I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the “cultural mulatto,” a term coined by the writer Trey Ellis to describe the fact that many contemporary blacks, “educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world,” as Ellis himself explains in a recent piece, “Obama: Cultural Mulatto,” in the Huffington Post. The concept provides one useful lens through which to consider certain aspects of the work of contemporary black poets like Rita Dove. Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Thomas and Beulah, is only one of the collections that documents the phenomena. However, the notion has led me to consider how such a theory might work when it is applied to class rather than race.
What made it possible for blacks, particularly in the years between 1940 and 1970, to achieve at least a degree of social mobility was work. That is, the Great Migration of blacks from the south to occupy industrial jobs in the north made it possible for the children of these pioneers to experience better, fairer education, a lesser degree of prejudice, and other socio-economic advantages. All of this came with a price, but that’s another story.
In the early sixties, my parents, poor immigrants from Europe, decided to leave the borough of Queens, NY and move to the countryside of the lower Hudson Valley. They were spurred on by local violence (the infamous Kitty Genovese incident had recently occurred) in our working-class section of Queens, as well as by the desire for better schools for their three small children. They were reaching for the American Dream.
But they were also leaping toward a change of culture. City folk no more, my sisters and I grew up into what quickly became a burgeoning suburban mecca. What had seemed the country when we arrived quickly became development after development of upscale homes, and the malls and huge tax assessments followed. My parents both worked multiple jobs just to keep us fed, clothed and housed. My dad was a barber and a custodian, and he took on many small side jobs, jobs I often helped him with. My mom cleaned the homes of the wealthy. Our classmates and friends were almost all financially much better off than us. When the designer jeans craze hit, we yearned to own Jordache jeans. I think we were allowed a pair each, though my mom sometimes came home with hand-me-downs from the children of her bosses. The work my parents did was hard but honest, and their struggle allowed their children the chance to attend superior schools and benefit from friendship with our wealthier friends. We swam in their built-in pools, we were brought as guests to amusement parks and to the beach, etc. We moved in their circle as easily as we did in ours, though it was clear to us, at the end of the day, that we did not really belong in theirs. We were upper lower class, but we could fake it.
Today, with the gulf between wealthy and poor as wide as it’s ever been, I’m not sure that such fluidity is possible much anymore. People of the class I grew up in can no longer live in a neighborhood alongside rich neighbors. The good folks who occupy the sorts of jobs my parents had are now bussed or driven in. The ability to move in more than one circle is largely compromised, and this is very bad for our future. Whatever vestige of the American Dream that may have survived is now nearly gone. Hard work is no longer a guarantee of anything except back pain and perhaps an early grave. When I took my current job as an entry-level assistant professor of English at a large state university I was thrilled. After years of education and then years of underemployment, I finally could say that my salary put me in the middle class. Now, just five years later, in the lingering throes of the recent economic downturn, I can no longer claim to be middle class. This statement is arguable; of course, one can point to our cars (owned by the bank), the nice, safe condo in which we live (we rent), and the other outward appearances of middle class existence that tend to define us. But if I examine things in terms of net income and what we pay out, the fact is that we live check to check. We scrape to get by. This makes us fortunate in that we actually receive checks and have jobs, I know. We’re blessed in this sense. It allows us dignity and hope for the future.
But I’m here to talk about work and class and Phil Levine. Has any Poet Laureate’s appointment been more timely and important than that of Philip Levine’s? According to the Poetry Foundation biography, “the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit. As a young boy in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. His heroes were not only those individuals who struggled against fascism but also ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty.” That I feel an enormous spiritual attachment to Levine and his poetry should not be surprising. The PF biography goes on to state that, "[n]oted for his interest in the grim reality of blue-collar work and workers, Levine resolved ‘to find a voice for the voiceless’ while working in the auto plants of Detroit during the 1950s. ‘I saw that the people that I was working with…were voiceless in a way,’ he explained in Detroit Magazine. ‘In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway….’”In a time when so many are unemployed with no real prospects, in a time when no great migration is possible (where would one go?), it seems to me that great anger and despair has begun to mark the demeanor our young (and not so young) people who are not lucky enough to have been born into wealthy families. Hopelessness and lack of work has led to some hatefulness, spite, and self-pity. The work available to Phil Levine and my parents made it possible for them to bridge—however tenuously—the gap between the haves and the have nots. With no such work currently available, all that remains is for the outraged and disenfranchised to occupy Wall Street, campuses, and public areas across America to express their discontent. The conservatives keep railing against those who would pit the poor against the rich, but this is precisely the battle that confronts us now. Our young people seem to understand that that what they need is work, meaningful work that leads to dignity and a sense of self-worth. They understand that they have little to aspire to without a large mid-range class that bridges the void toward higher aspirations. They seem to know, as Levine’s wonderful poem “What Work Is” suggests, that compassion and love are byproducts of the solidity and possibility that good jobs provide. I’m thrilled that Phil is our Poet laureate, and I’m thrilled that he’ll visit our campus in April. Follow this link to Phil reading “What Work Is.”