Book Reviews

 

Nancy Isenberg

Viking

 

 

The power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences wherever possible…Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped, “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

                                            from  White Trash

 

You’ve seen the photo. Little Rock, Arkansas. September, 1957: A neatly dressed, fifteen-year old black girl named Elizabeth Eckford quietly walks alone, surrounded by angry whites. She is attempting to enter the all-white high school. Behind her is Hazel Bryan, a fifteen-year old white girl, her face contorted by hatred as she spews insults at Eckford. That photo appeared in newspapers around the world and Hazel Bryan became, in Nancy Isenberg’s words, “the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the pathetic life into which she was born.”

But it is Hazel Bryan’s story, and the story of America’s “white trash,” that Isenberg is most interested in understanding. Bryan grew up in a house without indoor plumbing; neither of her parents graduated from high school; she herself would drop out of school and marry when she was seventeen. In these and other ways, she reflected those traits often associated with the lower classes—ignorance, poverty, racism, and misdirected anger.

A professor of history at Louisiana State University, Isenberg has written a searing account of class in America. One is struck by how some things just don’t change. From the beginning, the poor were cut off from wealth and the means to obtaining wealth. For much of antebellum America, land was the measure of wealth, and most of the land was owned by a few, and only those few “men of property” could vote and hold office.

People became trapped in their poverty, which they bequeathed to their children and to their children’s children. Although there were those like Thomas Jefferson who believed that through education and land grants, the poor could raise themselves out of their poverty, the popular opinion considered them to be congenitally flawed, degenerate, and undeserving.

Throughout our history, the wealthy and the powerful have used fear, anger and hatred to control the lower classes by targeting blacks, Native Americans, or the immigrants du jour—whether Irish, Italians, Chinese, or Syrians.

It is often a depressing story because the patterns of oppression, economic inequality, and political manipulation continue to be repeated anew in each generation.

And yet there is hope that patterns can be altered. Hazel Bryan Massery managed to free herself from her white trash origins. She educated herself about racism, changed her ideas about integration, and became increasingly political, active in both peace work and social work. She taught mothering skills to unmarried black girls and took underprivileged black youth on field trips. In 1963, she sought out Elizabeth Eckford to personally apologize, and in 1997, at the fortieth anniversary of Little Rock’s forced integration, Hazel and Elizabeth met again and for that moment became friends.

History teaches us that some things don’t change. And that some things do.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.