Saturday, August 25, 2007

"Working Class Hero"*

Because of the schools I have attended (all on assorted scholarships), because of my publishing success (it took me three years and three hundred submissions before I published a single poem), because I do not comport myself in a stereotypical lower-class manner, some people assume that I come from an economically comfortable background, that I have always known success, or that my success as a writer is due to social connections. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am sure that everyone experiences a degree of cognitive dissonance between their own self-conceptions and the way they are seen by others. But if one is black, if one is gay, if one has been raised in poverty (as I was, in tenements and housing projects in the Bronx), if as an individual one has never fit into the various social contexts to which one has been expected or even to which one has hoped to belong, the burden of the distance between one’s own sense of self and the fixed and often distorted images others have of one is especially heavy.

Though I have a publishing career, some highly contingent place in the literary world, that still feels as if it could be snatched away at any time, and my material life is quite precarious. I certainly don’t have the financial security and stability I had hoped and expected to achieve by this age and this point in my career. I haven’t done the things that one should do to be successful. I haven’t networked, haven’t schmoozed. I’ve been no one’s sycophant, and though I would have liked to have had patronage, to have been someone’s protégé (something I had naively hoped to get out of attending Iowa), that hasn’t happened. I even foolishly removed the thanks to my teachers from my first book, afraid that readers would think that I owed my publications to them. Nor have I ever been a member of any club or clique.

Unlike the vast majority of those in academia or the literary world, I have nothing to fall back on. Since leaving my Aunt Mildred's house in Macon, Georgia, where I lived for two years after my mother's death, at seventeen, I have been on my own. It’s vanishingly rare for someone from my background, having nothing (no family, no independent resources, no “home”), to have achieved anything in the literary world, which often seems the preserve of those born with trust funds. English in particular seems to be largely populated by those who aspire to an Edith Wharton-esque, prissy, propriety-obsessed hyper-WASPiness: something which as I recall from The House of Mirth made all concerned quite miserable.

Several years ago I read a profile in The New Yorker of Jorie Graham, who as my teacher at Iowa once told me that I had had everything handed to me, to my ex-lover Chris Cutrone, a video-maker and critical theorist who grew up in a working class neighborhood on Long Island. He and I had bonded, among other grounds, as intellectuals and artists from poor backgrounds, people who as kids knew lots of words we couldn’t pronounce correctly, because we’d only read them in books. Hearing about Graham’s childhood in an Italian villa, the lavish parties her mother (a prominent sculptor once featured in a Gap ad) threw attended by Roman Catholic cardinals and Italian nobility, her marriage to the son of the owner of The Washington Post, Chris turned to me and said, “It reminds you that people like us weren’t meant to be artists, doesn’t it?” The art that saved me has so often belonged to the wealthy and privileged that it’s hard to remember that it’s not merely an ornament of power. Part of my project as a writer has necessarily (in order for me to be a writer at all) been to attempt to disentangle art’s liberatory from its oppressive aspects, to remember that those who so often own art don’t define it, that (as Adorno pointed out) art is the enemy of culture and culture is the enemy of art.

I had a dream that perfectly encapsulated my relationship to academia. I was in graduate school, walking with two professors, one an older white man and one a young hipster (swarthy, indeterminately ethnic, shoulder length hair, snazzy green blazer). The older professor was musing over some rhetorical question whose answer he didn’t really care about (something faux-political, as I recall), but I tried to respond anyway, and the hip young professor put his hand over my mouth and said, “We don’t need to hear from you about this.”

As the John Lennon song my title alludes to points out, they hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool. But I will be heard from. I’m determined not to leave the field to those born with spoons of various precious metals in their mouths (who nowadays include the children of the black bourgeoisie, however much they whine about “the rage of a privileged class”). The culture I’ve acquired with so much work may be their birthright, but I appreciate it in a way that those who take it for granted rarely do. It means something to me—it means everything to me. Sometimes I stand in the poetry section of Barnes and Noble and wonder how many authors there come from backgrounds like mine. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My oldest friend’s mother once asked me why, coming from what I came from, I thought that the world would or should be fair. I didn’t have an answer then, but now I realize that it’s because I believed that the world outside the prison house in which I was born and raised would be different. It was that hope, that faith, really, that kept me going, that keeps me going. Every “A” I got, every prize I won, was a punch in my ticket to that elsewhere. I wanted to escape the ghetto, but I also wanted to go somewhere better, which meant believing that there was somewhere better: my version of optimism, or simply blind faith. I have gone from place to place, from circumstance to circumstance, and still haven’t found that fair, just place, but I continue to search, hoping and believing that there’s a place for me.

I know that there are many smart and talented young people in the ghettos who haven’t have the luck I had, the opportunities, or just a mother determined that they would be something more than a statistic, but I also know that sometimes the system that puts one in one’s place and keeps one there with an iron-toed boot pressed down on one’s throat can be circumvented, though hardly defeated. Indeed, if one doesn’t come from privilege, one has no choice but to circumvent that system if one wants to breathe at all, and I have always insisted on drawing on my own breath. I am living proof of both the possibility and the precariousness of such an escape. I was not meant to survive this world. Many people have tried to crush me, sometimes with the best of intentions, as I know they have crushed others who have refused to know their place. I consider my survival a form of victory, however tenuous and conditional.

*For those who miss the irony in my title, seeing it as mere self-aggrandizement or self-pity, I point out the irony here. In the song to which this title refers, John Lennon means both that a working class hero is something to be and that a working class hero is nothing to be.


csperez said...


brian (baj) salchert said...

Thank you, and may you be blessed
with all the safety and strength
you need in the on and on.
I had planned to say more, but
have decided to say that in a post
on my major blog. Then again--
listen, Reginald, you are welcome
to delete whatever.
I am white. My dad was an ad
setter. I was a child in the
forties and fifties. Our lives--
I, my siblings, and our parents--
were not cushy, but they were
comfortable. That comfort, along
with my personality defects, led
me to consistently misunderstand
reality, and therefore to con-
sistenly--for all the good choices
I made--make bad choices. I could
have been fabulously wealthy
instead of trapped in Social
Security poverty. Yet, in other
more mentally and spiritually
alive ways, I'm becoming wealthier.
I cannot prove it, but not long
ago it occurred to me/ this
deepening/ might never have
happened had I not made the errors
I have made. Compared to you, I
am a minus; yet I also believe my
survival/ has been a kind of
victory, but more so I believe
it has been an effulgence of
miracles from on high. If others
never give a flip about what and
how I think and feel, so be it.
For as long as I'm able to, I am
going to be/ to the left and the
right of E. A. Poe's purloined

Laura said...

Thank you. This was helpful to me.

Reginald Harris said...

BRAVO Reginald! Great post (but then they are all amazing in various ways)

Alisha said...

WORD. beautifully put and reflects such strength. despite how this country began and operates, we all have a human right to education and artistic expression. your post got me thinking how often i feel like a "fake" when i use a big vocabulary word, and i shouldn't, so long as a know what it means!

alisha westerman

Alan Contreras said...

You may not have any of those other stacks of toys, but you do have excellence, and there are those of us scattered here and there, including those like me whom you have never met (yet), who recognized that excellence for what it was from your very first book, who have purchased every book since, and for whom your name is on the very short list of standing orders at my local bookshop.

I read very few blogs-who has time, especially with a day job and my own blog and publications to work on? Yours is one, even when I don't have time to comment as I should.

We look forward to hearing you speak at the University of Oregon in 2008 ! I might even wear my upper-crust bow tie !

Daniel Pritchard said...

Reginald thanks for this. It gives me alot of hope for myself, coming from a similar background.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Working Class Hero -- one of the best songs of all time, I think.

Do you think that at some point the way you define yourself--someone who has broken out of/escaped/circumvented --will become a prison that you will need to break out of, also?


Whimsy said...

Wonderful post, Reginald.

Daniel Nester said...

Bravo. Thank you. If only everyone in Poetryland would read this. And understand.

James Owens said...

Reginald, thank you for this post. It is, as written above, inspiring.

I think that many people who saw you and me side by side would conclude that we are very different. I am white and straight, with a Southern accent that nothing can get rid of. But I grew up as "poor white trash" in 1960's Appalachia, in a degree of poverty -- both material and cultural -- that few Americans today can conceive of, even those who are now living in that same place. I know very well the feeling that, if you come from such a background, you have no business knowing the big words or being able to recognize a sonnet. And the feeling that, any moment now, you're going to be slapped back in your place....

I don't give a damn about those superficial differences that seem to obsess our culture. The things we have in common are vastly more important.

Art is liberating, however difficult it can be to untangle that aspect of it from its oppressive strands, and however little having discovered this fact seems to help with the material facts of life or with one's standing in society. Thank you, again, for reminding me of this, and that one form of liberation is remembering the things that strange creatures like you and I have in common.

Leilani Clark said...

Your words resonate with me. As a working-class woman from Los Angeles with nothing to fall back on but my own two hands (and fortunately the love of my family and friends) I wonder sometimes about my choice of vocation. But when I read inspiring words like this, I remember that I have a right to live in my creativity as much as any person born into privilege.

Collin Kelley said...

A very thoughtful post, Reginald, and full of what my grandmother calls "home truths."

Nick said...

"As the John Lennon song my title alludes to points out, they hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool. But I will be heard from. I’m determined not to leave the field to those born with spoons of various precious metals in their mouths. .... The culture I’ve acquired with so much work may be their birthright, but I appreciate it in a way that those who take it for granted rarely do. It means something to me—it means everything to me. Sometimes I stand in the poetry section of Barnes and Noble and wonder how many authors there come from backgrounds like mine. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

Thanks for crystalizing my thoughts.

Brian Campbell said...

A superb post. Very inspiring. Thanks.

Reginald Shepherd said...

I was very hesitant about posting this piece, because it was so personal, and because I feared it would be misinterpreted, as one so easily and often is. So I want to thank everyone for their very warm and supportive comments on this post. They have really touched me. That the piece has been inspiring to some is also very heartening. I have had a very hard life but, as I sometimes have to remind myself, I have also managed, almost totally on my own, to fulfill my adolescent dreams of becoming a writer. So I know that it is possible to overcome those obstacles, even though I also know well that many people are given neither the opportunities nor the means to do so, and just how much luck and happenstance come into play in opening and closing off possibilities.

Thank you all again for reading and responding.

all best,


Anonymous said...

From someone with much the same background as your own, thank you for having a louder voice than mine. You are inspirational.

Seth Abramson said...


Sorry to be so late in commenting, but I, too, wanted to thank you for this remarkable piece. I would like to see more of this in the blogosphere; it reminds me (for this is how I read it) that people are indeed more important than Art. I've made a commitment/resolution to/with myself to take any artist I meet out in the world as I find them, without preconceptions; thus far in Iowa I've been given exactly that courtesy, and it's made all the difference--as I'd like to think the friends I've made would say if asked. All of which is to say: I'm sure your friends, likewise, appreciate the struggle it's been all these years, and that in the final accounting is all that matters.


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CCC said...

good luck on your writing. Good writing is truly an art and good poetry of course is a rare talent.

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