I grew up in a weird place. A small, rural town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Georgetown (that’s right, not the one in D.C. – there’s a Georgetown in California) always struck me as the sort of town that should have dried up and emptied out a long time ago, but lacked the good sense to do so. Off the beaten path and a good 30 minutes from the larger towns of Auburn and Placerville, Georgetown is literally a dead end – once you get there, you either come back whence you came or, if you’re into off-roading, drive your Jeep (and in all likelihood it is a Jeep, given that Georgetown is the home of the off-roading organization, Jeeper’s Jamboree) across an expanse of wilderness called the Rubicon (again, named after a much more famous geographical feature of the same name) which will eventually land you in South Lake Tahoe. Indeed, the only time large numbers of people gather together in Georgetown is to drive over the Rubicon in their off-road vehicles; hence the town slogan “Georgetown: the Gateway to the Rubicon.”
Georgetown owes its existence to the Gold Rush, a fact which, as a child, is relentlessly pounded into your head. Indeed, the site where John Marshall discovered gold, Coloma, is an easy 15-minute drive away, and an excellent place to dump a bunch of elementary school kids for a field trip. One origin story for the name of Georgetown claims that it was originally called “Growlersburg,” for the golden nuggets were so huge that they supposedly “growled” in the pan. Alas, I think that was mostly marketing, but to this day the region of small communities clustered together (referred to by locals as “the hill,” as in “God I’ve got to get off the hill one day”) still try to play up the aura and charm of Gold Rush lore as much as humanly possibly. The main shopping center in Georgetown, for example, deliberately resembles an old western town center, wooden planks, old mining equipment, and giant restored locomotive and all – despite being built in the late 1970s.
But you cannot blame the town, or the region at large, for trying to exploit the sunnier versions of what passes for “Wild West” history – they could use the tourist revenue. As of 2013, 54.9 percent of households in Georgetown made $50,000 or less, 27 percent made $50,00-100,000, 12.9 percent made $100,00-$150,000, and 5.2 made $150,000 or more. Demographically, Georgetown is overwhelmingly white – 89.9 percent according to the 2010 census, with a spattering of Native Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, Asians and African Americans.
Specifically, the 2010 census claims there were at least 47 black people in Georgetown – a fact that is difficult for me to believe, considering the rarity of seeing them anywhere and my memory of knowing exactly two black children in school from Kindergarten all the way through high school graduation (and the local high school actually pools not just from Georgetown, but from all the small towns in the area). However, I could very well be wrong – but here is where personal anecdote intersects with demographic data.
One of the most remarkable local events during my time in Georgetown was when a movie crew came to town to film portions of the film Good Luck, which meant, among other things, that Gregory Hines came to town. The spectacle – and unfortunately it was exactly that – of a famous black man being followed around by cameras in the middle of Georgetown created quite a stir; it definitely was not hostile energy, but it was the kind of scene that sparked curiosity for the pure oddity of it taking place in our own little hick town. (A term, not surprisingly if you follow the cultural politics of places like this, eagerly embraced by the locals.) However, if Hines found any of the attention awkward, he certainly did not let it show, and rather befriended two girls from my home room class who liked to hang around downtown to watch the filming, obliging them to the point of showing up in our classroom one day to sing us Rubber Ducky, on their request. Based on that very brief but overwhelmingly generous interaction with Hines, I think he was probably one of the kindest men I have ever met, even if so briefly.
I don’t know how many locals were conscious and honest with themselves about the felt exoticism of having a rich and famous black man around town – and I don’t know, honestly, if I was in fact aware of this at the time, as I recall, or if I’ve just imported such advanced social consciousness into my head in retrospect (far more likely). But this is typical of my experience in Georgetown – while growing up there from the age of 7 I was, nonetheless, something of an exception, perhaps even an outsider. And that’s simply because my family was in one of the better percentiles of affluence, and so the struggles of low-paid work, chronic health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction so many of my friends and their parents had to struggle with every day were foreign to me. Instead, my family lived on a sprawling 30 acre farm covered with the Christmas trees that remained from a side-business my parents decided to abandon when they realized it didn’t make much money and was sucking up all of our winter vacation time – better to go to San Francisco for a few days than spend the last weekend before Christmas trimming trees. However my sister and I, at the time, strongly objected; we loved greeting the visitors to our farm (we called it a “choose and cut,” farm because you walked around the property, chose your tree and were provided with a hand saw to cut it down yourself, the old-fashioned way) and running around with our dog, Sandy, as she would amble up to all the folks getting out of their cars, occasionally smacking their kids’ faces with her wicked fast tail manically swishing back and forth. I particularly remember enjoying netting myself (ie, crawling through the contraption designed to net a tree to make it more transportable for the customers), something I’m not entirely sure my mother appreciated as I wasted netting and she had to come over to cut me out of it. Anyway, I think you get the point – it was kind of magical.
And, if you lived in a bubble within a bubble – which is really what my childhood was like – Georgetown was a really great place to grow up. Tons of space to run around, beautiful scenery, and a safe home with a cozy fire burning in the living room. So in all honesty, I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the town, and the lives of the people who lived there, for most of my childhood; and it wasn’t until around high school that I started taking a closer look at this strange, humble little place.
Maybe it was because by the time I got to high school, I had a full understanding of what the Confederate flag meant and was therefore made uncomfortable when some of my classmates – who had never been to the South in their life – sported it on the back flaps of their trucks. Likewise I noted that support for Proposition 22, which reinforced the ban on gay marriage in California, was considerable in the area, seeing at least a dozen signs in people’s yards during my 15 minute commute to my high school. Likewise in 2000, Georgetown was solidly a part of Bush Country – there were so many George W. Bush signs, in fact, that I only remember seeing about one or two for Gore, a memory that stuck due to their relative rarity.
All of this settled in the back of my mind as I went off to college. Four years later, however, I started to feel very strange coming home. It wasn’t so much that I would linger outside of a house my friend used to live in surprised that the new residents had, somewhat ingeniously, glued an American flag to a Confederate flag and placed the double-sided testimony of contradictory loyalties in a prominent place in their yard; I had already learned in high school to expect this sort of thing. Rather now, as I stood there, I would feel something new; sadness. The paradox of growing up in a town with its fair share of pro-small-government welfare recipients started to take on greater dimensions of tragedy I had not appreciated before – I started to think of all the kids in high school I had avoided, the aggressive young men, in particular, that loved to use the word “faggot” liberally and would be selected for special attention every year the annual anti-drinking event, “Every 15 Minutes,” was enacted on campus. It was so easy to be uncomfortable around these folks – these rural, conservative, and forgotten Americans – but now coming home it seemed like the air was thick with their disappointments, and incidents I had barely understood as a child began to take on a deeper but darker light. I began to understand Georgetown as a place people who felt rejected by the rest of the world tended to end up; and from where many of their children never left.
It is trickier to find data to support the general sense – held by myself and others I’ve talked to that have since left town – that things in the last decade have only gotten worse. All I can offer are anecdotes, but I would be surprised if a thorough investigation did not confirm that the lack of economic opportunity in the area has driven even more people to alcohol and drug abuse and, in particular, the use and manufacturing of meth. My hometown, it turns out, is not an exception to this new plague of white, poor, and rural communities.
So, it would seem, I am as much of an outsider in my hometown as ever – as I once joked to friends who accompanied me there for a mountain getaway, it might not have been wise to show up in Georgetown with a Jew, a black woman, and a bisexual man. Yet in an odd way, the town is more relevant to me than it ever has been before, for although my current research involves the cluster of ideas which blamed black people for their own poverty, I watch as the people of Georgetown are broken down in a not entirely dissimilar manner by our increasingly unequal world – all while simultaneously participating in dogmas that will help others explain away their struggles, as Charles Murray has recently done, as yet another manifestation of “the culture of poverty.” It is strange to come to this point of understanding and sympathy for the people of my hometown while I grow, politically and culturally, all the more distinct from them. Yet it also reminds me of how limited our ideas of what counts as “intellectual history” can be – for there, in Georgetown, the power of ideas to shape and even devastate our lives becomes unavoidably clear, and in such an ironic manner at that. It may not be a university or a college town, but the significance and consequence of political thought never strike me so hard as when I go home.
And when I do go home, my favorite thing to do is visit the graveyard, the place that has always been my favorite in the entire town. There, you can find tombstones that date all the way back to the Gold Rush; you can see how common it was for nineteenth century parents to lose a baby or a toddler; you can count, as I like to do, all the graves marked with a Freemason symbol and wonder how many stories yet remain unmarked underneath your feet. I wonder sometimes if it is the romantic nostalgia of the countryside in which I grew up that first gave me a sense of wonder, and excitement, about history. I like to think so, at least – for even though the future doesn’t look bright, it would be nice to believe that it was partially this strange, special place that gave me such an appreciation for the past.