WHAT GOES UP IN FLAMES

You can tell a lot about a society’s priorities from fires. In the 21st century, massive urban fires are (thankfully) quite rare, and the “Great Fires” that form part of the legend of cities like London, Chicago, and New Orleans are far in the past. Building fires are much easier to prevent, thanks to sprinkler systems and fire-resistant materials, and they are much easier for well-equipped firefighters to stop. Where there are major fires, then, they are symptoms of social neglect: places that investment hasn’t been made, places where nobody has bothered to protect, because the governments of those places do not care. The poor residents of a London tower block, even when they were begging the city council to keep them safe, were ignored. The scientists and researchers who begged the Brazilian government for adequate support to maintain their building were rebuffed. The residents and firefighters of Detroit, who have watched their city burn, are nonexistent to the Michigan suburbanites who could easily fund adequate fire services for the city.

In the fires, we see how power works: who has it, and who doesn’t. We see what a “neoliberal” age has wrought: the decimation of investment in public research institutions, the erosion of public housing, the gutting of basic government services. It’s the same around the world: a ruthless economic logic that puts “efficiency” above human beings destroys those things that are “priceless,” like precious artifacts or the lives of working people.

The Panthers and the Patriots

The Young Patriots sprouted from the neighborhood of Uptown, a dense slum filled with poor whites that had migrated from the rural South after World War II. Most were fleeing Appalachia’s dying coal industry, and they brought their culture with them: Confederate flags hung in the bars, country music spilled out of the pool halls. By the mid-1960s, the local papers were referring to Uptown as “Hillbilly Harlem” and portraying it as a den of crime and depravity.

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By the time Hy arrived in Uptown, his brother had joined a street gang called the Goodfellows, which had recently developed ties with the community organization Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). An SDS initiative, JOIN agitated for things like housing rights and welfare reform. It fought against Mayor Richard J. Daley’s sprawling political machine, which used patronage and police brutality to control residents and spur on gentrification.

Organizing against police harassment was at the top of the Goodfellows’ list of priorities: the young men faced constant stops, searches, and beatings from local officers. The SDS activists urged caution but nevertheless helped the Goodfellows organize a march to the neighborhood police station in August of 1966. Almost three hundred neighbors came out for the demonstration.

But the police quickly hit back, raiding JOIN’s office and a church sympathetic to their efforts. A few days later, a police officer killed one of the Goodfellows’ brothers, shooting him in the back as he ran away from a fight.

The march and its aftermath brought the already-simmering tensions in JOIN to a boil. Feeling stifled by SDS’s mostly middle-class organizers, the Goodfellows struck out on their own and founded the Young Patriots Organization: a movement, they proudly proclaimed, by and for “hillbillies.” They drafted an eleven-point program and adopted symbols: the Confederate flag, balanced with black power buttons on their lapels.

Before long, Thurman, his brother, and the other Patriots were haunting Uptown’s bars and pool halls, recruiting gang members and spreading their doctrine of radical hillbilly self-determination — a mix of Hank Williams and Frantz Fanon.

The Legendary Language of the Appalachian “Holler”

It’s of course a myth that is still being repeated by many to this day. For one thing, language in Appalachia has not frozen in time but evolves just as it has elsewhere. But I reckon Appalachia is full of tall tales with plenty of storytellers to tell them in a colorful turn of phrase or two, whether borrowed from Shakespeare or Chaucer or not.

It is true that Appalachian speech can be quite different from standard American English. This is a dialect that famously uses different vocabulary and meanings, some of which may be archaic, such as “britches”(trousers), “poke” (bag), “sallet” (salad, as in a poke-sallet, of pokeweed rather than bags!), “afeared” (afraid), “fixin” (getting ready, as in “I’m fixin to do something”), “allow” (suppose, as in “I’ll allow as how I’ll go over yander for a leetle spell”).

But words are the least of it. Appalachian accents also differ markedly from the standard, such as in words ending in “oh” sounds, such as “holler” (hollow), “winder” (window), ‘tater” (potato), or “ah” ending words, such as “sody-pop” (soda-pop), “chaney” (china) (and that’s just for starters.)