In April of 1963 as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. languished in the Birmingham jail, eight local clergymen published a letter in local newspapers in which they denounced Dr. King as “an outside agitator”, and they ended their appeal with these words: “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Their advertisement prompted Dr. King to pen his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he explained why waiting for racial justice any longer was not an option.
In 2006 and ’07, Joe Bageant, a resident of Winchester, wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus. Several years ago when a good friend loaned me his copy, he said, “If you want to understand many people of the Shenandoah Valley, read this book.” I did, and I have just finished my second reading of this fine examination of class in America.
Bageant, who is deceased, returned to his native Winchester, Virginia in 1999 after a thirty-year absence. He moved to the North End where he had grown up, and he found it as it was in his youth–”the most hard-core of the town’s working-class neighborhoods, where you are more likely to find the $20,000-a-year laborer and the $14,000-a-year fast-food worker.” He continues, “It didn’t take too many visits to the old neighborhood tavern or to the shabby church I attended as a child to discover that here in this neighborhood in the richest nation on earth folks are having a hard go of it. And it is getting harder.” With that, he began listening to what he referred to as “my people”, and they trusted him to tell their stories with empathy, not pity, and brutally honest as when he writes, “…my people are a little seedier than most;…” He quickly sees that the preferred avenues of escape for his people are alcohol, Jesus, or overeating.
Writing before “the crash” of 2008, Bageant sends a warning as he writes about American Serfs, Republicans by Default, The Deep-Fried, Double-Wide -Lifestyle, and more. He goes to the guts of the working class of the North End where two in five of residents have no high school diploma. He writes of his childhood friend who carries seven credit cards in order to “build up my credit” so that he can buy a double-wide trailer that will decrease in value before he parks it on a rented lot. He writes of “Dottie”, his favorite karaoke singer who lives in Romney, West Virginia. Disabled, Dot lives on her Social Security Disability Insurance, uses an oxygen tank and wheelchair, and is forceful in the way she deals with her doctors. She tells Bageant, “I learned that damned towel-head doctor of mine has only four years of college someplace in South America.” Bageant goes on to explain, “No doubt you [the reader] are wincing at the racist term towelhead. But people do talk that way, and if we use it as an excuse not to listen, we rule out listening to half of America.”
For me, those words about Dot’s vocabulary are the message of Deer Hunting with Jesus, which is sub-titled, Dispatches from America’s Class Wars. He is telling us, long before Trump and his evil appeared, that there is an entire class of people who are poorly educated, poorly prepared with soft skills, have poor health, possess no or little health insurance, and have children which will continue the cycle of their lives. Bageant pulls no punches in faulting political leaders locally and nationally, mortgage companies, our health care system, and others for the condition of “my people.” But, most of all he blames their poor education for their plight. Having escaped the North End, he attended college, fought in Vietnam, traveled, and wrote before returning home. He knows the value of education and knows that a good one will give “his people” a door to walk through.
But Bageant could have been writing of the eight clergymen of Birmingham that I quoted above. We still have people like them who want to proceed slowly in any cause, especially in the area of racial equality . We still have subtle and overt racist. We still have Dots. Right here among us we have extremes, and it seems to me that we must find a way to hear what is being said from those extremes.
Bageant sees the lack of education as the biggest obstacle for “his people.” But, the clergymen from 1963, by their plea, show a lack of education concerning what Dr. King was trying to achieve. If they had had a better education concerning the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow South, they would not have written their pathetic letter. If they had had an education on this topic, they would have developed understanding and empathy. Yet they, like Dot, are voices that need to be heard because they tell us what we need to change. We cannot use their language as an excuse to not listen to them.
On the surface we are an educated society. We have degrees. Yet, too often we refuse to educate ourselves regarding topics or issues we find uncomfortable. I often think of Robert Kennedy who in May, 1963 asked James Baldwin to organize a meeting at his New York City apartment with black and white activists. The meeting lasted about two hours as the invited guests attempted to explain to Kennedy the plight of blacks and other disenfranchised people. The meeting did not go well, but Kennedy had heard some things because he soon became a champion for all disenfranchised Americans. He got himself an education concerning racial inequalities in America, and he began working for change. But he first had to sit in that meeting, hearing words that undoubtedly made him uncomfortable.
Like Kennedy, we must listen to each other—the plodders, activists, the uneducated, the educated-all must be heard. In doing so we will work to create a country of purple by blending our red and blue. If we refuse to, we will have a divided house and lose it all.