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Monday, March 12, 2018


I've spent a significant amount of my time these past three years in researching my family history, which includes studying American history. How could it not? Many books have helped me along the way, some of which I've noted previously, and here's another one that rakes the muck from one's eyes: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.


Now, granted, every author has their own agenda when writing a book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, because each of us is seated within the context of our own lives and culture. That should go without saying, but it seems to be a missing piece of modern dialogue ... so I say it upfront. Nevertheless, I found Isenberg's White Trash riveting.

Using class as the lens through which to view American history opens up an important perspective regarding the society we live in now. It's easy to say "oh, sure, we all know that the poor have been and are looked down upon" but this book brings the reality home in a more visceral and disturbing way. We need to see and FEEL the shadow side of our own history if we want to continue evolving our society for the betterment of all humans, all life.

Most of us were taught the pretty image of the first colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts, those seeking religious freedom or increased fortune. And, yes, they comprised a portion of the early population, although some statistics reveal them as less than fifty percent of settlers. The rest? They represented "England's opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London's eyesore population." These were children as well as adults. The indentured masses were fodder, most of their offspring filled the same niche.

I'm an American mutt with a solid 350-years of ancestral footprints embedded in the soil of this continent. My roots go deep, the bones of thousands of my ancestors are buried here, their blood spilled across the land as they toiled, migrated, gave birth, fought, and died. Many of those ancestors are the ones that the elites and upper-classes would have referred to as white trash, rubbish, rednecks, hillbillies, and more. As time and settlement expanded, I would guess they were often like the individual who "though coarse and ragged in his dress and manners ... at times described as hospitable and generous, someone who invited weary travelers into his humble cabin. Yet his more favorable cast rarely lasted after the woods were cut down and settled towns and farms appeared. As civilization approached, the backwoodsman was expected to lay down roots, purchase land, and adjust his savage ways to polite society--or move on." Unfortunately, many of these woods-families couldn't afford to buy the few acres they had been living on, barely getting by. I can imagine this is one of the reasons my ancestors came to Missouri when it was opened up to homesteading in the early 19th century -- it was their chance to own land, even if some of it was thick woods on rocky ground suitable only for subsistence farming.

For hundreds of years, if one didn't own land or property, you were inferior. As Isenberg sums it up: "The British colonial imprint was never really erased either. The 'yeoman' was a British class, reflecting the well-established English practice of equating moral worth to cultivation of the soil." How is that reflected in our so-called modern society?

This book provides a wealth of insight about the American class system that has been present from the beginning and still exists, whether we want to see it or not. Surely we can do better.

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