It’s sloppy to blame Trump on poor white folk – when highly educated white folk (the only type of White I know) scapegoat poor whites for America’s love affair with that Big Ass Fat Mouth. Adam Theron-Le Rensch’s White, Rural and Poor talks (with some humiliation) about ‘my people’, poor white folk. He even uses the word ‘trash’, but with intimacy, and gentleness. I finally recognized, and had the adequate language to express, the shame I first experienced as a poor kid in elementary school, recognizing on some instinctual level that I needed to disguise my origins, that if I didn’t I risked ostracization. It was the same shame I had unconsciously attempted to escape by “becoming a New Yorker,” by performing a caricature of the hip, cultured intellectual with hopes of passing as a member of a more desirable class. Like my father, I was willing to do anything that might throw off the stench of my rural, trailer park past.
For a short but happy spell, I was a reviewer for Elevate Difference a forum for thoughtful critique that aims to embody the myriad—and sometimes conflicting—viewpoints present in the struggle for political, social, and economic justice. You can find its archival presence online here. I thought of my judgment of Phipps-Kettlewell’s collection of short stories “The Company of Heaven‘ as I read Theron-Le Rench’s account of going home, to his white, rural and poor America. I called Phipps-Kettlewell’s story telling unkind. It is unkind in the way one can be unkind when recalling a sibling’s awkward puberty or seeing for the first time, the humiliation of a parent by a stranger in a public place. She is unkind to her Haitians and yet she remains a family member, intimately invested and loyal. It is difficult to like even one of her characters, however, it is even more difficult to look away from them. Theron-Le Rench didn’t pretend that he had never met a Trump supporter, he said, they are my people.
A number of tremors unbalanced me as I read about white, poor and rural Americans: one was Theron-le Rench’s reminding me that, through an American economic lens, I am black, urban (suburban?) and rich. As of 2014, almost 52% of Americans make less than $30,000 each year, and a sobering 31% bring home an annual income of less than $15,000. Watch out, I’m going to channel Chappelle I’m rich bitch! Juggling and juggling debt, down payments and security deposits (I’ve moved twice in less than six months), tax returns, late payments for freelance editorial work, maintaining an East Coast mortgage and a Bay Area rental. Sure, I’ve been whining alot about the drop in my standard of living, the 100 point drop in my credit rating. And yet, for the last six years of my American life, I’ve been earning between 75 and 85,000 a year, about 60-65% above the average income of American citizens. I’ve known this for six years, from the moment I started to live and work in the Bronx, the poorest borough in New York City. It took me no more than two years to save up for a down payment on a mortgage for an apartment, and I had a black girl at the Hugo Boss shop who called when something she thought I’d like came in. But it’s good to see the figures in black and white, and at this particular moment. It won’t stop my whining, but it has helped me remember that I whine because I want more, and not because I need more: silk, lace, cashmere, Royal Dutch wax, leather and gold; more business class, more square feet, more Apple, more service, more status, power and success, more bubbly, more skinny. These are my appetites.
But I lost my appetite for food sometime in May, more than a year ago, when I started to divorce my old life in preparation for this new one. But I’m disciplined – I grew up with parents who grew up on the clock, a farming village, boarding schools and the military. I grew up in boarding school, and in a home that respected rhythms. As a result, I suspect I would thrive in the military or atleast married to an officer. Some rhythms are not negotiable: three square meals a day at the same time, lights out, rising bell, mufti into uniform, prep, games and tea time. So, I can’t taste, but I eat.
I’m not interested in God. But since I stepped into my new American life in the Bay Area, I’ve started going to a White Church faithfully. Not looking for the Christian God, I know he doesn’t live there, but looking for messages and guidance, about the state of my appetite, is it healthy, is it a sin, is it good, am I hungry enough? This morning’s sermon drew from the gospel of Luke, and Jesus reprimand about greed directed at the desperate woman who implored him to adjudicate over a property dispute. ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ So, the Bible reading didn’t say it was a woman, I did. The Bible says ‘someone in the crowd said to Jesus‘, but in my experience it is daughters and widows who beg men for their share. Yes, I look for messages in this Christian fellowship, and only a tiny few are palatable on my tongue that in that white space, becomes intensely black, African, foreign, woman and feminist. After church, I read an essay by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Her assertion that ‘we should always want women to want more‘ hits a spot – the spot that the gospel missed by being gender neutral about that aggrieved person in the crowd. Whitfield-Madrano says a woman that wants is an ambitious woman. This is The Word I’ve been waiting for. Thank you.
I can live with that.