Outside of Houston, Cambodian immigrants built a small community in the unincorporated town of Rosharon, growing water spinach, called trakuon, for the Cambodian community. Then Hurricane Harvey hit and flooded the town’s homes and its farms.
For the Texas Observer, Michael Hardy reports on a surprising, uneasy alliance in the rebuilding efforts: Volunteer assistance from white far-right groups wearing Confederate flag jackets and camouflage. These anti-government neo-Confederates arrived to help Rosharon before the local government or the Red Cross arrived, and they took over the rebuilding effort so firmly that they initially refused to let in FEMA. Who were these people, and did they really just want to help?
The groups are affiliated with the so-called Patriot movement, which emerged in the early ’90s from the ashes of Ruby Ridge and Waco’s Branch Davidian compound, and whose ranks expanded dramatically during the Obama administration. The Freedom Keepers are an Oregon-based group whose members appeared at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer brandishing assault rifles and wearing body armor. (Marion, the Freedom Keepers and the New York Light Foot Militia are among the defendants currently being sued by Charlottesville and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to prevent them from returning. They’re also being sued by two women injured in the car attack that killed Heather Heyer.) The Confederate Riders, a Missouri-based group, travel the country protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. The two groups share information and coordinate protests mainly through their Facebook pages, which each have 10,000-plus followers.
Both groups harbor extreme anti-government views and believe the Constitution is under siege by a range of nefarious forces. On the Freedom Keepers’ weekly Facebook Live broadcast, “The American Radio Show,” Marion rails against Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. He portrays the Patriot movement as America’s last line of defense. “This country will fall if we don’t get into the middle of it and change it from within,” he said on the show in December. “We have to become a disease. Some bacteria and some infections are beneficial. And we need to become an infection inside the body.”
Having infected Little Cambodia, the far-right groups were not eager to give it up. They didn’t see an impoverished community that had been shamefully underserved for decades and abandoned by the government in its time of greatest need; they saw a proudly self-reliant people who had built a libertarian paradise. “It’s been a really awakening experience to see what it means for people to live on their own, live their way, make their choices,” Marion said in a Facebook Live video from Rosharon. “It really is the American dream.”
The three syringes lie in a row, lined up neatly on a somber black background. Displayed with a saline drip bag and looping IV catheter, the vials are oversized, as though designed for the chubby hands of a child playing a macabre game of doctor. Below each is a typed card explaining its purpose in the December 1982 death of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first person in the United States executed by lethal injection.
To their right is a pair of hair clippers used for shaving inmates’ heads before electrocution as well as a sponge that was soaked in salt water to conduct electricity. The last thing to touch dozens of men’s shaven skulls, the sponge sits on a plastic riser, its face pale and pockmarked like the surface of a distant moon. A second sponge is in a baggie on a shelf a few steps away in the Texas Prison Museum’s vault. The objects sit there matter of factly, their subtle presentation belying the roles they’ve played in execution, Texas history and making Huntsville — with its five prisons and the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) — shorthand for the death penalty all over the world.
Last year’s visitors came from all over the world. They arrived alone, with their kids on vacation, on school field trips, on charter buses loaded with senior citizens, with their motorcycle clubs, and on the way to visit spouses on death row. Some showed their prison ID cards, mentioned where they’d been incarcerated and cracked jokes about former residents getting discounted admission.
People like to play outlaw, walking into the replica of a cell, and for a dollar per person, visitors can borrow striped shirts and snap selfies behind bars.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications.
Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump (Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)
The intersection of class, race, and religion — what could be more fraught in these times? Cobb’s rare combination of quiet wisdom and a steady journalistic hand is the perfect guide. He profiles Protestant minister William Barber, the progressive activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, with thorough reporting and sensitivity, letting facts speak for themselves but humanizing the subject as no fact alone can do. I’ve been part of the Poor People’s Campaign at the ground level and was heartened to learn here that more than one respected source calls Barber “the real thing.” But, whether or not Barber is your political comrade, you will learn that he believes himself to be your spiritual brother — a refreshing fusion of political and moral force on the sometimes god-averse left.
Feature writer for The New York Times.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
This was a really good year for profiles, despite their death (reported annually). So good that it was very hard to narrow it down, and so I was very grateful that I couldn’t pick any from the New York Times, where I work, which really helped narrow it down. (Though you’ve just got to read this one.)
And how do you choose from the others: Dan Riley on Timothée Chalamet (though exactly which profile/article/photo/table of contents, even, under Jim Nelson wasn’t great?). Allison P. Davis’ Lena Dunham lede-ender of fallopian tubes like outstretched arms? Amanda Fortini opening Michelle Williams’ historically very locked vault. Emily Nussbaum on Ryan Murphy. Paige Williams on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wright Thompson on Geno Auriemma. Jessica Pressler on Anna Delvey. (Jessica Pressler on anything.) What a year.
But I finally picked one, and when I did, I realized it was a no-brainer. Lyz Lenz, who has terrifying amounts of talent, pulled off the neatest trick: A profile of screamy Tucker Carlson that walks the line of being way too self-referential, and yet somehow makes that work. It’s perhaps because it’s so funny. It’s perhaps because instead of looking for some fatuous lede scene it goes straight to the most prominent aspect of Carlson (why is he always screaming?). It’s perhaps because she knows that there is no end to the delight of knowing his full name: Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson. Or maybe it’s this section ender: “His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.” Whatever it is, I was very grateful for it.
James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)
I lost count of how many times Paige Williams was obliged to deploy terms like “inaccurately,” “falsely,” “erroneous,” and “lie” in this extraordinary portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What’s remarkable about Trump’s press secretary though is that, at least here, those words are rarely used to describe statements by Sanders herself — but rather of those whose lies she must justify. It’s also what makes Sanders a cipher of our time. How does someone who vehemently claims to possess high moral character rationalize defending the indefensible? Put another way: How does one become that person? Williams’s search for an answer takes her to her subject’s native Arkansas, where in the ’90s the daughter of then governor Mike Huckabee “was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom” in the governor’s mansion, and Little Rock “residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes.” Later, during a visit with a lifelong friend, we catch a rare glimpse of the press secretary uncoiled and away from the podium, “wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls.” Details like these are certainly humanizing. But Williams isn’t here to vindicate Sanders’s transgressions. In 9,293 words she deftly dismantles the notion that the president’s “battering ram” might walk away from any of this with clean hands. “A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution,” Williams offers early in the piece. “But Sanders stayed.”
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.
The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)
Lyz Lenz’s profile of Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review begins and ends with the subject shouting at the writer, but insisting that he’s not. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Carlson’s raison d’être in the Trump era: convincing people to believe lies despite proof of the truth sitting right friggin’ there in the form of scientific studies, sociological data, photographic evidence, and the like. And when gaslighting fails? To Lenz, hardy soul that she is, Carlson again demonstrates his favorite ripostes. He deflects probing questions with glib mockery, by rejecting a query’s value so that he doesn’t have to address it, or — my personal favorite — with pseudo-intellectual incoherence masquerading as the sort of wily argument that wins high-school debaters gleaming trophies. (This is a digression where I beg someone reading this list to pen the definitive essay on how debate is the root of political evil. I will tweet it every day, forever.) Lenz, wholly in control of her craft, injects the profile with her own anxiety and anger about Carlson’s bullshit and with sly reminders that, for too long, respectable media overlooked his bullshit because Carlson was quite good at mimicking Hunter S. Thompson. People keep wondering, wide-eyed, what happened to Tucker Carlson. They don’t want to admit that the answer is, and was always, right friggin’ there.
Senior editor, Longreads.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffington Post Highline)
To Gerald “Jerry” Selbee, an “intellectually restless” dyslexic cereal box designer from Battle Creek Michigan, everything in the world was a puzzle to be solved. At age 64, Selbee’s mathematical mind discovered a loophole in the Michigan Lottery’s “Winfall” game. He figured he’d test his lottery strategy as something fun to do to in retirement. Jason Fagone wrote 11,000 words about how Jerry and Marge Selbee won $27 million gaming the Michigan Lottery over nine years and this piece has it all in a winning combination. As you root for the working man who finds a way to win against a big government entity, you too savor the thrill of solving a tough puzzle to make your lottery dream come true. This is longform at its finest.
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We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large.
The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica with Newsday)
When eleven high school students went missing in a single county on Long Island in just two years, law enforcement shrugged. Most of the teenagers who disappeared were recent transplants from Central America, and many of them were last seen heading into the woods, lured by the promise of weed. The Suffolk County police department responded with stomach-churning indifference, telling frantic parents that their children had simply run away.
Hannah Dreier chronicles an upside-down world in which one boy’s mother – an envelope factory employee who speaks no English – is left to piece together what happened to her son. Based on more than 100 interviews and voluminous public records, Hannah Dreier’s storytelling is as vivid as it is effortless. She builds upon an accumulation of damning details — like the fact that one Spanish-speaking mother, whose son was murdered, had to pay a taxi driver to interpret for her at the police station. (“He kept the clock running and charged her $70,” Dreier writes.) “The Disappeared,” which was turned into an episode of This American Life, is a devastating work of both relentless reporting and empathy.
Michael A. Gonzales
Contributor to Catapult, The Paris Review, and Longreads.
A Preacher, a Scam, and a Massacre in Brooklyn (Sarah Weinman, CrimeReads)
Fans of vintage New York crime stories will love Sarah Weinman’s brilliant Brooklyn-based tale, a sordid story that only gets worse the more you read. Weinman takes the reader into the mind and home of a con man named DeVernon LeGrand, a pretend preacher who kept a stable of women who dressed as nuns and begged on the streets. Of course, in true pimp fashion, LeGrand took most of their money. After moving his flock to 222 Brooklyn Avenue in 1966, things get worse for the crooked organization as it eventually becomes involved in kidnapping and murder. Although in the early 2000s I lived four blocks away from the scene of LeGrand’s various crimes for thirteen years, I had never heard of him or his house of pain and death until reading Weinman’s wonderfully written piece.
Contributor to The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffpost Highline)
I write about unusual heists from middle-America, so I was game for this Michigan lotto scam story from FOIA-bandit Jason Fagone. In crime writing it’s the characters who make for a good yarn, and I was all-in on this Mom and Pop who used brain-power to beat the system, and the odds.
The Man Who Captures Criminals for the DEA by Playing Them (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New Yorker)
Why actor Spyros Enotiades told his story to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee I don’t know (there must surely be a bounty on his head), but the storytelling was extraordinary. Undercover capers don’t get better than this.
Managing editor at The Investigative Fund.
The Trauma of Everyday Gun Violence in New Orleans (Jimmie Briggs and Andre Lambertson, VICE)
This photojournalistic investigation into how gun violence affects black communities explores how living with that violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like experience with war can. But unlike with returning veterans, gun violence-plagued communities don’t get the funding or mental health resources to help them cope.
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including Squeezed, Branded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.
Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)
This is fantastic longform that embodies what I think social justice reportage should be today. It combines an under-heard, first-person voice with a gripping true story about one of the most crucial issues in America today, incarceration. Betts, who is a lawyer and a poet, also gives his tale an unexpected literary feel, with a comprehensive gloss on the sociology behind juvenile crime, prisons, jailhouse lawyers, and the limited social possibilities for ex-felons.
Omnipresence (Ann Neumann, Virginia Quarterly Review)
This multimedia criminal justice story is about how too-bright, all-night lighting in housing projects, and faulty design overall, contributes to a troubling level of surveillance in poorer communities under the guise of fighting crime. It makes something as basic as sleeping uncomfortable for thousands upon thousands of law-abiding citizens. I really like this story’s taxonomic, poetic style, as well as how architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella gives the story a more formalist visual valence than your typical housing piece.
Blood Cries Out (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist)
In the book Popular Crime by Bill James, the author writes that the phrase “something terrible has happened” is “the best title ever for a crime book…those words turn the ‘crime story’ inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage.”
We’re hardly ten percent of the way into the story in “Blood Cries Out” before someone uses those words to tell her husband that the unthinkable has occurred: there’s been a murder right across the road. And the vast and grisly stage? Small-town Chillicothe, Missouri, where two men have amicably farmed the same land for years, until one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with a bullet in his face and his wife dead beside him. The wounded man initially suspects his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, but then changes his story and accuses his farming partner, and then his farming partner’s son, which results in the sort of twisty and utterly corrupt legal process worthy of Making a Murderer part three.
The piece is full of letters and depositions and secret meetings and a lot of paperwork, but on occasion, it vibrates with poignantly biblical/Americana-esque undertones, from the title (plucked from Genesis) to lines like, “[the victim’s] murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, [the innocent man’s] conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.”
Author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
The End of Evil (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)
I published a book and wrote a lot of my own pieces in 2018 — including one for this site — so, oddly, I didn’t keep as good track of longform reporting produced by others (podcasts, however, that’s a different story, but this is Longreads, not Longlistens). But I keep returning to Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” because it makes fresh a story long consigned to easy tropes. Marshall, who also co-hosts the stellar podcast You’re Wrong About… and is one of my favorite true crime writers, gives voice to the myriad of women and girls Bundy murdered, shows him as something far less than an evil mastermind, and demonstrates why, with particular clarity, “the longer you spend inside this story, the less sense you can find.”
Audience editor, Longreads
Checkpoint Nation (Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer)
When Americans think of “the border” as a narrow and specific line, we neglect the legal reality that the term actually applies to a border zone, a much larger halo covering up to 100 air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The zone touches parts of 38 states, covering 10 in their entirety — and within that wide rim, anyone can be subjected to a warrantless search at any time. In this signature longform reality check, Melissa del Bosque digs into the history of how Congress vested U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with alarming, far-reaching powers to search and detain even long-term residents who’ve never committed a crime at surprise, “suspicionless” checkpoints.
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
In a series of sweet, anonymous snapshots, Shiho Fukada talks to and photographs a growing cohort of Japanese seniors: “otherwise law-abiding elderly women” who have found a solution to the loneliness of aging in the reliable comforts of prison. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior, Fukada reports, and 90 percent of them are arrested for shoplifting. From the simple things they steal (rice, cold medicine, a frying pan) to the circumstances they’re trying to escape (bedridden or violent spouses, invisibility, loss, and financial strain), the details of this story make structural inadequacies to meet the unmet social and healthcare needs of an aging population all too clear.
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Nicole Antebi | Longreads | November 2018 | 18 minutes (4,438 words)
For the past few years I’ve been working on a topographical film titled Fred’s Rainbow Bar and Other Stages on the International Border featuring a variety of animation styles along with live-action and archival imagery to interrogate histories, memories, and imaginings of the border landscapes of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the region where I grew up. During this time I’ve also been following the incredible story of “Paso Del Sur” a watch group in El Paso who have been fighting to save Duranguito, the oldest barrio in El Paso Texas.
At any time of day or night, a group of older residents can be seen patrolling the Duranguito neighborhood in downtown El Paso, Texas, located across the river from downtown Juárez, Mexico. Historian David Dorado Romo is one of several “Paso Del Sur” figureheads who have been fighting the City of El Paso, for over a decade, to preserve the spaces Romo has long been writing about. In his 2005 book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Romo tracked the footsteps of Mexican Revolutionary folk hero, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and other historical figures of the period throughout Duranguito and greater downtown El Paso. I visited Romo this summer in Duranguito where I interviewed him about their battle with the City and the El Paso Del Norte Group, a bi-national consortium of developers who disobeyed a court order and illegally paid people to demolish their own property. At the time of our interview the neighborhood was in a state of limbo with a section punched out of each of five buildings by orders issued by the City; giving the distinct anthropomorphic appearance of a body disemboweled and left for dead.
The day after the 2018 midterms, while awaiting edits on this piece, I got word that the City of El Paso had increased their police presence in the neighborhood and resumed fencing in properties to speed up an archaeological study, with plans to resume displacement and demolition within the next week.
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NICOLE ANTEBI: Where does the name Duranguito originate from?
DAVID DORADO ROMO: The provenance of the name is both anecdotal and historical. One of the stories Toñita Morales, who lives in the adobe-looking house over there, tells me, is that she first heard it when she was a young woman living in Segundo Barrio in the late ’40s. She told me that there was a family from the State of Durango with three daughters that lived here on one of the streets and when young men would go back to visit people would say “A donde vas?” and they would respond, “Vamos con las de Duranguito.”
What I’ve seen in some of the oral history records at the University of Texas at El Paso is that it was called Barrio Durango back around the turn of the 20th century and they don’t really say why, but I get the feeling that it may have been called that because one of the streets here is Durango street. So you can find all these streets in the Anson Mills plot map of 1859, even before the railroads came here, and these were all wagon destinations. So Chihuahua and Santa Fe streets were part of the old Camino Real and Durango was also one of those destinations where you would go.
Later, in the 1990s, you had the central business association led by Tanny Berg who had plans to gentrify this place and turn it into a destination with bars and a nightlife and he started calling this whole place Union Plaza based on the Union Depot. That’s a relatively new name. And so now the city is saying it’s not called Barrio Duranguito, its called Union Plaza.
Names and terrains have always been contested. That’s part of the identity of a place and that’s also part of the struggle. We are trying to revive what the neighbors themselves call it. But in fact, if you go back to 1827, it was called Ponce de Leon Rancho and it was the first land grant on this side of the river. In 1873, when El Paso was first incorporated, Duranguito was designated the First Ward. There’s an older parcel where the Chamizal or the Segundo Barrio used to be, that, it could be said, was the first, but it was still on the Mexican side of the border at that time. So in 1873, this became the first land grant on the El Paso side. And when they first broke ground, there were a lot of adobe structures that were designed to protect themselves from the Apaches. So that was also contested terrain. And even the Apaches were themselves contesting this place. There is archaeological evidence all around of Pueblo-style sedentary communities. So really, this is part of a long, long, history of contestation. But this isn’t the kind of history the City feels like it can promote.
Thanks to a Justice Department mandate from 1953, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection can now detain and search people within 100 air miles from the actual border. With over 40,000 agents, it’s now the largest federal law enforcement agency. Every year, its agents interact with 27 million people at both permanent and temporary checkpoints.
For the Texas Observer, Melissa del Bosque writes about the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s expansion, its overreach, and current attempts to reign it in. Bosque details the way the agency routinely detains American citizens without having to explain why, searches our cars with no warrants, and operates with little oversight. Yet its reach keeps expanding. If you drive within 100 miles of the border on a road that leads to an official border crossing, you better watch out, because if the patrol barks at you the wrong way, you could be detained for a while. And for what?
During CBP’s rapid expansion, the agency ramped up its use of interior checkpoints, subjecting ever more Americans to warrantless searches, seizures and detentions near their schools, in their neighborhoods and on public roads. CBP’s own data suggests that its interior checkpoints do little to catch what it calls “unauthorized entrants” and instead ensnare U.S. citizens on minor drug charges. (Forty percent of its seizures were 1 ounce or less of marijuana taken from citizens.) From 2013 to 2016, interior checkpoints accounted for only 2 percent of CBP apprehensions of undocumented immigrants. In May, a circuit court judge in New Hampshire threw out charges against 16 people who were arrested for possessing small quantities of drugs at a checkpoint manned by local police and Border Patrol agents, about 90 miles south of the Canadian border. “While the stated purpose of the checkpoints in this matter was screening for immigration violations,” the judge wrote, “the primary purpose of the action was detection and seizure of drugs,” which he ruled unconstitutional.
The Trump administration has been aggressively promoting further cooperation between immigration agencies and police departments. Border Patrol agents often accompany officers during routine traffic stops and serve as backup or sometimes as interpreters, but their involvement in domestic policing has had lethal consequences. In 2011, a man in Washington state called 911 because his son, 30-year-old Alex Martinez, who had a history of mental illness, was smashing the windows of their home. Border Patrol accompanied local sheriff’s deputies to the residence, likely because the call was made in Spanish. When they arrived, Martinez stepped out of his house holding something in his hand. Law enforcement say it was a hammer; the family alleges it was a flashlight. A local deputy and a Border Patrol agent, who said they felt threatened, shot Martinez 13 times. Since 2010, watchdog groups have counted 77 CBP-related fatalities—at least one-fifth of them U.S. citizens.
CBP operates with less oversight than your local police department despite having one of the largest federal budgets in Washington. The agency doesn’t reveal the names of agents or details of its internal proceedings in fatality or misconduct investigations. Until four years ago, CBP even kept its use-of-force policies secret; they were made public only after a congressional inquiry into a wrongful death resulted in an independent review. CBP hasn’t widely adopted dashboard or body cameras, although it began a six-month pilot project in May. In 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a panel of law enforcement experts formed by DHS, warned that CBP had no effective process to root out corruption and that its internal affairs office was woefully understaffed. “The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” the council warned. “Pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.”
We’re delighted to bring you an excerpt from chapter two of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh.
Body of a Poor Girl
Our bodies were born into hard labor. To people who Grandma Betty would say “never had to lift a finger,” that might sound like something to be pitied. But there was a beautiful efficiency to it — form in constant physical function with little energy left over. In some ways, I feel enriched rather than diminished for having lived it.
I know the strength of this body that helped hoist an air compressor into a truck, leveraged a sheet of drywall alone, carried buckets of feed against prairie wind. I know the quickness of my limbs that scaled a tall fence when a bull charged and that leapt when a ladder fell. But while I worked in those ways, like my mother and father I wrote poetry in my mind.
There’s an idea that laborers end up in their role because it’s all they’re suited for. What put us there, though, was birth, family history — not lack of talent for something else. “Blue-collar workers” have jobs requiring just as much brainpower as “white-collar professionals.” To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.
To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.
Sometimes it was miserable. Sometimes it was satisfying. The farmhouse living room where we spent evenings had a big woodstove in it, and no fire will ever feel more glorious than the ones we sat next to after working outside in January sleet that clung to the metal fences as a coat of ice. I’m a little sorry you never got to feel that. But I am not sorry that you never experienced the dangers of being devalued outside those farmhouse walls.
The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you. Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.
For black and brown bodies, a particular danger exists regardless of how much money is in a bank account. We were white bodies in peril specifically because we were laborers.
The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it.
For those of us who were female, the body was also defined by its role as a potential mother. That’s true in every class but becomes more problematic in the context of financial struggle. Poverty makes motherhood harder, and motherhood makes poverty harder. Single mothers and their children are, by far, the poorest type of family in the United States.
The frustration at the dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty was sharpened for my mom in a couple of ways, I think. She had a mind that wanted books, ideas, and sketch pads — things she sat with privately but didn’t get to share with the world. And, because people considered her beautiful, she got a constant stream of attention about her body, at work and elsewhere. Being physically objectified that many times over — as a labor machine, a producer of children, and a decorative object — all while being aware of your own unexpressed talent can make the body feel like a prison.
My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw. I think sometimes that she didn’t really hate having children as a young woman; she hated her life, and the children who came into it would feel that.
My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw.
There is a good chance you would have felt it, too. The anger she put on me, I would have put onto you. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has seen me in a moment of true rage; they would tell you my voice became quiet and my eyes stopped blinking. But I have felt the wild, ungrounded frustration of the women before me many more times than I have shown it. Not so much now. But very much when I was a teenager and into my twenties, during what would have been your most formative years. Back then it took every bit of strength in me to stop that energy running through my body like lightning, to refuse to be its conductor.
Anger was not Jeannie’s true self, I’d learn as she aged. But, as tends to happen with people who are beaten down by daily circumstances, my young mother’s core nature was glimpsed only in moments of life and death: the hospitalization of a loved one, her own water breaking. It was not a tender nature, but it wasn’t mean, either. It was a severe serenity, doing whatever a moment required without complaint.
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The day my brother arrived, she sat on the edge of my twin bed to wake me in the dark early-morning hours. She’d picked out my ruffled mauve bedding and kept it well laundered, but before that moment she had never sat on it, that I can recall. She had a habit of keeping her distance and flying off the handle at the smallest frustration. For this event that might actually warrant panic, though, she was calm as a priestess in the October moonlight.
“It’s time,” she said.
At the hospital more than thirty miles away in Wichita, Mom hemorrhaged during the labor. Her blood pressure dropped so low that the doctors said, “Stay with us.”
Once she had recovered, someone put me in a blue smock and took me to meet Matthew, who was blotchy and black haired. The visitors’ room had blue balloons and food on long tables; I’d never seen such a big spread of treats and drinks on a day that wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas. Dad gave me a cup of sparkling grape juice, which I knew was expensive since it was in a big glass bottle involving bubbles and foil.
Mom wore a pink-and-black-striped cotton gown. She had curled and teased her long brown hair and put makeup on her twenty-two-year-old face, but her eyes were tired. They would stay tired for a long time.
My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter and didn’t live in a proper neighborhood where there might have been fellow mothers to help a woman recovering from childbirth. Both my grandmothers, Betty and Teresa, had promised to come by when they could. Dad was determined to get back to work. The Family and Medical Leave Act that might have protected Mom’s job for a few weeks wouldn’t be passed for another eight years; toward the end of her pregnancy, she’d been forced to quit whatever low-paying gig she had at the time.
So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.
So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.
With Matt’s arrival just weeks before Ronald Reagan’s reelection, Mom would soon cast her second vote in a national election. This time, though, her politics were different. While her teenage instincts had gone with losing incumbent Carter the year I was born, by 1984 she had been won over by Reagan’s charm or at least by the national consensus that he was a good president. Many others in our community would vote for him, too — if they voted at all.
“They’re all crooks,” I often heard about politicians. Mom never said that. She was not given to apathy and did her best to stay on top of the news. Based on what she could glean, Reagan was a good man.
The Republican party would hurt women like my mother in direct and indirect ways that decade: removing the Equal Rights Amendment from the party’s platform, dismantling aid programs that helped poor women feed their children, eroding reproductive health rights. Unbeknownst to my mom, the Republican party was turning deeply socially conservative, different from the moderate, fiscally conservative party that people respected in my area. Mom didn’t think women on welfare were lazy or that feminists were militant monsters. She voted for Reagan because a cultural tide told her it was the right thing to do, and she had little time or resources to question the wave of sentiment the country was riding.
The country was swinging right, and working people were changing party allegiance. My mom was one of them, part of a national trend that I have found says more about clever political messaging than about what people truly know or think about the issues. Meanwhile, poor rural mothers like her were receding from view in both political parties, if they’d ever been in view at all.
When she got home from the hospital, to our new house in the country, Mom was still bleeding through the stitches between her legs. She was exhausted in a way she’d never been and scared to have a four-year-old and a newborn under her care. Dad had to go back to work.
“Please don’t go,” Mom said to him. She was generally too proud to ask anyone for anything, including her own husband for support. But she pleaded. “I can’t do this alone.”
There were houses to build, though. My uncle was outside honking the horn, and Dad left — believing, to some extent, that it was his job to provide and her job to take care of the kids. There was no paid leave for him either in such a moment.
Once Dad was gone, Mom lay in their bed trying to sleep through her pain as Matt cried from his crib. I crawled up a chest of drawers in her bedroom and tipped it over. The dresser crushed me against the carpet.
Mom ran from her bed and somehow lifted the chest off me, straining so hard she tore her stitches. Blood ran down her thighs.
I don’t think we went back to the hospital. When she told me the story, it was about a day she barely survived because of my dad’s absence. I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children. Pregnancy slows you down, so pregnant women lost their jobs; mothers were alone in their nuclear households while fathers worked extra hours to make up the difference. For the poor and rural among them, the situation was keenly dangerous.
When Dad came home that night, Mom was quiet. She stayed quiet for weeks, until Dad made another announcement. He would be leaving for a construction job a long drive east of us. That meant weeks away from home. Mom thought he was finding excuses to be away from us.
I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children.
“Please don’t go, please don’t go,” she said, screaming and crying. She often screamed but almost never cried. It was like something had broken in her when the stitches between her legs tore.
But Dad packed up his tools and left again.
He was concerned about providing for his family, he told me when I was grown, sitting next to him in his work truck and telling him how Mom remembered that day.
“I couldn’t have turned down good money, even if I had to be gone for a long time,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. “Look, maybe I was wrong.”
* * *
How to handle the stress of it all when you don’t even know that your life is stressful? Women saying “my nerves are shot” was the closest anyone came to examining the situation. What they didn’t discuss, though, they felt. That’s what substances were for.
Every adult I knew was addicted to something — mostly cigarettes or booze. Also pills, both prescribed and gotten by other means. The women of my mom’s family, who had grown up in Wichita with doctors nearby during decades when health care was cheaper, were sold on the idea of prescriptions for symptoms rooted in psychological strife. Most of them were on “thyroid medicine” for exhaustion, “nerve pills” for anxiety.
Dad, however, didn’t take even the most benign aspirin — not thinking it harmful or ineffective but suspecting it amounted to money spent on something your body and mind could do on their own, for free and without side effects. Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.
Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.
He tucked me in most nights and helped me say my Catholic prayers to the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Mary, and the guardian angels of me and all my family. This helped me relax at bedtime, but I had a horrible time falling asleep. I’d lie in my bed thinking through every problem and staring at my closed closet while my muscles were frozen in fear. One night I finally told Dad that I couldn’t fall asleep for the longest time, even after the prayers. He listened. Then he put his hands around my toes through the comforter.
“Relax your feet,” he said in a soft voice, and I did.
He said to relax my legs. I was amazed to find that I could and did.
“Now relax your tummy,” he said. I did, knots and tension disappearing as though Dad had helped me wave them away. I felt like a warm blanket was being drawn over me, but on the inside.
“Now relax your arms and your fingers,” he said. “Now your shoulders.”
By the time the magic had reached my head, my eyebrows relaxed, and I fell asleep.
Dad knew how to help me quiet my mind because he had taught himself to quiet his own. No matter how hard a day was, he almost always treated me with respect, if only by keeping his distance when his own emotions were raging.
And he really listened to me. Even though Mom was the reader and writer of the two, Dad liked to claim I grew up to be good with words because he talked to me like a grown-up rather than in baby gibberish when I was an infant.
Conversations were different with the rest of my family. They often fell into trancelike repetition of nonsense once a kid had worn them out: “He needs a good pop upside the head,” they’d say. Or “He’s lazy,” or “She don’t mind when she’s told.” Even warm, loving Betty would brag about how she’d been beaten as a kid and it did her good. “She’s up to something,” grown adults would say about little kids — words of warning like an old fairy tale from a European forest, where a poor child was a burden unless she contributed to the household and obeyed the rules.
Dad never said things like that. He would have troubles with drinking and gambling over the years, but he carried an aura of peace even when our lives were chaotic. He brushed my knotted hair before the sun came up, before he went to work and I went to school. He jotted poetic little notes of wisdom on scraps of paper and put them in my bedroom. When I was older I realized how remarkable all that was in our culture where manliness had a specific definition.
“Writing poems and brushing your daughter’s hair before school isn’t something men brag about, where we’re from,” I told him, reflecting on how nurturing he was by nature.
“It ought to be,” he said.
He was so good with little kids over the years that, even though he never said he wanted me to have my own, I sometimes felt simultaneously relieved I wasn’t a mother and sad that he wasn’t a grandpa to you.
Driving his truck, he would hang his left arm out an open window and let the smell of his wheat fields fill the cab. He barely pushed the gas pedal. The truck seemed to stand still, but through the large, flapping gash in the floorboard under my dangling feet I could see the dirt road moving past. Dad was quiet. The radio was off or tuned to AM. The fields were dirt or green sprouts or blond waves or tall stubble like Dad’s beard. I’d crank my window down and do like Dad.
The place we lived was full of sharp objects, poisons, and frustrations, but there were moments — maybe most moments, on the whole — like in Dad’s truck with the windows down, when the west wind that reached us all the way from the Rockies cleared the air, and I felt more free than I’ve felt in cleaner, safer places.
To find that feeling by myself, I developed a trick I called “doing the reflection.” I’d crawl onto the bathroom countertop and press my face close to the mirror, my breath creating two little circles of fog that disappeared when I inhaled. I would stare into my own eyes. It was important not to blink, for some reason. Then I’d feel a shift inside my head, hear a little “swoosh” like the ocean inside a shell.
My face would suddenly look a little different, my vision was a fraction of a millimeter outside my own eyes. Then I felt calm, unlike the upset child I saw in the mirror.
The poverties that threatened my safety forced me to find that safest place. Eventually I would think of that realm as where we come from, and where we return when we die. That’s where I heard you. That’s the calm center where I received my most important assignment, as the body of a poor girl bound for a different life: to make sure you were never born.
* * *
From Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
* * *
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer and many other publications. A frequent commentator on class issues in the U.S., she recently was a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction. She lives in Kansas.
Anonymous | Longreads | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,750 words)
An editor asked me for an essay about porches with an upbeat takeaway, and I thought about how porches let us navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. But I’d just sat on my porch in Texas and had conversations that sent me back inside, feeling scalded. My small talk had taken a dark turn, my fault. Most people can’t hear about trouble without suggesting a quick fix because they want you to feel better. I tried to write about porches and ended up writing about social life. I tried to write about social life and ended up writing about social media, where we also navigate the zone between public and private life and connect. Or don’t. On social media, our virtual porch, we converse with friends, friends of friends, the occasional somebody no one knows, and decide who to wave over and who to dodge. People to avoid weren’t easily detectable. I couldn’t tell except in meandering conversation. They seemed like people who might be companions, consolation. And they looked like me, white. My daughter is black.
An early inkling of trouble occurred on November 11, 2016, the first Friday night after the presidential election. She was two hours away, a college freshman in east Texas. While she was sleeping, her car was jumped on or slammed with a blunt instrument, painted with a slur (your first guess is correct), festooned with posters on which the slogan “Make America Great Again” had been altered to read “Make America White Again.”
The door to her college-owned student apartment was vandalized too. Other black students in the building woke to find their cars and doors vandalized. It seemed obvious that some white students, neighbors, had made note of black students coming and going, who lived where and drove what. Otherwise how could vandals (is that the word?) have known which cars and apartments to target? This inference might seem like overthinking it, a sin in the annals of self-help. But it was my first thought, and the first thought mothers of my daughter’s black college friends had too. Our children had been under surveillance, however inexpert, added to a list.
A friend: “But your insurance will cover it, right?”
Another: “Yes, we all feel bad the country is so misogynist it wouldn’t elect a woman.”
For months I’d watched as one candidate first descended into his campaign via an escalator, then deeper and deeper into auditoriums in small cities across America where black people were shoved and punched, sometimes at the candidate’s urging. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 1, 2016: “Knock the crap out of him. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” About a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 21, 2015: “He should have been roughed up.” Sometimes blacks were ejected for being black. In Valdosta, Georgia, on March 1, 2016, black college students with no plans to protest were removed as whites yelled, “Go home, nigger.”
Pundits called this “dog-whistle racism,” as in only dogs hear it and come running and so, it follows, only racists hear it and come running. But it wasn’t muted. My daughter was born in 1997, a time after name-calling and reserving spaces as white-only had diminished to the point that, as sociologist Lawrence Bobo found, a majority of white Americans believed racism was rare. By the time my daughter was 10, the term “post-racial” had gained currency. Social scientists began to study implicit, systemic inequality and those barely articulated prejudices by which, in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s research, subjects describe themselves as not racist but explain lack of contact with people of color as “natural” and use terms like “unqualified” to describe them.
Eighteen years later, I worried my daughter wasn’t safe. Her property had been damaged. I hoped her corporeal self wouldn’t be. I hoped her incorporeal self wouldn’t be either, but concern for that shifted to the backburner. I was like the Ancient Mariner, who must have been good enough company once but can’t act normal now. As more bad events befell my daughter and people I knew, and people I ended up knowing, I ran into friends and neighbors whose lives proceeded as usual except for political outrage I shared, but theoretically not viscerally, and when they said “How are you?” en route to somewhere pleasant — like wedding guests on their way into a wedding — I detained them and recounted bad news.
My brain was overfilled with it and leaking.
Until the tide started to turn toward Doug Jones on Tuesday night, it looked as though the quintessential Alabama Moment of its bizarro special election would come courtesy of Jim Ziegler, the Republican state auditor. After candidate Roy Moore was revealed to be a serial mall-stalker of teenage girls, Ziegler was among the many fine Christian citizens to rally to the Republican nominee’s defense. The news, he said, had put him in mind of the inspiring story of Our Lord and Savior. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus. There’s nothing immoral or illegal here.”
Nothing to see here, folks! has not only been the rallying cry of conservative Southerners since the build-up to the Civil War, but of the region’s put-upon liberals as well. As soon as Moore secured the Republican nomination, the familiar sense of dread began to creep in. “Good lord, here we go again,” one of my former neighbors in Montgomery, a longtime civil-rights activist, sighed over the phone. “You know exactly what it’ll be. Magnolias and guns and grits and moonlight and poverty and NASCAR and Selma and Bible-thumping imbeciles and poverty statistics, and oh yeah, don’t forget the cousin-fucking jokes on late night TV. ” (She had no idea how right she’d be about the latter.)
The last time the rest of America had found a reason to tune into news from the state of Alabama, the footage had been black-and-white: The Alabama State Police showed off their baton-wielding and hose-shooting skills, big dogs snarled, and George Wallace demagogued about “segregation now, segregation to-morrah, segregation forever.” The images didn’t just stick in Americans’ heads — they became Alabama.
“This is an election to tell the world who we are,” Doug Jones said on the campaign trail. It’s exactly what so many Alabamians were dreading like the plague.
While Northeastern liberals were getting the first look at Alabama in Technicolor, Roy Moore’s backers did their damnedest to make it appear that time had actually stood still. State Representative Ed Henry told the Cullman Times that the women who accused Moore of molesting them should be locked up. “You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion,” he said. Besides, said Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener, you couldn’t blame a man in his thirties for things that happen: “I know that 14-year-olds don’t make good decisions,” he said. John Archibald, a columnist for Al.com, put it pretty aptly: “Thinking of the world watching Alabama now is like hearing an unexpected knock on the door when you haven’t done the dishes.”
They knew perfectly well that most white Christian folk in Alabama did not really believe that Roy Moore was another holy spirit come down to Earth to impregnate holy virgins. They also knew that Alabama’s ornery streak was about to kick in as soon as the national newspapers started to dig into Moore. “If the Washington Post ran a banner headline tomorrow saying ‘Antifreeze is poison, don’t drink it,’ a sizeable number of Alabamians would be dead tomorrow,” cracked Kyle Whitmire, a local political columnist.
But lo and behold, decency prevailed over orneriness and bigotry on Election Day — by a narrow margin, maybe, but still. All of a sudden, the generations of sneering and stereotypes gave way to gratitude and surprise from celebrity liberals. “I love you Alabama!” tweeted Cyndi Lauper; “Alabama gives us all hope tonight,” said Maria Shriver. “Never give up on this gorgeous mystery called Life,” commented Ava DuVernay. “A Democrat from Alabama? Hope lives.” Alyssa Milano found her inspiration in a whole new place: “Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity, Alabama,” she tweeted.
Granted, it might seem like a pyrrhic kind of victory when 48 percent of the state, and 68 percent its white people, voted to send a probable pedophile and certified theocrat to Washington. At Vox, Dylan Matthews noted that “a glib commentator might conclude that all the election shows it that a Democrat can win a special election in Alabama if his opponent has been fired from the state Supreme Court twice for misconduct and faces multiple credible accusations of preying on teenage girls.”
True enough. But un-crazy Alabamians and long-slandered Southerners will take what credit we can get. While the Roy Moore episode dredged up and reinforced a million hoary old clichés about the Deep South, the ultimate takeaway was something else altogether: Alabama, it turns out, isn’t an American outlier after all. “Looking back at George Wallace, we thought he was a fading and terrible relic,” says Diane McWhorter, the great civil-rights historian from Birmingham. “After Trump, we’re all Alabamians now.”
During the civil rights era, populist historian Howard Zinn wrote the truest thing ever said about the South — and the rest of America. The South, he said, “is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States, as a civilization, embodies all of these same qualities.”
After Tuesday, perhaps, Alabama can become a state rather than a symbol. Put to the test by Roy Moore, its voters showed they aren’t really the American exemplars of intractable ignorance and intolerance. At the same time, they’re hardly what Jones wanted to claim in his victory speech — sudden proof that the universe’s moral arc keeps bending toward justice. Charles Barkley, one of the great Alabamians of our time, nailed the real truth as he celebrated Jones’s victory with the homefolk on Tuesday: “Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people. But we got some amazing people and they rose up today.”
On Tuesday, precisely because of that wild mixture of ignorance and amazingness, of smallness and big-heartedness, of bigotry and brotherhood, Alabama finally became a widely recognized part of the United States of America. Whether that’s a compliment or not, of course, depends on your perspective.
Bob Moser is a contributing editor at The New Republic, former editor of the Texas Observer, and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority.