Saturday, September 20, 2014

You don't want to go home again

When I see people brandishing signs about wanting their country back, I'm pretty sure that their country is the one I grew up in. 

Fleming County, Kentucky, on the edge of the Bluegrass and Appalachia, was pretty much white in the 1950s and 1960s. The African-American population was small, and there were no Asians and Hispanics. 

It was not only white, but overwhelmingly Protestant. There were some Roman Catholic families, mainly descended from the German migration into Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky of the mid-nineteenth century, and there was one Jewish family, but the Lord's Prayer that we recited at the beginning of each school day was the Protestant version. 

The casual prejudices of the time were much in evidence. I recall hearing one prominent burgher and pillar of the Methodist Church complaining that the Jews had their hands in his pockets, and I recall one pillar of the Presbyterian Church explaining to me that Negroes were intelligent according to the proportion of "white blood" in them. The numerous homophobes were less genteel in their expressions. 

And, as in much of America, credentials were held in higher esteem than actual learning. Growing up, I must have heard some version of "He's got book sense but no common sense" a thousand times. 

Reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street at fourteen was a revelation of the pervasive narrowness of that rural culture. At the first opportunity, when I was eighteen, I "went North" to college. I returned home for four summers, left for graduate school at twenty-two, and have never been back, except for brief visits. 

Mind you, I remain a son of Kentucky. My accent broadens when I'm there. There are friends of my youth with whom I am still in touch. I stand when the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home" on Derby Day. My parents and grandparents lie at rest on a hillside in the cemetery in Elizaville. I remember, and miss, the scent of the locust trees blooming in late spring. And I am in line to inherit what remains of the family farm, in the family since 1862. 

But I neither miss nor long for that insular white, evangelical Protestant, anti-intellectual culture I grew up in, or its many bigotries, genteel or otherwise.

It is not coming back, and it ought not to.