A few years back, when Donald Trump ran for president for the first time, I saw a show on MSNBC where a man portrayed what I guess you could call, “the people the left left behind.” It probably wasn’t intentional, but shows like All in the Family made lower middle class males out to be the racist, sexist, worst of any people in the United States. Now, I’ll admit something. I had a teacher from the South who said, “My mom and dad and we–the kids–would watch it together. As bizarre as it sounds, he found reaffirmation for his awful views watching. As for us–we were laughing at our father.” Now there was a newscaster who put it best: the problem with this show when people understand the bigot is them and a loser, is that it hits a raw nerve. They feel “picked on” and rejected by the left. By contrast, he pointed to Robert Kennedy, who tried to be a healing figure both to African Americans and to the White Working Class. I personally believe that the poorest white people and the poorest black people have things in common that they don’t even realize. I see in places like Dodge in the late Victorian era the same ethos in the “Old West” that the inner cities have with their poverty and crime. Jesse James and Dr. Dre might have something in common.
Now, I will make this disclaimer: I was very sorry to learn that J.D. Vance went on to support Donald Trump in recent times. Yet I believe I learned something from him anyway. I saw him on TV, describing his book as being about his own family and the lower class “white trash” with its feelings of resentment and the fact that many of them have the same chronic problems as poor black people. Though he did not mention it, I remember reading Frederick Douglass saying that these two groups were natural friends, but that slaveholders kept them apart for fear of them overthrowing the system that keeps them poor. Poor white people were encouraged to think of black people as “the only worse off people than us” and look down on them as a result. Correspondingly, slaves–and now, perhaps, their heirs–were encouraged to look down on non-slave owning whites in the south, especially places like Appalachia as “poor white trash,” or “crackers.” I am not trying to justify “white grievance” but I am saying that for America to be made whole, we need to look at the wounds of all of the have-nots and not just the black ones. That is why–even though I regret what J.D. Vance has converted to–I still like Hillbilly Elegy, his book.
I realized something even as a writer reading it. I worked at a mental health club which served all kinds of people, but most of them under the poverty line. I realized I could write about these people–not by describing them themselves, but writing about their problems less as mental patients than as a class. It didn’t matter that they were suffering in Kansas and not New York. And yes, some of them were black or Hispanic. So I wrote “their” stories into a book, Poor Folk with a beginning autobiographical story, “Daughter of the Middle Class” because I have never been poor myself but only wrote about other people’s poverty. I also wrote a story–again based partially on a clip I saw on television, “The Liberal Redneck,” about a boy from Appalachia who moves to Kansas and eventually works with the mentally handicapped. That story will–I hope–be in a collection, This Land Belongs to Me, based on the Woody Guthrie Song written during the Dust Bowl.
Anyway, because I learned about J.D. Vance’s family, I was encouraged to find out the History of my state (Kansas) and even my own family history (which I found particularly dull until then).