March 23, 2006

APPALACHIAN SPIRIT: GREATEST HITS, VOL. III

One of the things El Cabrero loves about Appalachia and West Virginia in particular is our tendency to occasionally get rebellious. This rebellious spirit was seen in the American Revolution--Thomas Jefferson and others praised the "Overmountain Men," i.e. hillbillies, who rallied to the cause at critical times.

The tradition continued when western Virginians, with a little help from Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Virginia secessionists to form West Virginia in 1863 (or Year Zero, as I like to call it). It flourished again and again in epic labor struggles beginning with the great rail strike of 1877 that started in Martinsburg and spread across the country and continued with the many (sometimes literal) battles to build the United Mine Workers of America and other unions.

The UMWA, once established, helped create the Congress of Industrial Unions, which organized mass production industries around the country and contributed greatly to the democratization of American life. Other struggles, such as the black lung movement and Miners for Democracy, sprang from here but had nationwide implications. The last really big rebellious episodes in our time were the Pittston Coal Strike of 1989-90 and the Ravenswood Lockout of 1990-92. Those who participated in these struggles and this spirit were women and men, young and old, black and white, native and foreign born.

One troubling tendency of recent decades is that many of the people who inherited the Appalachian spirit have had to go into exile, leaving the area and hanging up their lyres on the willows by the rivers of Babylon as mines closed down and jobs were shipped offshore. Many of those who have since moved in don't share the traditions.

The pastoral letter "This Land is Home to Me," published by Appalachian Catholic bishops in 1975 and featured in the last few Goat Rope installments, also speaks about the Appalachian spirit:

"...the children of the mountains
have fought for a different way.
Their struggles and their poetry
together keep alive
-a dream,
-a tradition,
-a longing,
-a promise
which is not just their dream,
but the voiceless vision
buried beneath life's bitterness
wherever it is found.

They sing of a life
free and simple,
with time for one another,
and for people's needs,
based on the dignity of the human person,
at one with nature's beauty,
crowned by poetry.
If that dream dies,
all our struggles die with it."

"It is the mountain's spirit of resistance
which must be defended
at any cost,
for at stake is the spirit
of all our humanity.
There are too few spaces of soul
left in our lives."

"Dear sisters and brothers,
we urge all of you
not to stop living,
to be a part of the rebirth of utopias,
to recover and defend the struggling dream
of Appalachia itself.
For it is the weak things of this world
which seem like folly,
that the Spirit takes up
and makes its own.
The dream of the mountains' struggle,
the dream of simplicity
and of justice,
like so many other repressed visions
is, we believe,
the voice of Yahweh among us."

Here's hoping for a revival of the old time Appalachian spirit, perhaps best exemplified by goats. El Cabrero pledges to do his part. Will you?

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