UVa-Wise sophomore Telena Turner took a drive through her family history for an undergraduate research project and rediscovered her Appalachian roots along the way.
The Haysi, Virginia native’s research project was inspired by the novels and books she read in an Appalachian literature class. She was elated to see how oral history can captivate a reader and vividly preserve a place and time. She also noticed how coal played a vital part in many oral histories of Southwest Virginia and its people.
“The same theme, coal mining, kept popping up,” Turner said.
Acclaimed writer Lee Smith, a Grundy native, was of particular inspiration to Turner. Coal mining was a central theme to Smith’s “Oral History” novel. When Turner contemplated a personal reflection project, she wanted to examine the personal values the characters in the books portrayed, examine what is culture and what does it mean to be Appalachian.
“I decided to start with my own family,” she said. “Growing up, I was told multitudes of stories about the past and about how life has changed over the years,” she said. “Through my research, I observed that while the past is different from the present, it is not separate. The past plays a direct and active role in shaping the present through the concept of cultural transmission.”
She conducted an oral history project to explore the idea of cultural transmission as a living entity, basically an attempt to celebrate the past while acknowledging how it shaped the present.
Turner’s family is filled with coal truck drivers. Several generations of her extended family transported coal from mines to other transportation sources over many decades. The work was hard, but the coal trucking life proved colorful in many ways. She learned that driving a coal truck gave her family many stories to treasure. With laptop in tow, Turner decided to take her own journey through her family history.
Her project, “Trucking Through Time,” explores the lives of David and Mavis, two members of her family. Mavis, one of the first women to drive coal trucks in the region, climbed into the cab in the 1970s. David began transporting coal when he was 18, and he drove during good days for the coal mining business and navigated the difficult times as well. Their stories fascinated Turner.
Turner gained an appreciation for family and their stories from Mavis. She quickly saw how events influenced Mavis as a person. Turner, who was born when coal mining had significantly declined, realized she did not know of any women who mined coal or transported coal. She set out to find what Mavis experienced in the field and to hear any adventures that she recalled.
Mavis is recorded discussing her career.
“They can be nice after they find that you’re not there to take their jobs. And I told them, I said boys I got a truck and house just like you do, and I have payments, so you may as well not razz me about nothing. Don’t have nobody riding with me. They was out here thinking I was gonna teach other women to drive, but I’m not a teacher. I’m not a preacher either…”
Turner was surprised that Mavis and David had similar experiences. Both told harrowing tales of driving big trucks on bad roads. They recalled accidents that fellow drivers had over the years. Some tales were funny, but others were more serious.
David is recorded discussing his career.
“When I was growing up, you know, coal was king. Everything revolved around coal. And, it was just natural that, you know, that’s where I found my spot at. It’s had a big impact, I mean, every family…around me anyway…is deeply rooted in coal. You know, they had to be.”
“It just comes down to family for me,” she said. “With David, I gained an appreciation of the hard work he has done. I learned of his passion for truck driving in the stories he told me.”
She also learned that her life is much different that the lives of David and Mavis.
“You grow up hearing stories, but you forget so much,” she explained. “You forget what it was like for your family years ago. It made me grateful and humble to hear their stories. It’s part of my family history.”
After her research, Turner concluded that cultural transmission played an active part in shaping the lives of both David and Mavis.
“Their stories can be applied generally to all of Appalachian culture,” Turner said. “Cultural transmission is important to study in reference to Appalachia and its literature because it’s not a passive and theoretical societal construct. In Appalachia it is an active and acclaimed propellant of the future.”
She explained that for David and Mavis and many characters in the stories, their past is not a part of who they are, it is who they are, and it defines what they strive to become and what they will become.
“Appalachia as a region isn’t known for what it invented,” Turner said. “It is known for what it has preserved. And those lines on the family tree…aren’t chains or feeble links to the past. They are open and well-maintained roadways that Appalachians use and have used to both pave the way to the future and to preserve the past.”
Turner said she would look deeper into her family’s truck driving history if she continues research on the topic. She plans to continue her communication studies coursework and is considering higher education or rhetoric as a career after graduation.