Thursday, November 16, 2006

some context for my thinking about race and class: the early years

it occurs to me that if i am going to think out loud here about race and class, i should offer up some context.

i am white and middle class. my parents are white, and both first generation middle class. my late mother (beatrix, aka trixie) was born into nazi-occupied amsterdam and, at age 14, immigrated to flint, michigan via indonesia (where my grandfather spent the war in a japanese concentration camp) and sweden (where my grandmother, marta, was from). my grandparents moved to the united states with three children and nothing else; they were classic pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstrap immigrants and good eisenhower republicans. my grandfather (henry, micah's middle name) had a 6th grade education and a profound work ethic, and he eventually became the manager of the flint city club, where flint's elites wined and dined. he spent hours each night with my mom pouring over her homework, and she graduated near the top of her class, even though she spoke almost no english when she started high school.

my dad was the forth of five boys. his father worked in a bank, but not as an executive. his mother was stretched thin and deeply unhappy, i believe. they were democrats in the way that everyone in the working class was a democrat in those days, and episcopalians in the way that everyone was some sort of church-goer in those days. they moved out of detroit, michigan, when my dad was in elementary school in one of the first waves of white flight. neither of my granparents finished high school, and my dad was the first in the family to go to college.

both of my parents had an intellectual and political awakening in college, where they met, and especially in graduate school in ann arbor, where they became sort of quasi-hippy intellectuals. i went to kindergarten at martin luther king elementary school in ann arbor (just two years after king was killed), but i have very few memories of that year, and i have no recollection of whether any of my classmates were black. we moved the next year to lafayette, indiana, where my dad became a professor of linguistics and my mom a graduate student in comparative literature. everyone in our circle of friends and in my elementary school was white and middle class, as far as i can recall.

when i was in sixth grade, my dad did not get tenure, and decided to leave academia and move to the country. he took up carpentry, a trade he had learned with great skill from his brother. my mother kept at her doctoral program for awhile, but eventually got a job as a high school english and german teacher; she would finally finish her degree when i was a sophomore in college. i went to middle school and high school in a conservative, rural, all-white community in the heart of bible-belt indiana. my parents struggled financially during those years, putting us in good company with many folks in that community. intellectually and politically, though, i did not fit in at all.

despite being fairly solidly middle class, politically left-of-center, and highly educated, my parents never managed to acquire a class sensibility that i associate with middle class, educated liberals. my childhood was full of books and robust political debates, and my earliest memories include marching against vietnam, singing "we shall overcome," and one summer given entirely over to my parents' obsession with the watergate hearings. but there was no npr playing at our house, my dad drank old wisconsin club (by the case, until he stopped drinking altogether) and my mom made cheese sauce with velveeta and drank generic instant coffee. we rarely ate out, and never at a restaurant where you had to worry about which fork to use. when my mother got an interview for a fulbright scholarship, she had nothing to wear, and bought a hideous blue and red plaid polyester pantsuit of which she was inordinately proud. my dad loved classical music, but it was only for special occasions, not background noise, and we never, ever went to the symphony. i'm even more solidly middle class than my parents were, every bit as liberal and pretty much as educated, yet my parents' lack of a liberal-educated class sophistication is something i carry with me.

stay tuned for part two: "not bad for a hoosier": the college years



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