Confrontation, Understanding, and Friendship in a Redneck Culture



This article presents an anthropologist's narrative of three experiences over 30 years of informal research among the boys at Down Home Auto Repair in Tallahassee, Florida.

The culture of white working-class Southern males is not easy for a liberal anthropologist to learn from. Its views on race and gender, its disdain for peacenik liberals, its passionate stance with respect to guns, guts, and sometimes God, all run counter to the sensibilities of cultural anthropologists.1 To befriend these people, “rednecks,”2 is a challenge that requires the anthropologist to stand up for what he believes and to confront them in argument, even at the risk of danger. It also requires that the anthropologist listen to their expressions about “niggers,”“bitches,”“pussy-liberals,” and the like, and come to understand that beneath this veneer of words lies a deeper humanity that over time develops into enduring and transforming friendships. Hence the title of this article: confrontation, understanding, and friendship.

The redneck culture that I have informally studied consists of the mechanics at Down Home Auto Repair at the intersection of Calhoun Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Tallahassee, Florida.3 For the past 34 years I have brought my vehicles to the garage for repair, and have always been treated fairly and with competence. Especially during the decade of the 1990s, when I was department chair of anthropology and had to deal with a week full of problematic colleagues and bureaucratic minutia, it was a relief to visit the boys, drink beer, and “shoot the shit” on Friday evenings. There was something refreshingly honest about our conversations in contrast to the competitiveness, political correctness, and the often-pompous liberalism of academia.

Down Home Auto Repair is a full-service garage, repairing anything from brake linings to total engine overhaul. At any one time there are usually three to five mechanics working, each with their own tool carts, on two hydraulic lifts and various workbenches around the shop. I say at any one time, because over the years many mechanics have come and gone; some were fired and others left without notice. Three mechanics, however, have remained steady through the years: Lee, Bobby, and Tom.

I first met Lee while our daughters went to school together. Lee and I had been together during children's birthday parties and other occasions when our daughters sought each other's company. Having had experience in building trades and carpentry, we have also talked about building construction, and he advised me when I built a room addition onto my house. Often we shared beers together admiring the products of our work.

Lee is a big man—deliberate, forceful, and with a quick temper. He was an all-state tackle in high school, and after graduating enlisted to go to Vietnam. There he had the front part of his left foot blown off by a land mine, received an honorable discharge, and doesn't like talking about the war. He keeps a rack of guns in his house, would never back away from a fight, and thinks God is a bunch of bullshit. The only thing he prays for is the day Jane Fonda dies so that he can go to her gravesite with a case of beer and spend all day pissing on her grave. He is a good mechanic, honest. He kept my 1971 V.W. alive for 20 years.

Bobby, Lee's partner, is a short and stocky man, and, like Lee, a Vietnam veteran. Unlike Lee who exercises thinking by the force of presence, Bobby is intellectually curious, wanting to know about history, culture, and literature. His attitude toward knowledge is probably motivated in large part by his marriage, his wife being a former high school honor-roll student who attended the local community college. She has rather liberal views of the world, or, as Bobby would say, is a “socialist.” Unlike Lee, he would never keep a gun in his house for fear of shooting himself. However, like Lee, he would never back off from a fight.

In the early 1970s, Lee met Bobby while working at Buddy's Precision Tune. Soon after, they established an independent shop, leasing a garage and investing in tools. They then brought on Clayton, a retired mechanic to handle billing and go for parts.

In the mid-1990s Bobby got into a serious automobile accident that crushed his chest and broke his hip and legs in many places. Since then, he has collected disability and occasionally comes around the garage to give advice and drink beers. After this, Lee brought on Tom. A younger man, Tom is a community college graduate, and a vocationally trained mechanic. He was brought in largely to fix up the books that Clayton had messed up, and to supervise the other mechanics.

For the most part my interactions with the boys have been pleasant ones, as I said before, “shooting the shit”4 over beers on a Friday evening. In this article, however, I have chosen to present three vignettes that involve confrontations with the boys at the garage, confrontations that have progressively led me to a deeper understanding of this specific redneck culture. I say specific because I see my task here to describe, rather than to theorize. No doubt there are embedded in my descriptions ideas having theoretical bearing with respect to race, gender, and social class, as well as long-term fieldwork. However, as a writer foremost, I wish to show these things, rather than state them, and to involve my readers in the human passions of the life.

You Don't Think Much of People Like Us

It was five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. As I walked the mile from my office at the university to the “industrial” part of town, I stopped by the convenience store on Martin Luther King Boulevard and picked up a six-pack of beer. I walked into the garage and saw Lee bent over the hood of a Toyota Camry, examining the bowels of the engine with a hang-light. He raised his head, “Hey man, what's happening?”

“Same old shit,” I replied.

“Ain't that the truth.”

Lee wiped his hands with a rag, took the six-pack, ripped off two cans, and offered one to me. He then walked to the corner of the shop, opened the refrigerator, and jammed my beer among the other cases and cans.

A moment later, Bobby drove up in a 1978 Chevy station wagon. “God, what a piece of shit,” he exclaimed as he slammed the door. “The engine mounts are out, it's leaking oil, the catalytic converter is burned out, and the tailpipe is scraping its ass on the road. And besides, the timing chain is off. Christ, if this guy didn't want this car fixed, I'd tell him to fuck it and get a new car.” Bobby went to the refrigerator, pulled out a can of beer, and popped the top. “Hey, Bruce, what's happening?”

“Not much,” I replied.

Lee and Bobby started talking together. I went to the “office,” at back, a small plywood-surrounded, air-conditioned enclosure, decorated with posters of semiclothed, voluptuous, and very young, pretty, and seductive women, leaning over the hoods of new, brightly colored and highly polished cars, advertising some brand automotive tool or part. Clayton was sitting at his desk. He pulled my bill for the tune-up, and looked it over. “You know you're leaking oil. Probably the clutch, which is why it's slipping on you. You need to talk to Lee.”

I paid my bill, and Clayton and I went out and joined Lee and Bobby. Clayton went to the refrigerator and got a beer. Soon the four of us were leaning against car fenders, slowly sipping beer, and unwinding from a long week while talking about our cars and how the fucking government was trying to screw the little man. After some time, Bobby turned to me. “You are a man who knows words, being at the university and all?”

“I guess that's my business,” I replied.

“You see, my wife is taking this course in literature at the community college.” He paused, staring intently at me, then Lee.

“You know, my wife did real good in high school. She made the honor-roll and she's doing real good in her business courses. But there's this course in literature she just doesn't understand. You know, my wife likes to read, and good books too. But there's this professor, he's always telling her that what she thinks is wrong. Like he doesn't respect her.” Bobby turns to me, “Like, he uses all these big words. And my wife, she goes to this professor and tells him what she knows, and he says the story doesn't mean what it says. Christ, have you ever heard such shit? And besides, he doesn't even respect what my wife says. Like he's laughing at her. And she's not stupid.”

“Why does the professor say your wife is wrong?”

“Oh, shit, man. My wife doesn't know and sure as hell, I don't know. Like there is this book she's reading in her class. It's written by some Frenchman and is called ‘candid’ or something like that. You know about it?” He turned to me.

“Yes, I read it many years ago. It's called Candide and it was written by a Frenchman named Voltaire.”

“Yeah, that's it. What do you think about it?”

“You know, I really can't remember. It's been many years. Have you read it?”

“Yeah, I've read it. Like I was telling you, my wife reads a lot of good books. And I read along with her, because I like to know what she's interested in. You see, she's reading this book for this professor. She knows what she's read, but this professor tells her she's all wrong.”

“What do you and your wife think of the book?”

“To tell you the truth I don't really like it. Too much fancy language, if you know what I mean. Now my wife, she likes fancy language. Women like fancy language, I guess. Myself, I thought it was a bunch of sissy shit.”

“How's that?” I responded.

“Well, as I understand the story, it's about this Frenchman who lived some time during the American Revolution. He's a rich kid who gets kicked out of his house because he was fucking around with this woman. I don't remember her name, starts with ‘C’ or something. And he leaves home with a teacher who is as stupid as he is. And they travel around and see the world. And they see all of these terrible things happening—people dying, women raped, people burned at the stake—but they don't see what's happening. It's really strange. Like these guys have been to school, but they can't see what's in front of their eyes. And this Frenchman's teacher, he's really stupid. He's always telling Candide that the bad things he sees are good, and is always saying, ‘This is the best of all possible worlds.’ Like some politician.”

Bobby stopped. By this time Lee and Clayton's eyes had glossed over in a haze, helped no doubt by a day of physical labor and a third can of beer.

“Did you like it?” Bobby asked.

“Not really,” I replied.

“Neither did I. I guess there is no moral to the story, is there? I read to the end. After this guy Candide travels around the world and has all these adventures, he goes back home and decides he has to go back to work.”

“Fuck,” Lee exclaimed, emerging from a tired stupor. “So after this guy goes on expense-paid tour around the world, he decides to come home and go to work. God, man, that's really big of him. Maybe we get him in here to take apart transmissions and try to fix them. He'd find out about the real world.”

“Yeah, that's the thing,” Bobby replied, suddenly excited that Lee had entered the conversation. “This guy is so stupid he'd hang his dick in the creek if someone told him he could catch a fish with it.” Bobby turned to me. “Well, what do you think?”

“Does your wife agree with you about the story?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But she doesn't use the same words I do. You know, I tell her that this Candide doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, and she says she can't use those words with her professor. So, she finds this word in the dictionary, simpleton, like someone who is a mental retard. I agree, but I tell her he's also a sissy because of the way he talks and on account of the fact that he doesn't know how to work or get his hands dirty. So we talked together like this, because I want to help her.

“So anyway, she goes to see this professor, and the professor tells her that the story isn't about what it says it is. He uses this word deconstruction that you were talking about. He says the story isn't real because it's only a story. God, have you ever heard such shit! So my wife gets angry and says, ‘Of course, I know it's a story. I'm no fool.’

“Then he asks her what she thinks of the story, and she tells him what we talked about. You know, this Candide is a rich kid, a simpleton, a sissy, who doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. Then the professor says that my wife shouldn't be using the word sissy because it offends homosexuals. He also tells her that she shouldn't use the word simpleton because it offends people who are retards. Well my wife tells the professor that the words are good words on account of the fact that they're in the dictionary, and she'll use them if she thinks they fit.

“Then the professor asks her, ‘Why don't you think this Candide knows the difference between right and wrong?’ And my wife says because he's a fool, and besides he stole from the Indians and lied to his girlfriend and left her behind. And this professor says, ‘What is the difference between right and wrong?’ And my wife says, ‘Hell, if you don't know, I can't tell you.’

“So he asks her, ‘Is this fellow, Voltaire, fair to women?’ And my wife says, ‘I don't know. I never thought about it.’ And he asks her about this Candide's wife, you know, his girlfriend, this woman whose name starts with a C. And my wife says, ‘I don't remember her.’ Then he gets sort of angry, and he tells my wife that this woman's been treated badly. You know, this Frenchman ditches her, and he comes back and finds her ugly. So my wife says, ‘That can happen to women.’ Then this professor gets real serious. He tells my wife that Candide is an important person because he's saying that the world is crazy and full of shit. And my wife says, ‘So what's new?’ Then he gets even angrier and he asks her how she would write the story, like she is a woman and all, like if she were the wife of this Frenchman, this woman whose name starts with a C. And my wife says she's got more important things to do than write this stupid story.”

Bobby paused. “God, Bruce. I don't know what this guy is trying to do. He's asking her all these questions. Like he's laughing at her and doesn't respect what she says.”

“Fuck!” Lee exclaimed. “You professors, you don't think much of people like us, do you?”

I was tired after a long day. Sipping on my third can of beer, I was in no mood to get in an argument with my friends. “I'll tell you this Lee, I don't jerk students around and pretend to be superior to them. Not all professors are assholes like this guy.”

“This professor needs to get fucked,” Clayton exclaimed. “I know this woman who used to work as a hostess at Sid's Lounge. She likes men in coats and ties. She could give this boy some good head.” Lee and I laughed, but Bobby remained intent, lost in his thoughts.

“Look man, this is serious.” Bobby turned to me. “What do I do? You see, I'm worried. My wife could fail this course. If this happens, she won't get her business degree. And God damn man, she's worked so hard for it.”

I responded to Bobby with a line I have told many students whom I have advised about dealing with “difficult teachers.” Make an appointment during the professor's office hours. Ask the professor what he thinks and carefully note the words that he uses. Be polite, don't argue, and agree with the professor, especially when he says something that he thinks is important. And make sure that the professor remembers your name. Then when the test comes, say his words back to him. You should be able to get a B, or at least a C. Bobby nodded in agreement. It was as though I had passed on to him a trade secret about the academic world as he, Lee, and Clayton have passed on to me the knowledge of cars and automotive repairs.

“But look,” Bobby continued, pensively, “If my wife does this, she's not telling the truth. She's telling a lie just to please this professor. Is that right?”

“No,” I replied.

Bobby stared intently at me. “Then what is the truth? What do I tell my wife?”

“Tell her not to take it all too seriously. It's not worth it.”

Bobby paused a long time. “You know, it's like these people are just trying to swallow us up and eat us. They chew us into pieces and spit us out like we're nothing.”

Fuck the Bitch

It was a crisp, sunny morning in January. Classes had just begun at the university, and we had a holiday for Martin Luther King's birthday. I brought my Toyota Corolla into the garage, needing a brake job. As I walked into the garage, Lee was hanging out of the back seat of a black Lexus sedan throwing junk out of the car, yelling, “Shit, look at this.” He reached around and threw a compact of make-up out the door. “And this,” Lee exclaimed, throwing out a pair of pantyhose and two high heeled shoes. “This bitch must be turning tricks in the back seat.” The other mechanics—Clayton, Whatley, and Tom—were gathered laughing and picking up the things Lee threw out and stuffing them into a three mil contractor's bag.

“Has anyone got a hold of Daryll?” Lee yelled. “We need him to get his ass over here and get this car detailed.” Lee was in a foul mood, and the other mechanics knew not to mess with him even though there was a sense of humor to the occasion. Tom went in to call Daryll, and came out shortly saying that Daryll was not working today on account of it being Martin Luther King Day. At this, Lee pushed himself out of the car. He was red with anger. “God damn it, wouldn't you know. You guys, clean this fucking mess. I need to drive Bruce back to the university.”

We got into Lee's pick-up and began driving. Normally such occasions were pleasant; Lee especially liked driving through the campus as an opportunity to look at the attractive women. Normally we'd talk about work life, car repairs, or as they say in the South—just “shoot the shit.” Today, however, Lee was sullen, cussing silently to himself. To break the silence I told Lee he could hold off on my repairs if he was too busy, to which he responded it was no problem insofar as he promised me he would take care of my car.

Suddenly he exclaimed, “Fuck the bitch. This woman comes in and says she needs a tune-up on account of the fact that her car is not running so good. So I ask her what's wrong, she says that the radio, tape deck, and power antenna don't work. Then she says that her mechanic, who jumped her battery, said that she had an electrical problem in her car. Fuck yes, she has an electrical problem. Whoever jumped her battery reversed the polarity of the cables and burned out her wiring. So I tell her that electrical work can be very expensive and should I contact her if it is over two-hundred-and-fifty dollars, and she says no, on account of the fact she will be away from her phone all day. So I tell her to sign the invoice to this effect.”

Lee paused, the redness of his anger continued to boil. “Then she says, ‘Oh by the way, you need to detail my car. I have a very important appointment this evening.’ Like she is the queen of God-knows-what, like she knows everything about cars, and we are just a bunch of dumb niggers.”

“Why did you let her get away with such shit, Lee?” He stared meanly into his steering wheel, pondering his anger, and then smiled, “She'll pay for it, Bruce. You bet your ass.”

At five-o-clock I began walking from the university to the garage. Passing the quick-sack, on the corner of Calhoun Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, I picked up a six-pack of beer and strolled up to the garage. I saw the mechanics and Lee's daughter over by the fridge at the corner of the garage. I walked in, greeted them, and put my six-pack in the icebox. As I turned I realized that everyone was turning an ear—but at the same time pretending not to notice—to a conversation that was occurring between Lee and an elegantly dressed black woman near the office at the other end of the garage. As best as I could hear:

“How dare you charge me $1,500 for repairs”

“Electrical work is very costly, ma'am”

“I am not going to pay it. Do you hear me?”

“Yes ma'am.”

“You see here, I have another set of my keys, and I'm just going to drive my car off your lot. If you want, you can sue me. You understand?”

“Yes ma'am.”

The woman walked out of the garage, got in her car, apparently turned over the ignition, and nothing happened. She marched back, ready for a fight. “My car won't start,” she shouted.

“Yes ma'am. It won't start until you pay the bill.” Lee and the lady then walked back to the office. They were there for about 20 minutes, and emerged and walked toward her car. Lee lifted the hood, and in less than a minute, closed the hood and gave her the keys. There was a brief and heated exchange; then the woman swung at Lee with her purse, hitting him on the head. Afterward, she got in the car and drove off.

Lee came back to the garage, red-faced, walked to the refrigerator, grabbed a beer, popped the top, took a long drag, and then sat among us, sullen and silent. Nobody dared say a word. At six-foot-six, 270 pounds, no one fucks with Lee when he's angry.

Finally, I asked. “Why did she hit you with her purse?”

Lee bowed his head, struggling to articulate his words. “She said, ‘If it weren't a holiday, I'd never take my car to white trash mechanics like you.’ So I say to her, ‘Happy nigger day.’” Then under his breath, Lee uttered, “Fuck the nigger bitch.”

The mood slowly lightened, and soon nigger-this-nigger-that emerged in conversation. Finally I became downright angry and turned to Lee, “Would you talk like this if Otis or Daryll were here?”

Everyone fell silent. My words had crossed over a boundary. Lee stared at me in anger, not the mock anger he would affect in humorous ways, but genuine anger that in a moment could have torn me limb from limb. “Let me tell you something, Bruce. I don't care if Daryll or Otis is black. Daryll does a good job detailing cars. I would hire him any day. And Otis, he don't talk too much, but he's Silver Star Vietnam. And I'll tell you this, if I were out on patrol, and I needed someone to cover my ass, it would be Otis. It damn well wouldn't be you, Bruce.”

In the silence that followed, I walked over to the refrigerator, got two beers, popped the tops, and offered one to Lee. “Lee, I meant you no disrespect.” Lee took the beer, and said thanks.

A moment later, I asked, “How's Louise (referring to his wife)?”“As mean and lazy as ever,” he said with a grin, and everything returned to normal.

Obama Who?

After the recent presidential election I went down to the garage, curious about the boys' reactions to the victory of Barack Obama. For years I have been hammering away at the right-wing politics of Reagan and especially G. W. Bush, that their policies were contrary to the interests of the working man, even telling them that only two kinds of people vote Republican: rich people and stupid people. But alas, to no avail. The boys studiously avoided any discussion of politics, and I assumed at the time that such issues as gun control, support for the military, and opposition to affirmative action were the important issues that led them to support Republicans in national politics.

This day proved to be no different. As I entered the garage I asked Whatley what he thought of Obama's victory, to which he said, “Obama who?”

“The president,” I replied.

“Oh, you mean Barack Hussein Obama.”

“Fuck you,” I replied and moved on to Lee.

He said, “Don't make much difference now does it. They're going to fuck us over, no matter who we elect.”

So ended the discussion until I had an opportunity to talk with Tom, in the privacy of the plywood-enclosed office, when paying my bill. I figured that Tom, a community college graduate and a schooled mechanic, could help me understand this reluctance to discuss politics.

He began: “You know Lee spent a year in county jail for punching out a cop right after he got back from Vietnam.”

“Yeah, I remember him talking about it, and I asked him did he think it was worth it, and he said, ‘Damn well it was worth it.’”

Tom laughed, “That sounds like Lee. You remember Larry, the fellow with prison tattoos around his wrist. Didn't really know much about him. I think he plea-bargained second degree murder and served ten years. He was an okay mechanic, but then one day he suddenly disappeared.”

Tom paused. “So you see why the guys here don't like to talk about politics. Because in Florida, convicted felons can't vote, and many of the guys that work here have served time. You talk politics, and especially voting, you just rub it in.”

We were quiet for some time while what Tom told me sunk in. “That Larry was a scary fellow,” I replied. “You remember when that fellow on a bike got ran over by the dump truck in front of the garage, and the police came to ask you guys what happened, and Larry walked back and locked himself in the bathroom.”

“Yeah, Larry probably had a fugitive warrant over his head.” Tom then lowered his head, and in a soft, almost inaudible voice, said, “All that was very sad. I'd rather forget.”

Several months earlier, as I was approaching the garage on foot, I could see the area cordoned with yellow tape and the flashing blue lights of police cars. I entered the garage from the rear, and saw the boys looking out of the front into the street. At the intersection, half a block away, was an ambulance, and beside it a mangled bicycle, a pool of blood, and a covered body. Across the street from the garage was a dump-truck pulled over on the curb. Inside the truck was a young black man who apparently had locked himself in, for there was one policeman yanking at the door and another unholstering his gun. Finally, the driver opened the door, whereupon the police forcibly dragged him out, slammed him face down on the pavement, handcuffed him from behind, and threw him into the back of one of the police cars.

Lee, looking out at the scene, shook his head, “That nigger is fucked.”

Soon after two policemen came up to the garage, apparently to get a witness account. Lee stepped forward and explained that it wasn't the truck driver's fault. Apparently, the rider pulled his bike on the blind side of the truck to the right. The truck had its turn signals on, so the rider should have known the truck was going to turn right. When the light turned green, the truck turned right and rider went straight ahead. When the truck driver realized he had run over the rider, he pulled over as soon as he could get onto the sidewalk.

When Lee finished, the police asked the others, and they nodded their assent. Then Lee said to the police, “You shouldn't have beat up that kid. He was just scarred. Couldn't you see he was crying.” The police then threatened to take Lee down to the police station if he had a complaint. Lee stood his ground, staring at the police with contempt, and the police soon walked away.

“Fuck this shit,” Lee suddenly exclaimed. He then walked over to the refrigerator, pulled out his bottle of Canadian Club and a can of Mountain Dew, and filled a tall plastic glass half and half. He yelled at Larry to get off the toilet. Then he walked outside, sat down in his lawn chair, took a long draught from his drink, and stared into the distance at the sun setting in the west.

I walked out and pulled up a chair next to him. “It must have been terrible to see what you saw,” I said.

“I didn't see it until after it happened. I was working under that Nissan at the time. Anyway, I've seen worse.”

“But you told the police that you saw everything.”

“Look.” Lee said. “These bike riders are a bunch of dumb shits. Anyway, he's dead so it doesn't make any difference. A black guy runs over a white kid, with a truck load of chicken shit, he needs a break. He'll probably get reckless homicide, resisting arrest, and whatever those cops will pile on him, and do time for ten to twenty years.”

“It's not fair,” I said.

“Life's not fair, Bruce. All you can trust are your friends, and there aren't many of them.”

“Well, I have always trusted you, Lee. You have done well by me.”

“Cut the shit, Bruce”

“What do you mean, don't you trust me?”

“I don't know who I trust”

I got up from my chair, turned to Lee, and said, “Then fuck you, man.”

As I walked away, Lee yelled, “Hey man, grab yourself a beer and come back here.” And I did.

Confluences and Boundaries in Long-Term Fieldwork and Life

The above slices of life, of which I have been a part, represent events over the past 30 or so years. Indeed, I could have included other narratives, often fun-loving gab-fests, but I have chosen these three because they focus on the themes of this article—confrontation, understanding, and friendship. Insofar as I employ a literary genre to convey the “felt life” of my ethnographic subject, I have de-emphasized theory. Show it, rather than say it, and leave interpretation to the reader. Having said this, I do have some thoughts on long-term fieldwork.

First, a comment on life lived, especially as an academic. When we are young, life is lived largely in the present, a present that is also part of the future project of our lives. We have dreams and ideals; at the same time we conform to the institutional ideas of the time as a necessary condition to achieve our dreams. We establish social networks and share ideas and papers with the hope of publications and thus promotion and tenure. Life is an open book, and we do not know from the beginning the fateful turns and paths it will take.

When we become older, as is the case of long-term fieldworkers, we become more reflective about a life lived and the coincidence of our lives with a segment of history. Most have put down roots in family and place, and have for better or worse, established the reputation in our professional lives. We are also aware (unless deluded) that this life is the only one, and that death is not far away. We no longer have to prove ourselves to others; we wish instead to share the wisdom of a life lived. If the young have a greater grasp on the present, “long-term people” know that life today is not how it has always been. As Edie Turner once said, “the young come to meetings to establish networks, the old come to renew kinship” (2007, personal communication). I think that we as “long-termed” people are more tolerant of the frailties and contradictions of other human beings. The more we know, the less we are sure that any body of knowledge or any theory can explain the world in which we live in.

Long-termed fieldwork, like life, is messy. In the modern world, we live within and choose among a continually evolving confluence of cultures. We may choose to flow with the stream, or we may choose to erect boundaries to dam the tide and deny understanding. In either case, we are often confronted with moral ambiguity and cognitive confusion. Such is the case of this anthropologist, endeavoring to embrace the worlds of academia and Southern working-class culture.

When I first came to the South as a new assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State University, I did not understand rednecks; in fact I was afraid of their quiet hostile looks, seemingly seeing at me as some intellectual Yankee from the North. Over time, given my interest in the building trades, I sought the advice of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and other tradesmen, some with whom I agreed; others with whom I didn't, but who, in passing, have always been generous with their knowledge and thoughts about the world—some with whom I agreed; others with whom I didn't. I also have done researches into evangelical religious communities in the big-bend of north Florida: those who are searching, those who are saved, and those who are “Christ haunted.” As a department chair, I have written countless memoranda and evaluations that one might regard as field notes of a sort. Prior to coming to the South, I lived two years in a West African tribal society, where I learned about malaria, sorcery, tragedy, and the beauty of laughter. Add to that the cultural influences of my background and marriage: my father an immigrant from Sweden, my mother German American from Chicago, and my wife of 34 years from Mexico. All of these experiences comprise the foundations of my cultural understanding about which I have written scholarly articles, narrative, poetry, and two stage plays about the South.

As most other anthropologists, I live in a confluence of cultures that sometimes mix and at other times do not. The culture of the white working class of the South presents a challenge to my anthropological upbringing. Anthropologists generally identify with the people whom they study and from whom they learn, forming personal friendships and often acting as advocates of the people. Indeed the current ideological pressure in anthropology is to publish a sympathetic or “collaboratively approved” picture of the often “oppressed Other.” No warts, imperfections, or stereotypes are allowed lest they be criticized by politically correct academics. On the other hand, stereotypes abound when referring to white working-class male culture in the South as evidenced in such Carole Hill's literature review, which variously characterized Southern culture by violence, racism, sexism, brutish behavior, hedonism, primitive mentality, and simple-mindedness. (Hill 1977). Reinforcing this view, I remember in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when job applicants in anthropology would often state that they wished to teach anywhere but in the South.

The boys at Down Home Auto Repair also have their stereotypes and refer to university professors, as well as state bureaucrats, as snobbish and uppity, rude and demanding, pussies who are not willing to fight for their country, and pointy-head intellectuals who couldn't work eight to ten hours with their hands if they tried. Stereotypes hurt largely because they represent partial truths, ones motivated variously by fear, derision, meanness, and especially exclusion. Negative stereotypes of rednecks as bad guys could be contrasted with the whitewashed stereotypes of the oppressed Others. Both are partial truths.

I have known some individual rednecks whom I despise. They are people who hate blacks, proudly espouse their ignorance of the world, protest they are pious and “saved,” and kick their whining and growling dogs into submission. I don't like these people. On the other hand, I have known individual academics who are in many respects the same: people who are disillusioned by their own egotism and possessed with a narcissistic passion to destroy underlings who think different than they. I don't like these people either. They are also mean. I guess, what I am saying here, and what I have learned over a long life, is the obligation to tell the messy truth—the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Southern culture is a complex and multilayered web of manners and boundaries. I can enjoy the presence of my white, black, women friends at the garage, but if I were to have my academic friends over for dinner, I would not invite my Down Home friends. They would feel uncomfortable. Working-class Southern tradesmen and intellectual academics do not mix in formal settings. In this context, I ask how far away are we from the people we study and whom we endeavor to understand? Do we also include them in our everyday lives?

On occasion in the South, the boundaries of race, sex, and social class can fall away creating a bond of inclusiveness or communitas. Such is often the case Friday evenings at Down Home Auto Repair. I remember one occasion. It was 5:00 pm Friday on a pleasant autumn day. The mechanics had finished work, and were breaking open beers for a long bout of drinking. Otis and Daryll were there with a few of their black friends, along with Darla (an older redneck girl) and Lee's daughter, and various tradesmen and customers. Those gathered were sitting on five-gallon buckets or leaning against car fenders. Conway Twitty was singing, “Hello Darling,” on 933 FM. On the sidewalk in front of the garage came walking a pretty finely figured college coed in a braless tank-top and lowcut jeans. Daryll spied her and exclaimed, “Oh shit! Look at that fox.” All the men turned to look at the girl, whereupon Darla yelled, “You boys. You're all the same. You see some girl shaking her tail, and you get weak in the knees and stiff in your pants.” Everyone laughed.

You all dig it?


  • 1

    In her review article Carole Hill summarizes the previous academic studies describing the U.S. South by the following characteristics: “localism, violence, religiosity . . . political conservatism . . . anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-unionism . . . poverty . . . racism . . . laziness . . . hedonism, primitive mentality, and simple-mindedness.” (1977:309).

  • 2

    The names and places in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the persons referred to in this article. Also parts of this article contain material previously published (Grindal 1994, 1999).

  • 3

    Generally redneck means working-class Southerners who work outside and develop red necks

  • 4

    Friendly idle conversation where the term shit is often used.