To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of  her slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

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Small Town USA: Conflict & Community

Here is a very interesting news story. It is about a conflict in a church over homosexuality, but not in the way you might think. It isn’t so much the congregation being divided. Rather, it is a division between the congregation and the church leadership, a power struggle between democratic self-governance and traditional hierarchical authority.

NWS - HB0111 - Alex United Methodist - 006

David Steele, my uncle

“David Steele said his family has stopped attending the church, which has been difficult. They aren’t alone either. About 80 percent of the congregation left because of the situation with Fraley.”

The Steele family mentioned in the article is that of my uncle and aunt. The church is where my grandfather was minister when my uncle and my dad were kids.

The town, Alexandria IN, is literally “Small Town USA“. It was given that title by the government during WWII and it was used as a propaganda tool in the European theater.

So, that small town was intended to represent the best of what America stood for. It was a booming factory town with a thriving downtown, until the factories closed down and employment became scarce. But like many such Midwestern towns, it maintained its farming roots and indeed is surrounded by farmland. The factories came and the factories went. The farms remain, although fewer of them are owned by families.

It’s the same story heard in many small towns, especially in the Midwest.

My uncle mostly fits a certain kind of Midwesterner. He is a small business owner running a dental office. He could’ve moved elsewhere and made a lot more money, but he loved his hometown and felt dedicated to it. He has fought some losing battles to save what once made Alexandria such a nice town, but hopefully this particular battle isn’t lost.

The type of Midwesterner he seems to be is an old school Republican, the type that was common before the Southern Strategy back when the GOP was the Northern party of Lincoln. His putting community before profit is a characteristic of this type, certainly putting civic-mindedness and public good before radical ideologies. My uncle is maybe more in the tradition of the moderate to liberal Eisenhower Republican. Eisenhower, like Lincoln, didn’t hate government and, unlike Reagan, didn’t see government as the problem. Not necessarily for big government, but for good governance and self-governance.

Americans of that type haven’t changed. They are still around fighting for the world they remember, the world they still believe in. What has changed, instead, is the world around them. Few people seem to even remember an America where a moderately liberal Republican was possible. These old school Republicans are a dying breed.

I suppose Alexandria still represents America and the direction our society is taking. What is happening in this church is happening all across the country. Still, this particular incident has a strong Midwestern quality. It is a Midwestern sensibility of inclusive community. Once you are part of the community, even gay people, you’re more likely to be treated as an equal. Midwesterners concern themselves more with character qualities such as hardworking and trustworthy than with personal orientations or lifestyle choices like sexual preferences. If you don’t make an issue of it, others probably won’t either.

This is the live-and-let-live culture that originated from the Middle Colonies/Mid-Atlantic states which was the favorite destination of immigrants escaping oppression. The Lower Midwest (AKA Midlands) is the Westward regional extension of that culture. It is what makes a small town in rural Indiana far different from a small town in rural Mississippi. It is also what makes a Northern Methodist church far different from a Southern Baptist church.

My grandfather was born in New Jersey and raised in Connecticut. He came to Indiana as an adult because that is where he was hired as to be the minister. He was more of a freethinker, more of a doubting spiritual type than an orthodox believer. He was a minister more for the simple reason that he loved people. He wouldn’t ever have done what this present minister has done. He definitely embodied a live-and-let-live attitude.

My interest is less in the conflict itself and more about the people involved. This isn’t just because the people involved include members of my family. I’m a Midwesterner at heart. All Midwestern people are my people. I understand them and I sympathize with their plights. It isn’t about homosexuality but about what sustains a small town and what destroys a small town. If this church dies as did the factories did before it, the community will become weaker for it and the people impacted will be a little more worse off.

The glimmer of hope is the fact that this conflict didn’t divide the congregation. The church and the community it stands for is greater than the clueless church leadership. Sometimes hard times destroys communities, but shared struggles can also bring people together. The past doesn’t have to be a dead weight. It can instead be the foundation for building anew.

Radicals & Reformers of Indiana

As I’ve been doing genealogical work, I’ve also been thinking about my studies of history and generations. Part of my lineage is German. In the US, German culture and history hasn’t received fair and equal treatment. This is for many reasons.

The Germans were the enemies of the US earlier last century and at that time propaganda was at times intentionally used. After WWII, Germany was a pawn in the Cold War. Before either of the World Wars, there was much cultural diversity and tensions including that of Germans. The 19th century immigrants included a lot of religious radicals and political revolutionaries.

The Republican Party was, in fact, the beginning of a more mainstream version of left-wing politics with its connection to European socialists such as Marx. Some of the revolutionaries became politicians and generals, some even having fought in the Civil War. Some of the European revolutions in the early 19th century were partly inspired by the American Revolution, even seen as a continuation of it as envisioned by Thomas Paine. So, these revolutionaries came to America with this attitude.

I was thinking of this because of a specific fact I came across in my genealogical research. A number of generations of my family (Clouses and Hawks) lived at Spring Mill in Indiana near Mitchell (now a state park). Spring Mill had a distillery and some of my family were stillers there at different times. There was also a tavern and an inn. Since it was along a stage coach route, it attracted many important guests including politicians. What interested me, though, was this tid bit (The Village That Slept Awhile, p. 7): “Quite often, the intellectuals from Indiana’s famous experimental colony at New Harmony stopped at the tavern.”

When coming across that, it immediately perked my ears because I was familiar with the name of that utopian colony, although I had to research the details. It was first started by German pietists who had a radical vision of religion that was more similar to that of the Quakers, Shakers and Amish. They believed in living every aspect of life according to religious principles. The Harmonists decided to leave the area and so sold the community to a Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer, a socialist to be precise. This was circa 1824 and the community didn’t last many years, although its influence remained as it attracted some scientists to the area which might be why George Donaldson, an eccentric explorer, later lived in Spring Mill. It was around the 1820s and the decades following that a Wesley Clouse, possibly in my lineage, was the distiller.

Anyway, the area that attracted my family also attracted many radicals and reformers, intellectuals and eccentrics. The early 1800s was when my family was moving back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana, not fully settling in Indiana until maybe the second half of that century. It’s quite possible my family interacted with the various people who moved to the area to live in or near the utopian community, either in it’s guise as religious or socialist or even later on as a community of intellectuals and scientists.

Indiana today may seem like a conservative state, especially Southern Indiana, but it wasn’t always this way. There is a reason some of the most major union strikes happened in Indiana. There is also a reason that Indiana was founded as a non-slave state. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana (where he was raised) partly because of the slavery issue and Indiana supported Lincoln in his election. Later on, Eugene V. Debs was born in Indiana and grew up to become one of the most influential socialists in US history, specifically during the Populist and Progressive eras. Debs was a high school drop out who first worked for the railroads which could describe some of my own working class family in Indiana.

If you want to know what is the Heartland of America, this is it: radicals, revolutionaries, abolitionists, free soil advocates, socialists, labor unionists, and on and on. Big business has gone a long way in destroying the radical heart of America, but it still beats. No amount of revisionist history can make this go away.

Revisionist right-wingers speak of assimilation and use it as a tool to attack anyone who isn’t like them. They romanticize about the so-called Melting Pot where everyone was equal. The only problem is that this is just propaganda. My family comes from Germans and history shows that German-Americans didn’t passively accept assimilation. They fought against assimilation even back in the 1800s. German immigrants (along with other ethnic immigrants) and their descendents did their best to maintain their own culture. In early America, the largest non-English speaking demographic was the German population. They often formed communities together, particularly in the Midwest, where they not unusually taught in German in their public schools (prior to the federal government later on in the 20th century forcing all public schools to teach in English).

(As a side note, I came across another interesting piece of info. I live in Iowa City. It has a large Czech population. My co-worker is part Czech and her family has been in the area for generations. She was looking at her grandmother’s cookbook which was recipes put together by a locla Czech Catholic church. A note in the cookbook mentions that the Czech Catholic church was built because the other nearby Catholic church had its service spoken in German. The Czech church was built in 1893. This demonstrates that cultural assimilation was limited in the 19th century.)

Germans were among the earliest immigrants. The German language was even considered as one possibility for the official state language in order to fully separate American society from British society. Germans have fought in all of America’s wars. Germans have shaped America as much as any other ethnic group, including the British. Presently, Germans are the largest ethnic demographic in the United States.

Much of the German-American side of my family are working class conservatives. Like most Americans, they probably don’t know much about the history of their own people or of their country. They might not even realize that the American working class wasn’t always conservative. When they think of socialists, they imagine people from far off lands, not in ‘conservative’ states like Indiana. Such conservatives have no pride in their history because they don’t know it.

 * * * *

As a note of explanation, my main point was simply that I’m annoyed with revisionist history. When I came across this interesting historical data, I felt a desire to share and yet I realized that my conservative parents wouldn’t necessarily share my excitement. My mom, in particular, has no interest in left-wing social reform, much less socialism. Her interest in family history is limited to family itself. That her German ancestors may have not been conservatives is of little relevance to her mind.

That is fair. I have no inclination to force my interests on the uninterested. My complaint is just the fact that my parents are mostly unaware of this history.

I’ve heard my dad argue the revisisiont history of cultural assimilation. It seems that most historical revisionism comes from the right. I find it annoying, but I don’t know who to blame. My dad is a smart and well educated conservative. Where did he learn this revisionist history? When he was a kid in 1950s Indiana public schools, were they teaching this revisionist history? When he went to conservative Purdue University, were they teaching this revisionist history? Or did he only learn this later from right-wing media such as Fox News?

Just thinking about all of this, I felt frustrated. If we as Americans don’t all share a basic knowledge of our own history, then how can we accomplish anything as a shared society? I’m fine with people having their own opinions, but opinions shouldn’t be allowed to replace facts. Why is this such a contentious issue? How can anyone honestly claim an opinon about history is equal to verified historical facts?

The United States is and always has been culturally diverse. You can like that fact or you can dislike it, but it doesn’t change its being a fact. If you question my claim of this being a fact, I would recommend the two following books:

Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations by Colin Woodard

After studying the facts, if someone still has some disagreements with my interpretations and conclusions, then I’d be more than happy to discuss the facts. But any such discussion should begin and end with the facts.

 * * * *

11/29/11 – Since writing this, my mind has returned to it. I feel like I was being too critical in my frustration. I said I didn’t know who to blame and I still don’t. It’s not any single person or group who is responsible and the problem is very complex. As I often contemplate, we all are to varying degrees ignorant. The Melting Pot myth is indeed revisionist history. There was of course assimilation but just not to the degree that some would like to believe. Then again, we all have our favored myths that blind us to other viewpoints, other understandings, other information.

This makes me wonder what lies or misinformation have I learned in my own education/indoctrination. When I’m older, what will some younger person complain about in reference to older people like me? What will seem obvious to future generations that isn’t so apparent at the moment? It’s always good to be wary of righteous judgment toward others. None of us are without failure of one sort or another. None of us sees the whole picture perfectly. Revisionist history is simply what people want to believe because it gives meaning to their lives and justifies the world as they wish it to be.

My main complaint is more of a personal issue. Studying my family’s German heritage, why shouldn’t I be proud to be part of an ethnic group that resisted assimilation for about a century or so? Considering this, why should anyone of Germanic descent feel arrogantly self-righteous toward other ethnicities who have been resistant or slow to assimilate? It took Germans at least a century to even begin to assimilate. So, let’s give these new immigrants a century to assimilate on their own terms. Assimilation is good when freely chosen but is a system of oppression when forced.