An Excerpt from Damn Yankee Buttons, a book I am working on:

….my experience calls into question some of the fairly blatant generalizations you made back in 1994. Shortly into your observations about humans in the Appalachian Mountains, you grab hold of one that attracts attention–incest. I have to admit that my maternal grandmother and grandfather were fifth and seventh cousins, double cousins several times removed. I never heard of first cousin marriage in my family or in any other family. I haven’t even heard of second or third cousins getting married. I don’t think you meant it the way it sounds, but listen to what was in print, “. . . the children of brothers marrying sisters, is not unusual.” Of course you were referring to first cousins marrying—sons of one brother marrying daughters of another brother. But even that is something I never heard of happening among any of my kin or friends.

Near the end of Chapter 22, you nail us with this beauty: “Many with physical defects and little education remained in the same hollow and reproduced.” Lord, what a generalization and what an amazing misrepresentation of my ancestors. Where is the data to back up such a damning statement? Such stereotypical statements encourage the same view of Appalachian people portrayed in the book and movie, Deliverance.

I recall a Lincoln County back-to-the-lander saying to me that he thought the problems in West Virginia were because of inbreeding. He also allowed as how our accent and pronunciations were due to ignorance, and he didn’t want his daughter talking like she was from Lincoln County, which was where she was born and was being raised. I guess he forgot that he was talking about my gene pool, or maybe he figured I wasn’t like those other hillbillies.

In front of me another newcomer to West Virginia chastised his daughter for saying “you all.” I turned to her, a native-born West Virginian, and said, “That is the way we talk, isn’t it?” And even a dear friend, a so-called back-to-the-lander who stood up for me in battles with the board of education, has made similar remarks to me. I think the dilution of my accent by a West Virginia University education in Morgantown and living five years out of state caused some newcomers to forget I am a native.

I hope you would never say that African-Americans sure have a great sense of rhythm. But you said, patronizingly, I thought, that “Appalachian people still have a native fondness for music and dancing.” My how those darkies sure can dance and sing. Some of us do and some don’t, just like anyone anywhere else. No one in my family ever exhibited any more than ordinary fondness for dancing or music. My grandmother did play, by ear, the church piano and Uncle Kin picked out hymns on his guitar on winter evenings by the coal fire burning in the grate.

And when you say, “The best Appalachian ballads came from the most backward areas.” Lord have mercy! What do you mean by backward? And why did that word pop into your mind? And imagine what people outside the Appalachians will read into that.

I was absolutely flabbergasted by this one: “Mountaineers still get excited over good, cold water, in large part because of its crucial contribution to good moonshine.” Where in God’s name did you get an idea like that? Now, I have to admit that my grandfather and great uncle Kin—that is how he spelled his name—did make moonshine, and grandma claimed they were drunk for thirty years. But most people did not make moonshine—and they valued good water for the drinking, cooking, fishing and bathing.

And, right in the next paragraph, I learn that our ancestors had “. . . a general disregard for the law.” What evidence does a scientist such as you have to support such a conclusion? Less than a half page later, you give credence to the myth that our ancestors were a bunch of feuding hillbillies whose “. . . behavior contributed to wars between families.” Maybe you were thinking of the crime families in New York and New Jersey. The sensationalized Hatfield and McCoy feud is the only “family war” I ever heard of in West Virginia.

How could you call our ancestors “Haughtily independent?” How do you know they were haughty? Why did that word pop into your mind to describe us? And why, after saying that our ancestors valued being liked and accepted over striving for material gain, was your only conclusion that “This made them supersensitive to slights and criticisms?” There must be a thousand good things that could be said in favor of being spiritual. What evidence is there for saying our ancestors were any more sensitive to slights and criticisms than any other group of ancestors—or for saying they didn’t prefer material objects over acceptance? And how do you know that “… the average mountaineer was lean, inquisitive and shrewd?” Once again, that sounds patronizing to me. My mother was inquisitive but certainly not lean or shrewd. Aunt Julia and great aunt Ora were not lean.

 

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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