Keep in mind that I was born in a house where White women in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky went to have their babies if they could afford it. My mother's family had lived on the same mountain for two hundred years and had owned most of the region for much of that period. I'm a bonafide, dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly. So when I moved to Louisiana six and one-half years ago, I understood immediately what I was looking at. The racist culture, the "good ole boys" driving trucks, the gun fetish, the local power being passed down in families from generation to generation, the rampant political corruption. The whole nine yards.
But another thing I understood was that "outsiders" think "rednecks" are stupid. And I know better.
Don't get me wrong. I remember permanently alienating a roomful of people once in Kentucky when I blurted, "You've got to be kidding!" after everyone had agreed that a horsehair in running water turns into a living worm. Yet the fact is that my mother's family, most of which never moved out of the mountains until after 1950, sported many lawyers -- men who went away to get educated and then returned to become the local judges, political officeholders, and so forth.
They became filthy rich in the first place on the backs of Black people they held in bondage as industrial slaves working salt wells my mother's family had discovered at a time when there was neither electricity nor refrigeration and salt was the preservative of choice. The Scotch-Irish blood ran deep in their veins, marked by a penchant for brutal violence, guns on both hips, hard drinking on Saturday night, Bible thumping on Sunday morning, and treating women like property. They not only didn't apologize for who they were, they were proud of it. They thought it was reasonable that they "had it like that" and that other people better know better than to challenge them. And I saw their kin all over the place when I arrived in Louisiana.
Yet I somehow forgot the implications of all that transported to the newer millennium. Enter "Duck Dynesty."
I was only vaguely aware of "Duck Dynasty" until the GQ article made Phil Robertson so public on Facebook recently. I mean, I thought the show on the A & E channel was some kind of a bad joke that I didn't get. "Who the hell watches this crap?" I thought. From what I could gather, half the people in the U.S. were tuning in and lionizing the Robertsons. And people in Louisiana were proud to be on the map. But it didn't make sense to me until I read Daniel Luzer's essay on the Washington Monthly blog this morning and all of a sudden, it all went 'click.'
The Robertsons aren't "rednecks." They're entrepreneurs. They're educated. They're rich. And they're clever. Why am I not surprised?
Luzer's essay was inspired by the release of a string of before-and-after photos that appeared on December 29th on the Political Blind Spot site. They're doozies, for sure. As is Luzer's essay. So I'm going to quote from it here:
"While obviously people change their clothes and their hair over time, and every man with a beard was at one point a man who didn’t have a beard, this [photo of the Robertsons golfing seen above] is not the sort of photographs rednecks ever take.
"Rednecks might sometimes play golf, but rednecks do not go on golf outings with their entire family. They do not pose with golf clubs and all of their brothers at the country club after a great game.
"The GQ article explained, accurately, that Phil Robertson grew up poor in the northwest Louisiana — 'a place where Cajun redneck culture and Ozark redneck culture intersect' and in 1972 he,
Founded the Duck Commander company, which sold a line of custom-made duck-hunting calls that quickly became popular among avid hunters for their uncanny accuracy in replicating the sound of a real duck. He eventually sold half the company to his son Willie, now 41, and together they made a DVD series about the family’s duck hunts, which led to a show on the Outdoor Channel, which led to Duck Dynasty on A&E….
The show—a reality sitcom showcasing the semiscripted high jinks of Phil, his brother 'Uncle Si,' his four sons, Alan, Willie, Jase, and Jep, and the perpetually exasperated but always perfectly accessorized Robertson-family ladies—has become the biggest reality-TV hit in the history of cable television, reportedly earning the family a holy shit-worthy $200,000-an-episode paycheck. It’s a funny, family-friendly show, with 'skits that we come up with,' as Phil describes the writing process. They plunder beehives. They blow up beaver dams."But here is Phil’s son Jase (the show’s 'laid-back, self-professed redneck') and his wife a few years ago:
"And here's Jase today:
"He’s not a redneck. He just plays one on TV.
"His brother, Willie Robertson, is the CEO of Duck Commander. This is what he looks like:
"This is what he used to look like:
"Seriously? He’s barefoot on the beach with frosted tips? This is a picture with enough touches of American haute-bourgeois wimpiness to make Pajama Boy look like the Marlboro Man by comparison.
"Now, no one’s lying here. Indeed, A&E provided us with these photos.
"Indeed, Jep and Phil (who has a master’s degree in education from Louisiana Tech University) might think of themselves as rednecks. And they surely enjoy hunting and fishing. But if ol’ frosted tipped, barefoot on the beach Willie is a redneck, I don’t know what a real southern gentleman even is.
"A&E appears to have taken a large clan of affluent, college-educated, mildly conservative, country club Republicans, common across the nicer suburbs of the old south, and repackaged them as the Beverly Hillbillies.
"Reality TV has long been known to be scripted and edited to make a show more interesting (no one wants to watch the Robertsons go over the accounting for their company, after all) but what appears to be happening here is something more serious. It’s not so much that the Robertsons’ show is scripted, so much as the actual family is sort of a creation of network executives...A&E just created its own rednecks.
"...The Robertsons are surely vaguely conservative. They made their fortune creating a product designed for duck hunting, a sport they actually very much enjoy. Jase proudly calls himself a redneck. They are very serious Christians.
"But the ZZ top bearded, camo-wearing mountain men, this fusion of 'Cajun redneck culture and Ozark redneck culture' is [an] entertainment industry idea of what real America looks like.
"The Robertsons are not being exploited; they’re fully on board with this plan, cynical as it appears. And why shouldn’t they be? If A&E wanted to give me $8 million to play a caricature of myself on TV I would totally do it."
So what do I think this has to do with Whiteness? Maybe it's arguable. And maybe it's just my perspective. But there's something about the way "Duck Dynasty" (and "The Moonshiners" and "The Hatfields and McCoys," and "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" and so forth) have been touted and embraced by the White television viewers in the United States as "real people," "honest, God-fearin', simple folk" who represent the kind of "family values" at the root of our national personhood.
What's the message being sent here to our children (and the rest of the world)? Are we trying to say that this is who we really are underneath our careful orchestrated attempts at looking more socially acceptable? Is this who we secretly pine to live with and among and be?
One thing's for sure, People of Color know this show isn't for or about them. And it's not for and about me either.
When I first became aware of "Duck Dynasty," I was embarrassed by it -- for my country, for my state of residence, for my historical background. Now that I know who the Robertsons are, on the other hand, I'm just smilin' in hopes that this will embarrass the viewers instead. Some of the show's biggest fans, I suspect, are gonna say,"Well, of course. I figured it was something like that." But it's not going to play the same way after this. Here's hoping.
NOTE: For further discussion of how some White men have more actually affected human life on earth in the past few centuries, see Brotha Wolf's post from a year ago "About the White Male Problem." I was so impressed by it when I read it that I've added it permanently to my "Some Basics" list to the right.