Saturday, February 1, 2014

Poor But Proud

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites
© 2001 Wayne Flynt
488 pages

We might be poor but we’re proud
And we’re living the best way we know how
We don’t have much but we don’t look for pity

Poverty, unlike politics, is color-blind; despite the association of US poverty with urban blacks or migrant workers,  poverty is alive and well in 'majority' whites.  Poor But Proud is a social history of Alabama's working poor, beginning with the state's early settlement and continuing onward through the 1980s, though the chief focus ends with the Great Depression. In addition to covering the primary occupations of the poor (farming, textile mills, timbering, and coal mines), Flynt addresses the political issues they raised, and explores poor white culture, particularly religion and folk traditions. He also gives special consideration to conditions like tenancy farming and milltown paternalism, probing the question of why they developed as they did. Flynt draws extensively on interviews with living witnesses as well as studies done by concerned sociologists and economic developers who viewed the impoverishment of the south and Alabama in particular as a national burden to be recitifed. Though derided as lazy, shiftless, and vulgar, the poor themselves did what they could to alleviate their circumstances, joining together in unions and driving the Democratic party toward more populism through the Grange movement.In other areas, like education, they were dependent on outside help; Episcopal missionaries served as teachers, but their structured and serene religion as quite different from the enthusiastic sects the poor embraced, like Pentecostalism. Race religions are touched on, expressed in conflict and cooperation, but not emphasized. Poor but Proud impresses with its heft; being weighty in detail, it's a first class source for anyone interested in the lifestyle and occupation of the working poor in Alabama before the world wars. While not a drama-laden narrative, it doesn't lose readability for substance. Flynt has authored similar works and is the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

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