Cultural Relativity


Cultural relativity is a thing.

Most Americans are raised within western educational norms, surrounded by a level of material wealth unimaginable to much of the world.

People in other parts of the world forced to live (or choosing to live) inside a completely different reality get labels attached to them, based on how they are perceived by westerners (us).

Negative labels might include “Third World peoples” or “slum dwellers”.

When privileged people view distant people in a romantic or positive light, we often resort to what the great Palestinian writer Edward Said called “Orientalism”.

This is when we have almost no real firsthand understanding of a culture or people, but we project our own judgments, desires and imaginings onto them.

This is why many westerners feel okay saying things like “I was born with a Gypsy spirit”.

It is why the internet is absolutely rife with memes sharing tidbits of so-called “Native American Wisdom”.

This is all grist to the mill in how we manufacture the “othering” of people, placing them into manageable boxes in relation to ourselves.

Consider the short note left on an 1860 census form in Greene County, Tennessee (see image above).

Replace the surname “Morgan” with the word “Indians”.

Chances are, 21st century “orientalism” would cause us to rebuke the census taker for his presumed superiority in calling the lifestyle of these families “savage”.

Yet if these Morgans were considered “white”, we would probably start to imagine “inbred mountain people”, and feel far less positively disposed toward them.

We have two completely different attitudes and reactions to the exact same lifestyle, based on our own “racial” and cultural expectations.

And here’s the rub.

During the 19th century, many Appalachian families and their wider kinship groups were neither wholly “white”, nor black, nor wholly “Indian”.

They were a mix of many things.

These Morgans, for example, trace back to early colonial Maryland, where a male ancestor was “given possession” of a “mulatto” girl by the courts, years after she was born “in bastardy” to an impoverished and unnamed woman of color and a “respectable” doctor who received five public lashes for his inability to keep his trousers buttoned.

These Morgans also happen to have been living smack dab in the middle of what history calls “The Nolichucky Grants”, a section of Eastern Tennessee along the Nolichucky River where an Indian trader named Jacob Brown had convinced the Cherokee to “lease” some land as early as 1772.

It is clear that the Cherokee understood such leases simply as an agreement to not wage war on settlers in this particular region.

Three years later, in 1775, a 600-strong group of colonisers and land speculators met with one faction of Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals to “upgrade” such leases into outright property transactions with a firm legal basis under Anglo-American conceptions of land ownership.

This post is too short to enter into the minute detail of such negotiations, and the differing mindsets and understanding of the parties involved.  What is relevant, is the fact that the very earliest Euro-American settlers in this region were not land speculators.  They were hunters and traders, and were often already a mixed-ethnic crew before they had even entered the region.  They then further intermarried with the indigenous peoples among whom they were trading, leading to even more deeply mixed-ethnic families.

The entire American perception and narrative surrounding “white Appalachian poverty” is based on “cultural relativism”, in which mountain people are being harshly judged by outsiders with absolutely no conception of the historical path travelled by these people.

Many families lived “up on the side of mountains”, subsistence farming with little more than a hoe, because the land of the free had no tolerance or place for “half-breeds”, “mulattos”, or “brown people”.

Or just plain poor people in general.

By the time most of these mixed folks had managed to “pass as white”, transgenerational poverty and lack of education had left many extended kinship groups in Appalachia playing a hopeless game of “catch-up” – just as the coal companies began arriving to tear the mountains down, and government damming projects covered entire communities under lake water.

#beforewewerewhite #appalachia #relativism

The Self-Shackled Mind Effect, or Philosophy Friday

I spent a lot of today listening to voices on the radio saying that the outcome of a court case in New York would have no bearing on how they vote this November.

When we wonder how a person can choose to be wilfully ignorant, consider this social situation:

We get called ignorant.

Or dumb.

Or uneducated.

We get called a redneck, a rube, a “deplorable”.

Will this make us begin to change our opinions through the acquisition of new facts, more knowledge, better education?


Are we happy to accept advice from people who call us such things?

Certainly not.

Why?  Because to do so would be (in our own mind) essentially admitting that we actually WERE in fact deficient in some regard.

AND WHAT IS FAR WORSE, this would also mean conceding that the people who insult us – the people we now actively dislike or hate – are in some way smarter or “better”.

No one wants to feel “lesser” or stupid.  So we dig in our heels.  We look around for allies, for anyone who agrees with us, for anyone else who hates the same people we do.  We join a tribe.

Safety in numbers and all that…

And if we’re the kind to hold a grudge, we hope and pray for the day when we can exact revenge on these people who made us feel small.

Getting revenge is easier, and far more enjoyable, than an honest look in the mirror and a long program of education and self-improvement.

Especially when so many “libs” and their ilk are holier-than-thou, insufferable, self-righteous, self-congratulatory, obnoxious assholes.

And often just as intolerant as the people they mock and criticise.


How many of us, whatever our worldview, are willing to consider, let alone adopt the outlook of people we hate?  Not many, I expect.

We need to rediscover how to disagree without making people feel small or stupid.

We need to share information, rather than attempt persuasion.

This kid glove approach needn’t apply to outright racists and bigots.

The wealthy and powerful (along with certain religious leaders) have been indoctrinating the American public for centuries now.

American leaders and their marketing agents have used the cult of individualism as a way to justify rampant self-interest.

One side effect of this “Because I’m worth it” vox pop TV culture is a society where everyone thinks their opinion on EVERYTHING is a VERY IMPORTANT OPINION.  No one is willing to even consider anymore that opinions have a qualitative value, based on education, life experience, expertise.

That humility was once considered a virtue, not a sign of weakness.

There is an ocean of historical class warfare in the USA, whatever the talking heads on TV say about America being a “classless society”.  The USA simply swapped the old British hereditary class system for a class system based on money and “race”.

Don’t believe it?  Very few western countries have “tipping” as deeply embedded in their culture as the USA.  Tipping culture is a visceral reminder of the master/servant relationship, in which one party is constantly aware that the person with the most money holds the most power.  The “servant” is constantly aware that their very livelihood depends on “performance”.  Not simply performance of their job, but an attempt to read the often unspoken expectations of the customer/master and guessing what type of social performance is most likely to please them.

It is not enough to be professional and polite – one must also be an actor, an actor able to carefully calibrate one’s behavior and personality to the ego of the person holding the cash who decides whether they have “performed” to expectations.

This mini-digression into the social meaning and significance of tipping culture is about illustrating the many ways in which we reinforce superiority/inferiority on a daily basis – even when we are kind at heart, and don’t mean to do this.  We do many other things every day, believing them to be “normal”, when we are in fact simply repeating innumerable behaviors which are the legacy of social caste indoctrination.

People who come from an underclass background are acutely attuned to the ways in which others assert their “superiority”.

Unwrapping the layers of “nationalist indoctrination” and “caste indoctrination”, and helping others to see the world with different eyes, is a bit like trying to help people who have spent years in thrall to a religious cult.

If we happen to meet a family member who has joined a cult, our first conversation in ages probably shouldn’t begin with asking them “How can you be so stupid?”

Especially if we have not asked the same question of ourselves, every day.




“Here be Dragons…”

Fred Gifford, left; Oregon Klansmen with Portland police, and text excerpt.  Note the highlighted text.

Fred Gifford, left; Oregon Klansmen with Portland police, and text excerpt.  Note the highlighted text.


“Some of those that work forces, are the same who burn crosses…”

Rage Against the Machine [1992]


Most people would consider the Ku Klux Klan to be associated primarily with the Deep South.

For reasons too complex to address at length in a short article – post WWI socio-economic issues, the burgeoning eugenics movement, shocking levels of racism, increased US immigration, etc., the KKK reached its highest-ever membership numbers during the 1920s – and not only in southern states.

In 1920, the state of Oregon had a population of around 783,389 souls.

Of that number, between 30,000 and 35,000 were sworn Klan members.  Add in the number of Klan-affiliated women’s and children’s organisations, and we can say that perhaps 1 in 10 Oregonians were directly involved with the Klan in some way, making Oregon by far the largest host to Klan activities west of the Mississippi River at the time.

With 50 chapters statewide, the pervasiveness of the Klan presence ensured that its members had a huge influence on elections, state governance, legislation, public policy, and law enforcement.

Oregon had a relatively tiny African-American population at the time, and much KKK activity was focussed on keeping it that way.  Many of its other activities during the 1920s revolved around an attempt to ring-fence Oregon as a haven for white Protestants.  The Klan’s political clout ensured an ongoing hostile environment for Catholics, Jews, and all non-“white” immigrants – especially Blacks and East Asians.

For a number of reasons, including having some of its flagship legislation deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court (and due to much political infighting), the Klan in Oregon had withered away to a shadow of its former self by 1930, but only after a decade of making Oregon a weirdly distorted and more orderly mirror twin to the sinister social engineering which was unfolding rather more chaotically in Germany at the same time.

Oregon’s last publicly acknowledged “Grand Dragon” would be Fred L. Gifford, who died in 1945, thoroughly unrepentant.

Mr. Gifford could have never envisaged a future world where a lone blogger and podcaster living on the side of a mountain would have access to digitised records documenting the history of his family – its occupations, migrations, and ethnic details.

And this is also why it seems almost certain that Mr. Grand Dragon never breathed a word to his mincing underlings about his “complicated” family.

You see, Frederick Louis Gifford‘s father Benjamin Gifford had been a saloon-keeper back in Minnesota, where his son Fred Gifford was born before moving to the American northwest in the early 1900s.

Benjamin Gifford had children by two different women.  One was Fred Gifford’s mother.  The other wasn’t really a woman.  She was a 15-year-old Chippewa girl who had just managed to turn 16 by the time she gave birth to her first of three children by Benjamin Gifford.

I have been unable to discover how the “Grand Dragon” of the Oregon KKK treated his “non-white” half siblings.

I have also been unable to discover how the “Grand Dragon” of the Oregon KKK reacted when his daughter Loretta married a man of Jewish descent named Leon Rothschild.

Fascists, racists, and bigots rarely leave memoirs saying “I was wrong”.

#klan #racism #oregonhistory #beforewewerewhite

American Brigadoon

Morgan Spurlock's "Scottish" pedigree

Morgan Spurlock’s “Scottish” pedigree


With a ridiculous catalogue of surnames whirling around my brain due to my immersion in American ethnological history, I notice names in the news.

A month ago the West Virginian documentary film-maker Morgan Spurlock died from complications associated with cancer at the relatively young age of 53.

While Spurlock was a playwright, writer, and TV show impresario, he is probably best remembered for his 2004 documentary “Super-Size Me“.  After reading about a legal case in which two girls sued the fast food merchant McDonald’s, blaming their obesity problems on the “food” sold by the company, Spurlock decided to do an experiment, to see what would happen if he were to eat only at McDonald’s for an entire month.

His film ended-up making over 22 million bucks from a budget of around 65,000 dollars, and garnered him an Academy Award nomination.

Spurlock clearly had many personal issues and demons, claiming to have been sexually abused as a child, and his admission to past sexual misconduct on his own part effectively put an end to his career.

The surname “Spurlock” is deeply associated with the multi-ethnic people of Southern Appalachia, so when I read of his death, I of course visited his Wikipedia page to find out more about his career and background.

I was not even remotely surprised to find he described his ancestry as being mostly English and “Scots-Irish”.

What’s more, Spurlock had given interviews to newspapers and appeared in shows broadcast in the UK, discussing his “Scots-Irish” roots (see photo above).

With his ginger hair and blue eyes, why would anyone doubt him?

Regular readers will know by now that the story of a predominently “Scots-Irish” Southern Appalachia is one of my hobby horses.

Needless to say, I went to my database to check the “Scots-Irish” bona fides of his branch of the Spurlock clan.

Morgan Spurlock has no clearly demonstrable ancestry from Ulster.  None.

When I saw the surname “Porter“, I was willing to consider that ONE out of his sixteen second great-grandparents might have decended from Ulster folk – “Porter” being a name not uncommon in Scotland. But when investigating this line of Porters, we end up at a dead end in Grayson County, Virginia during the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a “James Porter” as head of a household including half a dozen “all other persons except Indians not taxed” – an old designation for free people of color.

So even if these Porters had arrived in 1700s America via Ulster (which is by no means the only likely origin for these people), within a couple of generations they were seen by a census enumerator as being something other than “white”.

This is not the only line in Spurlock’s ancestry associated with free people of color.  His earliest Barker ancestor to have migrated west out of Delaware can be found in 1820 as head of a household including nine “all other persons except Indians not taxed“.

The only other possible candidates for Ulster ancestry might be Spurlock’s “Pickens” people, but this line disappears into the fog of early 1800s Ohio Country, a war zone in which any ethnic permutation is possible.

Spurlock’s majority ancestry was far and away mostly German, with English, and very likely indigenous, African, and Portuguese/Portuguese Jewish ancestry thrown into the mix.

So why was Morgan Spurlock willing to dress-up in a short kilt in photos and claim he was “Scots-Irish”?

Was he lying?  Or was he just repeating the “received wisdom” which has been the hallmark of mainstream Appalachian “history” for well over a century now?

Does anyone even give a damn?

When we accept “the official story” without question, there is no end to the ways in which people in power will manipulate history, in order to manipulate a credulous electorate.

#beforewewerewhite #fakehistory #scotsirish #morganspurlock

Young Girl Meets Transgenerational Dysfunction

Charles Manson and first wife Rosalie Jean Willis

Charles Manson and first wife Rosalie Jean Willis


Rosalie Jean Willis.

Wedding day. January 1955.

Just a young sixteen-year-old girl from West Virginia, charmed by a charismatic young man first christened “Charles Milles Maddox” – Charles taking his mother’s surname rather than that of his biological father Walker Henderson Scott.

Charles would go on to become a “religious leader”, better-known by the name he took from a later stepfather – Manson.

Rosalie would leave Charles after a couple of years (having had only one child together), but her new life choices brought no joy – it almost seems as if a curse had been laid upon her.

One son by her second marriage to Jack Bandy White – a boy named Jed White – would die of an accidental gunshot wound at the age of 11 in 1971.

Jed White’s older brother Jesse James White would die of a drug overdose in his 20s in 1986.

But this would not be the end.  Rosalie’s oldest son by her teen marriage to Charles Manson – Charles Manson, Jr., aka “Jay White” – would die of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide in 1993.

Charles Manson of the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 was descended from Appalachian “Black Dutch” Clines and the mixed-ethnic McCoys of Hatfield/McCoy feud fame.  His ancestral lines also included Scotts and Ingrams, many of whom were likely to have been descended from British Romani transported to America during colonial times.

Transgenerational poverty, trauma and dysfunction is real among all American underclasses of all colors, and the alleviation of it should be part of any enlightened program for government.

#beforewewerewhite #poverty #transgenerationaltrauma

Gimme Some Loving

Sanford Owens and wife Artie Marie Goins

Sanford Owens and wife Artie Marie Goins


I’ve never run a survey or metrics check for figuring-out the average age of my readership.

I do not know the average age of my podcast listeners.

So just in case a large segment of BWWW‘s audience is too young to be aware of it, when I was a child it was still illegal in some states for “white people” to marry “black people”.

Today this state of affairs might seem almost too extraordinary to believe.

But it took a court case in 1967 – Loving versus State of Virginia – to finally declare laws against “miscegenation” unconstitutional.

The very word “miscegenation” is originally derived from a hoax pamphlet published by Southern Democrats during the Civil War.

Over 160 years ago, in an eery foreshadowing of today’s “Great Replacement Theory” nonsense, white supremacist Southerners used “fake news” to try and convince Americans that the Republican Party of Lincoln was involved in a master plan to encourage and support mass “interracial marriage” until the “white race” had been supplanted by a nation of “brown people”.

Wealthy slaveholding southern elites and plantation owners lived a world away from the subsistence farming communities of Southern Appalachia.

If they had torn themselves away from their horse races and mint juleps long enough to have a look for themselves, they would have been horrified to discover that vast regions of the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia had already been merrily producing brown babies for nearly a century.

Love is love, as they say.  This photo of a happy and affectionate couple named Sanford Owens and Artie Goins never fails to make me smile – a couple who clearly didn’t give a damn about stupid laws.

#lovingversusvirginia #beforewewerewhite #brownisbeautiful

Toss of a Coin

Hugh Goins with fellow soldiers, WWII

Hugh Goins with fellow soldiers, WWII


About 16 million American men and women served during WWII.

Of these 16 million, about 1 million were African-Americans.

Nearly half a million were Hispanic- or Latin-Americans.

Including indigenous Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipinos, and other ethnic minorities, perhaps 1 in 7 service members were from what would be considered a “non-white” background according to American “race” categories of the time.

While stationed or fighting in Europe, many “white” American soldiers tried to export their American apartheid/segregationalist attitudes, leading to tensions and outright violence in European countries where American people of color were often widely accepted in cafes, bars and nightclubs for the first time in their lives.

Coming from a world where men of color could be lynched for daring to flirt or dance with a “white” woman, many “white” American GIs were shocked and outraged to see African-American men dancing and co-mingling freely with European women receptive to their charms and overtures.

There is little to be gained from pointing-out how few of these men have ever been represented in the innumerable films made about WWII.

But here’s the twist.  In the photo below you will find men bearing the surname “Goins“.

Goins is a core surname among the people from the hills and hollers of Southern Appalachia known as “Melungeons“.

There are as many lines of Goins people in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri as there are trees in the woods.

They have ancestors in Africa. And ancestors among the Tuscarora.  And the Catawba.  The Creek and the Cherokee.

They are intermarried with Appalachian families of German, French, Scottish, Welsh, English, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Iberian, South Asian, Malagasy, Jewish and Romani ancestry.

It is simply a matter of happenstance, petty bureaucracy, circumstance, accident, racist legislation, war, epidemic, luck, love, lust or affection which determined whether a Goins (or any other person) fell on one side or the other of American “race” classifications.

Some of the men in this photo are my cousins – real, actual “blood” relatives – but the Wheel of Fortune landed on “white” in the end for most of my family.

This situation is true for the majority of people from an underclass background with deep roots in colonial era America.

As Americans, our so-called “race” has often been determined by one single fork in the road, or one or two marriages made by mountain folks 200 or more years ago.

Until we understand this, we are doomed to fight identity wars among ourselves.

Identitarian conflict only benefits wealthy, unscrupulous politicians who use this constructed social division to distract us from fighting for the real prize – universal social justice and equality.

#WWII #melungeon #appalachia #beforewewerewhite

Coloring it in…

Technicolor genealogy

Technicolor genealogy


Years ago, my amateur interest in genealogy began to morph into “Big Data Genealogy” as a way to investigate American history and ethnicity beyond my own immediate family.

Part of this project then became about attaching notes and mini-biographies to the people being investigated.

Were they on the wrong side of the law?

Did they experience high child mortality?

Did they live to a venerable age?

Occupation?  Ethnicity?  Victims of violence?  Perpetrators of violence?  Members of unusual religious sects?  Illnesses?  Migration paths? Disabilities?

This means that when I add a new person to my “Big Data Tree”, and run a quick check to see the various ways I am connected to them, I am often presented with an entire list of short biographical notes on a single screen – notes which bring the rich and often dark pageant of American history to life in vivid Technicolor.


#beforewewerewhite #commonpeople

Saluting American Identity

Schoolchildren reciting the pledge while giving the "Bellamy Salute"

Schoolchildren reciting the pledge while giving the “Bellamy Salute”


Just a reminder of the ridiculous and messy internal contradictions which make-up American identity.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy in 1892.  Yes, you read that right.

A socialist.

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Between 1948 and 1951, right wing organisations such as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and the Catholic Knights of Columbus began adding the words “under God” after “one nation” in their own recitations of the original pledge.

Various Christian organisations began agitating hard for the original Bellamy pledge to be amended, mostly as a religious-ideological response to the officially declared atheism of Marxist/Leninist countries during the height of the Cold War.

The phrase “under God” was eventually incorporated into the “official” Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954, by a Joint Resolution of Congress.

So much for the “separation of church and state” espoused by Thomas Jefferson.

Image: Schoolchildren reciting the pledge while giving the “Bellamy Salute“.  The salute was later changed for obvious reasons…

#beforewewerewhite #socialism #patriotism

Lost and Found

Mattie Franklin, from Freedman's Bank Records

Mattie Franklin, from Freedman’s Bank Records


Do you really like history?

Do you like it in an abstract sense, or when its hot breath is on your neck?

Is American history about “important people” chopping-down cherry trees, signing declarations, and declaring wars?

Or should history be about the very real, and much more numerous (and mostly forgotten) common people who did everyday things, courageous things, unspeakable things…?

Is history a grand sweeping narrative, or just a million fragmented sub-plots?  Is history about themes or moments?

And if you had a magic time machine, and could travel back to any moment or event, what would you want to see?

Would you be like the millions of tourists who visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa every year to get their photos taken beside it?

For no apparent reason other than to say “Yep, it’s leaning all right, and here’s a picture of me next to it, just in case you need a trusted reporter on the scene to confirm it.”

Or would you travel in the hope of discovering something hitherto completely unknown?

If you are more inclined to the latter, you’re in the right place.




Every single person with deep roots in colonial era America self-identifying as “white” should consider browsing the Freedman’s Bank Records which have been digitised online.

It is one thing to speak of other people as our brothers and sisters in a figurative sense.  It is quite another to come face-to-face with a document showing that an impoverished Black woman in Reconstruction Era Memphis, Tennessee was the formerly enslaved daughter of one’s own slaveholding ancestors.

As happened to me this week.

Such insanely different paths, opportunities, dangers, hopes, successes, failures, and tribulations were experienced over the intervening decades by the differently colored descendants of the very same man.

Lost brothers and sisters.

Image: record for Mattie Franklin, 1869

#weareallrelated #beforewewerewhite