Will D. Campbell once said “ The tragedy of the redneck is that he chose the wrong enemy.” A good explanation of that line comes from his book “Brother to a Dragonfly”. In speaking about a conversion moment he had after realizing his social liberal creed was no different from the fundamentalist creed of his youth, he says
“We were right in aligning ourselves with the black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history. A history of slavery. The redneck’s slavery, called indentured servitude, was somewhat, but only somewhat unlike that of black slaves. He was told that if he would serve the master for five years, or seven years, he would then be free in a new and prosperous land. But, freedom to what, and in what? Freedom to flounder , to drift, to wander west in search of what had been promised but never delivered. Freedom to compete in the wilderness with wealthy land-holders , with black labor, to fight a war to defend that system as well as his own peonage, to come back home and watch the aristocrat as tried to meet to the basic needs of those he had formerly owned and the handouts of the Freemen’s Bureau to those declared free but still valuable as working property, while he had no assistance at all. No wonder he had to find a Jonah. And, no wonder, as he strived to match the cultural and economic status of the aristocrat he became a living denial of his own servanthood, teaching his children that his fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. And, no wonder that such deception resulted in the paranoia, the hostilities, bigotries and prejudices which he harbored over the years. It was all in the libretto and scenario.”
I may have had a conversion experience of my own, but it was nothing like the sea change that Campbell describes. I knewas soon as I finished it that I had read something important, but it took a day or so to process it before that I realized I am a redneck. Go back just a few generations in my family history and both sides were small family farmers scratching an existence from the land just like any others. And, at least on the paternal side, they weren’t the kind and gentle type. My grandfather once told me that, after the Civil War, his grandfather crossed the street to beat a black man for daring to speak to a white woman. I had spent my whole life running from this fact, but here it was before me. And, with this realization and Campbell’s words to guide me, I began to see that the redneck, conservatives Tea Partiers and fundamentalists that I looked down on were as much a product of their environment as the minorities that I championed. Now, I had to decide what to do about it.
For Part II of this episode, tune tomorrow; same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.