The whites, part 1
Parse race, ethnicity, and color all you want. Meanwhile, I’m gonna talk about whiteness, in what’s turned out to be at least a couple of posts.
For some non-trivial bio, see my post Color coding. Also think globally, recognizing that “Europe” is a fiction. Wait, what? OK: think of the entire coast of the Mediterranean, all the way ’round, with a heavy emphasis on the Levant. That’s a dense node of the geographic presence of most humans who’ve lived on this planet. Now think of a swath running continuously east-west across the northern edge of the entire hemisphere, basically Iceland to Siberia. And before you start talking about “European” vs. “Asian,” keep in mind that epicanthic folds are common along this swath’s northern margin all the way along. The western end of that swath runs along the land’s northern margin, and at this end, linguistically, Nordic-German, of which Anglic (“English”) is a variant.
American white, as a status and paralegal category, comes from subdivisions of that region, but not in one bitty ocean-hop and arrival. To reference American Nations again, and staying at the coarsest level, there are:
- Yankeedom (dissenting urban English), Midlands (German), New France (French), Tidewater (royalist/landed English), Deep South (convict/indentured rural English), New Netherlands (Dutch), and one more I’ll talk about in a minute.
- The core point is that North America is much much bigger than the postage stamp of provinces called Europe, so each of these became a considerably outsized economic and political presence, globally, than would otherwise have been possible. (This goes for pre and post American Revolution; it has nothing do with where the governing body may happen to be located, and the various trade routes and economic centers were disrupted not at all.)
This is a comics blog, with an entirely arbitrary focus on Marvel Comics based on my autobiography, wherein one may ask, “So what?” The “what” must be located within the bubble of the New Netherlands, the greater New York City region:
Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world, New Netherland has displayed its salient characteristics throughout its history: a global commercial trading culture— multiethnic, multireligious, and materialistic—with a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.
That’s the nice part; Woodard also discusses the blatantly tribal-racist “we grab what’s ours” power structure resulting from constant high-impact immigration. Your point of origin back there is your neighborhood here and now. You don’t sweat the derogatory label you carry, it is indeed derogatory, but everyone’s got one. With the exception of black people, who are treated as deeply-unwanted refugees and routinely “pacified” (police murder is only a visible bit of it), you get in there with “your people” and you find a corner which you can hold down; otherwise, tough.
This isn’t just New York culture, it’s how New Yorkers see America, and for that matter, the world. Marvel Comics, in its naturalistic 50s and 60s roots, expressed this perspective not as topic but as unquestioned reality, and one of these days someone with the relevant degree is going to notice that Stan Lee and his most active co-creators were practically anthropologists of whiteness within it. Consider, for example:
- Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne, from the original settler Dutch, so wealthy that it never occurs to them, so patrician that no one else is threatened by their status, while deferring to it entirely.
- Yes, Lee’s Wasp casually bosses everyone around – and they obey. They don’t obey Stark. You noticed that, right?
- This is text: who names the Avengers? Who tames the berserk Captain America, upon his awakening, and adopts him into the group? Who always exerts executive power over who’s in and who’s out, and who are the only members who’re in or out based on their own desires of the moment?
- The more recent gentry, Warren Worthington III, the heir to the intensely Anglophilic, jumped-up neo-Victorians, for whom more deliberately displayed airs accompanied conspicuous consumption.
- No, this is not nouveau riche; this is the last sector of American “old money,” the group that the nouveau aspired to later, e.g. the aforementioned Tony Stark
This was material and designated “white” in that bubble, as so perfectly expressed in these works, with the W in WASP,not anywhere near as broad as the term was and is used elsewhere. Similarly, the P was not “Protestant” in any broad sense, but Episcopalian (a term dating from when the American Anglicans and English Anglicans had to pretend they were different churches after the Revolution, a pretense which lasts to this day; hey, when you get the chance, investigate the relation of this religion to the American presidency). In the New Netherlands, it’s the group that doesn’t have to hustle. Nor is it really liberal in the senses of either egalitarianism or guilt (which are very Yankee things); the proper if disturbing term would be generous, in the sense of noblesse oblige.
Now, a new sort of whiteness was afoot, in stages during the 20th century (but less than people say), and snapping solidly into place during the 1960s and 70s, part of the uniquely American, war-and-bank interpretation of “middle class.” There’s a big literature on how Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, Spanish (but not Mexican, hence much “latino” and “hispanic” waffling), and a couple other American designations became white – but it’s not Janet-and-Hank or Warren white. It’s TV-white, a status, not an ethnicity, and still racist but more general, related to that north-south Europe-as-peninsula thing. I’ll be writing about that in the next post, so hold off on your what-about-what-about for various white comics characters. Today is for the top and the bottom.
The bottom, you say? Now for the the white no one likes to include: Ulster Scot/Scots-Irish, and as Woodard calls the region in the U.S., Greater Appalachian. It’s not southern. Tidewater Southerners came from Royalist England; Deep Southerners came from Barbados and from England’s jails and press gangs. I’m not talking about Englishmen even a little.
The first sign is that unbelievable accent, something like, “awlahoolawallading-dong … ratt?”Just the beginning of a bevy of regional and cultural features known to everyone in stereotype, yet stripped of relevant history. And that history matters. “Appalachia” is merely the point of arrival; wave after wave came from blood-soaked Ulster for two centuries, treading west regardless of who said what was whose, killing to settle it, and killing to keep it. Flash-forward to the Civil War, which for these regions was a mini-civil war with almost nothing to do with Union or Confederacy, a particularly bloody one that would surprise no one English, Irish, or Scottish, and which has been obscured by mid-twentieth century nonsense promulgated by those who benefit from the myth of “the South,” pro- and anti- alike.
There have been some recent books, “white working class,” that kind of thing, but I find them off-base and tin-eared, blinded by the sensu lato TV-white. Income alone isn’t enough; it takes its shape in regional and ethnic terms. Almost every poll or demographic summary keeps mixing up economically and ethnically distinct groups into “white” to create a false statistic. The way to go is Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, in which a left-radical but very native-son Greater Appalachian explains to white liberals just why and how they’ve fucked it up for decades, long ahead of any recent events which have led to the finger-pointing and hand-wringing.
Not gonna lie: when you do look, this is not a loved group. They’re regarded as nothing more nor less than human dogs, in the worst sense of that animal metaphor – just smart enough to team up or to submit to a stronger force, skulking and watchful, territorial over what seem like indistinguishable patches of ruined real estate, given to inexplicable “turning on you,” bullying toward one another, vicious toward those with less power. Their extensive folklore and music are well-known only once they’re appropriated into someone’s mainstream usage, stripped of regional serial numbers, usually re-cast as “country” or “southern.”
It’s one of the shortest-lived North American demographics, least educated, chronically-ill, most dependent on public funds, most violent, most associated with home-grown illegal drugs (meth mostly), and most represented in the military groups. It’s the one who invented evangelical Christianity, which engulfed nationwide rural populism around 1900, and horrified the Southern Baptists until they sucked it up and made a coalition in the 1970s. Uniquely among U.S. citizens, they don’t know where they’re from; they do not reference their pre-New World origin and identify only as “American.” It’s also the most patriotic by a significant length, in a curious fashion that doesn’t poll pro-war when no very-public war is happening, but 100% behind it when it is; and also curiously, literally abominates “government.”
People from this background – and I don’t mean rural-country, I mean ethnically – who get into mainstream power, do so through means familiar to other marginalized but semi-included groups: prominence via the military, unconventional insights, shucking and jiving, and ruthless local power-mongering. You know something? When they get there, they’re fucking mean. Andrew Jackson was the first U.S. president of the sort; Bill Clinton is the most recent – and you might be shocked at how similar their policies were, and how much the latter’s skill in selling it was born in the evangelical tradition.
I can talk like this. This is me, or the most visible portion anyway (Basque and Mediterranean French on the other side). Look at my eyes, white-shot steel blue like a dog you don’t trust. Look at my teeth, when I’m not hiding them, something I learned to do in college. I’m one-step removed as my dad is the “one who left” the grape fields in Southern Cal via the Navy, the only male in the whole clan who attended college even briefly. I remember them from very occasional childhood visits, people with pigs in the yard and names like Chalmer and “Frosty.” But look at my damn posture in that photo, and you know what anyone else looking at me sees. Especially those laying claim to TV-white – they do not want me there with them.
Wait, aren’t I Californian? Yeah, because this is also the most migratory & settle-in population in the continent. They’re thought of “up there in those there hills” when in actuality they’re all over the place, with multiple migratory nodes. adapting to the local power structure yet remaining very much themselves. They swiftly take up low-status farming and service sector wherever they go, operating as immigrants as they establish jobs and then act as magnifiers for new arrivals through the power structure of those jobs, via kin ties.
Crucially: they fold right into the police, militia, and “community” action of the violent, loyal-to-power kind. They’re really good at it, more effective than the Klan ever was, much more widespread, less politically specific (whatever you want boss, as long as I get to not be a nigger or an injun or a meskin or a trouble-maker), and crucially, not driven by fear. Most of their political presence nationwide is defined by this cruelty and adaptability to power, aiding and abetting racist oppression with a safely deniable grassroots agency.
But you don’t see them in Marvel Comics! Why not? There are two kinds of invisibility involved. First, the places they don’t penetrate are New England and Greater New York, and the politics and media there are either blind to or baffled by them. That includes Hollywood, which began as an expat extension of New York, and it definitely includes comics of the 1960s. Lee and anyone else didn’t know from Greater Appalachia and didn’t write about any.
The second kind of invisibility is an extension from there via Hollywood, which began as an expat colony of New York, and continued as a temple to TV-whiteness. That’s also reserved for the upcoming post. I’ll only briefly state that as far as this … whatever you call it demographic is concerned, what you see in the media culture is something very alien – never “us” from the messaging side – and thoroughly confounded with southerners. Whole volumes may be consulted about what Oklahoma! had to do with this. There’s an interesting standout in TV history, The Beverly Hillbillies, which was apparently sympathetic and a little edgy in practice, and despite being very popular it was shitcanned along with a bevy of “too southern, too country” shows like Green Acres. I’d like someone to take a closer look at Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons in this context too, because I only know these shows from glimpses at friends’ houses – I didn’t watch much tube as a kid, what with the counterculture and all. A good recent example is Shane in The Shield, who begins as the picture-perfect SoCal specimen of what I’m talking about, but as the series goes on, the writers cannot imagine he’s anything but a Georgia cracker and change him up considerably.
In comics, there’s no mistaking Li’l Abner, which if I were not separated from the culture by my father’s attempted rejection of it, I’d be inclined to consider hate speech. Then again, I don’t really know – I barely encountered the strip as itself, but instead it’s mixed up in my tween mind with the rich subversive mining of Capp’s style and hillbilly topics, plus more explicit degeneracy, by Frank Frazetta and Berni Wrightson, and the not-indirectly related cartoon/comics strips in various porno mags. A recent example – and the time-jump indicates the scarcity – is Warlords of Appalachia, which I note their website pitches as “Southern Bastards meets Dune.”
This southern-but-not thing is a big deal: it’s about co-opting Greater Appalachia into “the South” as a political bloc, which was cemented into place during (and about) the Vietnam War, to the point where – always historically pig-ignorant – the demographic actually believes it now. I shall now finally get to the point.
The Black Panther Party, as a name, was used by several groups, many of which connected during the late 60s but never entirely. A given region makes more sense by itself, where you see the BPP working in tandem with like-minded groups. In Chicago, one such group was The Young Patriots, young white people from a recent migration there from southern Illinois (part of Greater Appalachia; see the map), whose local work was just the same, providing food for school kids and education about the police. They and Puerto Rican groups and the Panthers formed an epic alliance organized by Fred Hampton, profoundly dedicated to destroying racism from the ground up. This is the origin of the term Rainbow Coalition, which would take on a different, mainstream meaning 15 years later.
The Patriots didn’t even have time to get a logo, as the Chicago police murdered Hampton and other leaders, and the Rainbow scattered, to be flensed from memory. They wore the Confederate Flag, citing Appalachia as an example of a colonial holding in the Fanon sense exactly as the Panthers did for black Americans; learn more at Young Patriots and Panthers: a story of white anti-racism. This is what provides otherwise puzzling meaning to the Warren Zevon song and its relation to the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (the successor to Weather in the Midwest; Weather had been founded in response to Hampton’s murder, if you didn’t know):
The song sounds surrealistically tin-eared today but it meant something at the time. Briefly, the actual James Gang of the 1880s was of little account to anyone in any way, except that they served as an ongoing topic for a viciously anti-Reconstruction opinion-leading newspaper. But in the 1960s and 1970s, that history wasn’t well known, and the dark cowboy-outlaw, “rebel anti-lawman” imagery had gained considerable Hollywood identity – here, it was repurposed to activism, with the Confederate flag, however obnoxiously to modern eyes, repurposed as civil rights revolutionary anti-establishment.
The scuttling of the Young Patriots from political memory is also the root of the problem with the modern term “privilege.” Breathe in and out a couple times. Ready? Privilege is what the Wasp and the Angel have. I reject the notion that not being shot at will, not being restricted to designated areas, not being incarcerated into slavery, not being prevented from political power by lawfare or force, and not being kept sick via health care deprivation, all of which are happening at this minute, is privilege. Not experiencing those things is the expected, reasonable baseline. Experiencing those things isn’t lack of privilege, it’s oppression, outright human rights violation in no uncertain terms.
What you’ve got is the classic case of an underclass accepting the shit-stained, useless, just-shy of suicidal distinction of not being another underclass who’s getting more overtly immiserated and murdered, “earning” that distinction by becoming the most direct instrument of oppression against it. Including the sharp lesson of what happens to the dogs who didn’t obey.
And the deal has worn threadbare, forty-five years past the killing of the Civil Rights movement. It’s been five lousy decades of meth addiction and having your balls blown off by IEDs. They’re restless now, doubling down on their “loyalty” as they saw it, not their masters. They know they were betrayed, but can’t understand by whom exactly, or why, and they’re biting more-or-less at random. I, and anyone like me, who (through my father) escaped from that culture but not successfully into another, we see it plain as day. Bageant tried to tell you, I’ll tell you now. Expect more of that. A lot more.
… Well, how ’bout them comics? There’s something important in there. The next post concerns the TV-white, mass-media construct, which is indeed, unsurprisingly, evident in comics – and intriguingly, in the X-Men with the exception of Warren, and in the bleaching of such originally-ethnic characters like the Punisher.
Links: Young Patriots, Black Panthers, and the Rainbow Coalition, (edit addition) The truth about “trailer trash”
Next: The whites, part 2
Posted on December 1, 2017, in Politics dammit and tagged American Nations, Angel, Black Panther Party, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Frank and Jesse James, Greater Appalachia, Joe Bageant, Li'l Abner, New Netherlands, Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, Rainbow Coalition, Stan Lee, The Beverly Hillbillies, Ulster Scot, W.A.S.P, Warren Zevon, Wasp, Weather, white, Young Patriots. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.
This gives me a lot to think about in relationship to Sam Shepard. Reading the Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West up here in Canada, I approached them as reflections on the myth of America or the disappearance of the frontier. They are autoethnography about someone from that starving class, or nation. He talks a lot about being “American,” but it’s a particular kind of American. So, bouncing around from Illinois to Arizona to Duarte California as military kid, he’s still surrounded by members of that nation.
And there seem to be echoes of the Young Patriots ethos in https://www.redneckrevolt.org/ and the writing of Amber A’Lee Frost: https://dangerousminds.net/comments/bubbafication_when_rich_republicans_get_all_redneck
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Re: Shepard, absolutely. i saw _True West_ by Steppenwolf Theater, in Chicago, in 1982, featuring Gary Sinise (Malkovich was the usual partner in the show, but was out of town that weekend). That was before they got their own fancy theater and were still renting space at the Apollo, under the tracks. I knew “him,” Shepard that is, immediately, and was not surprised to learn that he came up through hard-core street/loft theater in San Francisco. Nothing he wrote seems fantastic or surreal to me.
Great references. I wish I’d run into those before.
Oh yeah – you won’t be surprised to see a considerable amount of Canada in the next post, regarding the construction of TV-white.
Even the more free associative plays of the early 70’s have this “rootedness” along with their “cosmic” or “kaleidoscopic” aspects. As with his early collaborator Patti Smith: these are kids from vary particular places and environments that stay present even as they come up with wild imagery or draw in history or mysticism or hallucination. Like, she was a kid from Jersey who had to put up with a shitty factory job while she was dreaming about William Blake and Jesus.
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The parallel with Jim Starlin is strong. In an earlier generation, Kirby too, perhaps.
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Great post. When you talk about the X-Men are you going to talk about the “bleaching” of Storm. She’s always been in a weird area for me. Graphically, there is nothing about here that screams Kenyan. If not for the coloring of her skin, Storm is a white woman.
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I was thinking more about the original X-Men, and more generally, about characters designated as white. I think I’ll find some odd back-and-forth among plenty of characters, though – and now that I think of it, the rather jarring shift of Wolverine from utterly Scots-stock Canadian to some kind of American southerner is not a small thing. That shift occurred after Claremont lost his effective editorial control over the character; he’d already scrubbed away the initial Canadian-ness, but he internationalized him, rather than Americanized him so regionally.
Anyway, about Storm, I presented some thoughts on her in a couple of places during my scattered investigation of Claremont’s X-Men as a romantic paean to Zionism, mainly in Today is for taboo II. I see her un-blackness as a reference to Jewish Africans who were presumably “saved” by Israel during the 1950s in Operation Moses. “Not really black” in this case is more than a negative statement, it’s a text on an essential identity that obviates region and culture, and of course, immediately connotes Belongs with Like. It also matters that she’s apparently from both Kenya and Harlem (talk about confounding blackness into one thing) such that none of “it” (“that!”) sticks to her.
I have always found the alleged ethnic inclusivity of the New X-Men to ring false, and understanding its relation to the New Republic ideology solved that puzzle instantly. It’s similar with Colossus and Nightcrawler, in how they’re rescued into this tiny tough-but-virtuous community from communism and from superstitious villain Christians, respectively. (The characters’ coding as Christian is superficial in the comics, compared to derived works; once they “find their true people,” that’s that.)
With Storm, there’s the secondary factor of the 80s women in most comics, regardless of color creed et cetera, when they converged on a leggy, cranky sameness, which also happened to be bereft of anything resembling actual sexuality. I talked about this a couple times, let’s see, 70s and 80s, ladies and in the comments to Missed! Ran out! Dang! Unnhh!.
I don’t know if you saw Two women, where I examine the converse of black women characters during that time, or a bit afterwards, who ran totally counter to that trend.
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Also ethnically Appalachian. I’ve never thought about it in quite these terms, but everything you wrote about it here is consistent with my experience.
And it’s really hard to think of that people getting a proper fair shake in fiction — if they’re there at all, it’s almost always a caricature, either grotesque or (still grotesquely) comedic. One exception is in Stephen Hunter’s novels (which are always largely about racial/ethnic relations, and even where they kinda fuck up in that regard he’s at least trying), where the Swagger family (recurring hero protagonists) and the related Lamar Pye (villain protagonist), and the Grumley family (semi-recurring villain antagonists), as well as a variety of minor characters, are all explicitly of that stock, with warts included but also humanity and admirable qualities.
I still to this day am not quite sure what I think about _O Brother, Where Art Thou?_ Yeah they’re the protagonists and they’re pitted against a psycho-fascist cop and the literal Klan (which is nice to see because the forces those represent have historically exploited these folk while pretending to have their back), but still get unwittingly co-opted by Establishment because they suit its needs at the time, and they get shamelessly ripped off for their music which is what really happened but the tone about that is pretty blase, and 90% of the movie is making fun of how dumb they are.
(It occurs to me that another place to look is the dozens-of-novels family saga of the Sacketts by Louis L’Amour, but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t comment.)
And I feel like I’ve probably done this rant with you before but the theft of the Appalachian musical tradition is among the most heinous of the many, many heinous crimes in American music history. It gets widely popular during the Depression (a because it makes people think of “a simpler time,” and they call it “old-timey” music, but to the people making it it wasn’t “old-timey,” it was _right now_ music and always had been. And you can draw a straight line from that theft and assimilation to the right-wing suburban identity rock that is country music today. And the most heartbreaking thing about it is that the descendants of the people whose culture was stolen to build that grotesque Frankenstein _still think that it’s for and about them_ when it doesn’t really give a fuck, even as it’s raking in their money.
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I feel it less so for O Brothers, since the bad guys are so creepy-crawly. But looking over a lot of the Coen Bros work, it seems like they’ve been grappling with it for a long time. One might say they’ve been making fun of hillbillies all along, but sometimes it’s hard to say who has the last laugh, and sometimes these characters’ wisdom is more profound than the ideals the more obvious author stand-ins produce …
I have a hard time feeling sympathy for the police, prison guards, strike-breakers, and “local citizens” who just happen to be beating up people the governor doesn’t like. I get your point and agree, they’re being screwed over slightly more subtly, but that’s a lot of blood on a lot of hands, and it’s not a pattern or coincidence, it’s long-standing policy and defined social role.
When I think in terms of ethnic identity for myself, and when I find plenty of this one staring at me in the mirror, I don’t find much pride or indignation – nor, as it happens, shame. I feel only a lurking rage, a knotted up conflict between the need to stay low and the urge to bite back,
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Rage is about right. I mean, I feel lucky to have escaped, even if all I managed to accomplish was to sequester myself in my own little space away from it and not managed to find anywhere else to “fit” (I do know a lot of people I grew up with who did — they’re Juggalos now, and I can’t even pretend to understand how I feel about that). And I don’t LIKE them, how can I, I’m queer so they don’t like me either. But, y’know, the music became a part of me early on and became something that I studied and an inextricable part of my own musical vocabulary, so parts of the culture are still important to me.
And I look at the history, and it’s exploitation all the way back. Even in the migration to Ulster, just pawns in the scheme of greater powers that led them to bleed and struggle while doing someone else’s dirty work, for the promise of table scraps. That alone is enough to get a fellow ticked off on their behalf. But when you add in that they don’t even SEE it, because they (deliberately, I’d suggest) haven’t been provided with the means to see it, and, yeah, it’s just rage.
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Hi Marshall –
My engagement with (parts of) this topic of Ron’s goes back to his Adept Press forum, where I think I talked about a collection of 78 rpm records I listened to growing up, inherited from my father/grandfather/(great)uncles, mostly old country and bluegrass. Names I remember include Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe.
I didn’t really stick with the music – radio and peers quickly drove me to rock, punk/”new wave”, and other mildly eclectic but more typical stuff. But something of those 78s stuck with me, a vague sense of where it was from (and thus, a sense of one place *I* was from) that wasn’t what everyone was starting to say “country” was about, politically or culturally. The really christian stuff started feeling “off” for me as I grew older, but … “The Old Rugged Cross” was never offensive in the same way as Jerry Falwell.
And in later life, I felt entirely comfortable going to bluegrass performances. Blue Highway became a personal favorite – they may say “Two Soldiers” or “The Homeless Man” aren’t political, but I don’t believe it (my middle name is Campbell, and I can’t hear “Corporal William Howard Campbell/they never knew and never will” without shuddering). If I had to point to a musical expression of rage, I think I’d pick Iris Dement’s “Wasteland of the Free.”
So – I guess I just wanted to say I think I know what you mean, about the music.
For Ron’s topic – I always knew my paternal grandfather was from Ohio. I would NEVER have pegged that as “Appalachian”, but you know, between Woodward and my personal experience – it can be.
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Quick references for media depictions with some weight: the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, with a film version that I believe drew upon documentary footage from a later similar migration; and the miners in John Sayles’ film Matewan. The latter has a sequence about the various marginal ethnic camps separated from one another in the night, but each playing music, and as the musicians hear one another, adopting bits and pieces all at once, so after a little while, everyone’s playing bluegrass.
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That image reminds me – the family I went to bluegrass events with (and may well go with again) spoke about a festival they’d been to a few times in Blythe, California, where the playing at the campgrounds (many small groups of musicians & audience gathered around RVs and firepits) the Monday-Thursday BEFORE the festival was perhaps better than the festival itself. I’ve sometimes wondered if something similar could happen with RPGs and the weekish before GenCon…
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Thinking about the generic whiteness of the original X-Men aside from Warren – Hank McCoy is the most egregious. His name could, potentially, locate his family origins as Scottish, Irish or even Scots-Irish, but no such implications are followed up.
And to bring up things Appalachian, the name “McCoy” is lined with “Hatfield” in the popular stereotype – to the point that even I know about it from the other side of the world.
So maybe there’s your Appalachian superhero – ditching his accent, downplaying his background, and passing as “TV-white”. Not unlikely – until relatively recently it was common for say Scots or Welsh to downplay their origins when they moved to England.
For that matter, I toned down my own provincial city accent and dialect words when I went to university (in the capital city of the same state, only 80 miles away!), and even more so when I moved interstate.
Good name spotting. To be considered in the next post for sure.
What an excellent essay. More intelligence in a comic blog post than on 99% of the mainstream media!
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Thanks for the kind words! I invite you to click around, there’s lots of cultural stuff like this – kind of the stealth content with/behind the comics and the autobiography.
Please consider sharing or recommending the blog far & wide.
An excellent essay indeed. An interesting catch with the “McCoy” name, Alan B. (Ron, I do hope you will tackle the “names” angle in your next post as you hinted.) It’s plausible that Stan Lee was referencing the inventor Elijah McCoy, which would have implications related to this week’s blog topic.
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I’ve been curious about this American/”white” ethnicity/culture stuff over the last chunk of years, prompted by you, Ron, by the current political environment, and by whatever other influences trigger such things. I’ve found some interesting information, most of it more autobiographical than topical for here. For example, I now know why the Episcopal church I grew up attending in the Woodard-New Netherland part of Connecticut had Spanish Mission architecture, and why it wasn’t like the other Episcopal churches nearby.
But for purposes of this post on “The whites”, I think the biggest thing I’ve read about and would point to is how the Hollywood combat film – “Bataan” (1943) all the way up through “Platoon” and even “Saving Private Ryan” – reinforced a not-so-real ethnic “join up” image that had (and has?) GREAT power. Enough to influence the group of friends I had in High School, and enough to influence (I’d assume) New York-centered comic creators. I won’t pretend to have read in great depth, but there seems to be a decent amount of writing, research and scholarship about the impact of that film-making. A squad of soldiers, a superhero team – there are certain expectations that are generally either reinforced, avoided, or subverted, one way or another.
And I want to strongly agree with, again maybe a bit too autobiographically, the existence/power of the top category of whiteness. Growing up in the area of the country with a good number of Pym/Van Dyne/Worthingtons, I … didn’t go to the same summer programs they did. I didn’t swim in the same pools they did. By any conventional standard, I’m pretty darn white. No real reason to peg me as Appalachian, either, although I’ve discovered more (maybe indirect) connections than I’d thought. But I spent many a summer in the pool at the Italian Center in the town next door. Some of it was simply and perhaps unproblematically economic, some of it somehow about some (Anglophilic?) flavor of class, some of it maybe driven by ugly ethnic exclusiveness. And etc. But as a thing, it was and I assume still is quite real.
Looking forward to the next part …
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You’d mentioned that you’ve been reading up on white/work issues lately, and your thoughts on that are welcome.
Regarding the rich, this is a meeting of minds. Recently, and following from my post Super money, I’ve been thinking about how disconnected many people are from really frightening wealth, not relative affluence in the neighborhood or even the city. My take on it could have been placed into this post, at the end of the Wasp/Angel section, except that there’s little or no comics connection to make and I was afire with multiple edits of the second part of the post. Your comment makes me nod and go, “And …”
It goes back to my education as a townie scholarship kid at Robert Louis Stevenson School (since renamed), which spanned global wealth among its students, including Hong Kong magnates, Saudi princelings, and Americans with Roman numerals. It also, at the time I attended, practiced the widest outreach toward local and lower-income students that it had done before or since, which is why I was there at all, along with about twenty others in our class of 100+. With a total of only 425 students, over half of them boarding, it was a genuine get-along-or-else community.
What this means is that the student body could not be dominated by ordinary high-school American wealth status, not even a fairly substantial one. The relatively affluent locals weren’t anyone special, and not even the out-of-town movie celebrity kids or the California construction mogul kids. An odd double-factor from the administration and faculty played into it as well: the old guard of extremely male-military headmaster and other admin, plus the substantial wave of younger faculty who’d been through the precise period of university-and-draft-resistance that you’ve all read about, and who were powerfully qualified to up-end the traditional curriculum. The two weren’t much alike, but they agreed one hundred percent on how school policy should deal with snotty rich kids and bullying based on privilege.
The result came the closest to a real meritocracy than I’ve ever observed, and further toward that end than anything else I’ve seen claiming such an ideal. It’s significant too that in getting that, I also missed the “this” of the high school experience shared by everyone else and thought of as quintessentially American. I’d received a fair taste of it in junior high. It would also play into my experiences at the University of Chicago, again as a scholarship kid and even more culturally alien among the Midwestern and East Coast kids.
I’d learned that affluent professional Americans, rich but insisting they aren’t, capable of buying the stunning homes along Highway 1, of being recognised and celebrated whenever they want (and sometimes when they didn’t), of vacationing anywhere in the world, of knowing about and attending any cultural or entertainment event in the world, of interacting with state and national politics and expecting an effect … are a stressed-out, often messed-up, politically conflicted bunch. The nicer ones among them are a lot like everyone else; the mean ones are truly vicious, spewing pain and cruelty freely, and I advise the reader to steer far clear, but they are also walking wounded, self-defeating, headed for personal catastrophe.
Sometimes they’re easy to emphathise with, because under the crunch, the privilege turns out to be not much to aspire toward. There’s no difference between William Robert goes-by-Rob totalling his mom’s new Porsche on Highway 1 while wrecked on coke, including being decapitated by an inconvenient sign, and Billy Bob totalling his dad’s old Dodge on a Salinas country road while blasted on Thunderbird and Southern Comfort, with the same result. Both families are in debt and now hit with it worse in death costs, both are full of complicated soap opera concerning the lad, both are grief-stricken with similar fracturing and unifying effects. The money matters, but hard as it might be to see from down here, it only matters about some things.
(I am not speaking here relative to genuine oppression and discrimination. The tiny brother of one of my students died by drowning in a mop bucket because his mom had nowhere to keep him while she worked. That is not “poverty.” It is class and and ethnic murder. People hammered by a whole society that writes off such events as “accidents” or the result of bad parenting have every reason to regard the entire spectrum of what I’m talking about here as the enemy.)
I’d also learned that most of the genuinely wealthy, meaning separated from the above group because they’re not concerned with debt, I guess what today we’d call the 10%, are less arrogant and mean. In some ways, they’re easier for me to get along with than the higher end of the stressed-out middle class, who are threatened by lower-rent achievers like me. But they do indeed breathe a different air, as the above tragedy and similar things tend to be headed off long before they happen, due to the complex society of supporting personnel underlying every aspect of their life. They simply cannot grasp that life occurs without a service sector just being “there,” or that the stated concerns and differing qualities among economically-strapped or stressed people are anything but colorful characterisation.
It hits me most when I get mistaken for a member of the 10%. Remember, given my coyote-like life, I end up in the damndest places – a table with Colombian drug lords at a Ferrari-collecting convention, or sharing a dance with a world-known actor and our dates in a tucked-away blues bar, and a lot more. I apparently lack the social signals that place me relative to the others present, not as a skill, but as a genuine deficit. I’d meet a high-end lawyer friend for lunch and wonder why I got up to the umpteenth floor so easily, and he told me, “Look at you – completely casually dressed in worn but clean clothes, and just the way you act, not condescending, not deferring – they thought you were a tip-top client, no one else would come in here looking like that.” Indeed, his own work attire was not far off from a tux.
As for the 1%, which as I understand it is more like the 0.01%, I have glimpsed them up-close only a little bit. They are nonhuman – frankly, scum beyond imagining. For what it’s worth, no one in the two groups I just mentioned likes them either, and significantly, unlike almost everyone else I know, these people know what this sector is actually like.
Anyway, that’s what you brought to mind.
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I’m fascinated (again) by the differences and similarities of our child/young-adulthood. My high school was public, and huge (and while I was there, supposedly 1st, 2nd or 3rd “best” in the country) – but somehow I recognize your “Bullying? Heck no!” and “Very meritocratic” more than anything labeled quintessentially American.
But enough of that – next post, maybe something more fiction-relevant will emerge. Perhaps my New York area specific experience will prompt me in some way.
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