Asked to speak at the recent Bluefield College Appalachian Festival, I have spent much time these past few weeks mulling over what it means to be a “child of Appalachia.” During my musing, the one thing I kept coming back to was the connection between Appalachian people and the place where they were born and raised.
That connection is a bond — one woven so tight that there is an actual kinship to the place that we call home. The lightning bugs at dusk and towering mountains in our scenic views are intertwined like family bonds. There is a true relationship with the ground we walk upon, the tree canopies under which we hike, the hills upon which we place our homes, and the people with whom we interact.
We are, to an extent, in our own cocoon here in the mountains. Part of this is geographic, but it also stems from our culture, and how we are raised. In Appalachian, things like values, morals and manners matter.
I probably heard the phrase, “He (or she) was raised right” a thousand times by age 5. My mom used it as a teaching tool. She would hear another child saying “Thank you” then turn her head to me — give me “the look” — and remark, “He was raised right.”
From an early age, one learns that if you’re not “raised right” it’s a reflection on your parents — an embarrassment. And shaming our parents is something we would never do.
We are raised to appreciate the many things parents do for us — the food on the table, the shelter, the clothes. And we know that they would go without in order to give necessities, or even special things, to their children.
So we live by their dictates. We learn from them. And we strive to make them proud.
We say “Yes Ma’am,” “Thank you” and “Please.” We hold open doors for others, and offer to carry the groceries of the little lady next door.
We put our dirty dishes in the sink, our muddy shoes on the rug by the door and always — always — wash our hands after using the restroom.
And in these small gestures we show others that we were “raised right.”
In addition to these little things we also strive to live by the values instilled in us, and pass them on to others in younger generations. Values such as honesty and integrity.
Another favorite phrase I heard often when growing up: “They’re good people.”
That didn’t mean rich people, or people judged important by society’s standards. Nope, they could be poor as dirt without two nickels to rub together. That saying referred to a person or a family’s character — the type of people who would help neighbors after a tragedy, or mow the church lawn just because it needed to be done.
Another value was the importance of hard work, and nowhere do you find that more than in Appalachia. For many decades, this world was built and powered on the back of our coal miners. And what job could be more difficult?
Sadly, outside of Appalachia, this profession all too often does not get the respect it deserves. This was especially true in early years, when the families of miners lived in coal camps.
Outside of the coalfields, this is almost a derisive term — one evoking an image of poverty, and people living in filthy conditions. But that was not always the case. In fact, I would say it was the exception and not the norm.
In 1998, a fellow reporter and I decided we wanted to tell an accurate story of what life was like growing up in a coal camp. We embarked on an ambitious project in which we interviewed many of these miners, their wives and families.
What did these folks have to say?
They enjoyed their time spent living in a coal camp. They may not have had much, but they had family and fellowship.
They would sleigh ride in the winter and play on roller skates in the summer. They would pick flowers, play in the creek and enjoy games of baseball with other kids in the camp. They would make a game out of walking on the railroad tracks, and gather together on Saturday nights to listen to Minnie Pearl on the radio.
In keeping with Appalachian tradition, they obeyed their parents, minded their manners and respected the values their families instilled in them.
And they did all this with pride, another key characteristic of being raised in Appalachia
We are proud of our heritage — of our coal miners and railroaders, of our working moms and those that work at home.
We are proud of our culture — of fishing on a creek bank and catching crawdads, of bluegrass music and even moonshine.
We are proud of our families, and the struggles they have overcome to raise their children in this incredible region. And we are proud of our communities, and how the people in them continually come together and strive to make this region a better place.
We are proud of our mountains, our valleys, our streams and our forests, which provide a scenic beauty that can be found nowhere else.
But, most of all, we are proud of who we are. We are proud to say y’all, with no embarrassment or shame. We are proud to run barefoot in the grass on a warm summer day.
And we are proud to say we are from Appalachia.
Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @BDTPerry.