[I was sitting on the patio of a nondescript coffee shop when the reality of this book project sunk in deeper than it ever had before. I sat across the table from my father, who is not just one, but two, generations older than me. He is from hearty stock. His ancestors journeyed slow like molasses over the last couple of centuries, starting in North Carolina and eventually packing it in along the piney woods corridor of North Louisiana—where oil replaced cotton as King in the early twentieth century. He won't listen to my reasonings, but I remain convinced that so many of his relatives have lived into their nineties because the Reed family patriarchs taught their offspring to eat food raw and fresh from the earth. To this day, my father bites into an onion as if it were the juiciest of green apples.
A visitor in a modernized and liberal city, he sat in Austin on this April day quite frustrated with his daughter's penchant for writing what he deems the “boring” history. He is a tried and true conservative old-timer in a technologically-driven and youthful world, a baby-boomer whose parents ate shredded cabbage during the Great Depression. I remain forever frustrated by his stubborn inability to see the historical and cultural connections between then and now. Why he cannot understand that his family represented the very demographic that government-funded programs helped from the doldrums in the 1930s, that baffles me.
But something he said this afternoon struck me as surprisingly astute. After asking how “my paper” (i.e. my dissertation) was coming along, he shook his head with a smile when I replied, “Well. Right now I'm writing about the actual paper-making process and the workers in the mills in Georgia.” I huffed and puffed, of course, and demanded to know why that was so funny.
He answered quickly. “You write about poor people, not interesting people.”
There. There it was. The hitch that breaks off for all of us historians trying to make a name for ourselves with students and with a public that always wants the sensational (and often white and often wealthy) over the quietly triumphant. “How is poverty boring?” I replied, passion in my voice. “How is the era of the Great Depression possibly boring?” I was shocked at the blunt nature of his final reply.
“The Great Depression is not boring. But in the South it...was. In the South it was. If I read about the Great Depression, I want to read about Wall Street stock brokers jumping out of windows in New York City.”
In that moment I became more convinced than ever before that American culture teaches a lot of us to imagine ourselves as more...elite than we actually, um, are. It's why every romantic comedy takes place in some upper-middle-class house that looks like Pottery Barn vomited all over it. Or why some politicians can get away with selling tax cuts for the wealthy to the...poor. (Does that make any sense?) And, relevant to my career, it explains why the popular history on the front shelves of Barnes and Noble is still covered in white wigs and white Whigs and World War II cannons. People want the exciting, the heroic. They also want the whitewashed, the neat historical packages.
What I write about is actually everything my dad's family went through in the South...first rural poverty, then the hope of industrialization and modernization, and then, and only then, some level of middle class-esque prosperity. I fear he's lost touch with some of his roots (even though he's still eating them). Har har.]