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Nonfiction in Brief

POOR BUT PROUD: Alabama's Poor Whites by Wayne Flynt (University of Alabama Press: $27.50; 363 pp.)

October 29, 1989|Michael Harris

"Tobacco Road" and "Deliverance." Lil' Abner, Snuffy Smith, the Snopeses and the Kallikaks. Clay eating, hookworm and pellagra. Hooded Klansmen and pot-bellied sheriffs. The South's poor whites have been poorest of all, perhaps, in the way we have stereotyped them over the decades. An exception was James Agee, who lived with Alabama sharecroppers in 1936 and whose book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," with photos by Walker Evans, illuminated their lives with the clarity of a flash of summer lightning. But Agee was an outsider who stayed only a few weeks. Ever since then, his poetry has called for a prose supplement, with tables and graphs, by a historian who could address the broader questions: How did so many Americans get so poor? What kept them in poverty for generations? And what happened later?

Wayne Flynt, a professor at the University of Alabama and a descendant of sharecroppers, has provided just such a supplement in "Poor but Proud." Blending scholarly research with oral histories, he points to the Civil War as the beginning and World War II as the end of a long, downward slide. In 1860, about 85% of white Alabamians owned land. By 1930, nearly two-thirds of the state's white farmers were tenants. Flynt concludes: "No other cycle in American history resulted in so sustained and extensive a downward mobility for so numerous a population."

"Poor but Proud" is written dryly and dispassionately, but a distinct, liberal point of view emerges. Contrary to the "white- trash" stereotype, Flynt blames circumstances, not character defects, for Southern poverty. He criticizes state government for doing so little to help, and credits New Deal relief, however spotty, with preventing thousands of deaths during the Depression. He faces the fact of racism but points out that it created its own punishment: Poor whites' unwillingness to ally with poor blacks crippled their efforts to unionize labor and gain political power. And at a time when the poor, not just in Alabama, are still being blamed for their misfortune, he aims to remind us of "where we came from and the price others paid for our journey."

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