Common Stereotypes - Defending and Embracing Working Roots

On vacation, at the Mediterranean.

When we went out for beer at the beach with a couple of my wife's cousins (people who were at our wedding here in southern France 26 years ago), I found myself trying to simplify my thoughts so that my French vocabulary would be less of a struggle.  My French isn't too bad "for an American truck driver".  But I admit I don't try as hard as I used to.  My wife and kids speak exclusively in French, but most of my vocabulary is now about reminding teenagers to clean up a mess in the kitchen.  It's not very philosophical stuff.

Anyway, when you're my age and you come to visit inlaws in France once a year, you wind up retelling and re-asking and re-recounting a lot of the same stuff anyway.  And one of the "small talk" topics is always whether I fit a stereotype of "American" based on the French news.

I've frequently posted about the Ozark Mountains, where my family is from.  That three out of 4 of my great grandparents made their own shoes, Foxfire style, from goat skins.  The 4th set worked with the Burueau of Indian Affairs (my great grandfather William Freeland - hence my middle name - was personal friends with John Niehardt, author/translator of Black Elk Speaks - who also retired to Branson area).

In America, in college, I was always asked whether I was really from the Ozarks.  My dad was a college professor at the University of Arkansas (Journalism/Mass Communications), I say.  But ahah! I was born in Massachusetts (my dad had a 2 year beat reporter job there between his BA and Ph.D at Columbia Missouri).  I answer I was brought back to the Ozarks in a laundry basket in the back of a Volkswagen at one year old, but no doubt a bunch of redneck blew off me when the windows were down.

So taking a stereotype that a French person has about Americans, and seeing them figure out how I'm an exception, is familiar territory.  I'm fat enough for some of the stereotypes, and I keep a Hawaii shirt inventory (a bit tongue in cheek, but helps my kids find me on the beach).

But the people I feel a lot in common with are Africans.

#theafricathemedianevershowsyou looks an awful lot like #thesouththemedianevershowsyou or #theozarksthemedianevershowsyou

The Africans I tend to meet are pretty savvy folks.  Emmanuel Eric Nyaletey just got his second or third degree - in Coding - at Georgia Tech, where he took a year off at Good Point Recycling for a full scholarship offer.  He originally got a degree in computer engineering at the University of Accra, Ghana, then somehow got accepted at St. Michael's College in Vermont, married a woman from Vergennes and settled down.

I feel like I understand the stereotypes they deal with.  Because it's not that the stereotypes about Africa are completely wrong, any more than that everyone from the Arkansas Missouri line is married to a Francophone studies Ph.D.  There is a deep chasm in commentary on Facebook between most of my Vermont liberal friends and many of my family and friends in the South.   In the same way as I used to want to gloss over the "redneck" (which I always told my kids means a farmer whose neck is red from working in a field, and that they shouldn't use the term without remembering that), my younger African friends show fatigue in their eyes when some regular problem gets in the news that shows the continent is an ebola zone or Boka Haram headquarters.

My fantasy is to start a "Beverly Hillbillies" program about rural Africa, one that embraces and monetizes the stereotype, a la Branson Missouri, Silver Dollar City.  But that would have drawn HUGE glares in the 1960s abd 70s, when my family - including people like Author (great Uncle) Elmo Ingenthron - were rather miffed that the entire USA knew about us through "Snuffy Smith" and "L'il Abner" and "Barney Google" and "Jed Clampett" and "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw", etc.

My wife has to sit through "French surrender monkeys" and sort through stereotypes honestly, just as I do.  I see a lot of my conservative red state friends as being "proud of ignorance", a kind of stubbornness that rankles.  But I see it in my fellow Vermonter Bernie supporters too.  None of us is immune to self-certainty and false conclusions.  We must all study stereotypes and compare them with statistics over time.

Africa today is developing at a rate far faster than the Ozarks did from 1840 to 1940.

In the Ozarks, the bottom line was how hard you worked.  That applied equally to physical labor and "book learning".  We were ashamed of our lazy kin, and proud of our hard working kin.  And that's why the term "redneck" bothered me, I guess, is that the relatives with the reddest necks were the ones on the tractors - or even yes behind mules, until 1990s.

In Africa, I adored my students who did their homework and really applied themselves to what I was trying to teach in class.   And I respected the polite people I saw working in the sun, working their asses off, to feed the African continent.

Less educated people will find it harder to let go of stereotypes.  But laziness definitely, definitely, corresponds well with welfare and government assistance and crime.  People ask my wife if I'm liberal or conservative.  I don't know how she answers.  But her best friends, among her cousins, are those she worked with in the mountainside vineyards.

What I listen to at the beach at the Mediterranean. The original "Tennessee Stud" by Jimmie Driftwood.  This was probably on the radio in the Volkswagen driving back from Massachusetts.

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