Students, faculty and alumni joined author Greg Bottoms on Thursday, Sept. 24 for the third Living Writers event of the semester. As part of the English department’s annual series, the University of Vermont English Professor read from and discussed his most recent book, The Lowest White Boy.
Associate Professor of English and Living Writers Director Jennifer Brice began the event by introducing Bottoms, celebrating his work and urging all attendees to read The Lowest White Boy. Bottoms’ book is a collection of memoirs, essays and photographs that focus on his childhood growing up in Virginia. Looking back, Bottoms is able to analyze the forms of institutionalized racism, sexism and classism he experienced as a young boy. Recognizing his privilege as a white male in today’s society, Bottoms aims to acknowledge how dominant white culture has affected his life, and the lives of so many others.
“My narrative is contingent,” Bottoms said. “Each time it might be a bit different, and what perceived wisdom is and the broader socio-economic stuff, we are making it into something, a subject matter.”
Exploring racism and classism from his own perspective, Bottoms’ short memoirs navigate difficult topics such as systemic racism, police brutality and the problems of mass media. From passages titled “Family Reunion 1979,” “New Shoes 1975” and “The Field 1977,” Bottoms pushes through memories of his childhood and examines them through a lens of a white male living in society today.
Through the intersectionality of race, class and gender, Bottoms draws conclusions about his privilege and how it has shaped his identity. When reading from his book in a passage called “The Field 1977,” he noted how his middle-class, white neighbors in Virginia made an extra effort to avoid their Black neighbors.
Using this experience as a launchpad for discussions on police brutality in white America, Bottoms recounted: “I get to be a boy uncloaked by race because white is not a race or ethnicity or a particular identity but the norm by which all else is judged … by the minds of me and those in power.”
Taking responsibility as a complicit force in a society dominated by white culture, Bottoms turns to the power of words as building blocks for language and communication. Through writing, Bottoms hopes to change the social and economic struggles that plague modern America.
Using images from Virginia’s Valentine Museum, Bottoms constructs a narrative that questions the racial and social ties of white people and Black people, and how animosity towards non-whites fuels a society where white people have greater access to education, healthcare and jobs.
At the end of his reading, Bottoms spoke to attendees about the collective responsibility of creating a more equal and equitable society.
“If only I could imagine what racial dominance gets the white person, gets me. The blindness of human beings is the blindness with which we are all afflicted regardless of the feeling of people different from us.”
Bottoms continues to reflect upon the power of his white privilege and works to further educate himself and others of the problems facing people of color. Although The Lowest White Boy may have started as a memoir, it has truly inspired readers to question their own role within society and work toward a more inclusive and tolerant America.