My Own Appalachian Reckoning
I'm in the process of reading Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, a book of essays written in response to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, which I completed in January. I thought that Appalachian Reckoning would help round out the literary journey into Appalachia. While I've disagreed with some of the Leftist perspective of Appalachian Reckoning and found some of the authors to be a little too sensitive to Vance's portrayal of the region, it's been an interesting read that has caused me to think about my own experience as a son of Appalachia.
By son of Appalachia, I'm not quite talking about holler-living. My hometown of Chatsworth lies in what has been termed "Gateway to the Appalachians." I've also heard it called "Foothills of the Appalachians." As such, we weren't quite in the mountains, except for the occasional Chatsworthian who actually lived on Fort Mountain or in the neighborhoods dotting the cliffside. The majority of us lived on flat land, but we did our living in the shadow of that mountain. That being said, reading Appalachian Reckoning spurred some thoughts about my hometown, and since writing is one of my best ways to "process" information and experiences, I thought I'd sit down and share a few things.
One of the authors, Meredith McCarroll, wrote about "Appalachian Accent and Academic Power." I identified with some of her perspective as she wrote about rising in the ranks of academia. That's not because I rose in academic ranks like her (I only have a Bachelor's degree), but I recognized the concern about accents and grammar. When I was growing up, I tried very hard not to sound like a hick and tended to associate proper speech with intelligence. When I went to college "up north" in the big city (Louisville, KY), I remember having someone in church laugh when I pronounced the word "night" with the short, nasal, wide-mouth "i" sound, the pronunciation I grew up using. Evidently, it's supposed to be said with a tall, long "i" sound ("ah-ee"). Who knew?
McCarroll sets up the discussion of accents by speaking of the sense of connection she desired after moving away from home (Haywood County, North Carolina, just west of Asheville). She didn't use the term in writing of her college days, but I sense some of what the Germans call sehnsucht. As with many German words, the English longing just doesn't quite cut it, but it describes what I felt as she wrote about Haywood County as recollected from her time at Simmons College in Boston:
"After graduation, I moved to Boston and became, for the first time, an outsider. Like so many before me, it took leaving home to understand it. I suddenly saw details in contrast and became proud of my heritage. I grew tomatoes on the fire escape because it connected me to my Granny, whose tomatoes were a month ahead and a foot taller. As distance helped me understand what it meant to be from the mountains, I began to deeply miss them. I felt like Ivy Rowe in Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies when she says that she's like her daddy and needs a mountain to 'set her eyes against.'" (p. 250, emphasis added)
She then describes how she sought to hide her accent, but the one aspect that gave her fits was the word on, which she pronounced as own. However, she later refers to giving up those speech patterns as a "repressed voice." In a lecture by Silas House that she attended, he used the phrase "and it will go on and on and on" and realized this native Appalachian pronounced the word as own. This revelation quickly came: "But when I heard Silas House repeat this word in this context, I felt the ground shift beneath me. Because while he talked about justice, I heard the timbre of my Pa. As he read his own poetry, I heard the cadence of my Aunt Betsy. As he addressed his audience, I heard my mom talking. I heard established scholars speak in accents and it did not change the content of what they were saying. It did not change the Power of their intellect. Then I stood up to deliver my paper about the politics of representation in Appalachian film. My Gs were intact. My vowels stood up straight. My 'on' was not my 'own.' And I felt a powerful loss--of my own voice, my own accent." (p. 251, emphasis added)
Like McCarroll, I found that I, too, had lost a bit of my voice. I had tried to round off the hard edges of my accent which betrayed my humble beginnings. For me, I did think that my accent made me sound like a country bumpkin, and I wanted to be respected, more than anything. What was interesting is that after I was in such a hurry to leave Murray County behind in college that I realized quickly how much I loved it!
I wasn't always thrilled about living in Murray County. At times during my childhood, I felt like Frasier and his father, Martin...except that my whole county was Martin. I often felt as if I didn't fit in. I was pretty nerdy, never cared for sports or hunting, and developed a love for classical music in middle school. In many ways, I took that blue collar and tried to make it at least a baby blue, if not a lighter shade. However, at heart I was still that son of Appalachia. I loved sitting on the front porch telling family stories while channeling my inner Jerry Clower. We were a close-knit family, much like others in Appalachia. Cousins lived next door and more lived a block over and still more lived within 5 miles. In fact, we only had one set of cousins that wasn't local, and they eventually moved to north Georgia too. However much I felt at odds in Murray County with its mud flaps and Confederate battle flags and country music, I came to appreciate it when I moved away. While living in Louisville, KY (and across the Mason-Dixon in Clarksville, IN), I'd often bump into fellow Georgians, and we'd talk about the little towns from which we hailed. When I talked with fellow Appalachian friends, we'd talk about pinto beans (aka "soup beans"), fried potatoes and corn bread. That traditional Appalachian cuisine (which began out of poverty and necessity) became a feast to me after I moved away and came back to Chatsworth. I loved when Mom made it when I visited home!
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, and that was true about Murray County! I guess, if anything, McCarroll's essay helped me to develop my own thoughts (and for that I am grateful; that's what good writing does!) on being an Appalachian:
1. Celebrate your heritage. There is something beautiful about honoring the noble parts of our heritage.
2. Speech patterns and grammar aren't the best indicators of intelligence. Even if it were, there are things higher than speech: decency, honor, wisdom. Some of the greatest wisdom I've heard came with a southern drawl.
3. For fellow Appalachians, don't let anyone question your "Appalachian-ness." Appalachian culture is not monolithic. In fact, part of being Appalachian includes a sense of individualism, which probably came from the Scots-Irish who settled the region. So, if you have left behind an accent or cook differently than you were raised, that's perfectly okay. In fact, if you stick to your guns on those things and don't seek to change what you like just to appear more Appalachian, you're actually displaying that authentic Appalachian spirit! So, I guess this is my own Appalachian reckoning. I'm thankful to be a son of Appalachia, and I'm thankful that the town I wanted so hard to leave has become for me a source of pride. While I felt like I didn't fit in much growing up, it seems that part of me fit better there than I thought.
The original high school that was still in use by Bagley Middle School when I was a student there in the mid-90s. Of course, for us, it was "the old rock building." The source of the rocks is the Cohutta Mountains, a mountain range including Fort Mountain.
"Murray County High School Alma Mater"
by Lula Gladden
From the cliffs of old Cohutta,
Once against the sky
Came the walls of Alma Mater
So rugged and so high.
Forward ever be our watchword
Conquer without fail;
For our hearts shall love thee ever,
Alma Mater, Hail!
As I close, please remember my little hometown in your prayers as they deal with the aftermath of the Easter Sunday tornadoes (April 12, 2020). Its people are strong, but they still need your prayers and support.