by Mike Maloney
“In the hills of Kentucky, we all looked alike – scruffy white people with squinty eyes and cowlicks. We shared the same economic class, the same religion, the same values and loyalties. Even our enemy was mutual: people who lived in town. Appalachians are suspicious of their neighbors, distrustful of strangers, and uncertain about third cousins. It’s a culture that operates under a very simple principle: you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.” (Chris Offutt, “Trash Food,” Oxford American, Issue 88, Spring 2013.)
I like Chris Offutt’s light-hearted depiction of his people because it captures some of the spirit of what I think it means to be Appalachian. Like all the other simple descriptions of our people it does not hold up very well to scrutiny, of course. We are not all white and squinty-eyed and not all of the same social class. We certainly don’t all share the same values though most eastern Kentuckians seem to dislike Barack Obama, at least those who vote. But lots of people disagree on issues like divorce, abortion, killing people in war and whether one is saved by faith or good works.
My Appalachian identity has more to do with memories of experiences that I can recapture fully only in dreams or our trips back to the hills from which I came. The rustle of the wind through pine trees, the gurgling of springs after a rainfall, the power of the North Fork in flood, the smell of wild flowers, the magic of new fallen snow, the image of mother making biscuits while singing an old hymn. Even the chores: hoeing corn, carrying water in a bucket from the spring, chopping wood, clearing brush. My Appalachian identity is not just about the things I miss, of course. It is about the things I can still have here in the city. The music, the gardening, the storytelling. The practices my mother taught me: being kind to neighbors, helping the poor, fighting for justice, and focusing on all things pure and lovely, not just those that are scary, cruel or unjust.
But as writer Karl Ove Knausgaard points out, the important thing about identity is that we want this thing to be true. We want to have a common identity that binds our community together and protects us from the image that we are white trash, black trash, rednecks, ignorant, inbred hillbillies and backward racists.
Each of us has the power to create an image of what this positive identity means to us. We have a right to explore what it means that our ancestors were people who chose to live in mountains then migrated to the cities outside the region in search of opportunity. If we deny and try to ignore the hurt and shame we can become what Rodger Cunningham calls “apples on the flood.” If we fail to find a positive Appalachian identity and just try to fit in to the society that makes fun of us, we lose part of ourselves. If we develop a positive identity and freeze it in time, place and symbols we risk excluding people who could enrich our lives—people who have a different identity. Tricky waters, this identity thing. That is why we need to hold onto each other until we are all free from the stereotypes and shaming. And when we see Hispanic kids being mistreated or a Black Lives Matter rally we need to
remember that our children can still face shaming in school and our men can sometimes still get shot by police. Mountain people have always had to resist injustice. The stories about the Whiskey Rebellion, King’s Mountain, Blair Mountan, the Brookside Strike, and the Matewan Massacre ought to be remembered and passed on to our children.