The Haves, and the Have-Nots

 

Most people who live near the Gulf of Mexico, or in Florida, or along the coast of the Southeastern US understand they’re at risk for hurricanes.   When one finally appears that’s big enough or damaging enough, it imprints itself on the collective memory for generations.  I’ve listened to people talk about Carla, Camille, Alicia and Hugo as though they rolled through yesterday, and I’ve heard young people who weren’t alive for some of those storms tell stories as though they were the ones boarding up the house.  Years from now, Ivan, Katrina, Rita, and Ike will continue to be remembered and rehearsed as living events by people who experienced them, or heard the tales so many times they slowly became their own.

One mark of these powerful storms is how quickly they turn the “haves” of the world into “have-nots”.  It doesn’t matter whether your home is a two-room beach shack or an expensive bayfront beauty.  It doesn’t matter whether the vehicle parked out front is a gorgeous Mercedes, a trusty old truck or a rusted-out Chevy.  The storm doesn’t care.  The storm is a magician, with cheap tricks up his sleeve: “Now you have it – and now you don’t.”  The storm can dump a car into a marina or bury it in the sand as easily as it can wash away an entire community.  The storm can make your second story disappear and leave your neighbor’s pearl necklace hanging on a tree.  The storm doesn’t care.

People do care.  No matter how little or how much we might have had before the storm, it isn’t easy to see it ripped away.  After the shock and grief have ebbed, the anger begins to flow.  “I’ve got a mitre saw”, the fellow says, before grimacing, “At least, I used to have one.”  Once, he had, and now he has not.  It’s a difficult transition.

The irony is that we live in a world of “haves” and “have-nots” every day of our lives. Sometimes, it takes a storm to wash that fact back to our doorstep, and make us remember.  Decades ago, I lived for a year in Oakland, California.  I lived in the Flats – a collection of neighborhoods known primarily for not being the Hills.  In Oakland, one easy way to roughly distinguish haves and have-nots was that single question: Flats, or Hills?

It mattered then, and it matters now. This past summer, Place Matters, a national initiative of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Health Policy Institute, met in Oakland to consider strategies for improving social conditions.  In the process of evaulating progress in economic development, education, housing, land use, transportation and incarceration, the Alameda County Team continued to focus on closing the ten-year life expectancy gap between residents of the Oakland Flats and Oakland Hills.

“There are hot spots of death where life expectancy is literally on the order of a decade shorter than other parts of the county,” said Alameda County Health Director Dr. Anthony Iton. “That’s pretty astounding. That’s 10 years of life lost due to social conditions.”

In Houston’s 5th ward, in North Camden, New Jersey, in the mountains of Appalachia, in East St. Louis, in the colonias of deep South Texas, the small towns of the plains and the barrios of East LA, the same divisions run deep.  Occasionally those divisions, threading through our society and world like hidden fault lines, crop up in unexpected places.   When I began reading Becca’s fine Write on Wednesday  prompt this week, I didn’t expect to be thinking about social and economic issues.  But I did, when I came to this:

In the high school where I worked, we had a period of time each day known as “Silent Reading.” It happened about 10:30 a.m., right after morning announcements. Just after we heard results of the volleyball game, meeting time for National Honor Society, and were reminded to wear red and black for spirit day, the announcer says, “Now it’s time for Silent Reading.” The entire student body -all 2100 of them- including teachers, stops class and reads for 20 minutes.

When I read those words, it was as though I’d just received a message written in Urdu, or been transported into the middle of a Maori initiation rite.  I was speechless, confronted by a world I barely recognized, a world only dimly remembered from my past.  As I read and re-read the paragraph, questions came to mind: “Are you sure red and black aren’t gang colors?”  “How do you get them to be quiet?”  “An entire student body doing the same thing?  The Warden can’t accomplish that at Huntsville.”

I wasn’t intending to be a smart-aleck.   I was truly astonished, and puzzled by my reaction.  Eventually, I concluded my astonishment was grounded in having discovered a group  equivalent to literary “haves” – students and teachers working in a system where so much is taken for granted a Silent Reading period not only makes sense, but can be made to happen.

In fact, at the most basic level, we who “have” words at our disposal are surrounded by “have-nots”. The issue is literacy, and the inability of many people to participate fully in society because they are functionally illiterate.  Reading the instructions on a bottle of medication, writing a grocery list, being able to send a note to a teacher, the act of voting – these are beyond the reach of far too many in our society.  In the world at large, the problem is even greater, and scrolling through the list of nations’s literacy rates can be instructive.

Beyond literacy itself – the ability to read and write – there are attitudes toward language which are not universally shared.  Every child isn’t taught from early years to use words to express needs, thoughts and emotions.  And when a child – or an adult, for that matter – figures out that no matter how hard she tries, or which words he chooses, nothing is going to happen when words are spoken, it is the first step toward withdrawal, cynicism and free-floating anger toward a society that seems distant and cold.  As Julia Cameron says, “Writing…brings clarity and passion to the art of living”, but the willingness and ability to communicate – to speak one’s word and have it heard – is necessary for survival. 

Like all of you, I enjoy reading and I love to write.   But there is a time to enter worlds made of words, and there is a time to set aside book or pen in order to  take a clear-eyed look at the world in which we live.  Those of us who are literary “haves”,  those of us who live our lives awash in words and the worlds they convey,  also are called to consider the plight of the “have-nots” – those unable to interpret the strange markings that surround them.

Writing on behalf of those who cannot read, speaking for those still fearful of letting their voice be heard and listening to those who express their hopes and aspirations in ways barely decipherable to the world around them – we may find this, too, is good for the soul.

 

 

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Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. You make a very important point about this notion of reading and writing every day. It does presuppose the ability to do both, an ability that (sadly) cannot be taken for granted. Thanks for this powerful, and beautifully written reminder that there is still much work to do in that area!

    Becca ~

    Your prompt was so rich this week, I hardly knew which direction to go. I was equally intrigued by your comment about our being “hard-wired” for writing. I wonder if it might be hard-wired for communication, instead. I wonder only because of the existence of oral traditions, and unwritten languages. I lived in Liberia for some years among the Kpelle people – their language wasn’t written down until after 1935 – an alphabet had to be devised! And yet, there certainly was transmission of myth, story and history of their people – and inventiveness galore!

    There are just so many wonderful books to read, and interesting things to think about. I’ve never yet failed to be intrigued and delighted by what you bring us!

    Linda

  2. Yes, Linda, my thought process followed yours exactly. I was a teacher of students with special needs – many could barely read or write, and hated those forms of communication. The “have-nots”. We know there are children all over the world who do not have the luxury of education and the chance to read and write. And of course you mentioned the cultures that do not have a written language. I thought of the Native Americans who lived here long before us, who passed their stories on orally. We “haves” are so very lucky with the luxury of enough wealth to have free time to enjoy the written word.
    What an eloquent post.

    Hello, qugrainne,

    Thank you for your kind words. I’ve been thinking about these things all day, and of course finally came to the conclusion that there are other “haves” – those with the richness of oral tradition, and commonality of culture – and other “have-nots” – those of us who have become so detached from true story telling and myth that we believe “Days of Our Lives” or “Survivor” constitute oral tradition!

    In any event, the issues are worth thinking about, from any number of directions. I need to dig around and find my link to the Hip-Hop version of Puck’s speech from Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s what finally opened my ears to true “street” theater, and to the power that Shakespeare’s words could have transposed into an entirely different context.

    Linda

  3. What a beautiful, powerful post. I’m glad I stumbled upon it. It’s left me thinking… I’ll be back.

    Good evening, Nova,

    I’m so glad you stopped by, and took the time to comment. You’re welcome here any time – commenting, or not.

    Linda

  4. We cannot forget, when working to draw everyone into literacy and knowledge, we cannot forget the power of readling aloud.

    It’s true that the classes of students I taught were “haves” but I did not set them free to read on their own. I read TO them.

    We must never forget the power, delight and instinctive love every person for hearing a story, of having a story told to them.

    Those who cannot read can be read to.

    Maybe it’s your grandmother who can’t see well enough, maybe it’s a colleague who might not otherwise read a certain blurb or article, maybe it’s during a tutoring session where you’re helping with an English assignment – hey, maybe it’s at the kitchen table, sharing something. All these people, these examples and more, love to hear stories.

    Even from pre-printing times, people gathered around the fire or at the table learned from and/or were entertained by stories, true adventures, humor, exaggeration (no doubt!) so I encourage anyone who can read to also take time to read out loud, to someone. Those of us who were read aloud to as children are “haves” in yet another way. That is a “have” that can easily be shared.

    oh,

    How beautifully you’ve woven together the two threads I found in becca’s prompt: literacy, and oral tradition. Reading aloud never crossed my mind, but of course it is the logical – and enjoyable – next step.

    My own mother read aloud to me from the time I was born. I’m told I was fussy, and sometimes the easiest way to calm me was reading aloud in the rocking chair. Mom didn’t have Baby Einstein, of course. She went to a bazaar, and bought a box of books. She proceeded to simply read them, one at a time. The assumption was that a child didn’t care and couldn’t understand, so I got Shakespeare, Thurber, Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, limerick collections – whatever was next in the box. I suppose I should be grateful she picked up a good box!

    I read early myself, so being “read to” ceased, until 4th grade, when we had a teacher who read the entire Laura Wilder series to us. I have a friend who listens to audio books all the time, and know a couple who read aloud to each other on road trips.

    And I’ve found there’s nothing like hearing my own writing read to me as I’m working on it. I’ve solved several problems by downloading the wonderful DeskBot, who will read whatever I ask, whenever I ask. I’ve tweaked his pace and the timbre of his voice to my liking, and find him very, very helpful. (His avatar is a green parrot named Peedy. When not reading to me, he munches on crackers or dons sunglasses and headphones and grooves in the corner of my desktop.)

    Thanks so much for raising this important thread that I had completely missed. That’s why we need each other – no one can think of everything at once!

    Linda

  5. Good Subject. I’m torn in two directions on this one. First is communication, oral or visual(written words or pictures) that is used like a glue to hold a society together. At first my train of thought was running in the direction of groups of people with poor communication skills (by my perception) tend to live in crime ridden areas and general squallor. Thinking about it, street gangs have a very complex language of symbols and words. There is no lack of communication skill, just a big difference in cultural values. I would have just as much success walking into a downtown “social club” and convincing everyone to sign up at the junior college, get a part-time job at McD’s to pay for it, then graduate and push papers in a cube farm for the rest of their life as I would going to a right wing evangelical gathering and asking them to keep their laws off my body and their views to themselves.

    So with thoughts coming full circle here, I guess it’s more a case of values than poor group communication skills that cause crime (or fascism). If people are surrounded with one type of message, literate or not, that is the line they speak as well.

    The second is basic literacy which now a days is not only necessary but became to the lower class of have nots what the colt pistol was to the wild west; the great equalizer. With reading higher education and higher income became possible.

    Since I have moved to the South, I have met many adults that can barely read or write yet they have high school diplomas. The shocking part is a lot of them don’t see a need for reading beyound the level they are at. It’s a concept I can’t grasp because for me reading is freedom. Then again if one does not have a disability that prevents them from understanding print, it comes down to what people have learned or decided to value.

    From here comes the million dollar question of how to bring literacy to people who came up in a group where it isn’t valued and for them to do it with dignity and pride?

    Hi, Nanette,

    I’ve been mulling over your comments, and finally decided I’d better post – or publish a book.

    Like Oh, you pulled out yet another underlying theme when you said, “There is no lack of communication skill, just a big difference in cultural values.” And this, “The shocking part is a lot of them don’t see a need for reading beyound the level they are at.”

    Sociologists talk about belief structures in terms of credibility and plausibility. People will believe the most incredible things, if everyone around them finds the same belief plausible. In the same way, something which is quite credible will be rejected if no one else finds it plausible.

    For example, you and I would call the statement “The ability to read and write is important for a good life” credible. But if everyone around us thought reading and writing unimportant, we might begin to doubt our conviction. Against the pressure of the group, the importance of reading and writing might seem less plausible.

    It’s a little complicated, but it sure helps explain why it can be so hard for someone to break out of one culture or another – it’s hard to embrace new behaviors when no one else appears to see their value.

    As for literacy as the great equalizer – great analogy! To carry it just a bit farther – are you implying that we might be able to settle our differences with an occasional flurry of adjectives and verbs, or that paragraphs at 50 paces might be in order from time to time?

    Always a pleasure – for the thinking and for the humor!

    Linda

  6. Sweden are usually blessed from hurricanes but a few years ago there were one that everybody remembers. Gudrun (Actually they didn’t have name before this one).

    It took forests down. People that lived there for years didn’t find there way home because where there were forest yesterday where now flat ground with cut down trees. Amazing but a tragedy.

    Old forests that older people planted and watched grow and they were about to pass on to younger generations where no longer there.

    Now you have it, now you don’t.

    Desiree,

    Interesting, how people couldn’t find their way home because all of the landmarks were gone. Since Ike, there have been a few times I’ve looked around and felt briefly disoriented because the landscape looks so different. The creatures were disoriented, too – think how many birds and squirrels lost their homes when those trees fell.

    I never mentioned that my father’s parents both came from Sweden, in the early 1900s. One of my treasures is a blue and white ceramic breadboard from my grandfather’s town – the family Bible is with an aunt. I’ll have to look up the name of the towns. I never can remember how to spell them without looking – not as easy as Stockholm!

    When Christmas comes, I get so hungry for the foods – saffron buns, presssylta, sprats, potato sausage. And, of course, the wonderful ginger cookies and rice pudding with the one almond! I never dressed for Santa Lucia Day, but we always remembered her, and celebrated.

    So, even if the trees fall down, the traditions endure – even in this silly country of mine where it sometimes seems as though no one cares for tradition!

    Linda

  7. Linda, So glad to hear from you. And yes – reading aloud our own works (as our “discussion” circle continues!) is a great way to hear our own words’ highs and lows. But Deskbot! This is new to me (how do you keep up with everything techno? – tell me you have a techy friend) and sounds like great fun as well – a reading parrot?!! love it. I wonder how that would impact my writing … will investigate today at my dayjob desk during a stolen moment. You have once again opened a door – thank you!

    oh,

    I’m no techno-geek! I just keep an eye out. There are a couple of folks on other sites I visit who often mention little programs, and I prowl a couple of sites just to skim for what’s new-and-useful.
    Sometimes, I’ll even do the google thing, typing in something like “cool computer tools for literary sorts”. You’d be surprised what pops up!

    I should have included the link to Deskbot, which is from Bellcraft Technologies. I’m usually so far behind the curve I assume if I know about something, everyone else got there six months ago!

    Linda

  8. There’s still one more group of ‘have-nots’, who may not even enjoy the privilege of comprehending our often taken-for-granted oral communication: those to whom English is a second language (or third, or more). I’ve taught ESL to new immigrants, and conducted a literacy research on immigrant families and their next generation. I’m afraid the notion of “poverty begets poverty” applies also to literacy, or the lack thereof. Having an enriched literacy environment in the home is one of the most important factors for bringing up the next generation to master the skills and appreciate the art of reading and writing.

    Thanks for opening up an important topic of discussion. Your linking “haves” and “have-nots” to literacy is most appropriate and relevant. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Hello, Arti,

    I have a friend who is bi-lingual (Spanish and English). She also teaches, and her completely untested observation is that children from Spanish-speaking homes who are read to on a regular basis and given books – in Spanish – learn to speak and read English much more quickly than children whose homes are less committed to reading in all its forms. This certainly supports your point that literacy begets literacy – if language is important, learning new languages becomes more appealing.

    Of course, there are other factors involved. (If a love of language was the only variable, I’d be speaking French, Spanish and Swahili by now!) But as the old saying goes, there are factors which are necessary, if not sufficient. You certainly identified one that the rest of us missed!

    Linda

  9. Just a clarification: Please don’t misunderstand I’m linking the concepts of immigrant families, poverty, and literacy. Family literacy is not dependent on financial factors or material goods. The book The Glass Castle is a good example… now, that could be another paper to write!

    Arti,

    Point taken. I know a few individuals from families whose roots run deep into American history and who are financially well off who may not have opened a book for years. It’s an old joke, but true – just as there are people who purchase art on the basis of size (“I’d like a sofa-sized painting, please”), there are people who use books to decorate (“I think I need about 18′ of books with mixed burgundy and brown bindings.”)

    Yikes.


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