Dear Ozark Correspondent,
It was wholly a pleasure to hear the newest euphemism in your part of the state for the now politically incorrect term, hillbilly: Ozark-American.
I love it.
As an American of the Mosaic Persuasion, I firmly believe that every ethnic group deserves a multisyllabic moniker fit for polite company.
I've had some folks resort to every long way around the barn to avoid simply saying Jew in my presence, as in: Jewish Man/Woman, Hebrew, Israelite, anything but Jew. It's as if they thought it was a bad word.
So are hillbillies the same as rednecks? Those categories may overlap, but they're certainly not the same. You gotta hand it to rednecks; they don't care who calls 'em rednecks. Indeed, the true redneck takes pride in the name, and it does beat all heck out of the more scholastic classification, Southern Yeomanry.
As for the term Poor Rural White, with its antiseptic odor of sociologese, it will no longer do now that there are so many rich urban rednecks.
The big problem with these euphemistic tags for various ethnicities is their tacit admission that there's something disgraceful about belonging to one. Hence the need for a more polite name.
By now, like most Americans, I've developed more than one ethnicity. I used to work with Mrs. Edna Mays of Pine Bluff, Ark., and her black youth group. It seemed devoted mainly to the cultivation of good manners and elocution, no mean arts. Mrs. Mays once presented me with an official-looking certificate proclaiming me an Honorary Negro Father. I was kind of proud. It is no small thing to be a father in any ethnicity.
But the term Negro is now declasse. So should we speak of blacks now, or have we moved uptown to African-American? (That hyphen annoys, as if the Americanism of blacks had to be qualified as in the equally suspect Italian-American. )
One loses track: Are we just plain Jews these days or Only Ethnic/Cultural Jews, free at last of all those outmoded religious beliefs, i.e., the reason for our existence through the ages?
The surest sign of a people undergoing an identity crisis is that it can't decide what to call itself.
One of the many joys of reading John Shelton Reed's humor-laced and even humor-soaked sociology of the South is his treatment of Southerners as one big sprawling ethnic group with many divisions, some more appealing than others.
The least appealing may be the professional Southerner, aka the More Southern Than Thou variety. The species can often be found up North or on the fringes of the Old Confederacy. It seems that those most removed from the center of any ethnic group may be most insecure in their identity and most bent on exaggerating it. The way Austrians make the most fanatic German nationalists. Or American Jews the most fervent Zionists.
Southerners are an unusual American ethnicity in that we're biracial. One can't be any kind of a Southerner, black or white, without always being aware, even unconsciously, of the other. When we moved to Little Rock, where the hills begin, from Pine Bluff in the Arkansas delta, a distance of only 40 miles or so, there were times when we felt as if we'd been transplanted to the Midwest. (Which would make Northwest Arkansas the cultural equivalent of Canada.)
It was hard to explain what was missing in our new environs, but a story may suffice. (A Southerner will always prefer a good story to a mere explanation.) It seems that when we were house-hunting in what was then west Little Rock before it became near-west, we stopped for a burger at a nice little diner. We both felt there was something amiss about this clean, well-lighted place with all the pale suburban types at their spic-'n'-span tables. But we couldn't quite put our finger on it. Till Carolyn, my late wife, leaned across the table and whispered, "Have you ever seen so many white folks in your life?"
Yes, that was it. I'd once felt the same strange absence in Minneapolis.
And that's what I like about the South. Now you be sure to write again, y' hear?