Reader Leslie Fain sent this Washington Post piece in. It came out last fall, but I missed it. It’s a haunting portrait of the race and class divide in America, which is, at its heart, a cultural chasm that seems irresolvable.
It tells the story of a poor black family from New Orleans, displaced by Katrina and settled in a small Nebraska town that welcomed them with open arms. But things went badly wrong for the family there. Excerpts:
The town of Auburn, population 3,200, had provided them with a car, a four-bedroom house, job leads and free medical checkups. The Ladies Club stopped by with homemade casseroles. Goodwill delivered jeans and pearl-snap shirts.
“You’re one of us now,” a city councilman had written to them, even though no one else in Auburn was black, Southern, urban and poor. “We’re a close community that leaves no one behind in a time of need. You’ll be taken care of here.”
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, this was what Auburn wanted to believe of itself, and what so many Americans wanted to believe of their own communities, too.
A decade later, the councilman’s note was at the bottom of a closet, buried underneath the paperwork of what the Williamses’ time in Nebraska had become: police reports, doctor’s bills, grievance letters to the NAACP and dozens of collection notices. They owed the city for water, gas, trash collection and school supplies. They owed $15,000 to the hospital for Troy’s first round of cancer treatments, which he was supposed to be getting every week but instead was receiving only every three months at a clinic in Lincoln that had agreed to give him infrequent treatments at no charge.
“This matter concerning the Williams’ family has exhausted our patience,” read one bill, for $60, from an appointment to check Troy’s blood levels.
“We cannot and do not operate as a charity,” read another.
How quickly had some people in town started expecting them to leave? How suddenly had so much generosity begun to unravel? During their third week in Auburn, the dealership had replaced their new Expedition with a used minivan, explaining that the Expedition had been a short-term loan. During the fifth week, their oldest son had been sent home from school for wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. “A drug culture we don’t embrace here,” the administrator’s note had read. During the seventh week, the city had asked them to start paying rent on the four-bedroom house, $520 a month, which they couldn’t afford on Troy’s salary as a machine operator. During their eighth week, vandals had carved “Niggers” into the Halloween pumpkins on their front porch, and they had gone for the first time to see the police.
The community newspaper published all police activity each week in a section called “The Docket,” and soon the Williams family had become regulars. There was Andrea, ticketed for speeding 7 mph over the limit. There was Troy for failing to pay the trash. There was Troy again for driving under the influence, his first offense.
Troy got three more DUIs.
A 27 year old nephew, Smoky, moved in with them; he fled New Orleans after being shot in a dispute, and fearing that the shooter was going to try to finish the job. Smoky immediately started causing trouble. He couldn’t hold a job:
He’d been fired from his first job at a car dealership for what he remembered the manager describing as “cultural differences,” and then from a downtown cafe for flirting with the waitresses, and then from a barbecue restaurant for “aggressively talking back.” Now he was starting his fourth job, at Casey’s General, where he had applied to work in food prep but was instead being trained to wash floors and unload delivery trucks.
“They’re acting like I can’t wrap a sandwich,” he said now. “I keep telling them I went to culinary school, but they don’t listen.”
“See, that right there is why we don’t associate,” Troy said. “The more you try to explain and interact in this town, the worse it gets.”
“Don’t say nothing to them,” Andrea said.
“But I’m a social person,” Smoky said. “I’m just trying to show them how their thinking is backwards.”
The most neutral thing you can say about Smoky’s attitude towards his employers is that he has a problem with authority.
Here’s the thing: their kids seem to love it there. One of their daughters, Tierra, arrived in town as a barely literate fifth grader, and is now a star college athlete.
She was also the first to lose her Southern accent, to correct her parents’ grammar and to say what they rarely said: that she liked living in Auburn. She liked the town and loved the people, so much so that sometimes she chose to stay with friends instead of going on the family’s occasional trips back to New Orleans. Her college boyfriend was German. Her best friend lived in Spain. And even though Troy and Andrea referred to her success as an example of what was possible for their other children — even though they preserved each one of her certificates and news clippings in a folder labeled “Way to go Tierra!” — the way she credited those accomplishments sometimes hurt.
“This town basically saved my life,” she said now, in the living room.
There’s an anecdote her folks tell about how they went to a high school football game and cheered so loud that people told them to settle down. They cite this as evidence of racism. Tierra tells the reporter, though, that her folks (or at least her dad) would drink whiskey before the games, and yell so much that she moved away from them in the bleachers.
The clincher moment in the piece is when Smoky gets sent home from work for not obeying his boss’s instructions to use American cheese on the sandwiches he was making instead of provolone. He concedes that he disobeyed, but insists that he knew better than the boss.
Most people would say, “Smoky, you can’t disobey your boss, tell your boss he’s wrong, and expect to keep a job. What is wrong with you? This keeps happening.” It’s just plain common sense. Cause and effect.
But that’s not how Aunt Andrea reacts:
“I bet they did it on purpose. They’re setting you up for a fall,” she said, and then she stomped out her cigarette and started walking up the road toward Casey’s with Smoky trailing behind her.
What’s so interesting about this piece is it reveals that this family really does have it hard (e.g., the landlord who doesn’t keep their Section 8 apartment decently), but more than anything else, it shows that the family is culturally deficient. They believe the world owes them, and are not willing to take responsibility for themselves. Their college-age daughter Tierra tells her parents to stop blaming everybody else for their problems and take responsibility for themselves. They tell her she’s acting white.
That final act, the clincher, explains so much. The troublemaker Smoky cannot keep a job, and he keeps losing his jobs for the same reason: insubordination. But his mother figure, Andrea, blames other people. Racists, setting Smoky up to fail.
What does society owe to this family? What does this family owe to society? I can easily imagine what a culture shock it is to go from living in New Orleans to living out on the Nebraska prairie. Hell, I live in a Louisiana town half the size of Auburn, Nebraska, and I can imagine I would find it hard to adjust to life there. South Louisiana is culturally a very different place. But good grief, when everything you have has been taken from you, and there are people who are very different from you, but who are offering you a chance to start over, you do what you have to do to make it work. Tierra did, and she’s soaring. Her mother and father are going to always be living chaotically, blaming others for their problems. The fault for their condition is primarily within themselves. No doubt they did encounter racism, but if racism was the primary reason the family was stuck in poverty after a decade, how do they account for their daughter Tierra’s thriving?
At least that’s how I interpret this story. What do you think? Leaving race aside, to what extent do you think this story sheds light on how personal culture causes poverty, or at least stands in the way of rising out of it?