I have just returned from the best conference I have ever attended. Devoid of posturing and positioning and careerism, the thinkers who gathered at the How Class Works conference at SUNY Stonybrook were the very example of the free exchange of ideas, the generous give and take of researches, and the common struggle to articulate social and political dynamics that are for the most part kept hidden in a cloud of distractions, disinformation, and ahistorical versions of reality.
In particular, I am grateful for the introduction to the work of Theodore Allen, author of the two-volume study The Invention of the White Race which traces, through the history of the subjugation of peoples, the racialization of labor, especially of chattel slavery, and the use made of such division by those who stole the land and labor of working people to build the fortunes that continue to drive the capitalist project. The legacy of this monstrous fiction about human beings, necessary to the industrial revolution and issuing in continuing brutality throughout the world, is everywhere around us reinventing itself in new forms that undermine our humanity.
Our panel, The American McWriter, Globalized, sought to restore a sensible view of the purposes of literature in the face of a homogenized, narrow aesthetic that succeeds in building careers in the new “literary/academic complex” largely via mimickry and the implicit promise to not rock the boat (the “McPoem,” the novel as entertainment, the “lyric essay” as a massive turning away from engagement with political and social realities that shape countless lives.) Linda McCarriston chaired, and other panelists were Afaa Michael Weaver and Jim Coleman. I am going to include a copy of my talk here, and perhaps I will post the others’ papers, along with other musings on the conference in the near future. I want to work on this essay more, without the fifteen minute time limit I found so frustrating, especially in light of all that I am thinking upon returning from the deep, clear well of this conference. Here is what I had to say:
HOW CLASS WORKS, SUNY Stonybrook, June 6, 2008
My father often tells a story about sitting down with my mother at the kitchen table once each month to pay bills and putting all the bills in my mother’s stockpot and drawing them out one by one, writing checks till the money was gone. “And that was that,” he’d say, “If we ran out of money before we got to you, well then you went back in the pot next month.”
Once when I was young and knew, according to my father, neither the difference between shit and shine-ola, nor my ass from my elbow, on a holiday visit home from college, I chimed in with a lame Coda to my father’s anecdote, trying to augment the good humor of it, give it a little extra spin. As my father drew the story to its canonical close, “well then you went back in the pot next month.” I wisecracked that I finally understood why we never had a pot to piss in, another expression of my father’s, “You guys were using it as the Accounts Payable Department!”
My father looked at me blankly as if he didn’t get it. Then, before I could compound my mistake by trying to explain it, he rose from his chair, muttering. “You little punk,” he said quietly as he left the room.
I had tripped a switch and plunged my father from the safety of his lyric, humorous, emblematic scene into deep shame and remembered desperation, the very emotions his ritual telling, with its shrug and goofball smile, its cavalier “fuck ‘em” attitude, was meant to exorcise. I was of course the one who didn’t get it, sitting there on my elbow with a shine-ola-eating grin on my face. I was not the one who had stood against a wall at six in the morning for the shape-up, hoping to get picked to work like a donkey for the next twelve hours. I was not the one who’d had to go down to the PP&L office with money made from cleaning out somebody’s suburban garage just to get the lights turned back on. I was not the one who felt shamed the year our Christmas presents came from the Salvation Army, complete with tags that said, Boy, 6-8 years old. My father had taken all those years and all that shame and locked them in a little box of story, and just when he was clicking it shut again, as he had so many times before, I propped the lid open a moment longer with my fatuous cleverness, and a monstrous cloud, a genie of shame, escaped.
Recently I agreed to take part in a panel discussion about working class academics. Three of us sat in the lunchroom with perhaps twenty or thirty college instructors. We kicked it off with a 10 minute introductory statement from each of us. I said I wanted to talk about shame as an integral structural element of the class system, and I read the few paragraphs I just read you.
What we worried might easily become too abstract and academic soon became an unburdening as professor after professor talked about having working class origins, of being the first in their families to go to college, of feeling they were masquerading among colleagues whom they presumed to be descended from a long line of middle-class professionals. The most unlikely people dropped the charade, and it turned out that the room was filled with people who had been disguised from one another, not only camouflauged by their own devices, but projecting nearly patrician identities onto one another, and this at a college whose payscale rates among the lowest 10% of four-year schools (yet another cause for shame.) There were tears. Clearly people were shaken by even the beginnings of a discussion of class. At one point, one professor, a music historian whose specialty is opera, asked if we didn’t think that these estrangements and feelings of insecurity were not, after all, just the human condition.
That’s when my own tears surprised me; nothing dramatic, but my eyes welled as I blurted, “It is not the human condition to be ashamed of your own mother.” Nor, I might have added, to come to your senses only after she was dead and be ashamed that you were ever such a patronizing little twit to have been ashamed of her, and to be ashamed that somehow you’d allowed yourself to be sold a bill-of-goods, convinced you were “trading up,” that it wasn’t a betrayal, just a bettering of one’s circumstances.
In Half the House
, my memoir of growing up in the industrial city of Allentown, Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, I wrote this about my mother:
My mother taught me to devalue her. Even that sentence — let it stand — blames her for everything, including the shame I feel for having been ashamed of her. I grew up watching which fork the others were using, what they were wearing, what they were talking about, what they seemed to be thinking. They, whoever they happened to be, had the power to find us wanting. “I’m not going to take you anywhere anymore unless you learn how to behave,” my mother said.
So I set out to “learn how to behave,” to acquire what Marx called “cultural capital,” or what’s more simply called learning to “pass.” This aspiration, celebrated in the phrase “upward mobility” is rooted in shame and, in its undermining of authentic selfhood, creates the vulnerability required by all manner of predators from child molesters to military recruiters to advertisers and financial institutions. After all, aspiration is not an identity but the rejection of one’s identity.
(By the way, I can think of no book that more convincingly documents how deliberate what I am calling the shame/aspiration dynamic was designed as the core feature of American consumer capitalism than Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness, newly published in a 25th anniversary edition by Basic Books. If you take nothing else from my talk here today, and if you have not yet read it, this book recommendation will justify your forbearance for the next few minutes.)
When I was a kid, like a huge cohort of my generation who have at last begun to speak about it, I was exploited for sex by a man who performed the priestly function of “coach” in my world of blue collar boyhood. Sports were the way up and out, and up and out was where we were aimed by our teachers and parents, by television’s promises, by definitions of power, sex, respectability. The alternative was to join the ranks of the uncles working at Mack trucks, or Bethlehem Steel, or Air Products. Why this was such a terrible fate was never clear to me as a child, but it was clearly the “fall-back” position, what you settled for if you failed to achieve escape velocity, and for boys from families like mine, that meant getting an athletic scholarship to college.
College itself was a mythical land of tweeds and muted plaids and leather-bound books, a world of rolling green lawns and trees, and buildings that reeked of knowledge and wisdom, with arcane symbols on coats of arms bearing Latin inscriptions, and ivy climbing the walls. It was mythical because no one I knew had ever been there. There were a few older guys who went away on football scholarships, but they weren’t part of my circle, and besides, they never returned home except for brief visits with their families.
So when I say that this coach performed a priestly function, I mean that he was a powerful figure in a realm sacred to us as boys, a man with the power to help us plan our escape into the broader world, the one who would help us gain a berth on the highschool team, first step to the stardom that would attract the recruiters, the guys with the tuition waivers, the first of many, many gate-keepers.
I have written about this period before and at length, in a memoir, and in several essays*, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that as a boy who desperately wanted to play in the starting line-up, move to the highschool a known prospect, and land a college scholarship (the whole of it laid down clear as the tracks my father laid for Bethlehem Steel, swinging a sledge eight hours a day) my “choices” were to suck the coach’s cock or let him fuck me in the ass.
In the twenty years since I first wrote about this experience, I have served on task forces, citizens’ advocacy groups, and government commissions on sexual violence and exploitation of children. The more I came to understand the stories of thousands upon thousands of exploited kids, the more I saw that for the most part we are talking about working class kids, kids with that target of shame/aspiration, of need, tattooed on them by their class background. In those circles — researchers, social workers, psychologists and lawmakers — the issue of class is never raised, is taboo, and the official stance, meant to counter denial, is that childhood sexual abuse cuts across every category; well, of course it does, but the weight of numbers falls disproportionately on those who are most in need. Think for example, of the recent report about the widespread sexual abuse of children by UN relief workers.
Thomas McGrath was right when he said to make a real revolution you have to take back the dictionary! Class has been defined nearly out of existence, the same way that racism was reduced to “being prejudiced” or misogyny to discussions of gender-free pronouns or of the glass ceiling.
Everyone in my family called themselves middle-class, all my aunts and uncles, each and every household, whether anyone had a job or not, regardless of what kind of work they did when there was work, regardless of whether or not they had “a pot to piss in.”
We never used the term “working class.” My father called us working people. He always said we were working people, and that he wanted me to be proud of it. I was a good student. School came easily to me, and I couldn’t wait to be the first in my family to go to college. And my father, conflicted in ways that he showed by barking, shouting, kicking things, and occasionally knocking me down, let me know that he was scared for me, jealous, proud of me, and betrayed.
I remember vividly the day I announced to my father that, football scholarship or not, I was going to college. “Whattya think, your last name’s Rockefeller?” I had asked him for his signature on the loan papers I’d left on the kitchen table with the glossy viewbook from Fordham University. When I first brought home the booklet, with its views of a gothic clock tower, stained glass windows, a wrought-iron gate, my mother held it at arm’s length and tucked her chin as if it smelled suspicious, but in fact she didn’t have her glasses handy and held it that way because she was what she called “farsighted.” “Classy-looking joint, she pronounced. “We don’t have that kind of money,” my father said. “Look around here, knucklehead, you see a Cadillac out front? A swimming pool in the back?” I’m sure I said something insolent then because he was after me as I headed for the door. He grabbed the neck of my varsity jacket and we pushed and pulled and wrestled until I escaped, leaving him holding the jacket, inside out. As I turned in the doorway to shout something else and get a good hold to slam the door, I saw him turn it back rightside out and, quietly, tenderly, brush it off and hang it in the hall closet. Later, when I came back, the papers were upstairs on my bed, signed.
A couple of years ago I was talking with another writer raised in the working class, the essayist Joe Mackall, author of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland among other books. We were laughing and commiserating about how we had come to be viewed by our families and the people with whom we’d grown up. I told Joe about my father razzing me with a familiar mix of pride and disdain, “Look at him” he’d say to my uncles while we sat in the living room, “he sits on his ass for a living! Hell, he might be working now. How about it, Dick? You working?” Or showing up to visit my aunt soon after I’d published my memoir. She opened her door and said, “Oh bless you, you still come to visit your family even after all that money!” Trust me, there was no money. Joe and I talked about the designation “working class writer.” He felt that it applied to anyone brought up in a working class family while I held out for something like James Baldwin’s injunction, “: “The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” Joe said he figured that “If you’re all fucked up about who you are and where the hell you fit in but everybody back home thinks you’re a big success, you qualify!”
These days, as a writer in the academy, I find myself asking what price my students pay for this ongoing masquerade. Having been one of them, albeit a long time ago, I think I see now how I was being erased and how shame was what the new life cost. I will not ask my students to pony up that coin.
Picture a Mastercard ad for the cost of a college education for a young working class person today:
Tuition: 120,000 dollars
Room and Board: 48,000
Other fees: 2,000
Alienation from self and loved ones: Priceless.)
I ask my students to write about the fact of class. “Where are your class roots?” I ask them, and we go from there. After years in the hip urban college of arts and communications where I teach, they can discuss French literary theory, queer theory, film history, the latest “edgy” literature, the epistemological subtext of Buffy the Vampire slayer, but none of their autobiographical material, none of their writing “from life” has ever involved, point blank, staring into the loaded issue of class.
Outside the classroom, at my desk, I am trying to follow Baldwin’s injunction and write of the lives of the people who produced me. Like the biblical dog who returneth to his vomit, I’ve come back to what I failed to digest: that the fact of class, its values and understandings, has always been there. And as I try now, white-collar working class in the Bush economy, to bring this into focus, I find myself goaded by a question: Is there an occult calculus by which those whose obscene fortunes leech their wealth from those below and replace it with coffers of shame exactly commensurate with the abundance they have stolen? And if so, how can I — in poems, stories, and essays — apprehend it and portray it clearly?