Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Pt. 3
Pride, Money, Sex and So Much More – by Amanda S. Green
Thomas Sowell is one of those writers who challenge you to consider “truths” you’ve held for years. He tears holes in the revisionist histories and narratives being taught in schools today and, yes, yesterday. Some of his comments and observations are uncomfortable. But he makes you think. That is his strength and that is the danger he presents to those who blindly push the narrative – any narrative. It is one of many reasons it is so important to read his work.
“Observers of the white population of the antebellum South often commented not only on their poverty but also on their lack of industriousness or entrepreneurship.” (BRAWL, p. 13) Coming from Texas, which isn’t really part of the South but is close enough, that comment rubs against the grain. The image so many of us have of the antebellum South is of a region suffering after the war. It was an area where a way of life had been challenged and changed and where General Sherman and others laid waste to towns and fields, burning them as they rode through. Then there were the carpetbaggers, those evil Northerners (not really, but that’s the image often given in schools at one time) who came in to take advantage of the situation.
Contemporaries described many Southerners as “too poor to keep slaves and too proud to work.” (BRAWL, pg. 13) Others commented on their “lack of industriousness or entrepreneurship.” (ibid) Frederick Law Olmsted called it “lazy poverty,” where they basically did only what was necessary to get by. According to Sowell, “When Olmsted found work done efficiently, promptly, and well during his travels through the South—when he found well-run businesses, good libraries, impressive churches, and efficiently functioning institutions in general—he almost invariably found them to be run by Northerners, foreigners, or Jews.” (BRAWL, pg 14)
One example Sowell gives is that of butter. The South had as much, if not more cattle than the North. Yet its dairy production was much lower. As a result, butter had to be imported from the North. According to one source cited by Sowell, where butter wasn’t imported, it was made locally. However, it was made by people of non-Southern origin. These local sources were almost always found to be under German or Swiss management. Why was this? “German farmers, wherever they were located, tended to build fences and huge barns for their livestock, and to feed them there during the winter. Southerners more often let their cows and hogs roam freely during the winter, even though this meant that “in the spring they turned up half starved and it took the summer for them to put on normal weight.” (BRAWL, p. 16) This is a trend that continued until the 1930’s when the South produced something in the area of only 7% of the nation’s processed dairy products.
In other words, those German farmers did more than the least amount of work necessary to get by.
Lest you think Sowell relied only on Northerners and foreigners in describing Southern whites after the Civil War, far from it. “No southern man,” South Carolina’s famed Senator John C. Calhoun said, “not even the poorest or the lowest, will, under any circumstances … perform menial labor…. He has too much pride for that.” General Robert E. Lee likewise declared: “Our people are opposed to work. Our troops officers community & press. All ridicule & resist it.” (BRAWL, p. 18)
Specifically, here some of the traits Sowell points out with regard to Southern whites:
- Disdained business as a career
- More concerned with entertainment than business
- Improvident spending and indebtedness
- Not being alert to profitable investment potential (for example, importing coal instead of mining it locally)
- As late as WWI, white soldiers from Georgia,Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi scored lower on mental tests than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. (BRAWL, p. 23)
- A more casual approach to sex and sexually provocative attire
- A more “enthusiastic” approach to religion (holy rollers, charismatic, etc.)
- A melodramatic and emotional oratorical style
In other words, much of what plagued the South for so many years, both before and after the Civil War was missed opportunities.
It would be easy to sit here and simply list all the facts and figures Sowell discusses in the essay. Frankly, I’d love to do it because I find it all fascinating. Not only because it makes me think about what I thought I knew about the South, but also in light of some of my own family. My father’s family came to Oklahoma from Kentucky and Tennessee. So much of what I heard and saw about that branch of the family conforms with what Sowell writes. In fact, it runs so close to it that it’s scary and I’m thrilled my father broke away from the mold (and I thank goodness for my mother’s family’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey roots).
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my dad’s family. Yes, loved. Unfortunately, the last of his siblings passed away a few years ago. The cousins have spread across the country and we’ve lost contact with one another, with a few exceptions. The reason for the latter is really simple. It would be easy to explain it away as distance and having busy lives. But that would be the excuse. The real reason is because most of us were uncomfortable with the lifestyle of the previous generations. It’s not that we were embarrassed by it, at least not to the point of shunning the previous generation. It was more a desire not to be pulled into it.
When I read the description of the Southern whites, my first thought was, “Damn, he’s describing my family”. They did what was necessary to get by and not much more. My grandmother always fell back on her family pride, especially if any of us grandkids asked why she or one of the aunts uncles hadn’t done something to better their condition. We’d get the story about the grandmother who was one of the first women doctors in the Indian Territory. Of course, there were no record. The courthouse burned down. Yes, that courthouse. That fictional courthouse where all the fictitious family records from all over the country had been kept.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can see this mentality, this almost inbred way of thinking, in our own families if we look. It’s not fun seeing it, much less admitting it is in your own bloodline. It is also this sort of introspection certain folks ought to be making when they turn their attention to today’s social issues. Not that they will because they aren’t about to do anything to rock their comfortable liberal boat of “right think”.
If you were to remove every instance of “white” used above and were to read the comments without any identifier, what section of society would you assume Sowell was writing about? No, this isn’t any sort of intellectual trap or liberal “Aha, this proves you’re racist!” moment. I don’t play those games. To me, the answer simply proves that there is a connection, as Sowell contends, between the behavior we’re seeing today in some sub-sets of the African-American community and the behaviors and beliefs of Southern Whites.
Much of the cultural pattern of Southern rednecks became the cultural heritage of Southern blacks, more so than survivals of African cultures, with which they had not been in contact for centuries. . . Moreover, such cultural traits followed blacks out of the Southern countrysides and into the urban ghettos—North and South—where many settled. (BRAWL, p. 27)
For example, some speech patterns and words now considered to be “black English” have their roots in the dialects of the regions of England where white Southerners originated. Those patterns of speech died out long ago in England and, eventually, in the South. However, they continue, according to Sowell, in “black English”.
Where a northerner said, “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “It doesn’t,” and “I haven’t,” a Virginian even of high rank preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,”“ It don’t,” and “I hain’t.” …These Virginia speechways were not invented in America. They derived from a family or regional dialects that had been spoken throughout the south and west of England during the seventeenth century.
From these same regions of England came such words as “yaller” for “yellow,” “ax” for ask, “acrost” for “across,”“y’awl” for “you,” “bile” for “boil,” “do’ ” for “door,” “dis” for “this” and “dat” for “that.” Many of these usages have long since died out in England, though the word “chittlins” for hog entrails continued to be used in some localities in England, even in the twentieth century, as such usage remained common among black Americans. But no such words came from Africa. Nor did the holiday Kwaanza, which originated in Los Angeles. The slaves’ custom of marking their marriages by jumping over a broomstick—a custom resurrected at a posh wedding among blacks in twentieth-century New York, as a mark of racial identity—was in fact a pagan custom in Europe in centuries past and survived for a time among Southern whites. (BRAWL, pp 27-28)
Taking language as one indicator, it appears evident that there is at least one sub-set of the African-American community that absorbed their culture from Southern whites and, in a more distant fashion, from parts of England.
- E. B. Du Bois’ painted the following picture of his fellow blacks in the 1890s: Probably few poor nations waste more money by thoughtless and unreasonable expenditure than the American Negro, and especially those living in large cities. Thousands of dollars are annually wasted…in amusements of various kinds, and in miscellaneous ornaments and gewgaws…. (BRAWL, p. 28)
That sounds a great deal like one of the descriptions of the Southern white male after the Civil War, doesn’t it?
For the lower socioeconomic classes among blacks, Gunnar Myrdal’s descriptions of them near the middle of the twentieth century still bore a remarkable resemblance to descriptions of Southern whites and their regional forebears in Britain, including “less resourcefulness,” “disorganized” family life, “lax” sexual morals, and “recklessness,” with tendencies toward aggression and violence. (BRAWL pp, 28-29)
Myrdal also noted, “the so-called ‘Negro dialect’ is simply a variation on the ordinary Southern accent,” that religious “emotionalism was borrowed from and sanctioned by religious behavior among whites” in the South, and that the “Negro trait of audaciousness is characteristic of white Southerners too.” (BRAWL, pg 29)
Writing the post this morning, I realized I’d been considering what Sowell and the others had to say while I slept. Something about it resonated with me on an unconscious level. It took time for it to work through to my subconscious and, when it did, it was like I was part of one of those old V-8 commercials. It was the smack to the forehead, followed quickly by a “Duh! Why didn’t I see that before?” sort of moment.
You see, it made me think and consider beliefs I’d had, beliefs engrained by our education system (both public and college). But this morning, everything Sowell said struck home. I recognized a lot of what he discussed about Southern culture, especially poor white Southern culture in the antebellum South. How did I recognize it? Simple. It was like looking at a description of my father’s family. Almost every cultural trait Sowell discussed could be used in the check-off list of problems with Dad’s family.
Then I compared his family with my mother’s and more of what Sowell said came into focus. My dad’s family, on both sides, came from the area of the South Sowell writes about. They immigrated to Texas (my grandfather’s side) shortly before the Civil War broke out. Much as I hate to admit it, they came with a handful of slaves between the large, extended family. I knew that much from genealogical research I’d done. (And I got raked over the coals by my dad’s siblings for finding that black eye, let me tell you)
His family — as well as my grandmother’s — never really broke out of the mindset they brought with them from the South. They did just enough work to get by. The men would leave work for a good fight or a drink or other types of “fun” at the drop of a hat. The women were “dainty” and prone to the vapors. Proud? Hell yeah and to a fault and often at their own expense (both male and female). Education was seen as a necessary evil to keep the State off their backs where the kids were concerned.
That tendency to follow the old Southern culture that had been brought with the family started breaking with my father’s generation. Not with all the kids, mind you. But with some. It continued, to a lesser extent, in my generation. But still, there are more of the cousins who would rather drink and fuck and be “laid back” than work — and that’s their lifestyle. It is only in my son’s generation that I can see a true break from the mold. Almost every one of his generation has gone to college, gone into a profession and made something of themselves.
Mom’s family, conversely, follows what Sowell said about the German and Dutch immigrants and the differences between Northern cultural attitudes and Southern at the time of the Civil War and after. What polar opposites the two families were and are. The Schalls and Thrashers, the Wilkinsons and Fergusons, worked hard to make a better life for themselves and their children. They weren’t afraid of taking chances if the probability of success was there. Education was a must, and everyone was expected to do their fair share around the house and in business. Sitting here today, all I can do is thank my lucky stars to have her side of the family in my background because the alternative scares the shit out of me, especially as I take a hard look at what my father’s family.
As Sowell points out, there is evidence to support at least the idea that some of the traits we see in certain sub-sets of today’s African-American community have their roots in Southern society. More than slavery is involved. It was a culture that went back to certain parts of England that helped form not only the culture of the Southern white but of the African-Americans who originated there.
The neglect and disdain of education found among antebellum white Southerners has been echoed not only in low performance levels among ghetto blacks but perhaps most dramatically in a hostility toward those black students who are conscientious about their studies, who are accused of “acting white”—a charge that can bring anything from social ostracism to outright violence. (BRAWL, pg 30)
As noted just after the above quote, we have, as a society, spent a great deal of time looking at the question of ability and not enough time looking at the question of cultural attitudes. Professor Shelby Steele has written about seeing a determination not to learn, at least not in school. This is in contrast to “a study of West Indian blacks in the United States noted that “the Negro immigrants, particularly the British West Indians, bring a zest of learning that is not typical of the native-born population.” (BRAWL, p. 32) It would appear from this that there is something to the idea that cultural attitudes play a very large role in what we see in the different communities and how they adapt, adjust and succeed in society today.
Sowell also notes, in looking at these differences in attitude, that “Nor can slavery [be blamed], since native-born blacks and West Indian blacks both had a history of slavery. (BRAWL, p. 33) So what’s the explanation?
With blacks as with whites, the redneck culture has been a less achieving culture. Moreover, that culture has affected a higher proportion of the black population than of the white population, since only about one-third of all whites lived in the antebellum South, while nine-tenths of all blacks did. From the 1960s onward, much of the transplanted Southern culture would—like “black English”—be seen as sacrosanct features of a distinctive black “identity,” despite their mirroring very similar cultural patterns among Southern whites in times past. (BRAWL, p. 33)
Education, as well as the growing realization of the negative impact of this cultural attitude and its counterproductive effects, has caused much the same change in cultural attitudes among a number of African-Americans, as it has with Southern whites. So, can we really say the Southern culture has such a firm hold on some sub-sets of the African -American culture today? Can we say there is such a linear relationship between that Southern culture and today’s African-American culture to have any impact?
Those are questions we’ll look at in the next post when we finish up this essay. As I said earlier, Sowell makes you think. At least he does me. That makes it difficult to sum up what he says in a few paragraphs or even a few pages. Part of me would prefer to post the entire essay for you to read and then just throw the floor open for discussion. But I can’t – copyright, you know. So, I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll quote and discuss the text and examine my own thoughts and beliefs. It might not always be comfortable, but it is important. After all, the only way to move forward and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past is to learn from them. To do so, we have to recognize those mistakes first.
[For raising the tone of this blog — ATH is culture! — and helping me with the exposing of the roots of the current mess — in her case with more facts! — if you decide to send the woman a drink– And her Amazon author page is here – Also, she has a new book: Light Magic, under her Ellie Ferguson pen name. SAH]