By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
What does it mean to be caught up in a history you don’t understand? A history happening in real time all around you which is hidden and withheld? How do you interrogate entrenched political and social and economic forces? How do you confront systemic white supremacy?
These are all questions that undergird Greg Bottoms’ book, Lowest White Boy, new this month from West Virginia University Press. The book takes its title from Lyndon Johnson’s quote, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”
The lowest white boy in question is Bottoms himself, now a professor of English at Vermont University, but who grew up in a white working-poor family in Hampton, Virginia. The book is an innovative collection of short essays drawn from his childhood in the 1970’s. Bottoms’ evocative prose quickly establishes this place and his place in it, as a way of pointing up the racism and white privilege baked into American culture.
“These are real memories, very powerful memories that have stayed with me,” Bottoms told the Current recently by phone. “I’m imposing my adult mind and adult understandings around race and history and policy and politics. I’m trying to write my honest memories — these charged images and the feelings around them — and they are haunted constantly by history.”
In an essay about the public pool where he swam in as a child, he reckons with the fact that it was all white; black kids who simply stopped to rest in the shade of the woods beyond the pool, beyond the fence, were rebuked and threatened.
Bottoms writes, “And I thought the boy on the bike was right, about the shady woods being a free place for anyone, from anywhere, to rest. Months later, though, I began to understand we neighborhood kids were part of something bigger, this unspoken apartheid, a reality so plain and present it took the magic of American myth-making to make its causes vanish each second of every day …”
The essays are short and beautifully crafted, landing the reader right alongside Bottoms as he rides shotgun on the school bus full of black students that his mom drove (the only white bus driver who would drive black students.) He recalls being egged on to shout ‘n****r’ at a group of guys playing basketball. He remembers his grandmother telling him stories in which she describes the behavior of black people as hateful. And then those same stories told again, differently, by his father.
Bottoms is writing about big, nation-defining things: Brown v Board of Education, red-lining, segregation. But in these stories he’s trying to capture the drip, drip, drip of racism and how it shapes the lives of all Americans, but specifically white Americans.
Interspersed throughout the book are black and white newspaper photographs chronicling the slow, volatile integration of Virginia schools, all of which were found at the Valentine Museum of Virginia History in Richmond. One photo stands out to Bottoms. It shows a very middle class looking woman talking to a man who is wearing a placard that says school busing will lead to either Nazism or Communism.
“They’re smiling at each other. It’s just a fun day out. It’s like a bake sale,” Bottoms said. “Except it’s a fun day out and a bake sale that’s trying to keep young people of color from having equal education in America. I feel like we have to look at that. We have to look at that photograph.”
In all of these stories, he’s writing from the perspective of a white boy shielded by and from all this ugliness. Underneath that is an adult acknowledgement of the forces which made it possible for his white parents to buy a house in the ‘good’ neighborhood. And how that would not have been possible for a similar working class black family.
Lowest White Boy is Bottoms’ effort to face his history, our history, one that shaped his childhood and continues to shape this nation, Trump’s America, in an authentic way.
Whatever we do moving forward, he wants to say, it can’t be a lie.
“We are shaped by history, whether we know a damned thing about it or not. And those people out in those McMansions — they’re shaped by history. It’s much easier to not acknowledge that. To not know. Once you get into the sticky spaces I want to take us straight to, it just gets so uncomfortable.”