We are having a conversation about class in this country, but not everyone knows it.
For instance, joblessness means one thing to a person whose unemployment insurance has run out and quite another to, say, a business leader who worships constantly growing profits, repeatedly cutting jobs to expand them. Our national conversation about class is rather like a family pact I have now decided to betray: a tacit agreement not to mention what is shockingly divergent from humane norms, a pact that exacts a price from those who have been harmed by whatever is unspoken.
It makes me anxious to write about this. I am still working out all that I think and feel. But I know one thing: that the story I’m telling here has value beyond the intense personal meaning it carries for me.
For the last year or so, I have often included this line in my speeches: My life was saved by art. Some people seem to lean into that line, as if it were a form of nourishment. Some raise their eyebrows, sensing hyperbole. And some look puzzled, not knowing what to make of it. Two experiences this past week led me to realize that I seldom (really, almost never) explain precisely what makes that sentence a flat statement of my lived truth, why I mean it literally and without exaggeration.
Why don’t I explain? My reasons—albeit personal and specific to my own life-story—illuminate something about the conversation we are having in whispers and dog-whistles, the conversation about class that should be conducted open-eyed, open-eared, open-hearted, and aloud.
I spent all of last week on the road, first in a multi-day workshop for activists, and then in a meeting convened by a funder seeking advice on how to infuse community activism with creativity.
The workshop included a diverse, accomplished, and extremely interesting group, which is to say the usual mix of US-based progressives: the descendants of refugees; people of color who came up in hugely stressed families and communities, and others who were relatively protected by prosperity and position; white people from hardscrabble rural backgrounds and others cradled in urbane comfort; bridge people whose mission in life is to tell a deep story to those whose ears are often closed, and others whose mission is to help members of their own communities craft their own stories in their own true voices.
Some participants’ challenges and sources of strength were visible in markers of race, language, custom, ability, orientation; others not so easily seen. In this country, with its deep legacy of racism, every person of color, regardless of economic or social status, will have many experiences of insult, exclusion, contempt. After a lifetime in their own skins, most will be alert to such insults, wary of the bigoted message hidden in a glance, a word, a gesture. Most progressives, regardless of their origins or characteristics, will cultivate the same compassionate sensitivity.
But there is this truth to the human condition: sometimes we forget to take our own dose of the medicine we prescribe for others. One constant in my life has been the experience of being unseen, or mistaken for some projection based on assumptions that attach to my manner or appearance. Yesterday, I was talking about this with an old and dear friend. He invoked a memorable incident from the early seventies, when we were young cultural activists in San Francisco.
I was the lead organizer for something called the San Francisco Art Workers’ Coalition, a loose alliance of artists dedicated to accountability in local cultural funding and policy. One of our goals was to ensure that publicly funded cultural institutions were responsive to, and representative of, the communities they served, the taxpayers who underwrote their work. A linchpin campaign turned on the exhibition at the publicly funded de Young Museum of John D. Rockefeller III’s collection of American art, timed to coincide with the bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976. (It’s hard to resist including a long digression here about precisely how JDR III inflated the value of his collection, but that’s for another time.)
Charting out the economic and social relationships of the museum’s board members turned up a diagram of conflicts of interest as dense as a spider-web. One of our complaints with the bicentennial exhibit was that, by valorizing an all-white, all-male collection as representing America’s best, it repeated the same sin against democracy that the city had committed in putting an all-white, all-elite Board of Trustees in charge of a public cultural trust. We had meetings and public forums, published studies and calls for reform, handed out flyers at the door to the exhibit. Finally, we were permitted to address the Trustees. As always, the meeting was held in a room at the museum that was lined with glass vitrines holding fine porcelain.
After the presentation, one of the museum’s curators took me aside.
“The Board isn’t going to let just anyone join,” he told me confidingly. “But they’d be comfortable with someone like you. Didn’t you go to one of the Seven Sisters?”
I had to look it up; I hadn’t heard that expression before. I learned that it referred to a group of elite Northeastern women’s colleges founded in the 19th century. I hadn’t gone to college at all.
I will never forget that moment, because it introduced me to an aspect of reality I hadn’t previously understood in a full way. I saw that to many of those who are part of social elites by virtue of inherited entitlement, intelligence, articulateness, and poise are attributes of privilege. If you are smart and well-spoken, they assume you are one of them.
Ever since then, I’ve delighted in puncturing that assumption when it comes up. But after all this time, I’m still not used to having it come up from others who share my political and social values.
At the workshop, after we’d already been together for the better part of two days, we were asked to share a few minutes of our personal histories, in aid of illuminating the forces that had shaped our own paths as activists and leaders.
I told how I had grown up in a multigenerational immigrant family plopped down in a GI Bill tract house in the San Francisco suburbs, surrounded by Catholic families whose kids chased us home daily, our punishment for killing Christ. I told how my father had been a housepainter who died suddenly when I was ten, how the other men in the family had been compulsive, degenerate gamblers, how the women had been ruthlessly willing to cheat and deceive to cover the debts, passing bad checks, robbing Peter to pay Paul. I told how my grandmother, who could read and write little more than numbers and her own name, managed to control everyone’s lives without those skills; how in that crowded house, I could not remember being alone in room (except to sleep the few last years I lived there, after the oldest generation was gone). I only had a few minutes, so I told very little about the choking climate of denial, of lying, exploitation, and manipulation, but I did express my gratitude for my counterphobia, leading me to be a compulsively virtuous person with an extreme sense of ethics, rather than following the family pattern.
I explained precisely how art saved my life: that by some miracle, I was given a talent for drawing and painting. That I went to the library and read every art book I could lay my hands on. That through the work of the artists I read about and through my own creations, I imagined the world I wished to inhabit. That I understood that a possible future would be opened to me by following what gave my life depth and meaning, by becoming a member of the classless class of artists and intellectuals, those granted society’s greatest freedom (albeit often at the price of being considered a permanent child). I explained that through art, I came to understand my own capacity to make my way in the world, to become myself.
Time ran out, so I didn’t tell how, facing the social ostracism my family’s difference occasioned, I pursued my profound curiosity about the surrounding social order and the customs upholding it. How I went to work early, impersonating the abilities I desired until I acquired them. How, instead of going to college, I escaped by marrying at seventeen. How I discovered that my husband was an alcoholic, and how I eventually extricated myself from the particular hell that was his world. How unbelievably grateful I am for the gift of intelligence and the power of words, the fierce magnetic force that drew me toward beauty and meaning above all.
I understand why people tend to make assumptions about who I am. It’s not personal. Collectively, our vision tends to be constrained by social convention. We live in a time when expertise is understood to be acquired courtesy of social institutions in which knowledge is codified, in which discourse emerges from—or at least in dialogue with—a canon. We live in a time when the deep knowing that derives from experience, and from the passionate pursuit of one’s curiosity through the cultural landscape, is devalued in comparison with whatever can be acquired through a few years of classroom hours.
So when they hear even a snippet of my history (my experience at the workshop spurred me to introduce my presentation at the foundation meeting with a much shorter personal story), the first reaction is almost always astonishment. If they are listening, they are impelled to resolve the conflict that arises between their own assumptions and my reality.
I suppose I could think of myself as a walking teachable moment, but mostly, up till now, I haven’t. Mostly, I speak up only when others’ assumptions start to occupy too much airspace, only when drawing a free breath begins to become a strain. My friend—the one who reminded me of the de Young Museum story—suggested I explore why this is so. I thought about it.
“Two reasons arise in my mind,” I told him. “First, it seems like an unfair advantage. If I tell my origin story, people respond differently. Whatever reservation they may have had about me before, they start to see me as something remarkable, like a dog that has learned to speak, or a horse that can do math problems. I’m uncomfortable when people introduce their remarks by placing themselves in categories. I want to be seen as myself, not as a symbol of overcoming handicaps.
“Second, I don’t believe that we are our origins. I know from experience that we are whatever we make of ourselves. Whatever happened to me a long time ago, it’s in the past. I haven’t wanted to drag it into the future.”
But even as I spoke, I knew I wasn’t saying the whole truth. There was another reason, one I’d never allowed myself to feel fully. I grew up bound by a tacit agreement to normalize what had been markedly abnormal experience. It wasn’t until I freed myself from the grip of my family (against considerable pressure to stay close to home, to apply my talents to serving the family system) that I began to understand how little of my experience would be shared by others: the gambling and all it entailed, the financial desperation, the low-rent pornography that was everywhere, the boundaryless, exploitive relationships that stood in the place of the expectation of ordinary love. To admit these things—and to name them not only as personal pathology but as unacknowledged injuries of class and culture—was to betray the family pact.
When people ask me what I do, I usually say I’m a writer, speaker, consultant, and activist, which is true. But my briefer job description would be “public intellectual.” I choose to use my mind and talents in ways I believe will awaken conscience, enlarge awareness and empathy, nurture choice in the place of compulsion, expand liberty and justice for all. No one has conferred that role on me, and I possess none of the conventional credentials to exercise it. Instead, my credentials are my own experience and observations; it is through my own actions that I have earned whatever authority I hold.
Everyone has a story. I’ve met people who were raised amid prosperity and privilege and never recovered from the intense glare of public attention that entailed; and others, neglected by preoccupied parents and tended by a changing cast of nannies and housekeepers, who struggle to believe they are loved. I’ve met people whose socio-economic background made mine look like the lap of luxury, and who guard every penny as if it were their last; and others subjected to profound physical abuse that challenges the hope of feeling safe in their own skins.
I can see no path that enfolds all of them in a social order of justice tempered by love that does not involve the ardent cultivation of empathy—to feel something of the other’s experience, activating understanding and compassion—and imagination—to envision the personal and social healing that transform our brokenness into wholeness. I can see no better path to empathy and imagination than the path of art, which smashes the pact of silence.
We are having a conversation about class in this country, and everyone’s voice is needed, to ring out and to be heard. We are having a conversation about class in this country, requiring us to clear away our assumptions about who is authorized to speak, requiring us to listen with our bodies, emotions, intellects, and spirits. My story is part of that conversation. You can tell a story as inspiration, as disguise, as boasting, as confession. You can tell a story to awaken conscience, enlarge awareness and empathy, nurture choice in the place of compulsion, expand liberty and justice for all. I used to see little reason to tell mine, but that is changing now.
Elmore James’ classic blues of compassion, of extricating oneself from the pact that harms, “It Hurts Me Too”:
Now he better leave you
or you better put him down
no I won’t stand
to see you pushed around
but when things go wrong
go wrong with you
It hurts me too