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In an essay, construct an argument on the following question: How does classism in the United States affect Community College, their students, and the institution as a whole? The final essay must be,1800 words, typed, single-spaced, 12 point-font Times New Roman, and one-inch margins. In your essay you should at least four of the assigned readings to construct your argument.


where we stand: CLASS MATTER by bell hooks (“Being Rich”, “The Politics of Greed”, “White Poverty: The Politics of Invisibility” and “Crossing Class Boundaries”)

“An Examination of the Moderating Effects of the High School Socioeconomic Context on College Enrollment” by Engberg & Wolniak

"Attrition and Performance of Community College Transfers.” by Aulck, Lovenoor and Jevin West

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contents preface vii where we stand introduction 1 Class Matters 1 Making the Personal Political 10 Class in the Family 2 Coming to Class Consciousness 24 3 Class and the Politics of Living Simply 38 4 Money Hungry 50 5 The Politics of Greed 63 6 Being Rich 70 7 The Me-Me Class 80 The Young and the Ruthless 8 Class and Race 89 The New Black Elite 9 Feminism and Class Power 10 White Poverty 101 111 The Politics of Invisibility 11 Solidarity with the Poor 121 12 Class Claims 131 Real Estate Racism 13 Crossing Class Boundaries 142 14 Living without Class Hierarchy 156 preface 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 condoned. 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 viii 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. bell hooks introduction Class Matters 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 revolution. 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 2 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 Introduction 3 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 4 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 Introduction 5 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 6 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 Introduction 7 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. 8 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 economic justice. 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 Introduction 9 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. 1 Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family 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 11 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. 12 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 13 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 14 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 15 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 16 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 17 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 18 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 19 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 20 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 21 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 22 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 23 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. 2 Coming to Class Consciousness 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 25 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 26 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 27 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 28 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 29 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 30 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 31 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 32 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 33 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 34 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 35 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. 36 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 37 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. 3 Class and the Politics of Living Simply 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 39 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. 40 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 41 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 42 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 43 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 44 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 45 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. 46 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 47 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 48 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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