My New Year's resolutions are usually elaborate and abstract. I won't be lazy. I will confront my demons. I will take up yoga. Sleep more, or was it less? Read Proust.
But this year it's quite simple. I resolve to no longer use the term "Trailer Trash." Ever again.
Because I realized it's hate speech, plain and simple. It came to me when I heard myself saying it the other day. There had been an article on Woody Guthrie in the New York Times that morning, and we were talking about how his songs had changed our feelings about migrant workers. I must have been in eighth or ninth grade, listening to some version of "Green Pastures of Plenty," probably by the Kingston Trio.
I think it was the "I" that got me then. "I travel all over this green-growing land/ Wherever your crops are, I lend you my hand..."
I hadn't seen it that way. I sort of thought of them as -- well, trailer trash. "On the edge of your cities you see me and then/ I come with the dust, and I go with the wind ..." There'd been a boy in my school, a nice skinny kid from Kentucky who was said to be one of them. "Trailer trash," people would whisper. Made you feel good about your own solid moorings. You had a house. You did not come with the dust and go with the wind.
On the other hand, as I listened to that song, even in a watered-down version, I began to see it differently. "California, Arizona, I gather your crops." The "I" suddenly became someone, he or she had a voice, first-person, and it was my crops that they were gathering.
"Every state in the union this my work has been." I hadn't really thought of it as work before. It had just seemed like -- well, like what? A lazy-man's job? Someone who wouldn't properly support a family? Someone whose children would live in a house of straw, the kind the wolf could huff down on the first try?
But on the other hand, what would the rest of us be eating without that person? True, it wasn't a brick-house choice. True, they'd always live on the edge of our cities, but wasn't that enough, without our disapprobation to boot?
Woody got that. Got it so well that they called him a communist. Wouldn't even let the State of Oklahoma, where he was born, honor him until a few days ago.
But they couldn't stop him from singing, or us from hearing, or 2012 from being the Centennial of his birth.
And in honor of that, and because I found myself singing his song again, and it worked, again, clicked that old sense of fair-play and justice that is a key and solid plank of the American platform, I resolve to rid myself of a phrase that denigrates some of us, and myself as speaker most of all.