I have lived almost all of my life in the South, but I have never felt particularly Southern. However, the two years I have lived outside of the South have taught me just how wrong I have been. They have also caused me to struggle with exactly how I fit into the South and what one even means by claiming to be Southern these days. Luckily, they also helped me to develop a bit of Southern pride, which I struggled with growing up and continue to do so. In fact, I can remember the first event that made me proud to be from the South, and it started as nothing more than a joke. A young woman I taught with was passing me in the hall and simply said hello. I responded with “Howdy, howdy.” I should point out that I do not have a well-developed Southern accent; in fact, for most of my life in the South, people asked me if I was from elsewhere, usually the Midwest. I have also never lived in Texas, but, for some reason, I have picked up saying, “howdy,” to people.
Rather than simply walking on to wherever she was going, she stopped and asked, “Why did you say that twice?” Of course, there was no real answer to this question. I believe she truly wanted to know why I had said it twice, but I had no idea then, nor do I today. I’m sure that I’ve done it since then with no real reason; however, since she asked, I gave her an answer. I smiled and said, “Because I’m twice as proud to be from the South.” Now, that was simply not true. I was in my late 20s, living outside of the South for the first time in my life. I had lived most of my life in Tennessee, but I had attended graduate school in Mississippi, so I was well versed in the South, and I cannot say that I was particularly proud to be from there.
Since I knew that she was from New York state, I was simply trying to be a bit mischievous, but I really did not expect her next comment. She took my comment seriously, as I later learned that she did not have a sense of humor, and looked at me incredulously, simply responding, “Why?” It was at that moment that Southern pride was formed in my heart, as I wanted so desperately to have an answer for her question. I wanted to be able to explain to her everything that was great about the first twenty-seven years of my life because they were spent in the South. Instead, I had nothing to say.
That encounter happened early in the school year, in the fall semester, but a later event showed me that, no matter what I thought about my background, I was undeniably from the South, and it was up to me to own it. I was having dinner with a young woman I was trying unsuccessfully to convince to date me. She was perfectly willing to be friends, though, so we were out one night having pizza at a restaurant where the power had gone out. Thus, it took a long time to get our food, as they were trying to get everything back in order. Luckily, perhaps, it gave us a long time to talk.
As was my wont, I was telling stories about my childhood and asking her about hers. She was from St. Louis, originally, and she had gone to college in Rhode Island. To the best of my knowledge, she had never been to the South, nor has she to this day, over ten years later (and, no, I do not count Missouri, especially St. Louis, in the South, Mark Twain excepted). We were talking about foods of our childhood, so I decided to tell her about my favorite meal: Treet™, pork-n-beans, and macaroni and cheese. I don’t believe I mentioned white bread and butter that we would have on the side, but that inclusion or omission would not have affected her response. She looked at me and said, “No offense, but, what were you? White trash?”
I would like to say that I had a response for this, as well, beyond simply arguing that I was not white trash. I had had a rather lengthy discussion with one of my classes about the difference in terms like “white trash,” “redneck,” and “hick” earlier in the year, so I should have been ready to have such a conversation with her. I was the perfect person to educate her about the connotations and denotations of such terms and explain what life in the South was truly like. However, I did not and, in fact, I could not do so. The truth was that I did not know what I was.
Not surprisingly, since that time, I’ve done a good deal of thinking about terms like these and where I fit in the South. I’ve also talked to my family more and found out more about our background. Growing up, both of my parents worked, and I never heard stories about their early married life, before I was born. Since they’ve retired and since I’ve started hearing more stories from my older sister, I have found out much more about what life was like in the eleven years my parents were married before I was born and when I was very young. I can still say that we were not white trash, but I’m not sure exactly what we were.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is no entry for “white trash.” Instead, you have to find information under the more general heading of “trash.” The fourth definition for that term is “A worthless or disreputable person; now, usually, such persons collectively. white trash, the poor white population in the Southern States of America; now also used outside the Southern States of America,” while a reference to the fourth definition of “white” also tells the reader that “poor white folk(s) or trash” is “a contemptuous name given in America by Blacks to white people of no substance (1836, etc. in Thornton Amer. Gloss.).” It is interesting to me that the OED references the racial conflict between African-Americans and the poor whites, as my only encounters with any derogatory terms referring to poor Southerners has come from the white middle- and upper-class, as in the case of my friend.
Looking back at my childhood and just before I was born, part of this definition fits. The fact is that we grew up poor, though I would never have known it at the time. My sister tells me a story about the years just before I was born and a particularly bad Christmas. My brother, who is nearly three years older than my sister and ten years older than I am, once asked my mother if Santa Claus didn’t like our family because we didn’t get very many presents. Not surprisingly, his question so upset my mother that, from that year on, any extra money (and some that was certainly not what anyone would define as “extra”) went to Christmas presents for the kids. Thus, since I came along later, I never knew that we were ever in financial trouble.
Of course, part of my ignorance was simply because I grew up around other kids who were poor. I accepted hand-me-downs from a good friend in my neighborhood who was two years older, and no one in my neighborhood made fun of me. They wouldn’t, as they wore clothing from their older brothers or cousins or friends. In fact, I passed on some of those clothes to other kids in the neighborhood when they were too small for me.
In our school system, not only was I not seen as poor, but my family was seen as well-off, despite all that I did not have. Even though I was almost always the last in my neighborhood to get anything that was trendy, be it clothing or electronics, students at my county school envied me and where I lived. Our neighborhood was named Martindale Estates, and we had a neighborhood pool that families could buy into. Many of my schoolmates lived in trailers out in the country, and they had few friends who lived within walking or biking distance.
I never had to go on the free lunch program, unlike many of my friends. Again, there was no shame about being on the program, and the teachers would often announce information about the program to the entire class. Whenever students had to sign up or go to a meeting about it, it was announced over the school intercom, and students would simply get up and go. There was never an attempt made to hide the names of the students to protect them, nor did they have any shame about accepting the help. Even in middle school, where anything seems to be free game to use for abuse, I never heard a student attacked for being poor. I can only imagine that anyone who would have done so would have had to defend himself against the entire school.
The part about being called “white trash,” then, that bothered me so much is the implication that one has no worth or drive. Both of my parents attended college, though only my father finished, and he went on to earn a Master’s degree. When I was two, he got a job teaching at the university they had both attended, and my mother worked there as a secretary. Thus, when I was growing up, we were clearly upwardly mobile, and my parents strongly encouraged me to follow that path. My brother and sister, both of whom grew up during much more difficult times, struggled in school and did not seem interested in that approach to life.
It is this classist tint to the term, not the racial one cited by the OED, that can grate on a person. In her article, “ ‘Excavated from the Inside’: White Trash and Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller,” Karen Gaffney writes, “The stereotype blames poor whites for their poverty, constructing them as inferior, alleviating responsibility from whites in power who maintain the status quo.… The emphasis on trash constructs poor whites as garbage, undesirable and disposable, in order to preserve the non-trash status of middle- and upper-class whites.” My parents both grew up very poor, as my father’s father worked in the coal mines until he developed black lung, causing my father’s family to move repeatedly and live several times in the housing projects. My mother can honestly say that she did not own a winter coat until she was in middle school, and she and her three sisters shared one bed for many years. My friend’s comment blamed my parents for the meal that I had told her about when, in fact, they were working to raise our family up out of the poverty they had known into a better life.
A few years ago, a new Brady Bunch movie was released, where the Bradys still lived like they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but everyone else was in the 1990s. At one point, Carol Brady is shopping, and she buys an inordinate amount of red meat. A neighbor sees her doing so and criticizes her for feeding her family meat (one must recall that the Bradys lived in California). Her response is that her family is growing, and they need to eat meat to do so.
Growing up in the 1970s, my parents took the same approach, as did almost all families then. They paid little concern to high sodium levels, and low-fat was a fad that had not hit yet. Their main concern was that we had some sort of meat at every meal, no matter what it was; thus, if all they could afford was Treet™, then that’s what we got. We ate Hamburger Helper™, salmon patties (made from salmon in a can), Tuna Helper™, spaghetti, Chef Boyardee™ pizza with pepperoni (we had to have a meat, and it was cheap), and cube steak, among other meals. In each case, the meals were cheap, but they gave us the meat our parents thought we needed.
They had to feed a family of five on a budget, so they did the best they could. Even today, my favorite meal of a can of Treet™, a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of pork-n-beans, and a piece of white bread with butter is still quite cheap. I went to the store to check prices, and a can of Treet™ was on sale for 99 cents (normally $1.29), a large can of pork-n-beans (31 oz) by a name-brand company was $1.69, and a box of family size, name-brand macaroni and cheese was $1.94. If one went with store brands, two 16oz cans of pork-n-beans were 80 cents, and the macaroni and cheese was on sale for $1.00 (normally $1.25). Thus, this meal for five would range between $2.79 (for store brands and with everything on sale) to $4.92 (for all name brands and nothing on sale). This type of meal would stretch a thin food budget in ways that most meals would not and still give us the protein they thought we needed. One serving of Treet™ alone would provide each of us with six grams of protein. The macaroni and cheese adds another sixteen grams, and the pork-n-beans would pack in six more. This cheap meal provides each of us with twenty-eight grams of protein for a much lower price than almost anything else we could afford.
Other meals are similar in cost and nutrition. Hamburger Helper with a pound of hamburger would cost $5.94 for store brands and 15% fat hamburger, and Tuna Helper with a can of tuna would cost $3.34 for store brands. In both cases, though, when I looked Hamburger and Tuna Helper were both on sale for $1.00, bringing the cost down to $4.79 for the Hamburger Helper and $2.19 for the Tuna Helper. The Hamburger Helper would give us 26 grams of protein, while the Tuna Helper serves up 25 grams. Our parents could provide us with about 25 grams of protein for one meal for less than five dollars per day, and that amount is in 2008 money, not 1970s and 1980s income. My friend’s interpretation of our eating habits shows only a middle- to upper-class upbringing that is ignorant of the struggles of the poor, no matter where they may live.
Unfortunately, those outside of the South (or even those who live in the urban South with no knowledge of either the urban or rural poor), are unable to distinguish simple poverty from white trash or any of the other terms used to denigrate those who are struggling to survive. Sometimes, though, my defensiveness about growing up in the South led to problems, not the speaker’s ignorance. In the same year in Indiana, I had a conversation with another young woman about my perceived lack of accent, and she used another term that is often used derogatorily and which I took as such, only to find out that I was the one who was mistaken in this case. I told her that I did not have a Southern accent, and she simply laughed and responded, “Kevin, you’re somewhere between hick and Southern.”
I should have known better than to take the term “hick” as an insult, and my only defense is that I was obviously having trouble dealing with people who did not understand the South. Thus, my defenses went up, and she had to explain what she meant to prove that she did not mean to denigrate me or my accent. It is true that the definition of “hick,” according to the OED is “an ignorant countryman; a silly fellow, booby”; however, the focus can be on the “country” part, not the “ignorant” part, which was my friend’s intention. It is true that my mother’s accent could easily be described as a hick accent, as she sounds like she is from the country, as opposed to the Southern accents that movie stars usually adopt, which sound like rich plantation owners.
In talking to others, I’m not even sure that “hick” is limited to the South, and the OED certainly doesn’t limit it geographically. I had a friend in college who was from rural Pennsylvania, and he often used the term “hick” simply to refer to those who lived in the country, as he did. It was not an insult; merely a descriptor of where one lived. Unfortunately, when used as an adjective, it becomes a put-down, as in, “You went to that hick college?” or “I used to live in a hick town, but then I moved to civilization.” Thus, according to my friend, even though I have an accent that is similar to a hick, I am not a hick in the pejorative sense.
However, I did have at least two distinct phases when I wanted to be a redneck, one of which was precipitated by my friend from Pennsylvania. When I was in college, I often wore doo-rags to class, so I was always on the lookout for good bandanas. I had a Soviet flag and a Union Jack at one time, and, near the end of that phase, I found a large, purple, paisley bandana (it was the late 1980s, early 1990s, OK?) that would hang halfway down my back. I even tie-dyed some bandanas. However, my favorite bandana was one that my friend bought when he was home in Pennsylvania over break; it was a Confederate flag.
We both noted the irony of a Yankee buying me a Confederate flag bandana to wear on campus in an area of East Tennessee that fought for the North, and that irony made wearing it that much more enjoyable. In fact, I have often taken great joy in poking holes in Confederate mythology by pointing out that I’m from Northeast Tennessee, so I know what it’s like to be both a Southerner and a winner. Note that this type of comment does not make one popular with other Southerners. When I was not wearing said bandana, I often wrapped it like a headband and hung it around my rearview mirror, as was the trend among rednecks when I was growing up. In fact, I once joked that all one needed to get free car repair service was such a bandana. If you raised the hood on your car with that around the mirror, rednecks would come out of nowhere to help you fix whatever was wrong with the car. When I was younger (and dumber, I should add), I believed this was a clever insult; I know now that it says something about the kindness of Southerners that I took for granted while growing up here.
According to the OED, a redneck is “A member of the white rural labouring class of the southern States; one whose attitudes are considered characteristic of this class; freq., a reactionary.” It goes on to say that term was originally an insult, and it often still is, but it is “now also used with more sympathy for the aspirations of the rural American.” I’m not sure exactly where they see evidence of the term being used as a sympathetic one, though it’s certainly been co-opted by Southerners much the same way that gays and lesbians have tried to take back “queer.” In fact, when I was in high school, I worked at a Kroger grocery store with a fifty-something-year-old woman named Merle. Her son would often come and pick her up in his low-rider truck, which had the word “Redneck” painted on the top of the front windshield. Of course, he wore this term with pride, much as Kid Rock and Toby Keith have done with “white trash.”
When I was a Senior in high school, I wanted to be a redneck, for some reason. I am not sure why the desire hit me at that point, especially as I had spent much of my time trying to escape from the trappings of my Southern upbringing. I even mocked my best friend (and high school valedictorian) out of some of his more extreme Southern accent, including pronouncing “yellow” as “yallow.” Thus, in addition to the red bandana I had around my rearview mirror (this was before my friend from Pennsylvania had given me the Confederate flag, of course), I took to trying to grow sideburns. I am still not sure why I thought sideburns would help me be more of a redneck, but it did not help. For some reason, no one looked at me and thought I was anything other than a general Southerner, whatever that is.
Of course, there are other terms that ignorant people use to describe those of us who are from the South, especially if we grew up poor. We are called crackers, which the OED helpfully defines as “a contemptuous name given in southern States of North America to the ‘poor whites’; whence, familiarly, to the native whites of Georgia and Florida.” Some people believe the term comes from “corn-cracker,” which is defined as “a contemptuous name for a ‘poor white’ in the Southern States (from his subsisting on corn or maize); a ‘cracker’. Also, a native of Kentucky.” The OED does not believe “cracker” has anything to do with “corn-cracker”; instead, it gives another definition of “cracker” which relates to people who boast. The earliest usages of “cracker” certainly have elements of boasting in them, as this letter from 1766 shows: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” Of course, since they were boasting in the South; the term that referred to boasting changed into a classist epithet.
I did not hear “cracker” when I was growing up, only later when I was in graduate school, and then only in books and articles I read. However, I did grow up hearing about hillbillies. I grew up on the old country music of the 1970s, a group that certainly took pride in being hillbillies. Unlike “cracker,” there is no inherent insult in the term, as the OED simply defines a hillbilly as “a person from a remote rural or mountainous area, esp. of the southeastern U.S.” In fact, a newspaper quote from 1900 makes being a hillbilly sound rather positive: “In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” The limitation to Alabama is interesting, but most Southerners these days would feel quite happy if they could live the life of this “Hill-Billie.”
Unfortunately, the term has taken on negative connotations, as people have taken the term to refer to people who live so far outside of civilization that they are unable to survive within it, as the television show The Beverly Hillbillies illustrated. The stereotype of a hillbilly as someone who did not wear shoes or who eats possum on a regular basis is easily discerned in the definition, but even the quote from the newspaper does not pass judgment on one who lives in this manner; it simply states that one does. In fact, most of that quotation implies a poverty that has been and still is true for hillbillies, in that they dress as they can because they have no means to speak of. They live off of the land as best they can, as they are still so isolated that they scrape to survive. Unlike white trash, though, they are not “worthless” or “disreputable”; they are simply poor.
The problem comes when those who do not understand the differences between these groups (or the true usage of the terms) uses them interchangeably; thus, someone who is simply a hillbilly becomes white trash, and a hick becomes a cracker. Ultimately, these terms all alienate those to whom they are applied, keeping them from participating in society, keeping them from invading the civilization that those with money and power have created. In “Redneck and Hillbilly Discourse in the Writing Classroom: Classifying Critical Pedagogies of Whiteness,” Jennifer Beech writes, “Rednecks, white trash, and hillbillies, then, are among the classes of whites who lack the power to define or shape cultural norms.”
When my friend asked me if I was white trash, she was commenting on much more than what I liked to eat when I was growing up. She was speaking of me as someone who did not have the power or ability to contribute to the society of the greater United States, someone who could not make an impact beyond my poor country school or neighborhood. Most of my friends understood this idea and believed it themselves. One day, a group of us were sitting around a tree in the neighborhood talking about what we might like to do one day. Not surprisingly, as many of us played sports, we dreamed of becoming professionals. The oldest among us said simply, “Nobody from Martindale will ever amount to anything.”
If one is called “trash” long enough, he or she will begin to believe it. Luckily, I knew enough to be offended by my friend’s question and by the woman from New York’s questioning of why I would be proud to be from the South. What I still do not know is exactly what it means for me to be Southern, though I know that I am. I know that I prefer smaller cities that are more rural as opposed to anything urban, though I enjoy visiting cities, but I’m also not exactly sure what that means, if anything.
Over the past ten years, which include a move to the Pacific Northwest that only lasted one year because I wanted to get back to the South so badly, I’ve at least come to admit that I love the South and being Southern, but I simply cannot define what that means, either in general or for me specifically. I have tried to write about how I am and am not Southern, but I end up falling back on clichés and stereotypes, using accents and love of stories as some sort of arbiter of Southerness, making me no better than those who criticized where I’m from. As I continue to shape what being Southern means to me, I know that I also must struggle against others’ portrayals of Southerners as ignorant and as the South as some place I should be ashamed of. Perhaps in educating them, I can educate myself, as well.
Kevin Brown is an Associate Professor at Lee University and an MFA student at Murray State University. He has one book of poetry, Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009), one published chapbook, Abecedarium (Finishing Line Press, 2011), and another forthcoming chapbook, Holy Days: Poems (winner of Split Oak Press Chapbook Contest, 2011). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again (Wipf and Stock, 2012), and a forthcoming book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Folio, Connecticut Review, South Carolina Review, Stickman Review, Atlanta Review, and Palimpsest, among other journals. He has also published essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academe, InsideHigherEd.com, The Teaching Professor, and Eclectica.
 Let me go ahead and differentiate between Treet™ and Spam™ here. According to their ingredients, Treet’s™ main meats are “mechanically separated chicken” and “pork,” while Spam’s™ are “pork with ham.” In both cases, of course, “pork” is notoriously vague (which begs the question for Spam™ as to what the difference between pork and ham is, but I’m guessing that most of us would rather not know where the “pork” portion comes from), and the descriptions of “mechanically separated chicken” are not pleasant, so I’ll avoid going into that. Suffice it to say that their parts of the chicken one does not normally eat. Treet™ also adds “baked Virginia ham seasonings,” as they advertise a “baked Virginia ham taste.” Spam™ also includes something called “modified potato starch,” which I’m guessing is used to thicken it up. Both also include preservatives, though Treet™ seems to have a wider variety of them.