White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Race in America – Nancy Isenberg

Imagine standing in the supermarket. You’re grabbing apples, tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. As you drop them into your cart, you have no idea what the lady is doing next you. You have no idea what’s going on around you. You just keep walking, half in a daze, content by the monotony of your weekly shopping routine.

But then imagine that while you’re putting those strawberries into your cart and you hear shouting. Someone is on the ground. The sound of an ambulance is approaching. Suddenly you’re paying attention. Suddenly it matters.

That’s how this book felt to me. It wasn’t that someone showed me something new. It was more like someone was asking me to wake up. Someone was encouraging me to look at where I was and who I was with. This book asked me to pay attention to the history of America, where we all came from, and how it has shaped our current discourse.

The book begins in the colonies. It explores England’s desire for colonization, their tendency to drop their vagabonds, prostitutes, and criminals. It explores the growing social structure by looking at those who had money and status and those who became indentured servants. It explores the way the country divided itself, what its values were and how these values have carried forward.

What makes the book impactful, is not so much what it says, but what you can come to understand from reading it. Most Americans know a lot of the history in this book. We’ve taken American history courses before, and while this book takes a more detailed look at the generalized information you receive in high school, I think we recognize the historical narrative and facts presented.

What makes the book a good read, is how it makes the reader think about our present situation in new ways. As the narrative moves through history, we come to understand why we think the way we do. It makes us stop and consider that the arguments we’re currently having in today’s age are retellings of the arguments we’ve already had in the past.

Perhaps, as the book suggests, the argument that immigrants take jobs away from white Americans is akin to newly freed slaves taking away jobs and rights from poor whites. Perhaps our incessant desire for productivity isn’t an inherent quality we are born with, but an ideology built out of hating idleness and the perceived laziness of the poor. Do our contemporary views of bigotry and the fear of “the other” come from 1800s view of Social Darwinism and eugenics? It makes the joke, “we shouldn’t let stupid people breed” no longer funny, but a reminder of a dark and dirty truth of a past we would like to forget.

This book provides a good source and a strong overview of what race and class means in American Society. It allows us to as big questions. How can we change our views, when they’ve been so ingrained in us? How do we get jolted out of our complacency, our bigotry, our fear?

Maybe it is time to pay attention. Perhaps the 2016 election and these last 8 months under this Trump presidency will encourage us to stop throwing our strawberries mindlessly into the cart and. Maybe we will finally begin to pay attention to the seemingly mundane world we live in.

Boats Against the Current

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, that’s no matter, tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther… And one fine morning– So we beat on boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby

The relentless waves of The Great Gatsby have touched almost everyone’s shores at some point. For many of us Gatsby is presented to us during our high school years; for others, he floats on from the silver screen as we watch Robert Redford in the 1974 classic. It is a story we know well, a mixture of romance, big parties, and even bigger dreams. But Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air brings us to new shores in her book So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures. Published in the Spring of 2014, Corrigan’s book was released after Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster film, The Great Gatsby.

Corrigan’s approach is not the extravagance  of  Gatsby’s West Egg parties or the haughty, arrogant nature of East Egg. Instead Corrigan takes the reader on an intimate journey through her own discoveries and realizations about the author and his text. Her narrative style is refreshing, pulling the reader layer by layer through biography, critical reading, and the reflections she gains from listening to her own students.

She believes that even now, The Great Gatsby does not get its due claiming that we are too young to understand it the first time that we read it and by the time we may be able to fully grasp its greatness ( our college years and beyond) we are not given the chance.  Corrigan notes that works by Fitzgerald are rarely if ever taught in academic circles. Instead, Gatsby is treated today, very much like it was treated upon its release: as a book written by a second-rate Midwestern hack of a writer. A story out-of-place in its time. A story that wouldn’t even last decades.

But Gatsby has made a lasting impression and Corrigan’s work will do the same. Her mix of literary criticism, memoir, and mystery lure the reader into on one voyage that he won’t forget.