Justin Torres is author of the novel “We the Animals.”
I grew up in the Rust Belt, the easternmost tip, in a small town near a Great Lake, where my mother worked in an industrial brewery and my father eventually found work as a cop. They armored their bodies on the way out the door: hard hats and safety glasses, bulletproof vests, steel-toed boots. They worked in shifts, one or the other often working while my brothers and I slept, their own sleep regularly disrupted. I can close my eyes and picture my folks pulling on uniforms, dragging their tired bodies out the door — and I feel the rush of childish concern I had for them then, how I wanted to force them to nap, afraid either my mother might slip behind some dangerous churning machine or my father might nod off at the wheel. My parents were young high school dropouts, overstretched, and I had a hunch that maybe my brothers and I could do with more looking after than we were getting. But I had a sense, too, even as a child, that they themselves, my sleepy, harried folks, were deserving of some looking after; that a more ordered world, a kinder world, would allow them time enough to eat together with us, to sleep, more time at home and out of uniform.
I grew up alongside — surrounded by — white folk, straight folk, none of them rich, many hardscrabble poor. So many of the presumptions of that world seemed ironclad, so many traditions unbent and unbending as an iron spike. They believed the greatness of this nation to be inseparable from the greatness of the white race; the nation’s strength inseparable from the virility of white manliness; the soul of the nation a Christian soul. In that place, at that time, queers knew to hide, immigrants to assimilate, and black and brown folks to stay away or in their station. One only needed to look at the unbroken succession of presidents to know the true face of power, the white face, the face of the father, which must never be made to blush.
Rust Belt. I remember the first time I heard the term, as a child, and how it made perfect sense to me. The rust was everywhere, a stain on a white undershirt, edged across a blade, streaking down the padlock of a shuttered warehouse. The rust seemed to render useful things useless. The rust was bitterness, corrosion. The belt was of course my father’s leather belt, with which he would administer punishment. Sometimes he’d send a warning by removing the belt slowly, folding it in half and yanking at the ends so that the two leather sides met one another. Snap. If I were to hear the sound today, that snap would stop me cold. Leather on leather, skin against skin — wickedness lived in that snap. Other times, the belt was out of his pant loops and onto my backside quicker than I could flinch. I lived almost hunched in preparation for the lash I knew was coming, while my brothers seemed to need to live more recklessly — they did what they could to forget about the lash, only to be re-shocked by each arrival.
On some vague associative level in my child’s mind, I understood the Rust Belt to be a castigating belt, same with the Bible Belt, in which I heard the whip-snap of a punishing God. The word “belt,” too, had the sense of restriction. Corrosive restriction. Religious restriction. The wickedness of pitting skin against skin. Rust Belt. Bible Belt. Leather belt. Whip.
This country, this America, and its tribes, its prides: Queer Pride, Black Pride, Latino Pride, Muslim Pride. How unfair it seems to many, that the celebration of white culture, the white race, is taboo. How easy to blame minorities, professors, lefties, journalists, political correctness, for twisting “White Pride” into something ugly. But here, white folk need to blame their fathers and forefathers. There are other associations that could be made with the word belt for instance — that which bands together, that which holds up — but if my own father wanted me to keep that sense of belt in my mind, he should never have used the thing to flog me.
To my ear, it seemed more and more this election cycle disenfranchised was the word used in popular media for white folk, while people of color, religious minorities, queers, were marginalized. Both are injustices, but of different kinds. Notice, though, how both words reinforce the idea that the white normative family is at the center, endowed with an inalienable right to privilege. An inevitable reaction to either condition, disenfranchisement or marginalization, is bitterness, but here, too, the bitterness is of a different kind. It feels different to be stripped of entitlement than it does to be denied title. For eight years, the fact of President Obama, of the Obamas, crumbled the margin/center distinction. The fact that Obama did presidential, did family man, did ideas man, did oratory, better than his recent predecessors deepened the sense of white dislocation.
When it comes to the ironclad beliefs in patriarchy, Christian dominion and white supremacy — the rust has set in. For some, the Obama years were marked not only by the dissonance of being lorded by a black man but also by corrosive changes to other traditions directly or indirectly attributable to that man: changes to gender and marriage, racial and ethnic demographics, industry. Others experienced that rust not as corrosion, but oxidation, a little air to breathe, a slight breaking down of that which for so long has refused to bend.
On the eve of this presidential transition, it might seem rational to look back and characterize Obama’s legacy in terms of policy and not symbolism — but for the backlash, but for the fact the nation elected a successor whose policy proposals were entirely symbolic.
I disagreed with a number of Obama’s policy decisions, but always unforgettably admirable will be the way he took kindness with a mortal seriousness. The great work of my adulthood has been to find more and more compassion, to be honest about the grace and beauty I knew alongside the racism and homophobia and spite. First, I had to tease out the complexity, the love and failure, in my own troubled family, and I’ve been working on solidarity, on teasing out the love and failure of that place as well, the place I am from — it has seemed essential to do this work. Today I am bitter, smarting, hunched. I taste once again the rust in my mouth, metallic, bloodlike, as if I’ve been dragged backward across time to a place, a town, I left for good. I can and will be bitter; I can and will resist; I won’t be made unkind.
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