History as a Weapon: The Question of Class, by Dorothy Allison

Source: Berry College

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.

A Ques­tion of Class

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.

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5 Responses to History as a Weapon: The Question of Class, by Dorothy Allison

  1. Rusty says:

    I read it in her col­lec­tion Skin, but I don't know/remember where it was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished, sorry.

  2. kelly boyd says:

    Hel­lo how are you, when and where did Alli­son wri­tec­the A Ques­tion Of Class If you dont mind.

  3. Reference Services says:

    Your blog is terrific!Here is the url of the blog from the Archives of the San­dusky Library, if you would like to take a look:http://​san​dusky​his​to​ry​.blogspot​.com

  4. DeadMule says:

    Rusty,I can't thank you enough for pub­lish­ing my poem in the same month as Dorothy Alli­son. Her essay is like a slap in the face and a scream that says, "What makes you think you under­stand any­thing, you priv­i­leged lit­tle brat? Just who do you think you are?"

  5. Richard Hoffman says:

    Rusty,A thou­sand thanks for this, pal. I am gird­ing my loins as we speak for the bat­tle of Tremont & Boyl​ston​.You know, once when I was first hired, I did some­thing like you with the hat; mine was from a Plumb­ing Sup­ply com­pa­ny in Allen­town, bright red, the back half mesh, with a sten­cil of a toi­let on the front. Some­body stole it. Worse, the company's gone out of business.

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