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DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Coming Back and Going Some More

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DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH
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DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH  Coming Back and Going Some More

TAGS: Roscoe Giffin; Southern Mountaineer; Cincinnati; migration; reports; Social Service Association of Greater Cincinnati; Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee; workshop; Kentucky migration; sociological studies; statistics; population studies;


ROSCOE GIFFIN AND THE  1954 CINCINNATI WORKSHOP

In April of 1954, Roscoe Giffin, faculty at Berea College, Kentucky attended an important workshop that was held in Cincinnati, Ohio convened by the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee [MFRC] and the Social Service Association [SSA] of Greater Cincinnati. The gathering was titled simply, “The Southern Mountaineer in Cincinnati.” The workshop was conceived as a means to review the growing complexity of social issues surrounding “the newcomers from the Kentucky’s hills.”

Dr. Giffin was asked to write the  “The Southern Mountaineer in Cincinnati,” April 29, 1954, [the copy here is second printing] that would bring together the issues facing the group and to assist in preparing the final report with the staff of the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee. It is a classic study of the going and sometimes coming back of Appalachian families who migrated to urban settings.

The issues for discussion determined by the participants were outlined as statements:

  1. Substantial migration from the hills will go on due to the area’s poverty and high birthrate
  2. These migrants’ adjustment to city life, as workers, parents and citizens, is important to Cincinnati
  3. Too many now make a poor adjustment, to their own hurt and that of social agencies, city services, schools, churches, industry, and community relations generally
  4. The gap and conflict between living-ways of hills and city can be studied like any intergroup problem
  5. Pooling local experience and sociological data can reduce our ignorance and stereotypes, in fruitful consultation

A little over 200 individuals attended the workshop.With the support of the SSA [Social Service Association of Greater Cincinnati], and the MFRC [Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee] and a host of social workers, educators, government officials, personnel directors, and church and civic leaders, the joined effort produced a report. “The Southern Mountaineer in Cincinnati,” April 29, 1954, [here, second printing]. The final report was compiled by the staff of the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee and Dr. Roscoe Giffin, of Berea College. It is a classic study of the going and coming back of Appalachian families to urban settings.

Dr. Giffin’s report is based on his observations of the work of the Cincinnati workshop and his own observations of the “culturally determined patterns of behavior which the Southern Mountaineers bring with them when they come to live north of the Ohio River.” By the necessity of the requirements of the urban setting, Dr. Giffin focused his report on “observed patterns of behavior” of the Southern Mountaineers in the urban setting and not on generalized behaviors associated with the people in their mountain regions. This declared bifurcation did not always work out in Dr. Giffin’s report, as it is near impossible to separate the two without assigning the Appalachian urban dweller a new identity. But, perhaps that is one of his points.

KENTUCKY MIGRATION

What is so very valuable, however, is the substantive work that Giffin brought to the gathering social crisis identified with the mass migration of Appalachians to northern industrial cities such as Cincinnati. Statistically, he paints a growing population shift after 1870 to Ohio from three states: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia. By 1910 Kentucky had the second largest number of migrants in Cincinnati. Pennsylvania was first and West Virginia, third. By 1950 the entire Southern Appalachians were populated by approximately 8 million people. By 1950 the distribution was roughly the same, but the new Ohio (not just Cincinnati) immigrant numbers had increased dramatically

1950 MIGRANTS

Pennsylvania 309,000 (new residents living in Cincinnati)
Kentucky 275,000 (new residents living in Cincinnati)
West Virginia 103,000 (new residents living in Cincinnati)

In the United States in 1950, Giffin tells us that there were some 3.5 million people who had been born in Kentucky but only 2.4 million were living there. This put 1.1 million people living somewhere else. This put the out-migration rate at something near 1 in every 3 persons born in the state living somewhere else. As coal saw the bottom drop out of the market following the Second World War, the out-migration saw upwards of 100,000 plus or minus people leaving the state as coal began decreasing production.

What is striking about the migration of peoples from the Southern Appalachians is the mobility of that population which is remarkable in its ebb and flow. Time and again Dr. Giffin notes the flow of cars filled with migrants going back to their sates of origin for brief visits when times get tough and the ebb when the economic conditions improve. This brief but frequent immersion in familiar surroundings, Giffin describes as a desire for the familiar, an integration that can be described as “knowing your way around” — a king of immersion in family ties that reduces the emotional deficit” that strange places often bring about.  

THE PROCESS OF APPALACHIAN MIGRATION

Giffin describes the process of migration as a familiar set of actions.  At “home” the migrants sit around their familiar tables, laden with the familiar comfort foods, and tell family stories and share stories of the new familiar city life. The city life holds a considerable attraction for the young and a tense dynamic often begins to evolve in the nuclear family.  Giffin suggests that the larger nuclear family the stronger the pull for migrants to maintain a connection with their home area. This “familism is a force that repeats itself over and over again in the large Appalachian families,  — yesterday and today.  Interestingly, as the Appalachian birth rate has slowed from the 1950s 38/1000 ratio, today the pull to return has not slowed significantly though the returning population is largely comprised of those of retirement age. Another shift noted by Giffen in the urban populations is that the birth-rate of the migrated Appalachian families declined. The result was a lessening of the pressure placed on housing in the urban landscape. It is a demographic that Giffen explores.

He suggests that the qualityof living in an urban environment while supporting a family of 7 to 8 children requires significan income. Food, which often came from family gardens is now no longer available in the city and must be purchased and that on top of rent. The economic demands substantially reduced any gains in the family income. Housing in the city for transient populations is generally rental and often sub-standard as the urban land-lords often exhibit hostile patterns of behavior toward the Appalachian populations and extortion is not uncommon. 

The new economic demands, particularly the housing demands gave families some urgency to seek out and form strong community bonds with Appalachian neighbors and other migrants and ethnic minorities. Giffen points out that these bonds are necessarily strong bonds.

WOMEN

In the 1950s, however, the patterns of behavior in the Appalachian family were not so remarkable to only that demographic.  Giffin seeks to describe them as a people apart, but the activity he assigns to their situation was repeated in many cities in the United States. It is a behavior that he called “well-marked.” He points us toward the women in the household.  Women across the country, he reminds us, were not leaving the home to work he declares. Men still dominated the household wage-earner position women were still discouraged from leaving the home to work.

Women who did seek employment often faced the criticism of other women who saw work as interfering with child raising. Care for children and affordability of child care were strong deterrents to women desiring to work outside the home in the 1950s. It was a trend that was diminishing but could still be found in communities throughout the country.  Giffin declares that the move to city life disrupted the cycle of “chores” that Appalachian family members engaged. He observes, that the discipline that accompanied the cyclical work routines such as working  the land and maintaining animals began to fall away in the city and new patterns began to develop.

Giffin observed that neighbors in the migrant communities of the city often changed frequently and long interpersonal relationships were hard to establish. “Knowing your neighbor” and relying on the neighbor in an emergency became significant issues for struggling families in the city. The desire for the “community” had driven the Appalachians into extended communities of relatives and regional clusters but even those could not sustain the pressures of the urban life. The family authority also shifted to the mother, suggests Giffin, as the fathers were often more absent in the city environment. Giffin notes that this shift in parental control often resulted in the children’s and mother’s anger issues toward the “absent but frustrated control needs” of the father.

WORK AND “JUST SETTIN” AND SCHOOL

Social issues surrounding motivation are also cited by Giffin.  He declared that the rural behavior which he calls, “just settin’ showed a marked disinclination toward competition and did not prepare the transplanted migrant children to deal with the competitive rivalry of city living. This lack of competitive rivalry, he notes did little to prepare the children for success against the more competitive and versatile city dweller. Giffin tells us that “just settin'” is seen as “loafing” by the native city-dwellers and a growing bias began to be evident in the areas of work and school.

Schooling was also a significant flash-point in the diaogs of workshop participants. Giffin looked at the graduation statistics of the mountain counties of Kentucky and determined that less than 15% completed high school in 1950. In some counties he studied he found that in the age group of adults over 45 most had less than 5 years of schooling. Absenteeism was a chronic problem in the mountains and he cited the figure of half to one-third of the 7 to 13-year-old children were out of school! This low regard for education placed many of the children far below their peers when they relocated to the city. It is little wonder muses Giffin that absenteeism was a chronic problem with the migrating families. in their new home.

MILITARY SERVICE

Giffin’s figures for the military draft, seem to disagree with the popular notion that the Southern Appalachians saw a disproportionate number of men swept up in the draft.  The general myth has persisted that Appalachians go to war in disproportionate numbers,  This appears to Giffin as incorrect. The picture of strong young and eager men going to war and showing unusual bravery, such as the classic Sgt. York film mythologized was not born out in the statistics. Based on an article cited by Giffin authored by J.J. McGrath, “Selective Service Rejectees — a Challenge to Our Schools,” in School Life, Vol. 35, No. 2, Dec. 1952 (pp. 35-37), the Selective Service in 1952 rejected 1/3 to 1/2 of all young men called into service from the Southern Appalachian region. This statistical analysis places the Appalachian region’s states among the highest rejection rates in the nation in 1952.  However, this does not take away from the high numbers from the region that served with honor and distinction in both WWI and WWII.

RELIGION

On the topic of religion, the Giffen study also has some surprising observations. He makes room for basically two strains of religious practice. The one, the Holiness organizations, he suggests are attached to social status and reflect the belief that members “…are the elect because anyone who is rich obviously didn’t get there on the basis of virtue.” This “virtuous” group of believers is contrasted with the second group of more main-line denominations. This group is seen to be more affluent and members of the Baptist or more fundamentalist traditions. He notes that both the Holiness adherents and the Baptists seem to ignore the social gospel and show little interest in associating their beliefs with a social consciousness or action. This rather harsh observation suggests to Giffin that religion played a negligible role in moving the migrants toward any organized social self-rehabilitation.

MONEY MANAGEMENT AND “The characteristic of the species ,,,”

Money management is another area that Giffin cites as problematic to some classes of Appalachian migrants in their new urban home. A pattern that Giffin points to is the lack of ability to negotiate thrift and saving of money. He notes an “easy come easy go” attitude to money earned by many Appalachians.  He, however, suggests that there is another set of values seen in some migrants and that is a tendency to be “thrifty”. It is a tendency that Giffin suggests has its origins in the mountaineers’ Puritan heritage. Giffin suggests that the Cincinnati social service folk will rarely see  migrants in their offices for as a group they migrate in very small numbers to the city and only rarely will rarely be seen seeking financial aid or presenting as a “problem case.”

At this point in the Giffin report, a phrase jumped off the page at this reader. It was his use of “the characteristic of the species ‘Southern Mountaineer’.” “Species”! Really? Up to this point, I could find points of identity with many of his observations, but suddenly I found myself lumped with a “species” that was separate from the rest of America. I began feeling like many migrants must have been made to feel in their new home. A “Rare species” suggests that any migrant from the Southern Appalachians is a rare species apart from the greater humanity — a sub-human being? The often made comments about long and lanky arms, “slouching” figures, out-houses and “Why do you talk different —look different?” surged to the top of my brain. Giffin, now seemed the unsympathetic observer and not an advocate for the welfare of the migrant.

Through the lens of the twenty-first century and as a Southern Mountaineer, I suddenly found myself wanting to take issue with Giffin and his observations. I wanted to be sitting in his classroom at Berea debating what made a sociologist tribalize his subjects — and any of his students. Strange as this reaction may seem to some, it was associated with the very section of the Giffin study that dealt with the freedom to see things differently. In many ways, Giffin had touched on a dilemma that still plagues immigrants throughout the world. How do we maintain our identity with dignity and not with our defenses? On reading this section again it seemed valuable to transcribe a section in its entirety. Reading the quote again, I forgave him a little for his use of  “species” which he isolated by quotes around “Southern Mountaineer”

“Free to Differ, But —: Continuing this listing of the characteristics of the species “Southern Mountaineer,” we must not overlook the behavioral patterns centered around individualism. They expect to have their own decisions accepted and grant to others the right to their own decisions and the right to differ. ‘…Mountain people are inclined to be nonconformists. Many … have … ability to go their own way … being quite sure that their own way is just as good as anyone else’s.'” (20) 

The quote within the quote is that of Edwin E. White, who wrote Highland Heritage, published by Friendship Press, New York, (p.35), in 1947. It is often cited in connection with the perplexing problem of defining “culture” in Appalachia. In actuality, White’s book was written in 1937, not 1947. It was then re-published in 1947, ten years later, with no revisions. White, a Presbyterian minister, was not unlike William Aspenwell Bradley, whose article, “The Folk Culture in the Cumberlands,” in the Dial of 1918, tried to make a direct a connection of Folk culture as found in Appalachia with the essence of American civilization. Even early writers as admired as John C. Campbell, in The Southern Highlander and His Homeland, used a broad brush to categorize mountain people…. it always ended badly as it set us apart — while yet giving us a “homeland” and consequently an identity.

The insistence of associating  Appalachian mountain people with specific ethnic, even racial, folk, and, for goodness sake, “species,” has been a trend that has plagued the field of Appalachian studies for the length of its existence. Sometime after 1920 this need to isolate the exceptional in the native Appalachian dweller began to fray and today our contemporary conception of the nature of America ‘s civilization is one that is fundamentally comprised of both migrants and immigrants who share many of the same aspirations basic to well-being.

Another grave concern in the report of the Cincinnati workshop, in this writers view,  is the omission of a full accounting of African-American Appalachians as integral to an understanding of Appalachians, generally.  Irish? Italians? Or? To read the report is to assume that there were not African Americans making the journey to Cincinnati to find work and that the only interaction occurs with “natives” or so-described Anglo-Saxon whites. The African American, Irish, Italian, German and other racial and ethnic populations are also represented as distinct sub-cultures but rarely are they isolated as a “migration” group from some American rural area. African American’s fleeing slavery and poverty in the South seem the most closely aligned to the Appalachian migrant. 

“Other,” is used today to set people apart and it continues to be a divisive word for Appalachian residents identified with a so-called Anglo-Saxon origin. Pulled along as “other,” America’s sub-cultures and sub-groups make up smaller proportions of many regions population, but none of us is exempt from some sub-culture. The ratio of the “other” migrants in the Cincinnati social complex and their social relationship in the urban community is still under construction and discussion. Clearly, these “other” populations were not been seen as integral to a discussion of the whole of the Appalachian migrants in the 1950s. 

All this close analysis of Giffin left me wondering about the isolation of intervention. It left me wondering if a consideration all “others” would have come to fit Giffin’s analysis?  Would those “others” have benefited from the targeted social services that aimed to care for the Appalachian migrants? What were the similarities? What were the differences? Who saw them as not “fitting” the social need?  Would the “other” qualify as a “species” of Appalachian?  Such is the nature of the continuing debate about what constitutes an Appalachian. Clearly, when “other” is used, or “species ” defined, someone is disenfranchised. “Other” builds a wall around people. The term fragments the discussion of what should be universal empathy for the distress of all populations forced to migrate and to immigrate. Social intervention needs to be a human instinct for all people in distress, both here and abroad. Intervention can not be parsed out to species, but only to people. Recognition and empathy for the individual seems to still be out of the reach of our contemporary world which is now even more fractured than in the 1950s ….. and just what is “maximum recognition”?  Empathy does not to be re-packaged.

MAXIMUM RECOGNITION

The author’s report continues its discussion of “Free to Differ, But …” and Giffin says

A practical application of these observations might be that personnel policies need to provide maximum recognition for the individual if their work is to yield mutual satisfaction.

I believe that this individualism shows up also as a tolerance which partly explains the fact that they possess less of the deep-seated racial and religious prejudices characteristic of many Americans, both North and South. I am of the opinion that in the right atmosphere they will lose their prejudices rather quickly. Such prejudice as they have is more like a coat than a suit of underwear into which one has been sewed. At Berea, we have found that their socially inherited prejudices yield quite readily to the medication of the integrated living of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

Migration is a story of going and coming back, but today’s migration is also a story of struggle to identify a place that welcomes and understands going and coming back. We now have a world in a state of migration and immigration as people seek to leave places where life has become intolerable. Today people are on the move due to many reasons: economic pressures, civil strife, political oppression, war, disease, drought. ocean rise, environmental disaster and a myriad of other impingements on quality of life.

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

But, with an eye to the growing tensions in contemporary life, all these dilemmas bring us to another characteristic found in Giffin’s study. That is, “Mind Your Own Business.” While most scholars acknowledge the general individualism and tolerance of the Appalachian people, there is a long history of feuds among Appalachian people that could quickly escalate and result in violence. Such anger can also be slow to dissolve, says Giffin in his analysis. Guns still play a role in solving grudges, family disputes, and perceived injustices. With the prevalence of guns in the society today and the long-standing role of the gun in Appalachian households, this tendency is and should be a point of major concern to urban and rural social service providers, alike. I suspect Giffin would find many who are sympathetic to this view.

WORDS ARE DIFFERENT

Well, I knew it was coming. Our language. Words Are Different, says Giffin — when spoken by an Appalachian. He notes that the language of Appalachian folk is distinctive. There is no disputing this auditory evidence, Scholars and others have found the distinctive sound and pattern and choice of words in the language of many Appalachians to be a treasure and a wealth of creative expression. Others have found the language of Appalachians to be “Hillbilly English” and a way to single “those people” out from the mainstream of American life and to label them as “ignorant”, uncultured, and lacking in social skill, particularly the skills of social dialog. It is my view and that of Giffin that what is needed is not a re-tooling of Appalachian English but a lessons in listening in the general population.  We all need to listen  — not just to the unique cadence and construction of the language found among Appalachian people, but also to what is being said. We could all benefit from a conversation that doesn’t focus on the “accent” before listening to the message.

SUMMARY

In summary, Dr. Giffin leaves us with this message. Listen and Look and get Beyond the Data. He questions whether we can statistically isolate the average Southern Mountaineer and notes that his survey is preliminary and partial.

He provided the conference attendees a list of his summarized innate characteristics of Appalachian migrants

Behavior is directed by the traditions of the culture, but marked individualism is an aspect of this tradition.
At home in the mountains, the stranger is received usually with a cordial hospitality which may be concealed beneath certain shyness and reticence of manner.
Placidity of manner and behavior yields readily to any word or action which infringes on the prevailing definition of the rights of a free independent, self-reliant individual.
When so provoked, the response is apt to be militant if not violent.
Persons of authority tend to be defined as threatening rather than helping symbols though accredited authority is usually paid its due.

 Throughout this report by Dr. Giffin I kept thinking of my grandfather in a migrant culture in some city in the North. I wondered how he fared. I thought about the process of describing the Appalachian migrant and defining his needs against what I knew and did not know about my grandfather. I thought about my own absorption of Appalachian traditions and culture and my own long “migration” path that turned me into an “outsider” of my geography.

I recollected my own goings and comings and the patterns and traditions that I thought were unique and that held a resonance with the patterns seen in the Giffin report. I thought about the current political tribalism that so readily identifies those for “us” and against “us”. I mused about the current state of the nation and measured that against the turmoil I have seen characterized in the political attention paid to Appalachia and Appalachians. I have learned that “going back” is sometimes painful, and sometime joyful. I have learned to question my “Appalachianess” and to treasure it and distance myself from it when it centers on the darker side of human nature.

What is lost and what is gained from all the coming and going from our places of origin? What does it mean to have identity? Are we born with identity? Is it enough just to be a part of humanity in this world of branding? Our labels used to be on the inside. We had style, not fashion, or the even more sinister, fad.  As Appalachin born have we been co-opted? Will the current identity crisis only be a fad defined by the J.D. Vances of the world? Our problem is not in the symbol but in the semiotics.

In giving this coming and going a deep thought, I remembered what I  read in a favorite book by Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, as he watched his rural countryside being destroyed by manufacturing and railroads.

“It is not the known, but the knowable community: A selected society in a selected point of view.”

I did not go and come back. I am constantly going and coming back and going and selecting my point of view.

SEE:

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Going and Coming Back I

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Going and Coming Back I

Pine Mountain Settlement School
DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH
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DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Going and Coming Back I

A personal reflection on Appalachian migration.

“The effect of mass migration has been the creation of radically new types of human beings: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves — because they are defined by others — by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.”
Salman Rushdie

“It seems to me from my personal experience that there is kindness everywhere in different proportions and more goodness and tenderheartedness than we read of in the moralists.”
                           Elizabeth Barrett Browning

These may seem strange companions in a discussion of migration — Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth Barrett Browning — yet they both share an understanding of our deeper selves. They reach into the core of what makes us human regardless of our origins. Migration can tear at that core in ways we are still coming to understand. In Appalachia migration is a constant theme that runs throughout our conversations. So is the idea that others can redefine us; it makes us defensive and not just because we are perceived as “somthing else.” It is much more complex.

My grandfather was always on the move, going and coming from somewhere else but always returning to there —to Appalachia. He didn’t have a car. He was left to the many devices of journeying. Neither did he have a career that kept him moving up the staircase of advancement in the ways we understand advancement today. He simply moved. That was his advancement. He changed his location and with it, he changed his sense of self. Though he mined coal for much of his life, we never knew many of the other jobs he worked into and out of in his goings. But we knew him because he was always coming back.

“Papaw,” the Appalachian term of endearment, or not, — for the fathers and grandfathers of children growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, was always going and coming back. He kept the flow of life in the household unsteady, but he also kept it animated by expectation. When he returned the household became filled with somber but expected and many times unspoken conversations. Where did you go? What did you do? Who did you meet? What was it like living … there? Did you miss us? Silence. The silence in the house dictated by our grandmother, whom we affectionally called “Daa”, was palpable. Our questions and the non-answers often hung in the air with their weight of deep anxiety. But the silence was always temporary. When the house filled with family, with the sons, the wives and their sons and daughters, the voices and laughter and stories filled the rooms. The memories of family, together, flowed like healing waters over all the unspoken answers to Papaw’s going and coming. But, Daa, the affectionate name for our grandmother, kept him in her wary view and could silence his answers with just a gaze.

When we gathered, Daa often filled her table with fried chicken, cornbread, ham slices with red-eye gravy, fried oysters, pickles, mashed white potatoes from the garden, cole-slaw, and fried sweet potatoes — crisp with hard sugar edges. We playfully juggled for chicken legs, yearned for four-legged chickens, and made jokes about the “toot” which Daa always left on the bird. No one got enough sweet potatoes and we rarely had room for the blackberry cobbler, but we ate it anyway. For us, a coming home was a celebration of family and the wealth of the table. We, the family and the cousins, repeated this ritual many times in the early years of growing up. We could do that with frequency because early-on we never lived far from our grandparents. We traveled to Coxton where our grandparents spent most of their life; first, as residents of the coal camp and later in a house they bought nearby on the road to Evarts. At most, our coming and going was across the county of Harlan, or up and over Pine Mountain to the valley where my family lived, at the settlement school called Pine Mountain Settlement, a beautiful little community nestled between two steep mountains and beside gentle Isaacs Creek, the headwaters of the long and beautiful Kentucky River. 

Papaw left his home many times but the most telling time was when he left — really left Daa and her boys. She had just been diagnosed with tuberculosis. In a coal camp tuberculosis was held to be a slow death sentence. and she still had young boys at home — five of them. According to apocryphal tales told by cousins, Daa had told someone that, Papaw, when he left, said he had to go because he did not want to stay and watch her die.

Given the common prognosis, his expectation that she would die was not unrealistic but it was cruel to have said it out loud. Most tuberculin cases ended badly. But, this going seemed most cruel if that was what he said and that was why he had left. Some of us never accepted this story, but clearly Daa never forgave Papaw for some thoughtless words said somewhere (if said at all). His awful prognosis or Daa’s fear of being alone, or the terror of the mining camp —had led to his departure. But, she and her sons also never gave up trying to entice him back home.

The 1930s in Harlan County were not easy years with strikes and union unrest and violence. Daa’s “disease” could easily be fatal but so could many other diseases. And, so could a random bullet. In many ways, Papaw’s prognosis was just as stark as that of Daa. Black lung ended the lives of most miners or the unpredictable cave-in of the deep mine could crush the life from a man in an instant. Union thugs could target whomever they did not like. When Papaw left to take jobs in the industrial north, or to Colorado, or whereever he went in his mysterious departure,  I always believed that he was saving his life and the life of the family. The industrial factories had their own labor strife and workplace dangers but dying was not generally a common outcome. When he left he aimed to be lucky.

But, Daa with her lung disease was lucky, as well. Dr. Clark Bailey, a Pine Mountain Board of Trustee member, who had diagnosed her disease early had also found her a progressive sanatarium in Louisville where she could possibly be cured through an experimental treatment of the deadly disease. Through Dr. Bailey, she had also learned about Pine Mountain Settlement School, a progressive and inexpensive boarding school for mountain children and with his help she started the process of enrolling her sons. Though Daa had only an eighth-grade education, she had been called on from time to time to teach in the coal camp school and later served as postmistress. She aimed for something better for her sons.

When she learned of the Pine Mountain program through Dr. Bailey and that the sons could continue their education and earn their education through a work program, she planted the seed of that idea in her sons. The older sons could pay their own way and also earn money in the summer to help pay for their younger brothers and later, perhaps, their mother’s care. The plan, as it turned out, was a good one and Daa’s tuberculosis was healed, the boys went to school, and Papaw was for a time not deep inside a mine. But, the wound of abandonment, the going and Papaw’s long migration history, was not so easily healed.

WAR AND MIGRATION

In the mountains of Appalachia, wars also created migrants in the sense that many young men left the mountains and never returned, or if they did return, they carried with them the changes wrought by new and brutal experience but often romantic tales of far-off battles in far-off places. Papaw’s brother fought in the Boxer Rebellion and also in the Spanish American War and when he returned he brought the romance of far-away places. All but two of Daa’s five sons fought in WWII. One of the two sons died from a coal camp disease — chronic diarrhea. Another became a farmer. Daa cried when her sons went to war but her “babies”, as she called them even into adulthood, went anyway. Going to war was a noble and necessary act for the country and the sons adopted those noble ideals. They took on the journey to war with relish and looked forward to the chance to travel, to adventure and to do something that would stamp them with the noble entry into manhood.

But not all noble ideals end well. When Uncle Silven, Daa’s oldest son went to fight in France, he returned to the mountains, in a coffin nearly five months after his death. His service was lauded throughout the community and within the family and by his wife, Alline. His body returned from the distant and foreign war to the war being waged in the coal camps as mines ramped up to support the war effort. His death filled the house with grief. His coming back brought foreign lands to the mountain family and all the myths of exotic lands exploded with his death.

Silven’s story has been repeated many times over by Appalachian families and their mountain sons. The heroes, the wounded, and the families of the killed in action, like Daa’s family, allowed how they were so proud of their heroes as they filled the rooms with tears. Silvan had been missing in action and throughout the long five months it took to determine his fatal end, Daa wrote stacks of letters. When finally his death was confirmed she shed tears of relief and of grief. Daa’s family and other mountain families then came face to face with another kind of tangled emotion, that of displacement.

Hidden behind the pride and the grief that war brought on, was a growing distrust in the minds of some; a great fear of going away and the dangers it carried. Noble or not, the scars of displacement, of leaving home, were deep in the mental fabric of many Appalachian families. Who they were before the war and where the family found themselves following the war, were not the same.

When Uncle Silven went away he went, not for family, but for some larger community, the nation, freedom, a cause, that we knew was somehow, ours as well. We knew we owned his death because he fought for us and we knew that his death was among many noble deaths and that we should be proud. But, we also knew that his going away had killed him. It was a going, a departure on two planes of our imagination and understanding. The soldiers who went to war and who came back either dead or alive, created a local, neighborly, psychic and emotional displacement in the family.

When Silven came back home the conversations in our family and those families who had experienced similar losses, turned. Daa’s other sons, her “babies,” also went to fight in the war and she talked of nothing but their safe return until they all were back home. Her mind during those years was as displaced as a migrant’s must be. Her neighbors and our neighbors and their neighbors went to war and the conversations revolved around the places of those wars past and future. Men sat on crates in front of the local post office and told tales of their wars — the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the Boxer Rebellion, WWI. Those conversations prepared the next generations for war, for the long journey to some foreign country where, like Achilles, they would challenge an unknown enemy. Then, my brother and my cousins went in the military to prepare for future wars. Then my generation began to “migrate.” We all became experts on the subject of war and the “enemy” and foreign lands.

Yet, while the elderly grieved war’s loss and the young stood lonely and confused on the edge of that large landscape of death and destruction and noble causes we all went with them in our romantic notions. Later, when my brother went to war in Viet Nam and survived his many supply flights and sorties into Da Nang airbase, we stopped holding our breath and proudly watched him advance in his military career. Yet, we still understood that we were preparing and training for the next war and that war and migration were joined in creating new ideas and new places where those ideas would grow. It was a painful growth. We knew that what we were and what we would become was somehow tied to the outcome of wars and displacement — and migration. As Daa’s grandchildren grew up, the coming and going seemed to grow, as well. Transportation changed and travel became easier. Still, we always carried the memory that going was a kind of war that never ends and that coming back would have an end — would be the end.

Our family continued to gather after the wars and in the times of peace between the wars. In the 1950s we still gathered around the dinner table to tell stories. It was a time of my best memories of going and coming back. The fried chicken was still shared with tall tales of the earlier war in the South Pacific, Navy training, guns, ships, airplanes, the sandy beaches of the Solomons, and of bravery. The boys waited for the stories with the eagerness of the wait for the crisp edges of fried sweet potatoes. The girls listened with polite reverence and some sorrow — at least this one did.

The stories lingered in our heads and we went home and got our play guns and loaded them with caps and shot each other in mock battles. We thought of Silven in the casket, but it still did not stop us from romancing war and playing with guns. In those years my brother and I were young and the Viet Nam war and his fatal air crash on Mt. Rainier were thirty years or more away. I had not yet migrated to California but my brother was soon in Utah majoring in aeronautical engineering and chasing forest fires in old Navy planes. We both still practiced the ritual of going back home every chance we got. Strange, the physical power of stories and the ritual of coming back. Neither of us could think of never going back.

Early on, the conversations of war had filled the imaginations of all the young-uns at our family table and gradually had given more meaning and nuance to the idea of going and coming back. Our going had punched a hole in the fabric of our isolation. The going and coming back of our family members had given us to wonder what was beyond the small world of our goings and coming back across a county, a mountain, a country, a world. The fragile fabric of family held tightly to the breast of our mothers and grandmothers had been ripped apart by the stories we heard, then imagined and then lived. As our generation aged our coming back to share stories and to listen to the voices of our relatives sometimes left us insecure, but excited us for more adventures to come. As we got older we started to find that the stories sometimes conflicted with our growing understanding of the world and our loyalties to people and place. The stories, old and new gave us restless ideas. The coming and going and all the tales spun from those brief migrations fractured our loyalties. Our stories unsettled us just as surely as did our physical departures.

In my mind, I knew that my own migration and the War Years migrations had some common threads. The War Years were times of massive going and coming back for many families like mine in Appalachia and across the country. They made a younger generation restless. Going meant that our lives were fragile but it also meant we were brave. It meant that some of us would die in faraway places and some would come back with their mighty tales of adventure. But we all migrated. Some near and some far. Our family, like so many others, was pushed and then pulled back.

Papaw did not fight in any war, but war had raised the mystery of the going and coming back of Papaw to another level. It had made travel mysterious and set the imagination in flight. Now older, I hunger for new tales and new outcomes. I still want to know the adventures of Papaw while he was away. I still want to travel….. to go away. Now, I still want to hear the spirit of adventure in his tales like those we heard from the Uncles. But the memory of the gaze of my grandmother and the tension around the dinner table that always froze those conversations haunts me and gives the going a weight I cannot shake off.

Papaw’s stories of what he did in his personal war were never fully told by him. He came back, not as a hero, but as one who left his family behind. He did not have the stories to give honor to his departure or his return. His valor in coming back was never celebrated. In some sense, he never came back because his migration had been a permanent fracture with Daa, but came back for family. He came back before he ever started — to a place where he was not welcomed. His migration was the migration of an idea. He held fast to his idea that a better life was out there. Daa was firmly rooted to place. It was the ultimate battle of going and coming back. I like to believe that his going away was brave but his return was heroic.

The icy stare of our loving Daa, our powerful grandmother, ended my grandfather’s stories before they began. Anything that might give credence to “That Man” and his adventures was censored by Daa. The going and coming back of Papaw would remain a mystery and that was that. For the grandchildren, Papaw was imaginary travel writ large. His untold stories of goings and comings would remain mysterious and compelling. Papaw’s life was, for me, was a grand idea. It was the idea of a “better life”. Daa’s life was anchored to one place to which everything returned. That was her “better life.”

So many families in Appalachia have stories that revolve around going and coming back and a “better life.” My family story is only one. War certainly filled many conversations in the cyclical migration that constitutes war’s outcomes. But strangely it was only the going of a Papaw that pulled most strongly on my imagination. Many Appalachian fathers went away alone. It was not uncommon. But, a more common going was the whole family that packed up and went away together. Place was abandoned. This going and coming back of Papaw’s mysterious travel — somewhere in the North, was the journey that was so very hard for many families to process. It was a journey not to exotic places like Iwo Jima or France or the jungles of Batan. It was to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago and Detroit and other centers of industrial production. It was this form of migration that was clearly a going — that took families and individuals from Appalachia away from the “home-place” and constructed the fabric of what we generally consider as the Appalachian family migration.

What these migrant families shared with Papaw was not the journey itself, but a perception of lack of responsibility to place. Going North when the mines failed was a journey of faith as much as it was a journey of necessity. But the journey to an urban environment was one that puzzled those who stayed behind. To not have land to work, to not pull your existence from inside the earth, to own your own earth, was to lack responsibility. The shift in lifestyle that came with the move to urban centers was monumental. The life of the Appalachian family would no longer be bound to the soil and the context of the stories around the communal table would develop a new framework and new conversations of “place.”

When the migrants came home from the urban North the telling of stories now had to capture their new and unfamiliar landscape. They had to introduce new words, new traditions, new lifestyles, all, often so alien that their descriptions, their stories were intrusive. The stories of migrant families became stories of urban survival, of bullying, of discrimination, of playing in streets and alleys. These were poignant stories tinged with unspoken longing for corn fields and mountains and rivers. In many ways, the new stories fractured the bonds of families unless the story could be woven into the cloth of the extended family that had stayed put.

Going was an inventory of things to be missed, a litany of stories about hoeing corn, feeding the livestock, freezing in hard winters, walking barefoot. The migrants took their patchwork quilts, their crazy quilts, their heritage seeds for a garden, a string of shucky beans …. their fatalism. When they came back, the stories changed. At their core, the celebrations of return were pure fatalism. Their life as a migrant was a violent story of being ripped from nature’s familiar arms, the enfolding of mountains, and the warm bosom of the family. They had been to “war.” Coming back was often a rant against the new environment or false boasting of the wealth and excitement of cities. Migration in hard times became a mantra writ large and passed along in the rich oral tradition of Appalachia.

Even deeper, the going became an all too familiar series of stories told over and over by those who experienced migration or those who witnessed migration’s impact on the extended family unit. Their stories became fusions of the stories told by migrants throughout the world. Their stories were war stories as well as economic sagas. A thousand times over their stories were at their essence the stories told by migrants from Syria, Sudan, Yemen, the Rohingya of Indonesia, and so many more. We are a world awash with the psychic trauma of displacement — of having to go.

Environmental disasters have added to the displacement saga. What distinguishes the Appalachian migrant from those now filling temporary camps throughout the world is the fact that most of the world’s migrants will not have the advantage of going back. They will become immigrants in a state of permanent displacement. Their displacement is our terror, the terror of never coming home.

For every family going to Cincinnati, to any new city, to find work, to survive, to build a future, there are hundreds more on the move throughout the world. But, migration is not always immigration; a going and staying. Like Papaw’s going, migration is most like a yo-yo. In Appalachia, going is often a continuous loop of going and coming back. For most of the Appalachian migrants, the departure was not a permanent exile — it was deeply believed to be temporary. The migration and the new place were malleable and so were the people to some degree. For Appalachian families, the migration was a constant recreation of communities of support balanced against the need to stay connected to home, to the rural familiar. Coming back, in some cases, could take years, as it did in my case from far across the country. Or, coming back could be only the old stories around a new and a permanent table in the new “home.” But, most times, coming back was ritualized. It was part of being a family from the Appalachian mountains. It was required.

Living as a migrant is to adapt but retain. It is to remember to never “get above your raisin’. It is foodways raised to the level of a sacrificial offering. It is barter, not money. It is the noble carried in the back pocket and the voice of ancestor’s in the head. For the migrant in the city, the physical state was dirt, crime, monotony, an urban prison where the walls of tall buildings replaced mountains. For most families from Appalachia who experienced leaving for urban centers, going required a coming back … a return to the cathedral of nature and the true familiar community where the memories could be refreshed or restored. When the migrants could not soon go home again, they pulled the vision of home from their dreams and awash in memories of themselves at home, they sought out other like-dreamers and formed centers of Appalachian life in their new cities.

It is important to understand migration if one truly wants to understand the Appalachian mind or any human mind that has been displaced from their home. Migration is not about “other.” It is about us.

Helen Wykle


SEE:

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Going and Coming Back II