A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity
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A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity Patrick Huber In the cotton counties along the river in Mississippi, where there are three black skins for every white one, the gentlemen are afraid. But not of the Negroes. Indeed, the gentlemen and the Negroes are afraid together. They are fearful of the rednecks . . . who in politics and in person are pressing down upon the rich, flat Delta from the hard, eroded hills. They may lynch a Negro; they may destroy the last of a civilization which has great vices and great virtues, beauty and strength, responsibility beside arrogance, and a preserving honesty beside a destructive self-indulgence. —Jonathan Daniels, A Southerner Discovers the South (1938) Arkie, clay-eater, corn-cracker, compone, cracker, dirt-eater, hillbilly, hoosier, lowdowner , mean white, peckerwood, pinelander, poor buckra, poor white, poor white trash, redneck, ridge-runner, sandhiller, tacky, wool hat. . . . And this, of course, does not exhaust the list. Rural poor and working-class white southerners have endured a broad range of slurs throughout U.S. history, many derived from geographic regions, dietary habits, physical appearance, or types of clothing. Epithets aimed at urban poor white southerners are fewer and tend to focus on cotton-mill workers : cottonhead, cotton mill trash, cottontail, factory hill trash, factory rat, and linthead , for example. A few of the rural class slurs, especially redneck and hillbilly, are also applied indiscriminately to southern white migrants working in factories in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and other midwestern cities.1 For approximately the last one hundred years, the pejorative term redneck has chiefly slurred a rural, poor white man of the American South and particularly one who holds conservative, racist, or reactionary views. In 1965, for example, John Silber backhandedly praised President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas: "His manner and accent suggest a person who might hold the racist views of a red-neck Southern bigot[,] yet he has shown a moral vision as clear as Lincoln's on the race question." Working-class white southerners are today, along with feminists and gays and lesbians, among the few groups that one can publicly insult or lampoon with impunity. As southern historian C. Vann Woodward puts it, redneck is "the only opprobrious epithet for an ethnic minority still permitted in polite company."2 146 Southern Cultures But southern white working people—often poor, powerless, and nonliterate —have not accepted their place in the popular imagination without a fight. Rather they have time and again rehabilitated the derogatory stereotypes ascribed to them by using language to fashion an identity as honest, hard-working common folks. A good example of this identity-making process can be found in the changing definitions and connotations of redneck in the American language. The term redneck originated as a class slur in the late-nineteenth-century South, but white blue-collar workers—especially, but not exclusively, those from the South— gave it a complimentary meaning in the late twentieth century. The redefinition and use of the term by these self-styled rednecks speak powerfully to their racial and class consciousness as an economically exploited and yet racially privileged group. The Etymology of Redneck The term redneck emerged as a class slur in the lower Mississippi Valley region sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The word did not appear in print, however, until late in the century .3 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its earliest examples came in 1893 when Hubert A. Shands reported that red-neck was used in Mississippi speech "as a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer [white] inhabitants of the rural districts." Eleven years later Joseph W. Carr heard the epithet in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where professional and middle-class whites used the term to refer to "an uncouth countryman" from the swamps, as opposed to a hill billy, "an uncouth countryman, particularly from the hills." Carr also recorded the expression rednecked hill billy. We do not know how much earlier the slur was in oral circulation among white Mississippians and Arkansans before Shands and Carr noted its use, but it was clearly in widespread currency in white southern speech by the...