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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Responses To Some Reading Of Cratis Williams

Having just completed "William H. Vaughan A Better Man Than I Ever Wanted To Be A Memoir" by Cratis Williams, I want to set down some responses it generated as quickly as possible.  The book, or more accurately pamphlet (only 72 pages), is a biographical memoir about Dr. Vaughan the most important mentor in the life of Williams who is one of the most important figures in the history of Appalachian Studies.  The two met when Williams, a freshman in high school, moved from remote Crain's Creek in Lawrence County Kentucky to the county seat of Louisa so he could board in a home and attend high school which no member of his family had ever done. Vaughan was a teacher at the school and eventually became its principal.  He would later complete a doctorate and become president of Morehead State Teachers College (University).

The two maintained a mentor and protege relationship for more than 40 years until Vaughan died in Nashville where he lived and taught after being fired at Morehead following a political turnover in Frankfort.  Vaughan was a Democrat.  The new Kentucky governor was a Republican.  The firing cost the college its accreditation for one year.  But wherever the two moved in their separate careers, they stayed in touch and supported each other throughout their professional lives.  Williams was the only Lawrence County native who attended the funeral of Vaughan in Nashville in 1972. Their relationship was a model for what all mentor/protege relationships should be.  It was close, honest, cooperative, and life long. 

But the most striking thing  I noticed in reading the book was a quote by Williams in a biographical statement at the end of the book.  In that brief segment, Williams discusses his earliest exposures to the negative stereotyping of Appalachian people and how he dealt with that stereotyping throughout his life.  It should be a model for every Appalachian native today when the need arises to confront and educate the people who disseminate the stereotypes. The quote says:

"In college I picked up from  professors and students from outside the Appalachian region the negative attitudes toward us Appalachians that fictional stereotypes had created.  It was a shame to  be Appalachian.  An Appalachian persons first obligation to himself was to identify and correct or reject everything about himself that betrayed his identity.  As I considered and tried alternates, I found many of them superficial, unreal, often pretentious, and sometimes hypocritical.  I had to pretend, for example, that young middle class women were innocent little girls who played at life as if they were still in doll houses.  I had to substitute shallow euphemisms for the colorful and vigorous language in my dialect.  People played religion in middle class churches and few seemed to take it very seriously...My acceptance of people as they themselves saw themselves stood me in good stead.  My ability to listen, consider, ask questions without condemning or rejecting appealed to those who fate it was to work with me.  It has seemed to me that such success as I have enjoyed as a 'public person' is owing largely to my having accepted myself with confidence, and without significant loss of self-esteem, as an Appalachian.  I never feel the need to apologize for who I am or try to obscure my identity.  I find it enormously comfortable to be myself."  Williams, Cratis D.; "William H. Vaughan A Better Man Than I Ever Wanted To Be A Memoir"; p. 72.
 The truths contained in that brief quote cannot be accurately enumerated or adequately explained by a person who has never been subjected to the negative stereotypes which Williams is discussing.  But he was able to progress from the point at which he first encountered the stereotypes to become a proud spokesman for the Appalachian people.  He created a career and a body of writing which is rarely equalled in any field.  Only one or two other native Appalachians have succeeded to the degree that Cratis Williams did.  Every Appalachian person who benefits from his work owes him a debt of gratitude. 

And every native Appalachian should try to confront the stereotypes and the people who perpetuate them.  We are the last minority group in America which it is still socially acceptable to denigrate, defame, and belittle.  So long as we stay silent and accept the stereotypes they will live on.  We need to take the same postion toward them that Williams took.  We must defend our heritage and our culture.

Cratis D. Williams, Ph. D.

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