At the Greyhound Station in Savanna Georgia
Rolling with the Wretched of the Earth
As the Grand Obstructionist Party threatens to throw the US treasury into default, and bring on a new Great Depression that professional economists tell us could be worse than the calamity of the 1930’s, the future looks increasingly bleak for the nation at large, but hopeless for the working class and the poor. If you want to gain a first hand understanding of how the struggling masses already live, what their hopes and dreams are, and their increasingly hazardous fight to acquire the basic necessities of life: take a ride around the country on a Grey Hound bus.
I discovered this sociological and journalistic treasure trove by accident. After missing a plane to Atlanta couple of years ago, and was unable to get another plane or train reservation that would get me to Atlanta for a meeting the next morning, I finally decided to take a bus. The trip was a revelation and since then I have taken several bus trips through the south employing a favored method of the cultural anthropologist, the “participant observer.” I am writing a series of essays about my experiences under the title “Journeys in the New South;” which will include the present essay. These texts will be compiled into a book. Several of them can now be read on this blog.
While the Republicans in Congress assure us that “the people” are with them, I don’t believe it. That’s not what I hear from the hordes of desperate Dead Enders riding the Grey Hound on any given day; people who are barely holding on in the vain hope that things will soon get better. Like… maybe they will finally find a job that will permit them to lead a normal life. Although the Republicans insist that they don’t want “fake government jobs” but “real jobs” in the private sector; from what working people are telling me in conversations riding the bus up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States: The Republicans are full of shit! These people would give their right eye for a good government job with benefits.
Alas, if you listen to them carefully, you will soon discover they haven’t a clue about the socio/political forces that conspire to push them out of the work force; perhaps permanently, except for the most menial, repetitive and soul deadening labor when they are fortunate enough to find it. Thus they do not know how to organize and fight systematically for their interests. Yet they know they are trapped; that they are facing homelessness and starvation playing by the rules; and they know if they try to make ends meet by resorting to illegal means they will be beaten down and imprisoned by the police forces of the state.
They may not know what a credit default swap or a derivative is; but they know that only the robber barons on Wall Street can get away with economic crimes. And they know the rich are getting richer and they are getting poorer. They are the equivalent of social dynamite building up at the base of American society, which could explode and destabilize our society. Listening to their hopes and dreams for better days ahead I am reminded of Langston Hughes’ powerful poem A Dream Deferred: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore–and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load? .Or does it explode? “
After all, these are the same class of people Dr. Franz Fanon described as “the wretched of the earth” in his seminal text on the process by which the downtrodden and docile masses rise up and destroy their oppressors. Although Fanon was looking at oppressed people in the colonial world, the disinherited in America today are almost as desperate. The disparity in wealth between the rich and poor in America is the worst in the history of the world!!! Yet, due to the power of right wing media – which employs highly paid fools, fops, frauds and charlatans posing as serious commentators on the news – much of the working and middle class who are being victimized by “Tea Party” politics are so confused by disinformation they voted to put these fanatics in office.
Now these working class suckers are running round the rust belt like chickens with their heads freshly cut off trying like hell to recall them from power. From what I am seeing and hearing as I roll with the wretched of the earth, a financial crash just now would unleash the dogs of chaos and seriously destabilize American society – I can envision food riots. Already there is a war going on in the streets of impoverished communities, large and small, all over this country. You hear about it riding the bus; reports from the front lines of the battle zone abound. For instance, a thirty something white woman from a small impoverished town in upstate New York, told blood curdling tales about close friends and family who had been mugged or murdered. She said that if she had her druthers she would get a little house out in the woods where she rarely saw anybody.
It should be said as a point of clarity however, not everybody riding the bus is tottering on the brink of disaster…just yet. Middle class folks also travel on the big dog but they are few and far between. Usually they are travelling short distances; like New York to Washington and Baltimore, or Richmond Virginia to Charlotte North Carolina. Yet as their economic circumstances decline due to spreading unemployment that reduces their standard of living, middle-class travelers are showing up more and more on the bus. Right now however, virtually all of the long distance travelers are poor folks. And they have some bizarre tales to tell as penurious strugglers in the richest society the world has ever seen.
Many seem to be just blundering through life, with no real plan for the present and no vision for the future. Watching a young white couple in their twenties travelling with two children – one a toddler the other an infant of three weeks – I wondered what their story was. My curiosity was sparked when I saw signs that they were loving parents on the one hand and reckless caretakers on the other. I noticed them at a rest stop outside Baltimore. It is the first opportunity to stretch your legs and take food and other refreshments after leaving New York on a trip south.
Naturally the smokers, desperate to satisfy their “nicotine Jones,” scurry to the smoking areas and fire up. I once won an award for “honesty and accuracy in drug reporting” when I was a columnist with the New York Daily News, and the medical experts I interviewed told me nicotine addiction is worse than cocaine and harder to get off than heroin. That’s what came to mind when I saw the young mother holding her infant child on a large pillow spread over her lap as she puffed away on a cigarette; while the father blew a cloud of smoke over the infant and toddler from his stance just above their heads. These kids had barely come into the world but their parents – upon whom they are totally dependent – were cavalierly assaulting their lungs and brains with toxic fumes.
I wanted to take a picture of them because it would make a great illustration for an ad against subjecting young children to second hand smoke; but I felt it would be intruding on their privacy. I reflected on the biblical adage: “Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do,” but not being religious I yearned to smack them upside the head and warn them that the destructive nature of second hand smoke, even on adults, is well established by medical science. I wanted to tell them they are abusing their children in a particularly horrible way. If ever a picture was worth a thousand words this was it. But I couldn’t muster the chutzpah to snap it.
When we resumed our trip the hapless parents ended up sitting on the same row as me; I took the seat next to the window so that the toddler could sit by the widow on her mother’s side, and the mother and father could occupy the aisle seats. One of the pleasures of travelling by bus – along with viewing scenes from a vanishing America and hearing “round unvarnished tales” from fellow travelers – is having long blocks of time to read. I had begun to read a book of scholarly essays by black academics titled “Black Power In the Belly of the Beast” and the father of the clan became curious about my text. I am fairly certain it was the title that intrigued him. I saw him staring at the book’s cover out of the corner of my eye, and then he began to question me. In a halting fashion that exposed his insecurity in the role of inquisitor he asked if I really enjoyed reading, where I was from and where I was going. He seemed like he was itching to ask me what the book was about but couldn’t muster up the nerve.
When I told him I lived in New York, he said that he was from New York too…Albany New York; the capitol of the state, which seems as far away as Canada when I drove up there on business. I told him I was from the city. That seemed to really stoke his curiosity. He wanted to know if I lived in the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn. When I told him I lived in Manhattan he sat up in his seat with a sort of wild eyed stare and asked me how much apartments were going for in Manhattan these days. When I began to quote some of the rents I have seen posted in real estate listings lately, he seemed incredulous…as if I were describing another world far beyond his reach.
A good old boy on his way back home to Alabama, wearing a cap with the logo of a tractor company emblazoned on its crown, turned around abruptly in his seat and asked: “You mean to tell me there’s thousands of people who can pay them kinda rents?” Other questions about theManhattan life style followed. The patriarch of the clan could not long resist asking what I did, what kind of job I had. I told him I was a writer. From the look on his face I might as well have said that I made special shoes for men on Mars.
I was somewhat wary of him in the beginning because he looked like a skin head. I know from having studied fascistic elements of the lunatic white supremacists that lurk on the ultra-right spectrum of American politics, their recruits often come from the white lumpen-proletariat. Guys just like this dude sitting next to me. However as he began to tell me his story I concluded that his peely head hair cut – which we use to call a “baldy scaldy” back in the day – was really determined more by his dire economic circumstances than his political ideology; which, as near as I could tell, was non-existent. He just was trying to get the most bang for his buck, obviously a trip to the barber was no picayune affair for him. This dude put the D in desperate!
He told me that he was going to live with his mother in Palatka Florida because there was no work in Albany New York. I knew right off that he was in serious trouble if he was going to Palatka looking for work. I have family in Palatka, well to-do black folks, and the last time I visited them it seemed like scenes from the 1930’s, with men in this depressed farm community standing around in the scorching Florida sun wearing overalls, in search of a day’s work. And this was under Bill Clinton when the economy was booming – things have gone dramatically downhill since then! As he spoke of the devastation of housing stock in the capitol of the Empire State, and the dire straits of his working class family and friends, I was reminded of the writer William Kennedy, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Ironweed, a grim tale about the very class represented by my fellow traveler.
When I asked him if he had ever heard of William Kennedy, he thought I was talking about a member of the famous political clan that produced a President and two Senators. When I told him there was no relation he stared at me blankly. I thought of the great struggle William Kennedy had getting his novel published. He was rejected as much as thirty times I think, and I remembered his explanation as to why he persisted in trying to get the novel published; as he basked in the literary limelight after the book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a major motion picture starring Jack Nicholson and Merle Streep.
Kennedy said he continued his struggle to get the novel published because he didn’t feel that the reason given for its rejection was a valid literary criticism: “Nobody wants to read about down and out white drunks inAlbanyNew York.” However if they were relying on the subjects of the novel to read it they were right. I’m sure the peely head patriarch had no interests in reading it after I told him of the text’s existence. First of all he was too busy trying to survive to even consider reading a novel…especially one that told a tale he knew all to well and would only depress him further. Talking to him I could see fear for the future of his family etched on his face. It was reflected in the quiet panic in his eyes, as he looked languidly off at the passing country side out the window on my side of the bus. He confessed that he had no idea what he would do if he didn’t find work in Palatka.
As we talked he explained how he hadn’t done well in school so he dropped out and decided to go into the military, but his girlfriend got pregnant and he did the right thing and got married. If sex is the poor man’s grand opera these two seemed to really enjoy the show. Which is all well and good; the problem was that they seem to never have heard of birth control. If you asked them about it I’d bet they would echo a comment I’ve heard many times before: “It just don’t feel as good using protection,” or “she forgot to take her pills.” The hapless husband went on to explain that he had gone to a technical school to train as a diesel mechanic, but had to drop out when their daughter was born. He says that he wants to return but can’t gain the economic stability that is a perquisite to continuing his training. Knowing what I knew about the economic conditions in Palatka Florida, it was hard for me to conjure encouraging words.
As we barreled down the highway deeper into the South I reflected on the thesis of Dr. William J. Wilson – my old colleague at the University of Massachusetts, who is now Professor of Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School – in his book “The Declining significance of Race.” Although Professor Wilson suffered a great deal of abuse when he reported that race was no longer the all powerful determinant of one’s life chances in American society that it once was, these people supplied irrrefutible evidence for his claim.
It was obvious that the education and reproductive decisions of these young white people had far more to do with their station and chances in life than their race. As I write a new study has revealed that per capita white family wealth is 20 times that of blacks; it recently doubled. since the economic collapse. The deck is still stacked in their favor alas, yet there are millions of Afro-Americans doing better than the white lumpen just now. Back in the era of industrial prosperity before the Civil rights movement, this would not have been true. For the system of segregation undergirded by an ideology of white supremacy often favored borderline white retards over black college graduates.
Educational attainment and reproductive decisions were also critical factors in the present predicament and future life chances of Guadalupe, a young Mexican American woman who described herself as “A bitch on a mission.” I was taken aback at her self-description, because she was quite pretty, stylishly dressed and looked like a college girl on Holiday. She was barely twenty years old but she had a hard tale to tell. It was, to say the least, a tangle of pathology. She was coming from Buffalo New York, where her parents had immigrated when she was a little girl, and was by now 100% American. I thought of the struggle her parents must have endured to make it possible for her to grow up in the Promised Land. For as she talked it was clear that she had squandered the opportunities her parents had tried to provide.
Guadalupe was on her way to surprise her “baby daddy” in Jacksonville Florida, where he was shacked up with another woman that he had impregnated. It seems that she had learned his whereabouts from talking with his mother, with whom she was on good terms. She also revealed that her guy had three other kids by three other women, and they had warrants out on him for child support. She was undecided as to whether she would drop a dime on him to the authorities as to his whereabouts; that would depend on whether he chose her or the woman he was shacked up with inFlorida. Here we see how the inability of people to make the right choices impact upon their chances in life. It is also clear that abortion should remain a safe, legal and convenient choice for women.
As “Lupe” was raised Catholic, abortion was out of the question; which is a powerful statement about the dangers of blind adherence to religious dogma. Whatever the virtues of Catholicism, the Catholic Church is a mess when it comes to handling sexual matters. After all, this is a church whose priest are prevented from marrying and having normal sexual relations with consenting adults, and thus routinely rape the children in their charge. While she insisted that she had no plans to fight with the other woman, whom she wisely viewed as a fellow victim of the duplicity and treachery of their Babies daddy, her plan to recruit the woman to her side as an ally against him sounded risky at best and delusional at worst.
Yet the question that perplexed me was: “Why are you even considering getting back together with this guy?” Here was a case where the mother and child would be far better off if the father was not in the house. When I put this question to her point blank she said that because he was the father of her unborn child she should at least give him another chance to straighten up and fly right. By which she meant marry her, take care of the rest of his children, and don’t “knock up anymore females.”
What was most frightening about these young people is that they are not unique. Their stories of pathos and pathology are repeated ad infinitum among the lumpen proletariat – or the expanding American “under class” in the jargon of contemporary sociologist. Yet in a society where the job market is so tight college grads who have made all the right choices are having a hard time finding a descent job with security and benefits: what is to become of these people with little useful education to equip them for a job and have made all the wrong decisions?
We know from the employment statistics following the recent recession, which the economist tell us by their indices has been over for two years, that it was a “jobless” recovery. Literally millions of people who were employed when the economy tanked are still unemployed! This is because of the changing nature of theUS economy, in which technological advances and globalization are rendering large segments of the American working class obsolete. Hence the sustained unemployment that we are now witnessing is “structural” not “cyclical.” This is to say that it is not caused by the forces that have resulted in periods of mass unemployment in the past, where the “boom and bust” intervals of the American capitalist business cycle were the culprit.
In the present grim scenario the fundamental causes of unemployment are due to changes in the structure of the American economy. Thus the present unemployment rate will be permanent unless a new economy emerges. In order for this to occur the government must become the employer of last resort; hiring the unemployed to rebuild the American infrastructure to support a new economy. The only person among those presently seeking the presidency who understands this is Barack Obama; yet even if he wins the coming election he will be helpless to implement his vision unless the democrats control both houses of Congress. This is the grim reality facing American society.
Speaker Boehner’s attitude is typical of Republicans
The Republicans have opted out of trying to find solutions to these monumental problems that threaten to make the US a second rate nation. They are contemptuous of the role of government, as the present fiasco in Congress around raising the debt ceiling that threatens to plunge the economy into a deep depress demonstrates. Having abandoned the public interests they seek to privatize everything from medical care for the elderly to the post office. Increasingly they live in gated communities with armed private security; send their children to private schools; use private mail delivery services; employ private doctors; etc. This model of social organization increasingly resembles the trends in Third World societies like Pakistan- where wealthy people ride around with armed guards.
Since Republicans represent the interests of the investor class – in spite of the poor white dupes that make up much of their “base” – they care not where their money is invested so long as it returns the highest interests i e. rent for the use of their money. Thus they have no interest in solving the employment crisis of the working class. The class incidentally, who fight the nation’s endless wars started by politicians whose corporate cronies make billions servicing the war machine – the dreaded “military/industrial complex” President Eisenhower warned about in his final address to the nation. The tawdry and perhaps criminal relationship between “Dirty Dick’ Cheney, the architect of Iraq war policy, and Halliburton Industries, is a classic case in point.
Unemployed Workers About to Become Cannon Fodder
Apocolypse Now! From Fayetville to Afghanistan
There are two groups of passengers one is likely to meet when travelling interstate on the bus: newly released convicts and soldiers going to, or coming from, a war zone. Both are, more often than not, victims of the ongoing crisis in the American economy. If you go through Fayetteville North Carolina you are certain to encounter Para-troopers from Fort Bragg, all of whom hail from the impoverished post industrial cities whose economies have gone from good paying manufacturing jobs to low wage service jobs for blue collar workers; or the economically devastated rural areas, where small farmers struggle to survive in a market dominated by giant agri-business corporations. That’s why the only hope I can see for solving the monumental problems facing an increasingly obsolete American working class is the Democratic Party under the leadership of a humane visionary like President Obama.
There is absolutely no reason to be believe, based on the observable facts, that the Grand Obstructionist Party has either the will or the way to provide workable solutions to this crisis. All they do is recite the same old bogus gospel of tax cuts for the rich as the solution for everything; they persist in this dangerous foolishness in spite of the fact that we are ten years into the massive Bush tax cuts to the rich that squandered the eight trillion dollar surplus bequeathed to them by the Clinton Administration and wrecked the economy. Yet an abysmally ignorant electorate placed the Republicans back in Charge of the House of Representatives, which control all revenue bills, two years into the Obama Administration. This blunder at the polls brought his sweeping measures to restore the nation’s economic health to a screeching halt. It is eloquent testimony to the truth of Thomas Jeffersons warning: “An ignorant electorate will elect and return the worst people to power!”
It was clear that the dead end kids on the bus were almost totally oblivious to these realities – thus they are incapable of fighting for their interests. As near as I could tell, from the questions I casually but systematically put to them about politics during rest stops and bus changes when we were watching the flat screen televisions posted on the walls around the waiting rooms and permanently tuned to CNN, they were clueless and could care less. The one person I talked to that was surprisingly aware of the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans was a twenty something black B-Boy whom I nicknamed “Hip Hop.” He was, by far, the most interesting character I encountered on this ride. I met more interesting people at my destinations, but not on the bus. Hip hop sat next to me on the way back to the Big Apple. He got on the bus in the smallGeorgiatown ofHinesvilleand was decked out in classic B-Boy gear that looked recently purchased.
The Hip Hop Kid
He has the intellect to be anything but no opportunity
He was vague about where he was coming from and didn’t appear to be that certain where he was going. As I expected him to be empty headed I kept the conversation very light, blowing his mind with my analysis of the growth of Rap music and discussing the difference in lyrics, beat and flow between East and West coast rappers. However when I pulled out a special edition of the journal “Socialism and Democracy” he was all eyes. Billed as “The Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy,” this edition was devoted to the topic: “What is African American Studies, Its Focus, and Future.
Edited by John H. McClendon and Yusef Nuruddin, the volume is a collection of scholarly papers which are inter-disciplinary in focus and authored by Afro-American scholars with a Marxist bent. As I began to engage Sociologist Tony Montero’s text, The Epistemic Crisis of Afro-American Studies: A Duboisian Resolution- A dense academic essay that I approached in much the same manner that one takes cod liver oil – Hip Hop began to ask questions about it. I cavalierly brushed him off with grunts and mumbles, making no attempt to engage him; certain that it would all be way over his head.
I suppose Hip Hop must have peeped my game because he told me that he loved to read and announced that he had recently finished reading “The Prince,” by Machiavelli – a canonical political treatise in the western intellectual tradition. Needless to say, I was taken aback by his claim and began to quiz him about the text. His analysis was thoughtful and left no doubt that he had indeed read it even if he didn’t fully understand it. Then he spoke of other weighty texts, among them Marx’s Das Kapital. Naturally, I began to wonder where he got the inclination and leisure to do such heavy reading outside of an academic setting; especially since he had told me he didn’t go to college. There were curious gaps in his story and the vibe I picked up from him was pure gangsta, a gorilla to his heart; the kind of guy you wanted to have your back in a knife fight. I wanted to question him systematically and find out what he was really about. But we both fell asleep.
When we awoke we were at Raleigh North Carolina, it was after mid-night. Raleigh is evidently a dangerous town – the guards in the station always warn passengers not to wander away from the station during layovers when we go outside for smoking breaks, and tell tales about Para-troopers stationed at Fort Bragg who have survived tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan only to be murdered by street thugs in Raleigh. So it was not altogether surprising when Hip Hop was pulled aside by the cops and searched as we stood outside. He was cool as an Arctic night, like he was used to the routine. But when they left he was pissed off. And all he wanted to talk about was the abuse of police power on our trip toRichmond Virginia. I asked him if he understood that he fit the police profile for a young male criminal? He wasn’t trying to hear the science I was droppin and I soon fell off to sleep.
When we reached Richmond he made a phone call, announced that he was splittin the scene, slapped me fives and disappeared into the night. As I continued my journey to New York I could overhear the conversation of another young man decked out in hip hop gear. He was arguing with his baby mama, instructing her to have his seven year old daughter’s things clean and packed or he would put the police on her because the Family Court inNewarkNew Jersey– a gun totin town that seems more dangerous than Baghdad– had given him full custody because of her trifling ways! He told her that they would be leaving immediately for Miami Florida.
The mere idea of taking the trip to Florida back to back was exhausting. But such is life among the lumpen. As we pulled out of Newark heading for “The Fruit,” as hip black Philadelphians of my generation called New York City, I remained more firmly convinced than ever of two things: Marx was right, the Lumpen can’t be organized into an effective progressive force – no matter what the black Panthers say. And the most pressing problem confronting Black Americans is to honor the ancestral imperative to stop the values of the lumpen class from obliterating the values of the “Talented Tenth;” who guided the black community through our golden age of struggle and progress and produced the tallest trees yet seen in our forest!!!!
The Challenge for Black Americans
Shall our youths aspire to this….
To Be or Not to Be: That is the Question!
“Vanilla Ice “Wannabe: Hip Hop Style is Embraced by All Youths
Uneducated country white boys are in the same boat as black urban underclass
Smoke Break: The Prophet Abraham’s Joy Weed Was Everywhere
Dead End Kids: Not in the main stream and don’t give a shit!
Text and Photos by: Playthell Benjamin*
On the Road in the USA
July 26; 2011
* Photo of Warm Daddy by Frank Stewart
Photo of house speaker John Boehner – Google Images