Rednecks – Many Different Meanings

Published on November 2, 2021.

When I first went to Massachusetts in the early 90s, some people asked me, “How can you live in the South with so many rednecks?” I was both shocked and horrified, not understanding what they meant by the term.

More Than One Meaning

Before moving north, I had thought of the term “rednecks” in two ways. Often farmers in the Piedmont region of North Carolina were referred to as rednecks because of always having a red neck behind their heads because of working all day out in the fields or on a tractor. My father was one of those people.

The second was when I learned the history of my grandfather, lovingly referred to as PawPaw. In the 30s in Appalachia, he was a worker and an organizer for the labor unions in the furniture factories. People wore red bandannas to let people know they were in the union. The term first began from the nation’s largest labor uprising, the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, when a multiracial group of 8,000 miners fought coal company operators to unionize.

Linda Stout's PawPaw (Grandfather), Grandmother, Mother, Aunts, and Uncles
Linda Stout’s PawPaw (Grandfather), Grandmother, Mother, Aunts, and Uncles

My PawPaw wore a red bandanna. As a small girl, I would sit on his lap, as he sat in his rocker on the porch, while he played spoons and sang old union songs. He, like most union organizers, were called communists, much as liberals are today. They were building a multi-racial union with blacks, whites and immigrant workers. Eventually, PawPaw was blacklisted.

Dangerous Assumptions

So, we need to be careful with labels. Many poor people who consider themselves rednecks are not bigots, as they are labeled in many parts of the country. They are working-class people, many poor, who are my family. Yes, a few of them are conservatives, but many of them are not. Many vote progressively. Many work side-by-side with friends and neighbors who are people of color.

I was pleased to read the article by Beth Howard, “Rednecks for Black Lives.” She refers to herself as a hillbilly and a redneck who shows up for Black Lives Matter. I feel a kinship with her and what she wrote.

So, next time you use the term redneck to mean someone who is racist, bigoted and conservative, think of me. I grew up poor, the daughter of a hillbilly and a farmworker, and the granddaughter of a union organizer. You might even see me wearing a red bandanna.

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