Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Appalachians -- who we are...and more importantly...who we are not.

Appalachia. When I was a little girl growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I had no idea that I lived in what most regarded as a culture unto itself. I had no idea that books had been written and continued to be written about what others called "our way of life." I just assumed that my way of life was THE way of life. I did not know I was isolated or backward or ignorant. We listened to the same top 40 pop music hits along with the rest of the country. We tried to emulate the same styles we saw in the fashion magazines. We watched the same television programs as did the rest of the world, albeit some of us on black and white sets with tv antennas that had aluminum foil wrapped around them. In truth, I never understood that I was, in any way, different from the rest of America until I grew up and the world told me so.

I could never even hear the "accent" that some find so fascinating and others find so repulsive. Even the people on television (with the possible exceptions of "Laverne and Shirley" and "Archie and Edith Bunker")...did not sound "different" to my ears than the way that I spoke myself. Oh, I knew that my parents used words that the television did not. Words like "reckon" and "d'rectly". I also knew that they used phrases that I had never heard used anywhere else. Phrases such as my daddy telling a neighbor that he had a "cow coming fresh" meaning that she was about to give birth. But I still never thought of myself as different. My sister and I lined our walls with the pictures of Tigerbeat magazine just like every other teen and we listened to 45 rpms of Donnie Osmond singing "Puppy Love". We begged for bell-bottoms and platform shoes for our back-to-school outfits just like the rest of our generation.

So imagine my surprise to grow up and learn that I am from a strange and somewhat backward civilization that the rest of the world seems to think needs saving from itself. Now that I have been "enlightened" as to how we all are in these parts, I sometimes smile at the "do gooders" who pour in ever so often to try to "save" us. If they truly understood the Appalachian, they would realize just how futile their efforts usually are.

First of all, one must consider who the modern Appalachian is. And more importantly who they are not. We are not so similiar that we can be stereotyped easily. Oh, I know, you think you know us because of President Kennedy's "war on poverty" images. And you think you know us from having seen Diane Sawyer's recent documentary. Well if that is all you know of Appalachia, your education is sadly lacking. And just because you are familiar with country music stars who talk with funny twangs such as Billy Ray Cyrus or Naomi Judd? You don't know us. Not really.

The most important thing that I can tell you about the people of Appalachia is that they are as diverse in character, spirit, actions and beliefs as they are in looks. And Appalachians are truly a melting pot of different looks. Consider my family for instance. My sister carries the beautiful blue eyes, fair skin and fair hair of our German ancestry as do some of the fifty-one first cousins on my mother's side. My brother and I, however, inherited the darker skin, hair and eyes that marked my father's Native American ancestry. This area is teeming with those on the dark side of the spectrum like myself and those on the fair side like my sister. And then, in between, there are the fair skinned, auburn haired beauties who echo the rich Scotch-Irish heritage that runs deep here as well. Like most here, I am a product of all those ancestries. It just happened that my particular look runs more toward my dad's side while my sister looks more like our mother's people.

And yes, most of us here share the same ethnic melting pot background. However, contrary to what you may have heard, we do not all marry our cousins...although that claim is not entirely off the mark. My husband says that if your family has been in Eastern Kentucky for more than a century then you are most likely related in some way to everyone. Both my family and his were here well before the ink was even made with which Thomas Jefferson began drafting the Declaration of Independence. And yes, his last name is Coleman. And yes, my grandmother's maiden name was Coleman. And my grandfather's grandmother was also a Coleman. Are we related? Possibly some place a long, long way back but not enough to count. But before you begin to wrinkle your nose in disdain, consider this... if your ancestry includes any blue-bloods from European royalty; or any debutantes from the old South, chances are you may have a few crossed cousins thrice removed as well. Marrying distant relations is not relegated to Appalachia...it was a common practice to keep wealth in the family in the houses of royalty for centuries. And if you are a Christian believer then you know that the Bible tells us that we are all descended from Noah and his family after the flood...so put your disdain back in its box.

If you have ever visited Appalachia and had the time and nerve to venture off the recent pretty, smooth, four-lane highways and out into the byways where the heart of Appalachia truly is then you know that Appalachia is not an easy place to navigate. And it was even more difficult a few hundred years ago when my ancestors first arrived via the Atlantic and crossed from North Carolina into Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley and later pushed on into the mountains and hills of what was to become West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. And of course, many of my ancestors and those of most Appalachian people were already here -- the Native Americans who called these mountains home and hunting grounds before any European set eyes upon them. There were no hiking trails then. There were no roads through the thick forest and brush. There were no man made paths for ATVs or logging roads. There was just nature and plenty of it. Some of our ancestors arrived about the time Daniel Boone was still cutting his trail. So suffice it to say ...the going was rough. So yes, we are isolated. We always have been. The land is savagely beautiful but it can be unforgiving as well. Although we are blessed with much rich, fertile, bottom land, a greater portion of our land is mountainous and hillside and not given to easy farming.

Daylight comes late and leaves early due to the towering fortress of hills that surround us on every side. On the positive side however, if you grow up here, you almost don't realize it but the hills form sort of a feeling of "protection" around you. I still remember the first time that I traveled outside the hills here. We went to Ohio and we traveled at night such that I could not get a full grasp on the changing landscape. In the morning when I awoke and walked outside the house I was startled by the sheer vastness and feeling of vulnerability of being on "flat land" for the first time. I remember looking all around me and marveling at the distance that I could see in every direction. But this ability to see to the horizon for the first time only served to make me feel small and insignificant. I remember distinctly thinking that it made me feel somehow as vulnerable as if I had been standing there naked in front of the world.

Along with the diverse look of the people comes a melting pot of DNA and ancestry that gives birth to some interesting personalities. One such interesting thing you will find in Appalachia that I am not sure is as prevelant in other pockets of the country is the uncanny instinct of the people. Whether it comes from the "fey' of the Irish, or the intuitive mind/body connection of the native Americans, I do not know. But the fact is there are many people here who have a certain "knowing" instinct about them. I am not one for flights of fancy but I have witnessed this first hand and know it to be real and true. If you are a Christian you might prefer to say that many Appalachian people have the gift of the spirit called "discernment". Whatever you call it, it remains that many people I know here are often times able to foretell events through dreams or visions or just instinct. This is not a crystal ball, psychic hotline type of thing. And this is not an occult thing. There is a strong faith/spirit connection that goes with this. The understanding of just how this works is as mysterious as the mountains look when they rise up out of the morning fog. I don't know what it is. I just know that it is there.

For all our shared ancestory and surnames, Appalachian people are individuals. This may be the single most important thing you need to learn about this area and the people who call it home. We are not ones to follow a crowd. We don't care how you do things. We don't care how it's done somewhere else. We will smile and be polite and thank you for your kindess and then when you have bid us good day we will go right back to doing things the way we have always done them -- our way. That rugged individualism is no surprise and it follows naturally that the people who settled this rugged terrain and managed to make it a home in the most isolated conditions one can imagine would be the kind of people who would not take kindly to others telling them how to do things. Even if it is for their own good. Especially if it is for their own good. And one must remember how many people have come and gone in an effort to change us...and yet the Appalachian life marches on, basically unabated.

Another important thought along the same lines is to never, ever, confuse us with the funny paper stereotypes. We are not what Hollywood portrays us to be. Oh yes, you can find cardboard cutouts of those cartoon figures if you look. And yes, there are those here who make the rest of us native Appalachians cringe to see how closely they resemble what the world thinks of us. But the Appalachia that I know..the one in which I grew up is as much a mixing bowl of smart, funny, enormously talented, stubborn, cantankours, generous, spiritual, loving people as you will ever meet. All of whom just happen to drawl their speech in the similiar slow manner in which I do. It has always been my thought that to speak with an "Appalachian" accent, one must be smiling. You can't be frowning and flatten out those sounds like that.
Now that I'm an adult, I realize that I did grow up in a place that was, in my ways, unique. I realize that in some ways we were "different". In some ways we were "untouched" by much of the outside world. But "progress" has a price and the uniqueness and untouched quality of Appalachia is disappearing Our kids all have i-phones and facebook accounts just like everyone else. The internet and new public school curriculums and cable reality shows bring the outside right in to our doorstep and influence and shape our perceptions of life and ourselves. No longer are we an isolated people. It's as if a hundred years passed us by with little change and then a few decades ago, this region was "rediscovered" and with the advent of technology our world exploded with change and Appalachia and the outside world, for the most part, have now merged. It is at least correct to say that the lines between the two are are blurring with every generation.
It would be nostalgic and poetic to say that the unique Appalachian way of life will continue forever but the truth is -- the Appalachian way of life now looks very much like middle America's way of life. We care about and complain about the same things you do... God, our children, taxes and politics. We struggle with the same problems that plaque your cities. Drugs, unemployment, etc. Yet there remains a bit of the mysterious and old in the culture and people here. A faint refrain from years gone by still echoes in these majestic hills. God Bless you as you come back to discover the real Appalachia of today.
Note: Photograph above was taken at the airport overlook in Pikeville, Kentucky, Pike County, Kentucky, October, 2010 and is the sole property of and copyright by paulmichaelcoleman2010 and may not be used without permission. Photographer: Paul Michael Coleman

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