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 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 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 GreenwichVillage,I am often stopped by shopkeepers and asked where I work, whose children do I keep, the message being you must not live here—you do not look like you belong. To look young and black is to not belong. Affluence, they believe, is always white. At times when I wander around my neighborhood staring at the dark-skinned nannies, hearing the accents that identify them as immigrants still, I remember this is the world a plantation economy produces—a world where some are bound and others are free,a world of extremes.
Most folks in my predominately white neighborhood see themselves as open-minded; they believe in justice and support the right causes. More often than not, they are social liberals and fiscal conservatives. They may believe in recognizing multiculturalism and celebrating diversity (our neighborhood is full of white gay men and straight white people who have at least one black,Asian, or Hispanic friend), but when it comes to money and class they want to protect what they have, to perpetuate and reproduce it—they want more.The fact that they have so much while others have so little does not cause moral anguish, for they see their good fortune as a sign they are chosen, special, deserving. It enhances their feeling of prosperity and well-being to know everyone cannot live as they do.They scoff at overzealous liberals who are prone to feeling guilty. Downward mobility is a thing of the past; in today’s world of affluence, the message is “You got it, flaunt it.”
When longtime small family businesses close down because the rents are too high and yet another high-priced gift shop or hair salon opens, they may feel regret but understand this to be the price of economic progress—the price of real estate constantly zooming upward in cost.They have no memories of the days when the WestVillage 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 of the city to Brooklyn—to places that are not safe.They lump all black people together. If rich black people come into the neighborhood, then poor black people will not be far behind.
Black folks with money think about class more than most people do in this society.They know that most of the white people around them believe all black people are poor, even the ones with fancy suits and tailored shirts wearing Rolex watches and carrying leather briefcases. Poverty in the white mind is always primarily black. Even though the white poor are many,living in suburbs and rural areas,they remain invisible. The black poor are everywhere,or so many white people think.
When I am shopping in Barneys, a fancy department store in my neighborhood, and a well-dressed white woman turns to me—even though I am wearing a coat,carrying my handbag, and chatting with a similarly dressed friend—seeking assistance from the first available shopgirl and demands my help, I wonder who and what she sees looking at me. From her perspective she thinks she knows who has class power, who has the right to shop here; the look of the poor and working class is always different from her own. Even if we had been dressed alike she would have looked past attire to see the face of the underprivileged she has been taught to recognize.
In my neighborhood everyone believes the face of poverty is black. The white poor blend in, the black poor stand out. Homeless black males entertain, sing songs, tell jokes, or court attention with kind phrases hoping for money in their cup. Usually white homeless men mumble to themselves or sit silent, a cardboard sign naming their economic pain, separated when they seek help in the mainstream world.At the end of the day black and white indigents often pool earnings, sit side by side, sharing the same bottle,breaking the same bread.At the end of the day they inhabit a world where race and class no longer mean very much.
My other home is in a small midwestern town, a liberal place in the conservative state of Ohio, a state where the Nazi party is growing strong and flags hang in the windows of the patriotic haves and have-nots. It is a racially integrated town, a town with a progressive history, and there is still a neighborly world of caring and sharing. Here, class segregation has been imported from the outside, from a professional-managerial academic class who have come in from northern cities and west coast states and have raised property values. Still, neighborhoods in our small town have greater class and racial diversity than most places in the United States. Racism and sexism exist here, as everywhere. A changing class reality that destabilizes and in some cases will irrevocably alter individual lives is the political shift that threatens. Like everywhere in the Midwest plants are closing; small universities and community colleges are cutting back; full-time employees are “let go” and part-time help is fast becoming a national norm. Class is the pressing issue, but it is not talked about.
The closest most folks can come to talking about class in this nation is to talk about money. For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society—that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free society there would be no top.While it has always been obvious that some folks have more money than other folks, class difference and classism are rarely overtly apparent, or they are not acknowledged when present.The evils of racism and, much later, sexism, were easier to identify and challenge than the evils of classism.We live in a society where the poor have no public voice. No wonder it has taken so long for many citizens to recognize class—to become class conscious.
Racial solidarity, particularly the solidarity of whiteness, has historically always been used to obscure class,to make the white poor see their interests as one with the world of white privilege. Similarly, the black poor have always been told that class can never matter as much as race. Nowadays the black and white poor know better.They are not so easily duped by an appeal to unquestioned racial identification and solidarity, but they are still uncertain about what all the changes mean; they are uncertain about where they stand.
This uncertainty is shared by those who are not poor, but who could be poor tomorrow if jobs are lost.They,too,are afraid to say how much class matters.While the poor are offered addiction as a way to escape thinking too much, working people are encouraged to shop. Consumer culture silences working people and the middle classes.They are busy buying or planning to buy.Although their frag-ile hold on economic self-sufficiency is slipping, they still cling to the dream of a class-free society where everyone can make it to the top.They are afraid to face the significance of dwindling resources,the high cost of education,housing,and health care.They are afraid to think too deeply about class.
At the end of the day the threat of class warfare, of class struggle,is just too dangerous to face.The neat binary categories of white and black or male and female are not there when it comes to class. How will they identify the enemy. How will they know who to fear or who to challenge.They cannot see the changing face of global labor—the faces of the women and children whom transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy exploits at home and abroad to do dirty work for little pay.They do not speak the languages of the immigrants, male and female, who work here in the meat industry, in clothing sweat-shops, as farmworkers, as cooks and busboys, as nannies and domestic workers. Even though the conservative rich daily exploit mass media to teach them that immigrants are the threat, that welfare is the threat, they are starting to wonder about who really profits from poverty, about where the money goes.And whether they like it or not, one day they will have to face the reality: this is not a class-free society.
Oftentimes I too am afraid to think and write about class. I began my journey to class consciousness as a college student learning about the politics of the American left,reading Marx, Fanon, Gramsci, Memmi, the little red book, and so on. But when my studies ended, I still felt my language to be inadequate. I still found it difficult to make sense of class in relation to race and gender. Even now the intellectual left in this nation looks down on anyone who does not speak the chosen jargon.The domain of academic and/or intellectual discourse about class is still mostly white, mostly male.While a few women get to have their say, most of the time men do not really listen. Most leftist men will not fully recognize the left politics of revolutionary feminism: to them class remains the only issue. Within revolutionary feminism a class analysis matters, but so does an analysis of race and gender.
Class matters. Race and gender can be used as screens to deflect attention away from the harsh realities class politics exposes. Clearly, just when we should all be paying attention to class, using race and gender to understand and explain its new dimensions, society, even our government, says let’s talk about race and racial injustice. It is impossible to talk meaningfully about ending racism without talking about class. Let us not be duped. Let us not be led by spectacles like the O.J.Simpson trial to believe a mass media, which has always betrayed the cause of racial justice, to think that it was all about race, or it was about gender. Let us acknowledge that first and foremost it was about class and the interlocking nature of race, sex, and class. Let’s face the reality that if O.J.Simpson had been poor or even lower-middle class there would have been no media attention. Justice was never the central issue. Our nation’s tabloid passion to know about the lives of the rich made class the starting point. It began with money and became a media spectacle that made more money—another case of the rich getting richer.The Simpson trial is credited with upping the GNP by two hundred million dollars. Racism and sexism can be exploited in the interests of class power.Yet no one wants to talk about class. It is not sexy or cute. Better to make it seem that justice is class-free—that what happened to O.J. could happen to any working man.
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 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.
Chapter 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—mowed- down grass full of bits and pieces of cement.
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 minimal 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.
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. 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 two- story 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 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 grown- ups 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 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 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.
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 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 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 middle- class 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 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. 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 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 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.