MAXWELL:  Dan Quayle can keep his advice

2/17/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Dan Quayle is back, this time as a GOP presidential candidate. And, of course, the linguistically challenged second mate to President Bush is back with one of his party’s tired mantras as a major theme of his conservative message: “middle-class values.”

Exactly what are “middle-class values?” Are they unlike the values of the black working poor? Are they different from those my mother inculcated in her seven children? Are they different from those Mabel and Jack White instilled in their 14 strapping kids? What about those that Chuck and Emma Jean Forman taught their four children?

The answer to each question is no, and I regret that Quayle has nothing better to do with his time than to initiate another ill-conceived, divisive war over “middle-class values.” Sure, he may be hinting at President Clinton, but, ultimately, Quayle is referring to poor Americans who may not own homes and who must get their hands dirty to make a living.

Quayle, like most Republican ideologues, seems to think that living decently and knowing right from wrong are the exclusive property of the mythic middle class. He apparently believes that the rest of us are living in a sin-filled void and need his moral guidance.

He and his ilk need to know that my mother, Jeanette, for example, knows a few things about values. After my father abandoned us, my mother spent all of her weekdays and some nights cleaning hotel rooms and making beds on Fort Lauderdale Beach. On weekends, she, along with the four oldest children, picked vegetables in South Florida’s sun-drenched fields.

She taught us that we did not have to beg or accept handouts. To this day, mysiblings and I detest welfare. She forced us to attend school, to complete our homework before going outside to play. And she taught us that, for poor people, cleanliness is supremely important.Jeanette did all of this without ever getting advice from a middle-class white _ or black. Her parents and grandparents gave her a clear sense of her family obligations.

Hard work and self-sufficiency are values that the working poor in my life understood long before Quayle inherited his family’s fortune.

In Crescent City, where I lived with loving grandparents, I saw God-fearing, hard-working black people everywhere. Mabel and Jack White were a phenomenal couple. To this day, Crescent City residents still marvel that they clothed and fed 14 children without welfare. Jack was a citrus picker and was known as a “fruit hog,” one who worked like a whirlwind, picking twice as much fruit as the average man in one day.

Mabel, a fat woman with the energy of a thin teenager, washed, starched and ironed the clothes of dozens of area white families. She worked from sunup to sundown, turning mounds of foul-smelling clothes into neat stacks of folded, crisp, sweet-smelling fabric. If a child stayed home from school, he or she would have to fire the boiling pot and stir the whites until they sparkled. Later, the dodger would have to hang the clothes to dry and fold them. Needless to say, Mabel and Jack’s kids rarely missed school.

Just as remarkably, the Whites took their children to church every Sunday and every Wednesday night. They preached against smoking, drinking and having sex out of wedlock. Of course, some of the children let these sermons go in one ear and out the other. Still, Jack and Mabel handed their children a blueprint for living well.

Chuck Forman was our school janitor and the town’s black barber. He and his wife celebrated education. Three of their children graduated from college and have prosperous careers. Chuck saved his money and owns one of the biggest family-operated fern companies in Putnam County. His children witnessed his example, and they, too, are property owners.

Although Chuck and Emma Jean Forman, Jack and Mabel White, my mother and generations of other blacks were reared in poor families, they possessed values that enabled them to endure the systematic, violent, racial and economic abuse meted out by the very white middle class that Quayle and other Republicans hold up as America’s moral exemplar.

The truth is that African-Americans who are born poor and reared to work hard and respect themselves and others do not need the likes of Dan Quayle, who never had to put in a hard day’s work in his life, preaching at them about “middle-class values.”

Black people _ who have survived this nation’s racism and have remained sane _ can teach Quayle’s middle class a thing or two about values.