By Karyn Pomerantz, 12-1-2019
I recently read A Tale of Two America’s, a book on social class in the United States. Expecting a familiar data driven account of class based inequalities, I was surprised to discover 36 stories of real life experiences with class, stigma, and racism. Collated by John Freeman, the stories convey the subtle and overt challenges people face as workers and students from all walks of life. They give voice to people many of us don’t know, and capture characters and situations sharply and poignantly.
“You don’t need a handful of statistics… You just need eyes and ears and stories… We need to create a framework that accounts for what it feels like to live in this America …”
The stories are often unpredictable yet confirm how exclusion and denigration damage people, especially those blamed for their own poverty. Ann Patchett writes in The Worthless Servant, “The trouble with good fortune is that people tend to equate it with personal goodness…It is our responsibility to care for one another, to create fairness…and find equality where none may have existed in the past…”
The authors cover a wide range of experiences and backgrounds: housekeepers, truck drivers, high schoolers, and veterans. White middle income characters discuss their discomfort with the inequalities they witness, from their relationships with caretakers in their homes, homeless men in their neighborhoods, and racist women in Miami complaining about their Latina employees in their city (“They’re always crying about something. … I hired a nanny, not a charity!”)
Freeman’s well-known (to me) reconteurs include Julia Alvarez, Ann Patchett, Roxanne Gay, Richard Russo, Edwidge Dandicat, Sandra Cisneros, and Andrew Doerr. New (to me) writers I will now follow include Ru Freeman, Kiese Laymon, Chris Offutt, and Patricia Engel.
Here are small tastes of selected tales:
Trash Food by Chris Offutt reveals how food represents class by symbolizing shame or elitism. When the chair of the Southern Foodway Alliance asks Offutt to speak about “trash food” at a conference, Offutt responds with anger and embarassment. Born white in Appalachia, he relates how “trash food” is another label associated with people who are poor and white, people characterized as stupid, vulgar, and “white trash,” transforming human beings into garbage, not very different from the slurs African Americans, Latin, and native people experience. Yet when rich people “upgraded” food associated with poverty, such as carp or catfish, it became fashionable and acceptable. Offutt discovered “white trash parties” featuring fritos, pork rinds, jello, and Twinkies. Offutt writes, “these people are cuisinally slumming, temporarilly visiting a place they never want to live. They are the worst sort of tourists–they want to see the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia but are afraid to get off the bus.”
In Mobility, Julia Alvarez recalls a wintry night spent in the Atlanta airport after Delta canceled her flight as an excellent introduction to the caste system in India. As Economy Class passengers scoped out floor spaces for beds, First Class Club passengers with “24 hour corporate travel agents” retreated to the last hotel rooms and the comfortable private lounges. “If you think there isn’t a class system firmly in place in the most mobile of worlds, try getting stuck in an international airport on a dark and stormy night.”
Yet those left on the floors and in lines at the HELP desk banded together to make sure everyone had a blanket, food, and comaraderie, creating a “resurrection of hope.”
Fault Lines by Ru Freeman was one of my favorites. She alternates her narrators among housekeepers (“nannies”) and their employers. It opens with a woman mistaking Mira, one of the mothers sending her kids off to school, for a potential nanny. “Did you feel entitled to ask me that because I’m the only brown person standing here?” Meanwhile, Iris, a nanny to a large Jewish orthodox family, leaves her children every morning to tend Chana’s brood. She collects pamphlets on educational programs from the library to encourage her daughter’s aspirations.
This is a common story of the women who care for the children of others with all the problems of racism and oppression of women. While Chana lives in an expanding household with her children, Iris has little time for hers. Yet, Freeman brings fresh language and juxtapositions that bring this reality to light.
We Share the Rain, And Not Much Else by Timothy Egan features Seattle, Washington, home to Microsoft, Google, a busy port, and remnants of Boeing that had eliminated 60,000 jobs during tbe end of the 1970s. Egan worked as a longshoreman while studying Irish history at the University of Washington during the city’s transition from a more egalitarian environment to a welcome mat for the super and newly rich. “…what’s lost in the new Seattle and all other gilded brain capitals prospering in their lovely settings is that they used to give longshore workers equal footing with citizens laboring in offices…” He laments the time after WWII when college education was free, and neighborhoods welcomed returning GIs along with wealthier residents. If college is still the best elevator to the middle class, crippling debt is the price of the ride upward.” Yet he values his education on the docks as equal to that at the university.
Freeman has selected established authors to write about class. The book does not include narratives by the people most affected by racism and marginalization. It does articulate the ways inequities affect those who are exploited less than most. While many writers describe what they call their “privilege,” they don’t claim white guilt. Although the stories depict the effects of capitalist economics and stratification, they don’t place responsibility on the small super rich ruling class who profit from this system by driving down wages, eliminating social programs, and turning groups against one another.
I recommend this book for its themes, emotional engagement, and language. I usually race through a book to get to another, but I didn’t want this one to end. So, I searched for books written by my favorite story tellers in Tales whose contributions absorbed my attention and whose writing delighted my eyes.
Tales of Two America’s enhances the mind numbing numbers that describe the poverty and exploitation most people on the planet suffer. It reminds us that we all have similar stories to recite no matter how mundane.
Read More About Social Class at the Grass Roots
If you want to understand social class and survival at the grass roots level, Gangleader for a Day by Sudheir Venkatesh portrays the experiences of the gangs and residents of a large public housing neighborhood in Chicago. Venkatesh, a sociology doctoral student in Chicago, hung out with the Black Kings gang for 5 years for an ethnographic study to dispel the stereotypes and assumptions we make about life in public housing. He covers the tensions between researchers, universities, and working class communities, and their attempts to establish trust and relationships.