On the other side of the tracks: reflections upon the Old South.
To be a stranger in a strange land has its advantages. Having moved to the US at the age of 21, I had the opportunity to take in experiences with an open mind and a full heart. At the beginning, we went to California, and later moved from state to state working our way back to the East Coast where life felt similar to the Old continent of Europe. Arizona, Maryland and Washington D.C. were next on the list until we finally landed in Georgia, one of the most representative states of what is known as the Old South.
I still remember as it were yesterday my first impression of this state. Luscious green covered the peanut fields on each side of Interstate 75 as we rode down to a small town USA three hours south of Atlanta. Being awarded with the title of “The Reading Capital of the World,” such place sits conveniently located right on the freeway, the main artery that connects all small population centers to the real world. Though some of the town’s authorities were against being so exposed to civilization, others deemed it extremely important to be in close contact with those playing a decisive role in the state’s affairs: the politicians up north (for everything beyond Macon’s gnat line is considered, in that neck of the woods, the North).
Life stands still in the Old South. Besides its climate, this land down south offers numerous perks to the outsider. Housing is affordable, schools (especially the private enterprises) tend to focus on the human side of learning, and the people do offer you “southern hospitality.” Being a foreigner and (as I found out later on) belonging to the white elite granted me the opportunity to move about town with the eyes of an unintended flauneress who quickly caught on with the local jargon and enjoyed new expressions such as “as cute as a bug in a rug,” “tickled pink,” and “down yonder.” My learning process went on smoothly and uneventfully. Not only did I learn a new English code of communication but I was almost immediately invited to participate in the most popular events of the area. A new world opened up before my eyes while attending garden club meetings, taking the kids to BSA (Boy Scouts of America), learning karate, and joining book clubs.
Allow me to describe the social hierarchy of this little town. There was the good-old-boy network that tacitly showed the rest of us the rules of social conduct. We were all neatly placed in different “zones” just for the benefit of acquiring our own sense of belonging; perfectly manicured neighborhoods shied away from the interstate and found refuge in secluded residential areas where a sort of “Tom Sawyer” lifestyle could safely come true. Downtown was reserved for businesses and government buildings, yet as you stepped out of that handful of streets, a different atmosphere took hold of the immediate surroundings where more modest housing was seen everywhere. Life was, indeed, orderly and peaceful.
After the excitement of moving into a new place wore off, I found myself picking up on things never noticed before. For example, why did the statue of the confederate soldier in the park have a legend reading “Lest we forget?” and why, when lining up at the bank, would people make way for me to go first? And what was more, why did everybody always refer to the other side of the tracks as the forbidden land where respectable and honorable folks ought not to go to? The “other side of the tracks,” I sadly learned, was inhabited by those less privileged in the community. Home to temporary farm workers, the unemployed and the forgotten, the other side of the tracks was a reminder of how society still categorizes class, gender and race. For, having come a long way, the journey to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is yet to come for all. In this little place Mexicans, African Americans, and other races and genders did their very best to make it into society. Among them, there were whites of very low economic means. They were regarded by their own as the lowest class of all, “dirt poor and ignorant.”
Until recently very little has been known about the poor whites of America. Travel accounts have described them as “vaporing, disgusting, and unprofitable set of beings, devoid of education, religion or manners.” It is no wonder poor whites have been stereotyped, even well into the twentieth century, as “idle, lazy, and indolent; ignorant, uneducated, and suspicious; impoverished and malnourished; dirty and disease-ridden; as well as drunken and immoral” (Denison Olmstead 1825).
Some African American authors such as Margaret Walker have tried to give us an idea of what being white and poor would have been like in times of slavery; in the words of Vyry Brown, the protagonist of Jubilee (1966), poor whites were “po buckra, who lived back in the pine barrens and on the rocky hills” (Jubilee 50). This type suffered as much as the black slaves for there was no one to provide them with the rations of corn meal and salt pork and so people quickly learned to have contempt for this class, the “poor white trash” (Jubilee 50).
Years later, I have come to the conclusion that prejudice is a disease that targets those who do not have the means to go on in life as part of the mainstream. Today, white authors being born in poverty are putting their best effort forward towards building social awareness about the poor whites. In this context I cannot help but think of Dorothy Allison. Dorothy Allison has been extremely vocal in vindicating the poor whites’ right to their own identity. To her, the term “white trash” contains nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, it is something to take pride in. Having admitted the world has changed, Allison calls out to other writers like her (such as African American authors at the forefront of the fight against social injustice) to make a change, for, “we need more people of large ambition, people who refuse censorship, denial, and hatred, people who still hope to change the world” (Allison 1994). Because of her motivation to change things for the better, Dorothy Allison understands being called “white trash” as a sign that identifies her as who she is: a poor-white female writer, born to a fifteen-year-old unwed mother, who strived to do her best to get out of her social location. If W.E.B. Dubois wished to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903), Allison wishes for the poor whites to be looked upon as prejudice-free Americans too. First in her family to graduate from high school, Allison was awarded a National Merit Scholarship and went on to study at Florida Presbyterian College. She writes poetry, short stories and essays, as well as novels. Allison’s first novel, A Bastard out of Carolina (1992), has been the recipient of the Ferro-Grumley Prize and was finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. Her second novel, Cavedweller (1998), depicts the story of a poor white woman in search of her identity. Allison was awarded the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction, and is currently working on her third novel. Dorothy Allison has joined the fight against social stigmatizing of whatever race, gender or class that may be. In so doing she understands what oppression, prejudice and social ostracism mean for any underprivileged group. It is her strive and the strive of others such as Audre Lorde, Margaret Walker, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler to name a few, what is changing the general public’s opinion of those who are forced to live in social isolation.
It has been ten years since I left South Georgia and yet I find myself, at times, thinking back of those lazy summer afternoons and wondering what ever happened to “that other side of the tracks.”
Concepción Parrondo Carretero