Abby Lee Hood: Rediscovering the progressive roots of the ‘hillbillies’

In the early 1900s rednecks and hillbillies weren’t backward; they were ahead of the times.

(Eleni Kalorkoti | The New York Times) I left my hometown because I felt alienated from its conservative values. Turns out they’d simply forgotten our progressive roots.

Nashville — I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “redneck,” but when I was growing up in Middle Tennessee it was usually spoken with pride — tossed around at the bluegrass festivals I went to. My grandfather would pick guitar, and I’d play fiddle, usually in a circle of old-timers under a shade tree at the Summertown Bluegrass Reunion.

I lived on a small farm in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., about 80 miles south of here. Like a lot of families, we had a few animals, a garden and some land; we weren’t professionals or anything. I lived in a trailer with my mom, right in my grandparents’ front yard. I learned to raise goats and gut deer. Whenever we’d go to a swimming hole, my Pepaw would point and say, “I used to have a house there,” because his parents were sharecroppers and they moved around.

As I got older, it began to feel as if there were two parts of me, and they didn’t get along. In high school, my parents told me I was “a freak” for supporting marriage equality, and in church I was told that almost everything about me was a sin, including my sexual orientation. I couldn’t come out, and I was inundated with conservative rhetoric. I was a hillbilly — one used to hearing my family worry about paying the bills and making ends meet. I knew we struggled. But I couldn’t see how immigrants were the problem when it was the price of milk going up.

I felt unwelcome and lost at home. So I left for art school in Chicago. There, I finally felt safe enough to be openly bisexual and grew more progressive in my politics.

But looking back, I wish I had realized that my redneck roots didn’t contradict the other parts of myself as much as I was raised to believe. The conservative community I felt alienated from had forgotten its progressive roots. The fact is, in the early 1900s rednecks and hillbillies weren’t backward; they were ahead of the times.

During the West Virginia mine wars in the 1920s, rednecks formed a multiracial coalition of coal miners, and they forced cafeteria workers to serve everyone in the same room. Rednecks organized through the Industrial Workers of the World and the United Mine Workers of America, both of which are still active today. Miners led strikes, protests and even armed clashes against coal companies. In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie, the writer of “This Land Is Your Land,” performed at union meetings and composed “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.” He also performed with Pete Seeger, who would play “Which Side Are You On,” written by the musician and activist Florence Reece in the midst of labor unrest in Harlan County, Ky.

At the same time that my roots were rotting, students hundreds of miles away in West Virginia were also being alienated from this heritage. In the 1920s, a coal-funded nativist organization called the American Constitutional Association began a decades-long campaign to obliterate stories about the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was the largest armed labor uprising since the Civil War, led by a group of miners who in 1921 were fed up with deadly working conditions and being paid with company scrip, a kind of miner currency that could be used only at company stores.

That cover-up campaign continues. According to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum director, Mackenzie New-Walker, many state schools are still heavily influenced by coal companies, whose owners and executives sit on university boards and donate to high school football teams. The American Constitutional Association and the coal companies made sure students didn’t know about the miners who wore red bandannas and organized an integrated army of immigrants, whites and African Americans decades before Brown v. Board of Education made it to the Supreme Court. The bandanna wearers were called “rednecks,” and at the time, it was an insult. Their activities were even a crime.

Chuck Keeney, a professor, historian and the great-grandson of the labor leader Frank Keeney, said the miners were sworn to silence about the Battle of Blair Mountain to protect their comrades. But that caused them to lose control of their narrative. Today, redneck culture has become less about building solidarity among working folks and more about supporting white nationalism. Urban Americans often think of rednecks as backward, and make jokes about us being uneducated and inbred.

“The stereotype is a backward, culturally ignorant group of people,” Keeney said. “People don’t know the history of these resistance fighters.”

By the time I was born, Appalachian and Southern folks were less focused on fighting wealth inequality and more focused on stripping away human rights, including my own. Country music shifted to focus more on beer, trucks and girls in shorts. Guthrie’s brand of country was all but dead.

Even in Chicago, I couldn’t escape parallels to my family. My mother told me about buying lunch from a vending machine with change when she was pregnant. There were days I had nothing but change and used it to get food from the university’s vending machines. Every experience I’ve had, be it social, financial or political, has pushed me further left. In the Blair Mountain miners, and in leftists in general, I found my roots and my people — working-class folks who know struggle but embrace social freedom and equality.

On a recent postelection drive home, my eyes couldn’t help but snag on Trump flags flying outside what might best be described as shacks. Those folks deserve so much more, but I’m not convinced they’d say the same of me.

The truth is, Republican voters who fight against expanding human rights — who love songs like “If the South Woulda Won” and refuse to support Medicaid expansions that would provide health care to thousands in the South — are simply not rednecks, although they might think of themselves that way. Republican supporters bastardize hillbilly history; you can’t claim to be from “Hicktown” if you don’t fight for the hicks in it.

When I interviewed Keeney, author of “The Road to Blair Mountain,” he told me rednecks need “identity reclamation.” He’s right. Leftists owe it to ourselves to pick up a history book and counter the propaganda against unionization and organizing.

“You can embrace the term ‘redneck’ as what it meant to the miners,” Keeney said. “Reach back into our radical roots, our resistance roots. That’s who we really are.”

Rednecks — real rednecks — have always been my people. If conservatives put differences aside to fight for a more prosperous, equitable America, like the miners did, I could be their people, too.

Abby Lee Hood is a journalist who reports on labor and justice.