Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In Defense of Rednecks ...

I am a redneck. And an Okie. My redneck Okie credentials are impeccable.

While I was bor
n here in Tulsa, I was raised in rural Oklahoma on a hardscrabble farm. My parents were classic Okies. My mother's people were sharecroppers. My father got his social security number working for Twentieth Century Fox on the Oklahoma crew of the Grapes of Wrath. My Uncle John was an extra in the movie as was his car that Fox technicians "hillbillied" up for the classic scenes showing Okies leaving the land.

I lived in a humble house that people outside the culture probably looked down on but I drove a flashy new car and played an expensive guitar that would now be worth more than the original mortgage on the house. I still own tha
t humble farm house and I am not one bit ashamed of it. My father worked hard to pay it off and it kept us warm and dry.

I made my first quarter picking cotton alongside my mother in an Arkansas River bottom cotton field where poor whites, blacks and Mexicans worked side by side to earn a few bucks a day. By the time I graduated from high school, I had worked in the fields on a regular basis as a hay hauler, a fence builder, a ranch hand and even a turkey breeding technician. Every summer my neck would burn a rich, dark brick red from constant exposure to the sun doing honest work in the fields.

The word redneck has become a pejorative of late, a liberal code word for racism and ignorance. And that is an undeserved insult. My redneck father was the most decent man I have ever known. He would never mistreat anyone and he was certainly not ignorant. He was not lazy. He worked himself into an early grave working both a day job and farming nights trying to "get ahead." And he was no coward. He had a handful of medals from WWII to prove his "moral fiber" including the Bronze Star for bravery. Describing the Okies of the 45th Division, Ernie Pyle once wrote,
"The men of Oklahoma are drawling and soft-spoken... Something of the purity of the soil seems to be in them.... An Oklahoman is straight and direct. He is slow to criticize and hard to anger, but once he is convinced of the wrong of something, brother, watch out."
There could not have been a better description of my father.

Once, upon hearing me use a slightly derogatory nickname for a local black man who was a bit of character, my mom sternly warned me, "God has given colored folks a terrible burden to carry. Don't you ever do anything to make that burden worse or take advantage of them."

Our house was humble but there were books everywhere. Classics, current works and trashy novels all occupied our bookshelves and we read them all. I read
The Grapes of Wrath, John Gunther's Inside Europe, Mein Kampf and a biography of Douglas McArthur the summer I was ten.

My mother's people were musicians when they were not working so there was always music around the house and they taught me to play it from the time I was big enough to hold a guitar. You hear the same country blues and bluegrass music on PBS now and it is recognized as a classic American art form.

In his syndicated column today (link HERE), Paul Greenberg eloquently came to the defense of Rednecks, southern culture in general and southern language in particular:

Every time a perfectly good American word is lost, we are all deprived. And the cumulative effect is a life-destroying erosion of the language, which is sapped of its power, vitality and variety. Redneck an insult? Rednecks would only laugh at the idea - because rednecks are proud of who they are. That's why they can afford a sense of humor. In a world of anemic, self-censored, pre-washed, so-called commentary, their pride is refreshing.

Who are these rednecks anyway? One inadequate definition would be to say they're the descendants of the Scots-Irish who pushed the American frontier across first the Appalachians and then ever westward, spreading as far north as the hills of Pennsylvania and as far south and west as wide-open Texas, leaving their manners, speech and customs an indelible if often unremarked part of the American character.

Oh, yes, rednecks are also fighters. Which means that, ignored and snubbed in times of peace, or just patronized by those who think their very name an insult, they are always called on when the country's in real trouble. To this day, they are part of the backbone of the United States military. They are, in short, people to tie to. They will stand their ground, as America's enemies have discovered since 1776 and long before. They need no one to come to their defense, let alone shield them from their honest name. Yes, they can be touchy, but only about matters of honor.

Rednecks embrace simplicity as a welcome change from the kind of fraudulent sophistication you can hear at a click of the channel on television or on National Platitudinous Radio. But that doesn't make them simple. Quite the opposite. Their code is as involved as any Bedouin's, and maybe more so than the Southern gentleman's. Indeed, the two - gentleman and redneck - are part of the Southern whole, complementing and competing with each other, each half-envying, half-pitying the other but aware they share an indissoluble bond that involves the land, the language and whatever is the essence of what the South is, or was. Both may now be endangered species, united by what they are not: false.

Those who object to the name redneck, if not the species itself, might as well take offense at Arkie or Okie or black or Creole. Hasn't the Southern language lost enough distinctive words, and therefore distinctive thought, to the bowdlerizers, the euphemizers and sanitizers who would leave the treasure of the Southern tongue as barren and burned-over as the once green acres Sherman ravaged on his march to the sea? Enough verbicide. The toll has already been too heavy. Let's not lose a word that sums up a whole ethos.

I wish I had said that.


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