When I first saw the title of this book, I felt my body slightly recoil. In fact, the book was recommended to me by my boss who is a White-American. Previously, Amazon had placed the book on the list of recommended titles for my purchase but I had yet to take the plunge. This time around, I gave in and decided to see what was contained in the pages of this book. Having finished, I can say without a doubt that Nancy Isenberg has produced an eye-opening account of what truly is the untold 400- year history about class and race in America. At first glance, it may seem as if the book is a racist attack on people perceived to be of a lower social class. But in fact, the opposite is true. Isenberg brings light to the suffering and exploitation of a social class that is still disdained and mocked even today. The 2016 Presidential election brought the subject back into the public light provoking fierce debates about the success of the Republican Party and the election of Donald J. Trump. But the question truly remains, what does it mean to be called white trash?
History books typically portray the American Revolution as a movement bursting at the seams with a new-found patriotism as former colonies sought independence from Great Britain. It is a graceful and inspiring story but the reality is that the truth is often uglier and stranger than fiction. The story at hand begins as America is in its infant stages and Jamestown is established as the first settlement with immigrants formerly of England having made their way to North America. But what is often forgotten or in some cases ignored, are the many levels of class distinctions that existed then and still exist now. Slavery overshadows other dark parts of American history but as we see here, there was another class of people who were viewed just as poorly or in some cases, even worse than enslaved Africans. These issues and several others pushed the United States to the breaking point resulting in the Civil War that split the country in half and gave rise to the South, the region that became home to Jim Crow legislation and some of the worst cases of racial violence ever witnesses by American citizens. Isenberg brings even more clarity to the issue taking us back in time to relive the past with figures such as Presidents Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and the infamous Andrew Johnson. Other historical figures such as Davie Crockett, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and the Bakkers (Jim and Tammy Faye) also make an appearance.
The book is presented in an easy flowing chronological format allowing us to follow the development of the United States and continued deplorable existence of the lowest class of White Americans. As a Black-American, I am all too familiar with exploitation and discrimination. It is part of the history of this nation and something that we still struggle to fully confront. At times we have heard the term white trash, always used with a negative connotation. But what we should seek to understand is how the term originated and why. Further, it behooves us to understand how politicians, corporations and others with vested interests have manipulated, stoked fear and paranoia and ultimately exploited one of America’s most unwanted. Eugenics, greed and pseudo-science became the tools of the trade as one class pulled out all the stops to eradicate another.
From start to finish I literally could not put the book down. It pulls you and refuses to let go as the pages reveal a side of America you may be unfamiliar with. Breaking the facade of all White Americans being well-off, Isenberg brings the reality home that class is as important as race and is fully intertwined. This is a book I wish I had read in history classes in school. For an unfiltered and brutally honest look at the social structure of the United States, this is a good place to start. You will not only learn more about America but about yourself as well and what prejudice and exploitation really mean to those who employ it and those who suffer from it.