I crossed paths with a momma in Walmart this past week who reminded me of so many I’ve seen before. Her tiny toddler gripped tight to her pinky finger while struggling to walk. The baby was barefoot, had a sticky chest from candy or juice i’m sure, and had dirt caked around his cheeks. In an instant I was transported back “home.” I was reminded that poverty indeed is still alive and well, and is no respecter of persons or regions for that matter. Poor is poor is poor.
I reflect on all the stereotypes that accompany Appalachia. Neither southeastern Kentucky nor northeast Tennessee are easy places to grow up in. Failed economic growth, lack of opportunity, and poor education are often the culprits of such circumstances. But at what point do we as Kentuckians decide it's time to embrace the culture that has molded us, and abolish the stigma that comes with pain and anguish. There is a fine line between cultural disadvantage and preferred lifestyle.
Before you get your feathers all ruffled, I make it pretty clear that I am proud of my roots. I never fail to explain the origin of my lineage. In most situations my accent announces “I wasn’t born here,” before I do. I have no plans of changing my grammar anytime soon. Just because my area code is now 270 doesn’t mean I’ve disowned 606. I can assure you I am always quick to defend “hillbilly” soil and debunk “mountain myths.” I tell folks all too often SEKY isn’t habitually “barefoot and pregnant” with a Mountain Dew in hand.
The truth of the matter is many are poor because they are born into it. What troubles me most is not that folks have so little, it’s that they settle for far less than they deserve. When people become complacent they stop evolving, they stop bettering themselves, and they become comfortable. I hate to even use the word settle, but so many do. It gnaws at my innards.
I think about my Pappaw. He had very little education, having went to work on his family farm after finishing third grade. This man raised nine children. He worked until his mid-60s. He drew a small pension, was allotted $16 dollars a month in food stamps, and pushed mowed his yard until he was well into his 80s. He grew a garden, improved his reading by spelling out words from the newspaper aloud, and made biscuits by hand after watching my Mammaw for over 50 years. He was born into poverty, but he chose to live with dignity.
So I say that, to prove this… it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you’re headed. For many that won’t be far, and that’s perfectly ok. Embrace your community. Value, cherish, and take care of what you own. Get involved. Be present. Work hard. What makes the Appalachian region so special goes beyond the breathtaking beauty of its landscape, it is embedded in its people.
Having moved away from home, I know how irreplaceable and beloved the hospitality of such a region is compared to the hustle and bustle of a thriving river town. It’s different. Hard to describe. It’s not bad, but it’s not “what I know.” Hold tight to your family and friends, and take pride in all that you do, it can't be replicated.
Be bold. Be brave. Break the cycle, or better yet change its course beginning with you.
There’s so much more to be revealed in time within a people, the strongest group of people I know.
Erinn Williams is originally from Williamsburg, and now resides in Owensboro, Ky. The daughter of a teacher and a preacher, she hopes to make a difference through her words. She serves as a teacher's assistant in Daviess County, and writes for two newspapers in Western Kentucky. She can be contacted at email@example.com.