As I write this, my desktops (literal and digital) are covered with work–Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir Trespasses, from which the essay my Writing about Literature students are reading for Friday, “White Trash Primer,” is drawn; my notes from Jonathan Culler’s chapter “Identity, Identification, and the Subject” in Literary Theory for Wednesday’s class; a video I made for my Careers and English class about their assignment, making what their book (You Majored in What?) calls “possibility maps”; Joan Didion’s novel Democracy, which we’re reading in my graduate seminar this week; a couple of histories of scholarly publishing; a copy of the book I’m helping lead a reading group on tonight, Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
As I write this, Twitter is crawling with disinformation about the debate (hidden hearing devices, drugs, and dementia) that chaos agents are pouring into the wide-open brains of my compatriots, Facebook fills with anxiety about submitting absentee ballots and the relative merits of phone-banking, text-banking, and sending postcards, and on Instagram, pictures of things people are petting, growing, eating, selling, and contemplating instead of the election unspool.
As I write this, my brain is a stew of my work and my social media feeds and my news media consumption, bubbling over a flame that’s set too high, and everything is starting to melt together, though I doubt the flavors will meld. (And because I’m reading Didion, it seems I have no choice but to overemploy anaphora and enumeratio. The tortured metaphors and vague, creeping dread I come by more honestly.)
I alternate between having nothing to say about anything and wanting to share this feeling of all the stories coming together–the stories of America’s white underclass trying to understand what’s happened to it, the stories of settler violence and racial capitalism, the shrinking future my students face, the value of hard thinking and the attacks against it everywhere. And in the background of all this is the voice of a truly freaked-out Michael Beschloss from a few days ago, in the clip above, saying “This is not a drill.”
As Walter Johnson writes, the story of this country full of stories is the story of empire and racial capitalism. As his history of St. Louis points out, it is a story of rich white people making promises to poor white people in order to get them to help push native people and black people out of the way so they can make themselves more money. What was simple when St. Louis was the headquarters of westward expansion and native removal got more complicated as it became the headquarters of freedom suits, munitions manufacture and “urban renewal,” but in many ways it’s the same old story.
And it’s the story of what’s happening right now. Rich white people are making promises to other white people, many poor, and the interests of the former are being served by their convincing the latter that their interests coincide (they don’t), an act–the convincing–made easier in a climate in which a man who doesn’t read anything longer than a chyron can become president and white supremacy is the argument that puts the Q in QED. It’s enough to break your heart.
“White Trash Primer” ends:
Your English professor says you have POTENTIAL and you hold this real close to your heart when you’re walking up to get your diploma and sixteen of your cousins and your aunts and uncles and grandparents on both sides and your two sisters are hooting and hollering from the stands and your mama blows an air horn and your daddy yells your name so loud and true it’s like he’s calling you to come up from the creek bottom. And you hear him calling for some time.
In the video lecture I put up on Canvas for my students to watch before they read “White Trash Primer,” I told them to think about what the title means and what it means to write an essay in the second person, warned them about the sexual violence in the middle, reminded them to try to make connections between the essay and the theories of identity we’ve just read. I also told them it’s okay to cry when you read nonfiction, because the ending can really get you. Maybe it’s just me and the stew in my brain, but rereading it before the video, it really got me. It got me because I want good things to still seem possible, I want a future where the country’s governing institutions–sometimes the only things protecting possibility for everyone who isn’t a rich white man–haven’t been destroyed. Because I need America to listen for once to the people who do the reading. We all need it.