All Over but the Shoutin'
By Rick Bragg. Vintage Books, 329 pages, $14.00
By Rick Bragg. Random House, 272 pages, $13.00
An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood
By Jimmy Carter. Touchstone Books, 288 pages, $15.00
I am not a southerner, though I was raised like one. I grew up in a small suburb in the foothills near Los Angeles, where I was born, far from the thick air and dark soil of northeast and south central Texas, where my parents were born and raised. Some of my earliest, foggiest memories are of biscuits and gravy on Saturday mornings and hellfire sermons on Sundays. But there is one morning I'll never forget, a summer morning in California in 1989, when I was 21 years old. I was home from my New England liberal-arts college, sitting at the kitchen table with my father -- a man born in 1932, the fifth of six children, whose parents got through the Depression as sharecroppers and day laborers in Paris, Texas. The conversation turned to a book I'd just read on the South, and I asked my father, in all seriousness and with a kind of anthropological detachment, whether his family had been "poor white trash."
I'd never known my father's parents, and I barely knew my uncles, aunts and cousins. In fact, I had no idea what I was asking. But my father, though clearly startled, simply looked at me and spoke four words that explained more about the experience of his family and people like them than any book I ever read at Harvard.
"Not trash," he said, "but poor."
From that moment, as I went on to study the history, politics and culture of the South, I became sensitive to the time-honored image of the region's poor whites as cultural pariahs -- stereotyped and caricatured as degenerate, violent and instinctively racist in a way that has attached not just a social but a moral stigma to their poverty. One thing I discovered along the way was that this widely accepted prejudice is closely linked to a well-documented tendency among more affluent and "respectable" white southerners to blame the region's worst vices -- its history of violence and racism, its ignorance of and hostility toward outsiders -- on the lower classes, even when it was obvious that the "better" whites were thoroughly complicit in a racial apartheid enforced by terror and one-party white-supremacist politics. On the subject of lynching (the embodiment of that terror), an educated southerner such as W.J. Cash was, as late as 1941, able to write the following in The Mind of the South:
Contrary to widespread popular belief, which the South itself has fostered, the persistence of lynching in the region down to the present has not been due simply and wholly to the white-trash classes. ... The common whites have usually done the actual execution, of course, though even that is not an invariable rule (I have myself known university-bred men who confessed proudly to having helped roast a Negro). But they kept on doing it, in the last analysis, only because their betters either consented quietly or, more often, definitely approved.
The kind of condescension and moral scapegoating Cash described can still be seen today, even in places one would least expect -- such as in a recent memoir by a liberal former president of the United States. All too rare today, however, are honest attempts (outside of graduate-school seminars) to explore and understand the experience of poor, white southerners without making excuses for the real racism that exists, and without sentimentalizing poverty. Lord knows I could have used some instruction in this regard before I opened my mouth that morning in California. Instead, my lesson came from the look on my father's face and his quick, reflexive rejection of the epithet I'd so blindly uttered.
Anyone who wants to understand race and class in the modern South from the perspective of poor and working-class whites would do well to read two books by the journalist Rick Bragg. Bragg knows what poverty and the fear of poverty do to people at the margins where race and class intersect in their most combustible interactions. Raised dirt poor in rural Alabama, Bragg escaped by way of jobs at local and regional newspapers, and went on to become a national correspondent for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for feature writing. Bragg's 1997 memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', and his follow-up, Ava's Man, are what he's given back to the people he loves and to whom he feels indebted.
Bragg's first memory, as he tells us in All Over but the Shoutin', is of being pulled along behind his mother on a cotton sack in northeast Alabama sometime around 1962, part of the last generation of southerners to experience day labor in the cotton fields. The figure of the cotton picker, thanks to Depression-era photographers and Hollywood screenwriters, has become by now a kind of archetypal image of the rural South, verging on the clichés of coffee-table Americana. But Bragg, with his characteristic directness, cuts straight to the less picturesque facts. "No matter how poor or desperate you were," recalls Bragg -- whose mother raised three boys by herself, on welfare and the kindness of kin and strangers -- "back then, there had always been the field. It did not matter that most white people considered it 'nigger work.' It was our work."
Ava's Man, which appeared last year, is a fiercely proud and loving portrait of Bragg's maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum -- "a carpenter, roofer, whiskey maker, sawmill hand, well digger, hunter, poacher, and river man." A man, Bragg tells us, "who built dozens of pretty houses for Depression-era wages and never managed to build one for the people he loved the most, who could not read but always asked [his wife] Ava to read him the newspaper so he would not be ignorant." A man who was buried in a blue suit, but whose hands -- "rough and scarred and callused, his nails thick and cracked" -- gave him away. "A man," writes Bragg, "that history would otherwise have ignored, as it would have ignored my mother and people like her, the working people of the Deep South." That man, we learn, spent two weeks in a Birmingham jail for "vagrancy" in 1953 because Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city's infamous police commissioner, "didn't want any white trash on his streets."
If Bragg sounds like a writer with a healthy allotment of class consciousness, he's also one who doesn't flinch from the unflattering realities of racism, poverty and politics as they violently intermingled in the segregated South of his childhood. In All Over but the Shoutin', he remembers a young George Wallace in 1964, "in a baggy suit and slicked-down hair," as he "talked hot and mean about the colored," assuring Bragg's family and people like them that they were "better than the nigras." ("We had not known we were better than anybody," Bragg says, allowing a rare hint of self-pity to creep into his voice.) And yet, Bragg tells us, "even as the words of George Wallace rang through my Alabama," there came a knock on his mother's door one day, and a little boy "the color of bourbon, one of the children who lived down the road," offered food to Bragg's destitute family. "He said his momma had some corn left over and please, ma'am, would we like it. ... They must have heard how our daddy ran off. They knew. They were poor, very poor ... but for a window in time they had more than us."
As tempting as it might be to draw a comforting picture of racial redemption from this anecdote of the black family's charity, Bragg won't yield to it. "I would like to say that we came together, after the little boy brought us that food, that we learned about and from each other, but that would be a lie. It was rural Alabama in 1965." The most he will permit himself to say is that he and his brothers no longer threw rocks at their black neighbors.
Bragg's honesty, his refusal to let himself or others in his condition off the hook, is his most impressive quality as a writer, and ultimately far more important than the details of his own life's trajectory. Bragg fills in the landscape with undeniably human beings without succumbing to the impulse to explain away, much less make excuses for, the brutal fact of the racism that permeated his environment. His childhood, he writes, "was a time when beatings were common, when it was routine, out of pure meanness, to take a young black man for a ride and leave him cut, broken or worse on the side of some pulpwood road. For sport. For fun. This was a time when townspeople in nearby Anniston clubbed ... and burned the buses of the Freedom Riders. This was a time of horrors ... ." But Bragg doesn't leave it at that. He completes the picture of his world -- a world that has, for too many of us, remained a kind of terra incognita -- and adds to our knowledge of the time and place, and the people who lived in it, without sentimentality and without evasion. "White people had it hard, and black people had it harder than that," he writes, "because what are the table scraps of nothing?" Yet even this grim economic reality is not allowed to soften Bragg's treatment of the racial reality of his South. "This was two separate states," Bragg writes, "both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living shit out of anyone who thought it should be different."
The unsparing bottom-up perspective of Bragg's narrative stands in stark contrast to a recent memoir by another liberal white southerner: Jimmy Carter's 2001 An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. This memoir by the former president and erstwhile peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., is a mostly well-written, meticulously descriptive and emotionally soothing narrative of life on the Carter family farm in the 1920s and 1930s. Carter's father was a relatively prosperous and, apparently, entirely virtuous farmer and landlord who treated the several black tenant families on the Carter property with fairness -- and who instilled a work ethic in his son to rival that of the Yankee Puritans up north. It is somewhat jarring, then, to come across a passage early on in the book that presents a picture of race and class relations that seems not only evasive and self-serving, but also revealing of the southern gentility's age-old class prejudices.
With an identifiable whiff of nostalgia, Carter describes the economic and social dynamics of the community in which he grew up, assuring us that even under Jim Crow there were redeeming qualities to be found. This is no doubt true, to some extent, but in Carter's telling it becomes problematic, to say the least. "With the racially segregated social system practically unchallenged," he writes, "it seemed that blacks and whites accepted each other as partners in their shared poverty." Carter provides ample evidence of his own "partnership" with the black families on his father's farm -- indeed, a significant portion of Carter's memoir is devoted to the intimate and salutary relationships he developed with the black tenant families, both the children and adults, on his father's property -- but nothing in his book suggests that he or his family ever knew real poverty, so one wonders how he presumes to speak for those who did. Still, Carter presses on, explaining, "Despite the legal and social mandate of racial segregation, the personal relationships among black and white families were quite different from those of today, at least in many aspects of life on our farm, because our daily existence was almost totally intertwined."
But Carter would not want to leave us with the impression that this racial harmony was always and everywhere unbroken. He admits that there were those unfortunate occasions when the uglier aspects of the social order intruded upon the arcadia of his childhood. And this is where Carter's narrative stops me cold.
"I recall a few instances when disreputable whites had to appeal to the larger community to confirm their racial superiority by siding with them in a dispute, but their very need to do so confirmed their own low social status," Carter writes. "For those who were lazy or dishonest, or had repulsive personal habits, 'white trash' was a greater insult than any epithet based on race."
The term "white trash" is indeed an insult and a dehumanizing epithet, and it is hard to believe that an educated man such as Carter could be oblivious to the way his use of the term (quotation marks notwithstanding), and the context in which he uses it, seems to conflate class and morality. As an explanation, or scapegoat, for racism, it lets the "better" and better-off folks off the hook -- as though only "disreputable" lower-class whites ever felt the need to "confirm their racial superiority" -- even as it attaches that familiar moral stigma to the victims of white poverty. In the very next breath, Carter tells us, "In fact, the final judgment of people I knew was based on their own character and achievements, and not on their race." Ah, yes, a meritocracy. What else could explain white poverty but a lack of character? It all so conveniently runs together: laziness, dishonesty, repulsive personal habits, low social status -- and racism. Prosperous men such as Carter's father, on the other hand, were merely hardworking, law-abiding citizens, respectable members of the community who were, regrettably, subject to the prevailing "legal and social mandate of racial segregation." After all, this was rural Georgia in 1935.
In these lines -- the most surprising, and perhaps the most revealing, in an otherwise circumspect memoir -- Carter comes dangerously close to rendering the South's poor whites as untouchably "other," holding them at arm's length at best. If Carter had gone on to explore the junction of race and class in greater depth, then perhaps this passage, with its tortured syntax, could have been elucidated. But this is Carter's only substantive statement on the subject. Apparently, in Carter's mind, it sufficiently explains the racism he saw in his youth.
In fact, Carter acknowledges in passing that he knew few, if any, poor whites in his childhood -- which may suggest, if you care to think about it, that poor whites were more alienated from "respectable" white society than were the blacks who lived and worked in such close proximity to Carter's family, and with whom the family's "daily existence was almost totally intertwined." But in Carter's memoir, not only do the South's poor whites remain unknown, the author appears to remain, on some crucial level, unknown to himself.