"What Things Cost: An anthology for the people." Edited by Rebecca Gayle Howell, Ashley M. Jones and Emily J. Jalloul. Published by The University Press of Kentucky.

An anthology for people over capitalism

In review: "What Things Cost."

July 19, 2023

"[W]hat cost more than being American and poor?" This is the poignant question Poet Danez Smith offers in their poem "C.R.E.A.M."

The acronym, borrowed from the 1993 Wu-Tang Clan song of the same title, means "cash rules everything around me." Thirty years later, the same acronym is a popular political short-hand, appearing everywhere from scholarly articles to T-shirts, for "capitalism ruins everything around me." As Mychal Denzel Smith writes in a review for Pitchfork, which was published 25 years after the song's original release, Wu-Tang didn't—as some fans misinterpreted the meaning—put out an anthem revering the all-mighty dollar, but instead an "indictment of the conditions created by a capitalist economy."

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Smith's poem "C.R.E.A.M." appears in a new labor anthology taking up the same tradition. Featuring works from more than one hundred of the most important poets and essayists of our time, What Things Cost: An Anthology for the People arrives as many Americans are in crisis—and still going to work.

What Things Cost arrives as we have yet to recover physically, economically, or emotionally from the pandemic that "ended" not when we had "control" over the virus or its disabling aftermath, but when our government abandoned failing public health campaigns and benefits to instead rally its workforce to celebrate clocking in. 

It arrives alongside astounding advances in artificial intelligence that are brimming with possibilities for the arts and sciences while simultaneously threatening the livelihoods of writers, artists, journalists, and academics—with the unnerving potential to further distort our shared understanding of reality

It arrives as the people of Atlanta take time off from their jobs to file into City Hall demanding investment in communities, not Cop City.

In the introduction of What Things Cost, editors Ashley M. Jones and Rebecca Gayle Howell make clear their intention to explore the many ways labor shapes us. The anthology was inspired by the Poor People's Campaign, Martin Luther King Jr.'s final project before his assassination in 1968. Now led by Rev. William J. Barber II, Jones and Howell describe how the campaign was originally an effort to bring together a multiracial coalition of the working poor to demand the government enact radical change against what King called "the evils of modern corporate society." 

The campaign, which called for access to land and capital for everyone, was brought to a standstill by King's murder. His fellow leaders redirected their political energy, ultimately centering the recently struck down affirmative action measure and abandoning a vision for broader economic changes.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Economic Bill of Rights:

1. A meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen.

2. A secure and adequate income for all who cannot find jobs or for whom employment is inappropriate.

3. Access to land as a means to income and livelihood.

4. Access to capital as a means of full participation in the economic life of America.

5. Recognition by law of the right of people affected by government programs to play a truly significant role in determining how they are designed and carried out.

Decades later, King's legacy having been whitewashed and watered down to a more palatable message of Black-and-white hand holding, many people remain unaware of King's Economic Bill of Rights—none of which has been realized. 

Jones and Howell call for an understanding of the modern "moral abomination" of insecurity in the U.S., where nearly half of the people in this country are "poor, low-wealth, or one emergency away from economic ruin." This language echoes House Resolution 438 in California, a legislative effort attempting to address economic inequity. 

Wealth creation in this country has always been for the few at the expense of many. That's no different today, as the government refuses to relieve regressive tax burdens on its workforce. Meanwhile, millions of "low-" to "middle-" class people shoulder an unreasonable share in the obligation to build our bridges, pay school teachers, support farmers, feed the most vulnerable among us, fund our bloated military and police—and, of course, subsidize billionaires and corporations that in turn legally evade civic responsibility. People do all this while trying to earn enough to cover rent, food, and health care, and hopefully, in return, receive Social Security when their bodies can no longer labor.

Jones and Howell, with help from associate editor Emily Jalloul, have collected works that trace this country's violent history to the demoralizing present day for workers. Employers today bemoan a labor shortage by blaming the long-imagined "lazy worker" instead of listening to real people demanding change: liveable pay, safer work environments, or, god forbid, consideration of how individually ruinous the pandemic truly has been. But this collection is also full of moments honoring our incredible ability to defy constraints, to find joy, friendship, meaning, and grace. 

Some of our most vital voices are collected here, including Nikky Finney, Sonia Sanchez, Jericho Brown, Joy Priest, Kwame Dawes, Joy Harjo, Natalie Diaz, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ocean Vuong, Crystal Wilkinson, Ross Gay, Silas House, and Jane Wong—alongside powerhouses in southern and Appalachian literature including, L. Lamar Wilson, Marlanda Dekine, Jennifer Horne, Tony Sweatt, Carter Sickels, and Iliana Rocha.

These writers take us from the early lies that slid past the lips of colonizers to the government-sanctioned slaughter of Indigenous people to dispossess them of land. Poet Layli Long Soldier grapples with history and language, writing in "38":

The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln. 

To date this is the largest 'legal' mass execution in US history.

The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—the day after Christmas. 

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize 'same week' for emphasis.

The poems and essays of What Things Cost take us to dinners, gas stations, bodegas, factories, mine shafts, and online classrooms. We're transported back in time or to the back of house at a bougie restaurant, the graveyard shift of a hospital, and a postal service sorting facility on Thanksgiving Day. On a porch, a grandmother and child pull the strings from green beans. In a quiet living room, a couple practices their English before catching a bus to clock in for a night shift. We consider a job description for border patrol officers who will be expected to speak Spanish, shoot runners, and imprison children for $40,000 each year. 

The writers take us to the nightmarish bellies of slave ships, plantations, the Jim Crow South, and "post-racial" American neighborhoods. The writers examine modern slavery, prison labor, and our inability to escape our implication—even in literature. In "Ars Poetica," Nabila Lovelace writes, "prison labor twines the book / you read this from."

Taken together, these poems ask us to consider what work means to us, what work has done to us, how our bodies and minds have labored—for what, for whom? 

This work traces personal histories, too, honoring the sacrifices of elders who tended crops, laundered strangers' clothes, and shucked peas. In "Women's Work," Carter Sickels writes of his grandmother, who took a full-time job in a cafeteria for the money and also to escape the boredom of country life and the horrors of an abusive husband. "The work was demanding but familiar—an extension of the unseen and unrecognized labor she and the other women had been doing for most of their lives, except now they were earning a paycheck."

Losses appear repeatedly: medical bills from old on-the-job accidents, haunting dreams from first gigs, a body part or a part of a person unseen. In "Unskilled Labor," Vicente Yépez writes of his immigrant parents transitioning from careers back home to low-wage jobs in Arkansas, "My mother—who had been an accountant— / winces as I pull the locked digit into place." 

See also:

Kelly Norman Ellis opens her stunning essay "Work History" about her Black grandparents, who "built a home for Black justice" in Mississippi, with the line: "My grandfather had one hand, two degrees, one wife, six daughters, one farm, one house, two sisters." She goes on, recounting the many jobs her grandparents held and the ways their work impacted their communities, and ultimately their lives—and hers. When her grandfather died at age 58, having been a businessman, alderman of a small city, and high school principal for twenty years, Ellis' grandmother continued their legacy:

My grandmother was depressed. She was 57 years old. My grandmother wrote poems
about my grandfather.

My grandmother became a journalist.

My grandmother wrote a column for the Scott County Times called "Slaughter News."

My grandmother opened a library named after my grandfather.

My grandmother filled this library with hundreds of books. My grandmother filled the library with books written by Black people.

My grandmother archived slave schedules from plantations and vintage photographs of Black life.

My grandmother was a library.

My grandmother was a museum.

Reginald Dwayne Betts' "In Alabama" uses erasure, blacking out language from a lawsuit against the city of Montgomery to a chilling effect: "The plaintiffs — impoverished — jailed by the city — unable to pay — traffic tickets … sent to jail — told — they could — work — off — debts — $25 per day — cleaning the — City — scrubbing feces and blood from jail floors." 

Philip Metres, in "Disparate Impacts / The Testimony of Joseph Gaston," pulls from a discriminatory housing lawsuit brought forth in Ohio by Gaston, who spent five years seeking housing after his release from a federal prison. Gaston's voice appears alongside excerpts from his lawsuit and self-congratulatory quotes from the judge who denied his case. 

Again and again, the works collected here bring attention to what it costs to be a worker in the U.S., who is welcome into the "American Dream," and who isn't. In "The Holiness of Our Fathers," Faisal Mohyuddin imagines a job where he might finally earn enough to call his father and "cry, Come home, Daddy… I'm back, / and I'll take care of everything."

"What Things Cost: An anthology for the people." Edited by Rebecca Gayle Howell, Ashley M. Jones and Emily J. Jalloul. Published by The University Press of Kentucky.

Inspired by the insistence of organizations and activists who adhere to the belief that "it is only to one another we belong," the editors have positioned this anthology alongside the "Third Reconstruction." A group that includes the modern incarnation of the Poor People's Campaign, led by Barber; the Kairos Center for Religions Rights, and Social Justice; the Popular Education Project; and the Repairers of the Breach, the Third Reconstruction aims to ensure economic rights will be seen as a human right.

To do so, we must build solidarity. These poems are a beginning, a way into the worlds of others' laboring lives—a way to see how we, individually, need to be set free.

Taken together, these poems ask us to consider what work means to us, what work has done to us, how our bodies and minds have labored—for what, for whom? 

Have we rested? What joy have we made as we toiled? What friendships? 

What identities have we crafted of our working selves? What identities have we been forced to occupy? 

What comfort has money brought us, or not? 

Which one of us is essential? And who isn't? 

What did our parents sacrifice so we might not worry, might not hurt as badly as they did? 

How were our ancestors used? How did our ancestors use people? What harms did they cause? Why did they suffer? 

How do our children see us work? Play? Love?

What does it all cost? And "what cost more than being American and poor?"

This anthology arrives in time to remind us, as Jones and Howell write, "Wealth does not have to be generated by suffering. It does not have to be this way."

Published by University Press of Kentucky, all proceeds from the book sales will go to the Poor People's Campaign.

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Katherine Webb-Hehn is a mama, multi-media journalist and artist in Birmingham, Alabama. Katherine is Scalawag's former State Politics editor.