I am a Caucasian female, born and raised in rural Appalachia. However, I relocated out of Appalachia for fifteen years and then returned to my home county. I am rediscovering my Appalachian roots and reconnecting with the Appalachian people.
The following is how I remember the past. The culture is very family focused and centered around gatherings with food and local conversation. Kinship is salient. Clans stick together. People prize their land, barns, and homes. Homegrown vegetables, herbs, and flowers are esteemed. Each spring is a rebirth of nature. Honeysuckle grows wild. Animals are cherished. Fresh milk from the cow is valued. Gathering chicken eggs is considered laudable. The green beans snap and the bacon sizzles. Biscuits and gravy are staples. Homemade pies, cobblers, and jam taste sweeter. Picking berries off the vine is widespread. When family members and friends die, you take food to their homes. Children are considered a blessing. Elderly citizens are considered wise. Neighbors communicate and mingle. County fairs are attended. Residents are cozy homebodies. Honesty and fairness are credible. Folks seem to be friendlier. Religion is ingrained. Country music and Bluegrass shine. Inhabitants have ponds instead of pools. The Ohio River is an icon and the painted murals on the floodwall in Portsmouth symbolize the times gone by. Hunting and fishing are renowned. Mountain and forest scenery and wildlife are legendary. Life functions at a slower pace with people stopping to smell the roses along the way. Appalachian lifestyle is changing, but God changes not.
There is a segment of Appalachian society that does not take kindly to outsiders and focuses exclusively on the family circle. They do not trust politicians, the government, doctors, and the media. Dirty laundry stays in the family and/or in the closet. Many Appalachians ignore the political system. When a population is in survival mode, voting is not a priority.
I grew up in an area saturated with Caucasians. Minorities were not discussed because they were not around and considered invisible as if nonexistence. Other minorities lived in faraway places. Many areas of Appalachia continue to be predominately Caucasian; however, more people of color are making Appalachia their home. God’s color does not change. God is the color of water and he created all people.
In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, mental illness was stereotyped and misunderstood. People with severe abnormal behaviors were considered ‘crazy.’ Psychiatric medication was only appropriate for “nerves.” The phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ was common as an explanation for those admitted to the state mental hospital in the Appalachian area. Attitudes about mental illness are changing and many people with disorders are seeking counseling at community mental health centers, private practices, and Christian counseling centers.
Of course, new generations evolve and leave behind many of the long-standing customs and traditions. Neighbors do not drop by for coffee and conversation like they did in times of yore. Square dancing has faded. Many of the younger women do not sew, embroidery, or quilt. Homemade ice cream and apple-butter are replaced by grocery store items. Family farms are being gobbled up by industry. Unemployment is high. Such is the way of progress, modernization, technology, and change. Beliefs change and attitudes are altered. The new-fangled mixes with the deep-rooted. Albeit, some changes are necessary and you cannot stop progress. Like any subculture, weaknesses and strengths abound. Alas, I cannot speak for all Appalachian people or my ancestors; I can only reflect upon my experiences and how I perceive and understand. But, this I do know… my Appalachian roots grow deep.
Appalachian Woman Am I
I am a product of Appalachian heredity and the rural environment. Both nature and nurture planted the seed, cultivated the soil, and provided the ingredients to grow a woman of substance, like the pioneer women before me. I am who I am and what I have become due to the role models of my upbringing; salty women who sweetened life with laughter and tears, joy and grief, hard work and play.
Albeit, there is no doubt that I represent an evolved version of the pioneer women of Appalachia. Every subsequent generation is accompanied by more choices and options. And I have chosen the route of equality and education, career and independence, relocation outside of the family circumference and yet, I have returned to rural Appalachia. I admire Appalachian women and the females in my family tree, the ‘velvet stones’ of Appalachia. Women, who embody the gentleness and creative beauty of a flower petal, yet symbolize the strength and durability of a stone. And when a gusty wind blows, the blossoms sometime scatter, while the sturdy stem bends but does not break. And when the rock is pressurized it does not shatter, but instead transforms into a brilliant gemstone of resiliency. The legacy of these pioneer women follow me wherever I roam; their collective spirits breathe belongingness into my soul; their fiery courage bids me to rise when I plummet; their kindness of heart whispers into my essence; their humbleness walks before me; and their hardy work ethic challenges my hands and feet.
In many rural relationships the female’s role is well-defined (i.e., housekeeper, cook, caretaker) and passed down through generations. Some women do choose motherhood and housekeeper as a lifetime profession and it should not be criticized as long as it is by choice with the key words being “their choice.” Education, training, employment, business owner, military, are choices as well. Some women seek outside employment only after the children leave the nest. However things are changing for many rural Appalachian women. Universities deserve a large portion of credit for promoting and encouraging education in this region. Knowledge is power and with personal power comes empowerment and choice—the belief that change is possible and obtainable. Of course, I cannot speak for all Appalachian women.
Every subculture has degrees of various viewpoints, beliefs, and behaviors. Appalachia is well-known for its’ patriarchal traditions and inequality for women. Domestic violence and child abuse is one result of male dominance and learned behaviors of control and power over others. Domestic violence shelters, new laws, and community education promotes prevention and intervention. Change has been slow, but change is here.
Segments of religious denominations have also promoted domestic violence by way of misinterpreting Biblical scripture about female submission. The Bible is not changing in rural Appalachia, but women are becoming more Bible-literate. Jesus treated women with the utmost respect and consideration and has called some to be ministers. Some rural Appalachian women are becoming pastors and preachers. Females are standing up for Biblical truth. Many Christian churches in rural Appalachia are teaching and preaching grace, mercy, and love instead of condemnation, legalism, and hate. God does not change. The Bible does not change. But, people change, both women and men. People change as they learn more about God’s viewpoint concerning women. Christian Appalachian women are finding their voice and following God’s voice.