Racial Shame is Alive and Well in Appalachia
Members of my family want to keep our mixed-race ancestry a secret. I don’t.
When I was a kid, I lied about everything. My Appalachian family had a saying for people like me: “If she says good morning, you better check outside.”
Though they were aware enough of liars to have sayings about them, my family never noticed the liar in their living room. I just lied and lied, and no one ever mentioned it.
In the face of all that should be right with the world, I never faced one real consequence from these lies until recently when I started confessing to my secrets and posting them on the internet.
No one complained until last week when I wrote about family secrets. I covered a lot of ground, including a declaration that we come from a mixed-race group in Appalachia known as the Chestnut Ridge People. I speculated that the discrimination of our ancestors coupled with their low socioeconomic status contributed to their unfortunate propensity for inbreeding.
This story earned me the scorn of family members. To them, more than any lie I’ve told, our factual history is what we should be ashamed of. Me telling you that my bloodline is far from pure, that I’m not white, that I’m not straight, that our family isn’t perfect, scares the hell out of them.
Yesterday, I got several text messages telling me to remember the things I write about don’t just affect me.
“You’re halfway across the world acting like it’s some storybook to write when it’s our lives. It’s embarrassing.”
“I just think it’s so disrespectful to be putting our families’ name and personal information out on blast like that. It’s nobody’s business.”
“We still have grandbabies here that have to go to school!”
Maybe they have a point.
When I first read their angry texts, I was afraid.
My hands shook as I considered the possibility that by writing about our secrets, I risked more of my family’s well-being than my own. As one of them pointed out, they’re still there, and I’m not.
I live in San Francisco, a city where being inbred and Melungeon makes me just another resident. My family lives in a small town in West Virginia where that same identity could make them a target, where racists with power might use the information against them, where my siblings and I used to get teased at school and called “mutt” and “guinea” because of our last name.
I hadn’t considered any of that when I started writing. I thought I was doing a good thing by taking the shame out of these secrets. I’m not embarrassed by any of what I shared, but I also know that sharing it is unlikely to put my day-to-day well-being in danger.
Can I say the same for each member of my family?
What if they have a racist boss who sees confirmation of our mixed, controversial heritage online and decides to fire them? What if kids of racist parents see it and tease my nieces and nephews at school about being mixed and inbred? What if the whole town finds out and turns on them?
Then I remembered the whole town already knows.
We know hiding our ancestry won’t keep us safe because we already tried and it didn’t work. Older generations thought the truth of our bloodline was something to be ashamed of, so if it was talked about at all, it was done inside our homes in hushed tones. Neighbors outside the fold weren’t to be let in on the secret.
But that doesn’t mean everyone didn’t know. Older, notoriously racist families in our small town kept careful count of us “Mayles,” and they told their kids about us too because hate gets passed down like a family heirloom.
In sixth grade, I remember confusion when a friend who’d planned to have a sleepover at my house on Friday suddenly canceled. When I asked her why, she casually told me it was because her grandma said my family came from “guineas” and it wasn’t safe with us.
In high school, one of my first crushes said he would never date me because even if my skin wasn’t dark, he could still see the black in me by my lips and nose.
A friend’s dad once stopped me from introducing myself, sneering that he could recognize one of “them Mayles” just by the look of our big heads.
Keeping our stories a secret isn’t going to stop our kids and grandkids from having these same painful stories to tell. But talking about them openly might change everything.
There is nothing wrong with us and we don’t have anything to hide.
We aren’t less than because of who we come from. By trying to hide it, we’re saying we have something to be ashamed of, that those racist, purist assholes are right, and we agree with them.
I don’t agree with them. There is nothing wrong with us, nothing wrong with anyone of any color or bloodline, and we have nothing to be embarrassed about.
That’s mighty easy to say when I’m three thousand miles away. I get that. But if I was still living in West Virginia, I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote.
I may be three thousand miles away, but that doesn’t change who I am or where I came from.
The accusation that I was writing about their lives as if it was “some storybook” showed me how I’m viewed as an outsider now, documenting or exploiting an experience that no longer belongs to me.
But it’s our experience, and I have just as much claim to it as anyone.
I have our blood running through my veins, and I didn’t stop owning the right to talk about what happened or who I am just because I moved away from our home.
I’ve long sensed that moving away from my family was seen as a betrayal. Many people don’t leave their families where we’re from, and some thought I must not love mine that much if I could just pack up and move three thousand miles away.
To then write about my past while living that far away may have been seen as adding insult to injury. Maybe they believe I’m trying to distance myself from them by letting everyone else in on what it’s like to live in our world.
But the truth of my intention is the exact opposite. Writing about our family is what keeps me connected to home. Writing about home and family is my way to honor where we come from.
I’m happiest sitting on my couch in California writing about Mom and home. I couldn’t stay in West Virginia, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the place and the people. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my family or that I don’t visit home in my mind all the time.
Loving a person or place doesn’t mean I have to keep their secrets.
I love our town, and I love our family, but we’re too damn judgmental. That’s really what this is about. These family members who texted to warn me about my writing are crippled by the fear of shame and judgment that my being out here making a fool of myself as an inbred, mixed bisexual might bring down on them.
To them, I say I’m sorry you still live in a town where rumors about skin color and pure bloodlines can impact a person’s livelihood. The way to fix that is not to bury our secrets deeper, but to stop listening to the hatred and make up our own mind about whether we’re ashamed of us instead of giving in to the fear of what people think.
I love you, family. I’m not capable of wishing you anything ill, and in the same breath, I’m not about to change what I write just to make you more comfortable, especially when it means endorsing shame I don’t believe in.
If you’re so ashamed of sharing a last name with my stories, I suggest you change yours.
You said you think it’s selfish I write using our real last name. Maybe it is selfish. The trait must run in the family. It’s selfish that you’d have me change what I say and do to soothe the opinions of hateful people you might see at the grocery store. You’d have me do this so you can sleep sounder at night, not because you want any real change in the world for your grandkids.
A few years ago, I decided I’ll only be happy with my life if, by the end of it, I’ve told every truth I know in a meaningful way that has a shot at changing our part of the world. I’m writing this blog, I’m writing a book, I’m setting short stories in our hometown. I’m not capable of letting our history go because I’ve tangled it up with my art, and I’m not letting my art go, ever.
That means I’m not letting our last name go either. I am selfish. I’m going to continue writing under this name, because this name is as much mine as yours, and if you don’t want to be associated with me, I suggest you change your surname.
I’m not the one who’s ashamed of ours.