Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Johnny Depp's Mother is Appalachian? What Does This Mean to Be An Appalachian?

All photos on this page are from my family albums. This is my mom.
I have been trying to write this blog post for months. Even the title I can not decide. Should it be, "Who is an Appalachian?," "What is an Appalachian?", or "Where are Appalachians located?" It is such an elusive broad topic for this Appalachian woman, I kept putting it off. But everyday something else pops up about Appalachia. In my mind, because we keep being labeled not in a good way, I think it is important to try to put it in some kind of perspective.

Then +Johnny Depp ,.... BLESS his heart....said something about his mother's Appalachian roots and a flood gate opened in my head. I will say I am a little upset with what he said, and I am a Johnny Depp fan, but now, however I say it, something HAS to be said.

This is not going to be some scholarly article. I can write on that level but scholars write for scholars and I'm of the opinion they like to use words that are mostly....well... for scholars. I am of the opinion also many need to be beat over the head with a dictionary.

Why worry with what is an Appalachian? Because my family has been located here in the Virginia/North Carolina/West Virginia mountains for many, many generations and that makes my grandchildren and my family, even those that live at a distance, of or pertaining to, or located in Appalachia, Appalachian. We deal with what ever that means every single day. Our history, our culture, the way we talk, how we live, are all effected by others perception of Appalachians but most importantly our own perception of ourselves.

Today what brought up my desire to write about this topic again was this article in the upcoming July 4th Rolling Stone Johnny Depp interview.   Where even Johnny Depp says, "My mother was raised in a shack, in the wilds of Appalachia, where the toilet was an outhouse."  He was using the reference to child rearing practices of butt whooping, which was a more universal common practice whose use has changed. The violence alone of "spare the rod, spoil the child" practice was in a much broader religious use than just in Appalachia, but I took what he was saying was his mother didn't know better because of where she was raised. I understand what he's saying about child rearing today is better and less violent but .... mentioning it with Appalachia, shacks and outhouses.....well hurt my feelings.

Sigh......I, for one, have a very different understanding of Appalachian outhouses. Always have. Given the modern problems we have with sewer systems sometimes it would be preferable to have an outhouse! I even argued at a meeting on museum displays that we should not downplay the existence of outhouses in our Appalachian story. I knew many a fancy house with an outhouse just because a septic system could not be put in. It wasn't just the shacks in Appalachia that had an outhouse. There are modern businesses today that have tanks in the ground that need a pump and haul system in Appalachia.

I spoke about that in another blog post. But those two words, "outhouse" and "Appalachia", automatically only "down trodden poor ignorant people" comes to mind. Perhaps his mother was from a poor family with an outhouse, but it seems like I have to defend this subject all the time to those not understanding the make up of the ground, especially in my part of Appalachia, with the nature of building sewer systems.

My grandfather in the 1960's lived in the Bluefield, WV city limits in a four room house he built himself with gravity flow water and an outhouse.  We really didn't consider ourselves "poor" but from the outside looking in I guess folks would think that.

All my life outhouses are just something we lived with and I was born in the 50's. In the 70's and 80's I was living in houses with an outhouse.  In the early 80's, I had a friend that lived in Floyd County, VA in a 1930's home. It had gravity flow water and an outhouse. The land would not "perk" to put a septic system in and it's remote location meant no town sewer service so that also was out of the question.

I took another friend to visit who had never used an outhouse in her life. But this one was quite made up. This outhouse had a regular toilet seat, a red fuzzy seat warmer, a red rug, a framed picture on the wall, a magazine rack, a toilet paper holder and it had electricity ran to it for a light and a heater. The one who had never visited an outhouse was quite impressed.

Today we just have a septic system on this 150 year old house. The problem for that system is we hooked the water up to a treated public water system and it's killing our septic system. Building a sewer plant in an area as rocky and winding in this part of Appalachia for a few people is quite costly. I had an engineer tell me that an outhouse would be more eco-friendly than our septic systems which are failing. Some of us Appalachians have always realized an outhouse can be the results of issues beyond anyone's control and know how to live with an outhouse as a resource. Today modern solar compostable toilets are a blessing in this area. Sorry Johnny, my point is we don't see ourselves in that same "poor" light for having to use one.

So what is an Appalachian and where is Appalachia?  Wiki gives this definition: Appalachia is a cultural region in the eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York state to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.[1] While the Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in the U.S. state of Alabama, the cultural region of Appalachia typically refers only to the central and southern portions of the range. As of 2005, the region was home to approximately 23 million people.[2] 

The Appalachian Regional Commission has a map of Appalachian Counties. From Maine to Mississippi the trouble really begins because there is such a great diversity of people within the Appalachian geographic region itself to even try to define what is an Appalachian.  Many don't take too kindly to say that the only cultural area is in the central or southern portions of the range. There is also a wide spectrum of the economic base from millionaires to miners as well as different ethnicities and races which are comprised in this area called Appalachia.

I have another friend that says he can beat me on the diversity issue of an Appalachian because first he's black, with Native American and an Italian grandmother!  He also says the being a black/Native American/Appalachian now days on the discrimination scale is a triple whammy.

Northern Appalachians say there is a different culture in Southern Appalachia. Many say the Southern Appalachian stereotype gives other Appalachians a bad name. I became very upset once in college because my professor said that the moonshining, blue grass music picking Appalachian was a myth or a stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood. Okay I can tell the difference but EXCUSE ME?  He just had told me my whole family history and experience was a myth? And that was not true!!

But in talking to him over the years what we came to understand is that it was a different history and experience for his Appalachian family. They lived in a town with water and sewer in a slightly northern area from my family. Which leads me to believe that even some Appalachians are discriminatory towards other Appalachians.

Another real bone of contention is "dialects". The way we talk in different areas especially the southern mountains.  Appalachian English of which my family and community in my part of Southern Appalachia still speaks is disappearing. We have always had a hard time dealing with this issue inside the area and out. We are told in order to communicate we need to change our language to "proper modern English".  Never mind some of the forms of the Appalachian English we speak are older than that!  The dialects are different in different areas but one of the most glaring obvious clues you have that you are talking to an Appalachian, especially a Southern Appalachian, is when we open our mouths and speak.

I have a relative right now who works for a very large international company in our area who was given English courses and diction courses to get the "twang" out of his speech in order to be employed by this company. There are also people who work at call centers in our area that have said they experienced the same thing. One lady told me you can get written up for speaking any of the old dialect.  I find it ironic that Samuel Clemons/Mark Twain made a career of writing southern dialects into characters of his books, yet we are wanting to eradicate those in our area from speaking in their own. Is it any different getting someone from India with a dialect when you dial a call center for computer service?

Some say we are winning the dialect war because of words that were ours making it into modern English speech especially in the south. That somewhat may be true but the old speech I grew up with is dying out quite rapidly. I don't say, "If' in ye a mind to", that often as my aunts did. Plus there seems to be this modern move to eradicate it from our children completely in school.

How do you explain that to your grandchildren? How do you save our culture and dialect or at least honor it? Especially when you come across articles like this: Appalachian Americans the Invisible Minority . The goal is to help our children understand today they have to be multi-cultural in order to survive.

Our problems over the years seem to be the perceptions of those from outside the area looking at our people through their own ideals of what life should be like. Many times in the past it was just to exploit our resources then automatically deciding they needed to modernize and change us. As if we could not figure that out on our own.

My Aunt Florence once was told by a missionary, "We have come to save the Appalachian People." At which my aunt asked her, "From what?" She never got an answer. 

Another time a lady came by for a visit during canning season. She was visiting homes in the holler giving out brochures about proper canning. Now my Aunt was in her late 60's and had been canning all her life and never poisoned anyone. I remember when the lady left she said, "Good Lord, they are trying to save us to death!"

We here in this part of Appalachia know the War on Poverty of the Kennedy administration, especially in reference to our area, was based on a very skewed view of Appalachia. At that time there were millionaires mansions right along side a house with an outhouse in the same area they were giving out food stamps. Poverty, any where in the U.S., when you focus on it and take a picture of it, looks the same. The economic systems and politics that create that poverty are prevalent everywhere not just Appalachia.

I am an Appalachian woman by ancestry and I guess definition. When I was growing up we never considered ourselves "Appalachians". That really is a new recent term for our family. We called ourselves, "hillbillies" and to us it was a badge of honor. A redneck was a striking union member. They wore red bandanas around their necks so you would know who was who in a strike. That could be miners or railroaders either one.  It was turned into something completely different from what I grew up with.

I can see where we were different in our speech, our traditions and our location of family history. We never thought of ourselves in the perceptions I am hearing now. We never thought of any of our family as backwards or poor. An outhouse in Appalachia could just mean bad location for a sewer system. Just regular hardships of life.

In all my study of our family history that goes back on the eastern shores of Virginia 100 years prior to the Revolutionary War, to 1750's on the frontier, the "isolated" Appalachian just did NOT exist in my family!! EVER!!! They had kinship ties all over the United States traveling far and wide! Our family reunions look sometimes like the United Nations.

So what is an Appalachian? I think that is for us to determine now. Is it just people tied to a geographical area? Is it a separate distinct culture? To change the bad perceptions we are going to have to tell our actual stories and our history with an understanding that there were moonshiners, outhouses and millionaires all in the mix.

And Johnny Depp? I am sure your mother will never ever have to use an outhouse again. But I can bet that if all the worlds systems go into a crisis and the sewer systems quit'd be asking her how to build and maintain one and she would KNOW!!  Appalachians from the wild have that knowledge.

Please feel free to comment your thoughts on these subjects.  Yes, I know I was a little hard on Johnny Depp...but I have just about all his movies. To me he's one of the best actors of our times. I am a big fan but that doesn't mean he ain't above reproach. None of us are. His mother is Appalachian and that to me makes him Appalachian, though he may be a refugee from us. As such he has to come to terms to what that identity means to him and his family and question do the outside perceptions of what is an Appalachian really fit?

August 2016 UPDATE Condolences to the Depp family on his mother's death. There is a saying here in the long as our children's hearts beat and our grandchildren's hearts beat, so does ours.

On another note I love this song about Appalachians.


  1. I thoroughly LOVED your post! And, I can relate to every single word. Thank you for bringing back some fond memories of the land and the people back home.

  2. Thank you for reading it and the kind words.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful articles...Outstanding blog...Gary Holbrook

  4. I know I am so late on finding this essay, but I found it looking for something else. I am a Baltimoron to my toes but my people are West Virginia Hillbillies.I'm very proud of my heritage. An Appalachian is a place in ones heart & soul. It's a certain type of beauty for the women & humanity in the men You see it in the eyes & hear in tones of voice. The pity of losing ANY regional accent and/or dialect is so very sad. You should be able to tell what hollow a person is from by the way they speak. Same holds true in my town of Baltimore. I used to be able to tell what neighborhood a person was from by their accent (& what high school they went to lol). Now just like an Appalachian dialect, Baltimore's dialect is said to sound dumb.Cities like Baltimore have even more interesting dialects because of they mixture of people coming here during the Great Migration during & after WW II. Not only African Americans moved to industry cities then to work. So did Hillbillies from Appalacha & the Ozarks. So, because I was raised by Hillbillies who moved to Baltimore in their preteens with my Grandparents who never left their Hollow until the war, I sound unique. Add Baltimore is the northern most southern city in the country. Back on topic, Appalachian people come from heroic stock that moved west into the frontier after the coast was well settled. They have a special soul that is part of the mountains & if you are a lucky ancestor you get that pasted to you.
    I have one more off/on topic gripe. The great most resent doc-drama about the Hatfields & McCoys that was on TV for sure taught me a lot I didn't know about the Feud. But where was the dialect coach! The accents were all over the place. Some were Mississippi,some were Virginia, some Mid-West some were even New England for Pete's sake. Couldn't they at least make a family ALL sound alike. Better yet, have a family all call each other by the same name. Johnsie was not pronoused the same by even 2 people who were supposed to be his immediate family.

    1. I'm late too...all the time. Half the time I forget I have a blog! Glad you enjoyed the essay. You are an Appalachian refugee too. Many ended up traveling the hillbilly highways out of here. Hatfield and McCoys. My family is kin to the McCoy's through marriage. I think it goes Randall McCoy's sister married a Burress that is a GGG Uncle or something like that. Kevin Costner did NOT sound Appalachian. But I still liked the movie. Hatfields and McCoy feud got press but believe me there were a couple that rivaled that feud in these hills. The descendants are still sore today!