Settin’ the Woods on Fire in the Countercultural South

durham hipsters?
Resistance so subterranean you can’t tell it’s resistance
I recently contributed an essay to a volume that’s forthcoming from UNC Press called The Bohemian South.  You can count me as one who is skeptical of a tradition of bohemianism in the South, at least as it is now manifested and understood. Whatever bohemianism means, it is not skinny jeans and food trucks—a familiar scene one can find in the trendier lanes of Atlanta or Durham or Richmond these days.  Sure, there was North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where Robert Creeley and John Cage cavorted in the 1950s, as well as a smattering of other avant-garde cultures in the history of the South. But the bohemianism of today’s urban creative class seems like just a hipper version of yuppie-ism, as astro turf and homogenized in Seattle or Sheboygan as in New Orleans or Chapel Hill—the “neo-bohemia” that sociologist Richard Lloyd has written so cogently about.

But just because Southern history might not boast a great deal of bohemianism does not mean it lacks a counterculture. To wit, I recently revisited one of my all-time favorite books, The Countercultural South (1995) by the late historian Jack Temple Kirby.  The book was required reading in one of my first grad classes, taught by the incomparable Barbara Fields.  Undoubtedly, Kirby shares Fields’s own concern with class and thoroughgoing skepticism of loose talk and easy conventional wisdom, probing into the divergent paths of working-class white and black Southerners—as well as the places where their impulses to resist intersected time and again.

the countercultural south

A son of modest means himself, Kirby brought profound personal insight to the lazy characterization of poor Southerners as “white trash.” It was a timely question in the 1990s, when Big Mac-loving Bill Clinton played at being “Bubba” and an insurgent conservatism among white voters, especially in the South, was plainly remaking American politics.  In three elegant and insightful essays, Kirby guides readers through tales of black resistance and negotiation with whites, white and black forms of machismo, and the checkered history of popular and intellectual discourse about “rednecks.” He reveals that, below the surface of a seemingly placid and conservative South, a turbulent current of opposition to property rights and the power of the rich elites churned more or less without ceasing. Along the way, he checks in with VS Naipaul and Henry Louis Gates, Hank Williams Jr. and Sr.

In retrospect, Kirby’s slender volume resembles one of my other favorite books: Circles and Lines by the great Yale historian John Demos.  Both were based on a series of lectures; both tackle broad, sweeping themes—in Demos’s case, ways of thinking about life and time as they unfolded from the colonial period into the nineteenth century—and both speak to the reader with the svelte, supple voice of a seasoned scholar, compressing complex historical insights and experiences into lucid prose.  Unlike the vast majority of academics, these historians could speak to readers in plain English that illuminated rather than obscured the experiences of many unknown and common people in the past.

The task Kirby set for himself was clear: to correct the schematic narrative of lazy, pathological poor blacks and wild, stupid rednecks in the South, and to bring into relief a tradition of stubborn, subterranean resistance to bourgeois values.  Like Fields, the historian shared a Marxist cast of mind, but without letting clunky dogma get in the way of humanistic empathy and insight.  Kirby contends that the old South was a precapitalist place, in many ways immune to an individualist ethos of thrift, industry, and patient accumulation of profit.  The poor whites who had lived outside the scope of the market economy for much of the era up to and even after the Civil War—the folk who subsisted in the piney woods of Steven Hahn’s seminal The Roots of Southern Populism (1983)—grew up immersed in an admixture of mutuality toward each other and hostility to the bankers, merchants, and other emissaries of an outside, alien capitalist culture.  African Americans, meanwhile, had emerged from the bondage of a slave system to navigate as carefully as possible the new world of free (or free-ish) labor and market society—all, of course, dominated by white antagonists.

In a piquant insight, Kirby notes that many poor white folks had not mastered the craft of negotiation, having lived in a system that might have economically disadvantaged them but that did not test their patience and adaptability through everyday interactions with bosses, neighbors, or even random strangers in the street.  He attributes a broader pattern to this historical experience—“blacks negotiating, whites in flight”—that perhaps accounts, in part, for the differing ways that working-class blacks and whites conceptualized the role of government, notably a pragmatic approach to solving problems among many African Americans and a pugnacious refusal to engage with the system on the part of their white peers.

The Countercultural South explores the vicissitudes of class, race, and resistance in the South through a series of brilliant set pieces.  There is journalist Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler (1994), his account of growing up as hard-striving black family in a Portsmouth, Virginia suburb.  McCall fell into braggodocio, violence, and nihilism despite the best efforts of his family—who, Kirby points out, intrigued readers in the 1990s in large part because they did not fit a convenient stereotype of the dysfunctional black family generating social turmoil.  McCall ended up serving time in jail after shooting a man and brandishing a gun during a hold-up, but he made his way into the white professional world after serving his time (as well as a stint with black nationalist separatism).  Kirby describes McCall’s memoir as “stunningly unreflective”—his world is one where “white people are brutal, cruel, manipulative, two-faced, ignorant, arrogant,” and to be avoided as much as practically possible.

But Kirby does not write off McCall’s experience, nor does he begrudge him his rage and bitterness.  The historian himself grew up a short distance away in a similarly downscale suburb.  “McCall and I were both shamed, as boys, to see our elders dirty and subservient, smiling ‘sir’ to patrons standing over them,” he recalled. “Both fathers explained that their families needed the money and, equally important, that they took pride in doing well the humblest work” (13).  Both McCall and Kirby eventually made it into the professional class, certainly the first in their families to do so, but the historian’s path did not include a detour into prison. Indeed, he points out that only one of his childhood friends from the neighborhood ended up in prison, while several had from McCall’s community. Too many were “in prison, dead, drug zombies, or nickle-and-dime hustlers,” in his words.  Hence, the nihilism that Cornel West decried in the 1990s, and that Makes Me Wanna Holler exemplified.

What was the difference between McCall and Kirby’s working-class experiences?  Of course, the differences were manifold. The author grounds McCall’s own story in the trajectory of black life in America, from the courageous struggle of slaves to manage some autonomy within the suffocating and often impossible confines of plantation culture to the humiliating negotiations of sharecropping and Jim Crow and the sadistic indignities of integration that black people faced in schools, shops, and neighborhoods.  Ever conscious of the need to negotiate with abusive white superiors, black men clung to a sense of honor and dignity that sometimes manifested as a defensive, macho swagger—the curse of many working-class men, of many races or ethnicities, who grow up having to watch their backs and show toughness.  When McCall watched his long-suffering stepfather as a youth, he saw a man who accepted the status quo, who preached that hard work would lead to success and was its own reward.  The young man viewed this gospel of work as a kind of Booker T. Washingtonian acquiescence to white power that he associated, rightly or wrongly, with the ideals of the civil rights movement.  McCall would not be a cowering servant of whites, nor would he give any more quarter to a white culture that he saw as pathologically hostile than was absolutely necessary.

In contrast, Kirby offers the memoir of Henry Louis Gates, published around the same time as Makes Me Wanna Holler.  Growing up in the predominantly white, West Virginia community of Piedmont, “Skip” Gates’s experience was simultaneously parallel to McCall’s but strikingly different. Both came from modest, industrious families, but Kirby describes Gates’s hometown as a nurturing community, where a small black minority seemed to pose less of a threat to the establishment and the civil rights movement barely reached.  (McCall’s Portsmouth was larger, boasted a more even ratio of white to black, and featured more antagonism and unfamiliarity between both communities than tiny Piedmont, in largely white WV.)  Gates managed to avoid the pitfalls of the criminal justice system and pursued a more direct flight path to the upper middle class than McCall, and thus had a more typically bourgeois outlook.  Yet where McCall showed unstinting despair and bitterness toward whites, Gates leaned toward snobbery; he did not resent white Americans as a whole, but he looked upon the “crackers,” “hillbillies,” and “trash” of his native West Virginia with disdain.

The rebellious and anticapitalist spirit that imbued so many poor Southerners, in Kirby’s view, ultimately failed to translate across lines of class and race—and if it did so, it did only in garbled fashion.  The rest of The Countercultural South explores these fine distinctions of status and culture and sensibility with a keen eye, that of a scholar who has journeyed across social boundaries and learned enough to empathize with experiences not exactly his own.  Kirby discusses the peculiar history of forest fires in the South in his essay “Retro Frontiersmen,” looking at how middle-class reformers and environmentalists looked on aghast as redneck firebugs destroyed the forest for no apparently better reason than living in “environments of ‘low stimulation’” and “crav[ing] excitement.”  Hank Williams Sr. immortalized this behavior in “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” As Kirby points out, though, the practice of firing the woods went back to the alienation of poor whites from a rural commons they had once taken for granted, back before fences and stricter enforcement of land tenure by more privileged elites enclosed the world they had their forebears had known for decades, if not centuries.  It also did not hurt that firefighting in federal forests paid better than in the state-owned lands in the 1930s; for the life of them, the experts could not figure out why more fires broke out in the former rather than the latter.  The countercultural impulse lives on.

Kirby takes us back to grapple with lives that popular discourse has distorted, with its working-class whites who became “trash” and “bubbas” and blacks of similar class origin who became the “thugs” and “superpredators” of Pruitt-Igoe and the Robert Taylor Homes.  A rich vein of principled and spirited resistance could be found in the culture of the South’s poor people, even if it was covered over and obscured by layers of myth and bias. In this way, the book also evokes Pete Daniel’s excellent Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (2000).

This is, of course, what the truly best historians do—show that the world was once a different place, that people thought and felt differently from what is taken for granted today, and understands that.  Kirby was a white man who got out of a challenging situation to do the “brain work” that an accomplished historian gets to enjoy—all while carrying with him the accent and not-insignificant shoulder-chip that almost all working-class Southerners, black and white, take with them when making their way among the chattering classes.

In some places, of course, the book does feel dated. It is discomfiting to think of how differently Gates’s biographical meditation on race and class looks in light of his own tumultuous encounter with a white Boston cop in 2009, as well as the broader discussion of Black Lives Matter and police violence today; if anything, McCall’s Afro-pessimism feels closer to the celebrated work of Ta-Nehisi Coates than Gates’s.  Reading the word “Caucasian” casually used sticks in my own craw—an unfortunate trinket of 1990s race discourse, it provides a pseudo-scientific veneer to the biological fiction of race, and it seems less commonly used today.  (White and black are more honest and blunter terms for America’s race mythology; after all, do Americans of Irish or Italian descent hail from… the Caucasus?)  And the prospect of so-called “white trash” shaping the course of American politics seems alarmingly more serious today, in the age of Trump, than in the time of Clinton’s Bubba and Big Mac. Even if Trump’s supporters are not so downscale as many assume, there are a good many Confederate flag-wavers who love the Donald.

Nonetheless, in a career that included classics like Poquosin (1995), Rural Worlds Lost (1986), and the Bancroft-winning Mockingbird Song (2006), The Countercultural South stands out as among the most empathetic and assessible books on the difficult subject of America’s most difficult region.  The world is much worse off for not having Kirby’s counterintuitive—and countercultural—eye to help us understand the past.