Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Colonial Blend

I had a great conversation with my friend, Denise Frazier last night about distinct ethnic-cultural groups and their blending and shifting over time.

Denise is from Houston, but has personal and family ties to Louisiana and especially New Orleans, where we both went to school. Denise went to grad school for cultural studies, and I studied anthropology in undergrad, so we have a common interest in culture and heritage and we can both talk about the culture of the Mississippi Delta.

Culturally, the Delta is very different from this part of the South, and I think that many folks assume that the South is a bit more uniform than it actually is. Down there, they have an entirely different background and it really comes out in the present culture and identity of the whole area. For one thing, English-speaking people had very little to do with that area for the first hundred or so years of its existence as a thriving colony. And it wasn't just the French that had a stake in things, the Spanish were also an enormous influence. Throw on top of that a rich and powerful West African blend, various Native American groups, and sub-groups among the European colonists, and what you have is a very fertile medley of culture.

Mix that up for 300 years and you end up with a diverse blend with shades of many, many distinct groups. And as a result, the Delta has a distinct identity. It's a unique sub-set of Southern culture.

I love that culture, and I valued my time there greatly. But what I really want to take out of it is a better understanding of the dynamics in my part of the South: the Piedmont.

New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana use that culture to promote the area and to draw people in. Once people understand something about those cultural dynamics, they better appreciate the area and its quirks. So what are those things that make the Piedmont (and Spartanburg in particular) unique among places in the South?

Well for one thing, this area has been firmly controlled by English-speakers since the beginning of colonization. It's true that Spanish explorers roamed through here, but they never got around to planting crops and building houses. But despite that English-speaking uniformity, there were some distinct subsets. It's well known that the Scots-Irish form the backbone of the population here. These are mostly Lowland Scots who left Scotland for a brief stay in Ireland before being ferried over the Atlantic to settle in the hills between the wealthier English on the coast and the potentially dangerous Indians in the mountains. They got cheap land out of it, of course, but essentially they were the pawns of the English, who wanted a buffer. They had served the same function in Ireland, where they buffered the English from the Irish.

I could go on about the current political implications of local Scots-Irish descendants serving the interests of the wealthy without taking part in that wealth, but I'll leave that to another time, perhaps.

There are also a healthy number of true English folks here too. They got interested in the available land at the same time that the Scots-Irish were first settling this area in the 1750s and 1760s. But unlike the Lowcountry English, they were mostly family farmers without huge slave workforces.

Slave populations in the Piedmont were never as large as they were even in the Midlands, which is one reason that West African culture did not remain a strong influence in the Piedmont. Also, because the hills made transportation from the coast difficult, those with West African heritage here were more likely to be a generation or two removed from Africa. Essentially, the fresh supply of African-born slaves less often made it up this far. That meant that West African cultural traits had been diluted by time spent in America away from fellow tribesmen. That's not to say those traits had disappeared completely. Take a look at the WPA Slave Narratives recorded here in the 1930s to see some of the fascinating details of local slave culture.

There are other groups here too, of course. There are Lowcountry descendants of French Huguenots who came to teach at Wofford College, a scattering of Swiss-German settlers, folks with Cherokee blood who came down from the mountains to work in the textile mills, not to mention growing communities of Hmong and Hispanic immigrants.

So what does all that mean for local culture? I'm not even close to answering that question. Denise and I got our feet wet by trying to identify some local idioms that might be distinctive, but we could only think of a few. Have you heard any phrases or expressions that seem unique to Spartanburg or the Piedmont?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear more regarding: "I could go on about the current political implications of local Scots-Irish descendants serving the interests of the wealthy without taking part in that wealth, but I'll leave that to another time, perhaps."
Keep up the good work! Ryan