Sunday, January 15, 2006

White Trash, Coast to Coast

Y'all will appreciate this. I just finished The Redneck Manifesto by Jim Goad and my first thought was "Well, he has some good points, but why does he have to be so angry?" and then I realized I was criticizing him for the very thing we feminists get criticized for so often and I laughed and thought I better not start this post with that question. Oops. Well, I did anyway, but you know what I mean. Shug and I were at lunch today rehashing our weekend. And we were talking about how they say that we're the first American generation that won't do better than our parents. We both laughed because we're both already doing better than our parents and we're barely scraping by. We also had a good laugh at Ms. Shannon Brown, a fellow Midwesterner who's got a video on CMT for her song "Corn Fed." This is a catchy song, but it's funny because the central conceit is that this song is some kind of Midwestern Pride anthem. But who has Midwestern Pride? No one's embarrassed to be from Iowa or Illinois. There's no reason to be embarrassed about being from these places. They're lovely places with a kind of wide open beauty and steady seasonal rhythm that a person loves instinctively. But we're not proud in the way that people from, say, the South are proud to be from the South, in great part because it never occurs to us that there's any reason people would think we ought to be embarrassed. And in lesser part because it doesn't occur to us that the Midwest is really any different than anyplace else. We don't see ourselves as having some distinct and definable culture. So, having some kind of rallying song is silly. Plus, there's the fact that the song is just wrong. We do flip people off* and cuss and scream when cars sit at stoplights. I don't know anyone but my parents whose family grew beets. It's true that no one burns flags on the court house square as a protest, but the Boy Scouts or the VFW sure would burn them for you if you asked them to. And, no one says "Yes, Ma'am." Midwestern kids aren't running around calling adults by their first names, but we just say "Mrs. So-and-so." Ma'am is a Southern thing. But really, this whole song is a Southern Song in disguise. There's a long strain of Southern music that's all like "You think you're better than me, well, buddy, the truth is, I may not look it, but I'm twelve times better than you." We Midwesterners don't think we're better than anyone by virtue of being from the Midwest. So, maybe this ends up being my main complaint about Jim Goad's book. He assumes that lower class white people** are all one monolithic culture, all as angry as him. So, I had a hard time when I was reading it trying to decide if he was talking about me and my friends and family. I couldn't situate myself as a reader. I didn't know if he was talking to me or about me. Anyway, he's really angry. I can appreciate that. I'm angry and tired and frustrated and feel like a very bad Middle Class Impersonator. And so he writes like he's picking a fight with everyone within arm's reach. His main beef is with rich white people, but it's all "nigger this" and "nigger that." I get it. I get that he's trying to make a valid point about class (that poor people have always had more in common than not and that race and racism is a way to keep poor people from banding together and that words like "nigger" and "redneck" serve that end). But I'm white. Jim Goad is white. We're white even if there are no black people. Do you get what I'm saying? "White" is an umbrella term for a lot of characteristics that exist all the time, not just in the presence of or in opposition to characteristics we ascribe to "black." His beef is with rich white people and yet he wastes all this time talking about how, if black people understood white history, they'd be hard pressed to ask poor whites to take the blame for the plight of blacks in America. Maybe this is a legitimate point, but who cares? Even as he's criticizing the way the system turns poor whites and blacks against each other with racism, he's wasting all this energy on being so defensive about black people. Goad, good god damn, use that energy on your class critique. So, in a lot of ways, it's a frustrating book, but worth reading. ****** Also, I should say that, upon reading this book, it occurred to me that my Grandpa Hick was too smart a man to pick that as his life-long nickname solely because he liked Andrew Jackson (and thus wanted to be called Hickory). His parents were tenant farmers until his dad caught a break and got a job with the railroad. A boy who grew up dirt poor farming someone else's land doesn't become a man who calls himself "Hick" without realizing what that means. I used to wonder why he was such a fucking mean-ass bastard, but lately I have more compassion for that kind of rage. *Or "flick people off" as my brother says. ** Shug called our families "upper lower class," which I love. Count on her to sum up my dad's attitude towards life in three words.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a born and bred Tennesseean who now lives in Indiana, I've been a bit surprised by how many Hoosiers seem to adopt traditionally Southern sources of "pride," as this song apparently does. The confederate flag, truck horns that play "Dixie" (someone down the street from us just got one for Christmas, apparently), and even a strangely Southern accent. It's interesting how traditionally Southern things have become re-coded as white upper-lower-class average American somehow. I wonder if we have W to thank in part for this weird "expansion" of the South.

Miss J

1/15/2006 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Peggasus said...

B, I think this was very insightful. How did you only get one comment on this?

"Plus, there's the fact that the song is just wrong. We do flip people off* and cuss and scream when cars sit at stoplights. I don't know anyone but my parents whose family grew beets."

Shit, I cuss and scream at people being slow-asses at stoplights all the time. Ask my kids. But I don't think ther even IS a stoplight in my new town, they're all 4-ways. I'm in BIG trouble. AND, my Grandma grew beets. We're Polish, you know. And even if my mother never grew them, she damn well canned the suckers.

So there.

And I also love Illinois. And the way you described it. I'm gonna get you back there, one way or another!

1/15/2006 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

AN observation that may or may not be related.

It seems to me, that with most racial barriers down or on their way down, the races are realigning themselves.

White trash (as opposed to poor whites, big difference in my book) that used to look down on blacks, or thank God that at least they weren't black, now freely associate with black trash.

Further up the ladder, blacks and whites of similar situations, incomes, and values now bond much easier.

The only problems are some residue racism that is fading, and some on the black side of the equation who like calling their fellow blacks Oreos.

1/15/2006 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger bridgett said...

Indiana (below Indy) is a very southern place, settled by migrating Kentuckians, Virginians, and North Carolinians -- about the same time that Euro-Americans came into Tennessee, in fact. So it's not exactly a recent "expansion" of the South...the racial politics, foodways, speech patterns were all noticeably southern-fried even in the early 19th century. Same for Southern Illinois -- the area known as Little Egypt was called that because of the prevalence of slaves, regardless of what the hoo-hah tourist industry has to say about it.

I agree. Iowans aren't pumped-up with bogus defensive kick-yer-ass pride. It's a nice place to live, beets or no beets, but no one is in your face about it. It's a song written to capture a demographic -- Midwestern country-music listeners -- and to be covered endlessly at county fairs, played at Nebraska football games, and so forth. Pretty artificial, but no more so than "Little Rock" or "Meet me in Montana." (Could Marie Osmond even find Montana on a map?)

1/16/2006 03:37:00 PM  

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