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Trash: A Poor White Journey

"'Trash' makes the case that poverty and racism are part of the plan, not unintended by-products of the American experiment. This can be tough to hear, which is, perhaps, why it is often dismissed as misguided 'wokeness' rather than respectfully debated." — Amy Pagliarella

Cedar Monroe
Broadleaf Books, 256 pages
Published March 5, 2024

In Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Demon Copperhead, her young protagonist notices that national newspapers cover only the poverty and addiction of his Appalachian home. Demon says, “(e)very make of person now has their proper nouns, except for some reason, us. Hicks, rednecks, not capitalized.” And he’s right. Respect for the most marginalized is supposedly in the DNA of progressivism, yet we sometimes shrug when White rural and impoverished Americans are described with condescension, even disdain.

Cedar Monroe experienced this first-hand — seminary classmates spoke critically about “small-town rednecks,” dismissing them as “everything (that’s) wrong with America,” while Monroe still identified as part of this maligned group. Living in a wealthy part of Boston and studying at an Episcopal seminary, Monroe realized they were expected to “leave my past and my people behind” in pursuit of respectability.

Trash: A Poor White Journey is Monroe’s powerful effort to synthesize their own experiences with broader social issues of poverty, class, race and more. White people who are poor make up roughly 20% of the U.S. population and are often pitted against people of color who are poor in competition for jobs and land. “In the classroom, we often talked about poverty and social class as if poor people just had a different lifestyle, not that they were people locked in a class war with an owning class that made money off their labor,” Monroe states.

Trash is more social commentary than memoir, although Monroe offers glimpses of the isolation and loneliness of their home-schooled upbringing, as well as the abuse neighborhood children experienced at the hands of their parents. Monroe often disassociated from their own trauma, explaining, “I cannot construct a linear timeline of my childhood.” But Monroe’s broader story helps to fill a gap, telling stories of those often left out of the conversation. J.D. Vance’s 2018 bestseller Hillbilly Elegy was perhaps the first of this kind, making it the prevailing view of overcoming rural poverty, addiction and trauma. Monroe’s story is an alternative narrative that respects the people and critiques the systems. And while Vance’s success took him far from his origins, Monroe remains firmly rooted in Washington state as a chaplain and community organizer who works within tent cities of “squatters,” visits folks in prison and supports those experiencing poverty and addiction.

Along with recent works such as Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America (as well as the fictional Demon Copperhead), Trash makes the case that poverty and racism are part of the plan, not unintended by-products of the American experiment. This can be tough to hear, which is, perhaps, why it is often dismissed as misguided “wokeness” rather than respectfully debated. Monroe makes a compelling case that could be discussed in churches and book clubs in red and blue states (and purple congregations) alike. Even those who remain unconvinced will appreciate the love Monroe has for their community, and the ways in which their stories lift up the full humanity of its members.

Perhaps it’s easy to dismiss “poor White trash.” Now that Monroe has shared their stories, it’s more difficult to reject Zach, Jimmy, Christina and the rest of the children of God who they encounter in their life and work.

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