Y’all call me Bubba. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money, and nothing particular to interest me in Southeast Missouri, I thought I would move away, get an education, get a job, and join former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s “knowledge workers” feasting at the table of the global economy. I was just like everyone else – reaching out to grasp my own little share of the rusty old American Dream of personal prosperity and the consumer goods that came along with it… but, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum… I mean, at Will Rogers Auditorium… that changed everything for me.
In the winter of 2000, I bought tickets to the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” and got to hear Jeff Foxworthy tell redneck jokes up close and in person. I also got to hear Larry the Cable Guy explain that Al Gore lost the election because a handful of rednecks from a Dade County, Florida trailer park didn’t know how to operate a voting machine. I suppose if those same machines were designed to look like those video poker “eight liners” or a cigarette machine that our political landscape would have been a whole lot different in the first decade of the 21st century. Essentially, George W. Bush won the election because a handful of rednecks could find “Jones” on a jukebox but couldn’t find “Gore” on a punch card. If ballots had only looked more like those Bingo cards, the disaster of George W. Bush’s presidency could have been averted – that is, assuming that us rednecks had the good sense to vote with our wallets and not cast ballots based on the emotional manipulations of a Karl Rove or a Lee Atwater.
I enjoyed the show because I am a redneck and the show helped to alleviate the homesickness that I felt being so far away from my kinfolk back in Missouri. “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour” gave me the nostalgic feeling of being back home in Missouri on my grandma’s back porch clowning around with my uncle and cousins. It resonated with the self-deprecating humor that has been culturally ingrained in me. It reminded me of what I would later discover to be “Rabelasian Carnivale.” Gail Sweeney discussed this in “The King of White Trash Culture,” a chapter in the book, White Trash: Race and Class in America. For Sweeney, “carnival is a place of laughter, bad taste, loud and irreverent music, parody, free speech, bodily functions, eating and feasting, a place where excess is glorified” (254). Sweeney goes on to paraphrase the literary theorist, Mikhail Bahktin when she writes:
the carnivalesque inhabits the space that counters and subverts institutions of authority and repression, the dominant hegemonies of Church, State, and, in capitalist democracies, Industry. The pleasures of the carnival are subordinate pleasures: unruly and lower class, vulgar, undisciplined. During carnival, the working class are not working; they are out of their place and out of line (254).
“The Blue Collar Comedy Tour” is a representation of that “Rabelasian Carnivale” and I suppose that is what made me want to go in the first place. While I enjoyed the show, at the same time, I was offended by the obviously upper middle class couple that was sitting in front of me and laughing louder than I was. They weren’t rednecks… they weren’t white trash… why were these interlopers laughing at my jokes… at my kin? Having been raised in a community that is known more for its ability to raise up sawmill and factory workers, truck drivers and Wal Mart employees, than bankers and other captains of capitalist industry (those same “knowledge workers” that I had hoped to join at the global economic trough), I wanted to jump over my seat and ask them what they thought was so damn funny. What gave them the right to make fun of us rednecks?
For the first time in my life, I think I fully understood how the “n word” functioned in African-American culture. Self-deprecating humor is one thing, but making fun of “the other” is an entirely different can of worms. That self-realization led to me to another question: “Why does it seem like it is OK to make fun of rednecks?” “Why are us hillbilly, white trash, lint head, cracker, rednecks any different than any other group in our supposedly politically correct, diverse, and inclusive society?”
My experience at “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour” enabled me to start thinking about my own redneck identity on a peripheral level, but it took the tragedy of the World Trade Center bombings on September 11th, 2001 to really bring my academic/ political interest in my redneck, white trash, hillbilly, cracker identity to the center of my intellectual and political life. Many people have memories of where they were and what they were doing when the twin towers fell on September 11th. I slept through it. I was finishing my Bachelor’s Degree at the time and in order for me to graduate, I had to take classes during the day a couple days per week and take another class online. The only way to keep the lights on and food in the fridge while I was doing it was to work all night long at a night club as a disc jockey. I woke up about noon and discovered that all hell had broke loose in New York and all classes were cancelled in Texas. I saw all of the replays of the events on the television and felt sympathy for the families who had lost their loved ones that morning. I also tried to come to grips with my own fear about what could happen next and, just like everybody else, had that special anxiety of waiting for the next shoe to fall. Then I went to work.
All was quiet at the night club that evening. I guess no one really felt much like suspending the social order and engaging in the Rabelasian Carnivale of Kentucky Whiskey, Budweiser Beer, and country music in light of the events of September 11th. As a result, I got off of work a little early and drove back to my apartment at the university about two o’clock that morning. Not only was I a poor college student, but I was a poor college student from a poor family. While some of the more well to do college students could live nearby the campus or even across town in some of the nicer apartments, I lived in the least expensive university housing I could find. My roommate (a good ole boy from Arkansas) and I were the only two American students in our housing unit. Everyone else was from either India or Pakistan. When I got home from work that night, I noticed a university police officer walking around my apartment complex. Out of concern for my roommate and my neighbors, I asked him why he was there and was shocked when the officer explained that there were a lot of international students in my building and the administration was concerned that some of the “rednecks” might want to avenge the terrorist attacks so they asked the police to patrol the housing unit to make sure that no one got hurt.
Since very few, if any, of the folks from the larger community knew that our university even had international students much less where those international students lived, I wasn’t exactly sure if that meant that the officer and/ or the administration was concerned about me, personally, or my “good ole boy” roommate from Arkansas, but it really didn’t matter, I was still insulted. I guess that move shows how much faith that folks actually have in the politically correct society that we live in and the diverse curriculum of the public schools. Many of our students were young and had spent their entire lives learning that although everyone is different in their own way, everyone matters, and yet, the administration still believed that those students that they “allowed” to enter their university because those students had a high school diploma, the proper prerequisites, and the right SAT scores were still capable of a good old fashioned lynching. September 11th taught me that everyone matters and that everyone should be given a chance… that is, everyone except for us rednecks because no matter how much they teach us, how much we learn, and how much we are exposed to other cultures, they still believe that when push comes to shove, we will still lynch people because that is just who we are, that is just our nature.
As a result of September 11th, I could no longer see instances where folks that I did not consider “one of my kind” used terms like redneck, cracker, hillbilly, or white trash as being just a matter of what many would see as just “language” in 21st century America. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of an undeniable reality that I wish I could choose to ignore. I left Missouri to get an education, get a job, and, as my grandma says “be somebody.” I was too blind to see that I already was “somebody” and that all of the institutions that I had hoped to join when I completed my education and became a “somebody” would never see me as being a “somebody” in the first place. I would always be a redneck, hillbilly, white trash, cracker to them no matter what I did and that they believed that all of the kinfolk that I left behind in Missouri to come to college in the first place, were less human than themselves. At that point, I decided that I would rather be anybody than their kind of “somebody”.
I was mad that I had busted my ass for the last several years, making good grades, winning literary awards, and being what I considered to be the best student that I could be, just to discover that I was society’s “other.” The redneck, hillbilly, cracker, white trash “other” was not just any kind of “other.” We weren’t “pigmentally challenged” in that one could not see how we differed from your ordinary run of the mill “whiteness.” We were not “other” because of the visible characteristic of skin color. Our lot in life was much worse. We had some cancerous dark spot on our souls that made us rednecks – something that was born in us and could never be removed through either operation or education – a cancerous dark spot that must be concealed and suppressed – an identity that must be subliminated. In spite of our outward appearance of whiteness, we were, as Dorothy Allison writes in her book, Trash, “men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours… and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes” (vii.).
I can assure you that after 9/11 I had an attitude. For me, a redneck who wanted to move up beyond his raisin’, I had already experienced what Icarus experienced when he flew too close to the sun. I had crashed and burned as result of my own hillbilly hubris and knew that no matter how high I flied, I would never be anything more than the redneck, white trash, hillbilly, cracker that came to the university with a pocket full of tuition and would likely leave with nothing more than a pocket full of broken dreams. After all, I would always be a redneck, white trash, hillbilly, cracker. What good were those dreams to me now? Those dreams were for others and not me because I was trash and the best I could do was “claim [my] heritage with a full appreciation of how often it has been disdained” (Allison xvi).
I was not William Matthew McCarter, I was a redneck, white trash, hillbilly, cracker… an interchangeable adjective or noun that applies to me and mine and ours indiscriminately. I might as well be Montgomory Ward Snopes, a character in William Faulkner’s novel, The Mansion, who says:
I don’t remember just when it was, I was probably pretty young, when I realized that I had come from what you might call a family, a clan, a race, maybe even a species, of pure sons of bitches. So I said, Okay, okay, if that’s the way it is, we’ll just show them. They call the best of lawyers, lawyers’ lawyers and the best of actors an actor’s actor and the best of athletes a ballplayer’s ballplayer. All right, that’s what we’ll do: every Snopes will make it his private and personal aim to have the whole world recognize him as THE son of a bitch’s son of a bitch (html).
That’s a job that rednecks can do well…be Snopses… The son of a bitch’s son of a bitch…but aren’t there enough of us rednecks trying to do that? Does the world need another Montgomory Ward Snopes? Perhaps I could stay in school, read everything I could get my hands on, and then one day be an academic’s academic? Ordinarily I would say that it is possible, but 9/11 reminds me that I am a redneck. Perhaps I could become a redneck’s redneck. But, what about an academic’s redneck or a redneck’s academic – a hybrid? Maybe I will be a son of a bitch’s son of a bitch, an academic’s redneck or a redneck’s academic before I complete this article, I don’t know, although I am sure that you, my audience, will have established an opinion on this matter by the time that you have finished it. I can say one thing, I won’t pretend to be something I’m not while I write this so called academic discourse or at anytime thereafter. Socrates says to “know thyself” and in order to “know thyself” one must first engage in what educational philosopher Paulo Freire calls “conscientization,” which is the process of becoming critically conscious of the sociohistorical world (html). Through that “conscientization” us rednecks can “speak [our] word and that by “naming the world,” we can “achieve significance as human beings” (Freire, html). Therefore, I will sound my “rebel yell” – my “barbaric yawp” and achieve my human existence through that naming. “I am redneck, hear me roar.”