There is a long history of resistance in Appalachia. Think of something like the Battle of Blair Mountain, and you get at least one powerful example. Perhaps less dramatic, but nonetheless important examples are the many people advocating on behalf of Appalachian people, both urban and rural, every day and each in their own way. This is certainly part of the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. When we consider that providing education and economic opportunities for urban Appalachians is often against the grain of systems of power, we can see how advocating on behalf of urban Appalachians can be seen as revolutionary. Of the many people engaged in this kind of work, Eric Kerl stands out as an urban Appalachian who is working toward reframing our very ideas of what it means to be Appalachian and how the world sees Appalachians.
Eric Kerl, who now lives in Chicago, is originally from Northern Kentucky. Growing up in Independence, Kentucky and a graduate of Dixie Heights High School, his early life defined his commitments to this day. Kerl told me: “One set of grandparents came from Eastern Kentucky and the other were Cincinnati German. We were the perfect intersection of Appalachian and German that is Cincinnati.” His father was an auto mechanic, and his mother was an elementary school teacher. Kerl knew perfectly well the place he was positioned for in life. “We were the kind of people who were not going to go to college. We were not going to have money,” said Kerl. Being a working-class urban Appalachian came with the limited choices so many young people face with the barriers which come with economic disadvantage. Yet, these conditions of disadvantage became the very things that would shape his thinking toward working against such limitations.
Among the many works in progress Kerl has in motion, one is a blog called Chitucky. The blog is subtitled “I Got a Blood Feud with Capitalism.” The name says it all—a Kentuckian who lives in Chicago reflecting on issues and ideas that pertain to Appalachia, race and racism, the violence of economic disparity, etc. I asked Kerl what fuels this project: “It is really a way of organizing thoughts and ideas for the book I have been working on for past ten or twelve years.” He laughed as he said this, but the ideas are quite serious. And we should make no mistake about where Kerl is coming from in his writing and in his activism. As a young man, Kerl’s thoughts were shaped by groups like the International Socialist Organization. It was within this group that Kerl first found his way toward focusing thoughts that had been percolating all his life. As he says in his blog: “it was in ISO meetings that I studied history, political theory, and even economic theory. ISO meetings were the single-most valuable part of my education; an education I never would have had the opportunity for any other way.” The discontent that stems from being marginalized as a working-class urban Appalachian found a set of possibilities in these forms of political education and activism.
Eric Kerl’s work specifically focuses on issues of race, racism, and identity. His book in progress is entitled White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks Against White Supremacy. Kerl explained that he focused on Appalachians “because this is one of the sharpest edges of the issues of white people and racism.” For Kerl, the ways in which the very idea of “whiteness” is constructed is one of the central features of issues of race and racism. That Appalachians have been simultaneously portrayed as racist and historically marginalized in ways that are quite similar to racial minorities leads to a set of problems that need to be explored and understood. Kerl explained that he is “taking white people to task for their complicity with racism,” while he is also exploring the ways Appalachians, and other marginalized groups, have opposed racism.
Kerl’s work is informed by the history of leftist engagement with systems of power as much as it is by his own experiences growing up as an urban Appalachian. As he said, “many white people do not have access to the forms of empowerment that make their voices heard, and Appalachians are made invisible in ways that are not on their own terms.” The ways Appalachians are portrayed by popular media, particularly in the wake of the success of someone like J.D. Vance, have only furthered damaging stereotypes that play right into systems of domination and exploitation. Kerl’s work is committed to combatting these forms of marginalization. Racism and the disadvantages of historically marginalized groups like Appalachians take center stage in Kerl’s writing and in his work as an activist.
In addition to Chitucky and working on his book, Eric Kerl works for Haymarket Books, a leading publisher of leftist books. He is also an editor for Rampant Magazine in Chicago which is a journal of revolutionary politics. An article by Kerl in Rampant Magazine called “Uptown’s Hillbilly Santa Claus” caught my attention for a number of reasons. The article tells us about Reverend Iberus Hacker who dressed as Santa Claus and distributed toys to poor children in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Reverend Hacker came to Chicago from Tennessee after his church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. There is much more to this story, but a fact emerges toward the end that will be of particular interest to Cincinnati readers. Reverend Iberus Hacker made his way to Cincinnati in 1978—to Over-the Rhine, to be exact. This was at a time when the Urban Appalachian Council was working on behalf of urban Appalachians in Over-the Rhine. While he was here, he and Mike Henson, now a UACC Steward, founded a school called the Harriet Tubman-Mother Jones Folk School. Amid the so-called renaissance of Over-the-Rhine folks like to tout today, that renaissance was happening in 1978 with urban Appalachians and others in Over-the-Rhine who were working to empower people rather than give them bars and restaurants. If only we could see such a renewal today… As Kerl explains, “Iberus’s organizing and activism stretched across the rural/urban divide as well as the Black/white divide.” I dare say the work of Eric Kerl takes up just such a mission.
That we find connections to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition in Kerl’s work should come as no surprise. Social justice is at the heart of the work of UACC. Advocating on behalf of urban Appalachians is inherently political, and many of the issues that Eric Kerl tackles are of paramount importance to UACC. We look forward to the publication of Eric Kerl’s book. No pressure, Eric. You can read his work now in Chitucky and Rampant Magazine.