Community Discourse

Being raised as a Southerner, I do not lack for icons and heros. Our history is broken into parts and places. First, there is the story of how our families came from Scotland and Ireland and settled, like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants, into the Appalachian mountain territory. From the Scottish, my community inherited a love of the land, and the knowledge and means with which to cultivate it. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he talks about the genetic legacy of those descended from the Scottish highlands, herdsmen specifically. Gladwell's theory is that there's something akin to genetic memory and certain predispositions (a quickness toward anger over certain issues, in example) can carry forward for generations. This is one explanation to account for the bloody honor killings between the Hatfields and McCoys.

The Smiths, my people, settled Appalachia and, according to Gladwell, inherited a genetic predisposition to retaliate in order to settle a slight, honor at virtually any cost.

From the Irish, my family inherited its sense of work ethic, a story told and retold in various iterations that spoke of dirt floors and cold winters, the determination to get an education despite walking miles in the snow, working full time while attending college, or working full time and raising a family while attending graduate school

The story of poverty became a symbol of its own. We could not tell the story of work as a community without also telling the story of poverty, of overcoming, of hardship and despair, as God is my witness I shall never be hungry again, and the restorative power of hands in the clay earth pulling up that last, symbolic carrot. A strong work ethic became something of a mantra in our community, recited as both reasons to and not love/stay with/abandon/hire/fire/scorn someone. This is one of the reasons Gone With the Windresonated so strongly with my community. In this mega-hit movie, Irish-turned-Southern aristocrat Scarlett O'Hara survived and later prospered through sheer wit and grit alone. The O'Hara's were able, as their ancestors had done, to turn nothing into something.

God was also ever present in our community, though interestingly, we rarely spoke of our ancestors' or parent's spiritual stories. Faithfulness in the Christian God was a given. Church was where you could find salvation and, preferably, a husband. And while church served as a great pasture where the flock could commune, counsel and console one another in times of need--and there were many of those--it was also a place with distinct and impassable boundaries: divorce, race, homosexuality. The church proposed conflicting messages: love your neighbor, but only if he/she is like you: white, privileged, straight, and selfless.

Jesus and Scarlett O'Hara: those were the two icons representing much of what my community valued and the Bible and Gone With the Wind were the stories we told ourselves about ourselves.