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Interview of “Redneck” Activist and Grassroots Organizer, Dr. Zac Henson By Jae Em Carico

Jae Em Carico: What got you initially interested and active in social justice?

Zac Henson: It’s hard to put my finger on because I think it was a gradually process.  I wasn’t always a community organizer.  In my early adulthood, I was an auto mechanic and a plant work, which I got really tired of because of shithead, oppressive bosses and terrible, dirty and hot working conditions.  I went to Auburn University at 24 mostly because I just wanted to try something different and because I loved Auburn football.

At Auburn, I took a couple of social justice type classes including anthropology and a Feminist lit class.  I loved both, but I really loved anthropology because of the concept of cultural relativism, which seemed to me to solve a lot of problems, particularly coming from my background in the Church of Christ, a very conservative evangelical sect.  Cultural relativism seemed like the exact opposite of what I’d been taught and I think that’s why it appealed to me.  I also started reading Marx and Foucault.

I already had a latent radicalism from listening to Rage Against the Machine as a teenager.  When 9/11, I blamed the meddling American government to my friends chagrin and I think going to college and falling in with liberal arts types really activated that radicalism.  I would say that I entered into organizing work through the study of it when I conducted research with one of my two mentors, Conner Bailey.  We studied activism against industrial hog farming on Sand Mountain and the published research brought a threat from the Klan.  So, long story short, my window into activism and organizing was through activist scholarship in academia and basically just by studying the methods and tactics people used to accomplish change.

I would go on the Berkeley to study with who I consider to be the greatest influence on my life, activist scholar, Carolyn Finney.  I would use my time at Berkeley to further study activism and organizing, focusing on popular education, which I would use when I began my more serious organizing work in Birmingham in 2009.

Jae Em Carico: What beliefs did you have before you became a far leftist or were you always radical?

Zac Henson: I considered myself conservative when I was working class, but I think that I was basically apolitical.  I grew up very conservative.  I believed in neo-Confederacy.  I listened to Rush and even won caller of the day on the Hannity Show when he was in Huntsville.  I was part of a very conservative church, hated gay people, was rigidly moral, believed women should more or less submit to men, hated any form of public assistance, and romanticized work.  The latter I probably still do to some degree.  This is what I was taught as a child and I sort of feel like my time as a worker was like recovering from trauma even though it was traumatic in and of itself.  I have a very complicated relationship with many of the members of my family, and while I empathize with them in many respects, I have many disagreements.  I just try to love them and recognize that we are all flawed and none of us really know what’s going on.

Jae Em Carico: What are some experiences you’ve had that you feel have shaped your current tactics?

Zac Henson: I’ve worked mostly with black people here in Birmingham for the past ten years and a come from a redneck culture with deep and abiding white supremacy and much of my work is just dealing with my own stupid hang-ups and biases.  But, the work has been very healing for me.  My good friend Majadi Baruti is sort of my spiritual advisor and he told me while I was in the midst of a bipolar crisis that I was “at war with my ancestors.”  I went in the hospital a week later.

What he told me would shape the way that I approach the world, probably for the rest of my life.  My antiracist activism had been essentially bourgeois antiracism targeted at privileged white liberals and one of the results was a deep and abiding self-hate because of what my ancestors had done and what I had done to black people.  Majadi was right that I couldn’t live like that and that I needed to make some kind of spiritual peace with it.  After I got out of the hospital, I decided to learn the banjo and start a vlog called Confessions of a Mad Redneck.  I wanted to create redneck antiracism, popular education style, meeting rednecks where we’re at and not expecting us to give up our culture in service of the antiracist cause, but to excise white supremacy from our culture and create a culture that works to make amends to black people.

To me this is deep because it would have never occurred to a redneck to even think about being at war with our ancestors; it took someone with a well-developed tradition of resistance to understand what I was going through.  We rednecks think that we’re getting something by flying the Confederate flag and claiming the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and that shit ain’t serving us because that tradition of resistance is totally fucked up.  Black people taught me how to fight in my years of organizing with them and for that I’m forever in their debt.  I would like to share what I’ve learned with rednecks, or white working class Southerners because we need to learn to fight too.  It starts with antiracism, but it has to be antiracism that we own as a culture, redneck antiracism.

Jae Em Carico: What are your thoughts on sectarianism and leftist in fighting?

Zac Henson: The answer to this question is simple – by any and all means necessary.  If you don’t like the way someone does something, don’t work with them, but don’t try to undermine what they are doing.  Maybe they know something you don’t about the specific situation or context that they are trying to handle.  Let people be.

Jae Em Carico: Is the south capable of being won over to leftism? If so how?

Zac Henson: I will say this.  We have a robust radical community in Birmingham and I’m proud to be a part of it.  This community did not exist ten years ago and there has been a lot of time, effort, sacrifice, and cooperation among dedicated organizers to bring this to fruition.  The biggest problem on the left and I mean left anywhere is ideological rigidity and theory-driven activism.  My first mentor, Conner Bailey, told me “theories are just tools in the tool box” and I’ve remembered that.  If a theory is not helping you solve a problem, trash it.  

Can the left be successful in the South?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but if you look at Jackson and you look at Birmingham, there are blueprints for doing so and they’re urban based.  The South is not a rural place anymore.  Most of our people live in urban areas.  Alabama is 58% urban.  So to me, an all of the above strategy ranging from bland liberal reform to creating autonomous radical spaces and everything in between is the strategy, and as long as it’s focused on problem-solving from whatever perspective, I’m in favor of it.

Jae Em Carico: How does our language build barriers and what are some linguistic switches you might use when speaking to non-leftists?

Zac Henson: I think it goes back to theory-driven activism.  If you can’t articulate an idea in clear, plain language, you actually don’t understand the idea.  I used to do this type of code-switching a lot more and I think this happens when you’re in the space of academia because it’s just such a cloistered place – it’s not real.  But, the further I’ve gotten from the academic environment, the easier it’s been to communicate with folks although I’m better at it in speech than in writing.  I probably read one theory book a year at this point as compared to 30-40 when I was at Berkeley.  I don’t actually think that learning that way is what’s best for people and I think it creates thinkers who are so wrapped up and invested in theoretical debates that they never operationalize what they’re reading.

There are many strengths to what we’re doing with theory now in the movement.  I think that it’s overall a good thing, but I also think the institutionalization of activist work in various different kinds of boutique departments like the Berkeley Geography Department has put an undue focus on theory to the point where think writing and reading theory IS organizing.  And look, I’ve read as much as anyone on this stuff and many of my years as an activist were spent trying to get theory “right.”  Now, after a few years of reflecting on that work, I basically feel like “I don’t know and will never really know, so let’s just do democracy, where everyone cannot know together.”  It always surprises me when I get labeled.  I’ve been called an anarcho-communism and an economist in the past month, and I appreciate both descriptions, they were made out of love, I try to eschew labels for the idea that maybe we can work in the community and figure out what to do.  Theory certainly has a role in that, but it’s not the most important thing.

Jae Em Carico: Fascists are known to appropriate leftist culture and then betray the people in favor of the sovereign, how can we combat this?

Zac Henson: My belief is that the cultural terrain that we must fight fascists on is neo-Confederacy.  People don’t really understand neo-Confederacy and that it is not fascism, but it is a gateway to it.  Neo-Confederacy is a resistance narrative and the redneck folk culture, but it is a fucked up one, which proves that just because something is grassy doesn’t make it good or productive.  I think people who want to organize rednecks must start with neo-Confederacy and bend it into justice.  Let me explain.  I want to make a deal with rednecks.  1.  Make the culture accountable to black people for what we’ve done to them individually and collectively.  2.  Drop the romanticism of the Confederacy.  We were wrong and we should deal with that head on.  3.  If we do this, the movement will fight yankees collectively, yankees defined as global imperialist shitheads and the people who benefit disproportionately from global empire.  This latter part admittedly sounds weird, but it does fit.  Capitalism is a geographic system that essentially ranks places as the most profitable and invests in them.  Thus, a place like NYC is higher in the geographic hierarchy of capitalism than The Black Belt or Appalachia.  NYC benefits from empire more than the Black Belt or Appalachia.  We must also allow rednecks to defend our culture from classist attacks.

If we can counter the organizing of rednecks by fascists 5 to 1, we win.  What I’m calling for is the cultural organizing of rednecks.

Jae Em Carico: What are your thoughts on academia and the downfalls and positives therein?

Zac Henson: Academia is terrible.  I got a lot out of it because I just didn’t care about the pettiness, but it sucks.  People are wedded to their theories and they all have axes to grind.  They treat their classrooms as mini-dictatorships.  It’s a brutal place that is not good for most students and teachers who try to do it differently often don’t last long.

We’re organizing a cooperative online college called The Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice.  It’s a school for organizers and is owned and governed by the faculty, students, and staff.  I want to use this institution to teach the next generation about the practical steps we took to win victories in Birmingham and I want to give all sorts of organizers the tools they need to enact substantive change.  I want everyone involved to shape the school and I definitely don’t want our professors to be dictators.

The only way to fix academia is to start over.

Jae Em Carico: What art inspires you?

Zac Henson: There’s a book out there called Redneck Liberation and it’s about country music.  I play the banjo and I’d say that bluegrass music inspires me.  The banjo, which has become associated with redneck culture, comes from West Africa.  The first white man to play it was Joel Sweeney who played in minstrel shows in the 1830s.  The instrument is wrapped around white supremacy.  It doesn’t exist without slavery and neither does bluegrass music.  It’s a beautiful piece of Southern art and like everything beautiful in the South, right below the surface is utter madness.  As I embark on my new journey to do redneck cultural organizing, the banjo is a symbol of everything that I love and hate about the South and about myself.  It represents me and despite the darkness and my darkness, I will always be proud of who I am.  I have to be.  Peace y’all.

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