A speech given at Berea College, April 2010, by Silas House
This is an Appalachian school, situated at the foot of the mountains, with a long history of significance in the region’s culture and arts. So even if you are not from here originally, you are sitting in Appalachia today. And that makes you a part of this country we call Appalachia. In some way I believe that we are all Appalachians, no matter where we come from, because this has always been a place made up of people who don’t quite fit, who have been downtrodden but refuse to be defeated. We are perpetual immigrants, an ethnic group that everyone is still allowed to make fun of, freely and with encouragement. Appalachia is the best and the worst of this country, and its joys and sorrows allow all of us to display and use our best and worst qualities. In short, if you are from and of Appalachian, I am speaking directly to you. And if you are not from here, you are now an Appalachian, whether you like it or not, because this place has taken up residence in you and lives in you now. And that means I am speaking to you too. So I want to talk about what it means to be an Appalachian, and what it means to be proud of that, and what it means to overcome obstacles. I want to talk about the way education is the key to everything, and how no matter how many times someone puts you down you have to rise back up and stand up for what you believe in and stand up for who you are, and who your people are.
I want to begin today, and in fact, frame the entire speech, with a poem that I wrote late last year. I thought it particularly appropriate to start off my convocation speech with this poem because it was recently published in the college’s own very fine literary journal, Appalachian Heritage. I am going to read the poem and then I will spend the next few minutes explaining it and expanding on its themes. The poem is called “Double Creek Girl.”
They don’t expect much out of girls
raised on Double Creek.
Up where the pines hang low
over the road like a tunnel
and the sun doesn’t rise
until the rest of the world
has had its coffee and forgotten
the magic of morning already,
up where evening mist breathes
over the clean graveyard
and gardens with their straight rows.
They don’t think girls from a place
like Double Creek will amount
to anything at all.
Especially when you were little
and they had pictures of girls
like you in all the magazines.
Life and Look and Time. Once
a man from National Geographic
came and took pictures up there.
Girls in dresses their mothers made
them and stringy hair, hollow-
eyed, hungry-eyed, sad-eyed.
But you defied them, Double Creek Girl.
You showed them. Every time
you opened a book and drank it up
like spring water. Each time you read
a poem and closed your eyes at the end,
savoring it like a good hunk
of cornbread, seeing it
like an azure sky, tasting
the words like the wet in a bloom
of honeysuckle. You showed them
when you listened to every word
the teacher said and walked
that commencement line and took
your degree from the hand
of the professor who was
secretly one of them. He never
thought you could do it. But you did.
See here, our Appalachia, our
bone and blood. Listen, our
Double Creek girl: you are
what happens when we know
that God lives in between
the pages of books and at the tips
of pencils and on the sharp
edges of notebook paper.
That’s something they’ll never know.
So, what does this poem mean? Well, it’s about overcoming the odds. It’s about people underestimating someone because they are from a poor place, a rural place, an Appalachian place. But it is also a true story. I wrote this poem as a Christmas present for a friend of mine, who is a high school teacher. Not only that, she’s one of the best teachers I have ever known. She goes the extra mile. She’s excited about education, and she makes that excitement palpable to anyone who meets her. She loves books and words and knowledge.
Lots of people wouldn’t have expected her to turn out that way because she is from way up in a holler—Double Creek—in Clay County, Kentucky. Her family did not have money, and there were a whole lot of them. In 1971, when the girl in the poem was a child, National Geographic magazine—a magazine known for doing massive pictorials in third world countries—thought Double Creek so exotic and isolated that they came there and did a pictorial and long article about it. One of the pictures shows the one-room schoolhouse in Double Creek, populated by students who are required to not only learn but also keep the school clean and operating. This school’s closest thing to a lunchroom was a leaky refrigerator in the back of the room, which held the students’ lunches they had brought from home. The playground was nothing more than a field by the creek—no swing-sets or monkey bars. Truth be told, the school was at least twenty-five years behind the rest of the country.
So, what I’m getting at is that it wasn’t exactly a school that the colleges were beating at the door to get their students. Students from Double Creek School had to work incredibly hard to get into a good college, and once there, they found that they had to work even harder to make some of their professors take them seriously. Because of where they were from. And because of the way they talked.
The girl in the poem overcomes the odds that are against her because she believes in herself. She has come to believe in herself through reading poetry and books and being in touch with nature. She knows that education is the way to rise up.
This is an experience I can relate to on many different levels. All of my life, I have been judged based on where I am from. You cannot see my ethnicity on my skin, but you can hear it. I carry it on my tongue, and I can no more get rid of it than anyone can change their skin color. Once upon a time, I could have. When I was very young, some of my teachers pulled a bit of ethnic cleansing and tried to rid me and all of my schoolmates of our accents. Most of us refused, sensing that we would be losing some important part of ourselves. It was only later that I realized that language was part of my ethnicity and only much later that I realized that language was political.
One of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurtson had to overcome many more discrimination obstacles than I did. She lived in Jim Crow America, when a black woman like herself had very few rights at all, and the rights she did have were often taken from her. Zora was the first black woman in the world to attempt to become a full-time writer. And she succeeded. She wrote some of the most amazing books in existence, chief among them one of my top five favorites, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She had several strikes against her: she was black in a time even more racist than our own; she was a woman in a time when women had far fewer rights; she had no money for most of her life, and certainly not when she was beginning in the world of writing; she was from the rural South, and her speech betrayed that. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on A Road, Zora talks at length about the racism she faced, but she also writes about the classism she faced, and it was all based on the way she talked. She was particularly affected by those prejudices as a young college student in New York City.
In her biography of Zora, Wrapped in Rainbows, author Valerie Boyd writes: “Because of her class and race, some of her classmates laughed at her, thinking it ridiculous that a Black southern woman should be trying to get a college education. But Zora looked at it this way: ‘I knew getting mad would not help any,’ she once wrote. ‘I had to get my lessons so well that their laughter would seem silly.’”
In other words, she was not about to let anyone get her down. Another one of my favorite people to have ever lived was actually a contemporary of Zora’s. Her name is Eleanor Roosevelt. In the seventh grade I encountered a quote from her that has changed my life, and I mention it in almost every speech like this that I give: “No one can make you inferior without your consent.” I want you to always remember that, and apply it to your life.
A quick note here: Some people do manage to get rid of their accents, for different reasons. Some want to. Some just naturally do when they are surrounded by people speaking in other accents. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as Appalachians, we are all marked by the land. In one way or another, it is a part of us, and if we don’t hide that, then people are going to judge us based on that. Because they’ve seen pictures of one-room schoolhouses here during modern times. Because the media constantly paints a picture of us as being stupid, and backward, and lazy, and illiterate.
I was raised in a lower middle class household. For the first eight years of my life we lived in a two-bedroom house trailer that sat on the banks of the Laurel River. Almost everyone in my family lived in trailers. I never thought anything of this until one evening when I was playing out front of my aunt’s trailer, in the hottest part of summer. I must have been around ten, and I was playing Star Wars with my cousin in the front yard. I was Luke Skywalker; he was Dark Vader. We were fighting to the death with our plastic light sabers. We were both barefoot because it was high summer, and we were children, and we loved the feel of the grass under our feet. Not because we didn’t have shoes. And then, a car went by and blew its horn, causing us to look up. There was a man—in his early twenties—hanging halfway out of the car’s window. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled: “Trailer trash!”
He was talking to us. It didn’t matter that my aunt worked like a dog every night on the third shift at the yarn factory and that her freshly-mown yard was meticulous, that her porch was populated by good, solid furniture and bright geraniums and hanging pots of luscious fuchsia. It didn’t matter that we were human beings who were just trying to get by the best way we could, who had joys and sorrows like everyone else. To this car passing by, we were trash because we lived in trailers, in a rural little town where nothing much ever happened.
Recently I Googled the words “trailer trash”. One of the results was of a cartoon character, an older woman smoking a corncob pipe and toting a shotgun. Her dress looks as if it has been made from a flour sack and has a jagged hem. Her hair is a rat’s nest, her nose abnormally bulbous and knotty. This image isn’t very far from the steroytypical image of a hillbilly.
The term also resulted in my discovery of what is called “Trailer Trash Barbie”, which is a doll pushing a baby carriage containing three infants of different ethnicities while she simultaneously smokes cigarettes and drinks beer. She is pregnant again, of course, and her mascara is smudged. She carries a box of macaroni and cheese in her purse, along with a fifth of Jack Daniels. This is the way lots of people think of those who inhabit not only trailers, but also rural places.
I’ll stop there, mostly because the vast majority of the images were too disgusting or vulgar to discuss here. It seems that when people draw up images of their idea of “trailer trash” they often like to show them in sexually suggestive situations, too…with the suggestion being that trailer inhabitants are animal-like in their insatiable appetite for the basest human instincts, namely addiction to sex, drugs, and alcohol.
Being called “trailer trash” was a defining moment for me. Those two words hit me in the gut not so much because they were directed at me, but because they were directed at most everyone I knew and loved. My people had been reduced to two ugly words. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t matter how much money you were raised with, or how you were raised, or what kind of accent you have: a whole lot of people in the world assume that if you are Appalachian, you are the same as that image they have of “trailer trash.”
I have a recent picture of my entire family, taken on my mother’s birthday. None of them are toothless or wearing flour sack dresses. None of them are sucking on bottles of whiskey and smoking with both hands. None of them are lazy. They certainly do not smoke corncob pipes or tote shotguns. All of them have lived in trailers at some point in their lives. All of them are Appalachians. All of them would proudly identify as hillbillies.
They are not trash.
They are human beings.
They are my people.
By the time I was a teenager, my parents had clawed their way up to firmly middle class and we never wanted for anything. But my parents had lived the kinds of Appalachian childhoods that people think everyone here had. My mother was orphaned at a young age and survived on the kindness of cousins who took her in. She never had a bicycle or a birthday cake, her entire childhood. For years and years she had one only pair of shoes. She—and her entire family—were poor. My father was raised by a single mother who had eight other children to raise after my grandfather died. They barely scraped by and all of the children had to go to work before they were fifteen years old. Eventually Granny had to lease her land to a coal company to survive and was finagled out of a fortune in the process. The company took millions of dollars worth of coal out of her land at Happy Holler and left her with hardly anything to show for it. My father went to fight in Vietnam to help the family.
Once I was a teenager and realized that I had everything I wanted and understood all the sacrifices my parents had made so that I could be in that comfortable position, I often felt guilty that they had suffered so much, that they had worked their fingers and backs down to the bone, and had been treated so badly to get where they were.
Because they were both ridiculed for being Appalachian. My father while in the service, and my mother especially when they went North to find work in the mid-1960s. When she got a job at a refrigerator factory in Ohio, her co-workers would gather around her on her lunch-break and insist that she “talk for them.” It took her awhile to realize they were making fun of her.
But she didn’t let them. She told them off. She put them in their place. She stood up for herself. She fought back by telling them that it wasn’t alright for them to make fun of her and her people and where she was from. But she fought back in other ways, too. By working hard to get out of poverty. By making sure that her son became the first person in our family to go to college.
Once I graduated from college, after some time in a variety of terrible jobs, I entered academia and encountered my own set of prejudices there because I refused to change my accent. I believe that as long as you have excellent grammar, your accent need not be affected. I have always strived to have that excellent grammar. One of my first teaching jobs was in a large city that some call Southern and some call Midwestern. At any rate, I was there, and I was very happy to have the job. But then a friend of mine told me that a colleague at the university had warned her to be leery of me. The colleague said, “He’s from the mountains, you know. They’re all racist, homophobic misogynists down there.”
Well, I know a lot of racist homophonic misogynists, but no more of them are from the mountains than from any other part of the world. Racist homophobic misogynists exist everywhere. But because I was Appalachian, this woman assumed that I was. All she knew about me was where I was from, and she judged me. Again, I had been defined as trash based on where I was from.
No matter what, people will try to put you down. Because when they put you down, eventually they can get you under their thumb. Everybody has to have control over somebody else. You cannot let this happen to you. And you can’t stand by and let it happen to anyone else.
Instead of getting angry at the colleague, I decided that I would prove her wrong. I would teach to the best of my ability and I would display to everyone that I was not racist or homophobic or misogynistic. I decided right then that I would make ideas of equality my mission at that university. And I did. And later, when an Appalachian student of mine was told by a professor that she had to quote “quit talking like a hillbilly,” I insisted that the administration treat this as an ethnic matter. They did.
In April 2010, the worst coal mining accident in thirty years happened at Upper Big Branch, West Virginia. For a hundred years, the people of Appalachia fought against the coal industry, which was taking advantage of them in one way or another. But over the last few years, the people of Appalachia have started to buy everything the coal industry—an industry of greedy, self-interested corporations mostly owned by overseas companies—have been doling out to them. The more people fought against mountaintop removal, for example, the louder the industry was in saying that those people were anti-coal and anti-Appalachia and anti-American. And the industry convinced a whole lot of people that they were on their side even though they were the ones tearing down our mountains and killing our miners. But finally, with the death of 29 miners at Upper Big Brand, it seems like the tide is turning and mountain people are fed up again with the coal industry. They’re speaking out. They’re standing up and saying, “No, this is enough.” They are tired of being made to feel inferior.
It’s a shame it took the death of 29 souls to make people take notice, to make them see that the industry might just be playing us.
The man who serves as the CEO of Massey Energy, the coal company that ran the Upper Big Branch mine, is named Don Blankenship. In only two years the mine at Upper Big Branch was cited with 204 safety violations. “We don’t pay much attention to the violation count,” Blankenship said in 2003, to Forbes magazine, and he was flat-out telling the truth. The company’s failure to pay attention led to the death of the 29 people in this mine alone.
Blankenship has come to epitomize everything our country has come to hate about big corporations. In a recent issue of TIME magazine, they said this about Blankenship: he “is practically a caricature of a regulation-bashing, union-busting, climate-change-denying, multimillion-dollar-bonus-collecting, mustache-twirling greedhead.” Blankenship claims that safety is his top priority but he once wrote a memo to his managers telling them to stop worrying about anything—including safety—except for the production of coal. He has accused anti-MTR protesters of being “atheists” and “Communists” and once compared them to Osama Bin Laden. It’s too bad that Blankenship chose the road he’s on because he must be a smart man: he is, after all, heading up a multi-billion dollar corporation. As a native Appalachian, think of what all he could have done if he had decided to serve his native land instead of destroying it with over-mining.
As Appalachians, we must serve our place and our people. You may want to get through college and leave here forever. But you must take Appalachia with you. It rests on your tongues, for sure. But it is also in your hands and feet and heart and brain. It has taken up residence. These mountains and these people have given something to you; they’ve breathed it into your skin whether you realize it or not. So it is only right to give back. To be of service. Not only because you are Appalachians, but because you are human beings.
As students at Berea College, you have an amazing opportunity before you. You have been given the opportunity to change the world, and all you have to do is take that step forward and do it. In this speech today I’m encouraging you to embrace who you are. I’m telling you that no matter what, you are a child of God. No matter what, know that, and claim that, and put that to good use. And you must do God’s work: serving others as you would serve yourself.
I have wanted to teach at Berea College for as long as I can remember, and here’s why: I think that Berea stands for everything that is important to me, and the whole mission of this school is one that I have tried to live by my entire life, and one I want to encourage you to adopt, to go through your life with an open mind, open heart, and open eyes. You cannot go wrong if you do. And you are in the perfect place to make that happen.
This town was named for the Biblical town of Berea, whose people were both open-minded and receptive to the gospel. Acts 17:11 tells us “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness.” There is such a strong tradition of service, and good works, and open-mindedness here at Berea, that you have a responsibility—as a Berean, as an Appalachian—to continue that.
Only one year after the Civil War—only one year—Berea College had more black students enrolled here than they did white students—96 black students out of a total of 187. It’s amazing, that the founders of this school were so devoted to the cause of abolition that they went against the grain, that they stood up for what they believed in, right here in the South, and established a school that blatantly made integration possible. What an amazing thing they did, and what a lasting statement they made. The founders of Berea College were true to what remains the motto today: “God Has Made Of One Blood All Peoples of the Earth.” How can we not be proud to come from such a tradition? And how can we not take up the charge to carry on this tradition, and to be good to one another, and to serve one another, and to stand up for one another?
The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center here at Berea College has its own motto: “Tradition. Diversity. Change.” I really love that. It’s so simple, yet so complex. Because this is a place of tradition, and diversity, and change. A couple years ago I was at a rally to celebrate the election of Barack Obama as our president and one of the speakers said, “It is our differences that give us our strength.”
So we must be proud of and embrace all the differences. People like to think that Appalachia is just one big bunch of people who are all the same color, religion, and belief system. But we are diverse. We come from people who were the first in these mountains, the Cherokees, Shawnees, the Crow, the Mingo. We come from the tough Scots-Irish who came to settle it next, and the Italians and Germans who worked and suffered to make their way in the world and the black men and women who were brought here on ships to be slaves and later sent here on trains to work for half-scale down in the mines. We are from the more than 38 nationalities that worked at one single coal mine in Lynch, Kentucky. We are a true melting pot of strong peoples, a culture of immigrants, all joining strengths to become Appalachians
The only way a person can open their mind and their heart is by opening their eyes and seeing that these differences make us stronger and that we are not as different as we might imagine. Only by serving others do we serve ourselves. Only by realizing the beauty of those different from ourselves are we able to realize our own beauty.
As an Appalachian, I have always been seen as “the Other.” I know that many of you can relate to that, too, whether it’s because you’re Appalachian, or black, or gay, or just different in whatever way. When I went on my first book tour, I had hardly been out of Eastern Kentucky. I was “country come to town.” And I encountered a lot of shocked people, a lot of people who underestimated me. I could have let that get me down. But instead, I let it lift me up. Sometimes the very thing that may seem like an obstacle can be the thing that propels you forward. It’s all in how you look at it.
The more prejudice I faced because of where I was from, the prouder I became of that place. Once I was on the road, at a booksigning, and a woman asked me why I loved Appalachia so much. I said, “Because when you are from a place and a people you have to defend all the time, that makes you love them that much more.” I didn’t realize that was true until I said it. I had never had to articulate it until that moment, but then I knew that it was absolutely true. So I celebrate this place because I want everyone to know of its dignity. I want everyone to know of its joys and sorrows. I want everyone to know it as not a purely good place nor a purely bad place, but a complex place, a place where people live and love and fight and die just like everywhere else in the world.
I return to Zora Neale Hurston once again. In an article published in December 1934 in The Washington Tribune, a black D.C. newspaper, Zora stressed the significance and worth of black folk expression and placed particular emphasis on language…she urged her people to go the way of Chaucer, the Canterbury author whom, Hurston said, “saw the beauty of his own language in spite of the scorn in which it was held” by England’s French-speaking Norman conquerors.
So I celebrate my language, and my people. I hold them in high esteem. And the older I get, the more I realize that I must hold all people in high esteem. In one of my favorite movies, Dead Man Walking, there’s a beautiful exchange between the prisoner on death row, Matthew, and the nun, Sister Helen, who is visiting him in the days leading up to his execution. He is initially hesitant to open himself up to the nun, but she persists, knowing that no matter what he has done, he is a child of God and must be loved. At one point he speaks very profanely in front of her and she says, “Show me some respect, Matthew.” He is defiant, though. “Why,” he says, with a sneer. “’Cause you’re a nun?” “No,” Sister Helen responds. “Because I’m a person.”
We must respect one another. By doing so, we learn to respect ourselves.
The way to all of this is education. Education in books. Education by way of your professors. Education by experience. The only way we can learn anything at all is by opening our eyes, minds, and hearts. Anyone can go to school, but only those who open themselves up to the experience can be changed by it. It is not enough to go to college; you must open yourself up to the knowledge that is being presented to you.
So you may be thinking that I’ve gotten far off-topic. This lecture is called, after all, the Appalachian Lecture. But what I’m talking about is at the root of the problems facing Appalachia today. Because too many of us in Appalachia have kept our eyes, minds, and hearts shut for too long. We have shunned education, we have shunned change. And we can no longer do that if we want to survive as a culture.
The mountains are in your hands, and with that knowledge, I come to you with what is not so much a speech as a beseechment, a pleading: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the key to saving ourselves and saving Appalachia. Stand up against injustice. This injustice might be as intimate as a person being torn down by someone calling them a “stupid hillbilly” or “trash”, or any other ethnic, racial, sexual, and/or class epithets. Or the injustice may be as large-scale as a mountain being torn down so that a rogue industry can get to coal in the cheapest and fastest way possible, no matter the harm it causes the land and the people. Stand up for what is right, just the way the founders of this school did so many years ago, even if it is not the popular thing to do.
As Appalachians, you have one major thing in your favor: the element of surprise. The whole world has underestimated us so long that we have every opportunity to surprise them with our intelligence and our open-mindedness. Remember the first line of the poem? It is: “They don’t expect much out of girls raised on Double Creek. “ What I’m saying is that the rest of the world doesn’t expect much out of Appalachians. They expect us to mine their coal and make their moonshine and be their entertainment and not much else. But we are so much more than that. Because we have this element of surprise, we are even more powerful than we might have first thought.
Before my final conclusion, I want to give you one more poem, this one by a much more accomplished poet than myself, Don West. Among other things, West was a poet, an advocate for civil rights, and an educator. In the 1940s, his collection of poetry, Clods of Southern Earth, became a literary phenomenon when it sold tens of thousands of copies and became the bestselling volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
This poem is just as relevant today as when he wrote it more than sixty years ago. It is called “Mountain Heritage.”
You mountain kid
Old woman or man,
I would call you back
To your heritage …!
Must we, too, be lost
As America is lost
In a thicket of violent greed?
Are we too lost to recognize
Our own broken image?
I would point you back
To an uncertain time in history
When the values Appalachia gave
to the South
were rooted deep
In independence and freedom!
At an uncertain time in history
When civil war clouds darkened
Appalachia held a blazing torch
On the freedom road …!
This is an uncertain time in our history, and once again Appalachia can be the light on the road to freedom. Those of you who were raised here are Appalachians. Claim that, and you can be the bearers of that light on the freedom road that West wrote of. Those you who are not from here but are sitting in these pews now are Appalachian by proxy. Celebrate that, and you can bear that light, too.
Like Sister Helen said, the most important thing is that we are all people, and we are all worthy of respect. I hope that you will go out into the world with that on your mind, and your hearts, and your tongues.