Expanding the American Canon - Breaking Down Socio-Economic Barriers
We used to till up the field behind the house that my great-grandmother lived in. The farm was nestled in amongst the hills at the foot of the Kittatiny Mountain. My granddad would pull the plow behind his old, rusty tractor and let us sit on the edge so we could feel the cool earth spraying our feet as the plow pulled it up and turned it over. We’d pick potatoes out of the broken land; some to replant for the next season, some to eat.
Now when I stand at the kitchen sink at home and think about the potatoes, my dead granddaddy, and the tractor that sits rusting where the old trailer used to sit on the now-empty farm. I look up out the window above the sink and gaze at the bar across the road and the pick-up trucks that sat there overnight while their owners probably slept in the front seats. My eyes stray up at the same mountain that cradles my grandmother’s land and shelters the whole valley and I want to cry. I look down at the dirty supper dishes in the sink, my wrinkled dish-pan hands, and just wonder what the hell I am going to do.
Upward mobility has its downside; any and all of us in colleges and universities across the country that come from a poor or working-class background have to deal with some kind of straddling or negotiation of the two cultures. Despite the various ways this manifests itself in each of our individual lives, it is tough, and I can say that my movement back and forth from the privileged world of academia to my rural, redneck town and back has left and still leaves me with a big heaping plate of guilt. bell hooks says “No wonder our working-class parents from poor backgrounds feared our entry into such a world… we would be ashamed of where we had come from, that we might never return home, or would come back only to lord it over them” (101). Why is it that our parents have to be scared that we won’t come back or that we’ll be ashamed? My question is: what is there to be ashamed of?
My critical question for this project is what do we have to do to break down this cultural barrier? Why does it have to be that my world gets looked down upon? Why do I feel like I have to leave it to “move on to bigger and better things?” What can academia do to let the voices of my people in instead of continually shutting them out?
I do not believe that our culture needs to change. Sure, we ain’t perfect, but who is? The working-class, Appalachian population is a group on the margin within a group on the margin (the South, Southern culture). If anything, many communities in Appalachia are underserved in many ways. What I’m getting at is that I do not believe that the working-class, and in my case Appalachian working-class, needs to prove itself. I think academic institutions need to understand the ways in which they reinforce cultural stereotypes about the working-class, especially those about rural communities.
Now, I think it also goes without saying that this is a huge project and has a lot of different parts. There is the socio-cultural part of this project that has a lot to do with the individual campus culture of a school, that frankly, there isn’t a whole lot you can do right off the bat except give a whole bunch of poor kids enough money to go to college and diffuse the rich, white privilege that exists in colleges and universities across the country. I get that. Those roots are planted deep down in the ground.
What I am envisioning though as an English major and someone who believes that literature has a lot of cultural “heft,” as it were, is finding ways to validate the culture of the working-class by expanding the curriculum and breadth of American literature in English, Comparative Literature, and writing programs as a way of disseminating the voices of the people of the mountains, the factories, the coal mines. We don’t have to be the subjects of anthropological studies and service trips for the rest of time. We have agency and voices – and some of the strongest, longest surviving voices of Appalachia and the working-class are those of women.
I don’t just see this as a project of including purely text into the American canon – music is an integral part of this project. Country, bluegrass, and gospel music have been the most widely accessed channels for rural, working-class people to record their experiences in a creative way. Literacy is problematic in many cases for underserved, isolated communities that exist in Appalachia and the rural South. So in some cases, those that are able to gain access to the academic world in whatever form that may take (high school, college, graduate programs, etc.) are able to record their experience s in literature, poetry, or prose. There are a hell of a lot of people though in rural or mountain communities who can pick a banjo or play a fiddle, or who can sing Hank Williams or Patsy Cline by heart and they might have never picked up any other book besides a Bible or a hymn book.
What I’m proposing then to break down the cultural barrier between the educational experiences of middle and upper class Americans and poor and working-class Americans, especially coming from Appalachian or rural communities is to open up a door for them to get in.
For us to see and hear our voices is to see that we don’t have to choose between our people and a world that doesn’t recognize our experience, and hopefully eventually this inclusion of new voices will mean that rural, working-class experiences will be valued as making significant cultural contributions to the intellectual life of America.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve really been struggling to narrow this idea down and have been wrestling with some pretty nasty writer’s block the last couple of days. I’m looking for all the constructive criticism I can get at this point. I know this probably isn’t entirely coherent, but this seemed like a good place to start.
Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalacian Women Writers. ed. Joyce Dyer, 1998.
Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory. ed. Elizabeth A. Fay and Michelle M. Tokarczyk, 1993.
Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. ed. Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson, 2003.