26 September 2008

I think I've lost my hillbilly cred

I grew up in eastern Kentucky. The foothills of the Appalachians. Honestly, if there is a hillbilly, by all rights, I'm it. Oh, I wasn't part of that destitute poverty that politicians like to point to when they don't want to export prophylactics to AIDS-ravaged countries in Africa but I did go to school with kids who didn't have indoor plumbing and by God, that's hill people for ya. I used "ain't" like a badge of honor. My idea of a summer vacation was a week at the grandparents' in West Virginia. My godparent was a McCoy. Of the Hatfields and McCoys. I have the accent that will never, ever, ever, ever go away. I am about as urban as Ellie Mae Clampett. Appalachia has left it's permanent imprint on me. It's like a limp. You learn to live with it. It adds character.

But I didn't realize how far removed I have become ideologically from "my people". Despite spending every waking moment in high school dreaming of getting the heck out, I never thought that I would one day be an outsider in my hometown. But it has happened...I have lost my hillbilly cred.

I know those people though. I know their pride and prejudices and the fallacies they buy into. I know how the high school boys read just enough about the civil war to pick up the "state's rights" argument and convince themselves that those rebel flag licence plates on the front of their Cameros don't really represent institutionalized racism. I know the ones for whom a label of gay accusation of "homo" is an invitation to an ass beating. I know how fathers sweat it when no boys seem to be sniffing around their daughters by the age of 15. I know people who use nigger among family and black people in polite company, but they always put too much emphasis on the word "them". Them people ain't like us. I know when the phrase "You ain't from around here, are ya?" is more than a gentle poke at an outsider and a downright indictment of alternative opinions. Back home, they don't much go for those newfangled ideas of gay marriage or interracial dating and equality of races, and they are more than slightly opposed to abortion and you need'nt make exceptions for rape and incest because those sorts of things just don't happen around here. That world is a small, safe, familiar place. You meet your best friend in first grade. People don't move away, they just die and a new generation moves in. You grew up down the street from the sherrif or maybe your cousin-in-law is a state cop and you have no worries in the world for the rest of your born days.

Well, I moved away and my world got bigger. It got a lot bigger.

In high school, my best friend was Rachael. Rachael will live out her days in our home town. She "admires" me for getting out and doing the things she only dreamed about. When I see her again, it's like not a day has passed that we were apart. I always thought it would be the same with my hometown, but it's not. I'm an interloper and it hasn't been comfortable in years.

I don't like to go home. It's not the poverty and depressed economy. It's the people. It's the racism and sexism and the unbearable stifling intolerance. I don't know when it happened, but I started looking on them as less. Folks in the mall shopping at Christmastime. Less. Folks in the restaurant. Less. I know they wouldn't approve of me and the things I do. The things I like. The choices I make. The only reason I can walk among them invisibly is because I lay low back there. I don't take my business home.

At the same time, I can't just accept the racism and sexism and intolerance and keep my mouth shut. I'd rather not go home at all.

Now when I think of home, I think Chicago. It's that skyline my heart yearns to see. I'm not sure if I'm an orphan from Appalachia, but I know where I feel most comfortable. Sweet home Chicago.

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