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Liminal Lives: Just Mercy and Hillbilly Elegy

November 13, 2016

I’m teaching a class about how to teach writing, and the students just turned in their “Critical Comparison” essays, in which we (the class is team-taught) ask them to put two articles about writing “into conversation” with each other.

That made me think about how, in the wake of the recent presidential election, I should deal with two of the books on my tall “read but not written about” stack–one is Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, published in 2016 and reviewed in the New Yorker and at The American Conservative,* where you’ll also find an interview with the author. The other one is Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, published in 2014 and reviewed in the New York Times. I went to hear Stevenson speak this fall at Kenyon, where he told a few of the stories from his book.

What do these two books have in common? Their focus is on people who are on the margins of American society–the “hillbillies” and the incarcerated. In the past few decades, the lives of such people have become increasingly fragile, sometimes breaking on the rocks of one car accident, one company closing down, or one family member getting sick.

Stevenson tells us that “the prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” His book is about “our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.” I don’t see any of that getting better in the next four years unless all the people I know who are not indifferent can manage to work towards making everyone else in this country less comfortable and less tolerant of injustice towards the lives of people they mostly never see, or never realize they are seeing.

In Just Mercy, Stevenson also relates a number of disturbing stories about women being sent to jail because someone suspected they were pregnant and later asked where their babies were—one woman had suffered a traumatic miscarriage at home, while another, it turned out, “had a tubal ligation five years prior to her arrest.” In Alabama, he says, in 2006, they passed a law that made it a felony to expose a child to a “dangerous environment,” subsequently interpreting “the term environment to include the womb and the term child to include a fetus,” so that “pregnant women could now be criminally prosecuted and sent to prison for decades if there was any evidence that they had used drugs at any point during their pregnancy,” presumably including the first two months, when a woman doesn’t always know she is pregnant (although Arizona law currently says that pregnancy starts two weeks before conception).

Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy gives us a look at “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state” and the effect this had on the “psychology and community and culture and faith” of people left in small towns where factories have shut down. He quotes from The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson, saying that while Wilson was writing about black people in the inner city, the description “struck a nerve” because it also describes the places Vance grew up:
“the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the ‘truly disadvantaged,’—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.”

Vance argues that “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” He says, “my dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law, he asked whether, on my applications, I had ‘pretended to be black or liberal.’ This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen.”

At one point, Vance describes his experience as a military veteran sitting in a college class (at OSU, in Columbus, Ohio) and having to listen “as a nineteen-year-old classmate…spouted off about the Iraq war. He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college.” At another point he tells about “the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining—my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.” For many people reading this book, those are familiar attitudes.

Most of us don’t think about such attitudes as smug, although they are. I’ve been realizing, after reading “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” how smug I have been, and how smug most of the people who surround me are. I’m working on trying to change.

The list of things that Vance says he didn’t know when he got to law school is sobering:
“That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.
That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).
That pleather and leather were different substances.
That your shoes and belt should match.
That certain cities and states had better job prospects.
That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.
That finance was an industry that people worked in.”

How can anyone who works in higher education fail to be concerned? We don’t realize how small a fraction of the population of our own country we are reaching in the classes we teach, and so we have created an academic elite that is nearly as ignorant about the lives of people like Vance as he was about the lives of his classmates in law school, and almost entirely untouched by the lives of people behind bars–unless we read a book about them, like Stevenson’s, or have a friend who volunteers in a prison (and my friend who volunteers says that watching Orange is the New Black doesn’t really count).

Since Stevenson’s book was published, I think more Americans have become aware that “black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.”
But unless you put a face on this, the face of a child you are personally fond of, you’ll continue to see this as a political problem, rather than a personal one, and you’ll continue to think of helping people who aren’t like you as charity, rather than necessity.

Stevenson points out that “we’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.” And because so many of us don’t know anyone like these people we’re imprisoning. Actually, in his speech at Kenyon, Stevenson emphasized that it’s important for Americans to get to know some people they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter–he calls it “getting proximate.”

In light of the election results (and some of the seriously comic takes on it, like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock’s brilliant SNL sketch), I think we’re each going to have to expand our thinking in order to find ways to invite the fragile people on the margins farther in, to become a more cohesive society. And if we’re serious about it, we’re each going to have to either invest a lot of our time or a lot more of our money.

Many of my friends are deeply invested in their careers, and most of them are inside the ivory tower, so they will have to choose the money option. But that’s not going to be enough. It’s time for more of us to realize that we have to find new ways of thinking about others—for one thing, we have to stop making our smug liberal jokes, both because it’s time to break the habit and because we can’t talk on the one hand about how we value “first generation” college students and on the other hand make jokes that belittle their families and ways of life right in front of them (they don’t look different–I’ve heard liberals on my campus make smug liberal jokes in front of first-gen students without a clue that not everyone in their audience was brought up exactly as they were).  And on social media, as Emmitt Rensin points out (in “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” link above),”The rubes have seen your videos. You posted it on their wall.” Those of us in the “academic elite” need to become more aware of the ways we are displaying blatant lack of respect for other people.

It’s not enough for any of us to wear a “Black Lives Matter” button or a safety pin and go about our usual business. It’s not enough for an academic to put a sign advertising her support for minority students on her office door. I’m not sure what will be enough, but what is required of us in the future that will begin unfolding now is a lot more than many of us have been willing to give before.


*In case you’re wondering whether I read The American Conservative, the answer is that I do read it occasionally, mostly because I consider Rod Dreher–whose opinions don’t often agree with my own–a friend. We agree about loving the books of Walker Percy; he is the prime organizer of the annual Walker Percy festival in St. Francisville, LA each June.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2016 3:08 pm

    I’ve been thinking so much lately about how it’s going to be more important than ever in these next few years to verify sources for everything that I say, and to speak with nuance and not in generalizations. I know that in times of fear, it’s extra hard to do those things, and I am fearful. But it’s what I want to strive for. I have been on both sides, in a way: I’ve been the liberal girl people have said horribly racist shit to in the assumption that we’re all white pals doing racism together; and I’ve been the Southern girl whose family and upbringing “coastal elites” have sneered at. Obviously my sympathies remain with the coastal elites, but I do think it’s so important to acknowledge the complexity of people’s lives and the problems that face our country.


    • November 13, 2016 3:18 pm

      I wish I had better ways to help with the sadness; I sent flowers to Eleanor with a card about the “loss” which was true but also a little funny and made us both smile. She and Ron and I decided we would spend the week being sad because we needed some time to grieve before deciding where to take action and what to do. I highly recommend giving yourself some time, if you haven’t been able to do that yet.
      I feel like the “coastal elites” have been sneering at me a lot this week (for example, posting the redrawn map of the US with California, Oregon and Washington State as part of Canada), so the time to grieve also helped me ignore those jibes and see them as their own way of being upset, not really aimed at all of those whose hearts it was piercing.

  2. November 13, 2016 4:23 pm

    I feel like I’m following Jenny around today leaving agreement comments 😛 I’ve been on both sides of that divide in some ways as well, and I’ve seen people on both sides of it behave terribly. I’m going to try to be careful about what I do say, but then I end up not saying anything, which doesn’t feel right either. But I think you’re right that waiting a bit and getting through some of the grieving process is a good idea for deciding on any definitive irrevocable course of action.

    Anyway, I started Hillbilly Elegy a while back and ended up giving up on it. It seems like it’s getting a lot of positive attention, but I got weirdly irritated at his use of hillbilly when he wasn’t exactly talking about people who are still in the heart of Appalachia. And I wanted something that was more social analysis than memoir. But I did think that it was a book that could have value for an audience that wasn’t me/

    • November 13, 2016 7:44 pm

      It might be good if more of us thought longer about what to say and where to say it.
      It’s true he uses “hillbilly” as a bit of a catch-all term. Ron and I reacted to his overly-broad claim that only hillbillies call their grandmothers “mamaw” because his maternal grandmother, from northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas, was called that by her grandchildren.

  3. November 13, 2016 6:52 pm

    You wrote:

    I think more Americans have become aware that “black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. . . . ”

    One of the men on my team at work is African American. He’s been routinely stopped while driving for things I have never been stopped for (following too closely, didn’t use a turn signal, stuff like that). I don’t think he’s actually committing horrible driving crimes. He’s guilty of driving while black. And that pisses me off.

    I agree with you that “unless you put a face on this, the face of a child you are personally fond of, you’ll continue to see this as a political problem, rather than a personal one, and you’ll continue to think of helping people who aren’t like you as charity, rather than necessity.” He’s not a charity, he’s an adult and should be treated with the same regard as me or you or anyone else.

    • November 13, 2016 7:48 pm

      Yes, regard and respect. An adult can put a face on this too, of course.
      I’ve just been thinking about the little boys I’ve seen growing up around here, and worrying about them as they near middle school age. Even as white parents, we had to have a talk with our son when he got to the middle school, about how no one was going to cut him a break for being cute anymore, that he was getting big enough some people might see him as a potential threat.
      No “might” about it for some of his friends.

  4. November 13, 2016 8:18 pm

    So many well-phrased thoughts here – this I’ve been feeling as well: “I’m not sure what will be enough, but what is required of us in the future that will begin unfolding now is a lot more than many of us have been willing to give before.”

    The situation was already unacceptable. Now it’s being pushed in our faces — how will we respond? Such an opportunity, but also such an abyss looms.

    • November 13, 2016 8:31 pm

      Yes, an abyss. I found myself today offering to buy copies of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for anyone under 30 who commented on a conversation we were having about it on FB (got two takers so far). I’m thinking that I should extend that to anyone who hasn’t read it and comments here (it will probably be a used copy).
      We’ve all got to start somewhere.

  5. November 14, 2016 10:33 am

    I’m not in academia, but in trying to understand the events of this past week (and the months preceding it, really), I’ve been realizing how much a part of the liberal elite I am, and how out of touch I’ve become with so much of what drove WWC voters to support Trump. I didn’t grow up with money or social privilege beyond being white in Arkansas, but I was fortunate to have pretty liberal parents who valued education and experiences over a “nice” house and new cars. My life has been such that I can afford the luxury of devoting time and work to ideas and environmental issues. I haven’t had to work 3 jobs I hated for 38 years to keep food on the table. Anyway, appreciate your writing and your ideas, and I, too, am working on curbing my default mode of liberal snark and smugness.

    You’ve probably already read this, but if not, I found it enlightening:

    • November 14, 2016 1:57 pm

      Wow. That is a really interesting article (and I had not read it, so thank you for posting it here). I think I’m not alone in persisting in my (mistaken) belief that America is a classless society.
      Your comment about your parents’ values (mine valued the same things) makes me think about some of the catalogs I get. I page through and wonder who would buy this absurdly expensive stuff, especially for the home.

  6. November 14, 2016 3:27 pm

    This is really a wonderful post Jeanne. I think the political elite on the left need to do a lot of thinking. Sadly, it seems Clinton hasn’t or isn’t since I saw in the NY Times or someplace on my news rounds this morning that she is blaming the FBI for her loss. Seriously? I hope Bernie Sanders gets to say I told you so.

    Like Jenny I have been on both sides too. I come from a working class family and my parents knew education was important and made sure my sister and I went to college. At college a lot of people made assumptions about my background and wanted me to join in on the joking cultural/class jokes or, knowing my background, insulted me to my face. And my parents have done so well to give me a boost, I admit, I have forgotten what it is like to be on the receiving end of the insults and I should know better!

    I do think it is more than class that is at issue though that is a big part of it. I think the political class in general has lost touch with what life is like for a good many people, I think the left is too much focused on identity politics, and I think there is too much partisan sniping and an unwillingness to compromise in Washington that people are sick and tired of. It has made for a disaster of an election result and I am afraid we are all going to be losers.

    • November 15, 2016 8:57 am

      Dark humor has been getting me through. One of my favorites is this joke:
      BRITAIN: Brexit was the stupidest, most self-destructive act a country could undertake.
      USA: Hold my drink

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