Lessons from a Class Straddler: Upward Mobility in Literature

Are you a straddler like me? According to Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, a straddler is a person who was reared in a working class background but now enjoys a middle-class standard of living. Whether you are a straddler or not, you have come across one, more than likely, either in real life, on TV, or in a book. Without a doubt, portrayals of straddlers are making more and more appearances almost everywhere, even in contemporary fiction. Quite recently, well-known Jamaican writer Olive Senior depicted one of the main characters in her novel Dancing Lessons as a straddler.

Dancing Lessons delineates the life of Mrs. Gertrude Samphire, a middle-aged woman temporarily living in a retirement home that caters to upper class retirees because a hurricane makes her house inhabitable. Her first-born daughter Celia who is now an adult, and the straddler in the narrative, arranges for her to stay there while the house undergoes repairs. Much of the novel focuses on Mrs. Samphire’s past and her relationships with her family, especially her strained relationship with Celia.

Unlike most straddlers who typically experience a change in class during adulthood because of educational attainment, Celia experiences a change in her class status during her childhood. Celia is a bright student as a young girl and catches the attention of the Frasers, a white American missionary couple living in Jamaica and managing a bible study program that Celia attends one summer. The Frasers are so enamored by Celia that they ask permission for her to come visit their home; eventually, Celia begins living with them permanently. As you could imagine, the lifestyle of the Frasers contrasts significantly with the one Celia experiences with her biological family. Living on family land in a rural area, the Samphires live in what may be classified best as a working class environment. The Frasers, on the other hand, live in an area populated only by the most privileged in Jamaican society, the hills of Kingston, Jamaica.

Like most straddlers, Celia is confused at times and faces challenges in her new environment, but her experience is complicated not only by her newly acquired class status but also by her race as a black or Afro-Jamaican. As an adult reflecting back on her childhood, Celia describes the boarding school that the Frasers put her in as an elite institution that discriminated against the students based on their race and class. In a straightforward but rather crafty manner, Senior conveys the school’s participation in the reproduction of the unjust social structure, as Celia recalls that students of color were often separated from white students and the few students from poor backgrounds were not treated very well. The headmistress and teachers were mostly English and only treated Celia somewhat decently because her adopted parents, the Frasers, were white.

Despite the difficulties faced, Celia eventually attends college in the US and returns to Jamaica and becomes a well-known sociologist and TV talk show host. She does not forget her roots; instead, she uses her resources to help positively affect not only her biological family but also her national family. On her show, Celia provides her audiences with healthy images, which is significant considering that the media influences how people see themselves, their nation, and others. In essence, Celia chooses to participate in building and strengthening her nation. Certainly, Senior’s fictive character is a straddler from whom we can all take lessons!

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