well-off and the poor are often united in capitalist
culture by their shared obsession with consumption. Oftentimes
the poor are more addicted to excess because they are the most
vulnerable to all the powerful messages in media and in our lives
Class and the Politics of Living Simply
in general which suggest that the only way out of class shame is
conspicuous consumption. Propaganda in advertising and in the
culture as a whole assures the poor that they can be one with
those who are more materially privileged if they own the same
products. It helps sustain the false notion that ours is a classless
society. When these values are accepted by the poor they
internalize habits of being that make them act in complicity
with greed and exploitation.Who has not heard materially welloff individuals talk about driving through poor neighborhoods
and seeing fancy cars or massive overeating of junk food? These
are the incidents the well-off emphasize to denigrate the poor
while simultaneously holding them accountable for their fate.
In a culture where money is the measure of value, where it
is believed that everything and everybody can be bought, it is
difficult to sustain different values. Hilfiker believes: “In such a
system the only way to mobilize social forces against poverty
is to show how much money society would save by investing
in poor neighborhoods, alternatives to prison and preventative
medical care. In other words by a cost-benefit analysis of
poverty.” While this strategy is important, we must also face
that for many people the thrill of having more is intensified by
the presence of those who have less.Waste is not the issue here.
To many greedy individuals, power lies in withholding resources
even if it would be more economically beneficial to share.
Sharing resources is more and more looked down upon as
a symptom of unnecessary guilt on the part of those who have
material privilege. Individuals who wish to share resources are
encouraged to think that they will be victimized by the poor.
Of course, there are times when materially privileged
individuals find themselves in situations where they extend
help to a needy individual only to find their generosity
exploited. This often leads them to denounce the poor rather
than to reexamine strategies of care and support so that the
most useful ones can be found.The poor are not fooled when
the privileged offer castoffs and worn-out hand-me-downs as
where we stand
a gesture of “generosity” while buying only the new and best
for themselves.This form of charity necessarily often backfires.
Embedded in such seemingly “innocent” gestures are
mechanisms of condescension and shaming that often assault
the psyches of the poor. No doubt that is why so many poor
people in our culture regard charitable gestures with suspicion.
It is always possible to share resources in ways that enhance
rather than devalue the humanity of the poor. It is the task of
those who hold greater privilege to create practical strategies,
some of which become clearer when we allow ourselves to
fully empathize, to give as we would want to be given to.
To see the poor as ourselves we must want for the poor
what we want for ourselves. By living simply, we all express
our solidarity with the poor and our recognition that
gluttonous consumption must end. Richard Foster makes a
careful distinction between poverty and living simply: “Never
forget that poverty is not simplicity. Poverty is a word of smaller
scope. Poverty is a means of grace; simplicity is the grace itself.
It is possible to get rid of things and still desire them in your
heart.” Confronting the endless desire that is at the heart of
our individual overconsumption and global excess is the only
intervention that can ward off the daily call to consume that
bombards us on all sides.
Like David Hilfiker, when I told friends and colleagues that
I was resigning from my academic job to focus on writing, I
was warned that I was making a dangerous mistake, that I could
not possibly live on an income that was between twenty and
thirty thousand dollars a year. When I pointed to the reality
that families of four and more live on such an income, the
response would be “that’s different”; the difference being, of
course, one of class. The poor are expected to live with less
and are socialized to accept less (b...
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