I started yesterday’s Thanksgiving Day with expectations. I woke up with them.
I had expectations for a good night’s sleep on Thanksgiving eve. Not realizing that particular expectation, I got to watching documentaries on YouTube. I have had, as of late, a keen interest in India’s poor and the Hindu caste system which contributes so much to the poverty there. Officially, the caste system was banned by India’s constitution, but it exists still the same. That is both expected and unexpected.
As I expected, India’s Dalits, or untouchable caste, is no longer a class of people by legal definition. In practical application, the untouchables are alive and well, though perhaps not so well, which is to be expected. When corporate or government personnel were interviewed, they denied the existence of the untouchables, citing the law, and then most immediately went on to describe how happy the whole lot of the non-existent untouchable caste were in their jobs of garbage collection and manual human excreta removal. Those I saw did not seem too happy to me. Both the former and the latter were expected.
Going down in active sewers and manholes with no protective gear to remove the sludge by hand, submerging themselves in the foul waters, does not seem to be something that someone grows up with dreams of doing, though many state that this is what their fathers did, what their grandfathers did, as though the job was theirs by right of birth, their destiny, or perhaps their class, or caste: something the dalits were born to do, those pesky dalits. They no longer officially exist, though their existence seemed pretty legitimate to me on those videos. I expected that. I did not expect the dichotomy.
I heard the voices of upper caste Indians, declaring with a durable confidence that they did not harbor any ideas of class superiority or distinctions, which I expected. They then went on to say that the dalits were actually happier inside their own caste than perhaps those in higher castes, which I sort of expected, though it did not leave me with any warm thoughts as to their benevolence, which I did not expect. The upper caste Indian woman, from her high-rise luxury apartment, declaring that she was free of any such class distinctions went right on and declared that those in lower castes, the bottom caste, the untouchables as it were, though this was a word she did not use, were not capable of doing any other work than that which birth had relegated them to, and certainly, by virtue of her birth, no one could expect HER to do such work as it was beneath her and the status of her class, or caste if one chooses that word. I reckon I expected this, though I did not expect her to say it out loud and on camera. She had expectations for her own life and the lives of those she denied being superior to. She also expected them to stay in their place.
As one might expect, this whole business was fraught with peril, because I then began to watch other videos about poverty, including those about poverty in America. Some of them posing America in an unfavorable light were produced by Al Jeezera, which I expected, so, as you might expect, I did not watch them. There were plenty of others, though. As one might expect, YouTube has the reasonable, the sensational, and the absurd. Sifting through them is difficult, though worth the time, since there are some real jewels out there. I expected to find the jewels, and I did, since I refused to stop at the absurd. The best jewels were those that simply showed me the scenes and let those who are embedded in the environment tell me how their lives were in their own voices, for these videos were more persuasive, as one might expect. The pseudo-academic videos, produced by those telling me what and how I should think about these things, citing facts, figures, and studies, were the least persuasive, which, as I expected, lends veracity to the idea that sometimes anecdotal examples are better than facts and figures. I tend to distrust facts and figures furnished for my benefit, and the more facts and figures that are furnished, the bolder the print in which they are rendered, the more plentiful and colorful the graphs and charts, the more I tend to distrust them, which might to you seem unexpected. My distrust is certainly not what the presenter expected. They expected me to be immediately won over by the certainty of that which they presented to me. They did not expect me to be won over by the anecdotal. I did not expect to be so moved by personal anecdotes from those for whom reasonable life-expectations were not achievable, would never be achievable, and even the once reasonable life-expectations had been revised and re-revised downward to where no longer were good-paying, stable jobs with benefits and modest, cozy homes in the suburbs the expectations; they had morphed into a sort of baleful cry to authorities just to leave them alone in their squatter camps and fabricated tarpaulin tents so they could live out their lives in peace, in their own space, in what passes for a home in the eyes of many, but is truly THEIR home.
Everyone is entitled to the peace and dignity of their own home. While you might expect that I have always thought this, I never expected to find folks in America having to defend their homes, even though they were squatters, in much the same manner as those in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, or the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, do. The juxtaposition of those things was more than I expected, disturbingly more.
I watched a video produced in the ’50s about a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania and the struggles in a particular large subdivision to come to grips with the sole black family that had moved there, seeking the same thing that those who had originally moved there had sought. It was dated with ideas that are completely foreign to politically correct America now, which is to be expected. America has changed so much more than the producers of the video anticipated, as this video made no mention of the influx of new waves of immigrants into neighborhoods, changing them into something other than what the people in the ’50s would have expected. Oddly, the things the whites in the video wanted to avoid are the same things the black family wanted to avoid which existed in the inner city the black family was moving away from. Thus, the whites of the time were correct in a sense, in their fears that the troubles of the inner cities might follow those who left the inner cities for suburban sanctuary. The inner cities themselves would become inhabited by those perhaps less American, for whom English is a second language, or perhaps non-English speakers altogether, some becoming like post-apocalyptic desert wastelands. Those further prospering later moved into gated communities with armed guards to keep undesirables out. Former suburban neighborhoods inhabited by those post WW2 people looking for the American dream have moved into those gated communities, or further out into suburbia, leaving the neighborhood and town shown in the video looking suspiciously like the inner city no want wants to live in. This was unexpected.
I did not expect to be able to witness the decline of the American middle class in these videos. In America, a family of people who work should be able to have a home in a safe neighborhood, buy groceries pretty close by, have money for adequate transportation, pay for their healthcare, and be able to send their children to schools that will actually educate them. This is a reasonable expectation of all Americans. It is a reasonable expectation for every family on the face of the planet. It is what we all expect America to be.
None of the videos about poverty in American mentioned the demise of families, or single-motherhood, or the contributory factors of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which if one listen’s to some of Johnson’s crude but revealing remarks, were far more about obtaining and keeping political power through bribery than about humanitarian concerns. Of course government assistance went to those areas where people were poor, but their poorness did not improve, nor did the neighborhoods get any better. I did not expect this; I don’t think the Great Society’s planners expected this, either.
I expected there to be some mention of the rise in fatherless households, or children born out of wedlock; there was none. None of the videos, as I expected, have yet addressed how this might get worse, not better, with the millennial tendency to avoid marriage altogether. I also expected there to be at least some mention of the correlation of government aid to poverty. As I previously stated, it seems to me that those places receiving the most aid have declined the worst. One might look at Silicon Valley and see similar signs that the middle class is on the way out there, too, as housing costs become more and more unaffordable for the very folks who are employed in the industry, or those who serve those who work in it, looking suspiciously similar in case to those in India whose lot it is to serve the superior classes. I did not expect this. No one who is employed in Silicon Valley expects to be living in a van down by the river, either, or in a camper parked along alongside a curb.
While many of the videos mentioned that cheaper foreign imports have damaged those formerly solidly entrenched in the middle class, not a one of the videos mentioned outsourcing of services as a blight on the tech world. I expected some revelation of similarity between the two; I got none. None of the videos mentioned a global economy as a possible source for middle-class decline. None of the videos I watched mentioned anything about the contributions of addiction to poverty in America. If not a prize winning factor, then I expected at least an honorable (dishonorable?) mention garnering placement.
I expected to eat a delightful Thanksgiving meal with my family, yesterday. I got what I expected, for which I am truly thankful, as you might expect.
What I did not expect was that after watching all those videos about people who had to wonder where the next morsel of something actually edible might come from, that those in places where they could receive assistance from governments were just as liable to have nothing to eat as those in places where there was absolutely no government assistance; that roofs over heads were a struggle for many, and the many had to struggle continually as developers and urban planners with the assistance of governments took what few square footage of land they had been able to claim, or squat upon. As you might expect, the laws of physics require that everyone has to be somewhere at all times. As you might expect, policemen everywhere are still using the old, familiar phrase, “Move along!” I expected this, but I got it in a way that was most unpleasant, which I did not expect.
My Thanksgiving meal did not taste as good as it usually did. Everything was flatted like notes that fail by a mere cycle or two to reach their predicted point, like discordant notes that fail to resolve: the discord producing tension, the resolution a euphoric release of that tension. Every fork-full I put into my mouth made me wonder about people in Yemen, or Ethiopia, or Chad, or Manila, or Kolkata, or Mumbai, or Detroit, or even Meridian for goodness sake, who might be wondering where they might be spending their next Thanksgiving meal, or where their next supper might be, or where the next few grains of rice might be found. I thought about mothers looking at the distended bellies of their children, wondering where the fathers might be, thinking that they expected that there would be some mate, some man, who would serve in the role of provider or co-provider. I thought about those fathers toting baskets of human excrement so that they would be able to earn a few rupees to buy food for their families, and by food I mean plain flour. I remembered the tears of their anguish. It affected me more than I expected.
I thought about Jesus and his thrice-offered admonition to the Apostle Peter, “If you love Me, feed me sheep.” I felt this admonishment, though directed at Peter, turned like hot coals upon my head two thousand years later. I heard my own name inserted into the phrase. One thing I have learned to expect is that we are foolish to think the scriptures apply only to others, that the hard parts of them are only speaking to or about others. The reality is that they are speaking to me.
It was a different kind of Thanksgiving, but in its own way, it was far more than I expected. Either way, I am thankful.
I expect I will never be the same.
What did you expect?
©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp