I saw this on the comment thread for this article – and it was so good, I simply have to repost. Of my four grandparents, one only was American-born. The others were hopeful immigrants.
For me, the “old country” is West Virginia. I wasn’t born there and never lived there, but my father was, though he lived most of his life as an Air Force brat away from it, and my paternal grandparents, both born there, lived their working lives away, too, only going back after they retired. Yet I own land there that I inherited, an old farm far up in the mountains that’s been in my family for generations, and I feel a deep and abiding affection for the homeland of my people.
The happiest summer of my life as a child was spent on my grandparent’s farm, where I walked paths and drank from springs that generation upon generation of my folk walked and drank from. I played with dogs that had never known a leash, learned marksmanship by shooting the head off Prince Albert with a .22, picked berries and was taught how to make them into pies and cobblers, jams and preserves.
While the West Virginia side of my family has Scotch-Irish blood, it also has plenty of German Dunkard and Hessian, Dutch and French Huguenot blood as well, and maybe a little bit of Delaware Indian.
The implication of the article that all Appalachian peoples are Scotch-Irish feeds into the old canard that they are incestuous retards; I’ve had Jews–who as a people are so inbred they have genetic diseases–mock me as an inbred yokel when they learn my people come from West Virginia. It gets tiresome, especially when I am really the product of hybrid vigor.
I’ve sat in the parlors of great aunts while a coal fire sizzled in a pot-bellied stove and listened to them tell me in their soft drawl, putting “h”s and “r”s in odd places, who married who and from what county they came from for generations back, and heard references to incidents that occurred in the year of the bloody sevens (1777). I’ve been led to a spot where a giant American chestnut tree stood for hundreds of years, only dying of blight in the 1930s. That tree, so they told me, bore the marks of the bullet fired by a Shawnee Indian in the pay of the British that killed one of my direct ancestors during the Revolutionary War.
But I’ve been put down by sophisticated, worldy-wise urban people who have no clue where their people came from–they don’t even really have “people” and don’t understand the concept. For that matter, they don’t even have a native land, a native soil fought for by their own blood that is theirs forever. In my mind, they are the true neo-peasants–landless, ancesterless, cultureless, helpless metrohumans–while I come from a long line of independent, arms-bearing freeholders.
I understand the prickly defensiveness of many commenters to this article: it seems just another hit piece on the dumb hillbilly corn pones. Why, even the white trash Okies had enough sense to get out–and never mind that most of those Okies were originally part of the Appalachian diaspora.
People have been leaving Appalachia for generations. But of course there will always be some who don’t emigrate. Does that mean they are worthless human debris?
There’s an old American expression–”There are two kinds of Europeans: The smart ones, and those who stayed behind.” It never fails to get a rise out of all that dumb, stay-behind Euro-trash. Is it true? If it’s not, then why should we accept that the Appalachian people who “stayed behind” are losers and failures?
Yes, Appalachia has lots of problems. But so does rural California, where I live. We need infrastructure here–especially roads and bridges but also high-speed internet and air service–and jobs and good schools. Will we get them? I doubt it. The only things we produce that the wider nation has any use for are soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. Lots of those.
Many of the local people are of old settler stock, their ancestors trekking the Oregon Trail or rounding the Horn in clipper ships in the 1840s and ’50s. Ranches and farms typically have been in the same families for four or five generations, at least. Nobody wants to leave. Nobody wants to live in cities or suburbs. They hate the commercial pop culture that corrupts their children. They dislike the lifestyle attitudes of the NPR radio stations that blanket the airwaves (five FM and three AM stations where I live, all broadcasting the same thing). They have been exploited and abandoned by amoral timber and mining companies, and by turns pandered to and oppressed by federal, state and local governments.
Somebody ought to write about their fortitude and stoicism, their relentless “next year will be better” optimism, their abiding religious faith. But no one does. When someone does write about the area, it is pretty much like this piece. Interview people in beer joints and welfare offices, find a stoner or two, hear tales of meth heads, find a back-to-the land old hippie, and that’s about it.
What else is new?
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