Kentucky- A Strange Dichotomy
The story, as I’ve heard it, goes like this:
My Methodist-raised, Appalachian father has just married my Catholic-raised, urbanite mother at a cathedral in the latter’s hometown of Newport, Kentucky. As per usual, even in the early 80s, the newlyweds, their respective families, bridesmaids, and groomsmen all hang around to pose for photographs while everyone else at the wedding heads to the reception hall to get shit-hammered. Once finished with the pictures in all of their polyester glory, the wedding party heads downstairs where said reception is already progressing into a full on rager. As my grandparents descend the stairs, my grandmother, the genteel vision of Southern refinement that she is, stops dead in her tracks upon witnessing the sprawling ruckus that is a Catholic wedding reception, grabs my granddad’s arm and exclaims: “Oh, my God, Roy! There’s a bar in this church!”
Ah, such is Kentucky. A juxtaposition of regions, cultures, and identities long in contention with one another for dominance. For the people that travelled from the predominantly Protestant and puritanical small towns and hollers of Pike County from whence my paternal lineage extends like a coal seem through my bloodline back to 18th century Wales, a Roman Catholic wedding reception was a spectacle of gluttonous, drunken sin befitting centuries long held stereotypes of adherents to the Latin Church. However, when peoples of different cultures meet for the first time, it doesn’t always result in conflict. The reception was regarded as a huge success by all and many lifelong friendships were forged on that night.
Admitted to the Union officially in 1792, Kentucky has long had a history of regional schizophrenia. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that demanded westward colonial expansion extend no further than the Appalachian Mountains was wholly ignored by many of the first European settlers in the region. Rough peoples from rough beginnings, these pioneers were predominantly English, as per the late Appalachian historian and activist, Henry Caudill:
“If you trace the oldest families in these parts back to their immigrant ancestors all of whom left Europe between 1600 and 1700 — well, there you are — indentured servants and a good number of them from England.”
Later, the Scotch-Irish began matriculating into the region, bringing with them their own variations of culture through which the isolated geography of the Appalachian mountains served as a societal preservative; maintaining a homogenous regional identity that remained relatively unchanged until the eventual industrialization of the region via Northern corporations that essentially enslaved the populace to the coal mines the aforementioned moneyed interests had come to exploit.
From these people, came my father.
Before it was Pittsburgh, it was Fort Duquesne (and later Fort Pitt), a site situated among the confluence of three rivers, among them the Ohio. Incidentally, it was this very location where George Washington would moron his way into starting the French-Indian War as an inexperienced officer in the Virginia Regiment that would later help metastasize growing anti-British sentiment among the colonists thus sparking the American Revolution.
The Ohio River served as a massive shipping conduit in addition to being a great defensive perimeter against the unsettled northern territories still held by Native American tribes. Events in Europe, too numerous to mention here, predicated various waves of emigration to the fledgling United States from disparate parts of the Old World; bringing with them peoples radically disliked by a country that has been characterized by several historians as “militantly Protestant.” The fall of Napoleon in the early 19th century predicated wide-spread political and social upheaval in France that reverberated through the decades. In the once strategically and commercially important region of what is now commonly referred to as Alsace-Lorraine, rapid population growth and unemployment prompted heavy immigration to the United States. The vast matrices of rivers and tributaries that criss-crossed the eastern United States from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean enabled those escaping their old lives in Europe to access previously established communities of similar national and religious identity. They openly practiced Catholicism in the face of obstinate distrust and fear from Nativists groups whose hate would eventually culminate in the violent oppression of these minorities that tended to settle in urban settlements along the larger rivers.
From these people, came my mother.
You may be wondering what my personal family history has to do with an article alluding to the amorphous identity of Kentucky as whole and the truth is….
Since its very inception as a political entity within the infant United States we here in the Bluegrass have been a mixed lot that has, despite a long history of personal enmity toward one another for this reason or that, managed to maintain our blended weirdness for generations. We tout a southern heritage and identity that is in truth largely dissimilar to the Confederate culture of the past. Our two largest urban centers, Lexington and Louisville, are liberal bastions in an otherwise deeply red state that still manages to elect Democrats for our governors and Republicans for our Senators. Lincoln was born here, though not raised. Incidentally, it was in the latter years of his life prior to his presidency that he would observe a small group of chained slaves aboard a ferry on which he was traveling near Louisville; the scene horrifying him and serving to substantially alter his perspective on the very institution he would eventually abolish. Muhammad Ali and Henry Clay. Wendell Berry and Jefferson Davis. Our Medal of Honor recipients date back to the very institution of the award in 1861 during the American Civil War; spanning every major conflict the US has endured to the modern era whereMarine Corps Sergeant Dakota Meyer displayed heroic valor during the Battle of Ganjagal in Afghanistan. Hillbilly Yankees. Catho-lachians. Conservative liberals. Progressive Neo-Cons. Bourbon and puritanism. The Kentucky Derby and massive rallies at the capital rotunda in Frankfort to protest strip-mining. Crushing poverty and unparalleled wealth.
In summary, one could merely refer to the slogan on the state flag, “United we stand; Divided we all.” However, I prefer a quote from one of my father’s childhood friends whom pulled my dad aside in the midst of the aforementioned shit-show that was my parents’ wedding reception and stated, “Scotty, if these people are going to hell, I want to go with them.”