Black identity has become a hot item in the movies, on television, and in the schools and colleges. But few people are aware of how much of what passes as black identity today, including "black English," has its roots in the history of those whites who were called "rednecks" and "crackers" centuries ago in Britain, before they ever crossed the Atlantic and settled in the South.
Saying "acrost" for "across" or "ax" for "ask" are today considered to be part of black English. But this way of talking was common centuries ago in those regions of Britain from which white Southerners came. They brought with them more than their own dialect. They brought a whole way of life that made antebellum white Southerners very different from white Northerners.
Violence was far more common in the South -- and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners came. So was illegitimacy, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. All of this would become part of the cultural legacy of blacks, who lived for centuries in the midst of the redneck culture of the South.
That culture was as notable for what it did not have as for what it had. It did not emphasize education, for example, or intellectual interests in general.
Illiteracy was far more common among whites in the antebellum South than among whites in the North, and of course the blacks held in bondage in the South were virtually all illiterate. On into the early 20th century, Southern whites scored lower on mental tests than whites in other parts of the country, as blacks continued to do.
Many aspects of Southern life that some observers have attributed to race or racism, or to slavery, were common to Southern blacks and whites alike -- and were common in those parts of Britain from which Southern whites came, where there were no slaves and where most people had never seen anyone black.
Most Southern blacks and whites moved away from that redneck culture over the generations, as its consequences proved to be counterproductive or even disastrous. But it survives today among the poorest and least educated ghetto blacks.
This is a much bigger story than can fit into a newspaper column, which is why I wrote my latest book, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals."
White liberals come into this story because, since the 1960s, they have been aiding and abetting a counterproductive ghetto lifestyle that is essentially a remnant of the redneck culture which handicapped Southern whites and blacks alike for generations.