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Good manners and good food go a long way

I’m not comfortable writing this, and that’s why I have to write it. In the past three weeks, I’ve given three different people advice that goes against my belief in the value of courage. 

One of these people is a friend whose family pet was shot and killed in her driveway for no reason except that the young man who shot it had a gun and an opportunity. The other is a couple, also friends, who object to Sylva’s prominently displayed Confederate statue. In each separate conversation, I advised my friends to remain quiet because, as I told them, “Speaking out on these issues will change nothing, and you will only suffer if you try to change a culture.” I do believe that the culture of Jackson County, though in so many ways rich and worth preserving, is still very much insular, blindly protective of those we consider “our own,” and equally blind to the continued harm being done by romanticizing and whitewashing a flawed past. I believe this, and yet I would give my friends the same advice today as I did a few weeks ago, and it is because they are not from here. 

But I am. I am from here, and I love this place. I am from here, and so I can speak. I am from here: my mother’s family are Wilsons and Hoopers from Glenville, and my father’s are Walls and Gilchrists from Almond. I am from here, and I love people with pickup trucks and mountain dialects, who are a good shot, and who put food in their freezer with their own hands. I am from here, and I’ll put my husband’s sweet iced tea up against anybody’s. I’ll put my biscuit recipe and my Southern-ness and my Appalachian-ness up against anybody’s. For that matter, I’ll put my family up against anybody’s, from my newest great-nephew to my siblings to my tough-as-nails mother. I love this place, and that is why I am ashamed of how we Southern Appalachian people here in Jackson County can be willfully ignorant and woefully stubborn when it comes to intentional and unintentional cruelty.

For me, being Appalachian is not about your accent, it’s about how you approach living. It means not killing just because you can, but having a strict code that dictates your behavior with a gun or any other weapon. It means valuing life, both human and animal, but knowing where your food comes from, and  raising it or killing it yourself if it comes down to that. Being Appalachian means recognizing the value and dignity of all work. It means, at least for me, that I am polite to outsiders and listen to what they have to offer because I have a big debt that can’t be paid: my European ancestors were outsiders of the worst kind when they arrived here among the Cherokee. It means respecting other people’s property and allowing them to have a place where they and theirs feel safe, and in situations where someone is wronged, requiring restitution from those who did the wrong.

For me, being Southern means recognizing what we should hold on to and what we should let go of. If it means keeping the Confederate statues, then it also means we need to put a few others right there beside them to tell the other side of the story. Being Southern means assessing where we are now, and what it’s built on, and then having an honest conversation with all parties involved, from those affected by racism and bigotry and greed in 1838, or 1860, or  2020. It also means having an honest conversation about how to set things right with those who are affected by our past and our present prosperity. It means taking a quintessentially Christian approach to making sure that my good life is not the result of someone else’s past or present suffering, and, yes, I’m talking about the Cherokee Removal, about slavery, and about immigration.

So I have to speak out myself, because I’m privileged by who I am and what I’ve been given, much of it unearned, all of it the accident of genetics and place of birth. I have to speak out because I have been teaching students for 32 years that courage is a habit of mind. I have to speak out because I admire Fannie Lou Hamer, Pat Tillman, and Mohandas Gandhi. I have to speak out because I admire Marie Junaluska, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ta Nehisi-Coates, and Veronica Nicholas. I have to speak out because I admire those who speak and act on behalf of the vulnerable. And, finally, I have to speak out because I told three courageous people that they should not, so I will do it instead.

I admire those who can effect change without resorting to bad behavior, to incivility, or to violence. I know this is going against the trend of the last decades in the United States, but the trend of tweeting insults seems to convince no one on any side of any argument to change their minds about anything except to up the ante of their own arsenal. I would like it if our Southern Appalachian county, if Jackson County, could go against the contentious grain of the rest of the country. I would admire it if we could move forward and not be a microcosm of those ugly aspects of the greater United States, but could take our differing viewpoints, our oldest and newest populations, our wholesome traditions and our questionable ones, and have the courage to sit down at the same table. 

I suppose, if I could draw a picture of what that kind of courage might look like, it would be a big dinner table set up at the top of the steps leading to our library from Main Street. My friend whose family pet was shot would be there, and so would the young man who shot it. My friends who dislike the Confederate statue would be there, and so would the Sons of the Confederacy. And there would be those who love guns and those who don’t; those who romanticize the Southern past and those who demonize it; those who are vegetarians and those who are hunters; those of every gender and identification, including no gender; those who are tree-huggers and those who are loggers; and all those who’ve lost along with those who’ve caused loss. 

In the center of the table would be a pitcher of sweet iced tea and a plate of oven-hot biscuits with plenty of butter. Everyone would be required to pour the person next to them a glass of tea and to pass the biscuits. Everyone would be required to have at least two bites before the conversation could begin, and no one could talk with their mouth full. It just might work. Nothing else has, and these are some good recipes.

(Gilchrist has been a public school teacher in Swain and Jackson counties for more than two decades. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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