To follow up with the question of Appalachian identity, I begin with a conversation with Sara Webb-Sunderhaus. A member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Research Committee and Associate Professor of English at Miami University, Sara Webb-Sunderhaus specializes in literacy and Appalachian studies. She is a Cincinnati urban Appalachian whose family is from Lewis County, Kentucky. “My family was part of the great migration of Appalachians. I grew up in Cincinnati, but my family maintained close ties to Lewis County all my life,” she explains. In her mid-twenties, after the loss of her grandmother with whom she was extremely close, Webb-Sunderhaus experienced a moment in which she seriously took account of her Appalachian identity. As she told me, “I realized that now was the time to start taking account of who I am and where I am from.” This led her to pursue her scholarly path, one that is now focused on the study of Appalachian literacy.
Sara Webb-Sunderhaus began her teaching at the old University College at the University of Cincinnati (now the Center for Access and Transition). There she was a teaching assistant working with students who were not technically prepared for university-level work. “Some of our students were reading at elementary school levels,” she remembers. What was striking about this experience was that so many of these students were Appalachian or urban Appalachian. “This made me wonder,” said Webb-Sunderhaus, “what is going on with Appalachian students in writing classes?” This question sent her on a mission to understand and advance literacy among Appalachians. Sara Webb-Sudnerhaus’ most recent work has involved a study of Appalachians who have attained advanced degrees. This too has revealed surprising issues. Webb-Sunderhaus explains: “People who leave their Appalachian homes and families and gain advanced education have found that this causes rifts between them and their families back home; they report experiencing anger, hurt, and grief at the reactions from people they are close to at home. At the same time, many of them who are from the Appalachian region experience the issues of being Appalachian for the first time.”
Struggles with literacy and education have been a large part of the work of UACC and the Urban Appalachian Council before it. And the difficulties Appalachian people experience as they remove themselves from their homes, families, and social circles are defining features of the urban Appalachian experience. For urban Appalachians who are a generation or two removed from their Appalachian roots, these dynamics become even more complex. The work of Sarah Webb-Sunderhaus reveals the ways that the transition from Appalachian to urban Appalachian sets in motion culture dynamics that can be difficult.
To get a sense of how these dynamics play out, I went back to some people I had talked to previously to get their thoughts. You may remember Brandon Shields, the river boat captain and rapper from Sedamsville. Brandon said he was around 26 years old when he really became aware of his Appalachian identity. I asked him simply how he feels about being an urban Appalachian, “Honestly, I’m indifferent about being Appalachian. I think it’s fascinating to know my roots and to know what kind of upbringings my family had. I value the stories of the past and some of the family members we visited as kids, it leaves me wanting to learn more,” he explains. While the connections remain strong for someone like Brandon Shields, they exist in the stories that situate him, and others, as urban Appalachians in greater Cincinnati. This is something I was curious about as we explore the experiences of second and third generation urban Appalachians. Brandon Shields grew up in Cincinnati, in the urban Neighborhood of Sedamsville, and this is where his allegiances remain even as he sees himself in the longer thread of Appalachians who came to the city and those that remain in the Appalachian region.
To explore what comes of growing up in the city but remaining tied to their Appalachian heritage is part of what drives the UACC Story Gathering Project. In turning to an interview from the Story Gathering Project, Maureen Sullivan’s interview with Roberta Campbell reveals an experience that is completely derived from the Appalachian origins. Roberta Campbell is an urban Appalachian now, but she calls Letcher County, Kentucky home. Roberta talks at length about feeling strong ties to Eastern Kentucky. Early in the interview, Roberta explains, “I am rooted in Eastern Kentucky. This is where my values were formed as a kid.” Even after pursuing an advanced education and a professional career, Roberta Campbell sees her relationship to Appalachia as someone who is of the region—an urban Appalachian who came to the city for a host of reasons but someone who was shaped by the Appalachian region. Much like Sara Webb-Sunderhaus, Roberta Campbell uses her urban experience as a way of looking critically and creatively at her Appalachian origins.
Jordan Hackworth is a young urban Appalachian who takes tremendous pride in his Appalachian heritage. His creative work is informed and partially driven by Appalachian issues and culture. Jordan is from Harlan County, Kentucky, and he spoke a little about the problems of negative images of Appalachians studied by Todd Snyder, as discussed in Part 1 of this Identity Series. He explained that he has been met with “crude stereotypical jokes and remarks” about being an Appalachian and these have been a “constant reminder of where I was from.” But his response to these stereotypes and negative images has been to make it his “mission to educate those around me about Appalachia and the beauty it holds. Not just in its nature, but in its people, culture, identity, and attitude.” Countering the stereotypes becomes part of the work of urban Appalachians like Jordan Hackworth.
At least part of what lies behind the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Story Gathering Project is the drive to reveal the complex and varied reality of urban Appalachian identity. The stories collected here reveal experiences that cannot be reduced to stereotypes and popular images. Both urban and rural Appalachians bring the rich culture of Appalachia to the world, complete with all of its beauty, history, and even contradictions. Even the brief survey in this article demonstrates that “being Appalachian” is not a singular condition. If would like to contribute to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Story Gathering Project, just click on the link below. There are sample questions and detailed instructions on how to get involved in gathering the stories from our urban Appalachian community.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.