Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

  1. Thanks, Paul – both for your cogent analysis and for introducing me to Melissa Range. (I just ordered Horse and Rider.) You might be interested in taking a look at my own response, “Dialogue, not demonization – for “rural, white Christians”and others” – https://maryturck.com/2016/12/03/dialogue-not-demonization-for-rural-white-christiansand-others/
    I appreciate your writing and especially your perspectives on race, class and education. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and find the current emphasis on a monolithic rural identity deeply disturbing.

  2. My mother was from the mountains of Tennessee where her people spoke Elizabethan English (very isolated) and then moved to Asheville, North Carolina (a step up in my grandmother’s estimation). My father was from a Jewish family in the Bronx – the parents owned a fish store. While both parents were extremely intelligent and well read, well spoken, etc. they definitely had huge differences both culturally and class wise. My conclusion was that it was a mixed marriage that should never have happened. Every time I read your blog, Mr. Thomas, I find I understand a little bit more about my mother’s background and also about my father’s failure to succeed in either academia or civil service. Both parents carried a stigma against them in their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others, I believe. Nothing made up for the poverty they both suffered as children and young people. And that class stigma extended into my life, where I never felt that I could compete. Sorry – long way of saying thanks.

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