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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture: What Makes Us Appalachian?

Having recently read "Breaking The Ice: A Guide To Meeting People From Other Cultures" by Daisy Kabagarama, I am prompted to consider Appalachian Culture from a slightly different vantage point and to consider what it is that makes us Appalachian.  I have believed for many years that  I know quite well what it is that makes us Appalachian. But I have to admit that, at times, I have been hard pressed to deliver the person new to Appalachia and Appalachian culture a precise statement about the qualities that make us unique and a distinctive subset of Americans. And I say that knowing full well that I have studied the subject both academically and personally for many years.  Nearly all of my reading is intended to increase my knowledge of culture in general and  Appalachian Culture in particular. I rarely read fiction other than Appalachian fiction. After reading Kabagarama I went back once again to several sources for their definitions of  the term culture.  With an eye toward learning what the general public might know of the term, I went to several Internet definitions rather than to my collection of books on the topic.  These are some of the definitions I found.

Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge human to which I rarely refer, had this to say about culture: "The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively." Wikipedia, 2011.  That is about as broad, meaningless, and tasteless a definition of the term as I have ever heard.  In their perpetual hunt to be all things to all readers, once again Wikipedia had jumped off the wrong diving board into a shallow pool., which I find to be a generally more reliable source gave me this definition: "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group", 2011.  This definition, while still leaving something to be desired, was a bit closer to the truth.  At least with this definition, a novice reader could conclude that culture is a set of characteristics which can be used to set one group apart from others. 

In my effort to find a definition that could help me examine Appalachian culture with an eye to explaining my knowledge of it to the same said novice, I went to the Persian Culture website of Roshan Persian Cultural Heritage Institute, a philanthropic agency devoted to the preservation of Persian Culture.  Even before I read their definition, I knew that we had a common goal, the preservation of a culture which, in both cases, we believe is unique, valuable, and worthy of transmission to the future inhabitants of the earth.  Their definition of culture was:

"Culture refers to the following Ways of Life, including but not limited to:
  • Language : the oldest human institution and the most sophisticated medium of expression.
  • Arts & Sciences : the most advanced and refined forms of human expression.
  • Thought : the ways in which people perceive, interpret, and understand the world around them.
  • Spirituality : the value system transmitted through generations for the inner well-being of human beings, expressed through language and actions.
  • Interaction : the social aspects of human contact, including the give-and-take of socialization, negotiation, protocol, and conventions.
All of the above collectively define the meaning of Culture." Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, 2011.

Perceptions are somewhat harder to clearly verbalize and understand.  When we discuss perceptions in Appalachian Culture, we want to discuss the perceptual awareness of Appalachian people of the world around us not the opposite.  It is our perceptions of the world that make us unique not vice versa.  We generally perceive that we are different and unique.  Much like all other cultural minorities, it is sometimes difficult for Appalachian people to realize the positive value of being unique as opposed to feeling hampered by our unique qualities.  Many, if not most, Appalachian people perceive that the world does belittle, defame, denigrate, and discriminate against us. Just this week on CBS television I saw an African American actress in the comedy "Mike and Molly" deliver a line stating "the Dukes of Hazard was  hillbilly gibberish."  I see no difference between the word "hillbilly" and any other epithet about any member of any other race or culture. I was somewhat shocked that an African American actress in her late 50's or early 60's, and old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, would have agreed to deliver such a line. But I also knew that it is a mark of just how little respect the dominant culture and even other minorities give to Appalachians. It is also true that the earlier television show to which the line referred is one of the most egregious examples of the negative stereotypes by which Appalachians are generally perceived.  As a culture and as individuals, we fail too often to confront these stereotypes. We are a legitimate minority based on these perceptions, both private and public, and they are the basis of the negative stereotypes which are often the only perception that others have of us.  Any person or group who are aware of discrimination against them will gradually begin to lose self esteem if they do not fight against and stand up to the stereotypes and the erroneous perceptions which create them.  As individuals and as a culture, we should never allow stereotypes to pass without confrontation.  Speak up and speak out. 

Aspirations are easier to understand on an individual basis than on a group level.  Appalachians, as individuals, aspire to achieve degrees, to formulate change, to protect the culture and the environment, to be the best we can be.  As a culture, our aspirations may be more difficult to enumerate.  The members of the Appalachian Culture seem to be divided into two separate groups according to what they, as individuals, prefer to see happen in the region, especially along environmental lines.  Those of us who wish to protect the land and the culture aspire to stop strip mining, clear cut logging, and fracking of oil and gas wells.  Those who continue to be dependent on those industries for a living seem to fall into believing the propaganda of the outside corporations and defend the destruction.  But the real answer to bringing these two divisions and their aspirations into sync lies with education.  As a culture, we need to aspire to promulgate education on the long term damage such practices do to the environment. 

Material possessions is the next ingredient in Kabagarama's diagram.  Material possessions such as quilts, dulcimers, hickory bottom chairs, and Grandma's jewelry are often seen as symbols of Appalachian Culture.  But a broader picture of the material possessions also includes the land and institutions of the region.  Private individuals tend to do a good job of protecting material possessions in direct negative correlation with how many possessions they own.  The less we have the better we tend to protect it.  The more we have the less we seem to care about it. And in dealing with land in Appalachia, this concept has been too clearly demonstrated all across the region.  Individuals who have been fortunate enough to own large amounts of land in Appalachia have had more of a tendency to fail to protect it.  Quite often families who owned an entire hollow have been willing to sell mineral rights and allow destruction of natural resources so long as the destruction was around the curve and out of sight of the house.  As a result, mountain top removal and other mineral extraction efforts have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in Appalachia.
I will discuss the next two elements of Kabagarama's diagram, norms and attitudes, simultaneously since they are closely related.  Social norms in Appalachia have changed tremendously over my lifetime in correlation to the increased exposure to the outside dominant culture.  This is especially true with respect to exposure to television, the Internet, and superhighways. It is also reflected in changes in religious practice. Old norms such as shaking hands, providing a meal to a stranger, and speaking out against immoral behaviors have decreased greatly in the last 25 to 50 years.  In some ways that failure to speak out is tied into the increased drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and illegitimacy rates in Appalachia.  Norms and attitudes affect laws, courts, churches, schools, factories, hospitals, and every other institution in the region.  That which is viewed as normative, normal, or common place is tolerated.  That which is perceived as abnormal, unnatural, or uncommon is not tolerated. Attitudes toward trade unionism, which was once popular in Appalachia, have changed to somewhat negative perceptions.  This is partly tied to the widespread campaigns by the coal industry to create fears of job losses in the work force and the community in order to defend strip mining.  It is also tied to the recent extended period of financial good times across the nation. Trade unions were at their strongest in Appalachia and the rest of the country only when workers were suffering enough to see no danger in speaking out. 

Laws, the next segment of the Kabagarama diagram, are rooted in societal and cultural norms and attitudes.  To be somewhat simplistic about it and to repeat myself somewhat, that which is within norms is tolerated.  That which is outside the norms of a culture or society is frowned upon in the simplest form of rejection.  It is legislated against in the most stringent form of rejection.  As norms and attitudes have changed in Appalachia and our culture and society have become generally more permissive, our laws have reflected those changes. Many jurisdictions which once were dry with regard to alcohol are now wet.  Laws forbidding certain sexual practices between consenting adults have nearly disappeared from the books in most Appalachian states.  Marijuana and prescription abuse have replaced moonshining as the most prevalent form of substance related changes.  And in many areas recently due to the rise in drug abuse related burglaries and robberies, it has trended toward tacit permission to shoot criminals on private property being granted to home owners by law enforcement agencies and courts. By tacit permission, I mean that it is now common for law enforcement to give wide latitude to the homeowner to protect property and life especially at times when intruders are actually inside the home.  Within 20 miles of my home on this past Christmas day, a homeowner killed a burglar with a knife and no charges were pressed. Just a day or so ago, a similar case happened in Oklahoma in which an 18 year old widow killed a man attempting to steal her dead husband's remaining medication.  These types of changes in the interpretation and enforcement of laws in Appalachia will eventually be legislated.  At this time the changes are taking place in response to criminal emergencies across the region. Laws have historically been rooted in religious beliefs in the Appalachian region.  Today, it is less common for that to be the case.  Trends in Appalachia are toward legal changes rooted in statistics and social research.  But the bottom line will always be that laws are rooted in societal norms.

Emotions, the next segment of the Kabagarama diagram, have been discussed in a limited way in the earlier sections of this posting.  We Appalachians tend to wear our emotions on our sleeves.  We often express them publicly.  We tend to shout or speak in tongues in many Appalachian churches.  Testifying publicly in church is common in a majority of Appalachian congregations as is public, spoken prayer and prayer requests.
Once again I have decided to post this piece before it is quite complete. But I am getting closer to the end. I will finish it within the next two or three days.  Hope you enjoy it and have fun.

Even though we are working to promote, protect, and preserve two very different cultures which exist thousands of miles apart on two different continents, we have a common language for our work. Now to integrate the definition of culture from Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute with a portion of the work of Daisy Kabagarama whose book I referred to as the impetus for this writing. While her book is a bit elementary, Kabagarama inserted a diagram which I find especially helpful in an examination of Appalachian culture when employed alongside the Roshan definition.

From Kabagarama, Daisy; 1997.

In the diagram above, culture as a whole is represented as a circle in the center of the diagram with all its separate elements coming together to constitute the whole. We will move between the two descriptions of culture utilizing both to create a complete understanding, if that is possible, of what constitutes Appalachian Culture and makes it a whole.  Language is the first area discussed in the Roshan definition.  Language is a system of sounds and marks (and sometimes hand signs and body language) which is used to symbolically represent things and ideas in our world. Therefore, language is a component of the symbols segment of Kabagarama's diagram.  Naturally, English is the predominant, and nearly exclusive, language of Appalachia with the stated understanding that today several minorities are living in Appalachia whose primary language is not English.  However, they are not Appalachian.  Some of their descendants may someday become Appalachian if they remain in the area for an extended period and become acculturated and assimilated within the Appalachian culture in a process which would be the reverse of what has often happened to native Appalachians when exposed to the dominant American culture.  However, I have said in other postings that simply living in Appalachia does not make a non-Appalachian an Appalachian anymore than my living in Harlem or Los Angeles would make me African American or Hispanic.
Those of us who grew up in Appalachia in the 1950's, 1960's, and earlier cling to at least a few of the old words and phrases we inherited from our ancestors.  We use phrases such as "tolable, jest tolable
Moving back to the Roshan definition of culture, the next element we see is "arts and sciences, the most advanced and refined forms of human expression".  The arts and sciences may be placed in more than one area of the Kabagarama diagram.  They may be aspirations, symbols, beliefs or perceptions.  Over the course of our 500 year history, the arts and sciences have flourished in Appalachia.  I have discussed Appalachian arts at length in other postings on this blog.  We are a very artistic culture and I will not belabor the point. We paint, carve, sculpt, invent, write, illustrate, and create artistic works on a daily basis all over Appalachia.  Sciences may not immediately jump into the mind of the person thinking about Appalachia.  But we should consider things such as the Chemical Valley of West Virginia, Duke University and the University of Kentucky sitting on the edges of Appalachia, Oak Ridge Tennessee, the story behind the movie "October Sky" and the book "The Rocket Boys" on which it is based, and several other key gatherings of the scientific elite within the borders of Appalachia.  At several Appalachian colleges and universities, key work is taking place in the sciences such as the noted Space Science Program at Morehead State University in Kentucky where their department head was recently named by Time Magazine as one of the leading space professionals in the world. Over the course of time, each of these universities or programs has and will continue to roll over more and more of their staff positions to native Appalachians.

The next area of the Roshan definition states: "Thought : the ways in which people perceive, interpret, and understand the world around them."  This fits directly into the Kabagarama diagram under the elements of perceptions, beliefs, emotions, aspirations, and values.  We have often heard people say that Appalachians "just don't think like other people".  But in a more positive light, Appalachians generally view the world as a positive place despite the common accusation that we are fatalistic.  We freely express our emotions to family, friends, and those around us.  We tend to have the common aspiration that we "want our children to have more than we had".  Appalachians like my own grade school educated parents insist that their children aspire to a college degree.  Appalachians such as General Chuck Yeager demonstrate to the world that it is possible to rise from buck private to general.  The boys in the book "The Rocket Boys" and the movie "October Sky" have demonstrated that Appalachians can win national science contests while growing up in a West Virginia coal camp.  While many of our beliefs may not coincide with the American majority, common Appalachian values such as patriotism and religion can demonstrate to the world that we are highly moral, motivated people who rise above the masses around us. 

Returning to the Roshan definition of culture we see spirituality listed as the next element of culture: "Spirituality : the value system transmitted through generations for the inner well-being of human beings, expressed through language and actions." Roshan, 2011.  The Appalachian Value of Religion is one of the central pillars on which all of Appalachian life is built.  Appalachian religion is a diverse mix of mainstream Christian groups such as Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic intermingled with small subsets of religious beliefs which spring from Calvinism much like flowers in an unsprayed meadow.  Holiness, Pentecostal, signs following, and No Hellers have all sprung from the fertile religious soil of Appalachia.  Many of the early settlers of the remote mountains of Appalachia were religious objectors who left the Tidewater Region to find an area where they could practice their own religious beliefs without the controls exerted by the Anglican Church.  And, as Appalachians have left the region in the Great Migration to the industrial north, they have taken these minority forms of religion with them. Churches have sprung up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and other states with roots firmly planted in the religious soil of Appalachia.  I personally know of three serpent handling congregations in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose roots are in Harlan County Kentucky.  The Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists grew up among northern industrial workers and flourishes today. It is rooted primarily in the New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists which is centered in South Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Virginia.  Diverse religion has always been and always will be a key element of Appalachian culture. Due to the beginnings having been based in religious objections to the church of England, Appalachians have generally defended the right of anyone to believe and worship according to personal beliefs. For example, as I was growing up in Knott County Kentucky, the closest hospital was Our Lady Of The Way in Martin, Kentucky, in Floyd County.  It was a Catholic institution run by an order of nuns.  There were very few Catholics in the area the hospital serviced.  But its patients had a universally positive opinion of the nuns in charge.  Appalachian religion is also strongly emotional.  Shouting, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, simultaneous and vocal group prayer, the "amen corner", dancing in the spirit,  and other verbal and physical demonstrations of religious emotion are common across many Appalachian denominations.  Religion fits in the values, beliefs, and emotions segments of the Kabagarama diagram.  It is also manifested regularly and prolifically in our literature, fine arts, and community activism.  Religious beliefs and Biblical stories are frequently represented in works of Appalachian Folk Art. Religion is an integral part of our basic culture whatever denomination we may support.

The next element of the Roshan definition is a bit more difficult to place in a box.  It states: "Interaction : the social aspects of human contact, including the give-and-take of socialization, negotiation, protocol, and conventions." Roshan, 2011. The totality of the this concept covers everything that happens between two or more individuals within a culture.  It is at the heart of beliefs, perceptions, values, and emotions. Human interaction includes all contacts between human beings whether they take place face to face, by telephone, or Internet, at home, in church, at school, or in a public place. 
In Appalachia, human interactions take place in all the ways they do in the remainder of America.  We to to restaurants, movies, auctions, yard sales, church picnics, and family gatherings.  We pass on our cultural heritage at birthday parties, baby and wedding showers, funerals, and baptisms.  Schools, churches, court systems, and social clubs all serve as filters through which Appalachian culture is shared, demonstrated, and learned in the region.  All our institutions are used to continue to make us what we are today. 

We should now examine each single element of the Kabagarama diagram from the Appalachian viewpoint to further our overall understanding of Appalachian Culture.  Each single element of the diagram is an important aspect of culture and a basic understanding of each will assist the aforesaid novice to develop a more complete understanding of our culture.  It will also assist those of us with knowledge of the Appalachian Culture in our effort to explain, defend, and promulgate it in our interactions with others.

We will begin at the top of the diagram and move counterclockwise around it since symbols, at least in part, are often the most easily seen and understood element of culture.  We will end at values which is the most basic and most important of the elements.  Symbols of Appalachian culture abound in the greater fabric of our interactions as a group with the larger American Culture.  Quilts, dulcimers, Bluegrass and Country Music, square dances, wood carvings, and a variety of other physical demonstrations of our cultural heritage all abound in the greater American culture in highly visible and memorable ways.  Appalachian Culture, like most others, is clearly and strongly based in symbols.  Earlier we also discussed the importance of language as a symbol or group of symbols in any culture. 

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