Monday, February 18, 2013
Georgia Poor White types as illustrated by E. W. Kemble.
The Poor White are an American cultural minority, of European descent, having origins in the Southern United States and Appalachia. They first emerged as a social caste in the Antebellum South, consisting of white, agrarian, economically disadvantage laborers or squatters often possessing neither land nor slaves. In contemporary context the term is still used to pertain to their descendants; regardless of present economic status. While similar to other White Americans in ancestry, the Poor White differ notably in regards to their history and culture.
North Carolina Emigrants: Poor White Folks, by James Henry Beard, 1845, Cincinnati Art Museum.
Throughout American history the Poor White have regularly been identified in differentiating terms; the majority of which are often considered disparaging. They have been known as rednecks (especially in modern context), hillbillies in Appalachia, crackers in Georgia, and poor white trash. Author Wayne Flynt in his book, Dixie's Forgotten People: The South's Poor Whites, argues that "one difficulty in defining poor whites stems from the diverse ways in which the phrase has been used. It has been applied to economic and social classes as well to cultural and ethical values." While other regions of the United States have white people who are poor this does not refer to the Poor White in the same usage as it does in the South. In context the Poor White refer to a distinct sociocultural group who are multi-generational poor and culturally divergent.
The character and condition of the Poor White is rooted in the institution of slavery. Rather than provide wealth as it had for the Southern elite, slavery considerably hindered progress for non-slave holding whites by exerting a crowding-out effect completely eliminating free labor in the region. This effect, compounded by the area's widespread lack of public education and its general practice of both social and economic endogamy, prevented low-income and low-wealth free laborers from moving to the middle class. Many fictional depictions in literature used them as foils in reflecting the positive traits of the protagonist against their perceived "savage" traits. In her novel Dred, Harriet Beecher Stowe illustrates a commonly held stereotype that marriage through them results in generic degradation and barbarism of the better class.
“For the sake of dear dependents the will forces the weary muscles to act and knits the relaxed nerves. Surely, fatally, the joy dies out of the eyes of childhood, girlhood is but a flickering shadow, and maturity an enforced decrepitude, a lingering old age, a quenching of the fires of life before they half burn.”
Clare de Graffenreid, "The Georgia Cracker in the Cotton Mills"
During the American Civil War the Poor White comprised a majority of the combatants in the Confederate Army (the Battle Flag, while controversial, is still seen by some as a symbol of Southern as well as their identity); afterwards, many labored as sharecroppers. During the nadir of American race relations intense violence, defense of honor and white supremacy flourished in a region suffering from a lack of public education and competition for resources. Southern politicians of the day motivated conflict between the Poor White and African Americans as a form of Political Opportunism. As John T. Campbell summarizes in The Broad Ax:
In the past, white men have hated white men quite as much as some of them hate the Negro, and have vented their hatred with as much savagery as they ever have against the Negro. The best educated people have the least race prejudice. In the United States the poor white were encouraged to hate the Negroes because they could then be used to help hold the Negroes in slavery. The Negroes were taught to show contempt for poor whites because this would increase the hatred between them and each side could be used by the master to control the other. The real interest of the poor whites and the Negroes were the same, that of resisting the oppression of the master class. But ignorance stood in the way. This race hatred was at first used to perpetuate white supremacy in politics in the South. The poor whites are almost injured by it as are the Negroes. - John T. Campbell
Elvis Presley an icon of 20th century America, a Poor White born in Tupelo, Mississippi.
In the early 20th century, the image of the Poor White was a prominent stereotype in American media, despite the fact that poverty and social conditions for them was still a real problem. Worsting matters, the American eugenics movement encouraged the legalization of forced sterilizations. In many states, such laws were passed that allowed for any person deemed "unfit" to be sterilized. In practice, individuals who came from Poor White backgrounds were often targeted, particularly institutionalized individuals and women. (The "trash" in the pejorative "poor white trash" is suggestive of such supposed genetic inferiority.) The mobilization of the able-bodied persons in the First World War brought about the first concrete comparisons between the Appalachian region, the South and the rest of the country. The Poor White had less income, lower education, and fewer medical supplies and were disproportionally worse off than other White Americans. Only African Americans in the Southern states fared worse.
In the 1920's and 1930's, agriculture suffered greatly in the Dust Bowl. Drought brought heavy losses and economic depression worsened the situation overall. Federal programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and later the Appalachian Regional Commission helped create new jobs for the rural underprivileged in the Southern states and Appalachia. The Second World War led to an economic upturn in the South as well. As the century progressed, economic and social conditions for the Poor White continued to improved. However while many social prejudices have since been lifted, popularized stereotypes surrounding the Poor White still continue into the 21th Century.
Historically, and especially in Appalachia, the Poor White lived simple lives greatly removed from Southern society. Some observers even subdividide the Poor White group further into the Appalachian "mountain whites" and the poor whites living in the flatlands farther east and west. Privileged whites (known in the South as the Bourbon class) had little interaction with them, oftentimes limited to no more than, "whom he would wonder see staring at him from the sides of the highway." It is this lack of interaction and physical isolation what allowed them to become regarded as an independent culture. Having little money, the Poor White had to make many of their own necessities by hand. They sewed their own garments out of scratch and constructed homes in the fashion of log cabins or dogtrots. Traditional clothing was simple and for men consisted of a pair of jeans and shirts lacking collars or cuffs of unbleached cotton. While women usually wore a straight skirt and bonnet of the same material. The Poor White survived by small-scale subsistence agriculture, hunter-gatherering, charity, fishing, bartering with slaves and seeking what employment they could find. Some found jobs in cotton mills and factories, a process made easier by the fact that many slaveowners refused to use slaves for skilled labor on the grounds that doing so would both increase owners' dependence on specific slaves and increase the likelihood that those slaves would run away in pursuit of self-employment elsewhere. Owing to the historic lack of formal education in the South, early Poor White culture focused more on artistic rather than intellectual pursuits. Significantly the Poor White have been crucial for their musical contributions to: Bluegrass, Country and Rock and Roll.
Poor White sharecroppers in Alabama, 1936
A broad characterization of modern Poor White culture includes such elements as strong kinship ties, non-hierarchical religious affiliations, emphasis on manual labor, connection to rural living and nature, and inclination toward self-sufficiency. In addition, individuals from Poor White backgrounds still carry much of the culture and often continue many of the practices of their forefathers. Hunting and fishing, while practiced by their ancestors as a method of survival, is now seen as a means of recreation. Variations on folk music, particularly Country, still hold a strong resonance with the Poor White, as instruments such as the banjo, dulcimer and fiddle have since become synonymous with their culture.
Posted by Palmer at 11:57 PM