“Well Kernel, hit seems like they’s finally payin’ ‘tention to me and mine, ‘stead of you and yourn.” — Attributed to Wash Jones (by me)
OK, I made that up. However, I could not help but wonder this past year what Wash Jones would have thought of all the attention being paid to him and his.
Jones, for those who don’t know, was William Faulkner’s contribution to the long list of white-trash characters that appear in Southern books and songs. Though, if he were real and alive today, rather than fictional and dead (killed), I doubt if he would know or care about his literary lineage.
Jones probably would have missed, as so many did, the unfortunately unappreciated 1978 Civil War concept album “White Mansions,” in which one of his class describes himself:
“They call me white trash ’cause my hair hangs long
“My ragged pants got no buttons on
“My teeth are black and my shoulders sag
“But I fly — the Confederate flag.”
Except Wash didn’t rally to the Stars and Bars or any other Southern banner. He stayed home to see after “things” while his overlord, Col. Supten, who owned the “things,” did his fighting for him.
Nor would Jones have been exposed to Frances Boyd Calhoun’s children’s book, Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, in which the hero William (“Billy”) defends the honor of his black friend (“Wilkes Booth Lincoln”) by putting a whipping on the bully who called his buddy a you-know-what. As the defeated tormentor retreated, “Wilkes Booth Lincoln” shouted after him, “had a little dog, his name was dash, rather be a nigger than ’po white trash.”
My third-grade teacher read the book to my class. Yes, she repeated the N-word. It was 1953, the year before segregation was declared unconstitutional, a decision that outraged the Wash Joneses of the land. Looking back, however, I am convinced that she was not reading it to confirm the racial order — no one in our all-white group challenged that — but rather to remind “good” white children that we were expected to defend and protect those “beneath” us.
Wash Jones was one with the Slatterys, the po’ white trash of Gone With The Wind who were so low in the social order that even the slaves were above them. He also might have been a member of the Walden family in God’s Little Acre.
Then in 1986, Ernest Matthew Mickler brought out White Trash Cooking, a collection of recipes gleaned from folks he considered WHITE TRASH (all caps) as opposed to the lower-case variety. Covering everything from “Dana Pullen’s Chicken Feet and Rice” to “Cooter Pie,” it was illustrated with color photographs, one of an open refrigerator that reminded me of my mama’s. The book became a hit among those who wanted one more reason to look at Southerners “that way,” as well as those like myself who found more than a little nostalgia in those culinary creations — I have an autographed copy.
Then, in the second decade of the 21st century, white trash became all the rage.
Feeding the frenzy was the Showtime series “Shameless,” which reminded us that white trash was not confined to the South. This was later confirmed, more or less, by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.
Then came Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. That it was not an “untold” story is evident from her use of sources that told the story before. However, the author brought it all together and with perfect timing got it to press just as Donald Trump and his “basket of deplorables” were turning the presidential primaries upside down. Trump strategists understood what Caleb, the white trash character in “White Mansions.” meant when he observed, “When you’re fighting Yankees, a redneck’s a man’s best friend.”
Just replace “Yankee” with “Washington” and “redneck” with “white trash” and you have a winning formula.
Although the Wash Joneses of America were not likely to read Isenberg’s tome, pundits did and quickly connected her “Trash” to Vance’s “Hillbillies” to Trump’s base. Recognizing that these folks were “rust belt” as well as “Bible belt,” commentary on them and theirs became meat for the media, left and right.
So I can imagine that Wash Jones would be amazed at the attention being lavished on folks such as him.
But what is it going to get him?
That depends on what he wants, or more to the point, what he will be satisfied with.
And on that note, I leave you with this.
As Jones summed it up, when the war was lost and the defeated returned,
“Well, Kernel, they kit us but they ain’t whupped us yet, air they?”
“Whuppin’” white trash may not be as easy as some folks think it will be.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional feature/op-ed writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org