Class representations are present in many aspects of contemporary culture. Think about the latest TV sitcoms, five star movies, and literary novels. Sure, the word “class” may not be used always, but hints of class or class indicators, such as income, education, occupation, and power, certainly appear in one form or another. Cross-class relationships in particular are proving more and more to be a popular feature in contemporary literature, as I soon discovered from a very revealing novel I recently came across.
Sometimes class gets overshadowed by other important and interrelated topics like race and gender. But Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Terry McMillan, and Gish Jen are a few celebrated authors who do not shy away from exploring issues of class.
One of my newly favorite authors, Dawn Turner Trice, who is also a newspaper columnist, highlights cross-class relationships in her writing. I was so excited when I read her novel Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven, which is a hidden gem! Trice’s novel represents a cross-class relationship based on an innocent childhood friendship.
Set in Chicago, the novel portrays the class dynamics between the residents of an underprivileged area on Thirty-Fifth Street and those of Lakeland, the suburban neighborhood on the other side of a ten-foot fence that separates the two communities. The main character, Tempestt (Temmy) Saville, is a young middle class African American female and her close friend, Valerie Nicholae, is a young working class African American female. The girls meet during the first week of sixth grade. Without a doubt, the fence in Trice’s novel serves as a symbol representing class separation. Temmy and Valerie’s relationship is one way the separation between the working and middle classes is breached.
Through the friendship of Temmy and Valerie, the novel exposes readers to a range of subjects. Some of them include intra-racial class antagonism, gentrification, an illegal underground economy, and family patterns influenced by different experiences of class. Trice urges readers to contemplate the contrasts between the classes by having residents from the two communities offer their opinions (usually negative, unfortunately) of one another. The story climaxes when the working class Valerie commits suicide after experiencing abuse at the hands of a former pimp turned street preacher.
Temporarily, the two communities come together in the sense that they show support for Valerie’s death by attending her funeral (Thirty-Fifth Street residents) or giving flowers and monetary donations (Lakeland residents), but this unity is short-lived. Even though tragedy can sometimes temporarily mend disagreements, Trice implies that more sustained approaches are needed to bridge classes. The novel presents an obvious challenge for cross-class alliances, suggesting that such alliances are nearly impossible until deeply entrenched class divisions are overcome within these fictive communities.
Trice’s Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven is only one of many literary works that explores cross-class relationships. It delivers a candid view of how members of the working and middle classes sometimes view each other. The truth of the matter is contemporary culture imparts messages about class quite frequently, so what are we learning? Perhaps our material culture is providing more fodder for how we can establish stronger cross-class alliances. In any case, we certainly are gaining insight into the complexity of class and relationships.
Robin Brooks is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Florida. Currently, she is working on her dissertation tentatively entitled “Class Consciousness and Conflict in African American and Caribbean Women’s Contemporary Novels.” She has taught a variety of literature and composition courses, including “American Multiethnic Literature” and “Class Portrayals in Twentieth Century American Literature.”
The need to discuss classism is becoming more essential with each generation. The book seems to highlight the importance of acknowledging socioeconomic differences but not allowing those differences to interfere with relationships. Thank you for writing this article.