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Eat Grits and Die, or Cracker, Your Breed Ain’t Hermeneutical

“Eat Grits and Die, or Cracker, Your Breed Ain’t Hermeneutical” is the alluring title of an article by Rodger Cunningham, which appeared in the Appalachian Journal 17(2): Winter 1990.  I found it by way of bibliographic reference in something I was reading recently, then requested by Interlibrary Loan, my dear companion ever since Davidson, when I believe I was the most frequent requester on campus for three years running.

The article is a scathing critique of a book by Grady McWhiney entitled Cracker Culture.  Cunningham begins by outlining the central thesis of the book that he says is “largely undeniable and potentially valuable:” “some important differences in American regional cultures are transformations of a regional difference in the Old World, and that this regional difference has had a cultural effect autonomous from (though linked with) economic and other factors” (177).

However, the specific application in Cracker Culture is the idea that the South is the inheritor of Celtic (Scots-Irish) culture, and the North of Anglo-Saxon (English) culture. Cunningham takes this idea apart quite aggressively. The Scottish and Irish populations of the Old World by the 17th and 18th century were not homogenous, but had been profoundly influences by immigration and cultural exchange. This effect was even more pronounced in the New World (more immigrants, African-American influence, and more). To talk of modern “celtic” people and their homes, foods, values, and vices is historically inaccurate as well: “Celtic” is a American / English invention (and the word “Celtic” entered Celtic languages from English).

Essentially, the “Celtic” beliefs and traits that McWhiney assigns, and Cunningham asserts that this is only a catalogue of the typical traits that the powerful assign to the powerless: dirty, ignorant, violent, loose, unprogressive, fun-loving, hospitable, oral culture, song and dance.  One can see echoes of these descriptions in stereotypical depictions of almost any culture written by privileged outsiders — I’ve read it a dozen times in 19th century works describing African-Americans.

Cunningham concludes that, “at any rate, it should be clear enough now that though McWhiney’s book is full of well-marshaled quotations, there’s not a single ‘fact’ in it” (180-181) and that the book reinforces stereotypes and gives fuel to people that would continue to marginalize people because of historical precedent, growing inequality, and cultural divisions.  It is “likely to do much more harm than good” (181).

This may be the most scathing review of an academic book that I’ve seen in an academic publication.

The idea of a homogenous Celtic culture does appear to be ridiculous. Stereotypes are like proverbs: there is always one equal and opposite.  Mountain “Celtic” stereotypes (rural, independent, agricultural, Protestant) can be refuted with Bostonian “Celtic” stereotypes (urban, big families, factory workers, Catholic) — except for the stock set that applies to any powerless group being described by the powerful — ignorant but with rich folk traditions, sinful but colorful.

Cecelia Conway’s book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia cites the theory that folk music (and especially fiddle music) was stronger in Appalachia than in other parts of the county because of the “Celtic” influence. The fiddle as folk instrument had died out of English culture by the 17th and 18th centuries, but continued to be strong in Scots-Irish culture. I think this a very interesting idea, especially as it relates to a particular cultural fusion of the African banjo and the Celtic fiddle into the Appalachian string band — a combination that is uniquely American. It works very well for inspiration, but not, perhaps, for history. As “Eat Grits and Die” points out, neat theories are sometimes just too neat. Conway does acknowledge this in her book, though apparently McWhiney does not. Appalachian music has many contributing factors — melding ethnic cultures is one, but so are geography, infrastructure, pop culture (yes, they had that in the 19th century!), local traditions, and the random, serendipitous process of the past.

Written by timwestover

September 2nd, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in folklore

Errors in “Slavery in the American Mountain South”

I haven’t finished reading Wilma Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South yet, but I’ve already run across two errors that are bothersome:

First, on page 1, “In geographic and geological terms, the Mountain South (also known as Southern Appalachia) includes that part of the U.S. Southeast that rose from the floor of the ocean to form the Appalachian Mountain chain ten thousand years ago.” Ten thousand years is too old for the Youth Earthers, yet far too young to be geologically correct.  Also, the sentence manages to say absolutely nothing; it boils down to “the Mountain South is the part of the south that’s in the mountains.”

Second, she writes that “slaves staffed a fashionable hotel atop Lookout Mountain, and they led regular expeditions to mountain sites nearby, like Tallulah Falls in Northern Georgia” (84). Lookout Mountain is at the extreme northwest corner of Georgia, at the GA – AL – TN junction.  Tallulah Falls is at the extreme northeast corner, at the GA – SC – NC junction. They’re 150 miles apart — that’s certainly more than a day trip in the 1840’s.

I’ve seen the same Tallulah Falls / Lookout Mountain error before in another primary source, whose name escapes me. I thought it might have been a confusion with “Lula Falls” and “Lula Lake” (very pretty, but not nearly as impressive as Tallulah Falls). There are a number of other falls much closer to Lookout Mountain: Ruby Falls is the most prominent in roadside advertisements, but Cloudland Canyon also has waterfalls.

The book also suffers from the academic tendency to never use a succinct phrase when a more pompous alternative is available. Capitalism is consistently described as a “world system” (whatever that means). Sometimes Dunaway’s vocabulary glosses over the facts in a particular unsavory way. The worst is when she writes “the region’s indigenous people were integrated into the commodity chain of the world economy to supply slaves.” The commodity chain, in the case of the Middle Passage, was more literal than figurative.

Her argument so far — that slavery was more prevalent and more essential in the Mountain South than most historians present — is compelling and seems well-researched. I wish that she’d avoided the errors and overblown style, but perhaps they are endemic to all the titles in Cambridge’s “Studies in Modern Capitalism.”

Written by timwestover

August 31st, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Posted in folklore

Sheep Shadney and Sheep Nannie Tea

I didn’t mean to have two Zora Neale Hurston or two scatological posts in a row, but this item from the glossary at the end of Jonah’s Gourd Vine made me very curious:

SHEEP SHADNEY, tea made from sheep droppings. It is sweetened and fed to very young babies.

The Internet has a few tidbits on this folk remedy. “Sheep shadney” returns only references back to Jonah’s Gourd Vine, but “sheep shandy” gives us a reference from the Floripedia prescribing the concoction as a remedy for whooping cough.

Covey’s African-American Slave Medicine confirms the practice in Kentucky and Indiana as a treatment for measles (another childhood disease). Other kinds of dung (cow and chicken) are also mentioned as cures for the common cold.

The wonderfully Victorian title Scatalogic Rites of All Nations finds “sheep shadney” remedy for measles (under the name “sheep nannie tea”) among the Navajos, who supposedly learned it from the Spanish.

While making a tea out of manure seems nauseating to 21-st century suburbanites, I wonder if that same revulsion would have been present among agricultural people two hundred years ago. Living closer to the hummus, these smells would have been omnipresent and familiar and possibly not as off-putting. Body odor and bad breath weren’t considered particularly offensive smells until companies wanted to sell us deodorant and mouthwash; perhaps manure wasn’t smelly until we weren’t around it every day.

However, part of the cure may be the bad smell. Do we drive away “bad airs” (like measles and whooping cough) with sweet smells: a pocketful of posies? Or do we drive them away with worse — yet familiar — airs: animal manure? If the tea didn’t stink, would it work against measles? Would anyone have thought to try?

Written by timwestover

August 30th, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Posted in folklore

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Hairy Hindparts are Fatal to Parrots

I read a lot of folklore, especially Southern folklore, but a persistent and unusual theme that I’ve discovered is the peculiar susceptibility of parrots to a human’s naked hindparts.  That is, if a parrot sees a naked behind, it will die instantly.

Sometimes, the folktale specifies that the hindparts in question must be hairy.  Quite often, it is a woman’s hindparts that do the killing.

This sets one to wonder: what parrot was the first to die, and under what circumstances? Were parrots so common in the 19th century South that a folktale like this was necessary? It would seem simple enough to disprove the phenomenon, but that is never really the point of a folktale…

I finally found an explanation of the phenomenon in Zora Neale Hurston’s Every Tongue Got to Confess, posthumous collection of Gulf-state African-American folktales. This supplied the backstory that was missing in the other folktales and folk beliefs I’d read, which only stated, “A woman’s hairy hindparts will kill a parrot.” In the tale she records, the hindparts are not hairy, but they are still fatal. In the quotation below, I’ve reduced the dialect and omitted sensitive words — the original can be read on Google Books.

During slavery times, they didn’t allow blacks to eat biscuit bread, but Old Miss had a cook that used to steal biscuits and eat them. Old Miss had a parrot that roosted in the kitchen and told her all that went on.

One day, just as she [the cook] had taken some biscuits out of the pan, she heard Old Miss coming in, so she hid the biscuits under the cushion in the chair and made out like she was busy doing something else. The parrot saw her, but she wasn’t paying him any mind. Old Miss started to sit down in the chair and the parrot hollered, ‘Hot biscuits, Old Miss! Burn your behind!’ He kept up that until she looked under the cushion and found the bread. Then she had forty lashes put on the cook’s back.

That made the cook mad with the old parrot, so one day when Old Miss was gone away, she turned her clothes up over her head and backed up to the parrot, and it scared him so bad till he dropped dead. Ever since then, if a parrot sees a naked behind, he’ll drop dead.

So, the parrot’s death is a warning tale against tale-telling and prudishness. The parrot is a tattle-tale, revealing a hidden (and sometimes sexual) secret because it is repeating overheard speech. It appears, then, to be a prude, and it meets with a commensurate fate  — its prudish heart can’t take the shock of a rude gesture and an unkempt behind.

Written by timwestover

August 21st, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Posted in folklore

Three Native American Sites in the Northwest Georgia Mountains

This past Saturday, I visited two Native American sites located in the north GA mountains.  I planned to visit a third located nearby, but there was so much to see at the first two, I didn’t have time.  It’s remarkable that three sites, located within 50 or so miles of each other, can be so different from each other.  New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 until the Trail of Tears, is just up the road from Etowah, the site of a busting town from the Mississippian culture (800AD to 1600AD), and both are not far from Fort Mountain, the location of a mysterious wall.

New Echota Printing Office (reconstruction)

New Echota Printing Office (reconstruction)

New Echota is the latest historically of the three Native American sites.  The location of a few Cherokee homesteaders, it rose to prominence in 1828 when it was selected as the capital of the shrinking Cherokee Nation.  Years of land grabs and territorial encroachments had eroded the territory greatly.  In the hopes of preventing further loss, the Cherokee Nation took steps to “civilize” themselves (essentially, emulate the white man).  To take territory from “savages” is one thing, to take it from a modern, sovereign nation is another.  The Cherokees established a three-branch government (legislative, executive, judicial), set up a printing press with the syllabary invented by Sequoyah, and built structures to house their governmental bodies comprised of elected officials.  Because of intermarriage, many of the Cherokee leaders were of mixed ancestry, and English and Cherokee were widely spoken.  The town of New Echota, though, small, was thriving.

Unfortunately, the sovereignty of the territory was critically threatened by the discovery of gold in the North Georgia mountains.  White settlers entered Cherokee territory to pan and mine for gold, and the state of Georgia often turned a blind eye to invasions.  When rules were set down to “protect” the Cherokee territory, they were often insulting.  Cherokees were forbidden from mining gold on their own land and from testifying in any criminal or civil case against a white man.

The ability for the state of Georgia to even make laws governing the Cherokee territory was in question.  A missionary, Samuel Worcester, was a great friend to the Cherokee and lived at New Echota.  Under Georgia law, as a white man living in Cherokee territory, he was required to obtain a permit to live there.  But the Cherokee asserted that, if Worcester were permitted by the Cherokee government at New Echota, no further permission was required.  Worcester was arrested for failing to obtain the permit and remained imprisoned for two years while his case travelled all the way to the US Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of Cherokee self-government.  Then-president Andrew Jackson was furious with the ruling.  Having promised the state of Georgia that all Native Americans would be evicted “eventually,” Jackson decided that the time was now, and a US agent engaged with a few Cherokee leaders to sign the treaty of New Echota, which exchanged the remaining Cherokee territories for new reservation land in Oklahoma.  Most Cherokees were furious at the treaty, arguing that the few signers of the treaty did not have legislative authority to speak for the whole Cherokee nation.  But Congress ratified the treaty of New Echota despite these objections. The state of Georgia took possession of the remaining Cherokee territories, raffling off the land to Georgia citizens in a series of land lotteries.  In 1838, Cherokees were rounded up in various locations, including New Echota, and escorted to the Oklahoma territory.  This was the Trail of Tears.  An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during or shortly after the migration.

Today, New Echota is not as busy a place as it once was.  Having been reduced to a level field after 1838, it is now a Georgia state historic site.  Several important buildings have been reconstructed, and a few have been relocated to New Echota from other places.  Reconstructions of the court house / capitol building, printing office, and a middle-class Cherokee farm are highlights, as is the sole remaining structure actually standing in new Echota in 1838 — the house in which missionary Samuel Worchester lived with his family and boarders.

Etowah Mounds

Etowah Mounds

Because the events of New Echota happened in historic times and were recorded by outsiders and the Cherokee themselves, its history is much better understood than Etowah, just a few miles down the road.  Etowah was a major town in the Mississippian culture, a loose confederation of tribes that shared certain physical, social, and religious characteristics.  Etowah was a town of 1,000 – 4,000 people, built beside the Etowah river.  A defensive ditch and high wooden fence protected homes, workshops, food storage, and impressive dwelling and burial mounds, the highest of which is 63 feet tall.  Political and religious leaders lived in houses on top of the mounds, with higher-ranking leaders on the higher mounds.  A large plaza of hard-packed clay was the site of markets, social gatherings, and sporting activities, such as the ball game.  A large population of farmers and fishermen supported warriors, craftsmen, and religious leaders in a complicated, organized society with trade connections stretching for thousands of miles.

DeSoto’s expedition encountered the Etowah population center in 1540 and stayed several days.  The Mississippian culture was already in decline prior to contact with white explorers and settlers, but the introduction of European diseases and instruments of war certainly hastened the collapse.  By 1600, the Etowah site was abandoned.  Over the centuries, some of the smaller mounds were plowed down for farmland.  Later owners of the property recognized the importance of the site and prevented the largest mounds from being destroyed (but the owners did plant corn on the top of the mounds and constructed a ramp so that mules could get to the top for plowing).  Excavations starting in the 1850’s and continuing through today have unearthed thousands of amazing artifacts, mainly from the burial mounds.  Useful tools, like knives and scrapers and pottery, were found along with objects of pure art, including jewelry and statues.  In the museum at Etowah are two spectacular, painted marble figures.

Etowah Painted Figures

Etowah Painted Figures

Archaeologists hypothesize that these figures had a key role in the decline and abandonment of Etowah.  They were broken and buried — perhaps a sign of a political or religious revolt, an invasion, or dereliction of culture caused by disease, encroachment, or something else.  The real answer may never be known because, unlike New Echota, there is no written record from Etowah.

Wall at Fort Mountain

Wall at Fort Mountain

The third site, Fort Mountain, is the most mysterious.  Fort Mountain is a Georgia state park, so named because of a wooden fortification constructed by white settlers.  But their fortification is singularly unimpressive compared to the 855-foot stone wall built centuries ago at the crest of the mountain.  The wall is only a few feet high today, though at the time of construction it would have been higher. Along its length are shallow pits, which the tourism industry of the early 1900’s called “Indian honeymoon suites.”

Theories on the origin and purpose of the wall abound.  Did the Mississippians build it? Did DeSoto’s expedition? This seems unlikely, as DeSoto wasn’t in the area long enough to build such a monumental structure.  Was it built by the Welsh prince Madoc, said to have landed in the southeastern United States in the 11th century?  There is only scant, circumspect evidence that he arrived in the United States at all, and such a discovery would rewrite early American history.  As a fortification, the wall seems odd — why build a wall at the top of a mountain, already a barrier against attack?  Perhaps the wall was more symbolic — a boundary between tribes or cultures, or a structure of religious significance.

Exploring these three sites gives three very different pictures of Native American life in northwest Georgia.  New Echota speaks of the attempts of the Cherokee to become “civilized” to defend themselves against an uncivil foe.  Etowah, a few hundred years older, is evidence of how civilized the Native Americans were, with complicated social structures, long-distance trade routes, and the organizational and technical skills to build monumental architecture.  And Fort Mountain’s mysterious wall reinforces how little we know of America’s history even a thousand years ago — our best guesses could be only hints at the true, complex history of the Native Americans.

Written by timwestover

March 22nd, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Posted in folklore