It has occurred to me that I am a member of the last minority in this country that is not protected by rules or laws against discrimination, ridicule or slander.
There is growing, justifiable outrage over the way African-Americans have been treated for centuries. People of every race have joined the movement for change. It is no longer acceptable to make African-Americans the targets of jokes, even though some still have not gotten the message.
Through the history of the United States, many racial and ethnic groups have suffered discrimination along with bad jokes that make fun of minority people.
Native Americans were defined as primitive sub-humans, deviously dangerous. However, the U.S. military campaigns of the 19th century drove them into reservations, where they could safely be ignored.
The Irish, Poles and Jews endured periods of discrimination, sometimes even persecution, before they could find a place in the so-called “melting pot” of society, really the economy. In spite of their contributions, Jews sometimes still experience outbreaks of anti-Semitism, but that is largely rejected by their neighbors.
The last public airing of clearly offensive, insensitive behavior was in the 1970s sitcom. “All in the Family,” in which Archie Bunker is portrayed as a humorous heavy. In dealing with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Archie’s prejudiced tirades became lessons on what not to do.
However, one ethnic category remains as a fair target. People, regardless of gender, who were born in the South to parents identified as white are somehow bad. Bad behavior and character are assumed of every individual without action as proof.
I was raised by good parents, Oscar and Juanita Williams Branch. In the matter of pay for work done, he did not discriminate, and compensated people the same for their labor, without regard for race. If Mother ever heard me parroting racist language, she would declare, “That is not nice talk.” Whatever Mother said, I heeded, lesson learned. They were people of their time and place, affected by its beliefs and customs, but they were always generous and fair.
I have long been aware of regional prejudice in popular culture. “Lil Abner” was created by Al Capp, a cartoonist who never saw the mountains that he depicted. The place was populated by Abner, a handsome youth of limited intelligence, his pipe-smoking mother, who took care of him; his father, who mostly lazed around with his droopy-eyed hound. There was also Daisy Mae, strikingly gorgeous and attired in a tight-fitting blouse with leg-hugging shorts for her very shapely legs. Moonbeam McSwine, a lesser character, mirrored Daisy Mae’s anatomy and attire. The problem is that many people accepted this caricature as reality.
Professor Patricia Beaver, cultural anthropologist at Appalachian State University, has analyzed the impact of the Daisy Mae phenomenon, this backwoods, almost feral female who is sexy, someone a male from the outside world would find very desirable.
“The Dukes of Hazard,” which also presented a distorted depiction of the South, has as its female lead a scantily-clad Daisy Duke. Note the appropriation of the name and persona.
The long-running TV program “Hee Haw” featured many country music stars and guest performers who offered good music when they were not lying around on hay with a bloodhound and a jug, presumably full of moonshine. Also featured were many pretty girls dressed like Daisy Mae, tight clothes for every part of their bodies. Everyone on the show knew that they were playing to a distinctively negative stereotype, but figured it was all right since they were laughing on the way to the bank. This distortion of reality always bothered me, but no one asked my opinion.
The South is often depicted as an intellectual wasteland without noting William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Wolfe, Caroline Miller, Margaret Mitchell (even though her book is sometimes criticized). There is a marvelous new group that includes Terry Kay, Jan Karon and Nicholas Sparks, for starters.
Country music is dominated by people from the South, both biggest names like Hank Williams and the not so big. Its place in the nation is marked by Ken Burns’ widely-acclaimed presentation that covers its history from beginning to the present.
Popular music from Johnny Mercer in the past to the iconic Elvis Presley offers an impressive honor roll. It would take a book to cover church music down here. Yes, we southerners sing.
None of this touches on the rich heritage coming from African-Americans in the South, which is still home to millions of them. It is a plea for fairness, ending a negative stereotype directed at people of good will like me and many others.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.