On Being a Black Redneck

by Monic Ductan Issue: Fall 2015

When I was in the first grade at Maysville Elementary School, my momma bought me a white hair bow. It was palm-sized and made of cloth. One day as our class lined up in the hallway outside the library, our teacher, Ms. Rimler, held up the bow for us to see as she asked who had lost it. My hand instinctively touched the space at the back of my head where the bow should’ve been fastened. It wasn’t there. It must’ve come loose from my braid.

Again, the teacher asked us who had lost the white bow. No one said anything.

I knew the bow was mine, but I was so painfully shy in those days that I was afraid to step forward and claim it. I never spoke up at school. I was afraid of calling attention to myself.  

Ms. Rimler set the bow on the windowsill and made some sort of class announcement. The bow was sitting right beside me. I reached out and took it. I put it in my pocket. My fingers moved over the creases and lines of the bow as Ms. Rimler looked at the spot where she had set it and found the space empty. She looked down at the floor as though she thought the bow had fallen from the window ledge.

“Where’s that white bow?” she asked us.

A boy in my class said, “It was here on the windowsill.” He joined Ms. Rimler in the search for the bow. Both of them walked a few feet down the hallway on either side, heads bent toward the floor, looking around my classmates’ feet.  

I hung my head in shame, even though what I had done wasn’t necessarily wrong. I had simply taken something that belonged to me.

I started first grade in 1988. In those days my momma thought my problem at Maysville Elementary was that I was the only black student in my class. At first I didn’t know what she meant, but over the course of that year, I began to understand. At age six, I thought being black was what made my skin darker than my classmates’ and my hair coarse and short. But according to my momma, my race opened up a set of complicated issues. Momma told me that white people would be hateful to me based solely on race, and that they wouldn’t want to be my friend. I was naturally shy, and Momma’s warnings to me about white people only made me more self-conscious. I was that kid who sat silently in classrooms. I didn’t talk much to the other students, even though I wanted friends.

Momma was wrong about how kids would treat me in first grade. I don’t remember experiencing race prejudice that year. In fact, the only time I remember feeling different about how I looked in first grade was when our class played a game called Name that Baby. Just as the name implies, all the kids had to bring in baby pictures. Ms. Rimler put them together in a collage and we all had to guess who was who. I, of course, was the only dark baby, so most kids knew which picture was mine, except for one boy who got my picture confused with one that belonged to Patty, a white girl with tan skin, black hair and dark eyes. I felt relieved that he had confused our pictures. Someone, even though it was just one person, didn’t see me as all that different.

Recently, a graduate school classmate of mine asked me what it was like to grow up in Appalachia. I could not answer her. I had never thought of myself as Appalachian since there are no mountains in Jackson County, Georgia, the place where I grew up. This fact alone, I thought, was enough to disqualify my county as part of the Appalachian region. However, despite our lack of mountains, all of Jackson County is highlighted on several U.S. maps of Appalachia. According to those maps we are right on the cusp, the very southernmost part of Appalachia in our state.

Though my town is technically a part of the region, I can’t help but think that the blood and bone of Appalachia are in the Blue Ridge Mountains an hour north of us. The first thing that comes to my mind now when I think of the Blue Ridge is actually a stereotype: the dirty, banjo-picking boy in the movie Deliverance. Though I’ve never picked a banjo, I love the sound of that banjo and I love the rolling hills and valleys in the movie. I’m reminded of home when I think of the bucolic setting and the fictional river that the men raft down. I’m sure the river is modeled after the Chattahoochee, which flows just outside my home county. The river was also made famous in an old Alan Jackson song, in which he sings about laying rubber on Georgia asphalt and spending Friday nights down on the river.

I did not mention Deliverance and “Chattahoochee” when my classmate asked me about growing up in Appalachia. I want the world to see that Appalachian people are as complex and varied as any other regional people. Yet I know Appalachian stereotypes exist, and I know they are based on real people who come from counties like mine. In fact, it is hard to describe my family and my hometown without mentioning stereotypes. My momma has the same accent as the characters in Deliverance, except Momma’s is stronger. When she visited me in New York six years ago, my son’s speech therapist, a woman with a master’s degree in speech and language, couldn’t understand Momma.

“I’m from Na-ohth Ge-o-jah,” Momma tried to explain to the therapist after the woman kept asking her to repeat herself.

The therapist, who sat on my living room couch, swiveled her head around to look at me, as though she expected me to translate.

“She said she’s from North Georgia,” I explained.

The therapist gave me a confused look, as if she had no idea that people spoke like my momma in real life. I wondered what perception Momma gave her of north Georgia, that we are all a bunch of hillbillies who speak an indecipherable language?

Aside from mountains and an accent, what else do people commonly associate Appalachia with? Backwoods and agriculture, definitely. Twenty miles north of my hometown lies the city of Gainesville, Georgia, also known as the chicken-growing capital of the world. My parents were poultry plant workers, and in Jackson County some people still have small farms, cattle, and chicken houses. If I were to live a thousand years, I’d never be able to remove the rural landscape from my mind. Whenever I think of going home, I see myself driving along Highway 82 from Jefferson to Commerce. I make that right turn onto Apple Valley Road, and my left-hand side is flanked by a cow pasture. The right side is all woods and kudzu vines. A quarter mile down the road and to my right I pass another cow pasture before I come to the bumpy, unpaved driveway that belongs to my family. Sometimes the whole valley smells of manure. I did not grow up milking cows, and my family owned no farm land, but I was always surrounded by it.

When I look back on my experiences at Maysville Elementary, I see how homogenous the school was in terms of race. Not only was I the only black in my classroom, but I can probably count the people of color in our grade on one hand. As I moved up to larger schools during my middle and high school days, I was introduced to more racial and ethnic diversity, but not much, certainly not enough to satisfy the person I was becoming. I soon grew bored with the general homogeneity of our section of The Bible Belt. Nearly everyone I knew was Christian and conservative. I have never truly considered myself a Christian, and I am not conservative either.

My time at Georgia State University allowed me to see just how diverse the world is, something I would not have learned if I had stayed in Jackson County, a place that is almost 90% white. While I was in school at Georgia State I worked full-time at a Walmart in Tucker, an Atlanta suburb. The people I worked with were from all over: Mexico, Somalia, Bosnia, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ireland, and Peru. Even the Americans were from as far away as Minnesota and Rhode Island. The man from Rhode Island was the one I enjoyed talking to the most. His name was David, and he was tall with dark eyes and hair. Neither of us planned on staying with Walmart very long, and we liked to make fun of our occupation. He made jokes about selling dog food for a living, and we laughed. We had a casual friendship.  

One day as I stood in the warehouse with David, he began to complain about one of our bosses.

“Kevin’s been out every day this week,” David said. “He takes more vacation time than any co-manager I’ve ever seen. How much fishing can one man do?”

“Well,” I said, “Kevin’s a redneck.”

There was a row of cardboard boxes on the table between us, and David had been absently rubbing the side of one of them as I unpacked a shipment of men’s belts. When I used the word redneck, he stopped fidgeting with the box and stared at me.

I was young, about twenty-two at the time, and black. David was white.

Neither of us spoke for a few seconds. The only sound came from the belt buckles clinking against each other as I laid them out on the table to scan. David changed the subject and we continued talking as though nothing unusual had happened, but the look David gave me when I said the word redneck is still easy to recall. The look could best be described as a how-dare-you look. David was probably thinking, You’re college-educated and seem like you have your head on your shoulders, and here you are using racial slurs.

If I were David, I probably would’ve thought the same thing, but what David did not know is that the term redneck is used loosely in the town where I grew up. I learned to think of the word, not as a racial slur, but as a term synonymous with country or low-class. I did not call my Walmart manager a redneck because of his skin color. I called him one because he had a Southern accent, not unlike my own, and he liked to hunt and fish. I associated those things with being redneck/country/backwoods, and I probably always will.

In the rural community where I was raised, a person is labeled a redneck if they grew up in a trailer like I did. A person is a redneck if they go barefoot outdoors like I occasionally did, and still do, when checking the mailbox or retrieving something from outside. A person is a redneck if they don’t have a full set of teeth. Most members of my momma’s family do not have all of their teeth, and when my daddy died at age fifty-eight, he was as toothless as the day he was born. But because I am not white, then none of this, not even the full compilation of these things, would qualify me as a redneck. In fact, some say the term redneck was coined because poor whites who work outdoors develop flushed faces and red necks from doing manual labor in the sun. Though I have never worked long hours in the sun, I come from two long lines of cotton pickers, and their labor was about as manual as a person’s could be. And I guarantee you, if you dig far enough into my family history you’ll find some white men in there, and yet that still doesn’t give me the label of redneck. After all, down here you are either all white or no white, no matter how many blue-eyed great-granddaddies you may possess.

While I did not know as a twenty-two-year-old how racist and classist it sounds to use words like redneck, I certainly hear how awful it sounds now. But along that same line of thinking, I am a low-class black woman from rural Georgia, and until recently I didn’t believe a low-class person could even be classist. Wealthy people are considered classist far more often than the poor. If a poor person lashes out at a wealthy man or government that oppresses him, then we’re sympathetic. But if a wealthy person looks down their nose at the poor, then we automatically hate that wealthy person, at least I do, at least a little bit. I hate them because I assume the wealth of the rich was earned on the backs of the poor, and if someone is poor it must be because they’ve been forced into poverty by some big oppressor they have no control of, like capitalism or racism or some other ism. But that’s not always true. I can’t blame all wealthy people for poverty.

When I think about the times I’ve labeled someone a redneck, I feel shame. I feel racist. I hope that owning the label of redneck will somehow absolve me from the guilt of using the word. Another reason I call myself a redneck is to thumb the noses of those who think they can beat up on me by calling me low-class. If I admit that I’m low-class and don’t hold my head down about it, I feel as though I’ve won some small victory.

I also give myself the label of redneck out of spite to those who don’t think I can have it because I’m black. In fact, my own family would never claim the redneck label. When I was growing up my parents often threw the word redneck around, their upper lips curled with disdain. When they used the word they were always referring to other people: Those rednecks. Those good ole boys. I have even looked down on rednecks myself. When a co-worker in Jackson County was shocked that I had never been mud-bogging, I thought, Mud bogging? What does she think I am, a damn redneck?

I like to think that I am more self-aware now that I’m older, but what about my family? Are they aware that we aren’t so different from rednecks? I don’t think they are.

When my brother spent a week out in California, everyone he met asked where he was from, which was of course due to his Southern accent.

“I don’t have an accent,” he told me.

“Yes you do. You sound country as hell,” I teased him.

“No,” he said, shaking his head adamantly. He picked up the remote control from his living room coffee table and clicked through the channels. “You think I sound anything like those rednecks up in Banks County?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes at his reference to Banks County, the county adjacent to the north of us. Banks is very rural, even more rural than the little towns in our county. Banks County High was one of our rivals in football and basketball. Though neither of our two schools was known for being good at sports, they thought they were better than us, and we thought ourselves superior to them. Once at a high school basketball game, we even taunted them with cheers of “We’re gonna beat six toes. Beat six toes!”

Our chant, of course, accused their players of being inbred and having six toes on each foot. It was a hateful thing to say, but we said it.

I can imagine now what my brother would say if I were to tell him that our whole family is a bunch of rednecks that are not at all different from the ones in Banks County. He would probably cuss me out.  

People outside my family would never call us rednecks either. You belong to the lower-class black group, they’ll say. And they are right. I do. I’m not betraying my heritage. I know dadgum well which class people are most likely to put me in, but I am also stubborn enough to insist that I—like everyone else in this world—have never fit neatly into any category. While I certainly share many things in common with rednecks and lower-class blacks, I also know that there are ways in which I’m different from both. So can’t I exist in some other space, some space where I am both a black woman and a redneck?

In our Southern culture, blacks are and always have been on the bottom. For a woman with my background, fitting into the middle and upper class of the American caste system is impossible. I’m too class-less and foul-mouthed. I’m too heavy-footed and manner-less. Sometimes I care more about telling the truth than being polite, and I occasionally have this angry-black-woman look on my face that scares the shit outta those that move in the ranks above me. Thus, I am settling for redneck-land because I know I’ll never fit into the upper echelons. Pretty self-deprecating, huh?

My acceptance of the redneck label is not a desire to be white, but a desire to be accepted by whites. When I was in grade school, I did want to be white. I thought it would be easier to fit in that way. But now when I look around at my white friends and co-workers, I realize I wouldn’t trade places with them. Many of them have the same problems and heartaches that I do. Switching over to their side wouldn’t do me any good. Though I’ve moved past the wanting-to-be-white phase, I still want to be accepted, by both blacks and whites. I want to be accepted by the blacks that look at me like I’m something strange when I listen to country music. I want to be accepted by even the rednecks, who say subtly racist things to me and view me as alien. For a long time I’ve asked myself why it’s so important that I fit into these two worlds. What I’ve come to realize is that we all try to fit into the world in which we’re born, that my desire to conform is not anything shameful; it’s just a human condition. Had I been born in a circus culture and lived among circus performers, I suppose I’d want to adjust to the ways of the lion tamers and acrobats all around me. If America were ruled by Wiccans, then I would walk and talk witchy.

Last year I watched an ESPN documentary called Ghosts of Ole Miss. Several times throughout the film, a nice, slow version of “Dixie” plays on the guitar. Something about that song makes me want to cry, not just with sadness but with pride. This confuses me because I know the lyrics to the song and the sentiment behind them: a nostalgia for cotton fields and the Old South. I feel no such nostalgia, but sometimes that song confuses me into thinking I could. A part of me believes that as a black person I am not supposed to feel proud of being Southern.

Only recently have I begun to feel proud of the uniqueness of Southern speech. I live and go to graduate school in a Southern town, where I am surrounded by people who either never had a southern accent or try desperately to get rid of it to sound “educated.” So even though I’m only a hundred miles south of my hometown, sometimes I miss the accent so much that in my mind I replay conversations with people from home. I remember that momma sometimes says “hit” instead of “it.” I can’t figure out the rules for this substitution. Sometimes she says sentences like: “Hit don’t make no sense. I picked it up yesterday.” I try to figure out why she says “hit” in the first sentence but has no problem pronouncing the word correctly in the second. And I can’t stop thinking about an old basketball coach of mine who routinely omitted the “th” in the word “that” so that he wound up saying things like, “Grab ‘at pencil and hand it to me” (except that “grab” and “at” are fused into one word: grabat.) All of these little quirks have slowly caused me to fall in love with Southern English and the people who speak it.

Last year I met a woman on the Georgia coast. We talked for several minutes before we came to the subject of my hometown.  

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Jackson County,” I told her.

“Yes, I know where that is. I used to teach at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens,” she said. “Did you say you’re in graduate school? You aren’t really like most people from Jackson County then, are you?”

I raised my eyebrows at her. “What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what she meant but waiting eagerly to hear how she would explain herself.

“When I taught in Athens, I sometimes taught kids from your county—” she trailed off.

I waited.

She broke eye contact with me.

“You can say it. What do you mean?” I asked again.

“It’s just that people in Jackson County don’t seem like they want much of an education.” The woman looked down at the sand for a long moment, and then she risked a glance at me as if she were waiting for me to be offended.

I nodded, not sure how to respond. What she had said about us not wanting an education reminded me that when I was a teenager our county had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state. I knew more than one girl who had two kids by the time she was seventeen. I don’t think any of those girls finished school, and if they did it was usually with a GED earned in night school.

I’m sure the woman at the beach thought of our county’s teen mommas as she looked at me. The way she labeled those in my community made me think of how I’d labeled my Walmart manager as a redneck. I didn’t mean any harm when I made the comment about Kevin, though I’m sure many people would’ve taken it as an insult. Similarly, the beach woman’s comment about my uneducated county was an insult to me and a form of labeling.

For a long time I allowed others to label and define me instead of defining myself. The labels applied to my town and my family—Trash. Redneck. Stupid—stuck in my head and discouraged me from looking for professional jobs. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I finally got the courage to tentatively pursue the things I was so afraid of going after—a college teaching job and a career as a professional writer. I think the only thing that has pushed me forward is that I’m stubborn, and so I refuse to let other people be right about me. While I do claim the label of redneck, I know that being a redneck does not have to mean being a complacent underachiever. So I name all my dreams now. I write them down. I tape them to a wall in my bedroom with the hope that I can achieve them, all of them. And still, sometimes when I’m reflecting on where I come from and what I hope to achieve, I feel like I’m six years old again with that bow in my pocket, like I’m trying to steal something that’s already mine.

Monic Ductan has an M.F.A. from Georgia College. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, So to Speak, Big Muddy, and Tahoma Literary Review. Monic is the winner of Blue Lyra Review’s 2015 Short-ish Poetry Prize. She lives in Mississippi.