Monday, May 22, 2006
Reagan's Worst Nightmare

Commencement was soggy. I'd been looking forward to a lovely spring weekend in Vermont, taking my mother down the backroads and walking around town, but instead it rained and rained and rained and rained and rained without ceasing from the moment we broke through the clouds over Boston upon arriving until the moment we ascended above them again as we departed. Mom was too cold to stay outside much, and the backroads were undoubtedly too muddy to trust that our rental car would be able to slog through them, so instead we just kinda hung around, did the commencement ceremony, and sighed about the rain. Trust me to graduate in the year of the "'06 floods."

And the rain wasn't the only downer of the weekend -- only a couple of days before, some Freshman had managed to go and get himself killed in a one-car accident on the college road. Compounding the bleakness of his death was the fact that, even on a small, intimate campus, very few people seemed to know who he was. Finally someone came up with some pictures, and he looks like a typical student from my college -- very much a hippie, a flag of Che Guevara hanging over his bed, into Hunter S. Thompson. Some of the other students have leapt upon the opportunity to wax gothic on the subject of death and loss (mostly overplaying, I suspect, the impact of death upon them -- people who've suffered close losses rarely talk about it that way, I've found,) but probably I'd have done the same thing when I was 18 or 19 years old. I was as pretentious a college kid as any the first time around.

Our commencement speaker turned out to be better than I'd anticipated -- she referred to the members of my graduating class as "Reagan's Worst Nightmare." One can only hope. All I know is, it took the 70 of us more than half an hour to arrange ourselves alphabetically preceding the ceremony. We can mumble about Foucault and postmodernism until Michel himself just wants us to STFU, and we're more than happy, as a tribe, to take the stupidest things (the flavors available in the soda fountain, the cups in the dining hall and the lack thereof) and apply Marxist theory and existentialist thought in our arguments over Sunkist versus Gatorade, paper versus plastic. But asking us to put 70 people in alphabetical order is like asking a pig to play Parcheesi: if we succeed, it'll only be in spite of ourselves.

When I first left college and Vermont, I'd left with the strong sense that I'd left unfinished business, that I'd be called back to wrap things up sooner or later, that I still had some living to do in New England. This time, as in December when I actually finished, my feeling about the place is that I'm thoroughly done with it. As much as I love Vermont and the people who inhabit it, and as much as I'd like to feel at home there, I just don't. If there's any merit to the idea that places choose us more than we choose places, then Vermont has very clearly not chosen me; Memphis and Mississippi, I suppose, very clearly have. At least for now. (I still want to make an expatriat of myself one of these days.)

Almost immediately upon coming home, I was back out again, this time into the Mississippi delta near Greenville. I'll be writing more about the specifics of that elsewhere (an elsewhere that remains under contruction at the moment, which is why nobody has seen it, though it's the next thing on my list to work on today.) But the trip brought up one subject that fits better here, and I'm interested to hear what other people think, so it makes sense to discuss it on the blog that already gets the traffic. It's one of those subjects that we're already all familiar with (to the point that it's easy to get tired of having to think about it), but now and then you get a fresh insight (in this case one that was obvious in retrospect, even if it never managed to break the surface of my intellect) and you find yourself re-thinking the entire question from top-to-bottom.

In the United States (and in the southern states specifically, and in the world in general), where does race end and class begin?

I'm not going to delve too deeply into my thoughts on the subject just yet, because I'm still chewing the question over in my mind and I'm not ready to commit to any particular line of thinking. But in a society where being a member of a racial minority and being poor are so closely and inextricably connected, how do we go about determining which is which? It's largely a rhetorical question -- the first obvious point is that you can't separate the two that cleanly -- but I think it's still a valid one. How much of what we think of as racism is really classism? Is classism a product of racism or vice versa? How much of what we think of as black culture is actually poverty culture? Is it possible that all this time we've all (and I mean all: black, white, liberal, and conservative) been thinking we were talking about one phenomenon when really we were talking about something else entirely? We're still not really allowed to think about class in the United States -- in our alleged meritocracy, class isn't supposed to be a factor in life, and so we tend to go through life discounting its effects. But how can we even begin to deal with a problem if we can't recognize it for what it is and admit it exists? How can we think honestly and act effectively if we're only thinking about and acting on half the issue?

This changes everything. I've got some serious thinking to do.
12:15 PM ::
Amy :: permalink