My Beautiful Wickedness

Every once in a while one of us gets away.
January 20, 2008, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sometimes there’s a odd conjunction between what I am thinking and what other people are writing.  Over at Aunt B’s, she’s made a terrific connection between the anti-abortion movement, the white right, and the oppressive expectations that even poor whites should know their place in our deeply unequal world.  You should go right now and read it if you haven’t seen it yet.  So how does that intersect with my thinking? Well, today, after I got off the phone with my mom, I was thinking about the improbability of my life.

I’m the only one of my family that’s left eastern KY, western WV I-64 corridor. I’m not the only one now, but for a long while, I was one of the only college graduates out of over 500 first, second, and shoestring cousins that form my extended family. My dad was pulled out of school in third grade because the family needed his labor; he was a sharecropper growing corn and tobacco until he married and a construction worker thereafter. He had any number of industrial accidents and was missing an eye, most of his hearing, and half a leg by the time that I can remember; other parts would break or fail as he aged and he never worked a day that I can remember that he wasn’t in pain. My mom worked at everything, from grocery clerk to taking in sewing to sorting apples, with her eyes on better things and her shoulder to the wheel. They both worked like hell, voted the Democratic Party and paid their union dues, even during those long years where there was no work. We farmed to eat, we hunted and ate what we caught, and every night, there were books to read (even though my father could barely spell his own name). I got my foot in the door in college against my father’s will (nary bit of use in it) but with my mom’s two-jobs-at-a-time support. And then I kept going. At every level, I was awkward and dressed wrong and talked funny, but kept going and beating the odds. A BA. An MA. A PhD. A tenure-track job. (Through the grapevine, I’ve heard that I’ve been approved for tenure, pending the Board’s confirmation.)

This kind of life was never meant for people like me. We are destined to run the cash registers, answer the phones, pick the strawberries, righty-tighty lefty-loosey, watch the kids, clean other women’s houses.

But every once in a while, one of us gets away.


8 Comments so far
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“I was awkward and dressed wrong and talked funny” – bridgett, exactly. I was the first person in my family (in east TN as far back as we can document thus far), with the exception of an aunt and an uncle who went as adults. Sometimes I wonder if I would have gotten more out of my undergrad experience if I had understood it better, if I hadn’t been from the rural south, if I’d known what to expect, if I’d ever know the kind of families and environments and experiences and networks these people came from. I sometimes feel guilty that my parents still work with their hands while I sit at a desk all day. I don’t have a big important point with this comment, but that your words rang very true for me.

Comment by Rachel

and rang true for me as well

Comment by listie

You said this so well. That’s it, exactly.

Comment by Krista

“This kind of life was never meant for people like me.”


We must sit and have a long talk sometime.

I often feel when reading some blogs that I’m hearing many people speaking for people like me and my family, but who do so from a well-educated, almost condescing point of view. Sometimes it infuriates me; we are talking about real people with hard lives and real emotions,and it kills me to read deconstructions and syllogisms from people who cannot hide that they consider themselves my betters.

And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I come from, how I fought so hard to prove that I was somehow better than my blood, even going so far as to shed my southern accent (which now I consider the greatest mistake I ever made).

I didn’t make it as far as you did (what a story!), but I got pretty damned far for a man of my station who has also made some incredibly dumb choices in his life. But, I know it’s all illusion. My brother, who was the first person in my family to get a degree (even his masters in engineering), just got laid off Friday – almost as if fate has a lesson to teach any people in the Bartfast family who get too uppity. I have to tell you, I am quite discouraged. I’ve built my whole life around rising above, and I fear that my fate, because of the background I come from, is to always be pulled back down into the muck.

Rachel – working with one’s hands is not automatically worse than desk work. My dad would have considered a desk job to be maddeningly tedious and boring. He much prefered macine work. Unfortunately, the industry changed and he couldn’t catch up, and ended up in a bad situation.

Anyway, sorry I’m taking up so much of this thread. And I want to apologise to you specifically, bridgett, for some things I’ve said recently. I know I’ve seemed anti-intellectual, even anti-education, but that’s not true. I’m just trying to figure out where I’m supposed to fit in the grand scheme of things, and I’m trying to come to terms with who I am.

Comment by Slartibartfast

[…] about her family and her husband’s family and her “cross-class marriage.” First, a little about her background: At every level, I was awkward and dressed wrong and talked funny, but kept going and beating the […]

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Slarti, I know some people don’t mind manual labor, but knowing my own parents, I feel qualified to feel my own guilt. 🙂 Would they want me to feel guilty? No, they’d say they worked so hard precisely so I wouldn’t have to. Does that mean I don’t wish they had cushier jobs in more agreeable environments, that their sacrifices for me hadn’t cost them so much? That’s a negatory, good buddy.

Comment by Rachel

This kind of life was never meant for people like me. We are destined to run the cash registers, answer the phones, pick the strawberries, righty-tighty lefty-loosey, watch the kids, clean other women’s houses.

This whole thing has been in my mind over and over again since hearing Obama’s victory speech Saturday night and the various reactions to it. Hearing people talk about how he inspires them remind me very powerfully of how I reacted to Mario Cuomo’s keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. After hearing that, I knew that this was the guy who needed to be president some day; I would have sent him my rent money to help get him there; I would have taken a leave from grad school to work for him; all that. I saw him (as governor) work a couple of town and county public meetings, and saw how he convinced half of the people who showed up prepared to fight with him, and became even more convinced that this was someone who could get Americans to be better, and by doing that, get America to be better. But he never could decide to run. He was offered a seat on the Supreme Court (a position for which he is eminently qualified) by the much lesser guy who did decide to run, and won. And he couldn’t decide to take it.

And when he was asked why — and when he is asked about it today — he just said/says that he isn’t worthy. I started out thinking that this was some existential doubt, possibly with Catholic undertones. But more and more, over the years, I’ve realized that he just didn’t believe that the Italian kid from Queens,* the son of the corner grocery store owner, deserved to be president. Governor of a state with a deliberately deadlocked legislature, so that nothing can ever be done, yes. President with a chance really to do something, no. And it breaks my heart. How many kids in this country have bought into the idea that they’re not supposed to get out of the place they started? And what have we all lost as a result?

*Anti-Italian prejudice in NYC has been so strong that the CUNY system is still doing court-ordered affirmative action in hiring to make up for its effects.

Comment by nm

It’s not every day you type a comment into one blog setting and see it show up in a new one.

Comment by nm

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