Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Flashback: Southern Nights and Stereotypes

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This one is from July 19, 2010. It is the first essay I posted that "went viral." It ended up on Rick Bragg's Facebook page and thus found increased readership. Prior to appearing here, it was a winner in the 2007 UAB Discussion Book Essay contest.  




A Look at Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'

To elicit conventional images of the rural Southerners, one need only mention "hick," "country bumpkin," "hillbilly," or "redneck." Rick Bragg's highly acclaimed memoir, All Over but the Shoutin' (Vintage Books, 1997) gives us a clear view of the rural South without reinforcing negative stereotypes. A stereotype often serves to tell just a little bit of truth in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves by degrading another. All Over but the Shoutin' allows us to see the humanity of people whom we were previously able to ignore because of thoughtless labels.

About the same time Rick Bragg was walking the cotton fields, playing high school football, and racing his car down the flat tops in Calhoun County, I was growing up in rural Tallapoosa County. In my family, we were just barely middle-class, if that. My father was a Baptist minister and my mother a school teacher. We were raised to value education and higher thinking, but economically, we were working-class people living in rental housing, one paycheck away from dire straights.

Our neighbors were very much like the people Bragg describes in his book. My friends' parents were pulp wooders, mill workers, farmers, teachers, bankers, and businessmen. We ourselves made frequent use of stereotypes in those days. We white folks had stereotypes about African Americans so we could feel good about segregation. As Southerners, we had stereotypes about New Yorkers and other city dwellers to make us feel good about our rural Southern lifestyle. We even had stereotypes about some of our own kind.

It was in the late 1960's that we first started using the term "redneck." We didn't mind laughing about people we called rednecks because we certainly did not want to be uneducated hick farmers. One day my brother and I were riding with my mother from our home in Dadeville to Alexander City. We found ourselves behind a slow car on a crooked two lane road. There must have been three people in the front seat and four or five in the back seat of that car in front of us. I am not sure who made the first comment about "those rednecks" and how it was no wonder they couldn't go any faster, but my mother was swift in her response. She pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. She then turned to us and gave us one of those reality check lectures. Some would call it a "come to Jesus meetin'."

She informed us that there is nothing wrong with people who have to work for a living, and there is certainly no reason to degrade someone just because they have a little less education or a little less income. I tried not to use that word again, and that little roadside talk jolted me into seeing those whom I had looked down upon as real people just like me. Furthermore, it didn't take much reflection to realize the grim prospects that a little shift in luck could bring to my family.

No Easy Stereotypes

Generally, I have found a stereotype to be a caricature that makes an easy hook for our fears, prejudices, and indifference. Bragg gives us no easy hooks. His portrayal of genuine people from his life and times effectively forces the reader to pull over to the side of the road and make an honest heartfelt connection with a class of people who may have previously been two-dimensional cartoons in the mind's eye.

When he tells about his younger brother Mark evading the local law enforcement by ducking into a little Pentecostal church where a service was in progress, Bragg does not try to make it into a slapstick comedy. He does not portray those churchgoers as hillbilly fanatics, which would be a common stereotype. He presents them as a well-meaning group whom his mother described as good people having a genuine interest in Mark's well-being. His older brother Sam is presented as a skilled craftsman and a decent intelligent fellow who was neglected by the school system. A steady worker at the cotton mill, he manages to build a life of honest respectability. Even though he has probably received far too little in proportion to his hard work from the age of 13 onward, Sam appears to take life as it comes. If he harbors bitterness it does not show and he makes himself a reliable foundation and support for his wife and family.

Bragg is unwavering in his goal to present his mother as he sees her: a strong, caring, hard-working, selfless woman who managed to provide for her sons against great odds. When she was abandoned by her alcoholic husband she did what she could whether it was picking cotton, taking in laundry, or standing in the welfare lines. If he were resorting to stereotypes the writer might simply say that it was washing and ironing and commodity cheese that kept them afloat. He could highlight the provincial idiosyncrasies of rural life if he simply wanted to amuse the public with stories of his growing up in poverty. Instead, Rick Bragg gives us a full three-dimensional view of the people in his life.

Bragg has a love and respect for the relatives in the rural South who raised him, and he clearly wants to convey that sense of respect to his readers. It is evident throughout the book that he wants us to understand and appreciate the working poor. He is even more to the point, however, when he relates his experience in reporting the deadly tornado that struck a church in Piedmont, Alabama, on Palm Sunday, 1994. He tells us that it was crucial that he completely and accurately portray the people in that community in the face of profound tragedy. These were his people, folks he grew up with, and he wanted the readers of The New York Times to know them. For a fellow who says that religion "never did take" with him, he certainly conveys the genuine depths of faith to be found in simple people who have been too busy working for a living to explore any erudite philosophies of life. One does not do that with stereotypes. Rick Bragg has the innate sensitivity, which he says he got from his mother, to be able to immediately see the true humanity of the poor and working classes in the South. He has a talent for communication, but he also does the hard work to make sure he gets it right for the rest of us to see.

If you want quick and easy answers, or if cheap laughs are preferred, then stereotypes are the way to go. If, on the other hand, you hope to present a full, accurate, multidimensional picture of a person or a people, then reinforcing stereotypes will only cloud the picture. Rick Bragg, in All Over but the Shoutin', presents one of the clearest pictures on record of people in the rural South. He admits to having some insecurity just because of where he came from, being among those who are routinely ignored and devalued by society. It is work like his, however, that will contribute to a wider recognition of people who work hard just to get by in life.
                                 
                                                                                                                                  Charles Kinnaird


Downtown Dadeville, Alabama


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Photo credit:
Top photo:Three Amigos, "an old house, Fordson tractor and huge pecan tree in rural Nash County, NC" by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

Pasture fence near Montevallo, Ala. by Charles Kinnaird

Downtown Dadeville by Kathryn Braund, courtesy of Encyclopedia of Alabama.


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