“Am I the last of my kind?”

I started this cycle of writing a little more than a year ago. I said that we have to be the people who speak against the fear.

I’m feeling the need to bring the writing full-circle. And I’m feeling the need to go back to Isbell to do it.

“Last Of My Kind” is the song from The Nashville Sound that I’m not supposed to like. The story of the disaffected white dude isn’t the story we need to hear right now, after all. You don’t have to look at the newspaper too close to know that the troubles of the white dude are pretty darn minimal. The recent weeks have brought stories of sexual assault from all corners, and powerful people are all to quick and happy to minimize the real pain that women feel. The tensions that exploded forth from Ferguson and remain very real with a fresh evidence every week – the story of Bothem Jean being only the latest painful example – continue to remind us that we do not treat African-Americans with anything resembling equality before the law. A president continues to issue statements that minimize the tragedy a colony of the United States has lived through for a whole year, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as beneath being called American citizens; that minimize the tragedy of migrants from nations to our south, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as being beneath the right to live free of fear.

The idea of taking a song sung by a Southern gentleman called “Last Of My Kind” seriously is a joke in that context.

Except it’s not a joke. The fears behind that song are very real.

I know, because I feel them.

I couldn’t be happy in the city at night
You can’t see the stars for the neon light
Sidewalk’s dirty and the river’s worse
The underground trains all run in reverse
Nobody here can dance like me
Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

If you’ve been here for a minute, I don’t need to remind you that my places are rural.

I may need to remind you that life in rural places can be hard. You’re away from the creature comforts that make life convenient; the trip to the store for the serious shopping might well be an hour, maybe more. You sure better be able to solve problems without going around the corner to buy a solution.

And it gets harder as more people give up on the lifestyle. It gets lonelier as people give up on the lifestyle. What does make the rural lifestyle work is the community – the people who you share in the problem-solving with, the people who you can shoot bull with when things do get difficult.

That’s a broad human concern, sure, not merely a white man’s concern. But when you live among these mountains, the white men are the only men you find. (And the theology of complementarianism is real; you make friends with too many women and people are gonna look at you weird, and then they’re gonna start talkin’.) As the families can’t make ends meet without moving to a population center, as the jobs shift to the cities and away from the small communities, those men increasingly go away, and those that remain get more and more alone.

And if you’ve never lived it, you don’t understand the distrust the city brings.

Graduate school was a lot of tension for me. I grew to love Columbus over my six years at Ohio State, and I grew to know my way around the city and know what made it special. But it was very much a city. I was very much an alien in that place. I knew where I belonged, and it wasn’t Columbus.

When I took the first faculty job in Cochran, Georgia, when we bought the house on Pansy Street in the center of town, just a short walk away from that US highway that ran through the center of town, just a little walk longer to the Middle Georgia College campus, I felt like I’d done it right. I recognized the patterns in the community. I recognized the singing in the church. I recognized the banter of the patrons in the Huddle House, for crying out loud.

And the other thing I recognized was the distrust. Those people in Atlanta didn’t understand what life was about, you see. They’re always chasing after their status. The right car, the right house, it’s all keeping up with the Joneses. And why would you want to do that to live in a place that doesn’t have the beauty of living among the pines? We may work a little harder to keep this town up and running, but that work is worth it.

But in 2018, those towns are getting smaller. And more and more people are deciding that the work isn’t worth it.

So many people with so much to do
The winter’s so cold my hands turn blue
Old men sleeping on the filthy ground
They spend their whole day just walking around
Nobody else here seems to care
They walk right past them like they ain’t even there
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The fear lies in becoming them, you see.

Where I’m from, we help one another. One person gets down on their luck, another person has the resources to pick ’em back up. One person’s car gets broken down, another person gives ’em the ride. We sure wouldn’t do what those people in Atlanta do with the people who are homeless outside, we sure wouldn’t just leave them there.

You city folk are so wrapped up in the problems of your life that you don’t see how empty your life is.

Of course, that’s the narrative. Nobody stops to ask about the people who have need in the small town, though. And nobody stops to ask about how easily the help flows to those who have lived there all their lives, and nobody stops to ask about how abandoned the people with brown skin wind up being in those places. May God have mercy on you if you have a funny accent.

It gets very easy to justify your actions; justifying your actions is how entire church council meetings run. One group of kids want to use the basketball court, we’re excited to have them and we hope they’ll join the church. The other group of kids want to use the basketball court, we need to be careful when they’re around and they have to be well supervised; nothing needs to get damaged, you see. The language is carefully selected, always. The skin color of the kids makes not one whit of difference, of course not, why I never.

And besides, we’re talking about letting them use the basketball court. We’re not like those city people who fence and chain-link around the basketball court. We’re better than them, you see.

Anything to make sure you know that we’re not becoming them.

As I reflect on it, the phrase “unconditional love” really was funny to me when I first heard the Jesus people use it at college. Maybe it’s what my parents tried to practice, but I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of unconditional love day-to-day when I was out of the house. The church, the band parents, my friends, my teachers even – they loved the good kids and they didn’t love the bad, and there were clear definitions on who the good kids and bad kids were and you better know then cold.

If the words of Jesus were foreign and spectacular and enchanting when I was a freshman in college, there was a reason for that.

Maybe the protagonist here really got a better education than I did. Maybe he was around a lot of people who would have stopped for the people sleeping over the air grate. Me, I know I’m on the brink of 47 years old and I’m still undoing the education I got.

Daddy said the river would always lead me home
But the river can’t take me back in time and daddy’s dead and gone
The family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The ways that the people of these places have made their living keep going away, too.

You know Walton’s five and dime, right? Many of you shop there every day. If you’re in a small town, you might covet the convenience of the Walton five and dime. The Walton five and dime might even get sold to you as an architectural and engineering marvel.

Of course, the Walton five and dime is a steamroller for your city’s business, and they’ll pick up and leave you with nothing at a moment’s notice. (And if Walton doesn’t get you, Bezos is going to take his cut.)

So here we are. The small town of his youth is gone. The old businesses are gone. The farms are gone. The mines are nearly gone, and they don’t employ near as many people as they once did. Even the schools are increasingly gone.

It is no wonder that, increasingly, the people are gone.

I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

This is the verse that hurts me the most.

When you’re academically talented and from a rural place, your worlds clash in all kinds of ways. It becomes painfully apparent that you don’t need to stay where you are for very long if you want to make anything of yourself. (If the place makes you awkward enough, the principal might tell your parents to pull you out of the school long before it’s time you graduate.)

So you get out of town. And you fall into the circles you’re supposed to fall into as an academically ambitious person. And the people in that circle turn out to not want a single thing to do with you, because you’re a backward redneck who is just going to hold everybody back. (If you’re backward enough, your college roommate might just sneak a request to housing behind your back to get away from you so you can’t pollute his circle of friends at all.)

At the end of the day, I was incredibly fortunate. I didn’t go to MIT, after all, or even Georgia Tech. I went to Rose-Hulman, in bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana[1], and there were enough people who were hayseed enough from towns not just like Seymour, but like Rensselaer and Oaktown and Brazil, that I could find my people, and proverbial iron could sharpen iron. A lot of how I found my own centering that has sustained me in the places where I worked came from the time I spent with the men who saw the ways that the things from Hilliard, Florida that made me were like the things from the Indiana communities that made them.

But then you still go to graduate school, and you go on the postdoc, and you go to professional meetings, and you work beyond the boundaries of your region, and you still feel the tensions. You become a professor and you have position and you have reasons for doing the things that you do and you have people twenty-five years or more your junior wondering why those things are, questioning those things, actively looking down on those things.

I’m forty-six dang years old. I should have gotten past the insecurities that come from not having the sophistication that other elites have a long, long time ago.

I should have.

I find that the pain just deepens. And the fear remains.

Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear
That might be true in Arkansas but I’m a long, long way from there
That whole world’s an old and faded picture in my mind
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

And the fear remains. Mike Warnke, for all the baggage that his stories carried, said one thing that has always stuck with me – there are a lot of us who take a whole lot of pride in our lack of class, in our lack of sophistication. We feel like that language we talk with is something you can’t touch. The backlash against political correctness is a product of that very pride, that stubborn attachment to saying the things we’re not allowed to say.

I visited Arkansas – seriously visited Arkansas, beyond a stop on the interstate in Texarkana headed west – for the first time at the first of the month. I was there for an academic conference, so I saw a lot more of the ivory tower and a lot less of the rural places that I know and cherish. But even on the University of Arkansas campus, Fayetteville is right there. It’s a small sports town; pride in calling the hogs trumps pride in making books and education resources open and accessible.

On the way there, I listened to a couple of episodes of the podcast that Elizabeth and Matt Bruenig are putting together.  One of the episodes that really hit me, driving just past Little Rock, was a discussion of social mobility. (The key discussion starts around 34:30 minute of the podcast.) Towards the end of the discussion (around 47:05), this dialogue happens:

Elizabeth: …because the liberal approach to social mobility is, well, the one way you can have a decent life, essentially, is if you escape your family.
Matt: Right, yeah, this is an aspect of social mobility that doesn’t get talked about too much. There’s a lot of focus on “does it exist?” “How can we make it happen?” But one of the downsides of social mobility that is not weighted at all in our discussion is that if someone significantly changes their class position in society, they almost certainly become somewhat alien and foreign and weird and disconnected from their parents, from their community as children, their friends, and that sort of thing. Because class difference being what it is, it’s hard to relate to people across classes.
This is something that’s actually heavily covered in the literature of integration. People who talk about cultural hybridity, y’know, scholarship kid integration. People whose parents are part of one culture, and they themselves become assimilated into American or white culture. There are benefits and harms, and one of the harms is, you become alienated from the culture of your birth, and therefore from your family and your home country. But it also has a very real class component.
Which we’ve seen in your case.

[jump ahead through some from random stories to 52:25]

…you notice the suspicions that they have before you even go out and become socially mobile, because you see the anxiety that they have and the suspicion that they have around upper-class people. Some of that is worrying about embarrassing themselves, worried that the person is going to look down on them, and so there’s not a lot of desire to be around or interact or that sort of stuff, because there’s so much difference and will it be uncomfortable and will they think less of me, and all that. And that just gets transmuted onto you, because you’re that person now. You are the people that we really didn’t like all that much, and that we were worried about feeling, y’know, looked down upon.
Well, there used to be intimacy and warmth, and you were just one with everybody else, and now there’s a distance.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You’re not one of everyone else. There’s some aspect of “Aw, that’s great. He made it.” And that sort of thing. But different. And alien. And all that sort of stuff. That’s just an unavoidable thing. If you’re going to have high levels of inequality, and try to move people between the strata, the starts are going to form different communities. Working-class people will not hang out with upper-class people, for the most part. And so, that’s just the nature of the beast. And social mobility just means that people become alienated. And I’m sure it would be the same for the reverse as well. I assume the reverse doesn’t happen all that often…
…well, the reverse, you see, so, my parents have friends, and you hear them talk about, they have children that don’t do well. Who drop out of college, and then have all sorts of struggles, and they become points of shame.
And they become problems. So they don’t relate to the children anymore, as just people who are part of a different class. The whole mission in life becomes trying to repair the child.
Right, bringing them back into the class.
Bringing them back into the class. It can never be the situation that you’re comfortable with them being a member of a different class. Because it’s a shame. With your peers.

It occurs to me that listening to these two very intelligent people from two very different sides of the track in east Texas talk that unconditional love is something that has been lacking for a very long time. And not just in one direction, either. And fears of all kinds are things that are very real.

This may not be an appropriate or politic time to talk about those fears. But in many ways, that’s what makes them fears. There is never an appropriate or politic time to talk about them, because bringing them into the open makes us face the worst parts of ourselves, and it’s never convenient to do that.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: as a nation, we do not love one another. We do not love people from the rural places. We do not love people from the heart of the city. We do not love people who improve their position in life. We do not love people who lose their position in life. We do not love the white man. We do not love the black woman. More than anything else in the world, we do not love the person who does not fit.

We love our narratives, and if a person doesn’t fit the narrative, we are all to happy to cast them to the curb.

So, am I the last of my kind? Maybe.

But there are a host of other kinds out there. There are all kinds of others who feel the pain and agony of learning that the place they live is not for them, and wants nothing to do with them. Their fears are real.

We have to be the ones who speak against the fear. But maybe the way that we start is by saying that it’s okay to be afraid. Whoever you are.

And yes, that goes for the white man too.

2017-02-25 16.03.09

[1] Yes, “bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana” is a joke. The Rose-Hulman campus is pretty beautiful, no doubt. But it’s as far removed from downtown Terre Haute as you can get.

1 thought on ““Am I the last of my kind?””

  1. […] I’ve never been shy about loving rural America, or about embracing the challenge that comes with being a scholar within rural America. But it’s work that comes with a measure of isolation and solitude; there are precious few other people who comprehend the tension that comes with the work. Right now I feel as isolated as I’ve ever felt in my life, and while I miss being in the midst of the classroom and the lab with my students, the social distancing has comparatively little to do with that. I’m personally closer to the scholars who don’t understand why I’ve stayed here. The people who live around me reject the expertise that I represent. […]

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