Dirt poor, piss poor, and so poor we didn’t have a pot to pee in.

bell hooks* wrote, “home is a place where one is enclosed in endless stories. Like arms, they hold and embrace memory. We are only alive in memory. To remember together is the highest form of communion.” Recently memories of my experiences have been angrily questioned by those who perhaps experienced things differently or simply choose to remember things differently. Both of these options are acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is attempting to shame others for their memories and experiences.

That’s me on the left in the cowboy hat. Along with my cousins getting ready to enjoy a day of fishing in the Delta.

These pages are where I often choose to write about my memories growing up in rural Northeast Arkansas in the seventies and eighties. I seek to articulate these experiences with the precision detail of a flat filament, like at the end of a master artist’s brushhead. However, what I usually end up with are broad strokes of unevenly applied watercolors that get washed away by the competing narratives of others who interpret events differently. I’ve learned that people tend to have visceral reactions when your experiences put in question their own.

An example of this that doesn’t directly involve my own life is the Black Lives Matter movement. When Black and Brown people share their experiences of police brutality, economic inequalities, and other injustices, white Americans often respond with denial. Choosing to perpetuate failed proclamations of American exceptionalism and individualism or fear mongering in the form of marxist boogymen or other imagined enemies of liberty.

An example that does involve my life are my memories of growing up poor. This isn’t a cause for shame but it is simply a matter of fact. I grew up in the Mississippi River Delta which is identified as among the poorest geographical areas in America. And although they have greatly improved due to the increased presence of steel production jobs in the area, Mississippi County Arkansas poverty rates still rank higher than the National average. By government standards we fell below the poverty threshold as did many of my peers. Yet given all of these statistical realities, we weren’t dirt poor.

The term dirt poor finds its origin in history as a phrase used to describe those who could not afford straw threshing to cover the dirt floor of their houses. And those who were dirt poor should not be confused with those who were piss poor, a phrase that described those who collected urine from pubs and other establishments of public gatherings because human urine formed the basis of a chemical in the manufacturing of salt peter for gun powder. And of course neither of these economic categories were as bad off as those who didn’t have “a pot to pee in.”

My memory tells me that even though we were economically poor we were rich in love and togetherness, but still when I say the word “poor” in connection with my memories, what some hear me say is “shame.” Isn’t it interesting how we manufacture human categories based upon economic realities? We rank people based upon their ability to produce or acquire wealth and all of its accouterments. Yet the dirty little secret is that money isn’t real. That’s why it doesn’t grow on trees. It isn’t naturally occurring, but is a product of culture. We buy, sell, trade and barter because we want to care for the real or perceived needs of ourselves or our family, or we just want to impress strangers with our possession of the latest gadgets and toys. And although it isn’t real, like race and other invented evils it has real consequences. People die everyday for lack of money. People kill every day to possess money. And people die everyday in the pursuit of money. The proverb of Saint Paul is confirmed daily; “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

I think I have an idea as to why many times poor white Americans, tend to attach shame to poverty status. It is closely related to how we as white people tend to think about race and class. Once again, bell hooks in Where We Stand: Class Matters is helpful when she writes; “Poverty in the white mind is always primarily black. Even though the white poor are many, living in the suburbs and rural areas, they remain invisible. The black poor are everywhere, or so many white people think.” There is a tradition in the American South that no matter how poor, marginalized, or incongruous with the rest of society, if one was white they still had “one up” on those who were black. This was a myth perpetuated by white elites to protect their privileged status with another layer of protection between themselves and those black people they so readily abused. In this way poor white people became complicit in their own marginalization by eagerly embracing philosophies and policies that undermined their own well being. So even if white people were actually poor, they were hesitant to use this label as a categorical imperative because it would mean that they were alined with Black folks both economically and culturally, who they believed to be inferior because of their color.

Ruby K. Payne has published excellent work in helping us understand how poverty shapes our understanding of the world and how we go about navigating our place in it. What is helpful about her yeoman’s work A Framework for Understanding Poverty, is that among other things, she connects language which describes how we view the world to how we tend to create our own experiences by choosing the language we use when living as part of that world. For example, when it comes to how people navigate social relationships, people in poverty view their world as a collective of inclusion, while those seeking to escape poverty or those in the middle class view social interaction as a means of self-sufficiency, yet those who are wealthy see their primary social responsibility as one of exclusion. A function of wealth in America being the ability to afford exclusive neighborhoods, private schools, and a privileged existence. This is the where race and class intersect in the current tensions of our Nation.

Those with different economic perspectives view life and relationships differently.

As a Christian this concerns me. My allegiance isn’t to a Nation, to a flag, to a race, and certainly not to an economic system. My allegiance is to Christ. Jesus Christ a marginalized, middle eastern, peasant preacher of color who was killed by the State. So whatever label I may choose to embrace currently or when describing the memories of my youth is filtered primarily through the lens of my allegiance and not my aspiration. Or to sandwich my thoughts as I began with the writings of bell hooks; “Indeed showing solidarity with the poor was essential spiritual work, a way to learn the true meaning fo community and enact the sharing of resources that would necessarily dismantle hierarchy of difference.”

Or even better the words of Proverbs 14:31 “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

*bell hooks spells her name without capitalization to identify with the poor.

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