I’m still amazed every day at the two Americas we live in. I was raised in the other one, the one I escaped. My entire biological family, minus a few, are Trump supporters. I grew up hearing racist things spoken by caregivers every single day. My mother, a self-described “Democrat” used the n-word regularly. She didn’t see these two things as incongruous. And many of her beliefs were liberal for the small, mostly white rural town I was raised in.
And these are the stories I’m willing to tell publicly. There are other, darker ones that I don’t share. I hint at some of them in my creative work, but even there, I hedge my bets. It’s not really that I’m ashamed. Maybe it’s that I don’t want to relive the worst stories. Poetry is hard. It doesn’t just come out like a straight narrative.
Examples of Darker Working Class Poetry from My Work
For examples of what I mean by the darker stories of growing up working class, check out my poems in Eclectlica: “The Perimeter of History” and “Crazy.” Other poems that exemplify what I’m talking about can be found throughout my published work, however, including in my chapbook, Familiar History.
Continuing: What Do I Mean by the Other America
Suffice it to say: I grew up around the exact type of people who believe everything Fox News tells them. Who share unverified Facebook memes because they fit their worldview. And before that, it was just regular, rural groupthink: ‘you wouldn’t believe what I heard from so-and-so. Oh yeah, he’s in tight with Trump. Oh yeah, he used to work for him!’ And I can tell you, as someone who spent decades living, growing up, and getting severely and ritualistically punished by members of the white working class, that: these problems are not going away. If anything, they are getting worse. I remember my father’s reaction to Obama getting elected. I had never seen him so afraid, so angry, so enraged. His entire world was upended. And he wanted it “set right.”
This rambling post is just to say: white working-class people aren’t the entire problem, but we/they (not sure where I exist anymore on this continuum) are a big part of the problem. Many (most) live miserable, hand-to-mouth lives, but continue to vote against things like socialized medicine, higher taxes for the rich, and rules that would make white-collar crime more difficult to commit.
Why do they do this? Not sure. I’ve tried many times to represent this self-destructive ideology in my work, like I do in “Crazy:”
My mother in no more than gray light drops
an omelette on the floor and it comes up coated
in dog hair, cat hair, and God knows what else.
She scoops it up with her other hand, slaps it
on the plate and puts it down in front of me,
saying nothing. I become fascinated by the rim
where flowers reach from muck of the past.
Irises, I think. I know this because my mother
fancies me a gardener. All summer long I stay up
late at night to watch softcore porn on Cinemax,
the next day hazing into hours of watering
her butternut squash, my pumpkins she reminds me
I’ve planted since I was little, her marigolds, her roses,
her irises. All the desperate lives left waiting.
All the Desperate Lives Left Waiting in Working Class America
I’ve tried many times to puzzle out why millions of white working-class people in this country continue to vote against their own collective self-interest. I think it has something to do with the way we’re taught to accept things in the white working-class world, which is largely an authoritarian community ruled by institutions like the evangelical church and its many, disgustingly rich megapastors.
Growing up white and working class, you’re taught, above all else, to accept your place in the social order. Implicitly. Explicitly. Even violently. Often violently. So… if your place in the social order is shit, and you see no way out, why not make everyone else’s place a little shittier? At least then you’re not the worst off. Just the second worst off.
I tried to capture this spirit of comparing downward in “The Perimeter of History:”
Out back my cousin Tracy is about to hang
a rooster from the swing set and then
beat it to death before sunset, but why before
sunset? What happens then? What if
he lets it live? Something will hunker down
inside him. Something will want out.
I will learn to seal everything up inside.
We all will. In 1969 the desert will swallow
an atom bomb whole. In 1969
my grandmother’s pancreas will swallow
too much of the awful light from a safe distance
inside a bus. After awhile you begin
to realize light in the desert can penetrate
anything. A 1951 description
of the Nevada Test Site, included in an Army brochure
for the Camp Desert Rock soldiers,
tells them that the desert is a damned good place
for disposing of used razor blades.
What the Future Holds for My First America
I know one thing for certain: these folks are incredibly hard to reach. I tried for decades. I was largely ostracized, even when I lived among them, for believing in such “radical” notions as the validity of non-Christian religions. Or the validity of non-Western ideas, period.
And I know another thing: people like the ones I grew up with will not forget the last four years. And they will not forgive what they see as an injustice, as warped as that may seem. They really believe “their country” was taken from them, as problematic as that may seem. And we have not seen the last violent uprising from them. Not by a long shot.