Reflecting on new money and old selves + readings on race and class in the South that aren't J.D. Vance in honor of the Amazon workers union drive.
Hey y’all. We are preparing for essaying “Live With Jessie Wilkerson.” Jessie thinks a lot about her experience of class in the U.S. South vis-a-vis Dolly Parton. I have also written a lot about social class and racial differences in the South. “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” is one of my most-read essays ever. Like Jessie and many other people from the region, I am appalled by the tokenization of white rurality in recent work, of which J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is the prime example. My financial circumstances have changed, as you likely know. But our relationship to money is always about where we come from. I write about that relationship between money, identity, and culture this week in a reflection on new money and old selves.
People say they want to be rich. I think what they really want is to be free. On the other hand, people who claim to be working for freedom will enslave themselves to money. It is all very strange.
The strangeness of it all has never been clearer to me now that I have money. I do not have the kind of money that truly wealthy people would ever settle for having. I have the kind of small money that made the family in Schitt’s Creek want to die. I have not looked but I think I could make a down payment on a small town in the Ozarks with a population of 100 or so movie extras that no one else wants. That is a far cry from where my people started, which coincidentally is a lot like the fictional town of Schitt’s Creek. Shannon, North Carolina, is poor. It is rural. It is so small that no one bothers to measure population growth or decline. All it takes is a set of new twins to be a population boom, so why bother? I grew up about 115 miles west of Shannon, in Charlotte, NC. But culturally, Shannon is my people.
In the summers, my mother and I would make the pilgrimage east. The journey then was mostly road. Interstate highways bypass places like Shannon so regularly that we actually call the route that—bypasses. We would load up into the car—first a Volkswagen Bug, then a teal-green Mercury, and, much later, a Mercedes—and go “home.” Home for us is wherever the eldest matriarch of the family lives. When it was my great-grandmother Eunice, that meant traveling a set of interconnected bypasses until you got to Prospect AME Zion Church. You made a left on the dirt road and wobbled in and out of holes where the sand and silt had been washed away by rain and tires. It hurt us when we hit the holes in the VW, bouncing our heads up to the top of the car. We scarcely felt the bumps through a pillow of shocks once we traveled that road in the Mercedes. But hitting those potholes in the Mercedes seemed to hurt my mother more, judging by how she grimaced each time Germany’s finest engineering slipped into Carolina’s finest packed red-clay crevices.
A trip home meant eating. Most of that food came from the back of trucks, sometimes from car trunks. Greens from Cousin Eugene’s garden. Peas from Mert’s trip to visit her people. But folks had long ago given up on keeping meat sources at the house. We were rural, not bama. We went to the Piggly Wiggly for meat and Strickland’s side store for meat cuts. The distinction isn’t important. Just know that we were fancy enough to get ham from Piggly Wiggly and ham hocks from Strickland’s. Class is relative.
My great grandmother, who we called Mother, had a ritual at the Piggly Wiggly. She weighed the fat-to-meat ratio of each pack of pork or chicken she picked up. She chose carefully, for quality and efficiency. What would take the right amount to cook and what would cook properly. But her greatest ritual unfolded at the checkout line, where she would oversee every swipe the cashier made, confirming the correct price had been rung up. There was small talk, sometimes the cashier was a cousin after all. But Mother’s focus rivaled Serena Williams’s on a match point. Eyes fixed on the register screen. Hands poised to snatch back a meat pack that rang up wrong. A string of “uhh-hmms” to the cashier to make it all seem friendly like.
When it was time to pay, Mother would turn just slightly to the left and reach into her dress pocket or purse for her wallet. A change purse, really. A little leatherette satchel with a metal clasp meant for money that clangs, which Mother turned into a holder for money that folds. The dress pocket was a hidden pocket. You might think she was almost at her underwear layer if you did not know better. But a dress over a slip over an armor of underthings is basically a coat. Her purse had its own hidden compartment, a zipper within a zipper. Her money was often wrapped in paper, neatly arranged. She would count the proper amount with her side turned to the cashier so as not to reveal how much money she had. After receiving her change she completed the same ritual, in reverse.
I waited. My mother, who is infamously impatient and mean about it when she wants to be, waited. The cashier waited. The people in line behind us waited.
Money was serious business.
The rules of life are passed down to us like the rules for being white or Argentinian or Midwestern or Black or whatever we stake our emotions on and call an identity. I come from people where money is a private matter, even when business is conducted in public. You always count your change in the store because white cashiers would cheat you and then claim you were stealing if you returned later to complain. You folded your money into hidden compartments so men and ne’er-do-wells could not make you for a mark. And, you always kept the money organized so that you knew at all times just how much money you had to spend.
I come from people where money is a private matter, even when business is conducted in public. You always count your change in the store because white cashiers would cheat you and then claim you were stealing if you returned later to complain.
Imagine my shock to learn, as I did recently, that I had too much money to fold neatly into a purse. Not enough to keep from being called a thief in a store, but officially too much to keep track of at any given time. Even more utterly terrifying for me is that everyone knows about my money. Every interview I did after winning the MacArthur Fellowship included breathless commentary on the exact amount of the cash award. At one event, the first, third and tenth audience questions were all the same: “How are you going to spend that money?!”
I was horrified.
We do not talk about money in the South—my South. I don’t know what they talk about in the monied, propertied, ahem, whiter parts of the South. I know that in my part of the South—the part where we got to name the dirt road that turns you left at Prospect AME Zion Church because the county could not be bothered to do it—one does not ask about your pockets.
Navigating this new money has been quite a task. Don’t cry for me, of course. I have the kinds of problems that Mother would have been so thrilled by that she would have forgotten to wrap her money back in its tissue paper. She loved my life, so alike but so different from her own. She would bend over in laughter every time I went to some new place or achieved some new thing. Seeing me with money that moves in 1s and 0s in apps on my smartphone, in amounts that could make her put away her money purse for good would have tickled her to no end.
That is what I think about: What I owe her with this money. If I had living children, I suppose I would be thinking about their inheritance. I do not and my cousin’s children are little strangers to me mostly. I will endow the things that align with my values but I probably won’t be making any young moguls upon my death. No matter what I do with this money when I have gone on to glory (we hope), it is what I do with it now that seems to be the most important thing. It is also the hardest thing.
I hired all the requisite experts upon finding myself with money. It was horrible. If interlocutors obsessing over my new money was not bad enough, these money experts are overjoyed at asking me things I would rather not admit to knowing. Or, not knowing, which is more often the case. How much is my vehicle worth? What do I owe in student loans? What is my risk tolerance for investments? Why did I put that money in a Roth and not a traditional IRA? The answer is usually: “How the hell would I know?” They do not like that answer. I can tell by how they grimace, already-thin lips folding into themselves in disapproval. I have the money but not the right attitude.
New money also comes with a lot of meetings. No one tells you that. But some of these experts want to meet with you all the time. To present a strategy, to discuss a plan and a roadmap. The meetings are so long. I once ran an entire academic program by having 11-minute meetings in the hallway with my colleague and co-conspirator, Tara. But money meetings take hours, half a day sometimes. They want to get to know my values and my dreams and, above all, my social-security number. It is supposed to make me feel special. It mostly makes me feel itchy, like I reached for my money without first turning my back to the cashier. I have a new understanding of people in Whole Foods who cannot manage to get out of the way, even when sometimes their bodies seem to want to comply. I used to think that money and privilege made such people horrible judges of the rhythms that make collective life work. You step left when the other person steps right. A quick spin at an end cap to avoid an oncoming baby stroller. That kind of thing. Now I look at the Whole Foods people standing blithely in the middle of a foot-traffic lane and wonder if maybe their brains are so busy keeping track of the terms of their auto leases and IRA allocations and mid-term strategic plans that they just cannot get out of the way.
I do the right things. I have the meetings. I pretend to have an opinion about “investment vehicles” when my only real question is whether it comes with an app where I slide a cool bar to make numbers change. I fight the urge to slap a planner or a strategist or a consultant—whatever they go by—every time they do what I have hired them to do. I lean into the ones that make me feel most uncomfortable because I want a lot of incentives to spend as little as time with them as possible. I do these things … but a few months ago I drove to a local bank branch. I went into the branch, as Mother always did. An ATM would have sufficed but this was important. For important business you go inside. I wrote down a number on the back of a blank bank slip from the lobby desk. I slid the paper through the little COVID plastic shield that used to mean you were in a place that got held up a lot but now means you are somewhere safe. I mouthed the transaction I wanted so that no one in the empty lobby would overhear. I requested the amount be placed in an envelope, contactless moralism be damned. I counted the money in front of the cashier, even though she had just done so. We both agreed on the amount and I had made some kind of point. I am not sure what point, but it was made. I tucked that envelope into an empty wallet, a decoy. My real wallet was also in my purse. I slipped that decoy into the little gap that has opened between my purse lining and its outer handcrafted Italian-leather shell. I walked purposefully to my car and drove home.
Once home I retrieved the money, wrapped it in a clean blue-and-white handkerchief and tucked it away to places I would rather not speak about in public.
Finally, I felt safe. Money could change a lot. It will change a lot. But it had not completely changed me. I slept well.
If you want to be ambitious, I have some recommended readings for you. Don’t I always?? Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is an eminently readable book on race, class, space, and place across the Appalachia imaginary.
Over 5,000 workers vote this week on what many are calling one of the most important movements in labor union history: Whether or not to unionize at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer has a long history of union organizing. And Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe is a classic on the history of interracial labor coalitions in the South. Because of the organizing happening in Bessemer right now and in solidarity with the workers, the book’s publisher has made a copy free to download.
In Sunday’s Open Discussion Thread for subscribers I asked folks what they are proud of this week. I was very proud of being called a bitch. Congratulations to those who shared on: new jobs, setting boundaries, writing a killer lyric, and still being here though ‘every day something tried to kill you’ (Lucille Clifton).