Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On the origins of "boondocks"--and its (intra- or inter-) racial implications

NPR filed this report yesterday as part of its CodeSwitch series.  Lakshmi Gandhi writes:
For more than half a century, Americans have used the phrase "the boondocks" or "the boonies" to indicate that a place was in the middle of nowhere. However, few people realize that the phrase is a relic of American military occupation in the Philippines, and that it was later brought to mainstream attention because of a now largely forgotten, fatal training accident on Parris Island[, South Carolina].
She goes onto to explain that the Tagalog word "bundok" means mountain.
Veterans of the Philippines conflict brought the term "the boondocks" back to the U.S. with them, and the term began to be used by military personnel both stateside and in the Philippines. By 1944, the phrase was firmly entrenched in the lingo of the armed forces, and the phrase "out in the boondocks" appeared in that year's Marine Corps Reader.
Gandhi then explains that the phrase caught on in common parlance only after it became associated with a Marine training accident in the United States.  A staff-seargeant awakened his charges during the night and told them they were going into the boondocks.  He ordered them to march into Ribbon Creek, on Parris Island, with him, but six of them drowned, creating "a media firestorm and a national conversation about how Marines are trained."  Gandhi writes:        
Several newspapers and magazines covered every detail of [staff-sergeant] McKeon's subsequent court-martial and trial. ... The word "boondocks" was frequently used in the coverage of the incident, with newspapers noting that McKeon led his platoon "out into the boondocks and eventually into tragedy."
As Gandhi notes, it is interesting that the term so soon lost such a tragic association.  It is, of course, now more associated with all things rural and "country," as manifest in songs like "Down in the Boondocks," Little Big Town's 2006 hit "Boondocks," and Aaron McGruder's comic strip by the same name.  Gandhi explains that in that strip, "two young boys ... leave the South Side of Chicago to live with their grandfather in a sleepy and predominantly white suburb in Maryland."  Suburban Maryland?  doesn't sound very boondocky to me.  Maybe what Gandhi is suggesting is that "boondocks" has come to connote something about race (and racial homogeneity--white homogeneity), and not only about remoteness or rurality.  If that is the case, it would explain why this story made its way into "Codeswitch," which is a collection of contributions, interventions, musings about race and ethnicity.  I was hoping the story's inclusion on Codeswitch might signal recognition that white people have race, too, and sub-groups like those associated with the boondocks aren't quite as white as other whites (to play on the title of Matt Wray's 2006 book, Not Quite White:  White Trash and the Limits of Whiteness).  That would be the intra-racial observation, as opposed to the inter-racial observation that Gandhi appears to be making. 

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