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Anndrena Belcher Tells her Story

      by Melody Hanscom           

          “You have pride and heritage. If you lose either one of those, you’re sunk,” Anndrena Belcher says, recalling her father’s advice on life. It made an impression on her. “Being ashamed of who you are means a great loss of input,” she says. “Being able to own one’s voice is important in claiming power.” What Anndrena learned early in her childhood helped her rise above later discrimination and to find her voice through her writing and her family’s love.She came from the coal fields of Pike County, Kentucky. Her extended family consisted of her parents, grandparents, two sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. They were like the rest of the families around them, either coal miners or coal owners, who didn’t make a lot of money. But they were part of a culture, one that was held together by similar values and rules. These doctrines kept them tightly bonded to a belief in themselves and in their roots. 

           It was 1958 or ’59 when the family moved to Chicago. Anndrena was about seven at the time. Though she had never thought of herself as a ‘hillbilly’, she was quickly labeled one.There was an assumption made by people living in the city that all hillbillies were somehow dumb. Without testing Anndrena and her sister, the new school system automatically put them back a half grade. Only when her mother, a normally quiet woman, objected, did the school reinstate them to where they had originally been.

           Anndrena remembers derogatory and hurtful newspaper articles like the one titled, “Hillbillies Invade Chicago.” Others painted the newcomers as “Worse than any Blacks” and “Incestuous.” There was a myth that if someone was white, that meant they had easier access to the economy. ‘Hillbillies’ dispelled this theory. Since they weren’t perceived to be as good as other whites, many in the city looked down upon their new neighbors. “They were saying, ‘You are white. You have no excuse for not fitting in.’” She and her family were not considered part of the norm.

Anndreana Belcher frequently comes to the campus to conduct workshops

           In an effort to fit in, Anndrena became what she calls ‘bilingual.’ Her definition is different than what one might expect. “I speak Appalachian English and mainstream Standarized English.” The Appalachian is what she grew up speaking and what her family spoke. The move that her family made to Chicago introduced her to a ‘new’ English. “Historically, Appalachian English has not been looked at positively. Most people have a negative feeling about it. They tend to discriminate because that form of English doesn’t fit into the norm.” Anndrena has seen it happen to African-Americans and Hispanics, and to other people. She says it is as though you have to lose your own heritage in order to be accepted into society. Pointing to the debate of Standardized English versus Ebonics, she says, “We lose our self-esteem when we’re told our language isn’t fitting.”

            Stereotypes on television and in the movies about mountaineers only increased the discrimination. “One of my teachers said, ‘I used to have negative concepts about hillbillies until I saw the “Beverly Hillbillies.” Yet, while the show portrayed a close-knit family, it poked fun at their naivité. In actuality, the leading characters didn’t fit in to that society. Later movies like “Deliverance” didn’t do much to help that image either.

            At the age of twelve, Anndrena knew she wanted to write. “Writing gave me a place to go with my thoughts and questions. It was a way for me to commemorate what I saw and experienced in everyday life,” she said. “It gave me a way to create and take care of my life, and it helped me see that I had to be responsible for my own rescue.” What did she want to be rescued from? “The outside forces who wanted to ‘name’ me and determine my path.” Anndrena was determined to be true to herself.

             Though she doesn’t describe herself as political, her family’s close bond and open communication on politics helped to formulate her political views and her own voice. “Once we see what shapes us, we see that our views come out of a bigger web.” She began to question the American dream when she saw how her family struggled, but remained economically poor. “Some people don’t own their own resources. You have to push to understand the outside forces, so that more people can find opportunities to work. This knowledge helps to push for changes.” Being able to examine her life, and write about it has helped Anndrena to name herself. Rather than forcing her to pick one culture while casting the other aside, her experiences have helped her to blend two worlds; one she holds solid to, while the other she acts as teacher to. “I want to shake things up, and be involved in people’s democracy,” she says. “Art affords me the luxury of having a diversity of ‘playmates.’ I see the audience as key in helping me ponder and think things through. I don’t think the process is ever complete. That is what creativity is all about.”