Of This Place
I have always thought of us as the last “niggers.” We are the people anybody can make fun of with impunity. Anybody can call us hillbillies and claim we’re stupid and nobody will object or argue our case or care very much. Then Hollywood found us and the mist blew off the mountain. My daughter’s knowledge of some arcane Appalachian lyrics came to be received with admiration.
In New York City, in a place called The Paris Bar, at South Street Seaport, on February 2, in 2003, a young man plays the guitar. Bluegrass. My daughter offers up the lyrics to the instrumental. She sings: “Shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog. Shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog. We’re gonna git us an old ground hog. Old ground hog.”
“Where are you from that you know the words to that song?” says a Broadway actor, a spear carrier in Moliere’s Tartuffe.
My daughter, by extension, is from where I‘m from, though she never stayed there longer than a holiday weekend.
She gives them the final lyric, “Ground hog gravy dripping over her chin. Old ground hog.”
But it didn’t take long for her to learn the shame of that place.
“These are your roots,” I said to her once as she gazed dully at the mountains in my hometown in Southwestern Virginia.
“No, they’re not. My roots are in New Jersey,” she said, looking at her father, a New Jersey native.
Whenever I left my hometown, when I said where I was from, people would laugh out loud, right in my face. Even people who lived only 60 or 70 miles away said, “That’s the sticks!” As if I was in need of that information. Sometimes people said, “That’s nowhere.” Sometimes people said, “Where?“ in tones of wonder and disbelief.
An objective travel guide, read many, many years after I left that place, says: “This area is always described as ‘remote’ though no one ever seems to ask the question, ‘Remote from WHAT?’”
I had never questioned it myself. We were “remote,” defined as “located far away.” I am reminded of this line from a poem: “That is the worst flaw in the design—that we come to love our captors.” I re-phrase, “That is the worst flaw in the design—that we come to believe those who belittle us, to love those who hate us.”
When my daughter is singing out those song lyrics, I am blocks and blocks away, near Carnegie Hall, remembering my own first days in New York. I am somewhat aware of the resurgence in mountain music, having seen the movie O’ Brother, Where Art Thou. Though my younger sister urged me to see it, I resisted. I knew there would be lots of bluegrass music, gospel music, mountain music—whatever you call it, it’s the music I ran from and covered both my ears with both my hands when I heard it on our radio. The boring sameness of it. The drone. The nasal twang. Blame my mother. She made us take classical piano.
Back home in a Charlottesville, Virginia, coffee house, the sound track suddenly blares out. Like I am six or seven years old again, I cover my ears.
“I can’t get away from that music,” I say.
“Oh, it’s fine,” says my dining partner, Caroline Preston, a writer in my writing group, author of the novels Jackie by Josie and Gatsby’s Girl; she has misunderstood my discomfort. She grew up in Forest Park, Illinois, was educated at Barnard, then Dartmouth, and I realize she can’t be expected to understand. Only weeks earlier, when we were discussing our children’s college choices, she had asked me about a school in Southwest Virginia, Emory and Henry College, not knowing (or disregarding) that it was my native land.
“Are they such bottom-feeders down there that their parents didn’t go to college?”
“Well,” I said carefully, “they don’t feel they’re bottom feeders.”
So I can’t explain how this music—what stands in for our culture—shames me. Then there are the clothes, the other symbols of our culture: the denim overalls, the red bandannas.
In her 13th book, the historical novel Choices, Mary Lee Settle traces the term “redneck” to the red bandannas worn by the coal miners during the devastating 1920s coal strike. And I can write that I’ve seen grown men wipe off forehead perspiration with their red bandannas. I’ve seen women—black and white, working together—wear bandannas over their heads at the cannery where the women perspired freely under the stultifying steam of the hissing canning equipment, steam that would seal in the summer smell of tomatoes for almost eternity.
Now all those chickens have come home to roost. “Shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog …” And oh brother, is it ever annoying. At the University of Virginia, where I got an M.F.A. in creative writing, I ran into another writing student from Southwest Virginia, shortly after O’ Brother ran its course. He wanted to know if I’d seen the movie Songcatcher.
“Does every single person in that movie wear blue-jean overalls?” I asked without explanation.
“Just about,” he said and smiled. “Just you wait.”
What was sad to me in that movie’s depiction of our area was not the overalls or even the way everyone was toting guns and blasting strangers off their property but the way all the children had dirty faces. It looked as if their cheeks, chins, and foreheads had been carefully smudged with dirt right before the filming.
But to be fair, it’s also true that I’ve capitalized on these stereotypes in my writing life. When one of my colleagues was putting together an anthology called Contemporary Women Writers for a 1997 publication, I noted that she had gathered in African-American women, Jewish women, Mexican-American women, and Native American women, but no Appalachian women. Sitting in her office at the University of Tennessee, surrounded by dream catchers, she said: “If you want to send me some of your rural stories, I’ll read them.” I sent one and it was accepted. And recently, I began a chapter in my memoir-in-progress this way: “Like Elly Mae Clampitt of The Beverly Hillbillies, sometimes I had to climb out of a tree to meet my date.” It’s cheating, but it’s an opening people will buy into.
It’s not just television and the movies that seize on these stereotypes. The print media, newspapers, and even books, are susceptible.
The Washington Post, a newspaper I’ve written for at least a dozen times, published a profile of William Gibson, the science fiction writer who invented the word and concept of “cyberspace,” and left out the name of our shared hometown, Wytheville. In my ten years as a daily newspaper reporter, I wrote (and read and edited) dozens of profile pieces. How many of them managed to miss where the person grew up?
When the Post profiled our Congressional representative, Richard Boucher, a Democrat, during the Clinton impeachment hearings, the area he represented was way up front in the article while the last line mentioned he was a former Wall Street attorney. And in one story about a lawyer from Southwest Virginia who Paula Jones consulted was described as looking “like he‘d be more comfortable in a pair of overalls than in a three-piece suit.”
But again, to be fair, one article in the Post’s “Style” section, the section I most frequently write for, did once note that “the only independent thinkers in Virginia have come from the mountains of the Southwest,” and there is an occasional reference to “the fighting Ninth,” the Congressional District whose voting record is unpredictable.
Congress, it turns out, is no stranger to this issue. Georgia senator Zell Miller ripped into CBS on the Senate floor for a real-life Beverly Hillbillies reality show that planned to move a family from Appalachia to Beverly Hills. This “comedy is bigotry, pure and simple,” he said. CBS executives “know that the only minority left in this country that you can make fun of and demean and humiliate…are hillbillies in particular and rural people in general.” He went on to say, “Since the beginning of civilization, there have always been some Homo sapiens who it seems have to have someone to look down upon—some group to feel superior to.”
The writer Lee Smith, originally from Grundy in Southwest Virginia, wrote in The Atlanta Journal/Constitution in 1996 that “Appalachia is to the South what the South is to the rest of the country. That is: lesser than, backward, marginal. Other…A bunch of hillbillies sitting on a rickety old porch drinking moonshine and living on welfare, right? Wrong. All of this is wrong; none of this is true.”
And then there is my own experience in New Jersey. Working as a copy editor for The Bergen Record in 1980, my immediate supervisor told me flatly that Southerners “do not speak the King’s English.” If he hadn’t been on vacation when I was hired, he told me, I would not have a job. I started printing out these “messages,” a precursor to e-mail, in case he did fire me. Around that time, the civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan Jr. resigned as director of Washington, D.C.’s national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, saying he was discriminated against because he was a Southerner. (In his 2009 obituary, Julian Bond said Morgan “did in the South through the courts what Martin Luther King did in the streets.” And the late Morgan is quoted as saying in the New Yorker in 1969 he had “no dislike for rednecks, some of my ancestors having been among them.”)
I had printed out the story about Morgan too when still in New Jersey. But that boss never had time to fire me because I got admitted to the M.F.A. degree program in creative writing at the University of Virginia, where, I guess, command of the King’s English is not required. When that English department hired William Faulkner from, Mississippi, the fact that he was from The South didn’t worry them; they were happy to have him as a writer in residence.
Civil rights icon and NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond once told me the best book on race is the Faulkner novel, The Reivers. I read a review that says, “Yes, the N-word pops up from time to time …but the egalitarianism of these relationships is striking. There’s more than a little Huck and Jim in the friendship between Lucius and Ned.” I read the whole novel, again, and find scenes I love. A town constable discovers where Lucius Priest, an 11-year-old grandson of a plantation owner, is going to spend the night. The constable says, “I don’t think I like that, a white boy staying with a family of niggers,” and Ned, the black coachman for the Priest family, tells him: “There’s somewhere you stops...There’s somewhere the Law stops and just people starts.” Earlier in the novel, Lucius observes this about another white boy, his nemesis: “Otis sprang, leaped away, cursing Ned, calling him nigger—something Father and Grandfather must have been teaching me before I could remember because I don’t know when it began, I just knew it was so: that no gentleman ever referred to anyone by his race or religion.”
I started editing and refining this essay in 2003 after my daughter sang those lyrics to “Old Ground Hog” in New York City. Almost 10 years later, in 2012, the essay was still unfinished. In part because of the n-word in that first sentence because I keep thinking: There, I’ve done it, right in the first sentence of this essay. I’ve gone and used a word in my writing that I would never, ever say. A word I find so repugnant that if I heard anyone use it in reference to my beloved son-in-law Rachid Zermani or my two second-cousins, Aaron and Lydia Gordon, or my first cousin Larry Moore’s grandchildren, all of whom have African-American ancestry, I would offer to punch in the stomach, pop in the mouth, or somehow insult (or educate) whoever said that word. And now my ire and irritation over this stereotype of the straw-sucking hillbilly has caused me to write that n-word down.
Another reason the essay languished unfinished in an old computer is because it doesn’t have a conclusion and a good conclusion should include some form of redemption. I remembered recently that I did find a conclusion, in a novel. It was Faulkner who said great truths are to be found in fiction. In 2005 a novel called Prep gained wide readership with its depiction of how poorly a Midwestern teenager on scholarship fit into a private boarding school in Massachusetts. The headmaster decides the scholarship girl will be interviewed by a New York Times reporter who is writing an article on the new “inclusiveness” at the school.
“The angle of the story … is the changing face of American boarding schools,” he tells her. “… these places are no longer enclaves for the sons of the wealthy. We have girls, we have blacks, we have Hispanics. Despite their reputation, boarding schools are mirrors of American society.”
“So I would be speaking as a girl,” she asks him.
“As a girl, or on behalf of any of your affiliations.”
I wondered if he thought there was more to me than met the eye — that I was Appalachian maybe.”
Hooray. I’ve hit pay dirt, I thought. Being Appalachian has been codified—if only in a novel—as a minority. Then four years later, in 2009, PBS aired the four-part Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People and the film is later named “Best Video of the Year” by Booklist. The documentary has barely begun when its narrator, Sissy Spacek said, “More is known about Appalachia that is untrue than anywhere else in the United States.” And even before the narration begins, when the film’s funders are listed, one is the National Endowment for the Humanities “because democracy demands wisdom.” There we go, I thought, it is plain undemocratic, and unwise, to believe that people of one part of the country are dumber, are not as smart, as people in other parts of the country. The words “hick” and “hillbilly” seem to imply the adjective “dumb.” And, indeed, in a June 2012 Washington Post review of the musical Memphis, the reviewer says the white DJ, who falls for a black singer, is a “doofus hillbilly.” The review indicates this characterization is the way the script was written, but I wonder if the words “savvy hick” or “smart hillbilly” will ever be put together or if the next n-word will be an h-word.