Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America eloquently and fairly addresses the marginalization of America’s underclass on multiple layered and historically rooted levels. At points, her book reads as an economist reminding us that poor people exist and always have. On another level, she doesn’t fear or require delicacy when talking about uncouth stereotypes of white trash people. Her voice is undeniably of the onlooker—formal, initially dry but unquestionably brilliant, and filtered through the remoteness of the academic. Her book does what we need Critical Poverty Studies to do. Her work is fundamental to any attempt at the discipline.
Sarah Smarsh, an excellent writer on poverty, rurality, and the multiplicity of the working class remarked that she removed the dust jacket of Isenberg’s book because she felt the biting slur of the term “white trash,” despite the book’s balanced retelling of our ignored history. I get it. Truly. Most of the reviews of Isenberg’s book take on similar patronizing tones about poor people. That poor people are considered entertaining, racist, stupid, or embarrassing reveals the inherent class hatred in some of the most left-leaning communities. This is still absolutely true about specifically poor people, but I’m making it bigger: liberals, the people of my political party, constantly fail and tend to hate poor white people. We’ve let us down.
The first chapters of Isenberg’s book recount the development of the poor class in the colonies until Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The book is broken up into thirds with clear chronological continuation through the poor South and migration to manufacturing hubs. Beginning with the colonization of America in the sixteenth century, Isenberg tracks the causal relationship between “waste land” and “waste people.” Me, being a poststructuralism loving weirdo, could not help but notice the ways that Isenberg’s analysis of the land and people that lived there shows how our place writes us as much as we write it. Images of swamplands, wildernesses, clay-filled and desolate hamlets, and unindustrialized rural pastorals all bring moral and value-laden connotations with them. Isenberg begins by teasing this out and then moves it into modern implications.
There is one particular figure in her history that stuck out for me more than any other: James Vardaman. I vaguely remember covering Vardaman at some point in a Southern history course, but I hadn’t heard the name in so long I forgot about the white-suited, white cowboy hat wearing governor of Mississippi. The foul-mouthed demagogue pitted black people and poor white people against each other. His shotgun shells were only loaded with invective, riling up the racist poor white Mississippians for their votes while undoubtedly screwing them over. Vardaman, it seems, is a perfect historical doppelganger for Trump.
Isenberg articulates something about white trash people that classist people seem to neglect, choosing instead to throw the “waste people” away. First and foremost, I refuse to condemn the South as the only place where racists live. That is unequivocally false. Racists are everywhere, especially under our current administration. Consider the idea that white trash people do, and have historically always, experienced forms of systemic oppression. No, it is not the same kind of oppression that people of color experience, and it would be ludicrous to argue that thesis. Fear does, however, breed hate. Hazel Bryan, a woman famous for screaming at Elizabeth Eckford during the Little Rock school desegregation conflict, epitomizes that concept. Isenberg synthesizes Hazel’s problem: “She knew enough about the social hierarchy in her adoptive hometown to understand that the reputation of working-class whites hinged on the system of segregation. Permeable racial boundaries would pull down people like her even further” (249).
Isenberg never attempts to use class stratification as a justification. Hazel is still cruel, callous, and bigoted. The uncomfortable reality is how that hate was bred into her, as I’ve argued elsewhere, because Southern whiteness and white supremacy have become ethnicity. You can’t tell someone that parts of their ethnicity are morally wrong —even if it’s true. Talking does not change anything, and will not dismantle white supremacy. Telling a poor white racist Southerner that they are inherently wrong will not change anything. Detangling white supremacy from the Southern white ethnicity, which is problematic in itself, is absolutely possible, but not if we (liberals) continue on our path of condemning every person in a red state where lots of people of color and poor people actually live. It will just perpetuate the problem.
I loved this book and I believe it is beyond necessary. Isenberg is thoughtful, thorough, and completely fair. She nuances the etymologies of white trash, redneck, and hillbilly, and she doesn’t shy away from loving the South while hating some of it. That being said, there are two pages of the book that need to be torn the fuck out:
Don’t you dare compare Dolly Parton to Tammy Faye Bakker. Don’t you dare. Yes, Tammy Faye’s “physical appearance projected class identity” because it was awful. Dolly was Beauty personified, the overabundant entity of a Divine Hand’s creation. Dolly is elegance, kindness, grace, poise, and a manifestation of pure Southern womanhood. She is the forest primeval, the arresting symbol of both purity and love entangled with fecund feminine abundance, and any homage or description of her must open with an invocation of the Muse. She is the equivalent of only Helen of Troy, and any less comparison just might get your ass whooped. Her heart is too big for y’all’s attitude.
At least Isenberg acknowledges that Tammy Faye’s white trash identity was “hardly pure, if not wholly contrived” (290). So I will give her credit for acknowledging the way that trashy womanhood is an overabundance of femininity. The final chapters focus on current depictions of “trash” in media and politics, including Tammy Faye and Dolly, but also Bill Clinton and television shows like Duck Dynasty. Her attitude is neutral and I commend her for that, primarily because it allows her to talk about the self-creation of redneck identity.
More than anything, Isenberg’s history creates space to use academic language to talk about poor white people. She never attempts to equate the experiences of poor white and poor black people unless the comparison is absolutely unavoidable, which was my biggest fear in going into this book because poor Southerners of color are so often erased for “more pressing” urban issues. But she does grapple with the shame and the problems, as well as the systems that perpetuate classist and regionalist attitudes toward the South. Her extensive bibliography and notes make up one-third of the book in typical history fashion but are actually very important to read alongside each chapter.
She ends the book with a simple message: poor white people “are renamed often, but they do not disappear. Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed. We are, then, not only preoccupied with race, as we know we are, but with good and bad breeds as well” (320). Her compassion toward these discarded people, my people, as well as her deep understanding of the systems of oppression that both subjugate and foster prejudice within the poor, white, and Southern class is felt on every page—even when it’s biting, because to make change permanent we have to know who these neglected people are. If you think you know the South, or if you know that you don’t, give her book a glance over.
That’s a lot of words to say “read the damn book.” Cover image is from Walker Evans’ “Cotton Tenants: Three Families.” Let me know what y’all think about the book or whatever! Peace and blessings.