Many years ago, when I first began teaching writing, I had the opportunity to design an introductory writing (essay) course, in which we read and discussed theory and criticism as well as original creative works. I thought for a long time about what I might do. I had done similar courses in the past,with safe topics like good and evil as seen through technological advances,that kind of thing. I wanted to branch out and give my students–mostly upper-class kids–something that they might not get in regards to the rest of their educations in class differences and isms of all kinds. I called it White Trash Literature.
Having come to Boston for grad school, light years away from the small rural community in Appalachian Pennsylvania that I grew up and went to college in, I suffered more than a bit of culture shock. I sat in my first grad workshop with a ballcap on that I'd stolen from my brother-in-law. The cap said 'Redneck Express Trucking.' I had on a flannel shirt over a pocket t-shirt, old jeans, and some high-top sneakers, a look coming into style then courtesy of the grunge movement located in Seattle. I was sort of hip, until people found out I'd been dressing that way my entire life. Then I became strange, or felt that way, anyway. The point being, I lived the life we discussed in class.
In hindsight, I probably should have prepared better and read more before teaching this, but I was 22 years old and determined to find my place in this new world, if indeed I had a place at all. I developed a syllabus, found texts that covered a lot of ground, and gamely went in to teach, jumping in with all my literary limbs flying, in that wind that can blow you down Tremont Street in Boston if you're not careful. The first day, I began pointing out signs of classism: TV, movies, literature, life, Jeff Foxworthy, etc. Once we'd covered a whiteboard with material, I set them at work writing about what they knew regarding people called rednecks or white trash or hillbilly. I anticipated papers full of cogent sets of examples and a great discussion forthcoming. Then a comment came, the next day, within the first five minutes of class, and froze me up.
"Why are we studying this stuff ? These people aren't an important part of history or literature."
I wish I could say I responded well, but I didn't. Someone mercifully pulled me back into the discussion by calling the commenter in question a fucking idiot, at which the class laughed a bit, uncomfortably, which gave enough time to pull myself together and toss the question out for discussion. I hadn't expected someone to challenge the course so boldly the first day. Every day after that I went in loaded for bear, swearing I would never be so caught dry and ham-fisted again. One of the big reasons I survived teaching that class was Dorothy Allison's baldly autobiographical fiction, and the equally eye-opening essays I found along the way looking for secondary sources.
After reading her, I knew it wasn't just me, though I certainly felt like I was the only quasi-redneck in this school most of the time. What mattered was that overwhelming sense of otherness you can only get in rooms full of white people, supposed peers, with whom you have little or nothing at all in common. The following essay (Allison's) is worth reading not just because she describes what I and others who travelled from the lower middle class to the halls and classrooms of academia go through practically, but also what it's like mentally. It's a lot more than 'which fork to use for what,' though I had that problem too. Read it and see what you think.
The first time I heard, "They're different than us, don't value human life the way we do," I was in high school in Central Florida. The man speaking was an army recruiter talking to a bunch of boys, telling them what the army was really like, what they could expect overseas. A cold angry feeling swept over me. I had heard the word they pronounced in that same callous tone before. They, those people over there, those people who are not us, they die so easily, kill each other so casually. They are different. We, I thought. Me.
When I was six or eight back in Greenville, South Carolina, I had heard that same matter-of-fact tone of dismissal applied to me. "Don't you play with her. I don't want you talking to them." Me and my family, we had always been they. 'Who am I? I wondered, listening to that recruiter. 'Who are my people? We die so easily, disappear so completely—we/they, the poor and the queer. I pressed my bony white trash fists to my stubborn lesbian mouth. The rage was a good feeling, stronger and purer than the shame that followed it, the fear and the sudden urge to run and hide, to deny, to pretend I did not know who I was and what the world would do to me.
My people were not remarkable. We were ordinary, but even so we were mythical. We were the they everyone talks about—the un-grateful poor. I grew up trying to run away from the fate that destroyed so many of the people I loved, and having learned the habit of hiding, I found I had also learned to hide from myself. I did not know who I was, only that I did not want to be they, the ones who are destroyed or dismissed to make the "real" people, the important people, feel safer. By the time I understood that I was queer, that habit of hiding was deeply set in me, so deeply that it was not a choice but an instinct. Hide, hide to survive, I thought, knowing that if I told the truth about my life, my family, my sexual desire, my history, I would move over into that unknown territory, the land of they, would never have the chance to name my own life, to understand it or claim it.