Before my father graduated high school, he had a full set of false teeth. Finding—and later being able to afford—dentures that fit well were an important part of his life for sixty years.
Once his health began to deteriorate nearly as precipitously as his bank account in the last several years, that final set of dentures, lower quality and cost, made him look even less like himself than the disorienting transformation from aging and ill health—both making him enlarge, barrel-chested and swollen, as he simultaneously shrank in stature.
My father was a rough and rambunctious 1950s redneck growing up, losing teeth a few at a time from playing sports and the occasional fight. His dentist eventually decided to pull the last few and fit him with false teeth.
My mother, my sister, and I, then, never knew my father when he had teeth.
This was part of my 1960s childhood, a redneck life in Upstate South Carolina, my father’s home town. It seems fair to say that my mother was, as a North Carolinian raised mostly in Lexington and Lumberton, a hillbilly of sorts.
But theirs was no mixed marriage.
In fact, it took me many years, and well after I had moved out, to recognize the nuances of my parent’s slightly different Southern drawls and vocabulary. Both of my grandfathers had been painfully quiet men, although my maternal grandfather was equally painful in the slowness of his speech when he did (rarely) speak.
So I needed some distance to begin to acknowledge that this SC/NC couple had families who were often as unlike as like each other.
When my parents died a couple years ago, with those deaths shrouded in the ugliest possible consequences of an inadequate and inhumane healthcare system, I was pushed further into more fully and openly interrogating my redneck past.
Recently, I have been confronted, first, with Season 2 of Mindhunter focusing on the Atlanta child murders and the series’s characterization of KKK members, Georgia crackers, and next, with Ozark‘s fascination with distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies.
Those representations range along a spectrum of cartoonish to romanticized that deeply distorts both the humanity of those of us from the South as well as the many serious flaws that do persist among poor and working-class white Southerners.
As a lifelong Southern redneck who grew into social awareness and continues to wrestle with that redneck past against a deeply held moral imperative toward social justice, I am constantly faced with a paradox—seeking ways to defend the accurate, complex, and often deeply flawed white Southern characterization while in no way defending its historical and current racism, sexism, and homophobia.
I cannot express often enough the tragedy that is the self-defeating South.
With this newest focus by the two series above on redneck, hillbilly, and cracker, I have been thinking about my toothless father and the ugly stereotype of the toothless redneck/hillbilly/cracker.
The broader stereotype of white southerners is that we talk grammatically incorrect (therefore, we are stupid) and we are often poor.
These stereotypes expose deficit and misguided perceptions of both language and poverty, but it is the “toothless” slur that draws my attention now.
I hear fairly often about poor Southern whites that they have less sense than teeth, or something like that. And while watching Ozark fumble through their interest in distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies, I have for the first time more clearly considered how damning the “toothless” slur is.
Being toothless among the poor has its roots in all sorts of inequity, mostly that poor and working-class Americans too often do not have access to affordable healthcare (including dental) or healthy food.
The “toothless” slur ignores that inequity but certainly reinforces the rugged individual myth: If only poor white trash would take care of their teeth!
Toothlessness is their shame, both cosmetic and as a sign of carelessness (if not the real ugly floor of all poverty shaming, laziness).
More recently than this Southern stereotype, this shaming of rednecks regardless of region, is the toothless meth addict, a characterization again grounded in shaming and perpetuating that the addict is solely to blame for the consequences of the addiction.
Watching both Mindhunter and Ozark, I think of my immediate family as well as the many, many rednecks of my life lived in SC. But I also have come to think very often of my toothless father.
With his better quality dentures and his crewcut, my father struck the pose of the handsome, hardworking white man of the mid-twentieth century South. He also believed in all of the great American myths about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps as well as the ugliest racist and classist narratives that were ever-present in his community.
My father and mother did everything they could to maintain the veneer that they had no past in being poor and they were not working-class, but middle-class.
Their paradox was that they did in fact have a hand in their own disturbing dying days that were greatly accelerated and worsened by a harsh society and inhumane government that they endorsed until their last breaths.
It feels too much like a Poe short story, my being sometimes haunted by my father’s last pair of dentures that made him look cartoonish and pitiful, only a faint glimmer of the man I knew as a child. A powerful and all-too-happy young man who grew into massive forearms and a constant refrain of “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it” to anyone who asked how he was doing.
Until that last pair of dentures, I had lived with a different image, one recreated by the telling of stories by my father.
When I was very young, my father was play-wrestling with my mom (they were very playful young adults, together and with my sister and me). My mom feigned that she was in distress and called for me to help her.
Just a child, I ran over and kicked hard at my father’s head. He turned away untouched, covertly removed his false teeth, and then rolled back to confront me with a huge toothless grin.
I screamed and cried, as my father told the story, while my mom and dad laughed.
This was my childhood, but I cannot tolerate the romanticizing of white Southerners anymore than I can stomach the petty stereotypes driven by poverty shaming.
I have loved my parents and family very deeply while also being very angry at them and my hometown for all the hatred and the self-defeating politics.
Over the last few years, the media have become obsessed with struggling whites all across the U.S. Many are rednecks, hillbillies, and even crackers.
There is so much white fragility on display that I recognize now even more deeply how whites resist equity and hard truths in the U.S. while always hiding behind a very large and starkly white banner. Maybe “Christian nation” or simply “U.S.A.”
Or the most disturbing and red “Make America Great Again.”
Yes, there are distinctions among rednecks, hillbillies, and crackers—but those really do not matter as much as what they have in common, an inordinate power linked to their being white and an irrational anger toward a world finding ways to expose those privileges so that we can end them.
And walking through that world, I am the son of a toothless redneck.