I don’t think my political analysis can be understood apart from my class experiences. And those experiences probably explain a lot about why I’m writing this essay on how workers have been betrayed, devalued, stigmatized, and misunderstood. I’m the kid who joined the women’s movement in 1968 and still felt sorry for the construction workers who hooted at us. Today, as I sit in my loft-like study, at tree-level, watching the birds happily chirping away, it’s clear I’ve made it to the middle class. Yet I still have that strange unsettling knot in my stomach of working-class shame, rage, and unease. I’m what the working-class studies folks call a “class migrant,” and, like any foreigner without proper papers, I can feel insecure and subject to sudden deportation.
It’s not easy being working-class in a culture that, as Owen Jones recently put it in Chavs, demonizes workers. Some simply praise the Lord that they escaped and just try to pass, hoping no one will notice. Others, left behind, “dis-identify”—to use a term coined by sociologist Beverly Skeggs—with the working class. They reject any connection with a group so denigrated and seek self-esteem in other identities. Religion helps—at least it did for me as a teenager in early 1960s Atlanta. At age twelve, I heeded the revivalist’s call one Sunday night at the local Baptist church, and for the next five years I found enormous solace in the sonorous cadences of the preacher as he promised that Jesus loved “even me,” repeating the refrain from a much-sung hymn. Being a soldier or a mother and embracing those lost virtues of self-sacrifice and service used to work, too, to boost working-class self-respect. And of course, for working-class men, there are always the “privileges” of masculinity. But without much money, authority, or status, working-class masculinity is more often an embarrassing display of power rather than power itself—which is why I felt sorry for the construction workers.
It wasn’t always this bad. My dad took considerable pride in his work—he drove trains, passenger and freight, for the Southern Railway, as did his father and grandfather—and in how, through organization, he and his union buddies could exert power, defend their needs, and secure a surprising amount of freedom and dignity. He laughed when I reported one day that he and his buddies didn’t deserve their cushy jobs. They were “featherbedding,” I had learned at junior high, forcing the railroad to hire more workers than they needed, and as a result they hardly did a lick of work. Well, he countered, what’s wrong with a feather bed? Should we be sleeping on straw mattresses? Then he sat me down and, poking a huge gnarled finger in my face, proceeded to explain how power worked and how one class kept down another by making up stories portraying those who worked the hardest as shirkers and ne’er do wells.
But that was more than a half ...
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