Class in Kentucky

Review: Messinger on Buck

Pem Davidson Buck. Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. Viii + 279 pp. Notes index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-58367-047-5.

Reviewed by Penny Messinger, St. Bonaventure University. Published by H-Appalachia (August, 2002)

Whiteness Study Plumbs Kentucky

Pem Davidson Buck's book, Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky, is an interesting contribution to the field of "whiteness studies." Buck, an anthropologist, argues that the economic and social development of central Kentucky trapped inhabitants within a prison constructed by expansive capitalism and upheld by interaction of the forces of race, class, and gender. Seeking to find the historical roots of the patterns she sees in the present, Buck tells the story of Kentucky's development by focusing upon two counties in central Kentucky; the county in which she lives (which she disguises by calling "South County") and the county in which she works (labeled as "North County"). Like other scholars who have taken on the task of analyzing "whiteness," Buck sees race as an artificial category constructed by society. She seeks to deconstruct whiteness and to explain the role of race in perpetuating oppressive economic, political, and social systems. In America, most people with power are white, but not all white people are powerful. Worked to the Bone seeks to explain why people without substantial power participate in their own oppression, willingly upholding the systems that imprison them.

Buck's title, Worked to the Bone, derives from Hoyt Axton and Renee Armand's 1974 song, "Boney Fingers." When she moved to Kentucky as part of the "back to the land" movement of the 1970s, Buck writes, she heard the song everywhere. The lyrics captured the sense of frustration she shared with her neighbors, who worked hard but were paid little: "Work your fingers to the bone - whadda ya get? Boney fingers, boney fingers." [1] Writing about the life she lived in the mid-1970s, Buck says, "I thought I was desperate.I thought I understood about bony fingers. I have since discovered that the understanding I had gained was the merest glimmer. My desperation grew out of choices we had made when we decided not to pursue careers, but to buy land and try to live off of it instead, yet we still carried with us our background of white middle-class privilege." (p.1) The song's refrain haunted her as she as she worked with her husband on a farm and after they started a plumbing business (warning: plumbing metaphors abound in Buck's account). Finally, an epiphany brought her to formulate a theory that explained the economic forces at work around her, a theory she labels as "the view from under the sink." Here, the typical pyramid of class relations has a twist: profits flow up from workers at the base of the pyramid to economic elites at the top. Buck describes this flow as "trickle up" economics, a system through which economic elites at the national and international levels systematically drain profits from the workers they employ. This control has been augmented by their domination of all levels of government, bringing spoils in the form of tax breaks, governmental subsidies, and other forms of "welfare" designed for the benefit of the wealthy.

In Buck's account, this "drainage system" is not static, but rather an evolving and dynamic force. Beginning with the settlement of the Virginia colonies in the 17th century, Buck describes an adaptive system of capital extraction through which the elites who benefited the most persuaded many of those who were being "drained" that they shared the same interests as the elites. For example, during the 1670s, Bacon's Rebellion persuaded plantation owners of the need to buy off poor whites by emphasizing the benefits of whiteness, including land ownership and expanded white suffrage, and by creating a system of slavery that was permanent, hereditary, and defined by race. This is hardly a new story, as historians familiar with the evolution of racial slavery and of Southern history will quickly recognize. As explained by historian Edmund S. Morgan almost 30 years ago, the rights of whites were built upon the wrongs done to people of African descent. [2]

Buck shows how Virginia's systems of capitalism and race relations were transferred to Kentucky, where they evolved in tandem during the following centuries. Whites who were not elites willingly upheld the system that oppressed them, accepting a "psychological wage" of white supremacy as part of their pay.[3] When presented with "forks in the road," moments in history that offered oppressed people opportunities to unite over the divisions of race and gender, they proved unable to overcome their differences long enough to make permanent improvements in their status or to prevent elites from re-instituting control. These historical moments did force the system to change, however, as evidenced during the post-World War II years when unionized workers forced employers to offer some concessions, including higher wages. Even then, Buck explains, skilled workers (most of whom were white) were deceived into accepting a "sugar-coated pill." A sweet coating, the long-sought-after family wage, covered the bitterness inside, the loss of "formerly granted white privileges such as a reasonable hope of personal, political, and economic autonomy" (p 165). As the capitalist system has become more intrusive, Buck explains, more people are being worked to the bone-our precarious economic situation disguised by the prevalence of consumer items and middle-class trappings (often purchased on credit). In reality, Buck argues, most of her Kentucky neighbors, like most Americans, and indeed most people throughout the world, have little autonomy, independence, or economic security.

This analysis of the forces of capitalism is a major strength of the book, and here, Buck taps into a powerful, yet understudied phenomenon. The shift of power from local and regional elites, to the national and international levels, has brought a loss of power to communities throughout the world. Working people often fail to see their true interests, but they are not alone in this blindness. In the last half century, the increased penetration of national and international capital into local and regional markets of the United States has intensified the loss of power and security by the middle-class managers, small business owners, and local and regional elites who considered themselves full beneficiaries of the American Dream.

Buck's book fits within the growing literature on whiteness and shares common elements with other works in the field. As described in Peter Kolchin's recent essay, "Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America," scholars in the field often focus on the social construction of whiteness, share a subjective involvement with their topics, often lack historical and historiographical context, and heavily emphasize "prescriptive policy goals."[4] Buck admits her subjectivity; her presence permeates the account through reflections that pop up in chapter after chapter. She readily reveals her agenda, both in the confessional story of her realization of "trickle up" economics (discussed above) and in discussing the purpose of the book: "Quite simply, I don't like the future that may be coming, and I hope this book will help to circumvent it" (p. 4). She continues, "I need to provide an alternative history, one which emphasizes what I believe to be the real history of bony fingers, the policies that have created them, and resistance to them. It will be a history emphasizing the strategies used by the elite to fool people into agreeing to policies that hurt themselves and many other people. But my real interest is the present, not the past, so I will focus on those moments in the past that were critical in shaping lives in the present" (p. 6).

Buck's "alternative history," however, is not always new. More than a generation ago, historians such as Edmund S. Morgan (mentioned above) and C. Vann Woodward wrote powerfully of the role of race in Southern life. Like Buck, both of these scholars were seeking not only to describe the past, but also to change the future. When does the "alternative" history of a generation ago become the reigning paradigm of today? When Buck discusses "dominant" history and anthropology, what she really means is a popular understanding of these topics, as reflected in public memory and myth. Works of deconstruction are often at their best when looking at language and social structures; they sometimes lose the real people in the process. Fortunately, this is not a problem with this account, and interviews provide real-life commentary from the people Buck studies. Sometimes, the process of deconstructing whiteness leads Buck to some excellent insights, as when she points out the celebration of slavery in Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," the state song of Kentucky (p. 11).

One of the topics that continually fascinates academics and social commentators is the question, "Why do people fail to recognize where their true interests lie?" Although Buck rejects the term, "false consciousness," she is analyzing the lack of consciousness on the part of people who are unable to see their best interests. Buck is particularly effective in articulating the ways that stereotypes have hindered people's abilities to act or to form alliances outside of their immediate context. In Kentucky, she writes, negative stereotypes ("Kentucky feuds, drinking, incest, family violence, and general backwardness, barefootedness, improvidence, and rednecked cussedness.outhouses, bare feet, early pregnancy, and incest" (p. 7), have frequently served to disguise economic, political, and social exploitation. "These stereotypes, partially produced by the dominant history and anthropology, relieve consciences and explain to the rest of the nation that they need not question the role of the elite and corporate capital in creating Kentucky poverty, or their role in stimulating the attitudes described as 'redneck,'" Buck writes. "The actions of coal mine owners, of corporate tobacco buyers, or of manufacturing executives are irrelevant in explaining Kentucky's bony fingers if they can be explained by the problems in Kentucky's culture instead. These stereotypes have made it relatively easy for many people to dismiss the actions of tobacco farmers or coal miners when they have fought the corporations that controlled their lives" (p. 7). Although Buck focuses upon Kentucky, the stereotypes she describes are familiar Appalachian stereotypes, and there have served the same function that she ascribes to the stereotypes about Kentucky.[5]

The book has several problems. One of the biggest concerns grows from the author's use of sources. Most of the primary research in the book is based upon two counties in central Kentucky, but we never learn exactly which counties she is studying. Buck conceals place names as they appear in book and essay titles, newspaper accounts, and local records, and replaces actual names of places with fictionalized substitutes. This makes it difficult for other scholars to follow her research trail or to evaluate her use of sources.[6] Another, lesser, issue concerns the author's clever use of words, which sometimes distracts from her overall argument. Chapters are sprinkled with references to the "drainage system," "trickle up" economics, "the view from under the sink," "bony fingered people," "little guy/big guy" analysis, "the sugar-coated contract," and "wannabes," leaving the reader searching to recall the meaning of the catchy phrases. Buck's wide scope also invites questions about the evolution of the system of power and privilege. Certainly, the system underwent tremendous change during the four centuries covered in the book, but Buck describes the changes with such dizzying speed that it is hard to keep track of them all. The reader is also left wondering about the consciousness of elites who enjoyed the greatest levels of power and privilege. To what extent did they deliberately conspire to preserve their status and privileges? Why were they always able to come out on top? More importantly, to what extent does the framework of whiteness explain the continuity of power and privilege?

Neither of the two counties in this study is located within the Appalachian section of Kentucky; both lie just to the west of the mountains. Even so, Buck integrates a considerable amount of scholarship about the Appalachian region in her analysis. The scope of Buck's study is ambitious. She situates her study within the context of work on the South, Appalachia, gender, slavery, and labor, as well as race relations. She traces the themes of capitalist development and follows the flow of capital (at local, state, national, and international levels), arguing that the benefits of "development" are few; development has brought poverty, not wealth, in its wake.[7] Overall, Worked to the Bone is an intriguing exploration of the role that race has played in shaping the economy and society of Kentucky. Where better to study the history of whiteness than in central Kentucky, with its mixture of power and oppression, aristocratic privilege and redneck stereotypes?


[1]. For lyrics, see:
[2]. The term, "psychological wage" was coined by W.E.B. DuBois to explain the non-economic benefits that whites gained from upholding a system of racial oppression.
[3]. See, for example, Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975).
[4] See Peter Kolchin's recent essay, "Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America," The Journal of American History 89.1 (2002): 41 pars. 17 June 2002.
[5]. For a recent discussion and repudiation Appalachian stereotypes, see the essays in Dwight B. Billings, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford, eds., Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999). The book's essays were inspired by success of Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Kentucky Cycle, which was full of offensive stereotypes that were accepted unquestioningly by critics and enthusiastic audiences.
[6]. Buck explains the steps she took to conceal identities of places: "I have given pseudonyms to counties and towns and correspondingly changed names of newspapers and of local histories where they reveal county or town identity, although page and date references are correct. I have also 'misplaced' certain locations in order to preserve confidentiality, and avoided using exact census number that would reveal county identity; these changes do not affect the argument. Names of local corporations and other institutions are also pseudonyms." (p. 229).
[7]. Here, Buck's analysis coincides with such works as Paul Salstrom's The Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region's Economic History, 1730-1940 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), and Jack Temple Kirby's Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1987).

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