CIVIL WAR MEMORY
The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin
[Hat-Tip to Karen Cox]
I cannot express how it feels to be a member of a group of people exploited first by a ruling class of white Southerners, and next by a group of revisionist historians, other than to say that the word “rape” comes to mind. Please prove me wrong and direct me to other areas of this site that show something other than the stereotypical depiction of the rural South. My family has lived in Virginia since 1739. We went from being classified as idealized yeoman farmers by no less than Jefferson himself to ignorant, racist, redneck, white trash, and several other assorted names and characterizations by most everyone since. I attended the university where you now teach, when the university allowed, as a sort of experiment I suppose, the admission of students from the much maligned western part of the state. I want the truth as well. What is the truth? Do you know? I don’t see it here. May I ask what purpose putting this youtube video of Barney Fife on your site served? Perhaps your university, which is indeed yours, since it certainly does not belong to me and long ago discounted any validity that my experience and the experiences of men and women like me might have, unless there are vast volumes of research of which I am unaware, could do a study of the impact of negative stereotyping upon Appalachian men and women.
If you are genuinely concerned about truth, you will remove the degrading video entitled: “Ya Learn Somethin’. Ya learn it” from your website. If you do not understand why the video is degrading for rural white Southerners, then perhaps you will entertain the idea that history has not been corrected over the past several decades as it so painfully needed to be, but indeed revised to the point that those who are products of the revision are unaware that they are products, just as those who studied the original version of the history of the South were products of that version of history in which deliberate falsehoods were promulgated with devastating results for African American men and women. The posting of this video on your website reveals a cultural bias that denigrates rural white Southerners.
I am entering the academic arena now, strictly in the sense of doing my own study of what has taken place in academia over the past thirty years so that I can understand the seismic shifts in thought that have taken place, and I am in a state of shock. Just call me Rip Van Winkle. I am unable to fit my actual life experience in the mountains of Virginia, and my family’s experience since the 1700s, into the old or the new paradigm, so perhaps both are false.
We all know why and how the old paradigm was false and how much suffering was caused due to that fact, now let’s examine the new.
According to the new paradigm, my ancestors never could have produced someone who considers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to be her spiritual mentor: me. According to the new paradigm, my ancestors never could have produced a woman who spent her life trying to improve the lives of African American men and women, along with the lives of men and women from Appalachia, through the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s: my mother. According to the new paradigm, my ancestors never could have produced a woman who did not agree with Jim Crow and found ingenious ways to outwit the system: my grandmother, as she was portrayed to me by the African American men and women who knew her, worked with her, and yes, loved her. You are missing something–all of you. There were not only those who hated in that long painful struggle for equality: there were those who loved, too, and love, which cannot be bargained for or stolen, but only given, won in the end. That is not a topic for historians, though. Thank you for listening. Again, please consider taking this video off of your otherwise truly engaging website.
Worried about stereotypes? Try being from New Jersey.
Andy Taylor rocks. He was a single dad who spent quality time with his son. He was a lawman who didn’t carry a gun, but still kept order with patience and humor. He was utterly incorruptable. He could speak French, had a English friend, as well as the foxiest girlfriend in Mayberry. Barney Fife was a transplant from Ohio: he’ll the only one in town with a Yankee accent.
Thank you for posting my comments. My apologies for the erroneous assumption that you teach at the university. Keep up the good work.
Ms. Tannen, — I appreciate your taking the opportunity to share your thoughts re: this video. That said, I assure you that it was not meant as an insult or an attempt to degrade any group of white Southerners. That is not my purpose with this blog and I challenge you to point to other places where this is suspected. I just thought it was funny. Perhaps next time you will inquire into why something is posted rather than assuming the worst.
You are correct in noting that I am not a university instructor, but I am familiar with a great deal of modern scholarship on the rural South and specifically in Appalachia. I am more than happy to engage in a dialog with you on stereotypes in history, but you need to give me the opportunity to do so.
I apologize for not responding sooner, but I just returned from an academic conference in Philadelphia where I presented a paper on how to use film to get students to look beyond stereotypes and other generalizations that are embedded in our national memory.
Thank you for responding Mr. Levin. Is your reason for posting the video that you find it funny? If so, you have proven my point. The video is not funny, and the fact that you think it is reveals unspoken, unknown, deeply embedded assumptions about the rural South and Appalachia that you share with many, including the Vice President of the United States and Andrea Mitchell. If you want to debate scholarship, you will surely win, because I have not been in an academic setting for thirty years. But if you want to have a dialogue and have the inclination and the time, then let’s have a dialogue. I applaud you for your efforts to get students to look beyond stereotypes. Appalachia has been defined by those from the outside for centuries. I am talking to you from the inside. I, my family, and the men and women from my area are not “creature(s) of the urban imagination” to borrow the phrase of one scholar who characterized Appalachia as such. We are indeed a complex people, who cannot be defined by a day’s tour through our area, either, as a Pulitzer prize winning playwright revealed as his underlying experience for writing his play set in Appalachia. I am certain there are positive portrayals of Appalachia and the rural South as well. I just don’t know where they are. Perhaps you do. Again, thank you for responding.
I find it interesting that you feel comfortable assuming that I share “unspoken, unknown, deeply embedded assumptions about the rural South” with the vice-president and Andrea Mitchell even though you know nothing about me. If this makes you feel comfortable, however, than so be it. I agree with the rest of your comment and I wish you all the best in your future academic endeavors.
The Last Yeoman Farmer
It started simply enough. Barack Obama was speaking in Bristol Virginia to kick off his general election campaign. I was excited. What an honor for Southwest Virginia to be chosen for this event!
I turned the television on and waited. Our local Congressman–whom I still consider to be my congressman even though I have not lived in Southwest Virginia for fourteen years, since my home is still my home–stood with Senator Obama.
Senator Obama began to speak. The crowd cheered. I felt a wonderful sense of pride. The camera cut to Andrea Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell began to interact with her fellow newscaster. “Interesting images today,” Ms. Mitchell said, “Barrack Obama, Mark Warner in southwest Virginia. This is real redneck, sort of, bordering on Appalachia country. This is not the Northern Virginia, you know, sort of high-tech corridor. And these are voters that he would not logically be, you know, gravitating to. This is the beginning of a pivot.”
When, and more importantly, how, did it become standard fare for an entire area to be categorized as “sort of redneck”? Ms. Mitchell later apologized for her remarks, but her apology only further muddied the water, especially when Ms. Mitchell said that the term “redneck” was often used by strategists to “demean an entire community.” Add to this Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks that he had cousins in his family that were married and he wasn’t even from West Virginia, along with what appears to be a widely held consensus that it is perfectly all right to disparage men and women from both Appalachia and the rural South as a whole, and violence is again done to the American imagination.
I posit myself as the last yeoman farmer. Please do not shoot me before I finish speaking. I simply want to reclaim my heritage before I disappear.
First, let me state categorically that I do not know a thing about farming, other than how to weed a garden, which I learned at age seven. I would have learned more as the years progressed, since my grandmother was a farmer, as well as an entrepreneur, but things changed and the world my grandmother was preparing me to live in began to vanish even as she prepared me.
Second, I am not speaking for the people of an entire area, only of my own experience.
Third, I am not speaking of the myth of the yeoman farmer. I am talking about the reality of the lives lived by the actual farmers idealized by Thomas Jefferson, and of the descendants of those farmers—a reality that has been constructed, then deconstructed, and constructed again by those who study us.
Who were they? Those farmers in the wilderness of Virginia who did indeed help to found a country? What did they think? How did they live? Were they pious peasants drawing some mystical knowledge from the earth that led them to be “arbiters of moral clarity”? Decidedly not, since if the mystically tilled soil could speak, it would scream with the blood shed upon it. Were they then bloodthirsty savage devils with pale white skin best consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history and gotten rid of once and for all, thank the Almighty God! No, or not one act of kindness could ever have taken place in those bloodthirsty hills short of a Nuremburg trial and hanging of all and a reordering of society.
They were people. They were just people. And they were good and bad. Noble and ignoble. Brilliant and ignorant. Charitable and cold. Just like the rest of society. Just like you. Just like me. Ordinary people with an extraordinary history—my history—your history–the history of America, Grandmother Turtle Island, as this land is called by my Cherokee, Ojibway, and Cree friends, and their history began in Scotland and Ireland.
In the Thistle and the Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels Between Scotland and Appalachia, Richard Blaustein states the following: “The quest of the Folk destroys the purity and the integrity of the object of its search, imposing alien categories and desires upon the people labeled folk. McKay concludes that the folk and folklore are exhausted constructs that serve no possible political purpose. But is this really the case? Bringing to mind the widespread folktale motif of the corpse that sits up at its wake, if the idea of the folk is dead, then we are looking at one extraordinarily lively cadaver.”
Juxtapose that quote with the following note I made in 1983 as I listened to my great aunt, who spent her entire life in the bottomland that is at the foot of the second highest peak in the state of Virginia, talk: “Old man Price—he’s buried in the cemetery there where the road forks and takes a turn. They opened his coffin at the cemetery and there were drops of sweat all over him. He was buried alive! A coma! That bothered me for a long time.”
Blaustein goes on in this segment of his book to say that the Folk and folklore have been studied for many reasons, one of the reasons being that the Nazis and Fascists used the folk and folklore for their nefarious and murderous purposes. To my knowledge, there were no Fascists or Nazis in my family. There were some soldiers, however. So I ask you, may we keep our legend of the waking corpse? Thank you. And thank you Mr. Blaustein for writing this wonderful book.
My memories of the years I spent at Mr. Jefferson’s university are conflicted, but in the final analysis they are memories dear to me. I was not a person Jefferson foresaw as a student at his university, yet there I was, a woman, and a descendant of “yeoman” farmers if ever there was one, since my family entered the state of Virginia in 1739, then drifted to the mountains around 1781 and stayed there, and I was walking the grounds.
How I loved the serpentine brick walls that lined the sidewalks! I used to touch the warm bricks as late afternoon autumn sun fell on them and think of Thomas Jefferson himself perhaps having done the same.
I wanted to know. I wanted to learn. I was the first in my family to go to college. And I did learn. But what I learned is only now measurable, some thirty years later.
I learned what a dream—many dreams—and nightmares—made this country. I learned what a great country this country is, in spite of all its faults. I learned that the American story has not even begun to be told or lived, and that we are just now, today, leaving America’s childhood. I learned this at Mr. Jefferson’s university, as I visited and revisited Jefferson’s flawed dreams.
Let us all love America, heal her, unite her, dream her into being.
Let us start our history with the histories of the five hundred nations that were here before the Europeans arrived, and let us start that history—tell it–not in anger, but in peace and reconciliation, as my friend from the Cree nation has taught me, and pride. Let us face squarely that the country was founded upon a great divide–a fault line–in which the very man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, nullified its meaning by owning slaves, until that meaning was redeemed by the sons and daughters of slaves. Let us tell the story of America from the history of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island and found here the freedom they sought, even as they had to fight for that freedom in the land of the free and sometimes die for it, to the Asian and Hispanic immigrants who had to fight and die for their freedom, too. Let us tell our story, America, and not point fingers at one another, because always those fingers point back at you, and then maybe we will finally own our own history and understand that we are one nation, and a nation like no other on Earth, and we will then be able to heal ourselves and lead the world into a new century with grace and dignity and vision.
Who were the yeoman farmers? As I sit here looking at a candle with the Star of David on it that my husband lit for his mother this morning sitting next to a braid of sweetgrass that I put on the window sill for an honoring ceremony, I know that my ancestors—Jefferson’s idealized, mythologized, de-mytholgized, much debated, bunked and debunked yeoman farmers–were men and women who did wrest some mystical power from the soil and their experiences on it. And that power was the capacity to learn, live, grow, love, and evolve, which left a mind free of prejudice and hatred in some of their descendants–my mind.
In my one family, America’s experiment in democracy succeeded beyond what Jefferson or Franklin could have imagined in their most far reaching vision of the future had they attempted to imagine it or us, since they could not have imagined my family. Only we could imagine ourselves, as Toni Morrison said of the African American community. Perhaps that experiment in democracy succeeded in your family, too. I thank you for hearing my voice. I thank you with all that I am. And I thank you Mr. Levin, for posting this comment, if that is what you decide to do. You are correct. I know nothing about you, and that does reveal a bias in my assumptions. I have admitted my bias. When ya learn somethin’. Ya learn it.
Thank you for posting my comments. You are truly too kind, and I have taken up enough space. I would send you a personal email, but I can’t get your email address to work.
I honestly believe that we are on the same side of many of these issues.
Again, I sincerely thank you.
Interesting comments. Its amazing that dehumanizing terms like Redneck and White Trash are still used this day and age. I have to second the comment about the Andy Griffith show “it rocks”.
Kevin, I thought I saw a post about your study of Civil War Executions. One of my interest is the hanging in Kinston, NC. I was on my way back from Washington, NC today and stopped and took photos of the tombstones of Jesse James Summerlin and Joseph Brock, both hung by Pickett. Do you know of any books written about this event. Would eventually like to get information regarding the hearing held in 1865 in New Bern about this event.
There is an article in Newsweek by Rebecca Thomas Kirkendall entitled “Who’s a hillbilly”. In the article Ms. Kirkendall references the Andy Griffith show. Ms. Kirkendall presents a view of this issue not represented here, even in my comments, since, of course, not all rural Southerners think alike. The article was printed in Newsweek January 25, 2008,for anyone interested in pursuing the subject further. The ironic thing is that I like Andy Griffith, too. I suppose Andy is a spokesman for rural Southerners in a way. He certainly seems to be thought highly of by those who have made comments here. Seriously, when you learn something, you learn it. Don’t you? Andy Griffith rocks? Who’d a thunk it? It is the intent of the sentiment that counts. Rock on, Andy. You know who you are.
Thanks so much for the Newsweek reference.
You’re welcome. And thank you again for posting my comments. Those interested in the subject from the standpoint of information available through popular media know where to look, as do those who wish to seriously study the subject. In addition, of course, there are the voices and life experiences of the men and women who are actually from Appalachia and the rural South to be considered. You provided the opportunity for that in this dialogue. Perhaps some awareness has been raised. If so, then something will have been accomplished, along with interesting conversation. I wish you the best in all that you do.
Enclosed is a link to a video made by a woman whom I am honored to know. The video is a Youtube video entitled “Thru the eyes of a Cree”.
How on Earth this relates to your blog on the Civil War, I do not know. lol. This I do know, however. The video was made in response to the refusal of the Canadian government to build a school for the children on my friend’s reserve. (If you click on the link below the video, this is explained. The children were promised a new school, then the government reneged. All sorts of toxic waste contaminate the site of the old school, and the parents of the children took their children out of the old school, and began to petition the government for a new school)
Letters to Chuck Strahl are being sent in support of these children, if any of your subscribers are interested in helping.
I watched the video of Don Knotts again and it is indeed funny. I also realized that the video was a tribute to Don Knotts, which I had not noticed before, so I would like to show respect for that. I am just not sure if I am laughing at myself or not, or laughing at my people. I know that you are not laughing at my people or at me, though, or you wouldn’t have posted my comments. I find it absolutely fascinating that your subscribers seem to love Andy Griffith and are so loyal to him!I don’t think that men and women from the “rural South” as I keep calling the area, for the lack of a better phrase, or Appalachia, who are grappling with this issue, would ever have thought that. Also, in the comments you posted, one of your subscribers pointed out that Barney Fife was the only character without a Southern accent, and that Andy, who does have a Southern accent, is an admirable role model. Thank you for your literary analysis of the piece, Matthew. You helped me to see something I definitely missed, and you are right. There are stereotypes everywhere of everyone.
What am I saying? I don’t know what I am saying. I just feel that it is good. Perhaps none of us will know what we are saying, or what to say, as we continue to grow and evolve into this new world, but let’s keep saying it. I particularly like your comment about yourself, Kevin, in which you state that you spend a lot of time staring out of the window. I can relate to that. I do the same thing.
Anyway, thank you Matthew, Phillip, and Kevin for the respect you have shown here. And, please everyone, help the children on my friend’s reserve!
I suppose everyone has their stereotypical cross to bear. I grew up in Tampa, Florida. Cue the jokes, please!
One of the things that can be unnerving is when you do not behave as your stereotype dictates and the other party gets angry. Years ago, I was reported to a manager, by a customer for using big words – yes, I was. Apparently, I was not the Disney character they expected 🙂
For what it’s worth, I thought the clip was hilarious – mainly because the humor was universal. The setting meant nothing at all to me. More than once I’ve sat with my daughters as they told me they had memorized something for school – a speech, lines from a play, whatever – and then they became Barney and I became Andy and the scene unfolded just as in the video.
That’s the appeal of a scene like that – we’ve all (or at least many of us) have been there.
(And I’m from latte-land, home of Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon.com. Yes, I know we have much to answer for…)
Hello, Phil from latte land. As far as I am concerned, you have nothing to answer for. I love Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon.com! My comments came after a fast speed propulsion through an Internet wormhole of scholarship in which I came out on the other side having discovered that some scholars seemed to think they knew more about the people who live in my area of the country than the people who live there know about themselves. Not a new phenomenon. Just one I thought had disappeared. Kevin and his colleagues are not among those scholars. I just happened to land on Kevin’s website, and Kevin, being a sort of calm person, it appears, heard me out. lol Yes the video is hilarious.
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