Monday, March 17, 2014

The Roots of Our Cussedness

On a cross-county plane trip 25 years ago to interview for a job in Durham, North Carolina, I happened to read Dr. David Hackett Fischer’s then-newly published book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

One chapter in particular, “Borderlands to the Backcountry,” turned out to be an insightful introduction to my soon-to-be adopted home just as reading John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country had been a decade earlier as I relocated to Anchorage, Alaska in a similar capacity.

Having read books such as this allowed me to grasp the deep cultural influences in the DNA of these places, years before I would have otherwise, something crucial to my now-concluded career in community visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Reading Albion’s Seed also ignited a passion for family history, something I had only tinkered with prior.

This all came to mind again a few weeks ago while reading The Great Adventure of the Outlaw Blalocks,” Professor Philip Gerard’s installment in this month’s Our State magazine’s North Carolina’s Civil War history series.

The true story is about a marriage on Grandfather Mountain between members of two Scots-Irish families, one unionist and the other secessionist who had been feuding since before the families had immigrated to America.

They came here from along the border lands or marches that stretch southwest between Scotland and England down from Durham, England through the hills, valleys, lakes and uplands.

The culture of their homeland also jumps across the Irish Sea to include Ulster where many had earlier been forcibly moved.  Nearly a quarter of a million immigrated here between 1717 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, two-thirds in the last decade.

Here they were called by the Americanism “Scots-Irish” but these immigrants would have called themselves either Scots or English or Anglo-Irish or Saxon-Scotch. The majority spoke English.

They settled along the Appalachian Mountains stretching from New England in an arch down through North Carolina and across the “old” southwest of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and then parts of Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas.

They came primarily as families.  Most were skilled or semiskilled but had primarily worked as tenants or renters on land held by absentee landlords.

These homelands had been seared by seven centuries of wars between Scotland and England only to be marauded by large gangs of rustlers.

Different than the branches of my family who came to America two hundred years earlier, most Scots-Irish other than the early Quakers did not come for religious reasons.

Like my Scots-Irish family branches with names such as Harper, Buzby, Neeley, Crawford, Martin, McCrory, Laughlin, Gilmore, Bradford, Montgomery and Lowrie, these immigrants were proud, independent and resentful of being subordinate.

Mostly the Scots-Irish immigrated for land and opportunity but their border land origins gave them what we affectionately refer to as a “cussedness” in North Carolina including an aversion to assimilation.

This also included a distrust of governments, institutions and clergy, a reformist-dissenter sense of faith, a legacy of families that unified into clans for support and a belligerence toward other ethnicities including a xenophobic outlook in general that remains embedded in many today.

This legacy also included a sense of freedom and liberty interpreted for individuals and private property but not applied to groups, something apparent today among gun rights adherents who insist on interpreting an amendment meant for militias as personal, no matter what harm guns do to society.

Ninety percent of the back-settlers as David Hackett Fischer calls them were either from North England, the Scottish Lowlands or Ulster.  We hear their influence today in Country Music and architectural vernacular such as “cabin” and “log cabin.”

In the 1840s, prior to the Civil War, nearly all of my Scots-Irish ancestors became Mormons and headed west past the Rocky Mountain “front” to settle along the “back-side” of that iconic mountain range.

But they took with them many of the traits described above including pronunciations I heard in Eastern Idaho growing up, such as “deef” for deaf, “harse” for horse, “card” for cord and “wandered” for wondered, a deviation you can hear clearly in the iconic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by the late George Jones.

We owe it to Scots-Irish influences every time we use the endearment “honey” or hear it from a waitress, same with “man” as a reference for husband or significant other, as in classic country song “Stand by Your Man.”

I returned east of the Appalachians a milder version, possibly because my Scots-Irish lines of ancestors had gradually selected out the more positive traits while retaining more than a little “cussedness.”

Today, nearly 6 million Americans have this heritage but as I have noted from reading Albion’s Seed, its cultural influence is felt much more broadly, especially in states such as North Carolina where even today you can still see it shaping otherwise seemingly inscrutable public policy.

It is why a state that is well aware that its brand is its scenic beauty can give out-of-state billboard companies free reign to blight first and last impressions along roadsides by clear cutting billions of dollars of publicly-owned roadside forest.  It’s why it will soon earn a reputation for mega-dumps.

It seems illogical and self-destructive until realized that this springs from a resentment of restrictions on use of property even if the value of that property is parasitic to tax-payer funded roads and even though any benefit will go to a few narrow interests at great expense and harm levied on the overall population in terms of air and water pollution, global warming, etc.

This is also the cultural source of resentment of zoning regulations, design guidelines for neighborhoods, historic preservation, open space and urban forests all crucial to sustain unique sense of place, a “cussedness” that doesn’t even flinch at “cutting off one’s own nose off to spite one’s face.”

When I moved to North Carolina in 1989, I was aware that the state had been conflicted during the Civil War and that Scots-Irish, including many living in the South, fought valiantly on both sides or against both sides.

Here were people represented both by those who truly embrace what it means to be American and those who remain a world apart, no matter how many generations their ancestors have lived here.

This has been extremely well documented in a new book entitled, The New Mind of the South, by journalist and author Tracy Thompson. She traces how and why this region of the country seems to be divided by new and old cultural influences.

The book reminded me that I had been aware that the month I interviewed here that it had only been ten years since Ku Klux Klan members had murdered five protestors sixty miles away in Greensboro.

My interview had also been preceded just eight years earlier by the lynching of a black man by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, something common across the South for many decades following the Civil War.

A few months after I relocated in 1989, I drove past a highway sign erected by the North Carolina State DOT on a U.S. Highway that signaled that a town 47 miles south of Durham was the home of a KKK Grand Dragon.

A state official told me at a luncheon that my newly-adopted home town had always been a “black town” because it had a reputation as accepting of different ethnicities, cultures and lifestyles.

Many I initially encountered who had been born in my newly adopted state before the mid-1970s were still eager to persuade me that the Civil War was not fought over slavery at all but rather because the South didn’t want to be told what to do as they had learned in school from propagandized texts.

They were shocked and angered by what I had learned in school including irrefutable evidence that not only was the war fought over slavery, but only a decade following its end, Southern, white-supremacist Democrats had cut a secret deal.

They would not dispute the one electoral vote election of Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes in return for the withdrawal of all federal troops from the south.  What resulted was the evolution of 80 years of Jim Crow laws reversing much of the freedoms earned by that war.

It isn’t hard to draw a line from there to the efforts by Republicans, this time in states such as North Carolina, now to roll back the progress that has been made since the 1960s.

In many ways, there are two South’s today, one having taken the best from that Border Land culture, and one holding on to its most regressive influences more than two centuries after being transplanted to America.

I may differ with many of those influences as they are manifest today, but along with a dose of Puritanism from other branches of my family history, I definitely sense those traits that are Scots-Irish within me, including more than a little “cussedness.”

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