Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Appalachia

Bill O'Reilly, Pine Knots and War

I stopped watching Bill O’Rielly long ago–and since I don’t have a TV at the moment, I don’t watch any of the Cable Newsertainment channels, whether CNN, MSNBC or Fox. I stopped watching O’Rielly when I realized that he displayed an amazing degree of ignorance or oversimplification when he discussed subjects with which I was familiar. I then concluded that I shouldn’t expect him to do any better when reporting/discussing topics about which I was not familiar; so I decided it was better to get my information elsewhere. My opinion has been confirmed many times since, most recently in an interview O’Reilly did with Diane Sawyer regarding poverty in Appalachia. His first mistake? In my book it was pronouncing it “Appa-LAY-shah” instead of “Appa-LATCH-ah,” but that’s (somewhat) debatable1. What isn’t debatable is the fact that his condescension is evidence of a long-standing problem. Whether one is speaking of language2 in particular or culture more generally, the people of the Appalachian mountains have been the acceptable butt of jokes in popular American culture. Betty Wallace over at the Appalachian History blog calls for an end to it, and an end to the passivity with which most mountain people put up with it, in her post Hillbilly stereotypes: picking up pine knots and going to war (If you’re curious you can see a YouTube clip of O’Reilly’s remarks below the fold).

Bill O’Reilly’s recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes.

Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse.

Can you imagine if O’Reilly had made the same despicable statements about ________ in _________, or ________ in ________, or _______ in ________. (Fill in the blanks with any racial or ethnic or cultural slurs you can imagine, the more insensitive the better.)

How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don’t care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don’t believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse.

We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say.

A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier, “Imagine that! A hillbilly with a Ph.D.!” Even worse than the professor thinking such a misbegotten thought was that she felt entitled to publicly say it right to his face. Can you imagine her making that statement to a person of any other racial or ethnic or cultural group? “Imagine that! A ______ with a Ph.D.!”

{Read it all}

The problems O’Reilly mentions are present in Appalachia, as they are present in any poor community, urban or rural. Meth in particular is a problem that has swept the country and has been particularly devastating in rural areas. Additionally, while I am one to push for personal responsibility and accountability, as someone who grew up in Western North Carolina–an area of the mountains that has escaped the worst ravages of industrialization such as coal mining (but has it’s own issues with exploitation in the past and rapid development and population increases in the present)–I find it interesting to note that many of the areas afflicted by the worst poverty and attendant problems are also those places that have endured the greatest outside exploitation.

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  1. As if the varying boundaries weren’t enough, there is no fundamental agreement even about how to pronounce the word “Appalachia.” Residents of southern and central Appalachia pronounce the term with a short -a- in the stressed third syllable; further north, the same -a- is given a long pronunciation, as in “Appal-achia.” Most of the experts and bureaucrats who came from Washington and elsewhere to fix the region’s problems beginning in the 1960s adopted the northern pronunciation, while resident experts favor the southern– which led to a situation, according to one commentator, wherein “people who said AppaLAYchia were perceived as outsiders who didn’t know what they were talking about but were more than willing to tell people from the mountains what to do and how they should do it.” Finally, while a majority of both long and short -a- users crunch the third syllable as though it were spelled Appal-atch-yuh, in New England– where the term “Appalachian” first came into widespread use by nongeologists thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club and the development of the Appalachian Trail– a variant pronunciation uses “sh” rather than “ch,” as in Appal-ay-shuh. (Appalachia: A History, by John Alexander Williams, p14) []

  2. APPALACHIAN ENGLISH: The English of the mountain region of Appalachia in the south-eastern US: in parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and all of West Virginia. The most influential settlers in these areas were the SCOTS-IRISH, who began arriving in the British American colonies c.1640 and moved to the south and west. Because of the relative isolation in which it has developed and the continuance of forms regarded elsewhere as archaisms, Appalachian English has been regarded (popularly but incorrectly) as a kind of Elizabethan or Shakespearian English. However, it shares features with other kinds of non-standard English, particularly in the South: absence of the copula (That alright); the use of right and plumb as intensifying adverbs (I hollered right loud, The house burnt plumb down). Phonological features include: initial /h/ in such words as hit for it, hain’t for ain’t; -er for -ow as in feller/tobaccer/yeller (fellow/tobacco/yellow). Grammatical features include: a-prefixing with -ing participial forms (He just kept a beggin’ an’ a-cryin’) and the use of done as a perfective marker (He done sold his house: He has sold his house). A-prefixing is a relic of a construction containing the OLD ENGLISH preposition on in unstressed positions before certain participles: He was on hunting (He was engaged in hunting). Currently, Appalachian English is often socially stigmatized because it is spoken in its most distinctive form by poor, often uneducated, mountain people. See DIALECT (UNITED STATES), SOUTHERN ENGLISH.

    From: “APPALACHIAN ENGLISH” Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of the South. 2 March 2009 []

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier

I just finished reading Thirteen Moons, the second novel by author Charles Frazier. I came to this novel with high expectations given my appreciation for his first work, Cold Mountain, and Frazier did not disappoint. In fact, I believe this effort may even be better than his first, though the differences in story, and the distance in time between readings could color that assessment.

I enjoy Frazier’s writing. He’s easy to read and he has a gift of making his characters seem real and alive. While he has chosen to base his characters on historical figures, he has used these traits primarily as markers along the way and is quite adept at filling in the details of personality and character.

In Thirteen Moons Frazier again finds his subject in the Mountains–indeed in the same general era, though taking in a broader sweep of time, both before and after the War between the States. Whereas Cold Mountain was a fictional tale inspired by one of Frazier’s Inman ancestors, Thirteen Moons was inspired by the story of William Holland Thomas, the “White Chief of the Cherokee,” but, as Frazier is quick to point out in the author’s note, the main character, Will Cooper “is not William Holland Thomas, though they do share some DNA,” and readers who are familiar with the history of the region should be able to pick out the bits that are more or less based on Thomas’ life.

For me, the great gift of Thirteen Moons is that it provides an interesting narrative overlay of the time period it covers. Certainly it is a work of fiction, and every detail is not historical, but that doesn’t take away from it. Indeed, where it departs, it is probably a benefit. The story follows the life of Will Cooper, a “bound boy” sent into what was then the frontier wilderness of the Southern Appalachians–beyond the white man’s land–to work at a trading post. In so doing it demonstrates in a very effective way the dissonance between the simplistic view of the “outside world,” particularly the government, and the reality of life in the region in all its complexity. But the novel doesn’t achieve this by setting up a sort of “us/them” conflict, it doesn’t say “this is how life is here” or add “and it’s better than where these other folks are,” instead it illustrates abiding and over arching principals through focusing on a particular story.

Above all the novel is a book about identity and mortality. By bringing up the complex question of what defined an Indian–was it blood or adoption etc..–it demonstrates how ill-equipped a society built on rigid color lines was to deal with the realities of human life. Tangled up with this theme of identity, and eventually becoming more predominant, is the theme of mortality. This mortality is not nihilistic however. It might better be called ironic, almost defiant. Everything changes the book confirms, people grow old and die, borders and ownership–such as it is–shift and become ephemeral, but in the midst of all this there is the truth of living–of friendship and love and history and place. Things may change, we may grow old and the world we know may even precede us in passing. But through it all, there is an assurance that life is to be lived and not regretted or fretted over. Indeed, one of the most believable aspects of the book is that while reading it really seems as though one is involved in a conversation with Will Cooper, that this old gentleman is sitting there with you on the porch telling you about his life, warts and all… and the best part of it is that the conversation doesn’t stop when you finish the book…

Another thing I love about Frazier’s writing is the humor he includes. Not to betray too much of the story, there is a wonderful description of John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson in the novel that had me laughing out loud (not the only place):

Jackson and Calhoun had the two most alarming manes of hair I had ever seen on white men. I qualified the judgement in that way because as a boy I knew a few old Indian warriors who still sported coifs from their youth way back in the previous century, styles that involved plucking half ones head with mussel-shell tweezers and letting the other half grow long, festooning random braided locks with colored beads and silver fobs and making part or all of the remainder elevate in spikes with the assistance of bear grease. But in a contest of extravagant hair just among white men, Jackson and Calhoun would have split the prize. they hated each other and yet continued to share their lofty hairstyles, which struck me as having all the features of placing exploding possums on their heads. Of course, they were both from South Carolina and thus given to strange enthusiasms.

Being from North Carolina (as is Frazier) I nearly rolled out of my chair laughing at that–especially the last line. But if you’re not from the South, don’t get any ideas–one thing you should know is that proximity and family ties makes it more like old friends having fun with one another when someone from NC, SC, TN etc.. says something about the other… but if somebody else says it–especially if they’re from the north east… well, that’s not good at all–it’s down right insulting.

All that is to say, Thirteen Moons is a wonderful book, and you should read it. Soon.

Update: The Eastern Band of the Cherokee have some information about Thomas on their web site:

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