Saturday, July 16, 2005

Being a Celtic-American

Not long ago I read James Webb's Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, and I must say that it provided new insights into how to examine my own culture and the experiences of my ancestors. Leaving aside the details on what characteristics might be attributable to Scots-Irish or Celtic-American culture, the work helped to realize that I was indeed the beneficiary of a distinct and honorable cultural heritage. I had grown up suspecting this but had too often been confronted with negative memes about my Appalachian forebears: illiterate, brawling, incestuous, lazy, tobacco chewing (later crank using), slovenly hillbillies. These memes always flew in the face of actual experience with my hard-working, thrifty, resourceful, honest and loving kinsmen and neighbors but they nonetheless persist in popular culture. Indeed, it seems that the only politically correct racial or ethnic slur that can me made these days are directed at "rednecks" and "hillbillies".

I will never forget a diversity seminar at Columbia dealing with identity based conflict where a woman praised me by saying that she had come to realize in the course that I was "not just another redneck". It was inconceivable that I would be offended by this epithet or the implications about what stereotypical attitudes and behaviors I could be expected to manifest. Moreover, if I expressed any pride in my own heritage, this was interpreted as racist!

I have some ancestors who were English, German, Prussian, Frisian, Huguenot, Welsh, or Cherokee, but I am at least half Scots and Scots-Irish. All of my ancestors had arrived in North America before 1790, and most were here by 1725. By 1800 and most long before then, they had all made their way to the Appalachians in search of land that had not already been claimed by Tidewater oligarchs and in search of the opportunity to make a living as free men and women constrained only by their willingness to work hard. A very few had a couple of slaves but most had none and worked their own land or as tenant farmers. They also herded livestock, cut timber and hunted and made whiskey. They had large families and, consequently, younger children were often on the move in search of new land. This way, my families came down from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia into Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Other kin moved on to Arkansas, Texas and California in search of opportunity.

They faced enormous hardships of disease, premature death of breadwinners, conflicts with Indians, and warfare. When called upon, they served in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the War Between the States. Every male ancestor of the right age served the Condfederacy under arms, poor dupes. They did this not out of love for slave-holding oligarchs or the idea of slavery, but because their country was being invaded and their liberty threatened. The WBTS was about their love of country for them. They viewed their countries at that time as Georgia or Tennesee or North Carolina. My ancestors bore the burden of the WBTS and the crippling sanctions of Reconstruction. Federal oppression stifled the economic development of the South for a century.

My ancestors were victims of this oppression but would never have claimed victimhood such was their pride. They just kept on getting by, working their farms and picking up work on industry when it came along. The Dillards of Fannin County went to Polk County to work the mines. Others became lumberjacks. Still others went North seasonally to earn money in factories, sometimes as "replacement workers" or "scabs" in union disputes. Still more were drawn to Whitfield County, Georgia and the burgeoning textile industry. And they served in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the poor dupes. One kinsman, Audie Murphy, was the most highly decorated soldier ever thanks to his heroic exploits in WWII. Even today, my people are disproportionatelly represented in the military and are drawn to the martial.

I am proud of my farming, working-class roots and our history. I see the Confederate flag as a symbol of my ancestors' sacrifices and hardships, not as a symbol of racism. God knows, there is racism, and my people are no more free of it than others, but our culture and history are not to be defined solely in terms of the legacy of racism, and we should not let others define the meaning of our symbols or demean our ancestors' contributions. We should be free to explore and preserve our heritage and to confront the good and the bad. We should not allow ourselves to made the repositories of national guilt over slavery, especially since it was very little of our ancestors' doing.

My only complaint with my people is that they seem to have become especially susceptible to nationalistic jingo and have begun to lose their mistrust of the state.


freeman said...

My only complaint with my people is that they seem to have become especially susceptible to nationalistic jingo and have begun to lose their mistrust of the state.

And, unfortunately, this is making them even more susceptible to put downs and ridicule by urban liberals and lefties. I've especially noticed this among people who live in places like NYC and Boston. Their #1 target these days seems to be "rednecks" from red states.

James said...

Excellent posting. Although my family has only lived in the South for one generation, I am beginning to embrace my redneck-hood even more, now that I've left.

My mother is from Northern Ireland, and my Great-Grandfather was an Orangeman. Scots-Irish culture and the Orange Order shaped many of the early beliefs of the "po' white trash" from down South; Orange lodges were probably just as numerous as Masons' lodges at one point.

It's taken me a while to become proud of that tradition. This book really helped me embrace that heritage. I highly recommend it.

(And I think it may account for my predilection for women with big hair!)