Metaphor, Mobility and ‘Genius’

I know enough demography to know that I am a statistical outlier. My family is from rural, Eastern North Carolina. You do not have to be familiar to the area to understand that when said that way, “Eastern” connotes a very specific cultural geography: it is the poorer part of the state, most directly marked by European colonialism and slavery, and at the crossroads of regional immigration and economic shockwaves.

There is a geography textbook in my office with a copyright of 1919 and a handwritten inscription on the second blank page: “Property of Eunice McRae”. Eunice was my great-grandmother. We do not know where the textbook came from. It isn’t hard to imagine it was one of the secondhand books that white schools sent to Black schools as cast-offs during U.S. apartheid.

Our family archivist sent the book to me just a few weeks before COVID rocked the foundation of our daily lives. There was a mimeographed contract stuck in its pages with a note from Aunt Helen that “this is still in good shape!” “It” is an employment contract between an agency in New York and my grandmother and her sister, Helen. Both Helen and the letter are in very good shape.

The contract is for “clean” girls from the U.S. South who want to work for “nice, white families” in the North. The agent will loan the girls her one-way bus fare and place them in good homes or, if they aren’t suitable for domestic work, in a button factory.

That is the contract that pushed my grandmother out of her home in rural North Carolina to follow her big sister to Harlem in the 1940s, at the very end of the second and final wave of The Great Migration. My grandmother left behind a toddler daughter, just as her older sister had left behind her three young daughters — all in the care of Eunice McRae.

I keep touching that document and tracing the pages of that geography book this week as it is announced that I am a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. This isn’t a time to be precious. The moment is full and heavy and edifying and overwhelming and thrilling.

Still or perhaps because of how thrilling it is, I keep wondering, how did I end up here when we started there? For all I know about how cruel mobility metaphors are for promising opportunity where there is so much oppression, I cannot deny that I am here. Here is a mighty long way from where my people started from.

Since becoming a public person, I have resisted creating an origin story. That is a privilege of artists, not working thinkers. I go to a job, every day, and probably will until the day that I die. An origin story feels far removed from that reality. Still, there is a ghost of an origin story because we are all marketing creations, whether we like it or not. At different times I am the scrappy organic intellectual or the enterprising academic “phenom”, born one moment in 2001 or whenever someone first discovered me somewhere.

In reality, my origin story is that employment contract. Whatever road that letter took from 116th St in Harlem to an unnamed dirt road in Shannon, NC is the road I keep traversing. Back and forth I have now traveled from where my family’s first metaphor for mobility became concrete: a bus ticket, a brown paper bag with food for the trip, clean shoes for cleaning a white lady’s house, a clock at a button factory, a letter home with a fifteen dollars enclosed.

It is a long way from Shannon to here but I am sure that there has been genius all along the way. If nothing else, I am proof of that.

am fascinated with the lies we write about who we are as a society. It does not take much reading or research to figure out that we aren’t all “born equal” or have “equal opportunity” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Schools are not “engines of growth” so much as they are tracks of parental privilege. The complex state apparatus is not the same as “balancing your checkbook at a kitchen table”. I really hate the kitchen table metaphor. It is classist and sexist in a very specific way, grounded in a 1950’s nostalgia for a family that never really existed.

The kitchen table is bad enough but the war metaphors for domestic social policy are the most destructive. Feeding people should be fairly benign but a “war on hunger” is anything but. The same goes for our wars on drugs, terrorism, homelessness and so on. Once something becomes a metaphorical war, the state is screwing someone who was already screwed.

My work tackles a lot of the lesser known metaphors, the ones that have become mundane. In a society, being mundane is a very powerful position. We call it taken-for-grantedness or hegemony, if you like. At the root of the concept is that the most powerful social role for an idea or a group of interests is to be unassuming, beneath comment or notice. It feels backward in our celebrity- obsessed digital society, but both true and pseudo anonymity are society’s real boss bitches. One might recall the adage that “bad boys move in silence and violence”…

I unpack those kinds of silent and violent metaphors. Ideas like “higher education” are so mundane that we do not even think of it as a metaphor. But “higher education” is a figurative future that imagines tomorrow will always be better than the past and that someone in the present can predict the future. Hustling and gigging and laboring “on the side”, is a whole language about who is visible in our economic story and who is just grist for the mill that churns through people in the name of economic growth. That’s more “Lower Ed” than higher ed. The shift in metaphor is my superpower.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the metaphors that become our identity, both our individual identity and our collective identity. Those metaphors about who we are and who we are supposed to be push and pull us in ways that shape, well, everything. I am really fascinated with things like what Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her newsletter on the “lifestyle blog voter”:

This Trump Lifestyle voter doesn’t think Trump Tower is actually classy. They think, as I pointed out almost exactly four years ago, that Ivanka is.

Some of the responses to Charleston Blonde’s query evoked specific economic gains: the health of one woman’s 401k, for example. But others just said “the economy.”

Anne Helen is talking about a consumer group — white middle-class women — who have created a powerful political identity by purchasing and performing a set of interlocking metaphors: blonde, fit, “mama bear”, “wifey” to a “hubby”, maker of “sammies”, DIYers, and “creatives”.

We use many of these terms so casually that they must be powerful. But, how? What does “blonde” do to organize not just sexist jokes, but also ideas about whiteness and health and privilege and power? Whatever work it is doing, as a metaphor, it must be powerful because so many people succumb to it. Yet, we do not think of these metaphors as compelling political ideas. Somehow, we have divorced taken-for-granted ideas about beauty and shopping and consuming from big, macho ideas like power, and politics and economics. You can probably guess why: the political sphere is for men and the consumption sphere is for women. But, as Anne Helen points out, those spheres live in the same households, co-write a narrative about politics and “others” that shapes school districts and neighborhood boundaries and economies. It does not get more powerful than that.

Those are things I am writing about right now: Blondes, mama bears, small towns, and the identity politics of everyday consumption. I believe that we make our racial identities through consumption and do politics through the metaphors we write with others as we consume: online, offline, when we shop, what we watch, where we buy and how we become buyers.

You can hit follow for updates on this project (with a little life thrown in) starting next week.

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast:

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