Posted on November 5, 2016


I had a dream a while back in which one of the main characters exclaimed “why we are kin!” Since he was a good character, as near as I can remember, this was ok.

Kin of course is akin to clan and means people who are related in some fashion or descended from a common ancestry.

Last winter I read Ben Robertson’s Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory about the people of the Piedmont of South Carolina, largely set in the 1930s.

Robertson was born in South Carolina and I was particularly interested in Robertson since he wrote about a part of the world—the upstate part of South Carolina—where my father grew up. In fact, they were born only three years apart, my father in 1900 and Robertson in 1903. Robertson died a relatively young man in an airplane accident in Lisbon, Portugal on his way as a war correspondent to London in 1943.

Robertson’s memoir is rich in kin. Ben liked to exaggerate the virtues and peccadillos of his people, and he claimed all of the upstate as kin. They weren’t of course, but he and I were kin, sharing a common ancestor back in the early nineteenth century, and that’s close enough for kin.

He claimed everyone was Baptist, and they were divided between the shouters and the non-shouters. Religion was everything to his people, but they also lot drank a lot of whiskey and sinned with the worst of us. But, since they were kin, all were forgiven and loved, but not all of the time.

Everyone grew cotton and worked very hard to make a living. Not everyone grew cotton of course. My father was a chemist and his father was a doctor, but, as I recall my father recounting his teen years, he grew cotton too to save money to go to college, which he did. But even if some had a bit more than others, all were kin and equal, even if they weren’t.

There is something about Robertson’s way of looking at the world that attracted my attention, He told it like it was, without trying to smooth over the contradictions and inconsistencies and analyze it all like a social scientist. These were his people and this is the way they were.

He grew up knowing a lot of Confederate veterans who lost the war, and so gave rise to the “lost cause.” A lot of the South’s maladies were blamed on losing the war. Carpetbaggers and scalawags who pillaged the South, and the Yankees, don’t come out well in Ben’s book.

Ironically, most of Robertson’s people had migrated in large part from Yankee places like Pennsylvania, down through Virginia and into the Carolinas where many stopped and settled. Others picked up and moved further south and west. His people loved the upcountry of South Carolina with a passion, and Robertson evokes its life with love and nostalgia. But there were always some ready and wanting to leave, and they did, across the mountains, through Tennessee, down to Alabama and Mississippi, then Texas and all the way to the Pacific.

Everyone was a Democrat since the Republicans were associated with the Yankees.

People from downstate, especially from around Charleston, were considered snobs and arrogant, old style patricians who had controlled the wealth of South Carolina based on a plantation, slave culture. They really didn’t know how to work, like a cotton farmer of the Keowee Valley with a view of the Great Smokies to the west to lift his soul and spirit at dawn and dusk.

That Robertson went to college—Clemson–and left the upstate to become a very well-known journalist and war correspondent doesn’t conflict at all with his love of the land and his people, his kin, most who didn’t go to college and stayed to plant, and hoe, and fertilize their cotton, shouted, or didn’t, in church, lived to the rhythm of the farmer, and listened to their aunts, his great aunt Narcissa being a favorite of Robertson’s, their grandparents and their people speak of their ancestors, their kin. There was a web, a line spun through all the way from the first Robertsons and Claytons to settle in South Carolina to the lives of Ben and my father.

It is good to have kin. I think it is important in determining who we are and what we want to be. Virtues come from two basic sources: kith and kin, and from God. Robertson dove into the world of kin and I swam with him in his celebration of a people who still thought “damnYankee” was one word.

Published as “The Virtues and Values That Come from Kin” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Oct. 2, 2016.