I love Dolly Parton, just like the rest of the world. That’s partly because of her genius, partly because of her music, partly because of her kindness and partly because I’ve now had three shots of a life-saving vaccine whose development she bankrolled. Dolly Parton has saved my life, no fewer than three times, now.
But I also love Dolly Parton because she sounds like my Mammaw. Hear for yourself:
Dolly is from Eastern Tennessee and my Mammaw was from Eastern Kentucky, and the tucked away mountain places where those two states meet far Southwestern Virginia are inscribed in my DNA. It’s not readily apparent in my accent or my behavior, these days, but I’ve got generations of Appalachian identity flowing through my veins.
Mammaw was the pipeline to all that culture. This little audio excerpt is from a recording I made of her several years ago, when I sat down and begged her to tell me all her best stories again and again. It’s a treasure to have this, now, to be able to hear her voice and double check my memory about who my great-great grandmother actually was.
Part of the swindle of white supremacy for white people is to convince us that we have no cultural identity. Whiteness is just the vanilla standard of all things and we don’t need to know where we come from or who we are in order to enjoy the privileges of existing as white in a white world. In fact, if we *do* know who we are and where we come from, if we *do* understand ourselves as descended from a particular people with particular identities, we threaten the powerful monolithic myth of whiteness itself.
Because of my Mammaw’s stories, I have always known that I came from somewhere. She and my Pappaw left Eastern Kentucky – for Tennessee, then West Virginia, then finally the bustling metropolis of Roanoke, Virginia. It was an Exodus. It changed the course of their lives and their children’s lives, and mine. There wasn’t much opportunity for work other than the coal mines, so Pappaw’s military service and then work with the FAA was a way out. They told the story as an exodus, and telling the stories about HOME was a way to keep themselves – and us – connected to mountain roots.
A few weeks ago, my mom and I sat down to sort through family photos from Mammaw’s house. There was one particularly well-documented family reunion in approximately 1980 held at the Breaks Interstate Park, one of the most beautiful, mystical places I’ve ever been. This was a large gathering of siblings and cousins and cousins’ kids. Mammaw was one of 9 siblings, so my mom has a TON of cousins. I *think* I recognize all their names, and I’ve met quite a few, but these are not cousins I know. I asked mom how many of them live outside of Kentucky, these days. There are a few in Ohio, a couple in Tennessee, and us, in Virginia and North Carolina. In other words, almost all of us are still in Appalachia.
Because of Mammaw’s stories, I know about Granny Guinn, Mammaw’s mammaw, whose husband died and left her with children to raise on her own, who sold her land for a horse & a shotgun and rode the hills and hollers delivering babies as a midwife. I know about Mammaw’s mean Aunt Belle, who begrudgingly rented Mammaw and Pappaw a little house when they were first married, but was so fickle that she insisted on planting corn RIGHT UP TO THE DRIPLINE of the porch in order not to lose any crop income. I know that my great-grandfather’s first wife died in the flu pandemic of 1918, that he re-married my great-grandmother afterward and that my Mammaw would never have been born if that pandemic hadn’t re-organized millions of marriages and families.
Because of Mammaw’s stories, I’ve read other stories, and histories, and done a little genealogical research. Because of Mammaw’s stories, I know that Appalachia is not the butt of the joke that it has been made out to be these last hundred years. I know that Appalachian poverty is the direct result of government abandonment and corporate greed. I know that Appalachian beauty is tucked into the folds of mountains and twists of people’s twangs. I know that I come from somewhere, have responsibilities for that place, am expected to learn and tell the stories. Because of Mammaw’s stories, I hope that I am a tiny little bit less likely to get swept up into the totalizing myth of whiteness as the texture-less, origin-less, monopolizing lie that ruins everything it touches.
That is probably not the narrative you hear most often about Appalachia. But I’m from Appalachia. I am an Appalachian. I was born in the mountains to generations of mountain bred people, and I’m better for it. Next time you read a condescending article or hear an insulting joke, you can think of me, and my Mammaw, and know them for the lies they are.