4) Untether from Your Class
The tidbits I picked up about my father’s childhood were usually overheard during my parents’ arguments. A recurring theme of their marital discord was my father’s tendency to provide monetarily for his brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews. It frustrated my mother to see him dispense handouts from his earned and limited income to subsidize the irresponsible behavior of extended family members.
I was too young to understand the dynamic at the time. In retrospect, I believe my father was acting upon a sense of guilt endemic of the class into which he was born. Rather than celebrate my father’s upward mobility or congratulate him on his earned success, his family resented him and regarded him with a “who do you think you are” attitude. Accepting this unearned guilt as somehow legitimate, my father regularly paid penance for his success by sacrificing to our extended family.
It demonstrated a limitation in my father’s ability to untether from his class, to disregard the expectations, traditions, assumptions, and dictates of family, friends, and neighbors. That’s not to say my father did not transcend cultural limitations. Indeed, the success he met with could not have been possible otherwise.
Had he listened to his family while growing up, he would have believed himself as inferior as he was treated. As a black man raised in the civil rights era, he also could have believed himself a victim of society. Although he never completely shook these influences, he did overcome them through sheer force of stubborn, persistent will.
His rise was nothing glamorous. He started fueling airplanes for Butler Aviation, a company eventually acquired by Republic Airlines which was in turn acquired by Northwest. He earned his way into a position as a stock clerk and, seeing that he required education to advance further, began taking night school courses to become an airplane mechanic. For two years, I never saw him. He went to school in the evening, worked overnight, and slept during the day. The effort bore him an opportunity to move to Northwest’s main hub in Minneapolis, where he earned far more than before.
Such steady, long-term self-improvement made my father an anomaly among his family and class. The New York Times’ Jason DeParle notes the stagnation typical of poverty:
Even by measures of relative mobility, Middle America remains fluid. About 36 percent of Americans raised in the middle fifth move up as adults, while 23 percent stay on the same rung and 41 percent move down, according to Pew research. The “stickiness” appears at the top and bottom, as affluent families transmit their advantages and poor families stay trapped.
Such stickiness is best explained by the ideas which are transmitted from one generation to the next. If you think someone is keeping you down, it becomes an excuse to stay there. More insidious is the policing of class which takes place among peers. A starving artist is respected until he makes it big, then he’s demeaned as a sellout. Much of the hatred directed at Sarah Palin was no doubt fueled by the animosity of women in her demographic range who resented the aspiration to high office while raising a family and looking good doing it. There is an unwritten rule, “Thou shalt not make the rest of us look bad.” Those who transcend their class always break that rule. If you seek upward mobility, you must be comfortable being persecuted for it.