Monday, May 14, 2007

Weekly Podium - "The New Rural Society"

Early Saturday morning, I found myself in the small dot on the map known as Conicville, Virginia. I was going to deliver some barbecued chicken to the soccer fields in Strasburg for the Shenandoah County Soccer League; it was a favor for my father who is on the SCSL Board. When I arrived in Conicville, where the chicken was being made, I was a bit surprised to find that the chicken was not ready...and it would be another 1 1/2 hours before I was back on the road again.

Standing around with my father, we watched a group of guys and a few girls (all related) slave over this barbecue pit, with the sweet smell of 500 chickens barbecuing floating in the air. Every few minutes, the elder of the bunch would call for the chicken to be "sauced", and cries of "SAUCE THE HELL OUTTA 'EM" would ring out as they would use large brushes and barbecue sauce in buckets and generously cover the chicken in sauce, over and over again. Eventually, my father and I got to helping out, filling buckets of barbecue sauce and slathering it across the plethora of chickens before us.

These guys and girls were very typical residents of the Shenandoah Valley. Long-standing family roots, country-boy/country-girl types, blue collar workers...most of them work jobs doing masonry and other types of arduous construction work. A day off is precious rest for these guys, and here they were cooking chicken at 8 AM for the soccer league as a favor for one of their family members. Their family, due to marriage, had black and biracial members. However, there was no ostracizing, everyone joked around, chipped in, and had a good time while working over the hot and smoky pit.

To many residents of the Shenandoah Valley, this is nothing new. However, to those who are not familiar with the Valley (or rural areas in general), this may come as something new. It's the New Rural Society.

For the longest time, areas of a rural nature (like the Shenandoah Valley) have long been associated with stereotypes of ignorance, racism, blind religious faith, homophobia, and cultural backwardness. Now, I am one who gets and enjoys a good joke, but when you read something like "An Open Letter to a Red Stater", you tend to see that many people still have these types of stereotypes in their head.

Now, it is true that the "letter" in the link I provided in the last paragraph was obviously written by a liberal. However, this is not a "liberal" or "conservative" issue. It's not really a "Republican" or "Democrat" issue, despite the overwhelming majority of Republican voters in more rural areas. This is an issue of debunking myths and stereotypes of the "ignorant redneck" image that many people of both sides of the ideological divide seem to have about "country folk".

Now, I am not making widespread accusations of anti-rural bigotry...I'm simply out to show the real side of the rural populous to those who don’t know it. I am city-born and somewhat city-raised, and I'll admit that when I moved to Shenandoah County almost 10 years ago, I had some of these same stereotypes swirling about in my then-teenage head. However, through getting to know people and learning about life in the Valley, I slowly realized that these stereotypes don't apply to most people in the area.

Sure, many of these rural residents did not attend college. It is also true that there are a handful of people out there that still hold onto certain racist or bigoted stereotypes, but the same could be said about any area...whether it is rural, urban, or suburban.

Most of them wake up at the crack of dawn, and perform hard work that benefits the lives of most Americans in some way or another. They're mechanics, farmers, and workers of various trades. Many are also volunteer fire-fighters, helping to keep other citizens safe. They volunteer for community activities. They support the local high school football team, and take pride in their country roots. They shop at both Wal-Mart and the locally-owned, Mom-And-Pop stores.

Hunting has always been part of the culture, and they teach future generations to respect their weapons of choice for hunting, as well. Many see the suggestion of regulation and restriction on their 2nd Amendment rights as encroachment upon part of their culture.

These are not the type of people to be taken for granted, nor should their opinions and thoughts be discounted because of where and how they live. They don't care for most of the details and general BS that surrounds politics...most have a long-standing distrust of Washington politics. Some are for the Iraq War, some are against it, but most (if not all) believe that America is a great place that represents all the good aspects of freedom and liberty.

It is this “love-thy-nation” attitude and blue collar lifestyle that attracts some of the criticism and lampooning that many like to spout about rural areas. What they don’t realize is that around here, a person’s character is important. I know that in the Valley, they don’t trust fast-talkers and shady characters. Honesty, integrity, and a little faith in a higher power will go a long way with Valley citizens, as it does in most rural areas.

While racism has not been completely eliminated, it is nothing like what many people believe it is. I’ve learned that, for most southerners, the Confederate flag really does mean “heritage, not hate”. As generations have passed since the civil rights movement of the 60’s, times have changed. Interracial relationships of all kinds are no longer frowned upon. There are a small minority of people that, due to a resistance to change, may hold on to these old beliefs. However, do not let the actions and viewpoints of a very small group of people deter you from seeing the rural society for what it is today.

The “New Rural Society” is, in a way, a lot like the old one. Traditional values of honesty, hard work, and respect for your heritage are now mixed with the beliefs of newer generations, such as racial and social inclusiveness. It is this mixture of social progress and traditional values that helps to make areas like the Shenandoah Valley a beautiful place to live and raise a family.

I know that for many who read this, I’m simply preaching to the choir. However, if I can change at least one person’s perception of “the country” to a more positive view, then I’ve done my job today.

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