December 9, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Appalachia Literacy—Stories of History and Self-Sufficiency

Photo of Amanda Hayes' great-grandparents in front of the old farmhouse.

Photo of Amanda Hayes’ great-grandparents in front of the old farmhouse.

By Amanda Hayes
Doctoral student in Composition and Rhetoric at Ohio University
Published as “Splintered Literacies,” the December 2014 edition of the National Council of Teacher of English journal College Composition and Communication

Writing and literacy are splintered worlds in Appalachia.

My family resides on a ridge of woods and farmland that’s been passed through the generations for 150 years. I grew up related to my closest neighbors, learning from them stories that got told from ear to ear and often from generation to generation. (I could, for example, quote words spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather, who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The former Private Thomas Gallagher thought it important that his own children hear his stories, and not mistake war for glory. He said to them often, “I run a mile to join the army. After I was in it, I’d a-run ten miles to get out and been grateful just to go home.” It’s an old story by now, yes, but one that unfortunately still has resonance.)

Reading and writing were parts of the stories, too, in particular ways. The weakness of oral cultures is that they can die in a generation, and my mother recognized this. I can remember her using a typewriter (exciting, when I was a child) as she wrote out some of the family stories and put each story in a box frame with its corresponding heirlooms, such as a great-great-grandmother’s pin framed with the story of her travels to these hills from the east, to marry and become a local midwife. And often when she read to us, my mother chose books she could relate to our family stories. My favorite was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, which Momma read to us more than once. “This may be what life was like for Pap’s grandparents,” she would say, keeping us well acquainted with those ancestors who built the first tiny house in our big woods, a house that still stood in ruins twenty feet from our front porch. Stories were important this way, because they meant holding on to life, even for those long dead. More and more as I’ve grown I’ve seen that there is something deeply rhetorical in these multigenerational tales, something I’m only beginning to grasp about making meaning of the place I live. Writing records and preserves what is valuable, but my mother’s work of writing these stories and reading similar ones also created that value for me, a child who would grow up fascinated by the very acts of literacy.

In my school literacy, on the other hand, writing was not constructed as playing the preserving role it did in my early life. I can’t recall once writing a school essay about my family or our land—the two things I learned earliest were worth writing about—until college. And I certainly learned not to write in the way I talked at home. I remember, for example, a middle school English teacher who became so frustrated by our “bad” English that she threw chalk at us and lamented our inability to learn “finer sensibilities.” Even those teachers who weren’t outright insulting about our Appalachian dialects and home lives seemed to take for granted that these subjects were not acceptably “academic” enough for school writing. A hillbilly background was a thing to be overcome, not embraced; therefore we didn’t, and couldn’t, write Appalachia in school. The more I study and teach about writing and culture, the more troubled I become by this conceptual separation. Formal schools have almost entirely taken over the educational roles once played by families in the region, and students can easily see when their home literacies are not valued. It’s what we lose when we stop valuing those literacies that scares me.

Tomatoes from the garden of Amanda Hayes' grandfather.

Tomatoes from the garden of Amanda Hayes’ grandfather.

My mother’s example made certain I valued my home literacy, but not all children are so fortunate. A local newspaper article recently lamented the prevalence of hunger in our county, with need by far outstripping the ability of food pantries to supply. My grandparents, who as octogenarians still gardened and stocked a basement pantry with home-preserved foodstuffs at the end of each summer, read stories like this with deep distress. They, children of poverty by any standard, didn’t grow up hungry. That so few people, in a region with both rich land and a traditional pride in self-sufficiency, can now grow food or preserve it is an absurdity. And while food science and writing might seem unrelated, I would argue that they are not, especially not here. Those starving people in our rural county almost certainly had grandparents who knew how to garden. Why was this not bothered to be taught or learned? There’s a vicious conceptual cycle at play here, the root of which is what literacy means, what writing means, and how we continue to define and value what we need to know to live well. The stories that get told, or not told, and where we’re allowed to tell them, can shape the knowledge we value. And that value, or its lack, can hurt us.

Hayes’ research focuses on Appalachian rhetoric and its roles in both the culture and the classroom.

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