Our VoiceCulture

The Criminal Class Has Something to Say About America

Eric Ward • Oct 15, 2008

When I was born my parents were solidly working class, but by the time I was seven I was living in a working poor household that struggled to survive from paycheck to paycheck. This was the plight of our surrounding neighbors as well, and while there is absolutely nothing romantic about poverty, it does create its own community. People must depend on one another and they must build community to survive. Growing up in Long Beach, poverty placed me in a situation where I lived amongst and interacted with multiracial America first hand. My friends were black, white, Latino/a, Cambodian and Samoan.

Typically there are two types of discussions about American identity that take place in mainstream society. On one side you have the argument that there is nothing redeemable about the United States or the concept of America. This argument is typically filled with despair, condemnation, and cynicism. On the other side you get a plastic patriotism that chooses to ignore current reality and history. Neither speaks to the complexity and depth of American identity-an identity that continues to be strengthened not only on a political level but on the streets of America as well.

A new lit review has hit our streets and it brings the often ignored voices of America right back into the dialogue. Criminal Class Review has just released its second volume showcasing voices that are often ignored and marginalized. The voices are welcoming, biting, crazy and sane. They are like old familiar friends reminding me of the rich layers of my life. It would be too simple to call Criminal Class Review contributors writers, rather they are American folk artists reminding us that most people are simply trying to live their lives and raise their families. From Poetry Sucks by Saint Johnnie Walker to For the Love Needles by Bucky Sinister, issue one of Criminal Class Review reminds us of families and communities that are formed and tested on the streets of America. Often these are stronger than the institutions that surround them.

Often I find that people are surprised about my background and childhood, assuming that I grew up middle class. Perhaps it is because, like Obama, I am bi-lingual in that I speak two languages—the English of white America and the English of black America. Perhaps it is because my musical inclinations run the gamut from jazz to punk to reggae to country to hip hop. Or perhaps people like to see me in a way that makes them more comfortable, a reverse stereotype that refuses to accept that the poorest, the untouchables, the ignored and the criminals have nothing of any real worth to add to the grand experiment that is America.

Not many of my childhood friends made it out of Long Beach. Some succumbed to suicide, drug overdoses, and prison. Most are now fading memories of yesterdays. However, it is amongst those memories that I came to understand my Americaness. How much stronger a nation we might be if those voices could be heard by everyone—Criminal Class Review now makes it possible. To order Criminal Press contact Smash Records (D.C.), Bluestockings Bookstore (N.Y.), City Lights Booksellers and Publishers (San Francisco), Quimby’s (Chicago), Subterranean Books (St. Louis), and Tattered Cover (Denver).

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