Posted in Gonzaga University, Social Issues

Making the Personal Political: Class in the Family

The author of class matters starts her book out with an autobiographical chapter that could be a really entertaining story – if it didn’t turn into a sermon all the time. This chapter starts out with a description of the first house she remembers living in with her family – A rental block house with three bedrooms. Dark, cold, made of concrete.

Loneliness and fear surrounded this house. A fortress instead of a shelter, it was the perfect place for a new husband, a new father, to build his own patriarchal empire in the home— solid, complete, cold.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 11). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

I find the image of the block house and the juxtaposition of patriarchy with things “solid, complete, cold” to be a telling perspective of the world, and of the male role in it.  But where she really focuses is on her mother, and her perceptions. For her mother, who entered the marriage as a divorcee’ with two daughters, the marriage was finally making it in the world. She got to play house, got to leave her mother’s house and have one of her own. She read the women’s magazines of the 50s and imbibed their philosophy.

Being poor and working class was never a topic in the concrete box. We were too young to understand class , to share our mother’s dreams of moving up and away from the house and family of her origins. A girl without proper education, without the right background, could only change her status through marriage. As a wife she was entitled to respect.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 13). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

We also get to see the house her mother escaped from. Daddy Gus, her father, was the family’s quiet saint, a God-fearing man who didn’t raise his voice and followed orders.  Baba, his wife, had the tongue and sharp wit to make everyone do things her way. They lived the active, self-sufficient life of the poor.

In this house everything was ritual, even the manner of greeting. There was no modern casualness. All rites of remem -brance had to be conducted with awareness and respect. One’s elders spoke first. A child listened but said nothing. A child waited to be given permission to speak. And whenever a child was out of their place, punishment was required to teach the lesson.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 14). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

They couldn’t read, so everything was communicated by conversation,  conversation was the site of all learning. The author learned about the earth, chickens, aesthetics and beauty from Baba.

Everyone talked about race, but no one talked about class. No one talked about wanting to get away from this poor life into the world of store-bought things, which her mother did. The author found herself torn between two worlds growing up.

Living in a world above the absolutes of law and man -made convention was what any black person in their right mind needed to do if they wanted to keep a hold on life. Letting white folks or anybody else control your mind and your body, too, was a surefire way to fail in this life. That’s what Baba used to say— may as well kill yourself and be done with it. As a girl I wanted more than anything to live in this world of the old ways. Instead I had to live with mama and the world of the new. Inside me I felt brokenhearted and torn apart. I was an old soul, and the world of the new could never claim me.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 17). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Determined to move on up, they soon left the concrete box for “Mr. Porter’s House”.The old man had just died, and the house, built in the early 1900s, remained basically unchanged from it’s initial construction except for the addition of a bathroom.

 To mama this house was paradise. A formal dining room, a guest room, a service porch, a big kitchen, a master bedroom downstairs, and two big rooms for the children upstairs.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 18). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

The Concrete house had been all by itself. Mr. Porter’s house was in a neighborhood.  The kids learned to behave, so no wagging tongues would speak ill of her or her family. Still, people did not talk about class. The kids started to understand the needs and shortage of money, but it was never discussed in relation to class. The thing her father most hated about married life was sharing his money. He doled it out giving very little for household expenses and expecting all of it to be accounted for. School supplies, the things all the other kids had, he found frivolous.

Mama heard all our material longings. She listened to the pain of our lack. And it was she who tried to give us the desires of our hearts, all the time never talking about class or about her desires to see her children excel in ways that were not open to her. More than class, mama saw sexuality —the threat of unwanted pregnancy— as the path that closed all options for a female. While she never encouraged her daughters to think about marrying men with money, she used the threat of ruin as a way to warn us away from sexuality. And she constantly urged us to keep our minds on getting an education so we could get good jobs.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 20). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Education was something her mother worked at in spite of her father. His opinion was too much education made a woman unqualified for marriage – made them the type of women men didn’t want to marry. Women without men – women on welfare – were to be pitied precisely because they could not get a man to provide for them and make them respectable.

The only unmarried women who got respect were teachers. The ones who had chosen the way of the mind. But while they were respected, they were also pitied. They lived in a world alone, in a world that believed the most tragic thing was a woman alone.

..it was mama who let me know that cultivating the mind could place one outside the boundaries of desire. Inside the space of heterosexual desire a woman had to be dependent on a man for everything. All the working black women in our lives wanted to be able to stay home and spend money— the money men would make for them working in the tobacco fields, in the mines, doing hard labor. Men on our street who worked in the coal mines came home covered in a thin layer of grayish white dust that looked like ash. Women looked at them and talked about how they made the only really good money a working black man could make. No one talked of the dangers; it was the money that mattered.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 21). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

So far I have been making few comments, just filling in the story, but here I find the desire to stop and chat, to comment. The whole writing of the author here talks about the way women are possessed by the patriarchy of the men, how they had to become dependent on men. The picture painted is one of gender hierarchy with men on top, women on the bottom. But the last line in here shows that this really wasn’t all that one-sided. “it was the money that mattered” shows that the men could be as much of an object to the women, as providers, as the women were to the men. That is the bad way of seeing it. In a good way, in a loving relationship, this dependence of each on the other, of submitting to each other, can be a symbiotic relationship, one of the greatest mysteries the world has ever known – that happens again and again in the world. And yet the author continues to go on, the writing still as gray as ever, with her penchant preaching about class.

Her mother never mentioned class, but she read the magazines, observed middle-class blacks in church, fashioned ideas and sensibilities from her observations, and then made these ideas rules for her children, to fit into this middle-class world.

Class wasn’t talked about, money and hard work was. The prime virtue was hard work.

She ends the chapter with a comment about what she learned from her father.

Through his experience we learned to be proud of being working class even though our conversations about class were always tied to race. To know ourselves fully we had to find our place in the world of work, and that, ultimately , meant confronting race and class.

hooks, bell (2012-10-02). Where We Stand: Class Matters (p. 23). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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Author:

Husband of beautiful, brainy Jasini of Jasini.wordpress.com as well as father of two way too brilliant teens. Singer, thinker, writer, a creative type who spent 20 years in the world of institutional investment accounting and customer service, and now is spinning his creativity in a search for his next career.

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