On the White Trash Heap

The below passage caught my attention. It’s written by Nancy Isenberg, from White Trash. The book is a nice read, if you have some curiosity about poor whites. They make for an intriguing historical study. There are centuries of opinions written about them, a favorite topic of discussion for the upper class folk ever perplexed by this alien world of whiteness, often not far away.

Ah, poor whites! Those crackers, dirt poor and the filth to prove it, toothless and ignorant, the lowest of low in the American social hierarchy. They have been looked upon as worse than blacks and Indians. They had the audacity to not fit into the racial order and their whiteness was often questioned.

Blacks always were supposed to be poor and Indians are meant to be in the backcountry. But these white trash have been impoverished by sheer laziness, because of their moral failures and lowly nature, a poverty passed on as their rightful inheritance. And they lived in crappy shacks in rural bumfuck nowhere (or else in ramshackle trailer parks at the edge of town) because that is what they liked, proof that they were barely above being animals.

These pathetic losers, refuse on the trash heap of civilization. Heck, are they even really Americans like the rest of us? It’s as though they live in their own world, purposely cutting themselves off from respectable society and glorying in their backwards ways. They are a step beyond the status of redneck, closer to the category of hillbilly, but really they are in a class of their own. White trash.

We know this because those are the descriptions offered by more well off whites of the past when they traveled among the lower sort. It’s been well documented by astute observers for longer than this land has been its own country.

And ya know what makes these poor whites the worst? They are my people. Ha! It’s probably why I have such a bad attitude.

My mother’s family didn’t come from a respectable background. They were of the Hoosier persuasion, back when to be called a Hoosier was an insult. They were poor whites from Kentuckiana (the limestone region of Kentucky and Indiana). My great grandfather was born a squatter, quite literally. He began his life in an abandoned building that was part of an old abandoned village, at the outskirts of a small border town in a rural county of southern Indiana. It was typical Hoosier territory.

My people were among those first on frontier. They killed and died fighting Indians, when they weren’t fighting each other. There probably was even a bit of mixing with the native folk, not to mention some hanky panky with those of a darker shade (hence the term “Hoosieroon”). Always rumors in poor white rural families that their blood might have more than one color running through it. There is a challenge in determining exact ancestry, many genealogical lines of descent seem to emerge out of the backwoods, as if they had always been there, their natural habitat.

By the time my mother was born, the extended family was finally escaping the fate of dirt poverty. But not all the family escaped. From hearing about some of the family I’ve never met, I suspect there are those who others might look upon as ‘white trash’. Even in her childhood, my mother spoke with that Hoosier dialect that told everyone around her that she was poor white, no matter the fact her father had a factory job. Her father was an alcoholic and on the abusive side, the towering patriarch of his own home. He was born poor and had little education, but to his mind at least he escaped poverty and maybe more importantly wasn’t black.

My mother had two brothers and plenty of cousins about her, the infamous clannishness that poor whites are known for. She still has pride in her voice in telling how she could hold her own in a fight or in a race with the boys. And, of course, she spent her childhood barefoot, as only the poor did back then.

Do you know who else was a poor white Hoosier? Abraham Lincoln.

Abe’s family were small farmers and manual laborers, as was mine. And, like my family, they drifted along as the frontier spread west, from Kentucky where he was born to Indiana where he spent his childhood. His father never understood his love of books and would sometimes burn them. In some of those books, he read about the American founders and it inspired that dirty little backwoods boy to dream of becoming president. But still he was Hoosier through and through. He could scrap with the best of them and he gained some notoriety for his fighting skills, with the strength to pick up a full grown man and toss him.

He also had the grim fatalism of his poor white heritage. He never expected life to end well for him. To rise up out of one’s class was asking for trouble. It isn’t what white trash is suppose do. But along with grim fatalism, he had grim determination to do what he had set his mind to do.

In 1817, when little Hoosier Abe was about eight years old, over in Virginia Thomas Jefferson brought one of his granddaughters to some nearby property he owned where they met a family of low class scrub dwellers. She was shocked by what she perceived as their shamelessness and lack of deference. She would have been even more shocked if someone told her that in her lifetime a dirty little heathen, just like one of those barely clothed children, would hold the same high office as her well-honored grandfather. A few decades later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although he was preceded in 1829 by another president of poor white origins, Andrew Jackson.

That is always the failure of white trash. They don’t know their place. They have their own values and their own sense of pride, no matter what anyone else thinks of them. It might seem the arrogance of brute ignorance, but it’s well earned. They think of themselves as plain Americans, as they identify themselves on census records. Their continued existence despite the odds being against them is their only needed justification.

George Washington, that great aristocratic leader, had a vision for America. He dreamed of a disinterested aristocracy ruling with paternalistic concern. When the poor whites rebelled, he did what any stern father would do and put them back in their place. The problem is they wouldn’t stay in their place, even all these centuries later. Still, they remain useful as scapegoats and so maybe we should keep them around, to occasionally trot them out on the public stage as a lesson for us all.

* * *

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
pp. 114-116

The distance between town and backwoods was measured in more than miles. It had an evolutionary character, forming what some at the time recognized as an impassable gulf between the classes. The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country. In 1817, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph wrote to her younger sister about a trip with their grandfather to the Natural Bridge, a property that Jefferson owned ninety miles west of Monticello. Here, she said, she encountered members of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” The children she met were barely covered by their scanty shifts and shirts, while one man strutted around before them with his “hairy breast exposed.” In this large, unruly family, she noted with disapproval, there were no more than “two or three pairs of shoes.” She was especially surprised by the crude familiarity of their speech. Oblivious to social forms, they conversed with the ex-president as though he was some lost family member. As a proud member of the Virginia gentry, Cornelia was convinced that she towered above the unwashed squatters. To her further chagrin, she was astounded that the poor family exhibited not the least sense of shame over their pathetic condition.

Class made its most transparent appearance by way of such contrasts. We can read volumes into the scorn expressed by the educated onlooker as he or she sized up the uncouth figures who roamed the backcountry. The need to make them into a new breed focused on more than crude living conditions, however. The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy. While traveling in the trans-Appalachian West in 1830, a city adventurer drolly observed of his bed companion for the night, “lantern-jawed, double-jointed backwoodsman, measuring some seven feet one in his stocking feet.” A typical alligator hunter in southern Illinois bore a similar physique: “gaunt, long-limbed, lanthorn-jawed, Jonathan.” (“ Jonathan” simply meant “fellow” here, being a common appellation for a generic American.) The cracker women had the same protruding jaw and swarthy complexion, and were as often as not toothless.

Women and children were important symbols of civilization— or the absence of it. Officers stationed in Florida in the 1830s identified “ye cracker girls” as brutes, with manners no better than sailors, and often seen smoking pipes, chewing and spitting tobacco, and cursing. Seeing their slipshod dress, dirty feet, ropy hair, and unwashed faces, one lieutenant from the Northeast dismissed them all as no better than prostitutes. In his words, everyone of the cracker class was a “swearing, lazy, idle slut!”

The backwoods personality could be found as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, and across the Northwest and Southwest Territories. They acquired localized names, such as Mississippi screamers, for their cracker-style Indian war whoop or love of squealing; Kentucky corn crackers, for their poor diet of cracked corn; and Indiana Hoosiers, for the poor in that state. “Hoosier” is a word no linguistic scholar can define with any precision. Even so, the class descriptor was the same. A Hoosier man ran off at the mouth, lied, boasted, and remained ready to harm anyone who insulted his ugly wife. They were as prone to a down-and-dirty fight as any southern cracker. Hoosier gals were no more refined than their Florida sisters. A Hoosier gal’s courtship ritual, it was said, involved a lot of kicking and hair pulling.

Sexual behavior was another crucial marker of class status. In a well-known poem of the era, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (1833), the author harkened back to the vocabulary of the Scottish naturalist Wilson. Here again, the cabins were wild nests, a half-human, half-animal retreat perfect for indiscriminate breeding. Using a racially charged slur, the poet identified the children as “Hoosieroons”— a class variation of the mixed-race quadroons. Under their leaky roofs were none of the hearty pioneer stock. Instead, poor Indiana squatters produced a degenerate dozen of dirty yellow urchins.

Filthy cabins, a lack of manners, and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as verified by their patterns of speech. Backwoods patois constituted a rural American version of the lower-class English cockney. In 1830, there was even a “Cracker Dictionary,” preserving their vintage slang. One was “Jimber jawed,” whose mouth was constantly moving, who couldn’t stop talking. The cracker’s protruding lower jaw carried over into his style of talking. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent type; the descriptive “chewed up” literally referred to having one’s ear, nose, or lip bitten off.

But one polysyllabic word may have best captured their identity. The verb “obsquatulate” was a cracker conjugation of “squat,” conveying the idea of moseying along or absconding. For a people who wouldn’t settle in one place, “obsquatulate” gave an activity of sorts to the American heirs of English vagrants. They might flee like an absconding servant or amble at a slow pace without a destination in mind, but in either case it was their dirty feet and slipshod ways that defined them.

3 thoughts on “On the White Trash Heap

    • I’d rather take pride in my poor white heritage. There is always my other family line on my dad’s side that descends from a Virginia plantation owner and slaveholder. That family was intermarried with other Virginia plantation families. They were the types who looked down on my mother’s family.

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