How do we know it’s us without our past?

Posted by | May 3, 2010

Appalachians get their easy going way of life from the Scotch Irish. An Appalachian can sit on his porch and rock all day without getting an ulcer over it.

Most Americans have to be up and about doing something all the time.
A personality characteristic of Appalachian people that tends to get them into trouble in the big cities and sometimes in our consolidated school systems, is their ‘open faced’ outlook on life and their acceptance of strangers once they get over their initial suspicions. They’re too ready to accept them as ‘home folks.’ They haven’t learned to build up a front to protect their ego.

The smaller a kid is, the more likely he is to do this. He’ll tell things on himself, or say things that will give you insight into his behavior that will damage his ego, and he’s not aware of this because he hasn’t built up, as urban people have, this front of protection.

Now the reason from this is they come from an area where they know practically everybody; they don’t meet many strangers and everybody knows you. Some you can’t build up a front if everybody knows your innermost thoughts. After they go to the city it takes time for them to develop this. Some of the older ones never develop this. That’s one reason why they’re not satisfied in Detroit and Cleveland and so on.

You might watch for this, they do not have this—I don’t have a word for it, I never have found a good word for building up a front to protect their ego with strangers. Some of you may have a better name for it than I have. I haven’t been able to develop a good name for it or find one in the literature that is satisfactory. If you see this kind of thing, they tend to hurt themselves by what they say and what they do, because they’re not aware that they can be used by other people.

And if anything I say is of any value, this next statement is probably it. Appalachian people see other people as whole individuals. Unlike the city person who tends to see other people as objects. Now to see other people as wholes means that you do not see them in roles. A city person has to meet a lot of people in specific roles and tends to see them only in a narrow section of their life. He sees the clerk in the store, the official in the office, he sees the policeman in his role.

The Appalachian does not; he sees the whole person. He does not see roles, and this gives him difficulties in a bureaucratic situation. They go down to the Welfare office or the Employment office and they can’t understand why the first person they meet can’t solve their whole problem whatever it is.

You know in a bureaucracy that person is only an intake clerk that sees that they merely fill out all the words properly on this form and then refers them to somebody else. And whenever the mountaineer is told to go over here to line so and so, desk number so and so, they get hot under the collar about it because they think they’re abused, or that she’s got something personal against me, or she’d have taken care of it. I’ve stood at the complaint counter at some of the stores and I’ve seen this same thing happen. They can’t understand why. Well, I get the same feeling.

Four boys walking up a country road somewhere near Huntington, W. Va.

When something happens at school like no chalk available or something, I can’t see why the person I approach can’t solve that chalk problem even though they’re not the ones who are supposed to provide chalk. I can’t understand it myself. I get a little hot under the collar about it and I mutter about the bureaucracy at Marshall. Some of you probably had this kind of situation, or I come in and somebody’s moved half my chairs out and put them in another room. Well I assume that the janitor has charge of this so I go to him. He hasn’t any responsibility for this; he’s supposed to sweep the floors. I can’t understand why he couldn’t have been there and kept those chairs from being moved.

Living in an area that’s hard to get to, where they want to be left alone, mountaineers interact with each other at a high rate whom they know very well, but they don’t interact with outsiders because there’s few outsiders. And this has developed certain character traits. They’re somewhat suspicious of strangers: ‘foreigners’ from the next county. ‘Foreigners’ in this area doesn’t mean from France or somewhere; it means in the next county over the hill on the next ridge or something like that.

Now the patterns of interaction are the kind that develop in rural situations anywhere in the world where you have people who don’t meet strangers very often. They’re not necessarily uniquely Celtic.

Over the years, the blending of many cultural strains, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, German, Southern European, African and others in this mountain environment have combined to produce a rich heritage of which every native son and daughter can be justly proud—a cultural endowment well fitted to answer every man’s question as posed by John Steinbeck: “How do we know it’s us without our past?”

With the inroads of media upon isolation, highway networks opening up the back hollows, spreading urbanizing influences, and a rising level of living, this cultural heritage is rapidly fading into the past and in danger of being lost.

—Excerpt from an address by Dr. O. Norman Simpkins, Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Marshall University, at the Huntington Galleries Mountain Heritage Week, June 19-24, 1972
Source: “Mountain Heritage,” edited by B.B. Maurer, McClain Printing, Parson, WV, 1977

3 Responses

  • My decedents are Scott Irish and came to the area of Prickets Fort outside Fairmont, WV right after the revolutionary war. He served under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.

    It commonly considered, when the German settlers came the first thing they built were barns for farming, when the Anglo Saxons came the first thing they built were churches, but when the Scott Irish came the first thing they built were……STILLS!!! Yes!!! MY PEOPLE!!! :-)

    By the way, I just love your photos. They are great!

  • tipper says:

    Reminds me of an argument I heard as a child. A husband was fussing about his wife’s family (who happened to be my family too) he said “why if the roof fell in on top of them they’d just sit there” the wife said “would it help matters if they acted like your family and pitched a cuzz fit?” Easy going Appalachians-yes : )

  • Adkins says:

    I moved from the mountains years ago and work as an economist. So much of what is best about me can be read in this article–transparency, trust, and the natural inclination to see people as people. I thought I was a wonderful person. Turns out, I’m just your average, run-of-the-mill Appalachian–which, I guess does make me a wonderful person.

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