Wow. I am a little overwhelmed by the response to my last post. I have been thinking about that piece for a long time. It makes me happy that it struck a chord with so many people.
It originated in a part of me that was always torn about my Kentucky roots. On the one hand, I was proud of being from Kentucky; proud that I had persevered in the face of difficult challenges. Proud that I flew on an airplane for the first time, by myself no less, when I went away to college. I will never forget hauling three cardboard boxes out of the LaGuardia Airport baggage claim area on a rickety luggage cart. I firmly believe it is a certifiable miracle that I’m not wandering around LaGuardia to this day.
But, on the other hand, particularly when I was younger, my background embarrassed me. Before I left for college, I hadn’t traveled outside Kentucky very much; maybe a trip or two to Ohio or West Virginia. I had never been to a zoo; I had never ridden on a train; I had never seen an ATM. I felt ashamed when college classmates teased me, even in a good-natured way, about my accent. I became adept at smiling and nodding when someone mentioned a place or author or experience that wasn’t familiar to me.
When I read Robert Hilburn’s excellent Johnny Cash biography (Johnny Cash: The Life), I was struck by a quote that described how Johnny Cash felt “less than” at various points in his life. Although the quote didn’t draw this explicit link, I had to wonder if he struggled with bridging the gap between his icon status and humble Arkansas roots.
This description struck me because I understood feeling “less than.” Once, when I was in graduate school in North Carolina, I listened to a group of highly-educated colleagues belittle a man with a strong southern accent we had just heard commenting on the stock market in a gas station. I kept my mouth shut but I felt “less than” during that car ride.
I remember the first time I talked about my family background in an educational setting. My hands shook and my voice was choked when I described my father, my mother and our life. This reaction came out of the blue for me. I couldn’t believe I had cried during a simple presentation about my family history. Then, it occurred to me that I had covered up feeling “less than” for so long that it was hard to let down the facade.
Most telling, I guess, is that if you made a list of poor choices I have made in my life, I believe that feeling “less than” would be a specter in many of them. Shame on me.
As I get older, however, my Kentucky roots make me proud. I reread Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands recently and I loved his description of the bold, fearless and resourceful men and women who settled Eastern Kentucky. Yes, they were poor, but they didn’t seem to feel “less than.” A good lesson for me and, perhaps, all of us.